Disaster At Midway: How A Single Battle Destroyed Japan's World War II Plans

Disaster At Midway: How A Single Battle Destroyed Japan's World War II Plans

During the Battle of Midway four Japanese aircraft carriers were destroyed by American planes, shifting the balance in the South Pacific.

Rarely in the history of warfare had one nation absorbed such numbing losses in so rapid a time as did the United States in the Pacific War’s first five months. The surprise Japanese assault against Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which dragged the United States into World War II, stunned American military and political leaders. In a few short hours Japanese dive-bombers had transformed America’s leading Pacific naval bastion into a blazing cauldron of death and had altered once-mighty battleships into twisted metal coffins.

Japanese Rack Up Unasnwered String Of Victories Post-Pearl Harbor

Before the smoke had settled over Hawaii, Japanese forces struck at a series of American and British military installations, and like a destructive tidal wave swept away each with ease—Bataan, Corregidor, Wake Island, Guam, and Singapore fell one by one into the clutches of the victorious Japanese. Not one American triumph interrupted the string of defeats, causing civilians back home to wonder what had happened to the nation’s army and navy.

While elated over his forces’ victory at Pearl Harbor, the commander-in-chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, knew unfinished business lay ahead. His dive-bombers and torpedo planes had severely damaged the U.S. fleet, but they had missed one of their most important targets, the American aircraft carriers. As long as these floating airfields roamed the Pacific, Yamamoto could never count on possessing real superiority. To correct this, he hoped to draw out the remnants of the American fleet and destroy it in a gigantic sea clash, the “decisive encounter” for which Japanese strategists had long planned.

Yamamoto’s Plan For Superiority In the Pacific

If Yamamoto could succeed in this goal, the entire Pacific would lay open for his taking because there would be nothing left to stop him. He could take Hawaii at his leisure or even advance against California and the American West Coast. His main hope, however, was that another American defeat would cause his enemy to sign a truce that would give Japan a free hand in the western Pacific. Earlier in his career Yamamoto had visited the United States and seen her mighty industrial capabilities. He understood that if the war dragged on for more than six months to a year American factories would have the opportunity to pour out an unstoppable stream of ships, aircraft, and weapons that would spell eventual defeat for Japan.

Yamamoto devised an operation to knock his adversary out of the war. He selected as his target the American base at Midway Island. Resting a little more than a thousand miles northwest of Hawaii, Midway served as the perfect bait to draw out the American carriers and whatever else remained of the U.S. Navy, for in Japanese hands the island would provide a base from which to launch an attack against Hawaii itself.

Another Surprise Attack In the Works

Following an early June air strike on Midway by four Japanese aircraft carriers led by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, an invasion convoy of 5,000 men protected by two battleships, six heavy cruisers, and numerous destroyers would seize Midway, which is actually an atoll consisting of two islets, Sand and Eastern. Lying 300 miles to the west with a potent battleship flotilla, Yamamoto would wait for the American Navy to steam out to protect Midway, then defeat it in a classic sea confrontation. Yamamoto based his plan on three assumptions: that the U.S. fleet would not steam out until after Midway had been attacked; that the Americans would have no more than two carriers available; and that the Japanese would achieve complete surprise.

The Japanese, who had already compiled an awesome string of victories, felt confident that the Midway operation would result in another. Their intelligence predicted that the Americans had lost the will to fight, and Japanese sailors boasted that they would “beat the enemy hands down.”

The Japanese expectations for victory proved premature. While Yamamoto possessed military superiority, the Americans had a weapon that nullified the Japanese advantage. Codebreakers had deciphered the Japanese naval code and were able to read as much as 90 percent of Yamamoto’s orders. By the end of May, Commander Joseph J. Rochefort and his team of cryptanalysts knew the date, intended target, and composition of Japanese forces deployed for the Midway operation.

This by no means guaranteed victory, for the United States Navy had been sorely weakened at Pearl Harbor. The codebreakers had provided the tremendous advantage of knowing approximately where Yamamoto’s forces would be, but the outnumbered Americans still had to battle a determined foe. In the final measure, victory or defeat would depend upon individual courage, instinct, and decision-making ability.

