The half-dozen U.S. carrier raids from February to May 1942, especially the April 18 raid on Tokyo, helped silence Yamamoto's critics and produce approval for his Midway plan. Under the revised plan, the Japanese would advance deeper into the Solomons and take Port Moresby, on the south coast of New Guinea. Yamamoto's Combined Fleet would then occupy Midway Island, which Yamamoto saw as a stepping-stone toward a possible Japanese invasion of Hawaii. In any case, Midway could be used for surveillance purposes. After the Midway operation and the destruction of the U.S. fleet, the Japanese would resume their southeastern advance to cut off Australia.
In the May 8, 1942, Battle of the Coral Sea though, U.S. carriers caused the Japanese to call off the invasion of Port Moresby. Planning for the Midway attack nevertheless went forward. Yamamoto's plan was both comprehensive and complex. It involved: an advanced submarine force to savage U.S. ships on their way to Midway; an invasion force under Vice Admiral Kondo Nobutake of 12 transports with 5,000 troops, supported by four heavy cruisers and a more distant covering force of two battleships, a light carrier and four heavy cruisers; Admiral Nagumo Chuichi's First Carrier Force of fleet carriers Hiryu, Soryu, Kaga, and Akagi, with two battleships, two heavy cruisers, and a destroyer screen; and the main battle fleet under Yamamoto of three battleships (including the giant Yamato, his flagship), a destroyer screen, and a light carrier. The total was 8 carriers, 11 battleships, 22 cruisers, 65 destroyers, 21 submarines, and more than 600 aircraft—some 200 ships, almost the entire Japanese Navy.
For the Aleutians, Yamamoto allotted an invasion force of three escorted transports carrying 2,400 troops, with a support group of two heavy cruisers, two light carriers, and a covering force of 4 older battleships. Apart from its tie-in with Midway, this force was to enable the Japanese to occupy Attu and Kiska, thus blocking a supposed U.S. invasion route to Japan.
The battle would begin in the Aleutians, with air strikes on June 3, followed by landings on the 6th. On June 4 Nagumo's carrier planes would attack the airfield at Midway. On the 6th cruisers would bombard Midway and troops would be landed, covered by the battleships. The Japanese expected there would be no U.S. ships in the Midway area until after the landings, and their hope was that the U.S. Pacific Fleet would hurry north to the Aleutians, enabling the Japanese to trap it between their two carrier forces.
Commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific Admiral Chester W. Nimitz could only deploy 76 ships; he had no battleships and only two carriers fit for action. By an astonishing effort the Yorktown, heavily damaged in the Battle of Coral Sea, was readied in 2 days instead of the estimated 90. Nimitz did have the advantage of an accurate picture of the Japanese order of battle and, thanks to code-breaking, he was reasonably certain that Midway was the Japanese objective. By contrast, the Japanese had virtually no information on the Americans, but at this point in the war the Japanese tended to dismiss the Americans and exaggerate their own abilities.
Nimitz packed Midway with B-26 and B-17 bombers. He positioned the three U.S. carriers, with 233 planes, some 300 miles to the northeast. He hoped the carriers would remain hidden from Japanese reconnaissance planes, while counting on information on Japanese movements from Catalina aircraft based on Midway. He hoped to catch the Japanese by surprise, their carriers with planes on their decks.
Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance had tactical command of U.S. naval forces in the battle. The Japanese deployed 86 ships against 27 U.S., and 325 planes against 348 (including 115 land-based aircraft) for the United States. Carrier strength was 5 for Japan and 3 for the United States.
On June 3, the day after the U.S. carriers were in position, American air reconnaissance detected the Japanese transports some 600 miles west of Midway. A gap in the search pattern flown by Japanese aircraft allowed the American carriers to remain undetected. In any case, the Japanese did not expect the U.S. Pacific Fleet to be at sea yet.
Early on June 4 Nagumo launched 108 aircraft against Midway, while a second wave of similar size was prepared to attack any warships sighted. The first wave did severe damage to Midway at little cost to itself, but the pilots reported the need for a second attack. Since his own carriers were being bombed by planes from Midway, Nagumo ordered the second wave of planes to change from torpedoes to bombs.
Shortly thereafter, a group of American ships was spotted about 200 miles away, but the Japanese thought it was only cruisers and destroyers. Then at 8:20 a.m. came a report identifying a carrier. Most of the Japanese torpedo-bombers were now equipped with bombs, and most fighters were on patrol. Nagumo also had to recover the first wave of aircraft from the strike at Midway.
Nagumo accordingly ordered a change of course to the northeast. This helped him avoid the first wave of American dive-bombers. When three waves of U.S. torpedo-bombers attacked the Japanese carriers between 9:00 and 10:24 a.m., 47 of 51 were shot down by Japanese fighters or anti-aircraft guns. The Japanese believed they had won the battle.
Two minutes later, however, 37 American dive-bombers from the Enterprise swept down to attack the Japanese carriers, while the Japanese fighters that had been dealing with the torpedo-bombers were close to sea level. Soon Akagi and Kaga were flaming wrecks, with the torpedoes and fuel on their decks feeding the fires. Soryu took three hits from Yorktown's dive-bombers that also arrived on the scene and soon it too was abandoned.
Hiryu, the only Japanese fleet carrier still intact, then sent its planes against the limping Yorktown, forcing the Americans to abandon it. Then 24 American dive-bombers, including 10 from Yorktown, caught Hiryu. It went down the next day. Yamamoto now suspended the attack on Midway, hoping to trap the Americans by drawing them westward. Spruance, however, refused to take the bait.
The Battle of Midway was a crushing defeat for Japan. The Americans lost carrier Yorktown and about 150 aircraft, while the Imperial Navy lost four fleet carriers and some 330 aircraft, most of which went down with the carriers, and a heavy cruiser. The loss of the carriers and their well-trained aircrews and support personnel was particularly devastating. The subsequent Japanese defeat in the important land battle of Guadalcanal was principally due to a lack of naval air power.
The Battle of Midway also provided the Americans a respite until, at the end of 1942, the new Essex-class fleet carriers began to come on line. In Nimitz's words: "Midway was the most crucial battle of the Pacific War, the engagement that made everything else possible." Spencer C. Tucker
Dull, Paul S. A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1941–1945. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1978; Fuchida, Mitsuo, and Masatake Okumiya. Midway, The Battle that Doomed Japan: The Japanese Navy's Story. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1955; Prange, Gordon W., Donald Goldstein, and Kathleen Dillon. Miracle at Midway. New York: Penguin, 1982.
Spencer C. Tucker