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Midway May 1942 : The Destruction of Japan's Carrier Fleet

BA University of Arkansas (Fayetteville) Geography & History

Midway: The Principal of Calculated Risk

Doolittle's surprise raid on Tokyo would set the stage for the upcoming battle at Midway between the United States and the Empire of Japan. Doolittle's attack on April 18, 1942, off the deck of the USS Hornet by sixteen B-25 medium bombers caused only minor damage, but the psychological effect on Japan's senior military leadership was dramatic. The attack proved the existence of a gap in the defenses around the Japanese home islands exposing its vulnerability to air attack. After the attack Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander and chief of the Japanese Navy, set in motion a plan to destroy what American carrier forces that remained in the Pacific Ocean once and for all. Yamamoto believed without its carriers the United States would no longer pose a threat to Japanese expansion, and would force the Americans to the peace table.

Yamamoto's plan involved in setting a trap for the American carriers in the vast ocean surrounding the mid-Pacific Atoll of Midway. Sinking America's aircraft carriers and seizing Midway, the only strategic island besides Hawaii in the East Pacific, was seen as the only means of nullifying the threat to Japan's home islands. Given the strength of American land-based airpower on Hawaii, Yamamoto conceded that the powerful American base couldn't be attacked directly for a second time. Instead, he chose the capture of the atoll of Midway, at the extreme northwest end of the Hawaiian Island chain, some 1,300 miles from Oahu, as a stepping stone for future carrier based bombing attacks to break down Hawaii's defenses. Yamamoto guessed the Americans would consider Midway a vital outpost and therefore strongly defend it at all cost. Also, Midway's ultimate value in the submarine war could not be ignored.

Yamamoto's attack had all the hallmarks of Japanese planning. The attack was over-complexed, made unjustified assumptions on how the enemy would react, and failed to concentrate their forces. The Japanese committed eight air craft carriers to the battle, but planned on wasting half of them on a diversionary attack on the Aleutian Islands along the coast of Alaska. The attack on Alaska divided their forces needlessly, since the Americans already knew where the main attack would take place due to ULTRA. Also Yamamoto's supporting main body of battleships and cruisers would trail Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo's carrier striking force by several hundred miles, too far away to give Nagumo the added support he would need in the approaching battle. Japan's heavy surface ships were intended to destroy whatever part of the American fleet which might come to Midway's relief, only after Nagumo's carriers had weakened them sufficiently for a daylight gun duel to be fought. However, their distance from Nagumo's carriers would have grave implications during the battle, since most the battleships could have provided valuable anti-aircraft coverage instead of being reserved for a surface duel that would never be fought. In addition, the battleships were escorted by cruisers, which possessed scout planes that would have been invaluable to Nagumo's attempt in finding the American carriers.

Possibly in spite of all its faults their plan might have worked if the Americans hadn't known all its secrets. With the help ULTRA , American intelligence by this point in the war decrypted 85% of all Japanese communiqués. A group of dedicated code breakers, and in particular Lieutenant Commander Joseph Rochefort, supplied the vital information that ended up giving the Americans the deciding edge in the unfolding battle at Midway.

Once Chester W. Nimitz, the American commander of all naval forces in the Pacific, was informed about Yamamoto's plan of attack he decided to set a trap of his own for Yamamoto. Nimitz anticipated the location of the Japanese strike force before the battle. He then positioned his carriers in the proper positions to reach out and strike Yamamoto's carriers at long range. He was able to deploy his sea power in an advantageous position near Midway 24 hours before the Japanese arrived for the battle to create the element of surprise. He sent two carrier groups with a heavy escort comprising of the carriers Hornet, Enterprise, and the recently repaired Yorktown. One group was placed under the command of hard charging Rear-Admiral Fletcher, in Task Force 17, who would be aboard the Yorktown with the other carrier group commanded by Rear-Admiral Spruance codenamed Task Force 16. Nimitz was also able to place his own submarine screening force to the west of Midway before the Japanese submarines placed their own screen west of Pearl Harbor. This maneuver gave the Americans the advantage of laying and waiting for Nagomo's carriers in the upcoming battle.

Calculated Risk and Fate Turn the Tide of War

Yamamoto's belief that the Americans were demoralized by their numerous defeats in the past six months instilled within him a reckless over-confidence. His plan was to set a trap at Midway for the American navy, but in fact he would set the stage for Japan's greatest military defeat in three hundred years. The odds against the Americans in the battle were so long that their ultimate triumph defied comprehension. The Japanese navy heavily outnumbered the Americans in capital ships with eight aircraft carriers and seven battleships in the battle. After the attack on Pearl Harbor the Americans were left with almost nothing in battleships, and what battleships they possessed were too old and too slow to keep up with their carriers.

