Today marks the anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Midway, a major turning point in WWII. I first published this brief history of the battle in 2019.
The tiny, 2.4 square mile Midway Atoll was annexed by the United States in 1867. The descriptively (if somewhat unimaginatively) named “Eastern” and “Sand” islands weren’t inhabited, and weren’t useful for resources.
Their allure lay in their strategic location- about halfway between Asia and the U.S., and close to Hawaii.
The islands were given to the U.S. Navy by President Teddy Roosevelt back in 1903, and in 1940 work began on air and submarine facilities.
The famous Battle of Midway was not the first time in WWII that the island came under fire. On December 7, 1941, shortly after attacking Pearl Harbor and before the following conquest of Allied forces in the Philippines, Singapore, and across Asia, Japanese forces also attacked Midway Island.
The goal of the attack was to disable the forces on Midway and ensure that the Japanese force that had attacked Pearl Harbor could sail past unscathed. The engagement was short and the casualties relatively light- though some still gave their lives, notably Lt. George H. Cannon, who became the first U.S. Marine to earn a Medal of Honor in WWII.
In May of 1942, the Japanese goals were more ambitious.
The navy of Japan had been moving aggressively through the Pacific, perhaps pressed forward by the shock of the successful bombing of the Japanese mainland (the Doolittle raid.) The first clash with the U.S. navy- the battle at The Coral Sea – had been claimed as a victory by both the Japanese and the U.S.
Now Admiral Yamamoto had his eyes set on Midway. The destruction of Midway’s defenses and the occupation of the atoll by Japanese forces would give them easy access to the naval base at Pearl Harbor, crippling the U.S.’s operations in the Pacific.
He set the date for the attack- June 4th, with Midway occupied by the 7th- exactly six months after Pearl Harbor.
Yamamoto’s plan revolved around the American Commander, Admiral Nimitz, falling for a carefully planned trick.*
The Japanese forces would split up. Yamamoto sent a smaller force to attack Alaska’s Aleutian islands just before the main attack on Midway. He hoped that Nimitz would send his forces north, leaving Midway vulnerable. (The diversionary attacks against Alaska also ended up being the only battles of WWII fought on U.S. mainland soil- more on them here.)
Thankfully for the U.S., their Intellegence services were in better shape than pre-Pearl Harbor. American cryptanalysts had broken Japanese naval codes. With the information they provided, Nimitz planned a surprise of his own.
Yamamoto had four aircraft carriers to bring to the battle- Akagi, Kaga, Hiru and Soryu. Nimitz only had two- the Hornet and the Enterprise. The Yorktown was in Pearl Harbor following damage in the Coral Sea, with an estimated repair time of three months. Nimitz said he’d need her in three days. The workers at Pearl Harbor made it happen.
Midway itself became almost a fourth aircraft carrier; its defenses were strengthened as much as possible.
The commanders in charge- Rear Adm. Frank Fletcher aboard the Yorktown (to whom Nimitz gave overall tactical command) and Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance aboard the Enterprise- moved their ships into position to quietly await the anticipated attack.
(Hopefully) Yamamoto would never see them coming.
Flights from Midway made daily searches, scanning the seas for the Japanese fleet.
On June 3rd patrols spotted Japanese ships- transports, destroyers, cargo vessels- and some American B-17s and torpedo planes attacked. The results were uncertain- they may have scored some hits.
However, the aircraft carriers and the main body of the force remained undiscovered.
At 5:45 am on June 4th, a patrol plane called in- enemy planes had been spotted. Shortly thereafter, a PBY spotted the main body of Japanese ships, including some carriers.
Midway’s defending planes took off, not to be caught grounded this time. The Japanese planes met them. Records show that the American planes were swarmed- each pilot trying to shake from one to five Japanese fighters apiece.
By 6:30 am, the first bombs were falling on Midway.
While many Japanese planes fell, they took a heavy toll. Of 27 American planes that defended the atoll, 15 were missing after the battle, and 7 were severely damaged. All of the above-ground structures were destroyed or damaged- the powerhouse, hangers, and the gasoline system for fueling planes were all hit.
The American forces were simultaneously working on an offensive attack. Group after group of planes were launched from Midway’s runways, only to meet heavy anti-aircraft fire and swarms of Japanese Zeroes (which had the double advantage of more maneuverability and more seasoned pilots- one of Midway’s groups had only had a week of training in their planes.)
Perhaps the numbers say it best:
Of the first group of four planes, two returned.
Of the second group of six, one returned.
Of sixteen, eight returned, with only six fit for continued duty.
And so it went.
Admiral Nimitz summed up the situation as the last of the forces on Midway finished their attack in his report.
“The Midway forces had struck with full strength, but the Japanese were not as yet checked. About 10 ships had been damaged, of which 1 or 2 AP or AK may have been sunk. But this was hardly an impression on the great force of about 80 ships converging on Midway. Most of Midway’s fighters, torpedo planes, and dive bombers—the only types capable of making a high percentage of hits on ships—were gone, and 3 of the Japanese carriers were still either undamaged or insufficiently so to hamper operations. This was the situation when our carrier attack began.” (Midway Combat Narrative, pgs 20-21)
The forces gathered at Midway had fought hard, and made a start. Now it was time for the planes from the Enterprise, the Hornet and the Yorktown, still waiting quietly out of sight, to have their say.
If you’d like to learn more about the history of the Battle of Midway, please feel free to check out my other two posts:
OR, if you’d prefer to listen to a sum-up of these posts, I did a podcast on Midway for Our American Stories, which you can listen to here.
Thank you for visiting!
*Since posting this, another writer shared that in at least one source- Shattered Sword by Jonathan Parshnall- cited historical evidence that the attack against the Aleutians was not so much a trick as a real attempt by Japan to take both the prize of Midway, and a foothold in the Americas. As I haven’t found evidence (at least not yet :)) that the Aleutian attack wasn’t timed to distract from the main force’s attack at Midway, I have not changed the wording of the post, but I wanted to include this additional info!
Interested in more information about the Battle of Midway? The Naval History and Heritage Command website has a downloadable combat narrative of the battle, (which is where my quote from Admiral Nimitz came from) and links to articles on the history surrounding Midway, biographies of several people who were there, (if you REALLY want to see if they do the movie right!) and first-hand accounts of the battle.