Putting the Midway Miracle in Perspective

By Donald M. Goldstein

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

Japanese naval planners' strategy for fighting a Pacific war against the United States had long been  />  </a>  to draw the American Navy into an all-out battle, similar to Jutland in World War I. The main reason for the Pearl Harbor attack had been to disable the enemy fleet, but much to Japan's chagrin, the U.S. carriers had not been there. In the wake of that surprise strike, the Japanese Combined Fleet began developing a complex plan to seize tiny Midway Atoll for use as a base for possible future operations against Hawaii. Capture of the atoll, where a U.S. air base was located, would extend Japan's defensive perimeter some 1,200 miles to the east and, more important, lure the Pacific Fleet to the area, setting the stage for the war's climactic battle. The Japanese knew that they could not win a protracted war against the United States, but, by bringing superior forces to bear, they could defeat it in an all-or-nothing battle, move against Hawaii, and then perhaps negotiate favorable peace terms. </p> 
 <p> While Japanese spirits were high and the country's forces well trained, the Midway plan would require the utmost coordination, precision, luck, and surprise. It was divided into two main parts: the actual Midway Operation (MI) and an operation to the north, in the Aleutian Islands (AL).  </p> 
 <p> The former plan featured Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo's First Carrier Striking Force—the six carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbor: the  <em> Akagi </em> ,  <em> Kaga </em> ,  <em> Hiryu </em> ,  <em> Soryu </em> ,  <em> Zuikaku </em> , and  <em> Shokaku </em> . Its planes would strike Midway's Sand and Eastern islands. Two days later, after air attacks had destroyed the air-base facilities on Eastern and seaplane base on Sand and softened up the islands' defenses, amphibious troops would begin landing. When the islands were secured, engineers would quickly repair the air base, thus extending Japan's bomb line in the Pacific.  </p> 
 <p> Operation MI also featured a formidable surface force commanded by Admiral Yamamoto—the Main Body—to deliver the knockout blow to the Pacific Fleet when it showed up. Three battleships (one of which was Yamamoto's flagship, the  <em> Yamato </em> ) and their escorts would deploy 600 miles northwest of Midway. The Guard Force, which included four battleships, would meanwhile position itself between the Aleutians and Hawaii, screening the northern operation. A final component of Operation MI was the Advance (Submarine) Force, whose boats were to deploy east of Midway to warn of and attack approaching U.S. warships.  </p> 
 <p> At the same time the Midway attack was taking place, Operation AL's Northern Force would strike the Aleutians. The Second Carrier Striking Force would launch attack planes against Dutch Harbor, at the eastern end of the island chain, and a 2,500-man force would occupy the western Aleutians. Japanese planners believed that the success of this diversionary operation would preclude the Americans from running a bombing shuttle from Dutch Harbor to Vladivostok, in the event the Soviet Union came into the war against Japan. Moreover, Japan might someday use the islands as a base for bombing the American mainland.  <br /> 
  </p> 
 <h4> The American Intelligence Coup </h4> 
 <p> 
At first glance, Yamamoto's plan appeared brilliant; however, the Japanese did not know that by the spring of 1942 U.S. Navy cryptanalysts had cracked their navy's operational code, JN-25, and were reading fragments of their radio messages. One of the most significant early decryptions revealed key information about a Japanese operation in the South Pacific: Three enemy carriers and an invasion force were heading for the Coral Sea area.  </p> 
 <p> The operation was part of Japan's strategy to isolate Australia, and its goal was the capture of the Allied base of Port Moresby in New Guinea. The ensuing 4-8 May Battle of the Coral Sea was a tactical victory for Japan; its carrier planes sank the USS  <em> Lexington </em>  (CV-2) and severely damaged the  <em> Yorktown </em>  (CV-5), while in exchange the Japanese Navy lost only the light carrier  <em> Shoho </em> . In reality, however, it was a Japanese strategic defeat. The Port Moresby operation was called off. Moreover, while the carriers  <em> Shokaku </em>  and  <em> Zuikaku </em>  were not sunk, the former was damaged and latter's air group was severely depleted. Both were temporarily out of action and unavailable for the Midway operation. </p> 
