Six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, they launched another assault with plans to occupy Midway Atoll and eliminate the United States’ naval power in the Pacific Ocean. However, things didn’t go as planned. The result was a naval battle that took place between June 4-7, 1942, which would prove to be one of the most decisive battles in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Take an in-depth look at the strategies used on both sides, the weaponry utilized, and what made the Battle of Midway one of the most impactful of the war.
The Goal Of The Battle Was To Destroy The United States’ Remaining Aircraft Carriers
The Battle of Midway was under the command of Isoroku Yamamoto, the mastermind behind the attack on Pearl Harbor and the commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy. His ultimate goal for the battle was to destroy any of the remaining United States aircraft carriers that may have escaped destruction during the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor.
The Battle of Midway was also instigated after the Doolittle air raid (also called the Tokyo air raid), which was the first assault on the Japanese mainland by the US. It was launched from the USS Hornet.
The Pacific Fleet Was Led By Chester W. Nimitz
Already expecting an attack by the Japanese of about four to five aircraft carriers, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz made sure he was fully prepared before leading the Pacific Fleet. With him, he had the USS Enterprise and the USS Hornet and had Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher’s task force which included the USS Yorktown.
The Yorktown had been severely damaged in a previous battle and the Japanese assumed it had been fully destroyed. Little did they know that it was ready for battle and would play a decisive role in the action to come.
The American Fighter Pilots Were Outnumbered
In order to destroy the structures that had been built on Midway Island, Japanese forces launched bombers from their aircraft carriers. In response, the Navy, Marine, and Army pilots launched a defense attack, and it didn’t take them long to realize they were seriously outnumbered. Regardless, they held their ground.
After 27 minutes of bombing, the Japanese ended their first siege on the island. It was after this that the Japanese expressed their need for more fighters to continue their attack. Seeing they were desperate, American bombers began their own air raid.
The United States Sunk All Four Japanese Carriers
After the other three carriers had been sunk, Hiryu remained the last Japanese aircraft carrier in the battle. After the United States attack, the Hiryu launched a counter-attack, hitting Yorktown, which was crippled by two torpedoes.
The Enterprise then sent 24 bombers against Hiryu, damaging it with at least four of their bombs, eventually leading it to sink. At that point, the United States had succeeded in destroying all the Japanese carriers in the battle, all of which had been part of the six that attacked Pearl Harbor.
One Decision Changed The Course Of The Battle
When the American pilots went on the offensive, they went straight to where the Japanese forces were supposedly located. However, upon their arrival, they were met with nothing but the empty ocean. Instead of turning back to their own base, the pilots made what Admiral Nimitz would later call “one of the most important decisions of the battle.”
They decided to check one more area, an unlikely one, and it was there they found the Japanese carriers. The fighters went on to destroy three of the four carriers, turning the tide of the battle in favor of the United States.
The United States Only Lost One Aircraft Carrier
Without even trying to land on Midway Island, Japan began to retreat after the destruction of the majority of their carriers. In an attempt to eliminate all of the Japanese forces, the United States led a search and destroy mission for the final Japanese troops, which didn’t turn out as expected.
During the mission, on June 6, the USS Yorktown was struck by two torpedoes by a Japanese I-168 submarine, destroying it. It also fatally hit the destroyer ship the USS Hammann.
Midway Island Was Chosen By The Japanese For Specific Reasons
Another attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese was considered to be too dangerous by Yamamoto, since the United States had greatly increased their land and sea power in Hawaii. Instead, they looked to Midway Island, which is one of the United State’s Minor Outlying Islands.
This location was chosen because it was out of range of almost all the aircraft stationed in the Hawaiian Islands, and was a significant outpost of Pearl Harbor. They believed its importance would draw the United States’ fleet out into open water where it could be destroyed.
Code Breakers From The United States Played An Integral Part Of The Battle
Yamamoto had a lot of moving parts in his plan to attack Midway. His primary plan was to lure the United State’s Pacific Fleet into an attack in which they were unaware of how strong the Japanese fleet was. However, the Japanese were unaware that the United States had broken their secret code to transfer information to each other.
