The Battle of Midway was a turning point in the Pacific War. Before the Battle of the Coral Sea on 7-8 May 1942, the Imperial Navy of Japan had swept aside all of its enemies from the Pacific and Indian oceans. At the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Japanese won a tactical victory, but suffered an operational-level defeat: it did not invade Port Moresby in New Guinea and set up a base from which its land-based planes could dominate the skies over northern Australia. However, the overall military initiative was still in the hands of the Japanese. Their carrier striking force was still the strongest mobile air unit in the Pacific, and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese fleet commander, hoped to use it to smash what remained of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet.
Yamamoto’s plan was to attack and then assault the two islands that make up the Midway atoll. He reasoned that the U.S. Navy could not tolerate such an operation so close to its base in Hawaii, and he believed—correctly, as it happened—that what was left of the U.S. Pacific Fleet would sortie from Pearl Harbor and expose itself to the power of his carrier force and his most powerful battleships. Yamamoto wanted his carriers, led by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, to ambush any American carriers and surface ships that ventured to contest the Japanese attack and assault on Midway. Instead, he was ambushed by the three U.S. carriers—Yorktown, Enterprise, and Hornet—that had steamed north and west from Hawaii. In just one day—4 June 1942—Admiral Nagumo lost his four carriers to the air units of his American opponents, while U.S. naval forces lost only one carrier (Yorktown) in return.
Why was Midway such a critical victory? First, the fact that the U.S. Navy lost just one carrier at Midway meant that four carriers (Enterprise, Hornet, Saratoga, and Wasp) were available when the U.S. Navy went on the offensive during the Guadalcanal campaign that began the first week of August 1942. Second, the march of the Imperial Japanese Navy across the Pacific was halted at Midway and never restarted. After Midway, the Japanese would react to the Americans, and not the other way around. In the language of the Naval War College, the “operational initiative” had passed from the Japanese to the Americans. Third, the victory at Midway aided allied strategy worldwide.
That last point needs some explaining. To understand it, begin by putting yourself in the shoes of President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the beginning of May 1942. The military outlook across the world appears very bad for the Allies. The German army is smashing a Soviet offensive to regain Kharkov, and soon will begin a drive to grab the Soviet Union’s oil supplies in the Caucasus. A German and Italian force in North Africa is threatening the Suez Canal. The Japanese have seriously crippled the Pacific Fleet, driven Britain’s Royal Navy out of the Indian Ocean, and threaten to link up with the Germans in the Middle East.
If the Japanese and the Germans do link up, they will cut the British and American supply line through Iran to the Soviet Union, and they may pull the British and French colonies in the Middle East into the Axis orbit. If that happens, Britain may lose control of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Soviet Union may negotiate an armistice with Germany. Even worse, the Chinese, cut off from aid from the United States, may also negotiate a cease-fire with the Japanese. For Churchill, there is the added and dreaded prospect that the Japanese may spark a revolt that will take India from Britain. Something has to be done to stop the Japanese and force them to focus their naval and air forces in the Pacific—away from the Indian Ocean and (possibly) the Arabian Sea.
Midway saves the decision by the Americans and British to focus their major effort against Germany, and the American and British military staff are free to plan their invasion of North Africa. The U.S. Navy and Marines also begin planning for an operation on Guadalcanal against the Japanese. As Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance—one of the Navy’s carrier task force commanders at Midway—put it after the battle, “We had not been defeated by these superior Japanese forces. Midway to us at the time meant that here is where we start from, here is where we really jump off in a hard, bitter war against the Japanese.” Note his words: “… here is where we start from…” Midway, then, was a turning point, but by no means were the leaders of Japan and Germany ready to throw in the towel.
At the same time as the Battle of Midway was taking place, a Japanese aircraft carrier strike force thousands of miles to the north was attacking the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. After bombing Dutch Harbor, Japanese forces seized the tiny islands of Attu and Kiska. It was the first time since the War of 1812 that American soil had been occupied by an enemy. The Japanese dug in and held the islands until mid-1943, when American and Canadian forces recaptured them in brutal invasions. The campaign is known as the “Forgotten Battle”. Military historians believe it was a diversionary or feint attack during the Battle of Midway, meant to draw out the U.S. Pacific Fleet from Midway Atoll, as it was launched simultaneously under the same commander, Isoroku Yamamoto. Some historians have argued against this interpretation, believing that the Japanese invaded the Aleutians to protect their northern flank, and did not intend it as a diversion.
(Photo credit: U.S. Navy / Library of Oongress).