This was an essay I wrote last year on the Battle of Midway and it's causes and effects. I was a bit rusty before, so it may not be my best work, but I got an A with it. Enjoy!
On June 4, 1942, in the surrounding waters off the island of Midway in the Pacific Ocean, the powerful Imperial Japanese Navy was handed it’s first naval defeat of World War II by the American Navy. Though they outnumbered their smaller and more fragile enemy by a 4 to 1 ratio, a series of small but crucial mistakes made by the Japanese commanders eventually led to their own demise. As historian Victor Davis Hanson puts it, “Never had the Japanese military lost so dramatically when technology, material, experience, and manpower were so decidedly in its favor.”
By the spring of 1942, the Japanese Navy was an unstoppable juggernaut, sweeping through the Pacific, capturing the Philippines, Malaya, and Indonesia in swift, sure strokes. All that stood in the way of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander in Chief of the Imperial Navy, and complete victory in the Pacific was Admiral Chester Nimitz’s Pacific Fleet, with it’s three operational aircraft carriers, the Enterprise, the Hornet, and the Yorktown. Both the Wasp and the Saratoga, the other two American fleet carriers, were heavily damaged during the Battle of the Coral Sea one month earlier and would miss the confrontation off Midway Atoll.
Admiral Yamamoto devised a complex plan to eliminate the remaining threat posed to him by the three American “flattops”. The C-in-C of the IJN (Imperial Japanese Navy) brought together a fleet of 145 ships, among them the prized fleet carriers Kaga, Akagi, Hiryu, and Soryu, to capture Midway Island. His first act would be to lure part of the American fleet northward by launching the Aleutian Islands campaign with a portion of his own armada. His larger northern force would crush that American group about the time when word would reach U.S. high command that the rest of the Japanese were attacking Midway. He would then bring the rest of the Imperial fleet to battle, and along with what ships could make it back from Alaska in time, finally cripple his enemy’s ability to fight a naval battle. In reality, his plan was more like a complicated piece of art, like a dance routine, than a sound naval plan, requiring intense coordination from all participating parties. Underlying Yamamoto’s far-flung deployments and intricately timed maneuvers was the key flaw in his plan: for the operation to work as designed, the enemy was required to behave exactly as the admiral expected him to behave. If the Americans did anything other than what Yamamoto expected, his widespread dispersal of force contained the kernels of unprecedented disaster (Fawcett 272). And history has shown that the enemy rarely behaves the way you want him to.
Admiral Yamamoto made several critical errors that would make all the difference in the coming fight. First, he dispersed his surface units into small subgroups that nullified their numerical advantage over the Americans. The Japanese aircraft carriers were given woefully inadequate anti-aircraft protection, since most of the gun laden cruisers and battleships weren’t assigned to escort them. In addition, many of Yamamoto’s most powerful battleships remained under his command far to the west of Midway because he considered their valuable protection unnecessary for taking the island. There is also evidence to suggest that Yamamoto was unwilling to put his beloved “battlewagons” into harm’s way for fear that they would be damaged or destroyed. Second, Yamamoto’s intelligence told him that only the U.S. carriers Enterprise and Hornet would be present at Midway. At the Battle of the Coral Sea, the carrier Yorktown had been severely damaged and was presumed sunk by the Japanese, but she managed to limp back to Pearl Harbor for repairs. Though it was expected to take from four to six months to put her back to combat readiness, U.S. repair crews worked around the clock to see the Yorktown sailing out of the harbor 68 hours after she arrived. This incredible engineering feat ensured that not two, but three fully equipped U.S. carriers would engage the four under the command of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, commander of Yamamoto’s Carrier Strike Force. This was a crucial tactical mistake made by the Japanese, where flawed intelligence missed an important part of their enemy’s striking capability.
