80th Anniversary of the Battle of MidwayJuly 6, 2022
A look into one of the most critical battles of WWII by Director of Naval History and Heritage Command, Samuel Cox
The Battle of Midway (4-6 June 1942) was one of the most critical battles of WWII, and one of the most one-sided battles in all of history, although at a very high cost for the U.S. pilots and aircrewmen that gained the victory. It was not, however, a “miracle.”
"...The enemy lacks the will to fight..." according to the Japanese Midway Operations Order, Commander's Estimate of the Situation. This was their biggest mistake.
On 4 June 1942, four Japanese aircraft carriers faced off against three U.S. aircraft carriers and an island (248 Japanese aircraft to 360 U.S. aircraft.) None of the remainder of the overwhelming Japanese force was in a position to affect the outcome of the battle. The reason was because Japanese Admiral Yamamoto had a bad plan based on faulty intelligence, and a gross under-estimation of American will to fight. An unbroken 6-month victory spree also made the Japanese over-confident (the Japanese thought they sank both U.S. carriers at the Battle of the Coral Sea on 8 May 1942.)
Admiral Nimitz, on the other hand, had a good plan based on exceptional intelligence that gave the U.S. the crucial element of surprise. Like almost everyone in the U.S. Navy at the time, Admiral Nimitz overestimated U.S. operational and tactical prowess relative to the Japanese (Pearl Harbor was not seen as a “fair fight.”) Based on intelligence derived to a significant degree from breaking some of the Japanese Navy operational code (JN-25B,) Admiral Nimitz had good reason to believe that he was taking a “calculated risk” with a reasonable chance of success; he did not believe he was making a “desperate gamble” (as is often portrayed) with the precious remaining U.S. aircraft carriers when he ordered YORKTOWN (CV-5,) ENTERPRISE (CV-6) and HORNET (CV-8) to a position to ambush the Japanese carrier force during the expected attack by Japanese aircraft on Midway Island.
As a result, at 0900 on 4 June, as half the Japanese aircraft were returning from the strike on Midway, the commander of the Japanese carrier task force, Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, had no clue that 152 U.S. carrier aircraft were already en route to attack him (only at 0820 did he even know one U.S. carrier was in the area.) Nevertheless, the U.S. almost blew it, because at 0900, 77 of those aircraft were heading in directions that would miss the Japanese carriers entirely, and had already fractured into at least seven uncoordinated groups.
Meanwhile the first waves of U.S. torpedo and dive-bombers originating from Midway Island were being slaughtered in multiple separate extremely valiant but futile attacks on the Japanese carriers. But the courage of these attacks (including a U.S. Army Air Force B-26 that nearly killed Nagumo and his staff,) and surprisingly heavy Japanese losses to U.S. Marine fighters and ground fire at Midway Island, instigated Nagumo’s fateful decision to re-arm his 107-plane reserve strike with land-attack in place of anti-ship weapons, before he received a first aircraft sighting report on one of the U.S. carriers.
As the Japanese tried frantically to shift back to anti-ship weapons, three successive waves of U.S. carrier TBD Devastator torpedo-bombers attacked the Japanese carriers with mind-boggling courage; of 41 Devastators, only three would make it back to their carriers, yet not one of them turned away before being shot down or dropping a torpedo. The protracted sacrifice of the Midway aircraft and the carrier torpedo-bombers prevented the Japanese from spotting their counter-strike aircraft on deck, which ultimately prevented the Japanese from inflicting severe damage on the U.S. force.
To the extent there was a “miracle” at Midway it was a freak sequence of events. Smoke from the first attack on the Japanese carriers by Midway aircraft (six TBF torpedo-bombers, five of which were shot down,) drew the attention of submarine NAUTILUS (SS-168) which then barely survived multiple depth charge attacks while trying unsuccessfully to attack the Japanese carriers. The destroyer ARASHI was ordered to stay behind and keep the pesky submarine under. It was ARASHI’s high speed return to the carrier force that caught the attention of Lieutenant Commander Clarence Wade McClusky, leading a 33-plane SBD Dauntless dive-bomber strike from ENTERPRISE, which had overshot the Japanese.
Following the ARASHI’s course, and by sheer coincidence, the ENTERPRISE strike arrived over the Japanese carriers at the same time as 17 dive-bombers from YORKTOWN. With the Japanese fighter cover out of position finishing off the torpedo-bombers, within the space of five minutes the Japanese carriers AKAGI, KAGA and SORYU were mortally damaged by dive-bombers. HIRYU would get off two strikes that would cripple YORKTOWN, before a polyglot strike of ENTERPRISE and YORKTOWN dive-bombers inflicted fatal damage to her. YORKTOWN and destroyer HAMMANN (DD-412) were sunk by Japanese submarine I-168 on 6 June and Japanese heavy cruiser MIKUMA was sunk by U.S. dive-bombers on 6 June.
Although over 75% of the Japanese aviators actually survived the battle to fight again, the loss of four irreplaceable carriers and the highly skilled maintainers altered the course of the war. Over 3,000 Japanese died at Midway. The Japanese surface Navy didn’t get the memo that the tide of war turned at Midway, so many months of bitter night battles lay ahead in the waters around Guadalcanal that would cost the U.S. Navy almost 5,000 dead. U.S. deaths at Midway were “only” 307, but of the carrier aircraft that actually made contact with the Japanese on 4 June, over 40% were shot down or ditched due to battle damage or running out of fuel; over 150 naval aviators paid the ultimate price for this decisive victory.
Watch our two-part Webinar Series discussing the battle of Midway
The Battle of Midway is considered to be one of the most defining moments of World War II in the Pacific Theater. What made this historic moment and what factors contributed to the success experienced by the United States on that fateful day?
Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum sits down with renowned Navy historian and author Jon Parshall and retired US Air Force Fighter Pilot and creator of “Figments: The Power of Imagination” podcast, General Dan “Fig” Leaf for a guided conversation about the Battle of Midway and its strategies.