In December 1936, when Japan's government formally renounced the Washington Treaty, Japan embarked on a naval expansion the produced four new big-deck carriers in just four years. The Soryu and the Hiryu, each when fully loaded were capable of carrying sixty-three planes each, and the Shokaku and Zuikaku, were capable of carrying seventy-two planes each. By the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan had a total of eleven carriers the largest carrier force in the world. They were masters of carrier based attacks after their invasion of China which had been going on since 1932. Japan's two biggest carriers were the massive Kaga and the Akagi, displacing over 40,000 tons each when fully loaded, they had flight decks over 800 feet long much larger than anything the American navy possessed. Together these two behemoths could carry over 180 airplanes. Their major disadvantage was their relatively slow speed, because of their armored hulls, they had been converted from battleships. The sleeker battle-cruiser hull of the Akagi gave her a respectable speed of 31 knots, but the heavily armored battleship hull of the Kaga slowed her top speed to 28 knots. This compared unfavorably with the 33-knot speed of America's big carriers.

Many historians believe that the American victory at Midway was a product of fate, or luck, or possibly divine will. Yamamoto also had predicated incorrectly on optimistic intelligence suggesting that the USS Enterprise and USS Hornet, forming Task Force 16, were the only carriers available to the Americans at the time of the battle. The USS Lexington had been sunk and USS Yorktown severely damaged (and believed sunk) at the Battle of the Coral Sea just a month earlier. The Americans would repair Yorktown in just forty-eight hours giving them an added punch for the ocean battle surrounding Midway. As fate would have it the planes launched from her flight deck would deal the Japanese navy a decisive blow. Likewise, the Japanese were aware that the USS Saratoga was undergoing repairs on the west coast of the United States after taking torpedo damage from a submarine. As such, the Japanese believed they faced at most two American fleet carriers at the point of contact near Midway.

The Japanese Attack Midway

The Japanese navy would put together the largest attack force yet in the war at Midway, more than 200 ships a 4 to 1 advantage over the Americans. At that time the Japanese navy led the world in carrier based operations. The Japanese force was separated into three main groups. The first included the Invasion Group supported by a powerful escort comprising of seven battleships and one light carrier under Yamamoto's command. The Japanese strike force was made up of four of their largest carriers which was the most powerful carrier force in the world which included the heavy carriers Hiryu, Kaga, Akagi, and the Soryu, under the command of Vice Admiral Nagumo . The third group would include the invasion force of 1,000 soldiers with their transports, and twenty destroyers. With all these vessels the Japanese heavily outweighed the Americans in the battle that was soon to take place. The American commander of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz, applied the "Principal of Calculated Risk" to the battle which his commanders would interrupt as to not expose their forces to a superior enemy force, without the proper chance of inflicting greater damage to the enemy. The American navy would position their ships northeast of Midway, at a location codenamed "Point Luck", and wait for the enemy, at a place where Japanese Admiral Nagumo would least expect them so soon before the battle began.

If Nagumo's carrier strike force knocked out the American navy's last remaining three carriers, it would leave the west coast of the United States defenseless to Japanese carrier based attack. This Yamamoto hoped would force the Americans to the peace table, before American industrial capacity over-whelmed Japan's military. When Nagumo's carriers left for Midway their hangar decks were packed with some of the best combat pilots and aircraft in the world. Most of the Japan's carrier planes were hand made, they believed it was more important to have one hundred airplanes of the highest quality, than two hundred that were merely adequate. This meant that once the war began, Japan's factories were unable to produce replacement airplanes quickly or in large amounts. During 1941, even as Japan prepared for war, its aviation industry produced only about 162 airplanes a month. In contrast, American plants were producing 4,000 planes a month in 1942 alone, and afterward U.S. plants would turn out 10,000 planes a month.

The Japanese naval officers in the Second World War excelled at following a carefully scripted plan. But at Midway they would demonstrate they were not very comfortable at changing their plans once things went awry. Unlike Yamamoto who was a born gambler and liked games of chance, Nagumo was considered by some of his senior commanders insufficiently bold enough to be a successful commander. He was a worrier by nature who fretted over even the smallest of details. On the other hand American commanders reacted quickly and decisively once Nagumo's carriers were sited by navy PBYs. Admiral Fletcher, in overall command on board the Yorktown, and armed with the PBY sighting reports from the early morning, ordered an all out attack from all three American carriers without delay. Fletcher's order put American planes over the Japanese carriers even before they knew they were close enough to launch an attack.