More crucial to the forthcoming battle than any of Yamamoto’s errors was the faith that Admiral Chester Nimitz, overall commander of the United States’ Pacific Fleet, put in the still new and untested ULTRA intelligence, designed to break Japan’s “Purple” encryption code. ULTRA was able to discover well in advance that Midway was Yamamoto’s chief objective (Dear 748-749). Once ULTRA codebreakers had broken the Purple code and had discovered the enemy’s plan, they set about initiating a complex radio deception scheme that led the Japanese to believe that they still had the element of surprise, while at the same time, organizing a defensive plan of their own.
The U.S. task force, comprised of two carrier groups with three carriers, 233 planes, and numerous escort ships, including seven heavy cruisers, had already set up an ambush at Midway by the time Admiral Nagumo was nearing the island. Yamamoto’s plan had called for several picket submarines to lie in wait near Pearl Harbor to report when the U.S. fleet would set sail, then attempt to pick off the largest warships. Unfortunately, these submarines were disastrously late getting into position, by which time the American Navy had already arrived at Midway. Other than this halfhearted effort, pathetically few reconnaissance attempts were made by the Japanese commanders. Thus, another important mistake by Japanese intelligence was revealed: until only a few hours before he was actually attacked by American carrier-borne aircraft during the morning of June 4, Admiral Nagumo had no clue where the U.S. carriers were, nor did he suspect that the American fleet had lain a trap for him off Midway. This success at deception gave the U.S. Navy, not the Japanese, the element of surprise, and it allowed them an advantage over their enemy’s numerical superiority. The small but desperate U.S. navy of two American carrier groups, the first under the command of Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher aboard the flagship Yorktown and the other commanded by Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, were in position around Midway. They patrolled the seas around the atoll, ready for a chance to turn the tables on their adversaries.
At 4:30 A.M. on June 4, Vice Admiral Nagumo launched his initial wave of attack aircraft against Midway. These bombers did heavy damage to the U.S. base, but radioed reports from the returning wave indicated that a second strike would be necessary for a safe amphibious assault. U.S. bombers, which had lifted off from the island at about the same time the first Japanese wave took off from their carriers struck the IJN fleet, but suffered heavy losses and scored no hits.
As was the custom of Japanese naval commanders, Nagumo had kept half of his aircraft in reserve in case of any changes in tactic by the American Navy. They were comprised of two squadrons of armed torpedo bombers on standby for a surprise engagement with the U.S. fleet, while two squadrons of dive-bombers were available, but not yet armed. At 7:15 A.M., Nagumo ordered all his reserve planes to be loaded with general purpose bombs to attack land targets on Midway Atoll. Within 30 minutes of that order, however, a scout plane from the cruiser Tone reported sighting the American fleet. Nagumo quickly reversed his rearming order, but instead of launching what planes he already had armed with bombs, he decided to wait until his first strike force returned before loading naval oriented torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs onto his second wave craft. This fateful decision pushed back the timeframe for a Japanese counterstrike and meant that when the U.S. carrier-borne strike aircraft would reach Nagumo’s fleet, the Japanese admiral’s original strike wave would’ve just finished landing and the second would be fueling and arming up for a naval attack on the American fleet. Thus, the flightdecks of the four carriers were all crowded with bombs, torpedoes, and fueled up planes that would be armed and launched once the first strike wave returned.