The Plan To Exploit Brash American Admiral

The officer counted on to lead American naval forces, Admiral William F. Halsey, had commanded American aircraft carriers in their early forays against the Japanese, including the famous Doolittle bombing raid against Tokyo in April 1942. The brash Halsey was popular with his men and loved a good fight, but his impulsive nature sometimes caused him to react before a thorough analysis could be done. That tendency played directly into Yamamoto’s hands. He planned to goad the Americans into action with his Midway invasion flotilla, then pounce on the unsuspecting American ships with the powerful reserve forces he brought up from the rear.

Halsey would play no role in the upcoming action, however. A severe skin rash forced the weary officer to bed. When he returned to Pearl Harbor from the South Pacific in late May 1942, exhausted from a lack of sleep and 20 pounds thinner, his superior, the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester A. Nimitz, took one look at the ragged officer and ordered him into the hospital. To command Halsey’s ships, Nimitz turned to Rear Adm. Raymond A. Spruance, Halsey’s cruiser commander. The substitution would have momentous consequences in the forthcoming battle.

“You Will Be Governed By the Principle Of Calculated Risk…”

Nimitz handed Spruance specific orders. He was to defeat the Japanese, but under no circumstances was he to lose the bulk of his ships, which at this early stage of the war were a precious commodity. Nimitz wrote Spruance, “You will be governed by the principle of calculated risk, which you shall interpret to mean the avoidance of exposure of your force without good prospect of inflicting, as a result of such exposure, greater damage to the enemy.” In other words, turn back the enemy, particularly by sinking his aircraft carriers, without letting the enemy sink too many of your ships, which were now the first line of defense for Hawaii and the West Coast.

Spruance intended to wait northeast of Midway. When his scout planes spotted the Japanese, hopefully before Yamamoto’s located the Americans, he would launch every available plane in an attempt to sink the Japanese carriers. To succeed, he had to play a game of cat and mouse with his adversary and hope that he could get his pilots into the air before his Japanese counterpart. If the Japanese found Spruance first, the U.S. Navy could suffer a disaster from which it might never recover.

Overmatched Spruance Pins Hope On Codebreakers

Spruance led his unit, called Task Force 16, to sea in late May. Consisting of the aircraft carriers Enterprise and Hornet steaming behind a screen of six cruisers and 12 destroyers, his force was numerically no match for the enemy. All Spruance could do was count on the edge handed him by American codebreakers and hope that he located the enemy first. Task Force 17, under Rear Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher, would join Spruance as soon as its sole carrier, the damaged Yorktown, could be hastily patched up in Hawaii. As the Midway engagement unfolded, Fletcher was the senior American commander. However, Spruance commanded the stronger U.S. force and was obliged to fight the lion’s share of the battle on a tactical basis. Robert J. Casey, an American news reporter who accompanied Spruance, wrote the night before the battle that the admiral was heading out to meet the stronger Japanese “with a fly swatter and a prayer.”

Few observers believed the Yorktown, which had been seriously damaged during the Battle of the Coral Sea in May, could be repaired in time for the battle. When the ship entered dry dock, workers estimated they would require at least 90 days to adequately repair the carrier, but Admiral Nimitz said he needed the ship back in three days. Tirelessly working around the clock, 1,400 repairmen patched together the Yorktown sufficiently to get her back to sea by May 30. Although impaired, the Yorktown gave the Americans three aircraft carriers with which to halt the mighty Japanese fleet advancing toward Midway.

Yamamoto Counts Unhatched Chickens

Spruance faced an imposing challenge, for Yamamoto had assembled 11 battleships, 8 aircraft carriers, 22 cruisers, 65 destroyers, and 21 submarines for the operation. The Japanese admiral hoped to quickly destroy his adversary, then use his enormous reputation to convince government leaders to offer the United States some concessions to remove them from the war before her industrial might started churning out war materiel in quantities Japan could never match.