Midway, a U.S. Navy base on two tiny islands that form a coral atoll in the central Pacific, was the site of unsuccessful Japanese attacks in December 1941 and January 1942. The Japanese attacked for the third time in June 1942, and the resulting battle was one of the largest of the war in the Pacific.
The Doolittle raid reached Tokyo just minutes after a practice air raid drill. As a result, most residents of the city thought the planes were part of the exercise. Later, when asked where the bombers had come from, President Roosevelt slyly replied, “Shangri-La.” The U.S. Navy later named an aircraft carrier under construction at the time the Shangri-La.
The Japanese wanted Midway for several reasons. It would be an essential part of Japan's defensive line in the Pacific. It was also a necessary cog in Japan's strategy to invade the Hawaiian Islands.
The Battle Ensues
The U.S. naval presence in the Pacific was a constant threat to Japanese imperialism, and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of the Combined Fleet, believed that the U.S. Pacific Fleet had to be completely destroyed in 1942 or Japan would lose the war. A savvy strategist, Yamamoto rightly believed that an attack on Midway would pressure Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, into using everything at his disposal to protect the island, which was integral to the defense of Pearl Harbor.
The attack on Midway was to begin on June 5 with carrier aircraft destroying the island's ground defenses and aircraft. The next day, according to the plan, Japanese troops would take Kure Island, nearly 60 miles northwest of Midway, and create a base for seaplanes to support the Midway invasion. In addition, a fleet of Japanese submarines was dispersed to intercept U.S. ships sent to Midway and the Aleutians from Pearl Harbor.
Thanks to their code breakers, U.S. Navy officials were well aware of Yamamoto's plans. Admiral Nimitz decided to send his only three aircraft carriers — the Enterprise, the Hornet, and the recently repaired Yorktown — against the Japanese invaders.
The Japanese invasion force was identified on June 3, but air strikes by bombers out of Midway inflicted little damage. The next morning, bombers and fighters from Japanese carriers attacked Midway.
Aircraft armed with torpedoes were being held at the ready on the Japanese carriers to deal with any U.S. warships that might be seen by Japanese reconnaissance planes. Then a change of orders sent the crews scrambling to swap the torpedoes for bombs so Midway could be attacked a second time.
While crewmen struggled to make the switch, a Japanese search plane saw U.S. warships just 200 miles away. But Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher, commander of the U.S. carrier strike force, was already aware that two Japanese carriers were within easy striking distance. The battle of Midway was set in motion.
Acting quickly to maintain the element of surprise, Fletcher ordered Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance to attack the Japanese carriers with planes from the Enterprise and the Hornet. Fletcher planned to follow the two carriers aboard the Yorktown once his scout bombers returned.
Speeding toward the Japanese carriers at twenty-five knots, Spruance decided to launch his planes before the Japanese could launch another attack on the battered station at Midway. This required launching his planes 200 miles out — well short of the torpedo bombers' combat radius. Nonetheless, fourteen TBD Devastator torpedo bombers were launched from the Enterprise, along with thirty-three dive-bombers and an escort of ten Wildcat fighters. The Hornet launched thirty-five dive-bombers, fifteen torpedo bombers, and ten fighter escorts. Approximately an hour and a half later, the Yorktown delivered seventeen dive-bombers, twelve torpedo bombers, and six fighters.
The Hornet's fifteen-plane Torpedo Squadron Eight lost contact with the other attack planes but came across four Japanese carriers. Though greatly outnumbered by Japanese Zeros and facing a blanket of antiaircraft fire from cruisers and destroyers, the planes engaged the ships in short-range battle. Plane after plane was shot down by the Japanese Zeros and the barrage of artillery, but the American pilots continued their futile attack. In the end, not a single plane escaped, and none of their torpedoes hit the intended targets. Only one man from Torpedo Eight survived the battle; he was rescued at sea the following day.
Torpedo Squadron Six from the Enterprise attacked next, but it, too, suffered greatly. Of the fourteen torpedo bombers to engage the Japanese, only four survived. And once again, none of the torpedoes hit their targets. Torpedo Squadron Three from the Yorktown suffered a similar fate: all twelve planes lost, with no damage to the Japanese.
But the loss of the torpedo squadrons opened the door for the destruction of the Japanese carriers. Because the planes came in low over the water, the guns on the Japanese ships and all Japanese fighters were drawn down low. As the attack continued, American dive-bombers from the Enterprise arrived on the scene unopposed.
While wave after wave of U.S. torpedo bombers attacked the Japanese carriers, the ships' crews were working to prepare planes for a counterattack, stacking bombs on the hangar decks of the Akagi and the Kaga. The first few Zeros were taxiing down the Akagi's flight deck when an American bomb struck the carrier, causing more than sixty newly fueled and armed planes to explode. Four bombs also struck the Kaga, causing the bombs set on its deck to go off.
While the Akagi and the Kaga burned, seventeen dive-bombers from the Yorktown converged on the carrier Soryu, hitting it with three well-placed bombs that ignited the waiting, weapons-heavy planes and sending a fireball of destruction across the ship's flight deck.
The Battle Winds Down
The fourth Japanese carrier, the Hiryu, was able to launch its bombers against the U.S. carriers, stopping the Yorktown with three bombs. In a second attack, the carrier was hit in the port side by two torpedoes and began taking on water. The order to abandon ship was given, and the ship's survivors, numbering more than 2,200, crossed into the waiting destroyers and cruisers. The Yorktown's dive-bombers, which were on the Enterprise, then hooked up with that ship's bombers to destroy the Hiryu. The job was done with four bombs, which ignited huge fires aboard the Japanese carrier, stopping it dead in the water.
The Battle of Midway is widely regarded as the turning point for the Americans in the Pacific, showing that the Japanese had greatly underestimated them.
Even with the loss of the Yorktown, the Battle of Midway was a decisive blow against the Japanese navy. In addition to the four aircraft carriers, a Japanese cruiser was sunk, and another cruiser and two destroyers were badly damaged. All of the carriers' 240 planes were lost, along with most of their pilots and support crews.
But all was not lost for the Japanese in the Pacific. The northern phase of the battle succeeded, with the Japanese continuing to the Aleutians because Admiral Nimitz had nothing left to stop them. Japanese carrier aircraft were able to inflict substantial damage on the American base at Dutch Harbor, and the Japanese were virtually unopposed when they landed at Kiska and Attu. They would hold these positions for another year.