During the previous hours, Admiral Fletcher had already launched his aircraft after scout planes had found the Japanese fleet early in the morning. Admiral Spruance launched his aircraft from the Enterprise and Hornet at 7:00, and the Yorktown followed suit at 8:00. These aircraft squadrons were green, untested American pilots who were very inexperienced, and therefore the planes proceeded to their targets in several small, fairly disorganized groups. The first U.S. planes to attack the Japanese fleet were three torpedo bomber squadrons without fighter escort (the accompanying fighters and dive bombers had been launched after the torpedo bombers and gotten lost). Torpedo Squadron 8 (VT-8), flying the slow and obsolete TBD Devastator planes, was completely annihilated, and VT-6 was also very heavily damaged. Neither squadron got off more than a couple of torpedoes and never scored a hit on an enemy vessel. A third squadron, VT-3, also came in and was similarly taken apart by the swarms of agile, fast, and deadly Mitsubishi Zero fighters. Out of 82 airmen who flew 41 TBD torpedo bombers that day, only 13 survived. Though their sacrifices were great, the gallant charge of these pilots in their slow and ungainly flying coffins inadvertently caused two very important things to happen that would be crucial to the incredible success of the U.S. Navy pilots in the minutes to come. First, the bombers’ attacks kept the carrier force on edge, drawing the fire of many AA gunners and delaying the launch of the counterstrike against the recently located American carriers. The second and most important result of VT-8, 6, and 3’s efforts was that they drew the defending Japanese Zero fighters down to near wave top level in order to slaughter the low flying, tempting targets. Therefore, when three squadrons of American SBD Dauntless dive-bombers approached the Imperial fleet at 15,000 feet just as VT-3 was making it’s torpedo runs, all the Japanese CAP (Combat Air Patrol) pilots were far below and completely out of position for defense against dive-bombers.
It was at this moment that the climax of the Battle of Midway took place. The situation was an incredible one. It gave them a perfect one-in-a-million shot at dealing tremendous damage to Japan’s naval war fighting capabilities, all in one master stroke. The three Japanese carriers in the vicinity, the Kaga, the Akagi, and the Soryu, were all preparing their planes for a second land strike against Midway before reconnaissance discovered Admiral Fletcher’s three carriers. Admiral Nagumo ordered that the planes be rearmed with torpedoes and AP bombs for a naval strike, but much of this was interrupted by the arrival of the Devastator torpedo bombers. Thus, as Wade McClusky led the first twenty-five aircraft of squadrons VB-6 and VS-6 from the carrier Enterprise in their dive from 15,000 feet, the decks and hangers of the three Japanese carriers were packed with fueled planes and littered with stacks of bombs, torpedoes, and ammunition. The flight crews rushed to prepare their planes for the counterattack against the U.S. carriers, as large amounts of ordinance were being ferried to and from the magazines below decks. Conventional land bombs were being returned below decks, while armor-piercing bombs and torpedoes were brought up to be loaded. The Japanese carriers were in an incredibly vulnerable situation.
Plummeting virtually unopposed, the planes from the Enterprise, Yorktown, and Hornet pounced on the three prized Japanese aircraft carriers clustered together in the blue Pacific at speeds of up to 250 miles per hour. The 33,000 ton Kaga (“Increased Joy”) was hit first with four 1000 pound armor-piercing bombs. Almost immediately she lost engine power as the bombs exploded on or below the flight deck. The initial explosions by the weapons themselves weren’t all that great, but they started a chain reaction that swept through the parked aircraft and stacks of ordnance on the flight deck, then traveled into the bowels of the ship to consume every flammable substance available. One bomb made a direct hit on the ship’s superstructure, blowing it apart like a shotgun hitting ripe fruit and killing every officer on board, including the Kaga’s captain. Within minutes 800 of her crew were killed from the fierce explosions and incineration.
While the Kaga suffered in agony from her fearsome wounds, her sister ship, the 34,000 ton Akagi (“Red Castle”), Admiral Nagumo’s flagship, was struck by Dick Best and at least five Dauntless dive-bombers from 1st Division of Bombing Squadron VB-6, also from the carrier Enterprise. As many as three bombs detonated, causing similarly massive explosions from the weapons scattered on the flight deck. They too ripped holes through the top two decks, reaching the volatile magazines and gas reservoirs far below. A single 500 pound bomb fell right through the wooden flightdeck and exploded in the middle of the main store of torpedoes, further adding to the carnage both above and below deck. Over 200 men were killed within 60 seconds of the first bomb hitting her.
