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Midway: Naval Aviation's Finest Moment in World War II

The admirals in both the American and Japanese navies had grown up believing that the decisive naval action in the Pacific would be one straight out of the age of sail — two big battle fleets fighting within sight of each other, with the heavily armored and armed battleship providing the decisive edge. For nearly a generation, the war plans of both nations had envisaged such an engagement — that's why both Japan and the United States built big battleships and why the disarmament efforts of the 1920s focused on reducing the size and number of battleships in the world's fleets.

But the sinking of the British battleship Prince of Wales by Japanese aircraft and the Battle of the Coral Sea had proven that the future of naval warfare lay in the hands of the naval aviator, not the battleship captain. If the Battle of the Coral Sea taught anyone anything, it was that the age of the battleship was over. Whichever side figured this out first would win the war in the Pacific.

Setting a trap: The Japanese three-pronged approach

Japanese Admiral Yamamoto sought to take Midway, the last American base in the Pacific outside of Hawaii. Not only would possession of Midway expand the Japanese defensive zone, but it would also force the Americans, who couldn't afford to lose the island, to react. Yamamoto expected the Americans to respond by bringing out their carriers to stop the Japanese or by trying to retake the island. As a result, Yamamoto assembled the largest battle fleet ever used in the Pacific Ocean — 160 ships (eight of them aircraft carriers) and 400 aircraft. This massive fleet would wait until the Americans approached Midway, and then the Japanese carrier aircraft and giant battleships would finish off the Americans once and for all.

In his plan, Yamamoto divided up the fleet into four forces:

  • One force would conduct an attack on the Aleutian Islands to divert American attention from the Midway attack.
  • Yamamoto himself would command the main Japanese battle fleet in the climactic battle against the American fleet.
  • A third fleet would bring in the amphibious landing force to capture Midway.
  • A screen of submarines would search the waters between Pearl Harbor and Midway to scout for signs of the American fleet.

Having two aces in the hole: The Nimitz shuffle

Japanese Admiral Yamamoto's plan was good, but American Admiral Nimitz had the upper hand, at least initially:

  • He knew the Japanese plan. Again, intercepted Japanese codes had given him a detailed understanding of the Japanese plan and plenty of time to prepare a counterplan for Midway. Nimitz also learned that the Japanese had spread out their fleet into widely scattered small groups to avoid detection.
    Nimitz decided that no giant naval engagement off Midway would occur, as Yamamoto expected. He also realized that his battleships would be no help to him. The advantage was the aircraft carriers, which could strike targets from long distances. Nimitz would rely on surprise and the skill of his naval aviators to offset the Japanese strength in numbers.
  • He had more carriers than the Japanese realized. In addition to two U.S. carriers that the Japanese knew about, Nimitz also had one — the USS Yorktown — the Japanese thought they sank in the Coral Sea battle. Despite the extensive damage to the ship, which would take three months to repair, crews at Pearl Harbor accomplished nothing short of a miracle by making it battle worthy again in only 72 hours.

But even with these advantages, the Americans still didn't have the upper hand. Yamamoto had superior numbers and lots of ocean to hide in. Nimitz would commit all the American carriers, 12 cruisers, 14 destroyers, and 19 submarines to this battle — a laughably small force to match the Japanese fleet headed for Midway. For the United States Navy, Midway was a gamble with enormous stakes.

Opening moves: Bombs over Midway

The Battle of Midway would be the decisive battle of the Pacific in World War II, and in the end, it would change both the course of the war and the future of naval warfare.

First phase: June 3

On June 3, 1942, the Japanese began the first phase of the battle with air attacks on American bases in the Aleutians. Japanese forces landed on the Aleutian Islands of Kiska on June 6 and the following day, on Attu. Japanese aircraft conducted raids throughout the islands.