This resulted in Admiral Nimitz learning Japan’s entire plans, how strong they were, and when and where they would attack. This code broken by the US Navy’s intelligent unit in Hawaii is one of the key reasons the United States was victorious.
Japan Lost Many More Sailors Than The United States
Over the course of the battle, the Japanese military lost four aircraft carriers, one heavy cruiser, and 248 aircraft, 3,057 sailors killed, and 37 taken captive. On the other hand, the United States’ losses were significantly less.
In total, they lost one aircraft carrier, one destroyer, 150 aircraft, 307 dead, and three who were captured and executed. Essentially, Japan’s entire plan backfired and they lost much more than they had ever anticipated with the United States winning an unexpected victory.
An Acclaimed Hollywood Director Shot Footage Of The Battle
Known for his Westerns and for working with John Wayne, director John Ford was an officer in the US Naval Reserve, and tasked with making documentaries for the Navy during World War II. Admiral Nimitz stationed the director on Midway during the battle where he experienced a bomb concussion and a gunshot wound from a Japanese raid.
Yet, it’s reported that he did not leave his post until he got the footage necessary. Ford’s footage was featured in the film The Battle of Midway, for which he won the Oscar for Best Documentary.
There Were Several Reasons Japan Lost The Battle
While the American victory during the Battle of Midway is usually attributed to their intelligence, there are several reasons Japan lost. One of these reasons was that Japan’s most technologically advanced carries, Shokaku and Zuikaku weren’t present during the battle. Furthermore, they were also unaware of the abilities of the American carriers.
Another reason is that Japan had slowed the production of their two main strike aircraft, which resulted in them using inferior aircraft during the battle. Finally, their aircraft carriers were caught off guard while refueling when they were attacked by American fighters.
Radar Greatly Helped The United States
On top of breaking the naval code that gave Admiral Nimitz knowledge of Japan’s attack, another helpful tool that benefited the United States was radar. The first radar prototype had been developed by the US Naval Research Laboratory in 1938, and the earliest systems were placed on US Naval ships in the time leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
At Midway, radar was of significant use to the three carriers and other vessels which detected Japanese aircraft from long distances away. In contrast, the Japanese had to rely on only human lookouts, which put them at a great disadvantage.
The Battle Was One Of Two Simultaneous Attacks
At the beginning of the Battle of Midway, the Japanese Army was also attempting to invade the Aleutian Islands. Many believe that this was part of a strategy to confuse the United States and even lure them away from Midway, making it easier for them to invade.
The Battle of the Aleutian Islands lasted between June 1942 and August 1943, in which US troops attempted to remove Japanese sailors from two United States-owned islands off the western coast of Alaska. It would turn out the be the only United States land Japan would ever claim during the war.
Bombers Played A Massive Role
In 1942, the Japanese had the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, which at the time was considered to be the best carrier-based fighter plane on the planet. However, the United States had the best dive-bomber which was the Douglas SBD Dauntless, and during the Battle of Midway, proved to be more effective.
The Dauntless proved to be the better weapon, as it allowed the American pilots during the battle to land direct hits on the Japanese carriers, resulting in them disabling all four.
The Battle Changed The Shape Of Naval Warfare
The Battle of Midway ushered in a new kind of warfare that has remained to this day which is the carrier battle. This is when two opposing forces use their aircraft carriers to launch assaults on one another using planes, although the carriers never are visible to the other.
The Battle of Midway and the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942 demonstrated that this new kind of fighting had surely replaced battleship warfare and made the carrier the most important vessel of World War II.
The Japanese Were Under Strict Radio Silence
As Japan made their way to Alaska to attack the Aleutian Islands, they were under strict radio silence as to not be picked up by the United States and ruin their element of surprise. However, during a recon flight, a Naval pilot spotted the enemy forces through dense Pacific fog.
The pilot assumed that he had located the main forces of an attack, which in reality were a distraction for the upcoming attack on Midway. So, the United States sent out B-17 Bombers to fight the enemy, and because of the strict radio silence, the Japanese ships engaged the bombers without letting the Japanese command know.