Located about 10 to 12 miles away from the first two ships, the 18,000 ton Soryu (“Green Dragon”) was attacked by Max Leslie and his Bombing Squadron 3 from the Yorktown. Like her two fellow carriers, the Soryu was also readying her aircraft for a strike against the American fleet, but three bomb hits turned her entire flight deck and hanger into a blazing inferno. Seven-hundred and eighteen of her crew were soon incinerated.
In a mere six minutes, three of the Japanese fleet carriers were out of action. Two would sink during the afternoon, while the third would be scuttled. But trouble still lay ahead for the U.S. fleet. The 20,000 ton Hiryu (“Flying Dragon”), the fourth and only surviving enemy carrier, had gradually drifted northeast of the carnage and managed to avoid the Dauntless dive-bombers. The Hiryu quickly launched a devastating counterstrike against the three American carriers. The first strike badly damaged the Yorktown, but her engineers and repairmen patched her up so quickly that when the second wave of Japanese torpedo bombers arrived, they mistakenly believed that the Yorktown had already been sunk and that they were attacking the Enterprise. Contrary to the Japanese hope of evening the odds by destroying two American carriers, the Yorktown instead absorbed both waves of attackers and remained afloat, though unable to comduct flight operations. The unsuccessful results of this Japanese counterstrike was a testament to the strength and superiority of the U.S. engineers, and to a greater extent, American ship design as a whole. To be able to keep afloat a ship that took the near full brunt of two large waves of torpedo and dive-bombers was a nearly miraculous feat.
Back on the Hiryu, the mistaken reports of two sunken U.S. carriers raised Japanese morale considerably. The surviving aircraft from all four of the carriers in the fleet landed on the Hiryu and prepared for what they thought would be a final knockout blow to the American carrier force. In the afternoon, U.S. scout aircraft finally located the Hiryu, and at around 4:00 P.M. twenty-four SBD dive-bombers, led by Lieutenants Earl Gallagher, Dick Best, and Dewitt W. Shumway, swarmed the final enemy carrier at Midway. At this time, the Hiryu was in a similar state as the Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu had been several hours earlier. Planes were poised to strike against what they falsely assumed was the U.S. aircraft carrier, crowding the flightdeck and hanger as crews rushed to fuel and arm them. The American bombs started a firestorm that engulfed everything and everyone on the upper half of the ship, and hundreds of men were caught below deck and burned to death. The Hiryu’s captain, Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi, remained on the bridge and went down with his ship. His death was a devastating blow to the Imperial Navy’s leadership. Yamaguchi was considered as one of the brightest and most aggressive commanders in the navy and was considered by many as the one being groomed as the eventual successor to Admiral Yamamoto himself. When told by an aide that there was still money in the ship’s safe that might be saved, Yamaguchi ordered it left alone. “We’ll need money for a square meal in hell,” he murmured (Hanson 340). This best summed up Yamaguchi’s strong and fiery nature, and illustrated why his death was so great a loss for Japan. As the Hiryu sank, she not only took her heroic captain with her, but all the remaining aircraft in Admiral Nagumo’s fleet as well.
When word reached Admiral Yamamoto of the destruction of the four Japanese carriers, he hurried eastward with his reserve group of battleships and cruisers, but it was too late. The IJN withdrew from Midway three days later, and the Carrier Strike Force -a strike force without any carriers- sailed away in shock and shame over this monumental defeat (Fawcett 277).
In less than twelve hours 2,155 Japanese seaman were dead, four Japanese aircraft carriers were wrecked and soon to be sitting on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and perhaps most importantly, 332 Japanese aircraft, many with their highly skilled veteran pilots, were either shot down or destroyed while on the carriers. The entire Japanese offensive in the Pacific Ocean was brought to a screeching halt by this one battle, and the Imperial Japanese carrier fleet, Japan’s primary means of projecting power, was decimated. The Zuikaku and Shokaku, which had both been in Kure harbor being repaired and re-equipped after suffering damage from the Coral Sea, were the only shiops of their kind now left in the Japanese navy.
