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 much of World War II, Yama­moto (1884–1943) 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” (kantai kessen), occupy Midway and push Japan’s Pacific Ocean defense peri­meter hun­dreds of miles to the east and south to pre­vent a repeat attack on the Home Islands (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 fleet carriers USS Enter­prise and Hornet, and Adm. Frank Fletcher’s Task Force 17, with the patched-up flat­top York­town, all together one less fleet 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 fleet 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 valu­able carrier 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. JN‑25 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 Western Pacific and remained on the defen­sive for the remainder of the war. Japan’s decel­er­ating naval hege­mony expe­dited America’s success­ful island-hopping cam­paign, starting with Guadal­canal in the Solo­mons in August 1942, that took the Allies to the shores of the Japanese Home Islands in June 1945.

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. Doing so would, on the one hand, give Japan the freedom to expand its enor­mous eco­no­mic and cul­tural sphere, the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere (launched June 29, 1940), com­prising Japan, Man­chu­kuo (Man­chu­ria), Korea, the island of Formosa (Taiwan), parts of China, and parts of South­east Asia and the Western Pacific, and on the other hand pro­vide the country with Lebens­raum (German, “living space”) to settle its sur­plus popu­la­tion. The Japa­nese hoped another demor­al­izing defeat post-Pearl Harbor would force the U.S. to capit­u­late in the Pacific War on Tokyo’s terms and thus acknowl­edge Japa­nese mili­tary, com­mer­cial, and ethnic domi­nance in an even greater part of the Pacific Ocean basin. Luring the Amer­i­can air­craft carriers into a trap and occupying the U.S. Midway out­post was part of Adm. Yama­moto’s “barrier” strat­egy to extend the Empire’s defen­sive peri­meter to the east and south in the after­math of Jimmy Doo­little’s humil­i­ating flat­top air raid on the Japa­nese capital. The Midway 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, 1942Battle of Midway: Smoldering hulk of Japanese heavy cruiser "Mikuma," June 6, 1942

Left: USS Yorktown (CV-5) is hit amidships by a Japanese aerial torpedo during the mid-­afternoon 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. A year earlier 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 large 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. Less than a year later, in April 1943, a second Yorktown flattop (CV-10) was commis­sioned and participated in several campaigns during the Pacific War.

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, 1942Battle 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