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Battle Midway

Preparations for Battle, March 1942 to 4 June 1942 -- Overview

By March 1942, Japanese Navy strategists had achieved their initial war goals much more easily than expected. They had therefore abandoned the prewar plan to then transition to a strategic defensive posture, but there was still dispute on how to maintain the offensive. Moving further south in the Pacific would isolate Australia, and possibly remove that nation as a threat to the freshly-expanded Japanese Empire.

However, the American island base at Midway was also an attractive target, and the Doolittle Raid on Japan prompted a decision to attack there as the next major offensive goal. 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.

Unfortunately for the Japanese, two things went wrong even before the Midway operation began. Two of Nagumo's six carriers were sent on a mission that resulted in the Battle of Coral Sea. One was badly damaged, and the other suffered heavy casualties to her air group. Neither would be available for Midway.

Even more importantly, thanks to an historic feat of radio communications interception and codebreaking, the United States knew its enemy's plans in detail: his target, his order of battle and his schedule. When the battle opened, the U.S. Pacific fleet would have three carriers waiting, plus a strong air force and reinforced ground defenses at the Midway Base.

Midway Atoll

Midway is a small atoll nearly half-way across the Pacific, the westernmost inhabited member of the Hawaiian Island chain. Its two major islands, Sand and Eastern, have a combined area of only a few square miles. They are densely populated by several bird species, of which the most abundant is the Laysan Albatross, popularly nicknamed the 'Gooney Bird'.

First visited in 1859, Midway formally became a United States' possession in 1867. A trans-pacific cable station was established there in 1903. In 1935, Pan American Airways built a way station on Sand Island to support its new seaplane route between the U.S. and Asia. Midway was recommended as a patrol plane and submarine base in a 1938-39 study of national defense needs, and construction of a U.S. Navy base began soon thereafter. This included a seaplane hangar and other facilities on Sand Island and an airfield on the smaller Eastern Island.

The new base was bombarded by two Japanese Destroyers on 7 December 1941, causing damage to some buildings and destroying one patrol plane. With the fall of Wake later in the month, Midway became the westernmost U.S. outpost in the Central Pacific. Land-based bombers and fighters were stationed on Eastern Island. U.S. Marines provided defensive artillery and infantry. Operating from Sand Island and the atoll's lagoon, PBY 'Catalina' seaplanes actively patrolled toward the Japanese-held Marshall Islands and Wake, checking on enemy activities and guarding against further enemy attacks on Hawaii. There were occasional clashes when planes from Midway and those from the Japanese islands met over the Pacific.

Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Chester W. Nimitz inspected Midway in early May 1942, conferring with the local commanders, Navy Captain Cyril T. Simard and Marine Colonel Harold D. Shannon. As the Japanese threat to Midway became known during that month, Nimitz increased its ground and air forces, the latter to the point where Eastern Island was crowded with Marine Corps, Navy and Army Air Force planes. Several PT boats were sent to improve seaward defenses. By 4 June 1942, Midway was as ready as possible to face the oncoming Japanese.

U.S. Forces Assemble for Action, 26 May - 3 June 1942

By mid-May 1942 U.S. Pacific Fleet codebreakers, directed by Lieutenant Commander Joseph J. Rochefort, were reporting that the Japanese planned to attack somewhere in the Hawaiian area, as well as in the Aleutians. The carrier Yorktown (CV-5), damaged earlier in the month at the Battle of Coral sea, was already on the way back to Pearl Harbor for repairs. Now, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the Pacific Fleet's commander, recalled his other operational carrier group, Vice Admiral William F. Halsey's Task Force 16 (TF-16), which had gone to the South Pacific after it launched the Doolittle raid on 18 April.

Halsey's two carriers, Enterprise (CV-6) and Hornet (CV-8), arrived at Pearl Harbor on 26 May, by which time intelligence was certain that Midway was the Japanese target. Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance relieved the ailing Halsey in command, as TF-16 busily got ready to steam the thousand miles up to the Midway area. When it left port on 28 May, the damaged Yorktown was receiving urgent repairs. In a remarkable feat, Pearl Harbor Navy Yard workers had her ready in time to sail with Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher's Task Force 17 (TF-17) on the 30th. Yorktown received a new air group, formerly belonging to USS Saratoga (CV-3), though some elements of her previous air squadrons remained on board.

These late May departures beat the Japanese to the punch. They had planned to place submarines to watch for an American sortie from Pearl Harbor, but didn't expect that to happen so soon, and the Japanese subs were not yet on station. Admiral Nimitz, whose intelligence had given him the enemy's plans, took care to cover Midway and its approaches with a strong force of his own submarines.

After refueling at sea, TF-16 and TF-17 rendezvoused some three hundred miles northeast of Midway on 2 June and prepared to meet the Japanese. Search flights were sent out to guard against unexpected developments. Spruance and Fletcher planned to operate their forces separately, though never very far apart. Their presence unsuspected by the enemy, they were in position to make a surprise flank attack on the Japanese carrier force when it came into range two days later.

The Battle of Midway, fought over and near the tiny U.S. mid-Pacific base at Midway atoll, represents the strategic high water mark of Japan's Pacific Ocean war. Prior to this action, Japan possessed general naval superiority over the United States and could usually choose where and when to attack. After Midway, the two opposing fleets were essentially equals, and the United States soon took the offensive.

Japanese Combined Fleet commander Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto moved on Midway in an effort to draw out and destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet's aircraft carrier striking forces, which had embarassed the Japanese Navy in the mid-April Doolittle Raid on Japan's home islands and at the Battle of Coral Sea in early May. He planned to quickly knock down Midway's defenses, follow up with an invasion of the atoll's two small islands and establish a Japanese air base there. He expected the U.S. carriers to come out and fight, but to arrive too late to save Midway and in insufficient strength to avoid defeat by his own well-tested carrier air power.

Yamamoto's intended surprise was thwarted by superior American communications intelligence, which deduced his scheme well before battle was joined. This allowed Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, to establish an ambush by having his carriers ready and waiting for the Japanese. On 4 June 1942, in the second of the Pacific War's great carrier battles, the trap was sprung. The perserverance, sacrifice and skill of U.S. Navy aviators, plus a great deal of good luck on the American side, cost Japan four irreplaceable fleet carriers, while only one of the three U.S. carriers present was lost. The base at Midway, though damaged by Japanese air attack, remained operational and later became a vital component in the American trans-Pacific offensive.

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This webpage was updated 30th August 2012

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