In terms of men killed, the Battle of Midway was a relatively bloodless battle, with the total dead on both sides (less than 4,000) being far less than previous great naval engagements like Salamis, Trafalgar, Lependo, or Jutland (Hanson 340). Nonetheless, the effects of the battle were devastating to the Japanese and would have far reaching consequences throughout the rest of World War II. The staggering losses dealt to the Imperial Navy put their once grand fleet on an even playing field with the American navy. They would soon be surpassed by the U.S., as her mighty industrial war machine began churning out huge quantities of material to aid the war effort. She used this industial might to build and equip the largest and most powerful navy ever to sail the seas, which would eventually include some 27 fleet carriers and dozens of smaller light and escort carriers.
The loss of hundreds of veteran Japanese airmen and flight crews who had been the finest of their kind in the world werealso irreplaceable. The Imperial Navy’s pilot training programs were agonizingly slow, and they were soon forced to greatly scale down their training time in order to replace further airmen lost in the later stages of the war. On the other hand, U.S. pilot training programs were much more efficient, with their habit of cycling veteran pilots from the front lines to the training schools to give rookies invaluable experience and education. Furthermore, Japanese doctrine dictated that the commanders should leave their best pilots to fight until they were dead. The more than 100 carrier pilots who perished on that one day during the Battle of Midway were equal to the entire graduating class of naval aviators that Japan could turn out in a single year. Admiral Ernest J. King, chief of all U.S. naval operations, concluded of the action of June 4 that the Battle of Midway had been the first decisive defeat of the Japanese navy in 350 years and had restored the balance of naval power in the Pacific.
The destruction of four of Japan’s fleet carriers by the U.S. dive-bombers permanently damaged the Imperial Navy’s striking power, and these ships would not be replaced, unit for unit, until early in 1945. In the same span of time, the U.S. Navy commissioned more than two dozen fleet carriers, as well as numerous light and escort carriers. Thus, Midway substantially shortened the period during which the Japanese carrier force could fight on advantageous terms (Sanger, Wales “The Battle of Midway”). Also, the loss of operational capability during this critical phase of the campaign ultimately proved disastrous; with a victory, Imperial Japan could have executed much grander, and perhaps more successful, operations against Austrailia, Hawaii, other U.S. interests in the Pacific, or possibly even the West Coast of the United States. The scenarios presented by a hypothetical U.S. defeat at Midway are vast and far-ranging, and cannot be summarized in a short report. Yet it is undeniable that, had the U.S. carrier force been obliterated as Admiral Yamamoto had planned, American options in the short term would’ve been narrowed dramatically in the Pacific. This would have resulted, in the least, in a much longer Pacific war and the loss of many more American lives.
Midway was not a “decisive” battle in the same sense as the ancient battle of Salamis or the British-French engagement of Trafalgar. Instead, victory at Midway allowed the U.S. to seize the strategic initiative in the Pacific and simultaneously force Japan into a retreat for the remainder of the war. The events of June 4-8, 1942 will forever be remembered as the day the Japanese armada was defeated, and the “sleeping giant” won its first naval victory of World War II. With the Battle of Midway, America irreparably crippled Japan’s vaunted Imperial Navy and set the stage forAmerica’s reversal of fortunes in the Pacific Ocean.
Hanson, Victor Davis, Carnage and Culture, Anchor Books, 2001
Fawcett, Bill, How to Lose a Battle, Harper Collins, 2006
Dear, I. C. B. and Foot, M. R. D., The Oxford Companion to World War II, Oxford University Press, 1995
“The Battle of Midway”, Encyclopedia Americana, 2000
Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales, “The Battle of Midway”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Midway
Lewis, Frederick L. USN(Ret) “From the Chairman: Tailhookers and Operation Enduring Freedom”, Tailhook, Summer 2003, Page 2