John Keegan, renowned British military historian, has described it as, “The most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.” The Battle of Midway, fought almost six months to the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, officially lasted from June 4-7, 1942. It ranks as one of the most epic and pivotal battles in the annals of world history, and, as such, a supremely critical event in our American story. To overstate its importance is virtually impossible.
By late May of 1942, Japan had mercilessly extended her empire throughout Asia and across the islands of the Western Pacific. While the spread of her imperial aggression had generally met with weak resistance thus far, there was growing cause for concern among the leaders of her military dominated government. American B-25 bombers, launched from aircraft carriers, had burst forth from the skies over Tokyo and other cities back in April, stunning the Japanese in what came to be known as the Doolittle Raid. Less than three weeks later, in early May, in the Battle of the Coral Sea, a hastily formed force of U.S. and Australian ships had fought the mighty Imperial Japanese Navy to a draw. Seeking to extend the fringes of its empire into southern New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, with the ultimate objective of restricting access to and isolating Australia, they had been stymied for the first time in the war.
In the minds of key Japanese military leaders a bold plan had now been conceived. It involved the employment of naval and air forces against a still greatly inferior American navy in a decisive battle. The area chosen for this “grand finale” for the U.S. fleet was Midway atoll, two tiny islands and a lagoon located in the northern Pacific about halfway between Asia and North America. Midway was a modestly fortified American outpost located some 1300 miles northwest of Pearl Harbor. Japanese objectives were straightforward and definitely achievable. First, Midway itself would be taken and used to extend the eastern perimeter of Japan’s empire further out into the Pacific. From Midway, launching attacks on Hawaii, or even a possible invasion of it, would then be much more feasible. Secondly, the Japanese planned to lure the American fleet out in defense of Midway and into a momentous naval engagement. The massive Japanese armada would then effectively destroy the U.S. Navy in the Pacific. Thirdly, it was then hoped that a defeated and demoralized enemy, namely America, would drop out of the war or sign a treaty with Japan. Success in achieving these objectives, at least the first two, was not just a possibility, but a distinct probability.
Much like her attack on Pearl Harbor six months earlier, Japan planned to hit Midway totally by surprise. She would attack it and secure it, before American naval forces could arrive in its defense. Then, using the newly occupied runway and other facilities on the island, along with her assembled naval and air might, she would deliver a crushing blow to the arriving American fleet. It was a sound plan, which the Japanese, most of whom were experiencing the over-confidence of “victory fever,” felt convinced would succeed.
Although vastly outgunned in terms of naval and air firepower, the Americans would have one critical advantage. Thanks to Commander Joe Rochefort and his group of code-breakers back in a musty basement work space in Pearl Harbor, the Japanese naval code had been cracked. Intercepted messages had tipped them off to the Japanese plan and schedule for Midway. In a bold and daring move, Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, had ordered all three of our aircraft carriers and a significant portion of our remaining ships in the Pacific to meet the Japanese at Midway. In a sense, this was just what the Japanese wanted. However, we would be secretly lying in wait for them at a position to the northeast of Midway, not lured out by the Japanese following their attack. We were attempting to set a trap. But, it was sort of like a fox setting a trap for a bear. The element of surprise would, hopefully, be there. After that the fox would still have to subdue the bear.
On June 3, the massive Japanese fleet stealthily approached Midway from the west and the Americans waited quietly to the northeast. They did not know we were there. We knew they were coming, but still somehow had to physically locate them in hundreds of square miles of ocean. Early on the morning of June 4, the Japanese launched their air attacks on Midway, in preparation for the actual invasion. Meanwhile, scout planes from the American carriers scoured endless miles of open seas, trying to locate the Japanese fleet, especially its carriers.
In World War II, the aircraft carrier was essentially the “heart” of a naval fighting force. Just as wild-west gunfighters aimed for the hearts of their opponents, so did the navies of the United States and Japan seek out each other’s carriers in deadly naval combat. On this day, the combined Japanese fleet had a total of eight carriers, four of them light carriers involved in a diversionary attack on American outposts north of Midway in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. The other four, mighty fleet carriers which had spearheaded the attack on Pearl Harbor months before, were all in the vicinity of Midway. The U.S. had sent every carrier she had in the Pacific into the fray, a grand total of three. One of them, the USS YORKTOWN, had almost been sunk a month before in the Battle of the Coral Sea. YORKTOWN was still undergoing repairs at sea, even as she joined her sister carriers ENTERPRISE and HORNET off Midway.
