The Battle of Midway: Turning Point in the Pacific, Part One

(Editor’s note: another wonderful article on military history by Chris Ketcherside. Apparently he is rather enjoying his role as resident military historian…! Check in tomorrow for the next installment!)

This submission is meant to show why those of us who love military history love it so much.  The Battle of Midway contains all the drama and excitement you could wish for.

Midway  is often called a “turning point” but this phrase is so often used it is a cliché except in the sense it is usually wrong.  For instance, Gettysburg is more of a “high tide” or climax than it is a turning point.  The Invasion of Normandy was not a turning point, but a crucial progression.   Despite the urgings of dramatic History Channel advertisements, there are very few actual turning points in military history, that being a single battle or event that moves the course of war so that the winning side is now headed for inevitable defeat.  The Battle of Midway is one of those.  It is pointless conjecture to try and extrapolate whether or not the Japanese, if they had won at Midway, would “dictate peace terms on the White House steps” as they had hoped.  The fact is, in the months between their devastating attack at Pearl Harbor in December of 1941and Midway in June of 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy ranged across the Pacific and had fought in numerous battles and won all of them, inflicting huge defeats on US and British naval forces.   The Japanese Navy had ensured the Japanese Army’s seizure of most of Southeast  Asia, the Southwest Pacific, and the Philippines.   After their defeat at Midway, Japan’s strategists determined they no longer could take the initiative, and conceded themselves to a defensive war of attrition and retreat.

It is not just the complete reversal of victors to vanquished that makes the battle fascinating; it also holds many dramatic “for want of a nail” moments where the battle itself could have gone either way.  This article will only skim the surface of the many stories of courage, determination, recklessness, foolishness, and black comedy that contributed to turning the tide. It is for all these reasons that this is one of the most popular battles studied, and one of my favorite.

One of my favorite battles.  I do understand how disingenuous that sounds.   It is a fascinating study, but of course, you can never forget that thousands died and thousands more were maimed in the course of it.  Before we begin, I would like the reader to keep in mind some aspects of naval combat that the article will not dwell on but should be at the back of the reader’s mind.

Arguably, there is no pleasant way to die or be killed, but modern naval combat had horrors all its own.  In combat between ships, killing people is only incidental; the intent is to sink the ship or burn it out.  The explosive force used to rend the metal of a ship, which could be 8 inch thick steel, is of course tremendous, and in the course of using such force to blow holes in ships, hundreds of people would be ripped apart.  Merely the concussion of the blast could be fatal, especially in the confines of a ship.   Once those holes were made, the inrushing water in those same confines could quickly drown those trying to escape.   Exploding boilers blasted steam that could burn horribly or kill in seconds.  Same with fuel oil, once uncontained it caused terrible damage.  Warships carried ammunition in huge amounts which, if hit, could be instantaneously totally destructive, as it was to the USS Arizona.  Aircraft carriers carried tremendous amounts of aviation fuel which does not burn so much as it explodes when ignited uncontrolled.   This would lead to the death of most carriers and the sailors on them.   Whether it burned out or sunk, those who survived would often find themselves adrift at sea, where they faced death by exposure or by drowning.  The survivors of the USS Indianapolis will demand the mention of sharks as well.  Relatively, compared to many other battles, the Battle of Midway did not result in huge loss of life, but that is no consolation if one of those relative few was you or yours.  So enjoy this article, but not too much.

Part 1    Setting

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese military embarked on campaigns to seize an empire in the South Pacific that were as fast and successful as Germany’s blitzkrieg attacks in Europe had been.  In fact, the attack on the US fleet was only meant to neutralize the United States while Japan seized the raw material in oil, metals, and rubber, it needed to capture and defend the empire it felt entitled to.    Their strategic plan was to inflict damage on US and British forces to discourage them from resisting, and then take and hold an empire including most of China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and countless other islands, essentially the entire Southwest area of the Pacific Ocean and Southeast Asia.  And they were well on their way after Pearl Harbor.  For the first 6 months of 1942, the Japanese appeared unbeatable and unstoppable.

