World War II: Battle of Midway - Turning Point in the Pacific

Battle of Midway
US Navy SBD dive bombers at the Battle of Midway, June 4, 1942. Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

Conflict:

The Battle of Midway was fought June 4-7, 1942, during World War II (1939-1945) and was the turning point of the war in the Pacific.

Commanders:

US Navy

Imperial Japanese Navy

    Background:

    In the months after their successful attack on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese commenced a rapid push south into the Netherlands East Indies and Malaya. Driving back the British, they captured Singapore in February 1942 before defeating a combined Allied fleet in the Java Sea. Landing in the Philippines, they swiftly occupied much of Luzon before overcoming Allied resistance on the Bataan Peninsula in April. In the wake of these stunning victories, the Japanese sought to extend their control by securing all of New Guinea and occupying the Solomon Islands.  Moving to block this thrust, Allied naval forces scored a strategic victory at the Battle of Coral Sea on May 4-8 despite losing the carrier USS Lexington (CV-2). 

    Yamamoto's Plan:

    Following this setback, the commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, devised a plan to draw the remaining ships of the US Pacific Fleet into a battle where they could be destroyed.

    To accomplish this, he planned to invade the island of Midway, 1,300 miles northwest of Hawaii. Dubbed Operation MI, Yamamoto's plan called for coordinating several battle groups across large expanses of ocean. These included Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo's First Carrier Striking Force (4 carriers), Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo's invasion force, as well as the battleships of the First Fleet Main Force.

    This final unit was personally led by Yamamoto aboard the battleship Yamato. As Midway was key to Pearl Harbor's defense, he believed the Americans would send their remaining aircraft carriers to protect the island. Due to faulty intelligence which had reported Yorktown sunk at Coral Sea, he believed only two American carriers remained in the Pacific.

    Nimitz's Response:

    At Pearl Harbor, Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the US Pacific Fleet, was made aware of the impending attack by his team of cryptanalysts led by Lieutenant Commander Joseph Rochefort. Having successfully broken the Japanese JN-25 naval code, Rochefort was able to provide an outline of the Japanese plan of attack as well as the forces involved. To meet this threat, Nimitz dispatched Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance with the carriers USS Enterprise (CV-6) and USS Hornet (CV-8) to Midway hoping to surprise the Japanese. Though he had never commanded carriers previously, Spruance assumed this role as Vice Admiral William "Bull" Halsey was unavailable due to a severe case of dermatitis. The carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5), with Rear Admiral Frank J. Fletcher, followed two days later after damage received at Coral Sea was hastily repaired.

    Attack on Midway:

    Around 9:00 AM on June 3, a PBY Catalina flying from Midway spotted Kondo's force and reported its location. Acting on this information, a flight of nine B-17 Flying Fortresses took off from Midway and mounted an ineffective attack against the Japanese. At 04:30 AM on June 4, Nagumo launched 108 planes to attack Midway Island, as well as seven scout planes to locate the American fleet. As these aircraft were departing, 11 PBYs took off from Midway in search of Nagumo's carriers. Brushing aside the island's small force of fighters, the Japanese planes pounded Midway's installations. While returning to the carriers, the strike leaders recommended a second attack. In response, Nagumo ordered his reserve aircraft, which had been armed with torpedoes, to be rearmed with bombs. After this process had commenced, a scout plane from the cruiser Tone reported locating the American fleet.

    The Americans Arrive:

    Upon receiving this news, Nagumo reversed his rearmament order. As a result, the hangar decks of the Japanese carriers were full of bombs, torpedoes, and fuel lines as ground crews scrambled to reequip the aircraft. As Nagumo vacillated, the first of Fletcher's planes arrived over the Japanese fleet. Armed with sighting reports from from the PBYs which had located the enemy at 5:34 AM, Fletcher had begun launching his aircraft at 7:00 AM. The first squadrons to arrive were the TBD Devastator torpedo bombers from Hornet (VT-8) and Enterprise (VT-6). Attacking at low level, they failed to score a hit and suffered heavy casualties. In the case of the former, the entire squadron was lost with only Ensign George H. Gay, Jr. surviving after being rescued by a PBY after spending 30 hours in the water.

    Dive Bombers Strike the Japanese:

    Though VT-8 and VT-6 did not do any damage, their attack, coupled with the late arrival of VT-3, pulled the Japanese combat air patrol out of position, leaving the fleet vulnerable. At 10:22 AM, American SBD Dauntless dive bombers approaching from the southwest and northeast struck the carriers Kaga, Soryu, and Akagi. In less than six minutes they reduced the Japanese ships to burning wrecks. In response, the remaining Japanese carrier, Hiryu, launched a counter-strike. Arriving in two waves, its planes twice disabled Yorktown. Later that afternoon, American dive bombers located Hiryu and sank it, completing the victory.

    Aftermath:

    On the night of June 4th, both sides retired to plan their next move. By 2:55 AM, Yamamoto ordered his fleet to return to base. In the following days, American aircraft sunk the cruiser Mikuma, while the Japanese submarine I-168 torpedoed and sank the disabled Yorktown. The defeat at Midway broke the back of the Japanese carrier fleet and resulted in the loss of invaluable air crews. It also marked the end of major Japanese offensive operations as the initiative passed to the Americans. That August, US Marines landed on Guadalcanal and began the long march to Tokyo.

    Casualties:

    US Pacific Fleet Losses

    • 340 killed
    • Aircraft Carrier USS Yorktown
    • Destroyer USS Hammann
    • 145 aircraft

    Imperial Japanese Navy Losses

    • 3,057 killed
    • Aircraft Carrier Akagi
    • Aircraft Carrier Kaga
    • Aircraft Carrier Soryu
    • Aircraft Carrier Hiryu
    • Heavy Cruiser Mikuma
    • 228 aircraft