Why the Battle of Midway Matters
June 4 marks the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Midway, the turning point of the Pacific Theater of operations in World War II and one of the most decisive naval battles in history. So decisive was the battle that in 1999, then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jay L. Johnson announced that beginning with the 2000 observance, June 4 would be given the same significance as Oct. 13 – the Navy’s birthday. “Twice a year, we will pause as a Navy to reflect upon our proud heritage and to build in all hands a renewed awareness of our tradition and history,” Johnson said.
Given the slew of excellent books written on the subject—from Walter Lord’s bestseller Incredible Victory to Gordon W. Prange’s Miracle at Midway—it is hard to do this epic battle justice with a 1,000-word column, but I’ll give it the ol’ college try.
Prelude to Victory
Midway wasn’t actually the first victory of the U.S. war effort against the Imperial Japanese Navy. The Battle of the Coral Sea had taken place one month earlier, and it was a strategic victory for the United States in that it thwarted the Japanese invasion of Port Moresby and saw the first sinking of an enemy aircraft carrier, the IJN light carrier Shōhō. But as important as those accomplishments were, none of them could match the magnitude of Midway.
The IJN’s planning for Midway actually preceded their strategic setback at the Coral Sea. On April 16, 1942, after several months of discussions, the iconic Adm. Isoruku Yamamoto, Commander in Chief, Combined Fleet, convinced the Imperial General Staff to agree to his Midway and Aleutians strategy for the summer. In Yamamoto’s view, the capture of Midway Island would allow Japan to pursue its Asian policies behind an impregnable eastern shield of defenses in the Central Pacific. The centerpiece of this plan was a feint toward Alaska, followed by an invasion of Midway. If successful, this audacious plan would effectively eliminate the U.S. Pacific Fleet for at least a year and provide a forward outpost that could warn of any future threat by the U.S.
Two days later, the legendary Doolittle Raid on Tokyo took place. In addition to providing a huge morale boost for the American public, the attack spurred the Japanese to push forward the date of their planned attack on Midway. The die was cast.
The Battle of Midway Begins
As was also the case at Pearl Harbor, the Americans drew first blood in the Battle of Midway. Early on the morning of June 4, four night-flying PBY Catalinas attacked the Japanese transports northwest of Midway. One PBY torpedoed the fleet tanker Akebono Maru. The attack on Midway Island began in earnest at 6:30 a.m. local time that morning, when Aichi D3A “Val” carrier bombers and Nakajima B5N “Kate” torpedo planes, escorted by deadly Zero fighters, bombed the island’s beleaguered installations.
Although defending U.S. Marine Corps Brewster F2A Buffalo and Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters suffered disastrous losses, losing 17 of 26 aloft, the Japanese inflicted only slight damage to the base facilities. The IJN lost four Kates and one Zero to the responding Buffalos and Wildcats, and three more warplanes to the base defenders’ anti-aircraft fire.
The Carrier vs. Carrier Phase
The carrier vs. carrier phase of the battle did not go well for the Americans. Between 9:30 and 10:30 a.m., Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bombers launched from the three American carriers, the Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown. For all their gallantry, the Devastator crews failed to score a single hit on the IJN carriers and were in turn annihilated by Japanese fighters and naval AAA fire. The Hornet lost all of her torpedo bombers, with then-Ensign (later Lt. Cmdr.) George Gay as the sole survivor.
The Devastators’ sacrifice was not in vain. The timing of their attacks left the IJN carriers vulnerable to follow-on strikes by the U.S. Navy’s Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers, who rained hell upon the Akagi, Kaga, and Sōryū. The effect of the Dauntlesses’ 1,000-pound bombs was further exacerbated by the fact that the Japanese carriers had their planes lined up on the flight decks for a second strike on Midway Island, thus setting off a hellish chain reaction of aviation ordnance and avgas. These three carriers would soon go to the bottom, but one of their sister ships, the Hiryū, survived the initial onslaught.
Hiryū would get some measure of revenge, as her “Val” dive bombers and “Kate” torpedo bombers would inflict enough damage upon the Yorktown to necessitate an “abandon ship” order. Yorktown might have actually survived long enough to be towed back to port, but the vessel was finished off on June 6 by the Japanese submarine I-168, whose torpedoes also sank the destroyer USS Hammann as the latter vessel was performing rescue operations on behalf of the Yorktown.
The Americans would still get the last laugh, as Dauntlesses from Enterprise mortally damaged Hiryū in a strike around 5 p.m. on June 4. The Navy would add a final insult on June 6 — the last day of the battle — when the SBDs from Enterprise and Hornet sank the heavy cruiser Mikuma and severely damaged the heavy cruiser Mogami.
When all was said and done, the Japanese had lost four precious aircraft carriers along with one heavy cruiser, 248 aircraft, and 3,057 personnel killed. The Americans had lost one fleet carrier, one destroyer, 150 aircraft, and 307 killed (including three executed as POWs). Most importantly, the destruction of Japan’s Carrier Strike Force compelled Yamamoto to abandon his Midway invasion plans, and the Japanese Fleet began to retire westward.
Over the next two days, 1945 will continue our series on the Battle of Midway. We will give a more in-depth examination of the specific warplanes involved in the fight, and we will recount the submarine USS Nautilus’s accidental — or perhaps inadvertent — contribution to the American victory. Stay tuned, folks.
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, Mr. Orr is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS).