(I first published this essay in here two years ago – and republished it last year with a few upgrades. Since I’m now a Contributing Editor, it gets the Front Page (with a few more upgrades) this year. — Skan)
When early June rolls around each year, June 6th is accorded a great deal of reverence for the well-known events of the Normandy landings of 1944. On the decadal anniversary years, there are major ceremonies and there is extensive news coverage.
Sadly, an equally (at least) important anniversary on June 4th goes largely neglected. On June 4th 1942, an outnumbered American fleet won a staggering upset victory over the Imperial Japanese Navy in the waters near Midway Island. This battle was arguably the single most important military action by the United States during the entire 20th century.
However, Midway remains largely forgotten and uncelebrated; the only “observance” I can recall on the milestone 50th anniversary back in 1992 was that one of the networks showed the slightly-loosely based-on-events Hollywood movie of the battle’s name.
Midway deserves better than that – and the story deserves to be told anew. Hence, we tell that story here.
During 1940 and 1941, as the Japanese High Command began to seriously contemplate going to war with the United States, they found themselves facing one adamant dissenter – the Imperial Japanese Navy’s fleet commander, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. Admiral Yamamoto was appalled at the ignorance with regard to the United States that was rampant among his colleagues. As a young man Yamamoto had attended Harvard, and during the 1920s he had for several years been naval attaché at the Japanese embassy in Washington.
Unlike his colleagues, Yamamoto was well-aware of the astounding industrial power of the United States. He (correctly) foresaw that Japan’s only hope of a favorable outcome in a military conflict with the United States was to begin the war with a pre-emptive strike to cripple the United States Pacific Fleet (thus Pearl Harbor was reprising Japan’s earlier pre-emptive strike against the Russian Pacific Fleet at Port Arthur in 1905), to use the several months of advantage to expand out to an entrenched perimeter, and then to dig in and be imbued with such strong defense that the United States would accept Japanese dominion over Asia and the Western Pacific rather than fight.
Following Pearl Harbor, events unfolded largely as Yamamoto had predicted. With the U.S. Pacific Fleet temporarily diminished, Imperial Japan’s armies and navies ran wild – overrunning Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), the Philippines, and most allied Pacific islands to the west of the International Dateline. The Japanese aircraft carrier arm proved to be audacious and frighteningly effective; following the Pearl Harbor operation, carrier-based Japanese aircraft even bombed Darwin, Australia and Trincomalee, Ceylon (Sri Lanka).
By early 1942, Imperial Japan’s furthest push had come in the south Pacific. Continuing down the Indonesian island chain, Japanese troops had overrun most of New Guinea. American and Australian troops had managed to hold the southeastern part of the island, centered around the Australian administrative capital of Port Moresby.
The Japanese High Command realized that they were close to an important victory; if they could seize all of New Guinea, communications between the United States and Australia could be cut off – and Australia could probably be knocked out of the war. Thus, a major amphibious operation was planned, to land Japanese troops at Port Moresby to complete the conquest of New Guinea. In addition to the invasion force, a Japanese carrier fleet, built around the aircraft carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, was sent to cover the invasion force and to deal with any allied warships which might show up to contest the Port Moresby landings.
Unknown to the Japanese High Command, American code-breakers had cracked the Japanese naval codes, and were aware of the planned operation. Like the Japanese commanders, American naval commanders understood that if Port Moresby were to be captured and New Guinea to fall, the situation in the south Pacific would be very serious indeed. By early May, an American naval task force, centered on the aircraft carriers Lexington and Yorktown, had been dispatched southward from Pearl Harbor to contest the Japanese advance.
It took several days for the rival fleets to become aware of each other’s presence; however, this fog of war lifted by May 7th, the two-day Battle of the Coral Sea began. On the first day (May 7th), poor weather prevented the aircraft launched by each side from finding the opposing fleet. However, the American aircraft stumbled across the Japanese invasion fleet, which was being escorted by the light carrier Shoho. Caught by surprise and badly outmatched, the Shoho was quickly sunk. This so unnerved the operational Japanese commander, Admiral Inouye, that he ordered the Port Moresby invasion to be cancelled and the vulnerable troop transports to turn about and get out of harm’s way.