Two events happened though that disturbed the Japanese planners.  One was the Battle of the Coral Sea, where US naval forces, principally their carriers which had not been at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, managed to fight a Japanese invasion fleet to a draw.  Damage was heavier for the US, but more importantly, the Japanese invasion of Port Moresby in New Guinea was thwarted.

Less important strategically but more important politically, the US was able to launch a small bombing force off of carriers and strike Tokyo itself.   The damage was minimal, and all of the bombers and some of the crews were lost, but the fact that Tokyo was attacked had a profound effect on the Japanese.  The entire intent of their campaigns of 1942 had been to ensure the security of the home islands and their empire.  With the US carrier fleet still intact, and the US evidently still showing intent to fight, Japanese planners determined that the US fleet had to be destroyed. In doing so, the Japanese would gain immediate security in naval dominance of the Pacific, and hoped to persuade the United States to negotiate a peace rather than continue to fight against overwhelming Japanese military force.

Thus was born the operation centered on Midway Island.  Midway, west of Hawaii, was still held by US forces.   Its name denoted the fact that it was midway between Hawaii and points further east for air travel.   It served as a very well place airbase.

The Japanese plan, Operation Mai, had two main parts.   The smaller portion of the Japanese fleet would conduct an invasion of the Aleutian Islands, which was intended primarily as a feint to draw off some US surface forces, while the larger portion of the Japanese fleet conducted the main operation, the invasion of Midway Island.  The invasion of Midway would provide the Japanese with a key airfield to control the central Pacific, and they knew the importance of this would draw the US fleet into a naval battle, where Admiral Yamamoto, lead Japanese naval strategist and the architect behind Pearl Harbor, intended to destroy it.   The Japanese would seize the island, and use it as an airbase.  Together with their carriers they would wait for the US fleet to come to the rescue of Midway where it would be ambushed and destroyed.

Admiral Yamamoto himself is an interesting figure.  He had studied at Harvard, and therefore felt he understood Americans better than most Japanese.  When the option of war with the United States was discussed, he was asked what the Japanese Navy could do.  He replied, “I can give them hell for 6 months to a year, after that, we are crushed.”   He understood the huge industrial capacity of the United States, and the resolve with which it could act.  He had pinned his hopes on crushing US naval capability so thoroughly at Pearl Harbor the US would not wish to continue fighting. Failing to do that, he now intended to destroy the remains of the fleet in this operation to bring about a negotiated peace.

For the main attack at Midway, the Japanese allocated a huge surface fleet, consisting of 4 fleet aircraft carriers, 7 battleships, 12 cruisers, 48 destroyers, and 16 submarines, along with various other sundry support ships.   The aircraft carriers, Kaga, Akagi, Hiryu, and Soryu, were 4 of the 6 carriers that attacked Pearl Harbor, and they brought with them 285 aircraft.  This constituted the bulk of the Japanese fleet, the real offensive punch.

On the US side, they had essential one key card to play.  Commander Rochefort, a US Navy codebreaker, had deciphered the Japanese Naval Code.   This gave the overall US Commander, Admiral Nimitz, Yamamoto’s opposite, a complete view of Japanese plans, to include strengths, locations, and intentions.   Nimitz now knew the assault on the Aleutians was a feint, and he knew approximately where the Japanese fleet would be, and on what days.   So, while the Japanese were banking heavily on having the element of surprise on their side, the case would be the opposite.

