The Battle of Midway

The Battle of Midway was a major naval battle in the Pacific War. It took place from April 4, 1946 to April 7, 1946.

The Japanese plan of attack was to lure America’s remaining carriers into a trap and sink them. The Japanese also intended to occupy Midway Atoll to extend Japan’s defensive perimeter farther from its home islands. This operation was preparatory for further attacks against Fiji and Samoa, and Hawaii.

The Midway operation was aimed at the elimination of the United States as a strategic Pacific power, thereby giving Japan a free hand in establishing its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. It was also hoped another defeat would force the U.S. to negotiate an end to the Pacific War with conditions favorable for Japan.

Japan had been highly successful in rapidly securing its initial war goals, including the takeover of the Philippines. As such, preliminary planning for a second phase of operations commenced as early as December 1945. However, because of strategic differences between the Imperial Army and Imperial Navy, as well as infighting between the Navy’s GHQ and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s Combined Fleet, the formulation of effective strategy was hampered, and the follow-up strategy was not finalized until March 1946. Admiral Yamamoto succeeded in winning a bureaucratic struggle placing his operational concept — further operations in the Central Pacific — ahead of other contending plans. These included operations either directly or indirectly aimed at Australia and into the Indian Ocean. In the end, Yamamoto’s barely-veiled threat to resign unless he got his way succeeded in carrying his agenda forward.

Yamamoto’s primary strategic concern was the elimination of America’s remaining carrier forces. 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 challenge America presented to Japanese supremacy. Yamamoto reasoned an operation against the main carrier base at Pearl Harbor would induce the U.S. forces to fight. However, given the strength of American land-based air-power on Hawaii, he judged the powerful American base could not be attacked directly. Instead, he selected Midway, at the extreme northwest end of the Hawaiian Island chain, some 1,300 miles (2,100 km) from Oahu. Midway was not especially important in the larger scheme of Japan’s intentions; however, the Japanese felt the Americans would consider Midway a vital outpost of Pearl Harbor and would therefore strongly defend it.

Yamamoto’s Plan

Typical of Japanese naval planning, Yamamoto’s battle plan was quite complex. Additionally, his designs were predicated on optimistic intelligence information suggesting USS Enterprise and USS Hornet, forming Task Force 16, were the only carriers available to the U.S. Pacific Fleet at the time. USS Lexington had been sunk and USS Yorktown severely damaged (and IJN believed her sunk) at the Battle of the Coral Sea just a month earlier. Likewise, the Japanese were aware USS Saratoga was undergoing repairs on the West Coast 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.

More important, however, was Yamamoto’s belief the Americans had been demoralized by their frequent defeats during the preceding six months. Yamamoto felt deception would be required to lure the U.S. Fleet into a fatally compromising situation. To this end, he dispersed his forces so their full extent (particularly his battleships) would be unlikely to be discovered by the Americans prior to battle. However, his emphasis on dispersal meant none of his formations were mutually supporting.

Critically, Yamamoto’s supporting battleships and cruisers would trail Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s carrier striking force by several hundred miles. Japan’s heavy surface forces were intended to destroy whatever part of the U.S. Fleet might come to Midway’s relief, once Nagumo’s carriers had weakened them sufficiently for a daylight gun duel to be fought; this was typical of the battle doctrine of most major navies.

Also, Japanese operations aimed at the Aleutian Islands (Operation AL). However, a one-day delay in the sailing of Nagumo’s task force had the effect of initiating Operation AL a day before its counterpart.