On the second day of the battle (May 8th), aircraft from the rival fleets finally found each other. The Japanese carrier force had the advantage of being in showery weather, while the American carrier force was in clear weather. American pilots managed to hit the Shokaku and seriously damage it. However, the Japanese fliers mortally wounded the Lexington and seriously damaged the Yorktown. Following this action, both fleets withdrew.
At the end of the battle, the Japanese appeared to have won at the tactical level – they had sunk the Lexington and seriously damaged the Yorktown – in fact, the Japanese pilots were confident that the Yorktown must have been hit badly enough to have eventually sunk. In contrast, American fliers had only damage to the Shokaku to claim, and the sinking of the small Shoho seemed to be poor compensation for the loss of the Lexington.
However, the Port Moresby landings had been prevented, and the situation in the south Pacific had been stabilized. The Shokaku had taken enough damage to be out of action for several months; at the same – although the ship itself had been unharmed – the Zuikaku’s air group had been so badly mauled that it was now a carrier with neither planes nor pilots. Both of these ships were to be lost for several months – one for repairs, the other to await the training and equipping of a new group of pilots. A few short weeks later, these absences were to be felt in the most painful way.
A final interesting note about the Battle of the Coral Sea is that it was the first naval battle in history in which the opposing ships never saw each other; all fighting had been carried out by aircraft.
Despite the temporary incapacitation of the Shokaku and the Zuikaku, and despite the canceling of the Port Moresby landings, as a naval commander Admiral Yamamoto was right to be quite pleased with the outcome. The Lexington had been sunk, and he had good reason to believe that the Yorktown had been sunk as well. American carrier strength in the Pacific seemed to him to be dangerously degraded; in his view, only one more battle would be needed to finish off the remaining American carriers and force the war to be ended on terms favorable to Japan.
Yamamoto had been planning that one final operation for some time; with the humiliation of the April Doolittle raid on Tokyo still fresh in Japanese minds, final plans were made. A combined Japanese naval force would advance and seize Midway Island, a small atoll at the very far western end of the Hawaiian Island chain, near the international dateline. Midway would serve as a useful base and outpost, but to Yamamoto that was secondary. With Midway seized by surprise, barely more than 1000 miles from Pearl Harbor, the American fleet would be forced to sail forth to contest the seizure. The Japanese would pounce on the outnumbered Americans, destroy the remaining American aircraft carriers, and force the end of the war with Japan’s conquests intact and recognized as permanent.
Unfortunately for Admiral Yamamoto, his calculations were off in two important ways. First, the Yorktown had not in fact been sunk. Though badly damaged, she had limped back to Pearl Harbor for repairs. In peacetime, repairs would have taken weeks; however, in the wartime situation, a near-miraculous effort was put out and the Yorktown was ready for operations in less than three days. Second, Yamamoto and the Japanese High Command were still unaware that their naval codes had been cracked by American Naval Intelligence. Fully aware of the Japanese plans, the Americans prepared to turn the tables and set a trap for the Japanese.
The Japanese plans for the Midway operation were quite simple. The main strike arm was a carrier fleet built around the Imperial Japanese Navy’s four other fleet carriers – the Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu. On June 4th, the carrier fleet would launch air attacks on Midway Island to soften up the island and destroy its air defenses, in preparation for the landing of Japanese troops later in the day. With Midway secured, the aircraft carrier fleet would take up a position near Midway and await the expected June 5th arrival of the sortie of the two remaining American aircraft carriers – the Enterprise and the Hornet – from Pearl Harbor. Outnumbered four-to-two, the American carriers would be destroyed and the war effectively ended.
