Japan's early-war tactics were relatively simple. As its forces advanced, they constructed airfields to extend their warplanes' bomb line. The army and navy did not move without air cover, and objectives were taken with high precision and relatively little loss of life. Japan did not launch any frontal assaults like in World War I. The Allies, in turn, found themselves fighting a virtually invisible enemy that stalked their retreating columns, blocked roads, staged ambushes, and, when the battle got too hot, disappeared into the jungle. The simplicity of its tactics, more than anything else, made Japan a formidable foe, and it was more than a match for an unprepared enemy. As its forces racked up victory after victory, the country's propaganda and the many war correspondents writing about the lopsided battles perpetuated the myth of Japanese invincibility.
During the onslaught, America was sorely in need of some tangible victory, and in order to boost morale, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff to develop a plan to attack the Japanese home islands. Army Air Forces Lieutenant Colonel James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle and the U.S. Navy received the assignment. On 18 April 1942, 16 B-25 bombers took off from the USS Hornet (CV-8) and bombed Japan, 650 miles away. While the Doolittle Raid did not cause much damage and tactically was not successful, it was strategically important. Japan's military had promised the emperor and the Japanese people that their homeland would never be attacked. The surprise raid firmly wedded Japan and the commander of its Combined Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, to an ambitious plan to ensure that Doolittle's feat could not be repeated.
Preparing for a Climactic Battle
Commander Ferrier's retelling of events at the Battle of Midway
in the Naval Institute's Americans at War Series
The Japanese combat air patrol had done a good job breaking up the morning's attacks, but because the fighters had dropped low to intercept the TBDs and F4Fs, American dive bombers soon arriving over the scene caught the carriers unprotected. Most of Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky's 32 SBDs from the Enterprise dove on the Kaga , scoring multiple bomb hits; three of the Dauntlesses took on the Akagi and hit her with at least one 1,000-pound bomb. Meanwhile, 17 Yorktown SBDs dove on a third carrier, the Soryu , hitting her with three 1,000-pound bombs. With planes on their flight decks and unprotected torpedoes and armed and fueled aircraft on their hangar decks, the ships were soon engulfed in explosions and fire. Within minutes the carriers were out of commission. The trio later sank, and the heart of the Imperial Japanese Navy's carrier force was gone. The damage would most likely have been greater if the strike's 34 Hornet dive bombers had not flown a different course from the other attack planes; they never found the Japanese ships.
The First Carrier Striking Force's remaining flattop, the Hiryu , escaped the onslaught, and its commander quickly ordered 18 D3A1 Val bombers and six Zero fighters to attack the U.S. carriers. Following returning Yorktown planes, the Japanese attackers found the carrier and hit her with three bombs. Admiral Fletcher transferred his flag from the temporarily disabled ship to the USS Astoria (CA-34) and turned over command of the carrier groups to Spruance. Later that afternoon, the Yorktown was again attacked, by a follow-up Hiryu flight of ten B5N2 Kate torpedo bombers and six more Zeros. The bombers scored two torpedo hits, severely damaging the carrier. The Americans, however, struck the last blow of 4 June when Dauntlesses found the Hiryu and landed four bombs in her. The next day she sank.
In the early hours of that day, Admiral Yamamoto called off the Midway operation and began retreating westward. Spruance pursued, and on the 6th, SBDs sank the heavy cruiser Mikuma . The American commander, however, decided to retire rather than chase the Japanese, whom he knew still had a potent force. Already on her way back to Hawaii, the Yorktown was under tow on the 6th when she and the USS Hammann (DD-412) were torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-168 . The destroyer sank immediately, while the battered carrier went down the next day.
In the final analysis, the American victory at Midway was both brilliant and lucky. The Japanese made many mistakes. A major one was having a plan that violated many principles of war. The Japanese did not mass their forces against the primary objective, take into account U.S. capabilities, gain surprise, maintain proper security, keep their operational plan simple, apply the proper amount of force to do the job, or maintain unity of command. Another major mistake was being overconfident, even cocky. Every one of the Imperial Japanese Navy veterans that this author talked to—including Masataka Chihaya, Mitsuo Fuchida, and Minoru Genda—repeated in interview after interview that they thought they were unbeatable and had what they termed "victory disease."
Fate played a large role in the battle. Two leading Japanese officers—Genda, Admiral Nagumo's air officer, and Fuchida, the leader of Akagi' s air group—while present were physically incapacitated and did not actively take part in the battle. Their participation may have made a difference. Also, had the Navy not broken the JN-25 code and learned that AF was Midway, the U.S. task forces may have been out of position on 4 June. The timing of the U.S. carrier-plane attack on the morning of 4 June and the fact that the Enterprise' s dive bombers, when at their maximum range, had found the enemy carriers by following a Japanese destroyer were lucky breaks. One of the Americans' other breaks may have been that Admiral Halsey was replaced by Spruance, a man who had little training as carrier task-force leader but who became a hero of the battle.
Finally, as my mentor Gordon W. Prange told me, one must consider the intangibles. What might have happened had the Japanese destroyed the three U.S. carriers and won at Midway is very debatable and open to speculation, but Australia and perhaps Hawaii would have been the next Japanese targets. With virtually all of the Pacific Fleet's aerial striking power out of the picture, there would have been little to stop Japan. It would have been open season on U.S. forces, and the Japanese would have been in total command of the Pacific, including possibly the waters around the U.S. West Coast. Fortunately, this did not happen.
Captain Edwin T. Layton, an excellent intelligence officer and authority on Pearl Harbor, pointed out to Prange that "at Midway the Japanese lost or left behind a naval air force that had been the terror of the Pacific—an elite force, an overwhelming force that would never again come back and spread destruction and fear as it had over the first six months of the war." This is the meaning of Midway.
Dr. Goldstein is a professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. He and Katherine V. Dillon assisted in the publication of several books by Gordon W. Prange, including Miracle at Midway (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982) and At Dawn We Slept (McGraw-Hill, 1981). Goldstein is also the author or editor of numerous other books, including Fading Victory: The Diary of Admiral Matome Ugaki, 1941-45 (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991).
Mitsuo Fuchida and Okumiya Masatake, Midway: The Battle that Doomed Japan, the Japanese Navy's Story (Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute, 1955).
George H. Gay, Sole Survivor (Naples, FL: Midway Publishers, 1980).
Walter Lord, Midway: The Incredible Victory (New York: Harper & Row, 1967).
John B. Lundstrom, The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984).
Samuel E. Morison, Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions: May 1942-August 1942 (History of the United States Naval Operations in World War II) Vol 4 (New York: Little, Brown & Co, 1949).
Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully, Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2005).
Gordon W. Prange, Donald M. Goldstein, and Katherine V. Dillon, Miracle at Midway (New York: McGraw Hill, 1982).