June 4 1942 : That Fateful Day

Midway was the dawn of a new era in Naval warfare, waged by aircraft carriers hundreds of miles apart. It was the first major fleet encounter where the ships on each side never came within visual range of enemy vessels. Victory or defeat didn't depend on the big guns of battleships, but on carrier based bombers, and torpedo bombers flying over vast tracks of ocean to seek out and destroy their targets. The fate of the United States and the Empire of Japan hung in the balance Midway. Both sides would risk everything on this day in June 1942 for control the Pacific Ocean.

Early in the morning of June 4, 1942, everything went as planned for Japanese Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo as he launched his initial attack wave of 109 aircraft against Midway Island. At 6:20 a.m., the Japanese bombed and heavily damaged the U.S. base at Midway. But just before the Japanese attack on Midway began, American flying boats (PBYs) spotted Nagumo's carriers and American commanders on Midway launched their B-17s to bomb Nagumo's carriers. Though American attack was ineffective, it rattled Nagumo causing him great concern about future B-17 attacks from Midway. As fate would have it the American bombers narrowly escaped Nagumo's trap, if they would have been sitting on the airfield at Midway they would have most likely been destroyed by Nagumo's carrier based aircraft.

At this point Nagumo's search aircraft hadn't sited the American carriers northeast of Midway at "Point Luck". Inadequate Japanese reconnaissance left Nagumo completely unware that three enemy aircraft carriers were actually on a collision course with his fleet. He expected the American carriers to be still anchored at Pearl Harbor, not at Midway, and most assuredly not close enough to launch an attack . Soon after their attack on Midway a Japanese search plane finally spotted an American carrier nearby. But the alert came too late for Nagumo to react to this new threat, since American commanders had already launched every plane available to destroy Nagumo's carrier strike force.

Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher: Unites States Navy

Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher in September 1942. Fletcher would lead Task Force 17 aboard the aircraft carrier Yorktown.

Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher in September 1942. Fletcher would lead Task Force 17 aboard the aircraft carrier Yorktown.

The Americans Surprises Nagumo's Strike Force

As fate would have it, American flight deck operations were not nearly as proficient as the Japanese at this point in the war. The American air attack was launched in a piecemeal fashion, it proceeded to the enemy target in several groups. This diminished the overall impact of the American attacks and greatly increased their casualties, although later it had the effect of splitting the Japanese air defenses around their carriers leaving the defenseless. The American torpedo squadrons went in separately, one after another, with little or no fighter support, fifty-one torpedo planes attacked Japanese ships that day, only seven made it back to base. Not one torpedo found its mark. But their bravery would change the course of the battle. The battle for Midway would continue for another two days but it was already over for the the American torpedo squadrons. Their sacrifice would leave Japanese carriers without fighter protection just as the Enterprise's dive bombers arrive on the scene.

After arriving at the location where the Japanese carrier force was expected to be, low on fuel, U.S. Navy Air Group commander Wade McClusky of the USS Enterprise remained calm and made the counterintuitive choice to search to the north instead of the south for the missing enemy ships. He took a calculated risk of continuing the search even though he knew that his two squadrons of Dauntless dive-bombers were all running dangerously low on fuel, with barely have enough fuel left to make it back to the Enterprise.

Contrary to some of the accounts of the battle, recent research indicates the Japanese were not preparing to launch a counterstrike against the Americans at the time of the attack. The few aircraft on the Japanese flight decks at the precise moment of the attack were strike fighters desperately attempting to reinforce the combat air patrol above Nagomo's carriers. Fuel hoses were snaking across the decks of the carriers as refueling operations were being hastily completed, and the constant change of ordnance meant that bombs and torpedoes were stacked around the hangars rather then being stowed away safely in the magazines. The Japanese carriers were in an extraordinary vulnerable position. Regardless, the moment of opportunity was exploited for all it was was worth by the American dive-bomber pilots.

McClusky ordered his dive-bombers to attack at 10:22 a.m., Enterprises aircraft attacked the Kaga, while to the south Yorktown's aircraft attacked the carrier Soryu, with Akagi being struck by several of Enterprise's bombers four minutes later. Soon all three carriers were on fire with huge black columns of smoke pouring from their decks. They were now nothing more than death traps for the soldiers still left alive on the carriers. Within six minutes Japan's chances of capturing Midway and winning the war would have to be abandoned. The Akagi was hit by just one bomb, but it had a devastating effect on the ship penetrating the upper hangar deck exploding among the armed and fueled aircraft there. The Kaga took at least four hits and likely more, and the Soryu took three bomb hits in the hangar decks. This left only the Hiryu, which would manage to escape the attack thanks to a rain squall hiding her from the view of American aircraft.