The American counter-plan was equally simple. Unknown to the Japanese, the Pacific Fleet possessed three functioning carriers rather than two (with the Yorktown not only not sunk but now back in service). The American fleet would position itself stealthily to the northeast of Midway, await the arrival of the Japanese, and then rush in to ambush the Japanese carriers before the Japanese commanders became aware of their presence.
As is usually the case in war, no one’s plans worked out quite as envisioned.
At first light on June 4th, the Japanese fleet launched a dawn airstrike on Midway Island. The radar installations on Midway saw the Japanese coming; Midway’s fighter defenses of Marine aircraft were sent into the air to try to defend the island. Unfortunately for the Marine pilots, most of the 25 planes they had available were obsolescent F2A “Buffaloes” – which were well named in their ungainliness – rather than the slightly more capable and newer F4F “Wildcats”. Most of the Buffaloes were shot down, and by the time the Japanese airstrike was over, the Marines on Midway could muster only two airworthy fighter aircraft.
With little opposition, the Japanese dive-bombers and bomb-carrying torpedo planes were able to attack at will. However, as the strike wound down, the Japanese flight leader sent a message back to his ships that a second strike would be needed. On the Japanese carriers, this message set off a frenzy of activity. The remaining Japanese dive bombers and torpedo planes had, as a precautionary measure, been armed (respectively), with armor-piercing bombs and torpedoes; they sat ready on the decks, in case any American ships appeared on the scene. If there were to be a second strike against Midway, all these planes would have to be taken back below decks so that their ordinance could be changed to simple bombs for attacking land targets. At the same time, the Japanese carriers would have to be ready to land the aircraft returning from the dawn strike on Midway. Not really expecting any American aircraft carriers to be in the vicinity until the following day, the Japanese focus continued to be mainly on softening up Midway for the landings later that day.
However, at this point, things started to go wrong. One of the search planes that the Japanese fleet had launched to sector-search ahead, just to be sure that the waters were clear, had reported spotting some American ships to the northeast, heading southwest. When this news arrived, the change of ordinance on the second-strike aircraft had just been completed. Orders quickly came to undo that work – anti-ship ordinance was to be put back on the planes. As that work was progressing, the reports indicated a small group of cruisers and destroyers – nothing major. New orders were given to swap back to ordinance for land targets. While that effort was in progress, the pilot of the search plane reported seeing what might be an aircraft carrier.
At this point, the Japanese commander, Admiral Nagumo, dithered. He had to prepare to land the returning planes, since that could not wait. He remained unsure about what to do next – keep the focus on Midway and prepare for that second strike, or divert from that mission and attack the American ships, even though he wasn’t sure if they were dangerous or not.
Despite the stunning empirical evidence of both Pearl Harbor and Coral Sea – that the aircraft carrier rather than the battleship was now the queen of the sea – Admiral Nagumo was an old battleship commander. The thinking associated with aircraft carrier operations just wasn’t in his blood or on his mind. When the search plane’s pilot reported that the ships he had been shadowing had changed course and were now headed northeast, it didn’t even occur to Admiral Nagumo to ask (literally), “Which way is the wind blowing?” If it had, the answer would have been ominous to an airman. The wind was blowing from the northeast. The change of course by the American ships could only mean that they were aircraft carriers, and that they were turning into the wind to launch an airstrike.
For the Americans, the Japanese aircraft carriers had been spotted early in the morning. From Midway, a strange panoply of aircraft – Army, Navy, and Marine – set out to strike at the Japanese fleet. With most of Midway’s land-based fighter aircraft knocked out of action in the dawn attack, no fighter cover was possible. A haphazard series of attacks was made on the Japanese fleet – notable in retrospect both for the complete futility of the attack attempts and the ghastly loses that were suffered in prosecuting them.
Four Army B-26 medium bombers, modified to carry torpedoes, attacked – two were lost. Six new TBF Avenger torpedo bombers – having tried frantically to join the Hornet’s air group in time for the battle and ending up reaching only Midway – attacked, and five were shot down. Twenty-seven Marine dive-bombers – obsolescent “Vindicators” and more modern “Dauntlesses” – attacked; 11 were shot down. A group of Army B-17s dropped their bombs with impunity from 17,000 feet. But the sum total of all these costly attacks was – not a single hit on a Japanese ship.
