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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Turning Point of the Pacific War with Japan

By Tom Morrow

If you’ve studied World War II, especially the Pacific War with the Japanese Empire, you’ll know that six months after Pearl Harbor was attacked, the United States Navy had the Japanese navy on the run by winning one of the giant naval battles in history: The Battle of Midway, which lasted June 4 through 7, 1942.

Midway took place one month after the Battle of the Coral Sea, which was a crushing defeat for the U.S., The island of Midway, is a small coral atoll approximately one mile long and a half-mile wide at the extreme northern end of the Hawaiian Island chain. Midway was a U.S. Navy outpost with a handful of sailors and Marines defending it. Adm. Chester Nimitz sent a task force from Pearl Harbor to intercept the Japanese fleet heading for Midway. The Navy decisively defeated the Japanese fleet under the command of Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, inflicting devastating damage that proved irreparable The battle has been called “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.”

Luring the American aircraft carriers into a trap and occupying Midway was part of an overall strategy to extend Japan’s defensive perimeter. Yamamoto’s primary goal was the elimination of America’s carrier forces, which he regarded as the principal threat to the overall Pacific campaign. This concern was acutely heightened by the Doolittle Raid on 18 April 1942, in which 16 U.S. Army Air Forces B-25 Mitchell bombers launched from USS Hornet bombed targets in Tokyo and several other Japanese cities. The raid, was a shock to the Japanese and showed the existence of a gap in the defenses around the Japanese home islands as well as the accessibility of Japanese territory to American bombers.

Yamamoto selected Midway approximately 1,300 miles from Honolulu. This meant Midway was outside the effective range of almost all of the American aircraft stationed on the main Hawaiian islands. Midway was not especially important in the larger scheme of Japan’s intentions, but the Japanese felt the Americans would consider Midway a vital outpost of Pearl Harbor and would therefore be compelled to defend it vigorously. In addition to serving as a seaplane base, Midway’s airstrips also served as a forward staging point for bomber attacks on Wake Island, another Navy atoll outpost lost to the Japanese. Wake had been one of the Pacific “stepping stones” used by the Navy and Pan American Airways as a refueling stop for their Clipper seaplanes.

Yamamoto’s battle plan was predicated on optimistic intelligence suggesting that aircraft carriers USS Enterprise and USS Hornet were the only carriers available to the U.S. Pacific Fleet. During the Battle of the Coral Sea one month earlier, USS Lexington had been sunk and USS Yorktown damaged so severely the Japanese believed she, too, had been lost. However, following hasty repairs at Pearl Harbor, Yorktown would go on to play a critical role in the discovery and eventual destruction of the Japanese fleet carriers north of Midway. Finally, much of Yamamoto’s planning was based on a gross misjudgment of American morale, which was believed to be debilitated from the Pearl Harbor attack and the string of Japanese victories across the Pacific.

What Yamamoto did not know was the U.S. had broken the main Japanese naval code, divulging details of his plan. Despite the fact Japanese carriers were expected to carry out air strikes against Midway and bear the brunt of American counterattacks, the only warships in his fleet larger than the screening force of 12 destroyers were two fast battleships, two heavy cruisers, and one light cruiser. By contrast, Yamamoto and Admiral Kondo had between them two light carriers, five battleships, four heavy cruisers, and two light cruisers, none of which would see action at Midway. The distance between Yamamoto and Kondo’s trailing back-up forces and Nagumo’s attack carriers had grave implications during the battle: the invaluable reconnaissance capability of the scout planes carried by the cruisers and carriers, (this was a time before radar). as well as the additional antiaircraft capability of the cruisers and the other two battleships in the trailing forces, was denied to the Japanese carriers.

There were seven aircraft carriers involved in the battle and all four of Japan’s large aircraft carriers and a heavy cruiser were sunk. The U.S. lost only the carrier USS Yorktown and a destroyer.

After Midway and the exhausting attrition of the Solomon Islands campaign, Japan’s capacity to replace its losses in materiel (particularly aircraft carriers) and men (especially well-trained pilots rapidly became insufficient to cope with mounting casualties, while the United States’ massive industrial and training capabilities made losses far easier to replace. The Battle of Midway, along with the Guadalcanal Campaign, is widely considered a turning point in the Pacific War.

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