A second battle soon developed after the Japanese turned their focus on the strategic island of Midway. Despite the setback at Coral Sea, the Japanese continued with their plans to seize Midway Island and bases in the Aleutians. Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, commander in chief of the Combined Fleet, convinced the Imperial General Staff that the capture of Midway would allow Japan to pursue its Asian policies behind an impregnable eastern shield of defenses in the Central Pacific. The capture of Midway would serve as a dramatic response to the April 1942 U.S. raid on Tokyo. It would also deprive the United States of a forward base for submarines, and it would be a stepping stone for the capture of Hawaii. Perhaps most important, it would draw out the U.S. aircraft carriers, giving the Japanese the opportunity to destroy them.
Admiral Yamamoto sent out the bulk of the Japanese fleet. For the operation, he would use some 200 ships—almost the entire Japanese navy—including 8 carriers, 11 battleships, 22 cruisers, 65 destroyers, 21 submarines, and more than 600 aircraft. His plan called for diversionary attacks on the Aleutian Islands both to distract the Americans from Japanese landings on Midway and to allow the Japanese to crush the U.S. reaction force between their forces to the north and at Midway. The Aleutian operation would also secure the islands of Attu and Kiska, placing forces astride a possible U.S. invasion route to Japan.
Yamamoto correctly assumed that the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, would have to respond to a landing on Midway. When the Pacific Fleet arrived in the area, Japanese carrier and battleship task forces, waiting unseen to the west of the Midway strike force, would fall on and destroy the unsuspecting Americans. Yamamoto believed that the Yorktown had been sunk in the Coral Sea fight and that the Enterprise and Hornet were not likely to be in the Midway area when the strike force attacked the island. He was not correct. This miscalculation was one of several breakdowns in Japanese intelligence and communication that contributed to the eventual American victory.
For the Aleutians, Yamamoto committed an invasion force of 2,400 men in three escorted transports, a support group of two heavy cruisers and two light carriers, and a covering force of four older battleships. The battle began in the Aleutians with air strikes on 3 June, followed by landings three days later. The Aleutian phase of the operation went well for the Japanese. Carrier aircraft inflicted heavy damage on the U.S. base at Dutch Harbor, and the Japanese then made unopposed landings on Kiska and Attu. They kept this toehold on continental U.S. territory until mid-1943.
Despite the Japanese success in the Aleutians, the action there proved to be superfluous to the coming battle at Midway. U.S. intelligence had broken the Japanese naval code, putting the basic outlines of the Midway plan into American hands and thus allowing the Americans to disregard the attacks on the Aleutians in favor of concentrating on Midway. The Pacific Fleet was ready with three fleet aircraft carriers, including the Yorktown. She had been hastily repaired at Pearl Harbor to allow operations in only 2 days instead of an estimated 90 and was sent back to sea with an air group formed of planes from other carriers. She sailed just in advance of a picket line of Japanese submarines that Yamamoto hoped would intercept ships departing Pearl. The U.S. ships were concentrated in an ambush position some 350 miles northeast of Midway, awaiting the westward advance of Yamamoto's armada.
On 3 June, American naval reconnaissance planes sighted, at a distance of 600 miles, the Japanese armada of some 185 ships advancing on Midway. The battle began when Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers from Midway Island struck without effect at the Japanese carrier strike force, about 220 miles southwest of the U.S. fleet. That same night, four Consolidated patrol bombers (PBYs) from Midway staged a torpedo attack and damaged an oiler, although she was able to regain her place in the formation.
Early on 4 June, Nagumo sent 108 Japanese planes from the strike force to attack and bomb Midway, while the Japanese carriers again escaped damage from U.S. land-based planes. However, as the morning progressed, the Japanese carriers were soon overwhelmed by the logistics of almost simultaneously sending a second wave of bombers to finish off the Midway runways, zigzagging to avoid the bombs of attacking aircraft, and rearming to launch planes to sink the now sighted U.S. naval forces. American fighters and bombers, sent from Midway airfields, and aircraft from three U.S. carriers attacked the Japanese fleet. But three successive waves of U.S. torpedo-bombers were virtually wiped out during their attacks on the carriers from 9:30 to 10:24 a.m.: Japanese fighters and antiaircraft guns shot down 47 of 51 planes. The Japanese now believed that they had won the battle.
The Japanese First Air Fleet commander, Nagumo Chuichi, had ordered planes returning from strikes on Midway to rearm with torpedoes to strike the American ships. But as this effort was in progress at about 10:30 a.m., 37 dive-bombers from the carrier Enterprise at last located the Japanese carriers in their most vulnerable state, while their decks were cluttered with armed aircraft, ordnance, and fuel. The Japanese fighters in the air were also down low, having dealt with the torpedo-bomber attacks. Within the span of a few minutes, three of the four Japanese carriers—the Soryu, Kaga, and Akagi—were in flames and sinking. Planes from the only intact Japanese carrier, the Hiryu, now struck back, heavily damaging the Yorktown. In late afternoon, the Hiryu also was hit and badly damaged. The Japanese abandoned her the next day.
During the battle between the U.S. and Japanese naval forces, the two fleets neither saw each other nor exchanged gunfire; all contact was made by Japanese carrier-based planes and American land- and carrier-based aircraft. Yamamoto's first reaction on learning of the loss of three of his carriers was to bring up his battleships and recall the two light carriers from the Aleutians in hopes of fighting a more conventional sea battle. But the loss of the Hiryu and Nagumo's gloomy reports led him to call off the attack on Midway. Yamamoto still hoped to trap the Americans by drawing them westward into his heavy ships, but the U.S. task force commander, Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, refused to play his game and reported to Nimitz that he was unwilling to risk a night encounter with superior Japanese forces. By the night of 6 June, the Battle of Midway was over. It had been costly for Japan. In the battle itself, the Japanese had lost 4 fleet aircraft carriers and 332 aircraft, most of which went down with the carriers. The Japanese also had a heavy cruiser sunk and another badly damaged. Three destroyers and a fleet oiler were damaged as well, and a battleship was slightly damaged. The Americans lost the aircraft carrier Yorktown, 1 destroyer, and 147 aircraft (38 of these being shore based).
The Japanese navy was still a formidable fighting force, but once it lost the four fleet carriers and their well-trained aircrews and maintenance personnel, the continued Japanese preponderance in battleships and cruisers counted for little. The subsequent Japanese defeat in the protracted fight for Guadalcanal was due principally to a lack of air assets. It can be reasonably stated that the Battle of Midway was indeed the turning point of the long struggle in the Pacific Theater. James H. Willbanks
Fuchida Mitsuo, and Okumiya Masatake. Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan—The Japanese Navy's Story. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1955.; Lord, Walter. Incredible Victory. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.; Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 5, The Struggle for Guadalcanal, August 1942–February 1943. Boston: Little, Brown, 1949.; Prange, Gordon W. Miracle at Midway. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982.
James H. Willbanks