Sixty nine years ago today an engagement between the forces of the Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States Navy began that ended in a decisive victory for the US Navy. In fact this victory was the most decisive naval victory in the last 2,500 years of human warfare, and changed the course of the war in the pacific. Yet today it's place in the American consciousness is slight. Maybe that's partly a good thing — if we were truly as militaristic as our detractors portray us, this would be a major national holiday every year.
The fleet carrier Akagi
If there are three things that Americans remember from the pacific theater in World War II, it would be the attack on Pearl Harbor, the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima, and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. The last two items on that list would have been impossible without the victory at Midway.
Why was this victory so important, so decisive? Because in one battle we went from being outnumbered by more than 2 to 1 to evening the score in the only thing that counted in the war in the pacific; Fleet Aircraft Carriers. At the start of the battle the United States had 3 Fleet Carriers to Japan's 6+2 (with 2 damaged ones being repaired), at the end of the battle both Japan and United States had 2 functioning Carriers, and many of the expert airmen and support crews that attacked Pearl Harbor were dead.
Outnumbered you say, but of course we had the best planes? The best weapons? I mean we are America, dude. Yeah, not so much pal. The Japanese Zero was far and away the best carrier-based fighter of the war, at this point, our planes couldn't really compete 1 on 1. The most effective weapons for sinking ships are torpedoes, unfortunately at this point our torpedoes had at best a 15% chance of actually exploding when they they hit their target, if the targeting components didn't screw up. And Japan had a huge lead in Carrier operations; their pilots on average had twice the hours of training that ours did, they had constructed the first purpose built aircraft carrier in 1914. The skill of the Japanese Fleet Carriers was clearly on display on the attack on Pearl Harbor when 18 ships of the US Pacific Fleet were either sunk or heavily damaged.
OK, clever guy, facing these odds, how did we ever win? And why were we fighting over this miserable speck of land anyway? Lets start with the second question first, why did the battle happen at Midway? Ascribe this to the Law of Unintended Consequences. For the reason we have to examine the effects of Doolittle Raid on April 18, 1942, which was designed mainly to raise allied morale. The raid in one sense was well named, since it did very little damage to Japan, except to their pride. But it exposed that the holy nation of Japan was not invulnerable to attack by carrier launched aircraft, and if Japan occupied Midway it would have a much greater ability to prevent any future attacks on the Japanese home islands. Prior to this raid, the consensus in the Japanese War councils was leaning towards an assault on New Caledonia to cut off Australia from being resupplied by the Americans, after the raid there was no question that the Japanese armed forces must prevent any reoccurrence and conquer Midway forthwith.
How did we win? Well if you read Cracked we were just mad lucky. The truth lies in intelligence and focus, our good intelligence and focus, and a decided lack of the same on the part of the Japanese. For a more detailed account, click here. In essence, we knew prior to the battle that the Japanese were planning the attack because we had broken their codes. Admiral Nimitz, CINCPAC, decided that Midway must be defended and assembled every available force at his disposal. The land based air forces on Midway and the Fleet Carrier forces of Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown had only one mission: find and sink all Japanese aircraft carriers.
By contrast, the Japanese were sure that we only had two working carriers, since they were sure that the Yorktown had been sunk at Battle of the Coral Sea a month earlier. Also, instead of focusing on either taking Midway or sinking our remaining aircraft carriers they devised an insanely complicated plan with 18 different moving parts that pealed off 2 of their 6 carriers to support the conquest of Attu, an absolutely strategically worthless island at the end on the Aleutian island chain. Furthermore, the Japanese were negligent in scouting for American forces which meant that when we found their forward fleet with the 4 Fleet aircraft carriers on the morning of June 4, 1942 we were able to strike at their carriers before our own had been found.
At first the attacks went extremely poorly for the Americans. Rather than attacking with a combined force of torpedo bombers, dive bombers, and fighters (for protection of the slower torpedo bombers) we committed forces piecemeal, and in the process almost every single torpedo bomber was shot down by Japanese Zeros without doing any damage whatsoever to the Japanese Fleet, even though they had launched a half dozen torpedoes at close range. Likewise the high altitude bombing by Army Air units from Midway was completely ineffective.
The Japanese were having problems of their own, since they were trying to take Midway Island, and their bombing runs had not succeeded in silencing American defenses on the island. They would need to make another attack, so Admiral Nagumo (commander of the forward fleet) armed his reserve aircraft with land weapons for a second attack. It was at this time that the dive bombers from the Enterprise arrived, and with all the Zeros down low attacking American torpedo bombers the dive bombers scored multiple hits on Kaga, the Akagi and the Sōryū and in minutes the 3 carriers were out of action.
The sole surviving Japanese aircraft carrier, the Hiryū counterattacked, damaging the Yorktown but repair crews had her sufficiently repaired that by the time the second wave of Japanese planes attacked, they assumed she was the undamaged Enterprise; this time the Japanese torpedoes were able to disable her. Late in afternoon, a scout plane from the Yorktown found the Hiryū which led to an attack of dive bombers from the Enterprise, sinking the Hiryū. There were some minor actions over the next three days, but most of the damage was done, and all four Japanese Fleet carriers were sunk, and Midway remained in American hands.
The Yorktown suffers a torpedo attack
I think when most Americans today remember the war in the pacific, they assume (falsely in my estimation) that our victory was inevitable. Some of this is due to result basis, some I think is backward projection of our current military strength. Of course the industrial strength of the US would have most likely proved too much for the Japanese to overcome, but this was of absolutely no help to our forces in 1942. The Yorktown was only present due to heroic efforts by the dock crew at Pearl Harbor to repair a heavily damaged ship in 72 hours. On this day the American Admirals Spruance and Fletcher struggled to conduct a battle that they barely understood, that their training had not prepared them for in any meaningful way. This was only the second battle the world had ever seen between rival fleets armed with aircraft carriers.
History is a record of what happened, but it is also a record of what didn't happen. One result was that in the Battle of Midway some 307 Americans died securing victory. The Japanese never regained the initiative they had owned from the beginning of the war after Midway. This should not be forgotten.