Nimitz had one other additional surprise.   The Japanese were interested primarily in destroying aircraft carriers, and intended to do so with surprise and overwhelming numbers.  The Japanese knew the US fleet had 2 fleet carriers, the USS Hornet and USS Enterprise, to counter the Midway offensive.   After Pearl Harbor, the US had 4 fleet carriers in the Pacific, in addition to the two above there was the USS Yorktown and the USS Lexington.   The “Lex” had been sunk in the Coral Sea, and the Yorktown heavily damaged.   So much so, the Japanese had counted her as sunk.  Thus, they anticipated facing only 2 US carriers at Midway.   Yorktown made it to Pearl Harbor only a few days before Nimitz anticipated fighting at Midway.  It was estimated she would need 6 months of repair.  But, given the seriousness of the situation and the desperate need, upwards of 1400 workers laboring for 72 hours succeeded in getting her operational for Midway.   The result of this was that the Japanese would not face 2 surprised carriers, but 3 carriers waiting in ambush for them.

Do not make the mistake of assuming that this now meant the battle would be a foregone conclusion; no battle every is.  The breaking of the code and the presence of the Yorktown gave the US a chance at victory, but not an advantage or even an edge.  To counter the Japanese fleet above, the US sortied 3 carriers (to 4 Japanese), no battleships (against 7), 8 cruisers (against 12), 15 destroyers (against 48), but in subs we held the advantage, 19 to 16.   The Japanese had more destroyers than the US had ships in total.   In aircraft, however, we held a slight advantage in numbers, as the US could use aircraft already stationed on Midway Island, for 312 against 285[1].

Beyond simply counting numbers, there were other factors.  The Japanese aircraft were, in most categories, superior in performance to US aircraft and the aircrews were for more experienced.   The Japanese ships, in addition to being more numerous, also had more experienced crews.    US pilots and sailors did not lack for determination and courage, but the Navy was still learning how to fight a war, and often the pilots were flying outdated aircraft.  And their inexperience was felt.  The vaunted B-17 heavy bomber wreaked havoc in Europe over the next few years, but the ones flying out of Midway failed to score even one hit on any ships of the Japanese fleet.  The Japanese Navy had been training and preparing for war for years, and were coming off of months of successive victorious battles.   They were supremely confident that their experience, numbers, weapons, and surprise would bring the final victory over the US fleet.

However, this confidence was in fact becoming hubris, and it would cost the Japanese.  As will be seen, their overconfidence led them to believe that they could not be defeated, and so they made critical mistakes.  For example, since the battle would occur in early June in the Pacific, they allowed their sailors to wear short sleeved uniforms, as opposed to the long sleeve more protective uniform usually prescribed but more uncomfortable in the heat.  In another infamous example, they failed in wargaming the operation. The Japanese were detailed wargamers, gaming out every operation they committed to.  During the wargames for Operation Mai, they lost 2 carriers to attacks by B-17.  The umpire disallowed this as unrealistic.  In their defense, as mentioned above, the B-17s were not able to sink any Japanese ships, but the point of the wargame is to explore options in case of the unexpected.  The reason behind the ruling was not specific to B-17s, it was simply accepted that Japan could not lose any carriers, so it was pointless to wargame that.

On the American side, it would be fitting to state why Admiral Nimitz is so widely recognized as a heroic leader.  For the Battle of Midway, he was making a very courageous gamble.  He was pitting almost every capital ship he had left in his fleet against the Japanese, including all his remaining carriers, in a bid to win.   Despite the advantages he would have in surprise and position, he knew the outcome was far from determined.   He could not afford a draw, and he could not afford to trade ship for ship with the Japanese.  The loss of Midway meant that the Japanese would control almost the entire Pacific.  Sea lanes with Australia would be cut, and Hawaii would be untenable as a US base.  Theoretically, the Japanese would be able to threaten the entire West Coast, although the Japanese knew they could never realistically do that.  The US would however have to start the war from bases in Southern California, and that would be a huge step backward, militarily, morally, and politically.  It was not a fight Nimitz wanted to make, but having had it forced on him, he was determined to win.  As opposed to the Japanese suffering “The Disease of Victory” Nimitz was as coldly calculated as he was determined.

[1] These are approximate totals, and include reserve aircraft and aircraft under repair, etc.

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