Midway – June 4-7, 1942


(Naval Historical Center)

66 years ago today, what was left of the Pacific fleet took on the might of the Japanese Navy in an effort to prevent an invasion of the tiny island of Midway.

The odds were against us, and the Japanese had more on their minds than the occupation of an air base. According to the Naval Historical Center, “Midway was a vital ‘sentry for Hawaii’, and a serious assault on it would almost certainly produce a major naval battle, a battle that the Japanese confidently expected to win. That victory would eliminate the U.S. Pacific fleet as an important threat, perhaps leading to the negotiated peace that was Japan’s ‘exit strategy’.

“The Japanese planned a three-pronged attack to capture Midway in early June, plus a simultaneous operation in the North Pacific’s Aleutian Islands that might provide a useful strategic diversion. In the van of the assault would be Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s aircraft carrier force, which would approach from the northwest, supress Midway’s defenses and provide long-range striking power for dealing with American warships. A few hundred miles behind Nagumo would come a battleship force under Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto that would contain most of the operation’s heavy gun power. Coming in from the West and Southwest, forces under Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo would actually capture Midway. Kondo’s battleships and cruisers represented additional capabilities for fighting a surface action.” (Naval Historical Center)

All the Americans had to throw against the Japanese were three carriers: ENTERPRISE, HORNET, and YORKTOWN; the latter undergoing major repairs after sustaining damage at the Battle of Coral Sea. The Japanese planned to have six.

But the events a month earlier at Coral Sea would inexorably affect the results at Midway, because two of Nagumo’s carriers were put out of action and would not be available to fight against the Americans. The odds were evening out.

The Japanese had expected the United States to arrive too late to save Midway. But American cryptologists had broken the Japanese code and were able to predict the invasion early enough to get the carriers in place.

The battle itself is a story of selfless sacrifice and courage under unimaginable conditions (see The Battle of Midway, for the complete story). In the end, the Americans lost one of her three carriers; the Japanese lost all four of theirs.

The tide had turned, and the Americans would never look back. Midway was the decisive battle in the Pacific, and to this day is celebrated in wardrooms and U.S. Navy commands around the world. And rightly so. Midway brought to the fore all the qualities that would resurface time and again during the great battles of WWII, culminating in total victory three years later. And it showed the world that the U.S. Navy could stand toe to toe with anyone.

Midway was where it started.


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