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Battle Of Midway

June 4-7, 1942

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Text and photos Courtesy of: U.S. Army Center of Military History

While the United States organized itself for war, Japan continued to expand its empire. For five months the Imperial Japanese Navy's Combined Fleet moved across the Pacific with virtual impunity. After Pearl Harbor it managed to sink 5 Allied battleships, 1 aircraft carrier, 2 cruisers, and 7 destroyers; damage a number of capital ships; and destroy thousands of tons of merchant shipping and fleet auxiliary vessels. The cost to Japanese forces was relatively small: a few planes and experienced pilots from its aircraft carriers; 23 small naval vessels, the largest being a destroyer; and about 60 transports and merchant ships. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Combined Fleet and a firm advocate of carrier operations, intended to cap this naval campaign with a decisive blow to the crippled U.S. Pacific Fleet. He proposed coordinated attacks in the Aleutians and on the island of Midway that would force Nimitz into a fleet engagement in the open sea, where the Japanese could finish the job of destroying American naval power they had started at Pearl Harbor. While the Japanese plan included the invasion and occupation of the Aleutian Islands and Midway, the decisive defeat of the U.S. Pacific Fleet was the real goal. As long as the American fleet remained intact, any Japanese success in Midway or in the Aleutians would be a hollow victory at best.

On 8 May Admiral Yamamoto lost the services of two of his large aircraft carriers during the Battle of the Coral Sea, fought in the Southwest Pacific off the coast of northern Australia. Despite having to send the carriers Shokoku and Zuikoku back to the shipyards for major repairs after the battle, Yamamoto still had at his disposal the most formidable naval force the Japanese had assembled since Pearl Harbor. The main body of this fleet consisted of a carrier force (the 4 large carriers Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, and Soryu) and an attack force (3 battleships, which included Yamamoto's flagship Yamato, a light carrier, tenders and other vessels, and a screen of 16 submarines). These forces, oriented against Midway, were supported by numerous combat and support ships. A separate force, built around 2 more carriers, was positioned far to the north for an invasion of the Aleutians. By late May the Japanese plans were in place and the Combined Fleet steamed forth to do battle with the Pacific Fleet.

The Pacific Fleet in May 1942, however, was not the same naval force the Japanese had caught by surprise at Pearl Harbor. Even though its performance in the Coral Sea was far from flawless, the U.S. Navy had tasted at least partial victory and discovered that its enemy was not invulnerable. Still, the odds heavily favored the Japanese because in any encounter Admiral Nimitz could marshal only a limited force. Two of his aircraft carriers had been hit in the Battle of the Coral Sea: the Lexington went to the bottom, and the Yorktown suffered serious damage. The fleet's battleships were still on the west coast of the United States, and although the carriers Saratoga and Wasp were on orders for the Pacific they would not arrive until late June, too late to help counter the Japanese move. Nimitz spent the rest of May assembling what naval forces he could. The only carriers ready at Pearl Harbor were the Enterprise and Hornet, but the heavily damaged Yorktown arrived on 28 May, and repair crews working around the clock miraculously readied it for action in two days. Faced with the disparity in strength, Nimitz put much emphasis on the carriers. He hoped to avoid a surface engagement with the more powerful enemy, preferring that the outcome of the battle be decided on the basis of air power. By the end of the month Nimitz put to sea with a force of 3 carriers, 1 light and 7 heavy cruisers, 13 destroyers, and 25 submarines. On 3 June he was 200 miles north of Midway, waiting for the Japanese fleet.

The Japanese had enjoyed some success in their attacks on the Aleutians, but at Midway they met disaster. To win this climactic encounter, they were depending on a surprise attack as they had at Pearl Harbor six months before. What they did not know was that American cryptologists had broken their naval codes. As a result Nimitz was able to turn the tables and surprise the Japanese fleet. The Pacific Fleet found the Japanese carrier force on 4 June, shortly after it had launched its aircraft to attack the U.S. garrison and airfield on Midway. U.S. Navy carrier-based aircraft along with Army and Marine aircraft flying from airfields on the island attacked the closely bunched Japanese carriers. The Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu, especially vulnerable since their air cover had flown off to attack Midway, were all fatally hit and sunk or abandoned. The fourth carrier, Hiryu, managed to launch a lethal attack on the Yorktown, but it too was abandoned by its crew after being hit by American dive-bombers.

Even though Yamamoto's attack force and his Aleutian force were still intact, he had been outmaneuvered and outsmarted and could not bring his battleships into play. The loss of four carriers with all their planes and pilots was a blow from which the Japanese would never fully recover. The Battle of Midway effectively turned the Japanese strategic offensive into a strategic defense and pushed open the door to the Central Pacific. It would be some time, however, before the United States would actually enter that door, since in the aftermath of Midway U.S. strategic emphasis shifted south into MacArthur's Southwest Pacific theater.

After mid-1942 and throughout most of 1943, relative calm reigned over the Central Pacific while U.S. forces fought their way through the bloody campaigns of Papua, Guadalcanal, and New Guinea in the Southwest Pacific. During this period the Imperial Japanese Navy and Japanese merchant vessels roamed freely through the Central Pacific soon, subject only to periodic attacks by Pacific Fleet submarines, which were taking an ever-increasing toll of enemy ships. The Japanese garrisons scattered throughout Micronesia built airstrips and prepared their defenses for the day when the Americans would resume their offensive. Even as the Japanese were consolidating their gains in the Central Pacific, however, American planners were at work both at Pearl Harbor and in Washington preparing for an offensive that would take advantage of the changes brought by the Battle of Midway.


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