In June 1942, American and Japanese naval forces squared off in what was a decisive naval battle of the war in the Pacific.
The fleets, dominated by aircraft carriers, met just off the coast of a remote coral atoll in the Pacific Ocean known as Midway Island.
The battle was unlike any battle before or since in naval history, and it turned out to be the turning point in the war in the Pacific.
Learn more about the Battle of Midway and how it changed the course of the war and the history of naval warfare on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The Japanese Empire experienced a series of stunning victories in late 1941 and early 1942. In addition to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, they also managed to take Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, British Malaya (now Malaysia), and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).
On April 18, the Americans struck a blow deep into Japanese territory with the Doolittle Raids, which was a one-way bombing mission over Tokyo. The actual damage was minimal, but the raid had a huge psychological impact.
The raid showed the vulnerability of Japan to American bombing raids. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander-in-chief of the Japanese Navy, advocated an approach of dominating the islands in the Central Pacific to prevent the Americans from using these islands as bases.
He also sought to eliminate the American aircraft carrier force, which was the biggest threat as they were capable of projecting power the furthest.
Yamamoto’s predictions about aircraft carriers quickly proved true in May 1942 at the Battle of the Coral Sea off the northeast coast of Australia.
There the Japanese met an American fleet and engaged in one of the first major battles of aircraft carriers in history.
The two fleets were never within eyesight of each other, and the battle was fought entirely with aircraft. The Japanese were attempting to take the city of Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, which could then be used for subsequent attacks on Australia.
The battle was considered a tactical victory for the Americas insofar as Japan canceled the attack on Port Moresby, but it was not a decisive victory. Both sides had similar losses, and on the sea, it was mostly a draw.
The Japanese lost one aircraft carrier, the Sh?h?, and the Americans lost one carrier, the Lexington. Each side also had carriers that were damaged, the Japanese carriers Sh?kaku and Zuikaku, and the American carrier Yorktown.
After the battle, Yamamoto determined that the place to spring a trap on the Americans would be the remote island of Midway.
Midway was named because of its location, approximately midway between North America and Asia. It is the last island in the Hawaiian Archipelago and is American territory. However, the island is far enough away from Hawaii that it couldn’t be supported by aircraft out of Oahu.
Yamamoto selected Midway as the place to launch a surprise attack on the Americans, not because it was of great strategic value, but because he felt the Americans would defend it at all costs and would commit all the aircraft carriers it could to the battle.
What Yamamoto didn’t know what that the Americans had largely broken the code used by the Japanese known as JN-25b. From the decrypted communications, they knew the Japanese were planning something big at a location referred to as AF.
Despite decrypting the code, the Americans didn’t know for certain what AF was referring to. They thought it was probably Midway Island, but they weren’t sure. So, they had the radio operator on Midway send out a false uncoded message indicating that their water purification system had broken down and that they were low on water.
Within 24 hours, Japanese messages began being transmitted, indicating the location AF was low on water.
The Americans now knew where the operation was going to take place. Moreover, they knew exactly how many ships the Japanese had. They also knew that the Japanese had split their forces into four groups that were so far apart from each other that they couldn’t easily provide each other support.
From the decoded Japanese messages, they knew the attack on Midway was going to take place around June 4.
The Americans brought three fleet carriers to the battle. The term fleet carrier was used to distinguish large aircraft carriers from smaller escort carriers. The American carriers were the Hornet, the Enterprise, and the Yorktown.
Yamamoto assumed that Yorktown was damaged from the Battle of the Coral Sea and wouldn’t be available. However, unbeknownst to him, the repairs on the Yorktown only took two days in Pearl Harbor before the carrier was back in action.
The Japanese had four fleet carriers available, thinking they would outnumber the American carriers two to one. Their two carriers damaged in the Coral Sea were not available. The four Japanese fleet carriers were the Kaga, Akagi, Hiry?, and S?ry?.
Perhaps more importantly, the Americans had 233 aircraft on their three carriers, and the Japanese had 248 on four carriers. The Americans also had an additional 127 aircraft based on Midway Island itself.
The battle began on June 3 when an American PBY amphibious aircraft came across the Japanese fleet that was headed to occupy Midway. They dropped their bombs but didn’t hit anything. They thought this was the main battle fleet, but it was not.
There was also a diversionary attack on the Aleutian Islands on June 3 as well. These attacks on American territory were intended to distract the Americans and remove a potential bomber base that was in range of the Japanese mainland.
Early June 4 was the main Japanese attack on the island. 108 aircraft were set to Midway in an attempt to destroy the aircraft on the island as well as their landing strips.
The Americans, it turned out, had another secret weapon beyond breaking the Japanese code: RADAR.
RADAR stations had been installed on Midway and on several ships in the American fleet. This gave the Americans a decisive advantage as they knew when and where Japanese planes would be attacking from and could scramble their fighters to engage them before they arrived.
American fighters from Midway were sent up to engage while 41 unescorted torpedo bombers were sent after the Japanese carriers. The torpedo bombers were destroyed in minutes as they approached the carriers, and they inflicted no damage to any Japanese ship.
The American forces on Midway suffered tremendous losses, but there was surprisingly little damage done to the infrastructure on the island, which was the actual mission.
