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  • James Houser

June 3, 1942 - The Battle of Midway

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

June 3, 1942. Ensign Jack Reid, piloting a PBY Catalina scout plane over the vast Pacific, spots a great mass of shapes through the clouds below. “It must be the whole Jap Navy!” he says in his report to Pearl Harbor. It is something close: the Japanese strike force is bound for Midway Island. World War II in the Pacific hangs in the balance: the Battle of Midway is about to begin.

Ever since they had sunk most of the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s capital ships at Pearl Harbor, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s Combined Fleet had dominated the Pacific and Indian Oceans from the east coast of India to the islands of Hawaii. With a heavy strike force of six aircraft carriers with the best carrier pilots in the world (the “Kido Butai”), numerous battleships and other surface fighters skilled in night operations, and the swift capture of every island and fortress from Singapore to Wake Island had put the Japanese on the upswing. There was no way around it: in May 1942, Japan was winning World War II, and they seemed unstoppable.

We, of course, know that things turned out differently, but to the United States of May 1942 that was scant comfort. In early 1942, Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed that the primary target in World War II would have to be Germany, since Hitler was by far the more serious threat. The unstoppable Japanese juggernaut, though, threatened to undermine that calculation. The loss of Singapore was a devastating blow to British morale and pride, and the surrender of the U.S. Philippines caused a great deal of heartache. In March and April, Yamamoto’s carriers reached even farther afield, bombing India and Australia. The American and British fleets were apparently unable to stop the Rising Sun.

In April and May 1942, though, the Japanese suffered two minor hiccups. The first hiccup was the famous Doolittle Raid, a single squadron of bombers launched from the U.S. aircraft carriers USS Enterprise and USS Hornet that successfully bombed the Japanese Home Islands. While utterly failing to have any military impact whatsoever, the Doolittle Raid caused great consternation among Japanese military leaders, who determined that the threat of U.S. aircraft carriers needed to be destroyed. Thus, Yamamoto was told to begin preparations for an offensive designed to draw out the American carriers and destroy them in a decisive battle.

The second hiccup had a significant impact on the coming campaign. Despite Yamamoto’s protests that breaking up the Kido Butai was a bad idea, a war plan was set in motion that would begin operations to invade Australia. The Japanese task force assigned to this operation consisted of two out of six Japanese heavy carriers, Shokaku and Zuikaku, which were supposed to return to Yamamoto’s strike force in time for the coming battle.

When they set out with their invasion force, though, they ran into an unpleasant surprise: the American carriers USS Lexington and USS Yorktown. In the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Japanese managed to sink Lexington and badly damage Yorktown, but at the cost of significant damage to Shokaku and the loss of most of Zuikaku’s pilots. The Japanese intelligence reports wrote off Yorktown as sunk – which would become an unpleasant surprise in a month.

Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet, had an ace up his sleeve: one of the best military intelligence units of World War II. American and British intelligence services were routinely leagues ahead of German and Japanese – one of their great unsung advantages in World War II – and the American cryptanalysts at Pearl Harbor had broken the Japanese military codes. This gave Nimitz early warning of the Japanese attack, and its target – Midway Island. Japanese possession of Midway would place Hawaii, and Pearl Harbor, within invasion range; if the United States lost Hawaii, they would have to operate from the American west coast, possibly setting the war effort back by years if not losing it altogether.

Nimitz cobbled together a strike force from his two remaining carriers – Enterprise and Hornet – and the badly damaged Yorktown. When the mangled ship was hauled in from the pounding it had received at Coral Sea, the engineers estimated that she would need two weeks of repairs to return to sea. Nimitz gave them 48 hours. Within those 48 hours, the USS Yorktown limped out to join Enterprise and Hornet for the journey north to intercept the Japanese fleet, Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher taking command of the whole force on board Yorktown. Nimitz reasoned that Midway itself, with its own small set of planes, could function as a virtual fourth aircraft carrier, and this would give the Americans something like an equal footing. If you squinted really hard and turned your head slightly.

It cannot be exaggerated how much of a risk this was. Nimitz was gambling not just his ships and an island, but the whole Pacific Ocean. If Fletcher’s carrier task force came off worse in the upcoming battle, or god forbid if all three carriers were lost, the Pacific was lost. The United States had no other carriers in the Pacific except the still-under-repair USS Saratoga in California. If the United States lost the Battle of Midway, the Japanese would have a blank check for months. Hawaii, Australia, India – all of it would be within reach.

The Japanese carriers and pilots had a qualitative superiority over the American force as well. The A6M fighter plane, known to Allied pilots as the “Zero,” was superior to anything the United States would come up with until 1943, and the Japanese carrier pilots were the best in the world, with months of battle experience and years of stick time. The carrier crews as well had been drilled and hardened over years of training and exercises, as well as the last six months of campaign. Their morale was astoundingly high; not only were they imbued with Japanese warrior ethos and the attitude of cultural superiority I discussed a couple of weeks ago, but they stood on an unbroken tide of victory.

The Japanese invasion force, led by Admiral Yamamoto from the battleship Yamato (the largest battleship in the world), was preceded by the Kido Butai under Admiral Chuichi Nagumo. Nagumo had also led the attack on Pearl Harbor, but was not an experienced carrier admiral like Yamamoto and was often beset by moments of crippling indecision. He had four aircraft carriers – Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, and Soryu – all Pearl Harbor veterans. He would have had Shokaku and Zuikaku, but they were still under repair from the Coral Sea battle. This would prove fatal; the Yorktown, after all, had somehow managed to limp out, and there was no reason not to transfer Shokaku’s air group to fill out Zuikaku so it could make it to the battle. The Japanese were probably overconfident.