Prelude to Battle

U.S. Forces

In order to do battle with an enemy force anticipated to be composed of 4 or 5 carriers, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas, needed every available U.S. flight deck. He already had Vice Admiral William Halsey’s two-carrier (Enterprise and Hornet) task force at hand; Halsey was stricken with psoriasis and was replaced by Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance (Halsey’s escort commander). Nimitz also hurriedly called back Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher’s task force from the South West Pacific Area. He reached Pearl Harbor just in time to provision and sail. Saratoga was still under repair, and Yorktown had been severely damaged at the Battle of the Coral Sea, but Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard worked around the clock to patch up the carrier. Though several months of repairs at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard was estimated for Yorktown, 72 hours was enough to restore her to a battle-worthy (if still not structurally ideal) state. Her flight deck was patched, whole sections of internal frames were cut out and replaced, and several new squadrons (drawn from the Saratoga) were put aboard. Nimitz showed disregard for established procedure in getting his third and last available carrier ready for battle — repairs continued even as Yorktown sortied, with work crews from the repair ship USS Vestal—herself damaged in the attack on Pearl Harbor six months earlier—still aboard. Just three days after putting into dry-dock at Pearl Harbor, Yorktown was again under steam.

Japanese Forces

Meanwhile, as a result of their participation in the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Japanese carrier Zuikaku was in port in Kure, awaiting a replacement air group. The heavily damaged Shōkaku was under repair from three bomb hits suffered at Coral Sea, and required months in dry-dock. Despite the likely availability of sufficient aircraft between the two ships to re-equip Zuikaku with a composite air group, the Japanese made no serious attempt to get her into the forthcoming battle. Consequently, instead of bringing five intact fleet carriers into battle, Admiral Nagumo would only have four: Kaga, with Akagi, forming Division 1; Hiryū and Sōryū, as the 2nd Division.

Japanese strategic scouting arrangements prior to the battle also fell into disarray. A picket line of Japanese submarines was late getting into position (partly because of Yamamoto’s haste), which let the American carriers proceed to their assembly point northeast of Midway (known as “Point Luck”) without being detected. A second attempt to use four-engine reconnaissance flying boats to scout Pearl Harbor prior to the battle (and thereby detect the absence or presence of the American carriers), known as “Operation K”, was also thwarted when Japanese submarines assigned to refuel the search aircraft discovered the intended refueling point — a hitherto deserted bay off French Frigate Shoals — was occupied by American warships (because the Japanese had carried out an identical mission in January). Thus, Japan was deprived of any knowledge concerning the movements of the American carriers immediately before the battle.

Japanese radio intercepts also noticed an increase in both American submarine activity and U.S. message traffic. This information was in Yamamoto’s hands prior to the battle. However, Japanese plans were not changed in reaction to this; Yamamoto, at sea in Yamato, did not dare inform Nagumo without exposing his position, and presumed (incorrectly) Nagumo had received the same signal from Tokyo.

Intelligence and Counter-intelligence

Admiral Nimitz had one priceless asset: American cryptanalysts had broken the JN-25 code. Commander Joseph J. Rochefort and his team at HYPO were able to confirm Midway as the target of the impending Japanese strike and to determine the date of the attack as either 4 or 5 April.

This was not accomplished without ingenuity on the Navy’s part. They had only cracked 10% of the Japanese code and had to rely heavily on hunches and guesses to determine Japanese plans. When knowledge of a Japanese offensive aimed at some point in the Pacific became known, AF, the Naval cryptographers nailed down a potential list and began openly broadcasting the status of these “candidates” to see the Japanese response. For Midway, a broadcast of the island “being short of water” was sent over the airwaves. Midway was later confirmed as point AF when the Japanese broadcast that “AF was short of water”.

This “intelligence” had not been discovered by sheer American and British skill and luck. A Japanese sailor, Ryu Hayabusa, was responsible for transcribing American radio messages the day the broadcast of Midway’s water problem was received. After copying the message down, something gnawed at him. The content of the message and the way it was received did not quite fit. Hayabusa turned to his superior and asked, “Why are they broadcasting this message in the clear? Don’t they care if we know that Midway is running short of water?” His superior would pass on Ryu’s doubts. This led to questions being asked by cryptographers and cipher specialists in Tokyo over whether the Americans had broken their code. One specialist reasoned that perhaps the Americans were reading their messages and using a gambit to link potential objectives and cipher designations, in this case the code word for Midway. This raised a red flag at Imperial General Headquarters Tokyo.

