The Battle of Midway was a World War II naval battle fought between the United States Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy near the American Pacific base at Midway atoll from June 4 to June 7, 1942. It is considered the most decisive battle in the Pacific theater as the American Navy inflicted irreparable damage on the Japanese navy. The Battle of Midway took place about one month after the Battle of the Coral Sea and six months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Japan launched a naval operation aimed to eliminate the United States as a strategic Pacific power, and be able to establish a Japanese sphere of influence in the Pacific. By attacking the American Midway atoll naval base, Japan sought to deliver a demoralizing blow to the United States and then negotiate an end to the Pacific War on conditions favorable to Japan. Nevertheless American cryptanalysts broke the Japanese operation code, which confirmed Midway as the target of the Japanese strike between June 4 and June 5, 1942. Thus, Admiral Chester Nimitz had a very good picture of where, when, and in what strength the Japanese would attack. The Japanese fleet consisted of four aircraft carriers organized around four task forces. The Americans had three carriers, plus Midway Island airstrip.
The Japanese fleet also comprised the biggest battleship in the world, the "Yamato", and smaller battleships such as the "Nagato" and "Mutsu". The commander in chief of the Japanese fleet was Admiral Yamamoto. As he blindly believed in the supremacy of the battleship, he did not realize that an aircraft carrier could deliver a massive blow to the enemy at a much greater distance than a battleship could. Yamamoto considered the aircraft carrier as a secondary vessel which acted as a support of the battleship rather than the other way round. This was Yamamoto’s flawed strategic vision. Far more fatal for the Japanese was that the Americans knew Yamamoto’s battle plan, which entailed luring American ships away from their main body.
Although on June 3, American B17 planes dropped bombs on Japanese transport ships, the Battle of Midway began at 04:30 hours on June 4, 1941, when the Japanese launched their initial attack on Midway. The striking force consisted of 36 "Val" dive-bombers and 36 "Kate" torpedo bombers, which were escorted by 36 Zero fighters. American radar detected the enemy at a distance of several miles and interceptors were soon scrambled. Unescorted bombers took off to attack the Japanese carrier fleet, but their fighter escorts remained behind to defend Midway. At 06:20, Japanese carrier aircraft bombed and damaged the United States base.
Ten American torpedo-bombers had taken off from Midway to strike at the Japanese carriers. Nevertheless, none of these bombers hit their targets and only three of the ten torpedo-bombers returned to Midway. Athough another attack carried out by B-17 bombers and Vindicator scout-bombers failed to find their target, it had obtained one result: many Zero fighters were put into the air to protect the fleet. But after a while these fighters came back down onto their carriers decks to be refueled and rearmed. At that moment the Japanese fleet was very vulnerable as it had neither fighter cover nor were his carriers in a position to do a great deal other than re-equip the planes.
67 Dauntless dive bombers, 29 Devastator torpedo bombers, and 20 Wildcats fighters from the Hornet and Enterprise aircraft carriers attacked the Japanese fleet in two waves. The first wave encountered 30 Zero fighters and fierce anti-aircraft fire that shot down most of these planes; only one pilot was able to come back. However, the second wave of bombers hit their targets. The Japanese defenders failed to notice dive-bombers flying at a much higher altitude. With their decks crammed with planes about to take off, the Japanese carriers were tempting targets.
The first attack struck the flight deck of the Akagi aircraft carrier, detonating a store of torpedoes, with the flames reaching fuel supplies. Within minutes the ‘Akagi’ was doomed. Other dive bombers were able to hit the Kaga aircraft carrier. Fuel was soon ignited and the carrier sank within two hours. More American dive-bombers attacked the ‘Soryu’ with the same deadly impact as Captain Yanaginoto ordered that the ship be abandoned. Like the ‘Kaga’ it continued afloat for two hours but sank. The ‘Soryu’ went down at 19:13 hours along with her captain, Yanaginoto and 718 of her crew.
In the meantime, Japanese planes from the Hiryu attacked the Yorktown and damaged it so badly that at 15:00 hours the order was given to abandon the carrier, which was still afloat on June 7. Finally, a Japanese submarine, I-168, managed to penetrate the American fleet and with two torpedoes sunk the ‘Yorktown’ at 06:00 hours on June 7.
In the Battle of Midway the Japanese lost four vital aircraft carriers that were considered to be vital for the Pacific campaign. Whereas the Americans could replace the Yorktown, the Japanese found it very difficult to replace one carrier, let alone four. Regardless of finding new carriers, experienced crew would also be needed and the Japanese had lost many experienced crewmen during the battle. The base at Midway, though damaged by Japanese air attack, remained operational and later became a vital component in the American trans-Pacific offensive.