In brief : Japan attacked Midway Island, near Hawaii, with their entire Navy. The US
heard they were coming and ambushed the Japanese. Four Imperial carriers were sunk and one American.
Conclusion. The grand Japanese plan made by Yamamoto was good and Nugumo in command of the carrier's did nothing wrong. Yet Japan had more misfortunes and Victory goes to the side
that makes the fewer mistakes. The fighting forces of both sides showed exceptional bravery. American intelligence was better. Nimitz and Fletcher did everything well and Spruance did little bad. Victory was to the U.S.
The Japanese fleet was overwhelming, such that there were sufficient ships to make two attacks at once with each able to come to the aid
of the other if needed. The main effort was at Midway, an island airbase within flying distance from Hawaii. The subordinate attack on Attu and Kiska on the tip of the Aleutians Islands far out from Alaska pointing towards Japan. The goal of the engagement was to draw out the
remaining US carriers from Hawaii. Their assured destruction would allow the Japanese free reign in the Pacific. As long as the American carriers existed, the Japanese Navy had to retain a large guard force near the home islands to prevent Doolittle-type raids and required elements of the Imperial Navy to steam after every hit-and-run attack that Nimitz launched against outlying Japanese island posts. Once freed from such defensive roles,
the entire IJN could go on the offense, capture New Caledonia, New Hebrides, Samoa in the South Pacific to isolate Australia, and take the scattered US held islands in the Pacific Ocean, thus limiting the US to the continental 48 States. There were even secret plans to later attack the Panama Canal to isolate the US Pacific Coast from the Atlantic Fleet. And longer range hopes to cross the Indian Ocean to link-up with Rommel in North Africa.
The bait was an attack on Midway Island, the farthest extension of an island chain with Hawaii at the other end. An invasion fleet came up from Saipan escorted by a bombardment fleet of cruisers. A smaller invasion fleet went to the Aleutians escorted by a carrier task force to suppress American Air Forces. The principle attack was supported by the Japanese carrier strike force to put down all American resistance on Midway. A guard force
of battleships was positioned between Midway and the Aleutians to go in either direction depending on where the Americans came out to fight.
The main body followed the Japanese carriers, out of sight, with the largest battleship in the world has ever known, 18" guns, to finish off the American Navy whose largest ships available were heavy cruisers with 8" guns. There were some old and repaired US battleships operating out of San Diego which might have appeared, but they, too, would be overwhelmed by Japanese might. The plan was good.
The American side had the advantage of having broken bits of the Japanese high level naval codes. On indication that a major attack was being planned for the Central or North Pacific, the US carriers, then all operating in the South Pacific, were recalled to Pearl Harbor. Once the details of the planned attack were determined, the American idea was to wait nearby, but out of sight northeast of Midway and attack the Japanese forces from the flank. The plan was of the highest risk.
Leading up to this attack are two things of interest. The Doolittle Raid
on mainland Japan two months before had pushed the Japanese to an early attempt to destroy the US carriers. This meant that logistics were rushed. The Battle of Coral Sea one month before had damaged one of the big Japanese carriers and decimated the air groups of it and another big Japanese carrier. Neither of these big carriers would be ready again in time for the attack on Midway. A submarine force of sixteen was assigned, most were sent to provide patrol lines to detect and weaken the American sortie from Hawaii. They could not leave in time, so arrived two days later than planned and the US ambushing force had already passed through the area and was in place waiting for the Imperial Navy.
Reconnaissance by long range flying boats of Pearl Harbor was in the Japanese plan, a repeat of an earlier successful procedure of refueling from submarines at an isolated atoll in the Hawaiian chain. However, the US had guessed that location and stationed ships to prevent any repeat of that maneuver.
To Japanese advantage, their fleets moved through thick fog making detection difficult. Weather delayed refueling by a day, but cleared just in time for the attack.
The Alaskan force attacked on time with the Midway force to attack a day later.
The Japanese Navy had two cruisers build for carrying scouting aircraft to accompany the carrier strike forces so that the carrier's fighting planes were not consumed in scouting and to make carrier operations free to concentrate all their efforts on attacking and defense. The American fleet was expected to be at Pearl Harbor and in the South Pacific so that the scouts did not expect to find anything in their 300 mile search pattern, a distance beyond American carrier attack range. The American carriers had to use combat aircraft to scouting duties, Fletcher did this in rotation so that only one US carrier was delayed in the coming attack by having to wait for the recovery of scouting planes.
A key bit of Japanese bad luck. One of the cruiser launched scout planes flew over the American fleet in clouds and did not detect it. A second had trouble with its catapult and launched a half hour late and did not detect the US fleet until after the American attack had been launched.
