June, 1942: Battle of Midway Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

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, an island 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.

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, an island 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.

The commander in chief of the Japanese Combined 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 so widely scattered that they could not be mutually supporting. The 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 Japan’s 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 and 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 the Guard Force of four battleships and a screen of cruisers and destroyers. In the vanguard was the First Carrier Striking Force under Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, with four heavy carriers, Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu, and their screen and support vessels.

U.S. Navy fighter planes flying over a burning Japanese ship during the Battle of Midway. (National Archives)

Japanese Plan of Attack

Nagumo’s carriers were to attack Midway on June 4 and destroy the U.S. 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.

United States naval intelligence teams had advance warning of Japanese plans from official Japanese navy messages that had been intercepted. The intelligence unit at Pearl Harbor, under Commander Joseph J. Rochefort, Jr., 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, called in all of his available carriers and could come up with only three: the Enterprise and the Hornet, commanded by Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, and the wounded Yorktown, 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.

Confirmation that the intelligence guesses were correct came early on June 3, when a scout plane 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 United States fleet threatened. Searches by Nagumo’s own planes were 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 out-classed, 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.

Ships Sunk at Midway, June 4, 1942

U.S. Bombers

At that point, forty-two slow-moving, low-level U.S. torpedo bombers arrived unescorted by fighters and began nearly suicidal attacks, in which thirty-eight planes were lost. None scored hits, but the defending Zeros were drawn down to low levels to attack them. At the end of these attacks, thirty-three high-altitude SBD Dauntless dive bombers, led by Lieutenant Commander C. Wade McCluskey, 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. 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.

The Japanese lost 275 planes, about three thousand military personnel, and their four largest carriers in the Battle of Midway. The United States, by contrast, lost one carrier (the Yorktown), one destroyer, 150 planes, and 307 personnel. Many of Japan’s best pilots were lost in the battle, and the balance of power in the Pacific soon shifted in favor of the United States.

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