During these attacks, Admiral Nagumo finally ceased his dithering. He would first recover the aircraft returning from the dawn strike on Midway. With that accomplished, he would turn his fleet toward the northeast in the direction of the American ships and, when the aircraft had been properly prepared, launch a strike on that still-mysterious collection of American ships and put them out of the way for good. Orders were given to change the aircraft ordinance back to anti-ship ordinance.
By this point, the crews in the hangar decks had become exasperated with the continual changing of orders. Laxity prevailed; with all the continual changes, the crews had ceased bothering to send the ordinance they were taking off the aircraft back down to safer storage in the magazines; the bombs originally intended for the second strike on Midway were simply stacked up all around the hangar decks. This was to have fatal consequences.
As the Japanese search plane had noted, the American ships had turned to the northeast; with the American fleet commanded by the air-savvy Admirals Spruance and Fletcher, the Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown were launching the airstrike that was the great American gamble – that they could decisively strike the Japanese fleet first.
Due to squally weather, the forming-up of the airstrike became somewhat disorganized; American planes headed off in the general direction of the Japanese fleet without real cohesion. To further complicate matters, the Midway-based aircraft shadowing the Japanese fleet had had to leave their stations due to low fuel; the American commanders could only extrapolate where the Japanese fleet should be based on the last reports, but they had no hard data. During this time, the Japanese fleet turned to the northeast, toward the American fleet, and continued to prepare its own airstrike.
In all this chaos, the first American carrier planes to reach the Japanese fleet were the torpedo bombers. Flying low over the water trying to drop a torpedo, an unescorted torpedo bomber is an easy target. This would have been true under any circumstances, but the tragedy of what happened was magnified by several factors. The American torpedo squadrons were still equipped with the obsolete TBD “Devastator” aircraft; the first upgraded “Avengers” were just coming into service, such as those stragglers from the Hornet’s airgroup mentioned earlier. The Devastator was under-armed and slow. To make matters worse, American torpedoes of the time were terrible – they tended to run too deeply to hit a ship (often going right under the target), they ran so slowly that evasive action was usually effective, and when they struck the target duds were common.
The first group to spot the Japanese carriers and attack was Torpedo Squadron 8 from the Hornet. In addition to their equipment handicaps, the men of VT-8 were very green and had seen no prior combat. Of the 15 planes of VT-8 that attacked, every plane was shot down; only one plane even managed to get close enough to release its torpedo (which missed), and of the 30 airmen, 29 were killed. (The tragedy of VT-8 is a perpetual object lesson of what happens if we foolishly under-prepare and find ourselves sending out inadequately trained men using obsolete equipment and poor weapons. May this never happen again.)
Shortly after VT-8’s tragically-futile attack, 26 torpedo planes from the Enterprise and Yorktown attacked; 20 were shot down, and there were no hits on a Japanese ship.
In a short span of time, 41 American torpedo planes attacked; 35 were shot down, and not a single torpedo hit a Japanese vessel.
Even as the Japanese ships dodged the futile torpedo attacks, preparations for their own airstrike continued. The presence of the Devastators confirmed that American aircraft carriers were in the vicinity. Shortly after those attacks, the Japanese were ready. The strike aircraft, armed with arming-piercing bombs and torpedoes, had been brought back up onto the decks and were ready for launch.
Despite all of their advantages, at this critical juncture a technical shortcoming was to incur an incalculable cost to the Japanese. Unlike their American rivals, the Japanese had yet to develop ship-borne radar. The Japanese fleet still sailed into battle with nothing more sophisticated on their ships than old-fashioned lookouts. With a fully gassed-up and bombed-up strike force on their decks, the Japanese carriers were at a moment of maximum vulnerability. And without radar, they had no way of knowing what was about to happen.