The United States Had Little Luck With Torpedoes
When the Japanese forces were focusing their attack on Midway Island, the United States carriers saw it as an opportune time to attack. So, their first wave of planes were torpedo bombers to fly low and drop torpedoes that would hit the side of the carriers, intending to sink the ships.
Yet, the Japanese managed to keep the torpedo attacks at bay with many of the planes being shot down and not a single torpedo hitting the targets.
The Japanese Made Adjustments After The Battle
After their devastating defeat at the Battle of Midway, the Japanese made some changes to their naval strategy to ensure such a loss never occurred again. They changed things so more aircraft could be refueled and re-armed on the flight deck rather than the hangar and built new carriers that had only two flight deck elevators as well as fire-fighting equipment.
They also made sure to train their troops on how to handle and prevent fires. In addition, they now understood the importance that aircraft carriers would be from then on.
Several Films Have Come Out of The Battle
Because the Battle of Midway was such a major and influential battle, several movies and even video games based on it have been made. A few of them stand out. One of these is John Ford’s 1942 The Battle of Midway, which was a documentary film using the actual footage that Ford took during the battle, featuring numerous narrators.
Another is 1976’s Midway, which featured Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston, James Coburn, and Glenn Ford. Then, in 2019, Midway was released, with an ensemble cast including Nick Jonas, Mandy Moore, Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, and more.
The Significance Of The Battle
On June 6, Yamamoto ordered his ships to retreat, thereby ending the Battle of Midway. As a result of the United States’ victory over Japan, the Japanese abandoned their plan to extend their reach in the Pacific. From then on, Japan was on the defensive for the remainder of World War II.
Furthermore, the United States’ victory helped to boost the morale of the US forces, whereas it was a crushing defeat for the Japanese. In the end, it was a major turning point in the war in favor of the allies.
Japan Owned The Pacific Before Midway
Before the Battle of Midway, the United States remained on the defensive. During the first half of 1942 alone, Japan had seized Burma, Indonesia, the Malayan peninsula, and the Philippines. The war looked bleak for the American troops.
Midway changed everything. The defeat gave the US Army enough time to regroup and mobilize. Since the Japanese were taken by surprise, the US used the breathing room to its advantage. It wasn’t just a battle win–it was the turning point of the entire war, especially in the Pacific.
The Battle Sparked Other U.S. Campaigns
The Battle of Midway gave the US Army more time to mobilize, and they didn’t waste this opportunity. In November 1943, the United States began their “island hopping campaign.” Lead by General Douglas MacArthur, the troops attacked islands that were not strongly guarded.
This allowed the US to regain some islands from the Japanese. From there, MacArthur hatched another plan, codenamed “Cartwheel,” to seize the Solomon Islands and New Guinea. None of this would have happened without the decisive defeat in Midway, which gave the Army enough time to plan and execute.
Japan Had Overwhelming Success Before Midway
Before the Battle of Midway, Japan’s striking force, Kido Butai (the 1st Air Fleet), had won most of its battles in the war. They started off with Pearl Harbor before successfully raiding the Indian Ocean and attacking Allied shipping. Needless to say, the Japanese carrier strike force grew comfortable with their wins.
Kido Butai expected Midway to be another easy win. At the time, they were considered to be the most powerful naval fleet in the world. But against their expectations, four of their six aircraft carriers were destroyed during the Battle of Midway.
Both Navies Were Recovering From a Previous Fight
A month before Midway, the Americans and Japanese fought in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Both sides endured heavy losses from this fight. The Japanese had lost two of their carriers, the Zuikaku and the Shokaku. Although they usually had six flattops, the Japanese only brought four to Midway.
The US also had fewer vessels from the Battle of the Coral Sea. The carriers Lexington and Yorktown both took nasty hits during the scuffle. However, the Americans managed to repair the Yorktown enough so that it could partake in Midway.