Although Nimitz had dispatched a naval force to deal with the invasion, land-based aircraft kept the Japanese fleet at bay. To Yamamoto, it appeared that his Aleutian Island diversion had worked. But in reality, the American carrier fleet was heading for Midway — a fact that Yamamoto didn't know. Tipped off by the intercepts, Nimitz had dispatched his fleet days before the Japanese submarines were to arrive to search for the Americans. The Japanese were in the dark. To them, it appeared that all was going according to plan.

Second phase: June 4

Yamamoto began the next phase of the battle with an attack on Midway on June 4. He sent half of his carrier aircraft against Midway, while he held the other half back in case the American fleet showed up. As the Japanese aircraft returned from the Midway strike, it became clear that another attack was necessary.

As the Japanese armed the planes for another attack, Japanese Admiral Nagumo received disturbing news: One of Japan's spotter planes reported sighting enemy ships, possibly a carrier. By the time Nagumo became aware of the American ships, aircraft from the USS Hornet, Enterprise, and Yorktown were already on their way to attack the Japanese carriers.

Nagumo took bombs off his planes and rearmed them with torpedoes to attack the most dangerous threat. Thus, at the moment American planes appeared, the Japanese carriers had more than 100 planes on the decks, fully fueled, with stacks of bombs and torpedoes sitting above and below the flight deck.

American torpedo planes began their attack. The U.S. pilots of the slow moving torpedo planes kept on course and were rapidly shot down one after another by the Japanese fighters protecting the carriers. Those few that were able to launch torpedoes missed their target. The annihilation of the American torpedo planes meant that American carriers were in range of Nagumo's torpedo planes. In just a few more minutes, Nagumo would be able to launch his own attack against the Americans — these were a few minutes that he didn't have.

Off the beaten path: McClusky's miracle

American Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky led 33 dive-bombers from the USS Enterprise in search of the Japanese carriers. McClusky's planes, getting low on fuel, would have to turn back soon. On a whim, McClusky flew off the prescribed track to look elsewhere. Minutes later, he found them. In fact, he found them just as the last of the torpedo planes had finished their fatal runs. All the Japanese fighters were close to the water, enabling McClusky's dive-bombers to come in without any interference. Dive-bombers from the USS Yorktown then appeared, and McClusky signaled for the attack. The result was devastating.

Caught completely by surprise, without protection from their own aircraft, and with decks fully loaded with fuel and weapons, the Japanese carriers were sitting ducks. Within minutes, two carriers were completely engulfed in flames. Another carrier quickly followed. The last Japanese carrier was lucky: It avoided the air attack and launched its planes against the Yorktown, damaging it with bombs and torpedoes until the carrier was dead in the water, the Americans abandoning the ship. However, the rearmed and refueled American planes found the last Japanese carrier and destroyed it.

Yamamoto tried to continue the fight with his battleships, but the Americans weren't interested in slugging it out. The American force withdrew, leaving the Japanese with no choice but to abandon the attack on Midway.

One Japanese cruiser was lost in the air attack, and a Japanese submarine sunk an American destroyer and the abandoned hulk of the USS Yorktown. There were no further losses in the battle. The Americans lost 137 aircraft and 300 men, and the Japanese lost over 330 aircraft and 3,500 men, many of them highly skilled, experienced combat pilots.

Midway: A Strategic Analysis

The story of the Battle of Midway is essentially the clash between old and new methods of waging naval war. Japanese Admiral Yamamoto represented the old method of fighting naval battles. He wanted to engage the American fleet in a surface battle, using battleships. American Admiral Nimitz left his battleships behind and relied on a new style of naval warfare, in which ships didn't fight within sight of each other. Instead, aircraft, launched from the ships, would be the decisive factor.

In the Battle of Midway, the new concept of warfare won out. The Americans had demonstrated their faith in the aircraft carrier, and Yamamoto, for all his belief in carriers, had packed most of his punch in battleships, which were essentially useless. The loss of four carriers and the fact that the U.S. was building more carriers than the Japanese (13 to 6, respectively) ended the Japanese hold on the Pacific.

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