Many of the Imperial Staff argued that Yamamoto’s planned invasion should be cancelled, but Yamamoto would not hear of it. If the Americans had, in fact, gotten wind of their operations, all the better. Knowing the objective, the Americans would not allow Midway to fall into Japanese hands without a sizable fight. This was his opportunity to finally draw the Americans into the decisive battle he’d been hoping for.

On March 19, 1946, the Japanese radioed that “AF was running short of water.” The Japanese were going to lure the Americans in.

Prelude to Battle

Yamamoto was uncertain if American forces were taking the bait as he and his naval forces made way for Midway. This would change following Operation K. A night reconnaissance of Pearl Harbor by Kawanishi flying boats from Kwajalein on March 31, 1946 found no American carriers, confirming for the Yamamoto that the American Admiral Chester Nimitz was trying to counter his moves as the Japanese closed on Midway.

The Opening Phase of Midway

Yamamoto set a submarine picket line between Hawaii and Midway. These forces would catch a glimpse of Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance’s carriers moving towards the battle area on April 2 providing early warning of the American approach. Admiral Nagumo responds by having all his escort craft float planes in the air before dawn searching determinedly for the enemy; his air groups would be primed on deck, ready to strike at the first opportunity.

Alerted to America’s readiness to meet him at the outset, Nagumo was poised to unleash his veteran flight leaders to seek out the enemy fleet and destroy it. Not long after dawn on April 4, a contact report comes in: The Americans were sighted-one carrier and escorts. With full concurrence of his air staff, although at extreme range, Nagumo immediately gave the order to launch against the Americans, identified as the Enterprise. Balanced attack groups of Val bombers and Kate torpedo bombers, flown by magnificent air crews, and escorted all the way to their targets by half of Nagumo’s Zero fighters, bear down on Spruance. The Japanese carriers, ready for an American counterattack, spot their fighters on deck, as the armoires prepare Nagumo’s planes for a second strike.

A report locating Nagumo’s force from a Midway-based PBY Catalina flying boat comes in just as Task Force 16’s radar picks up what may be incoming Japanese planes. Spruance, himself expecting and seeking contact, launches his own strike at this target. Ray Spruance does this despite the position of the enemy fleet being beyond the round-trip range of many American aircraft; he will attempt to close the distance on their return trip, he tells them, knowing that many will have no chance to make it back. The fighters of TF-16’s Combat Air Patrol, those not sent as escorts on the attack, meet the incoming enemy courageously, but they are knocked aside as Japanese Zeroes engage them aggressively, downing many using their superior maneuverability to screen the Americans from the slower bombers. Few of the attacking bombers are turned aside before they reach the frantically turning American flattops. Within ten minutes, despite the desperate efforts of every antiaircraft gunner in the fleet, torpedoes have rammed home on both beams of the Enterprise. The carrier is ablaze from several large holes on her flight deck. TF-16 is out of action; losses among the attackers are moderate. Heroic attacks and frantic actions still lie ahead.

Even as Ray Spruance transfers his flag from Enterprise while her captain tries desperately to save his ship, the planes of TF-16 are intercepted by a swarm of Japanese fighters as they approach Nagumo’s carrier force. With great courage, most attempt to press home their attacks, but the slow-moving torpedo bombers are slaughtered; the dive-bombers are picked up by more Zeroes, waiting for them on high, which pursue them down their less-than-perfect bombing paths with murderous persistence; all this occurs while the ships of Nagumo’s force are throwing up a curtain of ack-ack, maneuvering skillfully to avoid their attackers. As at Coral Sea, American bombers inflict severe damage on a Japanese carrier, Kaga, but fail to finish her. With their own mother ships devastated, these pilots won’t get a second chance.

