(Editor’s note: here’s the third installment of Chris Ketcherside’s article on the Battle of Midway!)
The Japanese Naval Minister after the war remarked, “After Midway, I knew there was no chance of success.” Yamamoto also understood that the loss of 4 carriers meant the loss of Japanese Naval offensive strength, and giving the initiative to the Americans.
The Pacific War was primarily a naval war. Islands were fought over as potential air and naval bases to attack shipping. Japan was an island nation, and thus dependent on merchant shipping for imports. Control of the ocean let US forces seize islands which led to control of more of the ocean, which allowed US forces to cut off those merchant life lines, and eventually launch attacks on Japan itself.
The Imperial Japanese Navy lost critical ships at Midway. Over the next two years, Japan would launch 7 more aircraft carriers to replace those losses, ships that had been under construction since before the war started. In the same two years, the United States would launch 90 aircraft carriers. 90.
Just as critical though, Japan lost pilots. Over a third of the Japanese pilots involved in Midway lost their lives. These were the same highly trained, highly experienced pilots that had been flying for years, had attacked Pearl Harbor, and had been fighting so well the 6 months prior to Midway. It took years to train this cadre of pilots, and there would not be time to train replacements. As the war and its attrition continued, Japanese flight training time went from years to weeks. The pilots lost at Midway, and their like lost over the next few months of war, were never to be replaced in quality, and barely in quantity. On the other hand, the United States was able to expand their pilot training program so that over the next two years the pilots flying off those 90 carriers were some of the best trained in the world.
The United States was lucky at Midway, there is no doubt. The 10 bombs in 10 minutes at 10:00 on the 4th of June was part lucky, but also an exploitation of circumstance. It was an opportunity that came about from the hard work, diligence, persistence, and courage of the US Navy, from Nimitz who boldly gambled, to Rochefort who broke the code, to men like LtCdr Eugene Lindsey, who had been injured from ditching his plane prior to the battle so that it was painful to even wear his oxygen mask. But he donned it, and took off on June 4th to his doom, saying “This is what I have been trained to do.”
Midway did not guarantee the US would win the war against Japan. Much difficult fighting remained. Particularly since, having lost the initiative and knowing they could not militarily win the long war that they were now committed too, the Japanese adopted a strategy of exacting high casualties in the hopes that the US would tire of the war before they militarily won. What Midway did was create the circumstances that would make victory possible. Before June 4th, the Japanese Navy appeared invincible; afterwards its defeat by the US Navy was assured.
Books referenced and Recommended Reading;
Miracle at Midway – Gordon Prange
Why the Allies Won – Richard Overy
Inferno – Max Hastings (referenced, but I don’t recommend this necessarily)