There is little reason to give a minute-by-minute description of the battle itself here. It is one of the great stories of World War II, and it is worth finding a good literary account to get the excitement and the tension. But I will give the broad strokes.

After the Japanese fleet had been spotted on June 3, the planes on Midway prepared for a strike. Nagumo was still unaware that any American aircraft carriers were in the area; the way he figured it, he would attack and occupy Midway on June 4, forcing the American carriers to come up from Hawaii to the southeast in the next few days. He had no inkling that Fletcher’s task force was steaming his way from the northeast. With this in mind, on June 4 he ordered his planes to load up with ground attack munitions and strike Midway Island.

The first Japanese strike on Midway failed to do sufficient damage, and was followed back to the Japanese carriers by Midway’s own planes. The lethal Zero fighters knocked most of these out of the sky, but they had reported the Japanese location to the American aircraft carriers. Soon three carriers’ worth of planes – fighters, dive bombers and torpedo bombers – were taking off to strike the Japanese. Problem was, many of them flew off in the wrong direction by a matter of degrees, and only corrected later; thus the American squadrons arrived at different times rather than as a unit.

Nagumo had received reports of a possible American carrier in the area, and did the worst thing possible: he HESITATED. Should he strike Midway again, or hold his aircraft back and wait for further reports about the American ships? He waffled back and forth, but soon the Americans made his decision for him: the aircraft from their carriers attacked. Several groups of dive bombers and torpedo bombers swarmed the Japanese carriers, but were easy targets for the far superior Japanese fighter aircraft, who found them slow and doddering prey. Nimitz on Pearl Harbor, and Fletcher on Yorktown, listened in horror as plane after plane was reported knocked out. Soon they would have no planes left, and then the Americans would be helpless.

The constant American attacks, though, kept the Japanese fighters at low altitude to fight the torpedo bombers. The slaughter of the American torpedo squadrons kept the Japanese at exactly the wrong place, at the wrong time, completely by chance. It was pure coincidence – a matter of perfect, accidental timing – when two squadrons of SBD Dauntless dive-bombers from Enterprise and Yorktown approached from two different directions. One group had gotten lost and only found the Japanese after a pilot spotted a distant wake.

The dive-bombers tumbled out of the sky, diving almost vertically and dropping their bombs on the Japanese carriers, where bombers preparing for the second strike on Midway sat wingtip to wingtip loaded with ordnance. Within minutes, Akagi, Kaga and Soryu were aflame, and the Japanese soon recognized they had no chance of survival.

Within 10 minutes, Japan had gone from winning the war in the Pacific to losing it.

The sole surviving Japanese carrier, Hiryu, launched a strike that managed to damage Yorktown; the next day, June 5, Yorktown would be sunk by a Japanese submarine, though most of its crew and pilots would be saved. But the damage was done, and only got worse. That same day, American aircraft sank Hiryu as well, as well as the heavy cruiser Mikuma. The loss of the Yorktown was the only real price the United States paid for kneecapping the Japanese Combined Fleet.

Without air cover, Yamamoto had to call off the operation and return home. The failure to capture Midway, though, was about to be the least of his concerns.

What can be said about the Battle of Midway that has not already been said? What made it so important?

The Japanese could not quickly replace their aircraft carriers, it was true – especially compared to the American ability to produce ships in the California and New York dockyards. (The United States produced 14 aircraft carriers in 1943 alone; the Japanese produced 4 in the entire war.) The truly irreplaceable losses, though, were in crewmen and pilots.

Both Germany and Japan suffered from the fact that their militaries were designed to achieve quick, decisive victories and not to win wars of attrition; this meant that they routinely kept their best and most able combat performers in continuous action to give them that decisive “cutting edge” in battle. Once the Zero pilot or the Tiger Tank commander was lost, though, all his experience went with him. The Americans and British, though, rotated their experienced men home to train new recruits, ensuring less elite performers but a higher average. The Japanese had no immediate replacements for their precious pilots and carrier crewmen, no matter how many ships or planes they built. Within two years, the Americans not only had better aircraft and better ships, but a higher average skill level for every member of its military. Midway, in essence, chopped the tip off the Japanese katana. It would never cut as well again.

There was also the strategic impact. After the devastating loss at Midway, Japan committed – some say unwisely – to a defensive stance for the rest of the war. This only ensured that Yamamoto’s greatest fear would come true: the United States industrial war machine revved up to its maximum potential. Japan’s only real hope for victory in World War II had been to achieve a knockout blow in the first six months, and at Midway they had come within a HAIR of being able to do it – but ultimately failed.

The real death of the Japanese Navy wasn’t even at Midway: it was in the naval battles around Guadalcanal from August 1942 to February 1943. Instead of the decisive, annihilating battle that the Japanese desired for a great crowning victory, their surface ships and remaining carriers were whittled down in battles of attrition against a U.S. Navy growing smarter and stronger every month, even as the Japanese grew weaker and lost their irreplaceable crewmen and pilots. Even if Midway itself wasn’t the real turning point, it set Japan on the road to disaster at sea.

What all this can’t obscure, though, was that, in the words of Ensign Jack Reid who had first spotted the Japanese fleet, “Midway was a battle we should have lost.” Wargame after wargame has failed to replicate the miraculous timing and series of events that led to American planes, by ACCIDENT, finding just the right moment to hit the Japanese. Almost everything – skill, quality, numbers, planning – was on Japan’s side. The thing to tip the balance was American naval intelligence, the leadership and gambler’s instinct of Chester Nimitz (if Yorktown doesn’t make it out to sea against the maintenance team’s advice, the Americans lose the battle), good old American courage, and luck. Lots. And lots. Of luck.

The whole world balanced on ten minutes at Midway.

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