 <p> Code breakers at Pearl Harbor had meanwhile learned that a large-scale attack in the Central Pacific was imminent, but they were not certain of the target. Japanese intercepts were increasingly referring to "AF," the probable attack location, but where was it? Commander Joseph Rochefort, chief of the Combat Intelligence Group, suspected Midway, as did Pacific Fleet Commander-in-Chief Admiral Chester Nimitz, who inspected the atoll's defenses on 2 May. To dispel any shadow of a doubt, Rochefort set a trap. In mid-May the commanding officer at Midway was instructed to send a message in the clear that the atoll was having trouble with its desalinization plant and running low on water. Shortly after it was sent, the Navy intercepted a coded Japanese message advising that AF was running low on water. The target was confirmed. Now armed with what he believed was perfect information, Nimitz heavily reinforced Midway with Marines, antiaircraft guns, and aircraft.  <br /> 
  </p> 
 <h4> Pacific Fleet Preparations </h4> 
 <p> 
Because the  <em> Lexington </em>  had been sunk and the  <em> Yorktown </em>  heavily damaged at Coral Sea, Nimitz was left with two serviceable carriers: the  <em> Enterprise </em>  (CV-6) and  <em> Hornet </em>  (the  <em> Saratoga </em>  [CV-3] would not arrive from the West Coast in time for the coming battle). Fortunately for the Americans, however, the Japanese had overlooked major targets when they bombed Pearl Harbor. Besides failing to knock out the fuel depots, they did not destroy the dry docks, and on 28 May the  <em> Yorktown </em> —which the Japanese thought they had sunk—floated into Dry Dock No. 1 and was soon swarming with workmen. The next day she eased into her berth as the repairs continued. The carrier returned to sea on the 30th. One estimate had been that it would take three months to put  <em> Yorktown </em>  back into prime condition, but in an amazing feat, repairmen were able to put her in service in only three days. </p> 
 <p> For the upcoming battle, Nimitz had divided his forces into two groups. Vice Admiral William "Bull" Halsey's Task Force 16, which included the  <em> Enterprise </em>  and  <em> Hornet </em> , had arrived at Pearl on 26 May. Halsey, however, had developed a severe skin rash and was confined to a hospital. Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance replaced him as commander of Task Force 16.  Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, the U.S. commander at Coral Sea, led Task Force 17, which included the  <em> Yorktown </em> . As senior officer, Fletcher also had operational command of the two carrier groups. Mindful of the threat to the Aleutians, Admiral Nimitz had earlier ordered Rear Admiral Robert A. Theobald's Task Force 8 to assemble in the far north. </p> 
 <p> While the  <em> Yorktown </em>  was under repair in Pearl, Nimitz met with his commanders for a final review of their battle plan. Naval intelligence had provided the Pacific Fleet commander with an incredibly accurate picture of the order of battle and intentions of Japan's Midway forces. The First Carrier Striking Force was to approach the atoll from the northwest. For the Americans, the principle objective was to achieve surprise. Instead of deploying between the approaching Japanese and Midway, the U.S. carriers would rendezvous about 325 miles northeast of the atoll, at a location code-named Point Luck. They would then strike the enemy first, hitting him on the flank.  </p> 
 <p> Task Force 16 departed Pearl Harbor on 28 May, followed by Task Force 17 on the 30th. Fortunately for the Americans, the Japanese submarines scheduled to be in position on 1 June to warn of Pacific Fleet movements toward Midway were late. The final boats arrived on station on the 3rd, the same day the Second Carrier Striking Force opened the Aleutians operation by bombing Dutch Harbor. But by then the undetected U.S. carriers had already rendezvoused at Point Luck.  <br /> 
  </p> 
 <h4> Japanese Planes Strike; Midway Bombers Counterstrike </h4> 
 <p> 
Early the next day, 4 June, Admiral Nagumo's powerful First Carrier Striking Force launched aircraft against Midway. At 0530 the islands' defenders received a message from a U.S. PBY scout plane reporting a "carrier bearing 320, distance 180." Fifteen minutes later, the excited pilot of a second PBY sent out an uncoded message: "Many planes heading Midway bearing 320 degrees, distance 150."  Then at 0552, the first plane radioed a more complete report, which the U.S. task forces picked up: "Two carriers and battleships bearing 320º, distance 180, course 135, speed 25." </p> 
 <p> By the time the Japanese aircraft arrived over the atoll, the U.S. planes based there had scrambled. The attackers swept aside Midway's combat air patrol and destroyed oil depots, docks, hangars, and buildings. In the process, they lost about ten planes to U.S. fighters and antiaircraft fire. </p> 
 <p> While the Japanese planes were pummeling Midway, Eastern Island's bombers were heading toward the enemy carriers. The planes began a series of uncoordinated attacks against the ships beginning around 0710. First, six Navy TBFs and four Army B-26 Marauders came in on torpedo runs against the  <em> Akagi </em> ; none of their torpedoes hit home. </p> 