The Americans had a good idea of the time and direction from which the Japanese would attack. Midway Island had been reinforced with multi-engine scout planes (PBY) and bombers (B-17). Knowing where to look, the US scouts found the Japanese and attempted to bomb them. But, bad for the Americans, a high flying bomber could not hit a maneuvering ship at sea. But it did divert the attention of the Japanese.
The Japanese launched their air attack on Midway as planned. The island had been reinforced with fighter planes and anti-aircraft guns. The outstanding Zero fighter decimated the American fighter defenses, but they were unable to suppress anti-aircraft guns and the Japanese bombing results, though damaging, did not put the airstrip out of action. A succession of Navy, Marine and Air Force planes from Midway attacked the Japanese carriers. Japanese Zeros and anti-aircraft defenses prevented any damage to any of their ships.
As the Japanese strike aircraft were returning to their ships, the American fleet was detected. Throughout the course of the day, Japanese scouting reports variously said there were from none or up to five US carriers within range. As soon as one carrier was detected, Nugumo turned to attack. However, he had two problems. All of his Zeros were engaged in defense of the carriers or had accompanied the strike force that was now returning. There were none to escort vulnerable torpedo planes on an attack. Second, he needed to land, refuel and rearm Zeros and while at it, he landed the returning strike bombers, all of which he accomplished in only 15 minutes. The attack groups intended to strike the Americans were being lifted to the flight deck for launch when the first wave arrived -- of American carrier torpedo bombers. They
were destroyed by the defensive combat air patrol of Zeros. The American dive bombers arrived as the Zeros were finishing off the US torpedo planes. Only ship's guns faced the dive bombers. Bombers from two US carriers struck
three Japanese carriers -- each was set afire from aviation gasoline and this set off bombs and torpedoes so that each carrier eventually sank.
A fourth carrier was overlooked (Hornet's bombers got lost), but she was armed and her planes followed
American bombers back to their carrier and, although detected by radar and half were destroyed, they managed to put a torpedo into Yorktown that caused damage, but she was still able to fight. They missed finding the other
US carriers. Yorktown had scouts out that found the fourth Japanese carrier and a second attack by US forces succeeding in bombing her, but not before she had sent a second strike that hit Yorktown with two more torpedoes that caused flooding and fear of capsizing ; she was abandoned.
End of the First Day.
Unable to fly aircraft at night, the American carriers retreated after hitting the fourth carrier. They steamed east till midnight before turning around to return to the battle scene by first light. The Japanese Navy was excellent at night fighting and the battleships that were coming to destroy the American fleet put on speed, but it soon became evident that they would never catch the Americans in the dark and would be subjected to air attack from both Midway and the US carriers in the morning, so the Japanese withdrew to refuel and wait for the two Japanese carriers from the Aleutians to arrive.
One Japanese heavy cruiser from the invasion support fleet ran into another while evading a US submarine. This saved the Japanese fleet. While the main fleet was stopped to refuel in the waters NW of Midway, the Americans from both Midway and the carriers concentrated on attacking the damaged cruisers. One was eventually sunk, but the main Japanese battle force was not detected and a transport convoy loaded with troops and supplies each escaped.
Yamamoto tried two ways to salvage his plans. One was to
lure the American carriers within range of Wake Island bombers and attack with his big battleships. Second, he sent some of his battleships and an arriving big carrier, Zuikaku, (refitted from the Coral Sea battle), north to Alaskan waters in case the American carriers went to attack those landing forces.
Third Day . Spruance scores on a cruiser.
One of the two damaged cruisers was finally sunk.
The rest of the Japanese headed home to Hiroshima. The massive defeat was kept secret from the public and most of the armed services.
Salvage parties were working on Yorktown two days later when a submarine drawn to the battle sank her plus a destroyer along side. The DD sank at once, Yorktown the next day.
The Americans were smart enough not to go near the land based planes on Japanese-held Wake Island and being unable to find the main Japanese fleet, withdrew to refuel and to be replenished with new aircraft from arriving carrier Saratoga and head for Alaskan waters. Nimitz soon realized that sending the carriers north would leave both Midway and Pearl Harbor vulnerable and he recalled the carriers within a few hours. The battle was over.
Results : Four of the Japan's six large carriers were sent to the bottom. One of four American carriers went down. The opposing fleets were now about evenly matched in air striking power. Japan's desire to not be tied down by chasing after the few American carriers and to free themselves for further offensive actions was now gone. The IJN was limited to defensive actions for the rest of the war.
Japan lost a heavy cruiser, the US lost a destroyer. Several Japanese ships were damaged, no other Americans were. Two small islands were taken in the North Pacific and one major island base was saved in the Central Pacific.
