The U.S. Navy's Battle of Midway Mistake: Not Chasing the Japanese Navy?

June 4, 2020 Topic: History Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: HistoryWorld War IIBattle Of MidwayJapanU.S. Navy

The U.S. Navy's Battle of Midway Mistake: Not Chasing the Japanese Navy?

A big historical what-if. Could America scored and even bigger victory? 

June 4, 1942 was the turning point in the Second World War. Prior to that point, the Japanese had never been truly defeated in a decisive battle and after that day they'd never win another significant battle. When the day ended, three Japanese fleet carriers Akagi, Kaga and Soryu – were sunk, while a fourth Hiryu was burning and was soon scuttled by the Japanese.

The Battle of Midway had been launched to capture the American atoll and use it as a staging ground to strike at Hawaii and defeat the United States. Japanese March Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto had amassed an imposing force that included a carrier striking force of the four fleet carriers, two battleships, two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and 12 destroyers.

Instead of scoring a great victory to bring the United States of America to her knees, it was a humiliating defeat. In addition to losing the four carriers the Japanese lost a heavy cruiser and a second left damaged. More than 3,000 sailors of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) were killed

The IJN was forced to retreat, but the significant losses were actually hidden from the Japanese people. Only Emperor Hirohito and the highest Navy command personnel knew how badly IJN had been beaten, and even those in the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) were kept in the dark about the losses at Midway.

The United States Navy didn't come out completely unscathed. A destroyer was sunk and 150 aircraft were destroyed, and 307 sailors and airmen were killed. The biggest loss was the USS Yorktown, which had been quickly repaired and rushed into battle service to meet the Japanese threat. While the carrier had taken significant damage, efforts to salvage her were going well until the carrier was struck by torpedoes from a Japanese submarine and sunk on June 7, 1942 claiming the lives of 141 of her officers and crew.

With the Japanese carriers sunk the question has been asked why U.S. Admiral Raymond A. Spruance did not pursue Yamamoto's fleet, which lacked any air cover. History is always one of what-ifs and it is easy to see 78 years later that the U.S. Navy could have scored an even more devastating blow against the IJN.

Yet, Spruance made the wise move. The Yorktown was sunk, the American pilots exhausted and Yamamoto was hardly declawed. With his two battleships and some luck, he could have evened the score dramatically and turned a defeat into a draw.

Japan's two most modern carriers, Shokaku and Zuikaku, along with four smaller carriers were still operational – having not taken part in the battle – and thus would have presented a real threat in the short term had the United State's other carriers been lost. Midway would have been left vulnerable as well as even Hawaii.

The United States Army Air Corps' Seventh Air Force did attempt to hunt the Japanese fleet near Wake Island on June 7, 1942. Under the command of General Clarence L. Tinker, the first Native American to achieve the rank of general officer, a force of LB-30 (an early model of the Consolidated B-24 Liberator) bombers attempted to make a pre-daylight attack on the Japanese fleet but his bomber lost control and Tinker along with his 10-man crew were killed.

Yamamoto lived to fight another day, but in April 1943 he was assassinated by the U.S. Navy in a mission dubbed Operation Vengeance. After reading Japanese transmissions it was learned that the IJN admiral was flying on a Japanese G4M Betty bomber, which was targeted by a squadron of P-38 Lightnings. His aircraft was shot down, and the architect of Pearl Harbor and Midway was dead. His death has been cited as precedent for today's drone strikes.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on