Battle of Midway Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Midway proved to signal a major shift in momentum in World War II’s Pacific theater. The United States’ naval victory over Japanese forces in the battle ended Japan’s dominance of the theater and enabled the United States to deploy its island-hopping strategy to take control of the Pacific.

Summary of Event

From December, 1941, until the spring of 1942, Japanese forces conquered British, Dutch, and U.S. possessions in East Asia and the Pacific Ocean. Fast aircraft carriers enabled them to project their power far into the Pacific, and the December 7 strike by their carrier-based aircraft on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, had crippled the United States Pacific Fleet. Six months later, Japanese planners prepared for another strike toward Hawaii. They intended to neutralize the remaining vessels in the U.S. fleet and occupy Midway, two islands located a thousand miles east of Hawaii that could serve as the springboard for future operations in the Hawaiian chain proper. With Midway and Hawaii in their hands, the Japanese believed they could force the United States to retreat to California. Midway, Battle of (1942) World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];naval battles World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Pacific theater [kw]Battle of Midway (June 3-5, 1942) [kw]Midway, Battle of (June 3-5, 1942) Midway, Battle of (1942) World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];naval battles World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Pacific theater [g]Pacific;June 3-5, 1942: Battle of Midway[00530] [g]Polynesia;June 3-5, 1942: Battle of Midway[00530] [g]United States;June 3-5, 1942: Battle of Midway[00530] [c]World War II;June 3-5, 1942: Battle of Midway[00530] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 3-5, 1942: Battle of Midway[00530] Fletcher, Frank Jack Nimitz, Chester W. Nagumo, Chuichi Spruance, Raymond A. Yamamoto, Isoroku

The commander in chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, Fleet Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, sought to initiate the operation before the overwhelming U.S. industrial capacity began to play a decisive role in the conflict. Yamamoto put together the largest fleet the Japanese ever had assembled; it included eleven battleships, headed by the Yamato, Japan’s newest and the world’s largest battleship; four heavy and four light carriers; twenty-one cruisers; sixty-five destroyers; more than fifty support and smaller craft; and nineteen submarines. In a serious strategic error, Yamamoto dispersed these vessels in many groups that were so widely scattered that they could not be mutually supporting.

The Japanese Northern Force—comprising two light carriers, eight cruisers, thirteen destroyers, and six submarines—sped toward the Aleutian Islands of Alaska in order to divert the U.S. forces and capture Kiska and Attu, which might be used as the springboards for future operations. The islands were successfully occupied, but the operation was secondary in nature, and the ships could have been used more effectively for the main thrust toward Midway.

Japanese forces were badly divided within the main strike force as well. From the southwest came the Midway Occupation Group, supported by the Second Fleet with two battleships, eight cruisers, a light carrier, and a dozen destroyers. Approaching Midway from the northwest was Yamamoto with the main body of the Carrier Striking Force. His main force was organized around three battleships and a light carrier. Split off to the north in order to move either to the Aleutians or to Midway, but in actuality too far from either, was a guard force of four battleships and a screen of cruisers and destroyers. In the van was the First Carrier Striking Force under the command of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, with four heavy carriers, Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu, and their screen and support vessels.

Nagumo’s carriers were to attack Midway on June 4 and destroy the United States’ airfields and planes preparatory to the landings; when the Americans sortied from Pearl Harbor, the main body would move in and destroy them. Previous successes had made Japanese planners arrogant. They made no plans for what to do if the U.S. response unfolded in a different manner from the one they anticipated.

U.S. naval intelligence teams had advance warning of Japanese plans from official Japanese navy messages that had been intercepted. The intelligence unit at Pearl Harbor, World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];military intelligence Espionage under the command of Commander Joseph J. Rochefort, decided, on the basis of incomplete information and brilliant analysis, that Midway was the primary target. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet (CinCPac), called in all of his available carriers and could come up with only three: the Enterprise Enterprise (ship) and the Hornet, Hornet (ship) commanded by Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, and the wounded Yorktown, Yorktown (ship) commanded by Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher. The carriers were screened by a total of eight cruisers and fourteen destroyers. Nimitz ordered the extensive reinforcement of Midway to a total of 120 planes, antiaircraft guns, and 3,632 defenders. The three carriers lay in wait for the Japanese, northeast of Midway, as ready as forewarning could make them.

U.S. Navy fighters fly above a burning Japanese ship during the Battle of Midway.