Just as the order to launch the airstrike had been given, suddenly and without warning the dive-bombers from the Enterprise and Yorktown appeared on the scene. The earlier fighting had exhausted the Japanese combat air patrol, and the fighter planes had landed and been cleared below decks to free up the flight decks for the airstrike. The American planes were able to attack without opposition, and the results were catastrophic.
In a span of less than five minutes, the Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu were all hit by multiple bombs. As the bombs burst among the waiting Japanese aircraft, fuel and ordinance began to explode in a chain reaction. As the fires spread, the carelessly stacked ordinance in the hangar decks also began to detonate. Within minutes, the three great ships were burning wrecks. In just a few astonishing minutes, a handful of planes and men had devastated the Japanese fleet and ended any notion of Japan winning the war at Midway.
Like a Shakespearian play, the climax at Midway came in the middle act. Much more was to follow, but the issue had been decided in those crucial five minutes.
The lone surviving Japanese carrier, the Hiryu, had been slightly further north under some cloud cover. For the planned strike, the Hiryu had been ready to contribute dive-bombers. The Hiryu’s aggressive (and promising) commander, Admiral Yamaguchi, quickly threw his dive-bombers into the air, trying to snatch something from the sudden disaster.
By now, a returning Japanese reconnaissance pilot had confirmed the astonishing to the Japanese commanders. There were in fact – impossibly – three American aircraft carriers confronting them, including the supposedly-sunken Yorktown. Admiral Yamaguchi wanted to strike as quickly as possible, to try to reduce the odds from one-against-three to one-against-two.
Unlike their Japanese counterparts, the American commanders were able to see the Japanese airstrike coming on their radars, and sent Wildcat fighters into the air to try to defend the fleet. Although the Japanese attackers lost heavily, they managed to hit the Yorktown with three bombs. The Yorktown lost power and was left dead in the water. The departing Japanese survivors believed that they had crippled the Yorktown and knocked it out of the battle.
However, once again the Japanese were wrong about the Yorktown. In a surprisingly short time, the fires were put out, the boilers were restarted, and the Yorktown got under way again.
In the meantime, search planes from the Enterprise and the Hornet searched frantically for the Hiryu – but without immediate success.
With the Hiryu’s dive bombers launched, frantic preparations were made to prepare the torpedo planes for a follow-up attack. This strike was eventually launched and headed toward the American fleet. Once again, American radar saw the attack coming, and defenses were mounted. Once again, the Japanese attackers lost heavily but some of their planes managed to get through.
For a second time, the Japanese attackers came upon the Yorktown; however, seeing it underway, they figured that it must be a second American carrier. In this attack, the Yorktown was hit by two torpedoes; once again, she lost power and was dead in the water – and this time she had an ominous list to port. Given the risks, the Yorktown’s captain gave the order to abandon ship.
The surviving Japanese pilots on the Hiryu were exhausted but elated. In their estimation, they had now knocked out two of the three American carriers and more-or-less evened the odds. If they could get in one more strike before dark, they might be able to knock out the remaining American carrier and salvage a somewhat bloody draw from the battle. The handful of surviving dive-bombers and torpedo-planes were taken below decks for re-arming, while the pilots were served a quick meal. Soon, the planes were back on the flight deck and arranged for launch.
But the same thing happened again; the Hiryu was at a point of maximum vulnerability, and without radar there was no warning of what was coming – for the American dive-bombers had finally found the Hiryu. Once more, the Dauntlesses attacked nearly unopposed, and bombs fell onto the massed planes on the Hiryu’s flight deck. As earlier, the gassed-up and bombed-up planes began to detonate, setting off a chain reaction of explosions. In minutes, the Hiryu had become a burning wreck like her sisters.
As a strange footnote to the battle, Admiral Yamaguchi, in a fit of samurai vainglory, chose to go down with the ship rather than leave it. This turned out to be a great favor to the Americans; as the war ground on, Japan suffered from a dearth of capable naval leadership. Admiral Yamaguchi was a promising commander who could have made a difference later in the war.