Air Group Commander C. Wade McClusky, who led the USS Enterprise, was 40 years old during the Battle of Midway. Most of his fellow pilots were in their 20s with few years of battle experience. McClusky’s experience helped him make important decisions during the battle. He was the one who decided to check an unlikely area for Japanese carriers.
As the pilot’s fuel tanks ran dangerously low, and with no Japanese carriers in sight, McClusky decided to push forward. He began a box search and eventually found the destroyer Arashi, which led him to the other enemy carriers. The rest is history.
The US Faked A Plea For Help
On May 20, 1942, American sailors at Midway sent out this message: “At the present time we only have enough water for two weeks. Please supply us immediately.” In reality, they were not low on supplies. It was all according to a plan.
As part of the US Army’s code-breaking mission, the forces at Midway sent out fake messages. Cryptoanalyst leader Commander Joseph Rochefort created the “low supplies” ruse to alert the American Navy to take action because the Japanese were targeting Midway. It also tricked the Japanese into thinking that the US base was vulnerable.
The Japanese Plan Was Flawed
While preparing for battle, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto assumed that the Battle of Midway would force the US to sent reinforcements from Pearl Harbor. He left Japanese battleships and cruisers available to plan a joint strike on Pearl Harbor, eliminating the US fleets for at least a year.
The plan, however, was flawed. For one, Yamamoto had never suspected an intelligence breach. He also assumed that the USS Yorktown was out of commission after the Battle of the Coral Sea. It was actually ready for battle by the time Midway rolled around.
The Japanese Weren’t Ready For Defense
Frank Blazich, a military history curator at the Smithsonian, claims that Japan’s forces were built for offense, not defense. He asserted that their carriers were designed to “throw a punch but not take a blow.” This ended up kicking them when the Americans launched their surprise attack during midway.
Why didn’t they prepare for defense? According to Blazich, military officers followed the “tried and true” tactics of traditional Japanese warfare. Because they had won so many previous battles, the Japanese also assumed that they didn’t need to work on their defensive strategies.
American Sailors Thought They Wouldn’t Survive
From the American sailors’ perspective, they were doomed from the start. Since they had just recovered from the Battle of the Coral Sea, their Douglas TBD-1 Devastators weren’t in peak condition. Their torpedoes didn’t even work half the time.
Plus, the US’s fly formation was risky. The bombers had to fly incredibly close to the water, slowly, and close to their fellow comrades. “Those men went into this fight knowing that it was very likely they would never come home,” historian Laura Lawfer Orr told Smithsonian Magazine.
The First Counterattack Had One Survivor
On June 4, the Americans devised a counterattack. Forty-one torpedo bombers approached the Japanese cruisers, but they were no match for Japan’s squadron. Within minutes, 35 of the 41 Devastators had gone down. Only one pilot survived the counterattack.
His name was George Gay, a pilot of the USS Hornet‘s Torpedo Squadron 8. After a fight with five Japanese fighters, Gay crash-landed in the middle of the Pacific. He swam there for 30 hours before being rescued. Today, his life jacket is on display in the American History Museum.
Caught Off-Guard By US Carriers
The Japanese assumed that America had fewer carrier ships available than they actually did. After America’s failed counterattack, Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo assumed that no US carriers were nearby. However, a scout pilot alerted him that US ships were awaiting their arrival.
As Nagumo switched gears, his sailors were left confused. They had no idea that Commander Wade McClusky had been approaching them the entire time. Unprepared and panicked, Japanese troops scrambled to ready themselves, while the Americans were already ready to attack.
Dive Bombing Into Destruction
During the Battle of Midway, the American Douglas SBD Dauntless planes engaged in dive-bombing. The bombers would fly up to 20,000 feet into the air before pointing the plane down and diving. They’d drop at around 275 miles per hour.
Dive-bombing was designed to help pilots target ships en masse. However, it was incredibly risky. From the pilots’ height, the Japanese cruisers appeared as small as ladybugs. The pilots also had to pull up before they crashed head-first into the Pacific Ocean.