(National Archives)

Confirmation that the intelligence guesses were correct came early on June 3, when a scout plant sighted the invasion force six hundred miles to the southwest. Army and Marine pilots attacking from Midway scored no significant hits. Unaware that U.S. ships were anywhere nearby, Nagumo launched an attack with half of his planes (108) before dawn on June 4; the other half he held back, in case the U.S. fleet threatened his ships. Reconnaissance by Nagumo’s own planes was inadequate.

The Midway defenders put all of their planes in the air and took heavy punishment but were not knocked out. Defending planes were totally outclassed, but they and the antiaircraft guns still inflicted losses on the Japanese Zeros. By 7:00 a.m., the first raid was over and the Japanese flight leader radioed Nagumo that another attack was required.

Before the second attack could be launched, the Japanese carriers were scattered repeatedly by Marine and Army pilots from Midway, none of whom scored hits and nearly all of whom died trying. In the midst of these attacks, a Japanese scout plane reported a U.S. carrier within range. Rather than immediately launching the second wave of planes that were being rearmed for another attack on Midway, Nagumo decided to recover his first wave and rearm the second for fleet action. By 9:18, all was ready, although the haste meant that bombs and torpedoes were piled around the carrier decks.

At that point, forty-two slow-moving, low-level U.S. torpedo planes arrived unescorted by fighters and began to attack the carriers. These attacks were nearly suicidal, because each plane had to fly in a straight line toward the carrier to line up its torpedo prior to launching it. The planes’ slow speed and predictable, linear trajectory made them sitting ducks for the Japanese forces, and thirty-eight of the forty-two planes were lost. None scored hits, but the defending Zeros were drawn down to low levels to attack them.

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At the end of these attacks, thirty-three high-altitude SBD Dauntless dive-bombers, led by Lieutenant Commander C. Wade McCluskey McCluskey, C. Wade , by chance managed to locate the Kaga, Akagi, and Soryu. McCluskey’s planes soon were joined by another group of dive-bombers, led by Lieutenant Commander Maxwell Leslie Leslie, Maxwell . The Zeros were flying too low to intercept the U.S. planes before the damage was done. In only five minutes, U.S. pilots made fatal hits on the three Japanese carriers. With poor fire management policies on their ships, the Japanese were unable to prevent the sinking of the carriers. Later the same day, the Hiryu was also fatally hit and sunk by U.S. pilots. While Yamamoto wanted to engage the U.S. surface fleet in a nighttime battle, a U.S. course change prevented him from doing so.

Significance

The Battle of Midway resulted in the balance of power in the Pacific theater shifting in favor of the United States. The Japanese lost their four largest aircraft carriers, as well as 275 planes and about 3,000 military personnel. The United States, by contrast, lost only one carrier (the Yorktown), one destroyer, 150 planes, and 307 personnel. Many of Japan’s best pilots were lost in the battle, a fact that proved crucial for the remainder of the war, as U.S. forces advanced from island to island across the Pacific toward the Japanese homeland. Beyond the tangible losses, the psychological effects of such a significant loss for the Japanese and a correspondingly great victory for the Americans had an impact on the morale of both nations’ troops that was undeniable, if difficult to measure. Midway, Battle of (1942) World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];naval battles World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Pacific theater

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Belote, James H., and William M. Belote. Titans of the Seas: The Development and Operations of Japanese and American Carrier Task Forces During World War II. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. Contrasts U.S. and Japanese carrier doctrines.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fuchida, Mitsuo, and Masatake Okumiya. Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan: The Japanese Navy’s Story. Reprint. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2001. Offers the perspective of two Japanese participants, as well as a foreword by U.S. commander Spruance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kernan, Alvin. The Unknown Battle of Midway: The Destruction of the American Torpedo Squadrons. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005. Detailed examination of the role of the Navy’s torpedo planes in the Battle of Midway. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lord, Walter. Incredible Victory. New York: Harper & Row, 1967. A standard popular work based on interviews with four hundred participants in the battle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morison, Samuel Eliot. Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions, May 1942-August 1942. Vol. 4 in History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Boston: Little, Brown, 1950. The standard scholarly work on Midway.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parshall, Jonathan B., and Anthony P. Tully. Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2005. Comprehensive, detailed, and massive look at all aspects of the battle. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, William Ward. Midway: Turning Point of the Pacific. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1966. A good account written by an American participant.

World War II: Pacific Theater

Bombing of Pearl Harbor

Battle of the Java Sea

Doolittle Mission Bombs Tokyo

Battle of the Coral Sea

Battle of Guadalcanal

Battle of Kula Gulf

Central Pacific Offensive

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