Shortly after the Hiryu was disabled, day faded to night and darkness fell. Admiral Yamamoto, monitoring events from his flagship several hundred miles to the west, could scarcely believe what had happened. He knew that with the return of daylight on the 5th, American planes would be in the air again, and would be completely unopposed. There was no choice but to cancel the entire Midway operation, turn west, and flee as quickly as possible. Yamamoto’s dream had become a nightmare.
On the morning of June 5th, American planes were indeed in the air again. The Japanese ships were fleeing west, but American dive-bombers managed to catch a collection of heavy cruisers. In a series of attacks on June 5th and 6th, one cruiser was sunk and another was so badly damaged that it was incapacitated for a year. By this point, Admiral Spruance and Admiral Fletcher didn’t wish to press their luck; further west lay numerous Japanese submarines, and their own fliers were completely exhausted. The pursuit was ended, and the Battle of Midway was effectively over.
But, as Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” The abandoned Yorktown remained listing, but stable. Crews were put back aboard, and by jettisoning all possible weight on the port side, the list was reduced. It was reasonable to try to tow the seemingly-indestructible Yorktown back to Pearl Harbor.
Unfortunately, on June 7th the Yorktown’s luck ran out. A Japanese submarine spotted the Yorktown, managed to slip inside the screen of escorting destroyers, and torpedoed the ailing Yorktown. This time, there was no escape. After graciously leaving enough time for the on-board skeleton crew to depart, the Yorktown rolled over and sank into the Pacific.
Midway was a great victory, but a defensive one. The Japanese had been decisively beaten, but at the height of their tide. Midway assured that Japan would not win the war; the only hope for Japan from that point would be to try to make the coming American counter-offensive so costly that Americans would lose heart and seek to negotiate some reasonable peace with Japan rather than fight onward to complete victory.
Taken in this light, Midway is probably comparable in American history to Gettysburg. Gettysburg was also a great but defensive victory. While the loss at Gettysburg did not doom the Confederacy, it did ensure that the Confederacy could not win the war on its own terms. From that point, the Confederate strategy could only be to fight so costly and stubborn a defensive war that the Union would lose heart and agree to peace.
There is a further parallel though. Beyond the political landscape and the strategies, there is the human factor. At Gettysburg, Lee’s best troops – his crack regiments from Virginia and North Carolina – were virtually annihilated in the final failed attack on Cemetery Ridge. With his best troops gone forever, Lee’s army was never the same again.
A similar disaster struck the Japanese at Midway. In addition to the catastrophic (and never made-up) loss of four (two-thirds) of their fleet carriers, the Japanese fliers based on those carriers were lost almost to the last man. These were the veteran pilots who had flown at Pearl Harbor and had terrorized the Pacific and Indian Oceans from Hawaii to Ceylon, from the Aleutians to Australia. Combined with the earlier aircrew losses at Coral Sea, those men were now almost all gone – and they were never to be replaced.
Henceforth, the initiative passed (permanently) to the Americans. By August, the first American offensive in the Pacific got underway – down in the South Pacific, in the Solomon Islands. By a collection of quirks, most of this offensive ended up being concentrated on a terribly unpleasant island by the name of Guadalcanal. If you haven’t already, you can read more about that here.
As noted earlier, Admiral Yamamoto had been adamantly opposed to Japan’s going to war with the United States. When the decision had already been made to do otherwise, his superiors asked him what he expected. His short summary was, “For six months, I will run wild. After that, I promise nothing.”
The Battle of Midway ended on June 7th, 1942 – six months to the day after Pearl Harbor.
(Credit for some mind-refreshing: Tragic Victories, by Edward Jablonski.)
(Today, the Battle of Midway is prominently remembered at the new World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington DC. Photographs by the author, this past Monday.)
(Click on the above image to see a larger version, in which the caption is more easily readable.)