The Hiryu Seeks Revenge

The sole surviving Japanese aircraft carrier commander of the Hiryu wasted little time launching two air attacks, aimed at the American carrier Yorktown in an attempt to even the battlefield. The first strike of Japanese dive-bombers badly damaged Yorktown with two bomb hits, but her damage control teams patched her up so well that the second strike of torpedo bombers mistook her for a new carrier. Yorktown absorbed both Japanese attacks, the second wave of attackers believed mistakenly that Yorktown had already been sunk and they had attacked the Enterprise. Japanese pilots would return back to the Hiryu believing they had evened the battle. Despite putting up determined anti-aircraft barrage, the Yorktown was heavily damage by the Japanese air attacks, and was finally sunk by a Japanese submarine I-168 on June 7, 1942.

When American scout aircraft subsequently located the Hiryu later that day, Enterprise and Yorktown launched a final strike of dive bombers against the last Japanese carrier that left her in flames, despite being defended by over a dozen Zero fighters. The commander of the Hiryu, Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi chose to go down with his ship. As darkness fell, both sides chose to disengage from the battle and take stock of the situation.

Before the battle was over the Japanese lost four of her largest aircraft carriers, a cruiser, 332 aircraft and over 3,500 men. The most significate loss was that of their experienced carrier pilots, many of whom had been involved with the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Americans lost one air craft carrier, one destroyer, 150 aircraft, and 307 men. This would be the turning point of the Japanese expansion in the Pacific Ocean, they would no longer seek the offensive and go on the defensive for the rest of the war. Pearl Harbor and the American west coast would no longer be threatened by the Japanese military.

Although the battle has often been called "the turning point of the Pacific War", it clearly didn't win the war overnight for the Americans. However, the victory at Midway gave the United States the opportunity to seize the strategic initiative and inflicted irreparable damage on the Japanese front line carrier force, and shortened the war in the Pacific. Just two months later, the Americans took the offensive and attacked Guadalcanal, catching the Japanese off-balance. Midway dealt Japanese naval aviation a heavy blow. the pre-war Japanese training program produced pilots of exceptional quality but at a slow rate. This small group of elite aviators were combat hardened veterans. At Midway, the Japanese lost as many of these pilots in a single day as their training program graduated in a year.

Japan Loses the Initiative

Before the battle was over the Japanese lost four of her largest aircraft carriers, a cruiser, 332 aircraft and over 3,500 men. The most significate loss was that of their experienced carrier pilots, many of whom had been involved with the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Americans lost one air craft carrier, one destroyer, 150 aircraft, and 307 men. This would be the turning point of the Japanese expansion in the Pacific Ocean, they would no longer seek the offensive and go on the defensive for the rest of the war. Pearl Harbor and the American west coast would no longer be threatened by the Japanese military.

Although the battle has often been called "the turning point of the Pacific War", it clearly didn't win the war overnight for the Americans. However, the victory at Midway gave the United States the opportunity to seize the strategic initiative and inflicted irreparable damage on the Japanese front line carrier force, and shortened the war in the Pacific. Just two months later, the Americans took the offensive and attacked Guadalcanal, catching the Japanese off-balance. Midway dealt Japanese naval aviation a heavy blow. the pre-war Japanese training program produced pilots of exceptional quality but at a slow rate. This small group of elite aviators were combat hardened veterans. At Midway, the Japanese lost as many of these pilots in a single day as their training program graduated in a year.

Sources

D'Angelo James. Victory at Midway: The Battle That Changed the Course of World War II. McFarland & Company , Inc., Publishers. Box 611 Jefferson , North Carolina 28640 US. 2018

Kernan, Alvin. The Unknown Battle of Midway: The Destruction of the American Torpedo Squadrons. Yale University Press/ New Haven & London, 302 Temple Street New Haven, CT 06511 US. 2005

Lewin, Ronald. Ultra Goes to War: The First Account of World War II's Greatest Secret McGraw Hill Book Company New York NY 1011. 1978

Overy, Richard. The New York Times Complete World War II 1939-1945. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc. 151 West 19th Street, New York, NY 10011. 2013

© 2021 Mark Caruthers

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on July 29, 2021:

Mark, your article is retold with original research. Thought I read history at school, it has greatly contributed to my knowledge base. Thanks.

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