Hashirajima Anchoring Area, Hiroshima Bay, Japan May 27, 1942

A little over four months after Japan devastated the U.S. Pacific Fleet riding at peace­ful anchor at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Japa­nese Shōwa Emperor Hiro­hito and his Army and Navy staff officers received a rude calling card from Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doo­little and 79 other air­men of the United States Army Air Forces. The April 18, 1942, bombing of Tokyo by 16 B‑25 Mitchell medium bombers, which lifted off the air­craft carrier USS Hornet in the Central Pacific, was retali­a­tion for Japan’s Decem­ber 7, 1941, sneak attack. Though the Doo­little raid caused negli­gi­ble material damage to the Japa­nese capi­tal, it achieved its goal of raising Amer­i­can morale and casting doubt in the minds of Japan’s mili­tary leaders as to their abil­ity to defend their home islands from more serious air raids. It also con­trib­uted to Adm. Isoroku Yama­moto’s deci­sion to attack the U.S. out­post on Midway Atoll, the outer­most island in the Hawai­ian archi­pel­ago in the Central Pacific. As Japa­nese Marshal Admiral of the Navy and the commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet during World War II, Yama­moto intended to draw U.S. air­craft carriers, which were missing from Pearl Harbor on that fate­ful Decem­ber morning, to the island atoll, destroy the U.S. Navy’s fighting abil­ity in a “deci­sive battle,” occupy Midway and push Japan’s Pacific Ocean defense peri­meter hun­dreds of miles to the east and south­east (see map below), and, best case scenario, force the U.S. to withdraw from the Pacific War.

On this date, May 27, 1942, less than three weeks after the first major naval battle of the Pacific War—the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 4–8, 1942), a Japa­nese tacti­cal victory—Yama­moto hastily dispatched a power­ful Japa­nese strike force (71 major war­ships) to Midway Atoll and a second, diver­sionary fleet to Alaska’s Aleu­tian Islands. U.S. Adm. Raymond Spruance’s Task Force 16, with the carriers USS Enter­prise and Hornet, and Adm. Frank Fletcher’s Task Force 17, with the patched-up flat­top York­town, all together one less carrier than Yama­moto had, met the Japa­nese strike force on June 4 north­east of Midway without being detected. The three-day engage­ment inflicted irrep­a­rable damage on the Japa­nese carrier force: three carriers (Kaga, Sōryū, and Akagi), their upper hanger decks covered with armed and fueled air­craft being prepared for air strikes against the Amer­i­can carriers, burst into flames and foundered after U.S. dive bombers dropped bomb after bomb after bomb on their floating targets. The remaining Japa­nese carrier (Hiryū) was mortally wounded soon afterward at the price of the main U.S. casualty, the York­town, struck by two of Hiryū’s aircraft-launched torpedoes.

The Battle of Mid­way was the first clear-cut victory for the U.S. in World War II and the first naval defeat for Japan since 1870. Yama­moto, ill with diarrhea on board the battle­ship Yamato, watched over the loss of two-thirds of Japan’s fleet carriers, 332 air­craft, and 3,500 men, including hun­dreds of irre­place­able pilots. On the Amer­i­can side, one carrier, one destroyer, about 150 air­craft, and 307 lives were lost. The Amer­i­can toll could have been much higher except for U.S. code breakers who knew that Yama­moto was planning a trap at Midway for the U.S. Pacific fleet. The code breakers even knew Yama­moto’s order of battle. Yama­moto’s trap (at best a crap­shoot) back­fired: from that point on the Imperial Japa­nese Navy lost all momen­tum in the Central Pacific and remained on the defensive for the remainder of the war.

Naval Battle of Midway, June 4–7, 1942, America’s First Major Victory Against the Japanese and a Devastating Defeat for Japan

Adm. Yamamoto’s "barrier" strategy

Above: Operation MI, the Japanese operation against Midway (June 4–7, 1942), like the earlier attack on Pearl Harbor 1,100 miles to the south­east, sought to elimi­nate the United States as a stra­tegic power in the Pacific, there­by giving Japan a free hand in estab­lishing its enor­mous eco­no­mic and cul­tural sphere, the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, com­prising Japan, Man­chu­kuo (Man­chu­ria), China, and parts of South­east Asia. The Japa­nese hoped another demor­al­izing defeat would force the U.S. to capit­u­late in the Pacific War and thus ensure Japa­nese domi­nance in the Pacific. Luring the Amer­i­can aircraft carriers into a trap and occupying the U.S. Midway out­post was part of Yama­moto’s “barrier” strat­egy to extend Japan’s defen­sive peri­meter in the after­math of Jimmy Doo­little’s humil­i­ating air raid on the Japa­nese capital. The oper­a­tion was also con­sidered prepar­a­tory for further attacks against Fiji, Samoa, the U.S. Hawaiian Islands, and possibly the U.S. West Coast.

Battle of Midway: U.S. "Yorktown" hit by Japanese torpedo, June 4, 1942 Battle of Midway: Smoldering hulk of Japanese heavy cruiser "Mikuma," June 6, 1942

Left: USS Yorktown is hit amidships by a Japanese aerial torpedo during the mid­afternoon attack by planes from the carrier Hiryū on June 4, 1942. In this photo­graph, the York­town is heeling to port after receiving the second of the two torpedo hits. Note the heavy anti­aircraft fire. The U.S. flat­top had been damaged and nearly capsized during the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 4–8, 1942), Japan’s failed attempt to capture Port Mores­by on the island of New Guinea, which lay well within striking distance of Aus­tralia. The York­town was quickly patched up at Pearl Harbor and returned to duty on May 30, for its last tour, as it turned out.

Right: The smoldering hulk of the 13,668-ton heavy cruiser Mikuma, its mid­ships struc­ture shattered, after carrier planes from the USS Enter­prise and Hornet had pummeled it merci­lessly (she was dead in the water by then) on June 6, 1942. As evi­dence of U.S. naval might, this photo was reprinted in U.S. publications throughout the war.

Battle of Midway: Torpedo Squa­dron Six (VT‑6) Devastators prepare to launch from "Enterprise," June 4, 1942 Battle of Midway: Burning Japanese aircraft carrier "Hiryū," June 5, 1942

Left: Eleven of fourteen Douglas TBD-Devastators of Navy Torpedo Squa­dron Six (VT‑6) are seen here being pre­pared for launching off the USS Enter­prise’s flight deck on the morning of June 4, 1942. Three more of these slow, under­armed TBDs and 10 Grum­man F4F Wild­cat fighter escorts were later pushed into posi­tion before launching could begin. Ten of the VT‑6 air­craft were lost attacking Japa­nese carriers more than two hours later. The heavy cruiser USS Pensa­cola is in the right distance and a destroyer is in plane guard position at left.

Right: The burning Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryū, photo­graphed from a Yoko­suka B4Y bi­plane carrier torpedo bomber shortly after sun­rise on June 5, 1942. The day before, the Hiryū had evaded destruc­tion from Midway-based U.S. Army Air Forces Boeing B‑17 Flying For­tresses. In this photo, the below-deck for­ward hangar lies exposed due to the collapsed flight deck. The Japanese scuttled the Hiryū a few hours later.

The Battle of Midway Documentary