Battle of Midway History

The Battle of Midway: Turning point for the Pacific

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The wheel turns.

Oftentimes, it’s a twist of fate but sometimes it’s a simple twist in judgment.

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There is perhaps no clearer demonstration of such reversal of fortune than what happened in the waters surrounding Midway Atoll. Japan, with its superior naval arsenal and the element of surprise on her side, already had the United States’ mid-Pacific base by the throat when they launched an attack in early June 1942. Or so they thought.

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Seemingly seamless plan

Embarrassed by Jimmy Doolittle’s raid on the Japanese homeland and strategically defeated by the US in the Battle of the Coral Sea (even though that battle could have been termed a Japanese tactical victory), Japan knew that it had to immediately nullify the increasing naval threat that the American’s Pacific Fleet posed.

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Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, saw the perfect opportunity to cripple their opponent by seizing the critical US island base at Midway Atoll and building its own. A master strategist, Yamamoto planned a simultaneous strike from three different directions. Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo would be at the front coming from the Northwest with six carriers. Nagumo was tasked to suppress initial defenses and provide the striking power for approaching American warships. Yamamoto, only a hundred miles behind, would command most of Japan’s firepower. And from the West and Southwest was Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo, which was equipped with surface fighting capabilities that would ultimately capture the base.

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The plan foresaw the killing of three birds with one assault— eliminating the remaining carrier forces of the US, occupying a base within striking distance of Hawaii, and winning a crucial psychological victory— Japan’s triumph seem all too ready to be written in the history books.

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Except for one seemingly little but very vital detail. The Americans knew their Midway plan to the letter or in this case, to the code.

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Code-Warriors

While the Japanese admirals scrambled to perfect their already seamless battle plan and prepare their vast arsenal, nobody thought to look for gaps in an area seemingly unrelated to battle—communications.

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Because of a short but crucial delay in the development of new communication codes, US cryptanalysts were given enough time to fully break the JN-25 Naval Code. This gave advantage to the Americans who not only knew the target island, Midway, but also of the three-pronged assault. They had a pretty good idea where, when and how strong the attack would be. The knowledge allowed them to send three carriers, Hornet, Enterprise and Yorktown; prepare a strong air force; and organize ground defenses at the Midway base, something which they would not have known otherwise. And Japan had absolutely no idea.

Turning of the Tide

Despite their preparations, Midway’s Marine fighter squadron was no match to Japan’s superior naval fleets and its Zero fighters. They only managed to shoot down only a few of the enemy bombers while suffering severe losses. Attacks by TBD Devastator torpedo planes made no hits even as Japanese planes continued the bombing of the base, knocking out some of the facilities in the island and setting oil tanks and hangars afire. For a while, victory seemed inevitable for the Japanese.

But the tide suddenly turned once again, favoring the Americans. Because of the final strikes by TBDs, Zeroes were brought down, paving the way for SBDs to attack. The last chance for victory for the US forces, three squadron of SBD dive bombers launched a simultaneous attack on three of the four Japanese carriers, Akagi, Kaga and Soryu. Within a few minutes, they set their targets ablaze. Of the four carrier ships, only Hiryu survived, although she was also bombed. And though its very own Yorktown also sank, the Americans claimed victory that day.

Pacific and Global Aftermath

Despite being perhaps smaller in scale than some of the great battles in naval history such as Trafalgar or Salamis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Salamis), the Battle of Midway is one of the most important and most analyzed not so much because of what happened during the battle but of what happened after. In addition to losing four of their six fleet carriers, Japan also lost hundreds of highly-trained airmen who would have trained their next generation of fighters. These losses would become so devastating to the Japanese that they would derail their planned offense in the Pacific, particularly to New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa.

Most important, America’s victory at Midway was a turning point in history by opening the way for the Allies to go on the offense in the Pacific.

© 2007-2012 David H. Klaus

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