Discussion and comment about many of the customary evaluations and myths of the battle. The Japanese plan began to go wrong early on. ● It is said that Yamamoto's plan was too complex ; that forces were dispersed and unable to fight together. But we have seen that the entire Japanese fleet was engaged, it would have been foolish to put them all in one spot. The goals of the operation determined what ships were needed and where.
The battleship anti-aircraft guns could have been used to protect the carriers.
But the battleships followed to attack the American fleet ; their presence was successfully hidden from the Americans for the entire battle.
Nugumo should have used some of his attack planes for scouting.
This seems reasonable after the events, but the reconnaissance plan was layered. Nugumo did not know that each layer would fail in turn : 1) The flying boats were canceled when American ships blocked their fueling site. 2) The submarine patrols were two days late in arriving on station. 3) One scouting cruiser had catapult problems. 4) Weather would hide the American fleet. 5) Radio silence kept him without the latest news.
Nagumo's goal was to attack the carriers. He knew this and had kept half his attack bombers ready with torpedoes for any surface action that might appear and they did launch and hit Yorktown. The problems was that all of his Zero fighters had been engaged and needed a few minutes to land, refuel, and rearm. The American dive bomber attack occurred during an ideal five minute window. More fighters were needed. Americans were also to discover that the number of fighters to bombers ratio had to be increased. Fighters had two roles : protecting bombers making attacks, and defending the carrier from attack.
Yet at this time in the war, both sides had fighters equal to only half the number of bombers carried.
Was the Aleutians invasion a wasted effort? When seen after the fact, it was, but at the time, Japan needed to expand her early warning bases in all directions. That weather of the Aleutians turned out to be so bad that no useful scouting could be maintained, no attacks launched, were difficult to resupply, and the bases were abandoned the following year. But, while two carriers, two cruisers, and three destroyers from the Imperial Fleet, plus some screening destroyers for the convoy portion of the North Pacific, were used ; this caused Nimitz to send a task force from Pearl of 2 heavy and 3 light cruisers and 4 destroyers to join 9 DD already stationed in the north. These could have been added to the air defenses of the US carriers at Midway. We cannot fault Yamamoto on this point because he weakening the US defenses.
Yamamoto followed traditional naval practice of leading the attack from a battleship at sea. In prior ages this put the commander in sight of the battle. In the age of aircraft, radio and, on the American side, radar, a battleship was a prison to the commander who could not see the whole battle by eye and he could not receive reports or communicate through radio silence. Nimitz stayed at Pearl Harbor near his radio receivers and transmitters which were not silenced. His senior commander, Fletcher, directed attacks at sea to destroy the four enemy carriers, losing his own in the process, then to Spruance that night who was, unfortunately, unable to find the enemy the next day or the next.
Of the American activities.
● Fletcher was commander of two carrier task forces. He sent Spruance to the attack while he recovered scouts. Although the Japanese carriers were under observation from Midway almost continually from when they exited the weather front, the carriers did not know the specific location nor the number of enemy carriers, and whether together or separate. Japan had ten carriers, six were big fleet carriers. Five were anticipated to attack Midway and only two were reported before Fletcher ordered the first American attack and only three reported from that attack. Before and after that attack, a second carrier group was suspected and Fletcher held half of one carrier's aircraft in reserve and had scouts out to find those or other threats. Yet his Yorktown air group was so experienced, that when they launched an hour and a half after the spearhead by Spruance, they arrived on target at the same time and, with fewer planes sank an enemy carrier.
Training was a strategic issue ; like intelligence gathering or aircraft design, this was external to the fleet , yet greatly impacted the effectiveness of fleet action. Hornet, was new to the fleet and in Spruance's TF-16 was virtually worthless in the battle -- brave men died with little to show for it. Enterprise had lost Halsey to illness and the inexperienced Spruance was not as effective as he would become later.
Fletcher and Yorktown were forged in battle and they carried most of the weight of decisions and effect.
Military intelligence success was all American thanks to radio traffic analysis and the code breakers.
The Japanese had a succession of failures -- flying boat, submarine, and scouting, and hampered by radio silence.
Technology was on the side of Japan. The Zero was the superb carrier fighter of the day. Japanese torpedoes ran straight and true. Their optics and night fighting ability were a threat, tho not actually used in this battle. The Americans had radar to detect incoming attacks in time to position fighters in the direction of the incoming to allow a few additional minutes of intercept time -- radar then was nothing like what it became later in the war. American high altitude bombing by the Army Air Force was much anticipated and every miss that was close enough to splash water on a ship was reported as a sinking. The public was told that the victory at Midway was due to their bombers before the carriers returned with the real story. No level bombs and no torpedoes damaged the enemy -- only carrier based dive bombers made hits. Submarines were ineffective on both sides.
The Japanese subs were not of good caliber throughout the war. The American torpedoes - air, surface, and undersea -- were almost worthless until fixed almost a year later.