 <p> Nagumo, lacking radar or good signals intelligence, was still unaware of the American carriers' presence to the east. He had nevertheless held back many bombers from the Midway attack and had them armed with torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs for use against any threatening U.S. naval force that might be sighted. Learning shortly before the American torpedo bombers attacked that his planes had not inflicted sufficient damage at Midway, Nagumo now decided to launch his reserve aircraft in a second strike against the atoll. This meant the planes' ordnance had to be changed, a time-consuming operation conducted on the hangar deck. However, to speed things up, the torpedoes were left on the decks instead of being properly stored below in the magazines. </p> 
 <p> Scout planes from Nagumo's force, meanwhile, were patrolling for enemy ships. At 0728 one of the planes reported a force of ten vessels 240 miles from Midway—about 200 miles away from the Japanese carriers. The pilot did not identify the ships by type. Would Nagumo, not knowing if U.S. carriers were among the unidentified ships, send his planes against the mysterious target or would he proceed with the second strike on Midway? At 0745 he signaled his force: "Prepare to carry out attacks on enemy fleet units. Leave torpedoes on those attack planes which have not as yet been changed to bombs." The aircraft would attack the ten ships with whatever weapons they had on their racks. But to make sure of the targets, Nagumo radioed the scout plane to ascertain the ship types.  </p> 
 <p> Just minutes later, a second wave of bombers from Midway was sighted approaching the Japanese fleet: 16 Marine SBD Dauntless dive bombers. While registering numerous near misses, they failed to hit the maneuvering carrier Hiryu. Soon after this attack, at 0809, the scout plane reported that the ten mysterious ships consisted of five cruisers and five destroyers. Nagumo and his staff experienced a sense of relief that the force did not include a carrier.  </p> 
 <p> Then, 14 Army B-17 Flying Fortresses appeared over the ships in yet another uncoordinated strike. The B-17s dropped bombs from 20,000 feet at the  <em> Soryu </em>  and  <em> Kaga </em> , but failed to score any hits. An attack by 11 Marine SB2U-3 Vindicator dive bombers immediately followed the Fortresses' strike. Antiaircraft fire and A6M2 Zero fighters fended off the Vindicators, and again no hits were scored. </p> 
 <p> By this time, however, Nagumo had received an 0820 message that the group of 10 ships was accompanied by what appeared to be an aircraft carrier. The news made a timely strike against the new threat vital. But the planes from the Midway attack had begun returning, were low on fuel, and were awaiting orders to land on the carriers. As they circled overhead, Nagumo had to make a quick decision: Recover or go. Instead of immediately launching the ready planes against the reported carrier, he decided to keep them below deck and recover the returning planes. They would be rearmed and refueled after which he would launch a concerted strike against the American carrier. Soon after the planes were recovered, however, U.S. carrier planes of various types began attacking. <br /> 
  </p> 
 <h4> Onslaught of the Carrier Planes </h4> 
 <p> 
At 0607, Admiral Fletcher had ordered Task Force 16 to steam ahead toward the enemy carriers, while Task Force 17 recovered scout planes. Spruance had originally planned to launch the  <em> Enterprise' </em> s and <em>  Hornet' </em> s planes at 0900 from a range of less than 100 miles, but instead he ordered an all-out attack from extreme range in hopes of catching the enemy carriers with the returned Midway attack planes on their flight decks. The  <em> Enterprise </em>  began launching aircraft at 0700, and the  <em> Hornet </em>  followed suit several minutes later. The  <em> Yorktown </em>  launched a limited strike at 0838.  </p> 
 <p> Shortly after 0915, the first U.S. carrier planes—15 TBD Devastators from the  <em> Hornet' </em> s Torpedo Squadron 8—attacked the  <em> Soryu </em> , but all were shot down and only one of the crewmen survived, a pilot, Ensign George Gay. Moreover, not one torpedo hit its mark. Next, 14  <em> Enterprise </em>  Devastators attacked. And then at about 1015 12  <em> Yorktown </em>  TBDs, escorted by six F4F Wildcats of Fighter Squadron 3, made runs. Some of the bombers avoided being shot down, but none hit its target. The low-flying planes, however, kept Nagumo's carriers maneuvering to avoid torpedoes, and they attracted enemy fighters.  </p> 
 <p style=

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.
 

Sixty-five-year Retrospective

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).
 


References:
  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).

 

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).

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