Most of the attacks on Midway itself were conducted in the early morning. The Japanese were informed that another attack on Midway was necessary. Japanese Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo began preparing for a second attack on Midway, changing the ordinance from torpedos to land bombs.
While they were preparing, they received word of American carriers to the east of Midway, and planes were headed their way. This forced the Japanese again to change their preparation to defend against an attack on their carriers. As a result, they had bombs, fuel, and fully loaded aircraft on their decks.
The American attack was hardly a coordinated affair. The American Admiral Raymond Spruance decided to start throwing planes at the Japanese rather than wait for a coordinated attack. The intent was to harass the Japanese enough that it would be difficult for them to launch an attack against the American fleet.
The Japanese carriers were spotted by Air Group Commander C. Wade McClusky, Jr. from the USS Enterprise. Despite being in the air for almost two hours, he decided to initiate an attack. According to the American Admiral Chester Nimitz, McClusky’s decision to attack “decided the fate of our carrier task force and our forces at Midway …”
The first wave of dive bombers from the Enterprise took out the Kaga and the Akagi, both of which were laden with ordnance and fuels. The Soryu was hit by dive bombers from the Yorktown.
Three of the four Japanese aircraft carriers had been sunk in a short period of time, leaving only the Hiryu.
The Hiryu managed to retaliate, hitting the Yorktown, seriously damaging her but not sinking her.
However, the remaining American planes went out again, including planes from the Yorktown now flying from the Enterprise. They managed to find the Hiryu and hit her with multiple bombs from dive bombers.
Pilots Dick Best and Dusty Kleiss managed to both hit two different Japanese aircraft carriers, the only pilots to have ever achieved such a feat.
Admiral Spruance decided to cease pursuit on the evening of the 4th so as not to jeopardize their victory.
The battle continued for several days, with the Americans in pursuit of the remaining Japanese ships. However, most of the damage was already done. On June 5, the Japanese scuttled the Hiryu and the Akagi, which were still technically afloat but were dead in the water.
A Japanese submarine hit the Yorktown on June 6, which had been listing 23 degrees, and it finally sank on June 7.
The amount of knowledge we have regarding the Battle of Midway is quite extensive, and I could easily spend an hour or more on the topic. There are many videos, books, and articles on the subject which go into depth on the details of the actual battle if you are interested.
The takeaway is that a little over six months after Pearl Harbor, the Americans managed a stunning naval victory over the Japanese despite still having a numerically inferior navy.
Within the span of a month, Japan had lost half of the aircraft carriers that it started the war with. Moreover, the loss of all four aircraft carriers at Midway also meant the loss of all 248 aircraft on the carriers and all of the pilots who were the elite of the Japanese Navy.
In addition to the aircraft carriers, they also lost a heavy cruiser with another heavy cruiser and two destroyers damaged. The total loss of life was over 3,000 men.
In addition to the loss of the Yorktown, which was abandoned before it sank, the Americans lost a destroyer and 150 planes. A total of 307 men were killed.
While the Battle of Midway was a devastating loss for the Japanese Navy, it wasn’t a knockout punch. They still had five aircraft carriers in the Pacific, including those damaged and subsequently repaired, which was still more than the Americans had.
They also still had a substantially larger surface and submarine fleet than the Americans did.
However, it did mark a major turning point in the war. It halted Japanese advancement in the Central and Western Pacific. Had the tables been turned and the Americans had lost their carrier fleet, they would have had only a single aircraft carrier, the Saratoga, and there would have been nothing to stop Japanese expansion into Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Alaska, and Australia.
From a military history standpoint, the Battle of Midway marked the beginning of the era of aircraft carriers and of air superiority. Battleships, which had been the prestige ships of any navy for over half a century, simply couldn’t compete with the reach and accuracy of an aircraft carrier.
The real impact of Midway wasn’t felt until 1943 when US production of naval vessels really ramped up. Japan simply couldn’t match the industrial output of the Americans, something that Admiral Yamamoto, who had studied and traveled extensively throughout the United States, knew firsthand.
By the end of the war, including the aircraft carriers commissioned at the start of the war, the United States had 33 fleet carriers with an additional 78 escort and light aircraft carriers.
Japan, in contrast, only managed to launch a few aircraft carriers after Pearl Harbor, all of which were converted from other military or commercial vessels.
Because of the extremely deep waters where the battle occurred, for decades, no one could identify where the battle actually took place. However, in 1998, Robert Ballard, the same man who discovered the Titanic and the Bismark, found the Yorktown in 16,650 feet or 5,070 meters of water.
The Kaga and the Akagi were subsequently found in deep water in 2019.
The Battle of Midway was one of the most important battles of the Second World War and arguably the most important battle in the Pacific Theater.
It remains one of the most studied and celebrated battles in naval history, illustrating the significance of effective communication, code-breaking, and tactical execution.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
Today’s review comes from LauraLouTimbuktu over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:
Uniquely wonderful listen
I finally entered the Northwest Montana chapter of the Completionist Club. I didn’t have to wave my arms to turn on the lights because there were a couple of guys from TDU (Truck Driver University) just passing through. I found the Huckleberry ice cream in the freezer and left my paperwork on the counter. I just wanted to thank you for the fun and intellectually stimulating listen. I am using the information responsibly.
Thanks, LauraLou! It is nice to see Montana being represented in the completionist club. I hope you enjoy the show while hiking up in the Flathead Country.
Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.