● Myth that Spruance was the victor. The four carriers were attacked under Fletcher's command. After his flagship was damaged, he released TF-16 to carry on the fight for the next day. Spruance was delayed by a submarine scare and the main force
get away -- and they had stopped to refuel within range of
his forces. But refueling stations on Midway had been destroyed and long range scouts were seeking downed pilots. The third day he went after two damaged heavy cruisers and sank one of them. Later Spruance commanded the Fifth Fleet and his biographers looked to
the first time he came to public attention and self-servingly credited him with the victory.
The story of Midway is one of the most analysed and written about of the Pacific War. Each side made their preparations. Luck and bravery were the final determinants. Annuals of Heros : Waldron, McCluskey, Tomonaga and every torpedo plane pilot and crewman.
This summary only touches the highlights.
A good website is here.
The Big Picture. The World War had been going on for two years in Europe and for six months in the Pacific. Hitler had taken most of continental Europe and was well into the Soviet Union whose government had withdrawn to Kuibyshev (now Samara) beyond the Volga. Germany had rescued Italian defeat in North Africa with Rommel's Africa Corp and was half way through Egypt. Japan had taken most of Asia and Oceana west of the International dateline and north of Australia. The Japanese fleet had rampaged from Hawaii to India, from Alaska to the South Pacific, destroyed four other fleets with only one loss, an escort carrier supporting the invasion of New Guinea. The Axis powers were at their high point of success, the prospects of the Allies looked dim. But the turn in fortunes was about to come in the following weeks : Midway, El Alamein, and Stalingrad. Midway marked the end of the beginning to WWII, still two years away.
Who is Who -- Admirals. Japanese Yamamoto -- Japanese chief of Combined Fleet, architect of Pearl Harbor and Midway.
Nagumo -- Japanese commander of Carrier Striking Forces, victor at Pearl Harbor, East Indies, and Indian Ocean.
American Nimitz -- US Pacific Fleet Commander who determined to attempt the ambush.
Halsey -- US Commander of Pacific Carriers, hospitalized just before the Midway battle.
Fletcher -- Carrier Task Force Commander, first in history to stop a Japanese fleet, at Coral Sea. He sank six enemy carriers in eight months ; the most successful admiral of the War.
Spruance -- Carrier task group commander in Enterprise replacing sick Halsey and was released to operate independently after the flagship, Yorktown, was torpedoed the second time. He sank a cruiser. After a period ashore, he returned to command the Fifth Fleet.
Theobald -- Sent to intercept the invasion of the north, he stationed his ships to defend Alaska and the West Coast, missing the invasion in the Aleutians.
Who is Who -- Carriers. Japanese Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, Soryu were big carriers that had led Japanese victories from
Pearl Harbor in the Eastern Pacific, to the East Indies in the Western Pacific, to Darwin, Australia, in the South West Pacific, to Ceylon in the Indian Ocean. Shokaku and Zuikaku were normally with this group, but had been mauled by Fletcher at Coral Sea and were refitting.
Zuikaku sailed to join the after-planned Aleutian ambush. Just over two years later, she ended as sacrifice in the Philippines .
Junyo and Ryujo were medium and light carriers that attacked Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians. Ryujo was put under by Fletcher at Eastern Solomons two months later, his sixth and final carrier kill.
American Yorktown (CV-5), Fletcher's flagship, had been damaged at Coral Sea and rushed to Pearl for repair in time for the Midway action. Yorktown had scouting duty at the day of the battle and Fletcher sent Spruance with the other two carriers to attack while Yorktown recovered scouts, followed, sank a carrier, acted as air reserve and did scouting all at the same time and was attacked twice by air, taking three torpedo hits, and finally was attacked by submarine I-68 with two more torpedo hits and went down after the battle.
Enterprise (CV-6), normally Halsey's flagship, an experienced ship but with a staff that needed Halsey's tough hand. She became the most decorated ship of the Pacific War with the most combat engagements and survived the war.
Hornet (CV-8) was a new ship that had not yet seen battle, but had carried Doolittle to raid Japan and had sailed to the South Pacific and returned for Midway. She was sunk a few months later in the South Pacific at Santa Cruz and year and six days of service.
Saratoga (CV-3) was repaired from torpedo damage and rushed with her aircraft from San Diego to Pearl, then to the Midway fleet that was refueling for Alaska ; she provided 34 replacement aircraft and became Fletcher's new flagship and all returned to Pearl. "Sara" fought in the South Pacific, Indian Ocean, and Central Pacific ; she survived the war.
Link to more Midway detail ,
Timeline , and big picture.
About this page : Midway - The plans and action at Midway.
This is a narrative discussion of the decisive battle of the Pacific War.
Last updated on June 4, 2007
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