At 4:30 a.m. on the morning of June 4, the Japanese launched over 200 aircraft from its big fleet carriers for initial attacks on Midway, still unaware of the presence of U.S. carriers in the area. At 5:34 a.m., an American scout plane spotted two Japanese carriers along with other ships, located about two hundred miles from the U.S. fleet. Just as Nimitz had hoped for, the element of surprise had been achieved. The next few hours would be decisive. What transpired during that time, in terms of aircraft launchings from both sides, can be a bit difficult to follow, too much detail for an article of this size. For a wonderful, full account of the Battle of Midway, Walter Lord’s very readable book, “Incredible Victory,” is a classic. Avoid some of the newer revisionist accounts of the battle, which seem intent on highlighting blind luck and Japanese mistakes, all the while minimizing American valor and ingenuity. American exceptionalism is simply not in fashion in our day.
At 7:02 a.m., Admiral Raymond Spruance, U.S. naval commander of the forces involved in the Midway operation, ordered the launch of American attack aircraft. A total of 151 planes, torpedo bombers, dive bombers and fighters, began their perilous journey to first find and then attack the Japanese fleet. As so often happens in the fog of war, confusion soon set in. Squadrons became separated from each other as they groped for the enemy. Beginning at about 9:25 a.m., and continuing for roughly the next half hour, antiquated American TBD Devastator torpedo bombers, each carrying a crew of two, located and began to attack the big enemy fleet carriers. What ensued was a slaughter, as Japanese fighter planes ripped the older, slower bombers from the sky. Only six of the 41 torpedo bombers that launched from the carriers made it back safely. The remaining 35 crews all perished, with the exception of one pilot, Ensign George Gay, who was rescued from the water hours later. None of their torpedos damaged a single Japanese ship.
The destruction of the torpedo squadrons was horrific. The TBD Devastator would never be used again in combat by the United States. Their heartbreaking sacrifice at Midway, however, would not be in vain. Torpedo bombers approach their targets by flying low and parallel to the sea’s surface. As a result, all of the Japanese fighters, whose job was to defend their carriers from attacking aircraft, were now swarming low near the water, looking for more torpedo bombers. Suddenly, from high overhead and out of a bright, glistening sun, American dive bombers began to fall from the sky toward the Japanese carriers. Their protective fighter force did not have time to respond. In a matter of five to ten minutes, three of the mighty Japanese fleet carriers were engulfed in flames, having received mortal wounds from the SBD Dauntless dive bombers. A few hours later, the fourth, and last, big carrier would be found and likewise dealt a death blow. All four of the “veterans” of the attack on Pearl Harbor would be on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean within hours. The gunslinger had aimed well, scoring a direct hit on the heart of his opponent.
After a fierce defense and subsequently heroic efforts to save her, the Americans would also lose their beloved YORKTOWN (that’s another story). But, the Battle of Midway, a truly “David and Goliath” affair, had been a decisive and monumental victory for the U.S. The eloquent historian Walter Lord would later write, “They had no right to win. Yet they did, and in doing so they changed the course of a war.” The critical importance of Midway cannot be overstated. Japan lost four carriers, a cruiser, some 300 aircraft and over 3000 men. Among those casualties were over 100 front-line pilots and many more vital aircraft mechanics and support staff. She would never recover from Midway, and would never be on the offensive again. The tide of the war had turned, in a matter of ten minutes, at Midway.
It’s hard not to see the hand of God in the miracle that occurred at Midway. In the words of Winston Churchill about World War II, “I will say that he must indeed have a blind soul who cannot see that some great purpose and design is being worked out here below, of which we have the honor of being the faithful servants.” Remember the miracle at Midway, and remember the 307 Americans who gave their lives there in the defeat of tyranny and the defense of liberty….75 years ago.
“If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are.”