The Battle Lasted Several Days
The Battle of Midway officially began on the afternoon June 3, 1942. The most notable turnaround occurred on June 4, when American sailors surprised Japanese cruisers and took out most of their ships. Afterward, the battle continued for several more days until June 7.
During the war-defining raid of June 4, the Americans had dealt damage to the Japanese cruisers Kaga, Akagi, and Hiryu. In the following days, the US targeted four more ships: the cruisers Mogami and Mikuma and the destroyers Arashio and Asashio.
Americans May Have Outnumbered The Japanese
Most accounts of the Battle of Midway explain that the Americans were largely outnumbered. But historian Gordon W. Prange argues against this. In terms of naval forces, Japanese cruisers and destroyers outnumbered American ships. But when you add in American planes, the numbers differ.
In his book Miracle at Midway, Prange argues that if you add in America’s aircraft carriers, the Americans actually had a slight advantage over Japan. On top of that, Admiral Yamamoto had ordered his main fleet to trail behind the first fleet, meaning that the Americans ambushed the Japanese in sections.
Pearl Harbor Still Lingered
The Battle of the Coral Sea wasn’t the only fight that hung over the Americans’ heads. The US Forces were still recovering from the surprise bombing at Pearl Harbor. The troops there had eight battleships damaged, two lost, and the rest taken out of commission. They couldn’t have backed up the Battle of Midway if they wanted to.
To make matters worse for the US, the Japanese general was the same who had attacked Pearl Harbor. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was the Navy commander who had led Pearl Harbor, and he aimed to take it down once and for all.
The Mysterious AF
By the time the Battle of Midway came, US Naval Intelligence had decrypted most of Japan’s Imperial Fleet codes. However, there was one piece missing. They didn’t know what AF meant–they theorized that it was either Midway or the entire Pacific. So young officer Jasper Holmes hatched a plan.
The sent out a fake message saying that Midway was low on water. The Japanese then sent messages that AF had fresh water problems. Therefore, AF was Midway. The US coders were able to interpret the Japanese fighting plan from there on out.
Yorktown Wasn’t Supposed To Show Up
The Japanese weren’t expecting the carrier USS Yorktown to appear at Midway. That’s because it wasn’t supposed to. Yorktown, which had taken a beating during the Battle of the Coral Sea, was severely damaged. Admiral Chester Nimitz went against protocol by getting it ready for Midway.
Within three days, Yorktown was repaired into a barely-operational carrier. As the ship headed for Bremerton, workers continued to fix its damage. It was a risky but decisive move on Nimitz’s part. Yorktown was his third and final carrier, and its presence surprised the Japanese, who were unprepared for another warship.
Fires Were Inevitable
Since the Japanese had no idea they were being approached by American fleets, they were left vulnerable. After a successful bombing, Admiral Chuichi Nagumo ordered his troops to re-stock for a second strike. As the planes were being refueled, the Americans attacked.
The Japanese cruisers were left susceptible to fires: torpedoes and bombs were left out, and fuel hoses lay across the deck. George Gay, the pilot survivor who watched the battle from the ocean, said, “the carriers during the day resembled a very large oil-field fire…big red flames belched out this black smoke.”
News Of Midway Leaked Information
After the Battle of Midway, American newspapers reported the victory. One report by the Chicago Sunday Tribune caused some trouble. The 14-paragraph story suggested that the Americans had deciphered Japanese naval codes. They had, in essence, revealed America’s trump card.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was less than thrilled at the report. He launched an espionage investigation to discover who had learned about their Battle of Midway techniques. It was the only case in American History where the government prosecuted a media member under the Espionage Act.
Piece Of A Larger Puzzle
When Admiral Yamamoto approached Midway, he intended to take down Pearl Harbor as well. But that was only a piece of the plan. The Japanese Army intended to remove the US from the Pacific Ocean. By doing so, they would hypothetically force America into a negotiated peace.
While “forcing into peace” may not sound like the most friendly option, it was Japan’s best bet at removing the United States from the war. By pushing them out of the Pacific, Japan would also take the US out of the Allied Forces. The Allies were fortunate that American won the Battle of Midway.