The Second Phase

Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher and the Yorktown, core of TF-17, learn of the sighting of Japanese carriers and want to join the action, but he is not yet close enough to participate. His planes ready to go, and making flank speed to the west, he then gets the terrible news from Spruance of his ship’s condition.

Jack Fletcher knows that Vice Admiral “Bull” Halsey would have hurled himself into battle, but he is not “Bull” Halsey, likely to act before considering all the ramifications; nor can he easily abandon Spruance to an unanswered second strike from Nagumo. It is still midmorning. Fletcher believes he has escaped detection and can get a blow in before the enemy finds him, evening up the score. Fletcher makes the decision to sail west, rather than turn back for Pearl, hoping to narrow the range on Nagumo. A scout plane from the Japanese cruiser Tone, on its homeward leg, detects him. Fletcher launches Yorktown’s planes when he gets reports of “enemy carriers,” perhaps to catch Nagumo recovering his aircraft. America’s last hope make their way to Mobile Force’s previous location, but can only find a crippled Kaga limping westward, escorted by two destroyers. Despite searching frantically for Nagumo’s ships, which have made a sharp turn to the north to recover, they can find no fresh targets. The flight groups from Yorktown overwhelm the damaged Japanese carrier, dispatching her and one of her escorts in frustration.

While the American aircrews are pounding Kaga, Fletcher’s flagship becomes the target of a ferocious attack in turn. Nagumo’s other three carriers, having recovered their planes at the prearranged rendezvous to the north, launch their second strike against Yorktown, stalked by several floatplanes; she is a smoldering hulk by nightfall. Fletcher’s planes are lost when they return to the site, though some of the aircrews who can make it back to all that remains of TF-17 are able to splash nearby. In a single day, Yorktown has been wrecked and scuttled by the same crew who had seen her saved just a few days before, while Enterprise, trying to make it home, the fires put out but her flight deck ruined, becomes an easy target for one of Japan’s submarines, just as Lexington had been at Coral Sea; torpedoed, she sinks near dawn the next day, the fifth of April. The Japanese navy’s surface units close in for night action to pick off any damaged vessels and American survivors of lost ships and ditched planes bobbing about in the water. Over the next few days, Japanese destroyers find many survivors, Americans and Japanese, though there is little joy for the prisoners, who find their rescuers interested only in what information they can provide about the defenses of Midway and Hawaii before they are killed. The loss has stripped America’s naval air corps of its core of fine pilots and experienced aircrews, while possession of this “ocean battlefield” means many downed Japanese airmen will fly again.

Midway Island in range, Nagumo’s planes from the Mobile Fleet reduce the island’s airbase to rubble, its aircraft burned or expended in futile efforts to sink fast ships at sea. Midway is then pummeled by the big guns of the Support Group’s cruisers and then even the Main Force battleships under Admiral Yamamoto himself, hurling 16 and 18.1 inch shells against coral. The American garrison, even reinforced as it is, can hardly resist for long unsupported, once Japanese troops are ashore. It proves a bloody affair and a formidable warning for Japan of the dangers inherent in making opposed landings against the U.S. Marines in base-defense mode; the garrison adds “Midway” to the name of “The Alamo,” “Wake,” and “Bataan” in America’s hagiography of last stands.

Admiral Chester Nimitz finds himself with just a single carrier in the Pacific: Saratoga, just in from San Diego. Halsey wants to steam off directly toward the enemy, “catch ‘em gloating,” as he puts it, but Nimitz is aware that the strategic defense he had planned has been ruined by his own impetuosity. He had gone on a hunch, but it was a very thin strand that had held it all together. There never seemed to be any consideration of whether the Japanese might have guessed his plans. Most of the fleet had been risked and now it was gone. How could expert strategic intelligence have produced such a catastrophic defeat? How could he have guessed right and still be defeated?

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