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Battle of Midway

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Background Information

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Battle of Midway
Part of the Pacific Theatre of World War II
SBDs and Mikuma.jpg
U.S. Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive bombers from the USS Hornet about to attack the burning Japanese cruiser Mikuma for the third time on 6 June 1942
Date 4–7 June 1942
Location Midway Atoll
28°12′N 177°21′W Coordinates: 28°12′N 177°21′W
Result Decisive American victory
 United States   Empire of Japan
Commanders and leaders
United States Chester W. Nimitz
United States Frank Jack Fletcher
United States Raymond A. Spruance
Japan Isoroku Yamamoto
Japan Nobutake Kondō
Japan Chūichi Nagumo
Japan Tamon Yamaguchi 
Japan Ryusaku Yanagimoto 
3 carriers
~25 support ships
233 carrier-based aircraft
127 land-based aircraft
4 carriers
2 battleships
~15 support ships
248 carrier-based aircraft
16 floatplanes

Did not participate in battle:
2 light carriers
5 battleships
~41 support ships
Casualties and losses
1 carrier sunk
1 destroyer sunk
~150 aircraft destroyed
307 killed
4 carriers sunk
1 cruiser sunk
248 carrier aircraft destroyed
3,057 killed

The Battle of Midway (ミッドウェー海戦 Middowē Kaisen) was the most important naval battle of the Pacific Campaign of World War II. Between 4 and 7 June 1942, only six months after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour, and one month after the Battle of the Coral Sea, the United States Navy decisively defeated an Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) attack against Midway Atoll, inflicting irreparable damage on the Japanese fleet. Military historian John Keegan called it "the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare."

The Japanese operation, like the earlier attack on Pearl Harbour, sought to eliminate the United States as a strategic power in the Pacific, thereby giving Japan a free hand in establishing its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The Japanese hoped that another demoralizing defeat would force the U.S. to capitulate in the Pacific War and thus ensure Japanese dominance in the Pacific.

The Japanese plan was to lure the United States' aircraft carriers into a trap. The Japanese also intended to occupy Midway as part of an overall plan to extend their defensive perimeter in response to the Doolittle Raid. This operation was also considered preparatory for further attacks against Fiji and Samoa.

The plan was handicapped by faulty Japanese assumptions of the American reaction and poor initial dispositions. Most significantly, American codebreakers were able to determine the date and location of the attack, enabling the forewarned U.S. Navy to set up an ambush of its own. Four Japanese aircraft carriers - Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu, all part of the six carrier force to launch the attack on Pearl Harbour six months earlier - and a heavy cruiser were sunk at a cost of one American aircraft carrier and a destroyer. After Midway, and the exhausting attrition of the Solomon Islands campaign, Japan's shipbuilding and pilot training programs were unable to keep pace in replacing their losses while the U.S. steadily increased its output in both areas.


Japan had attained its initial strategic goals quickly, taking the Philippines, Malaya, Singapore, and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia); the latter, with its vital oil resources, was particularly important to Japan. Because of this, preliminary planning for a second phase of operations commenced as early as January 1942. However, there were strategic disagreements between the Imperial Army and Imperial Navy, and infighting between the Navy's GHQ and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's Combined Fleet, such that a follow-up strategy was not formed until April 1942. Admiral Yamamoto finally succeeded in winning the bureaucratic struggle with a thinly veiled threat to resign, after which his plan for the Central Pacific was adopted.

Yamamoto's primary strategic goal was the elimination of America's carrier forces, which he perceived as the principal threat to the overall Pacific campaign. This concern was acutely heightened by the Doolittle Raid (18 April 1942) in which USAAF B-25 Mitchells launched from USS Hornet bombed targets in Tokyo and several other Japanese cities. The raid, while militarily insignificant, was a severe psychological shock to the Japanese and showed the existence of a gap in the defenses around the Japanese home islands as well as the accessibility of Japanese territory by American bombers. This and other successful hit-and-run raids by American carriers showed that they were still a threat, although seemingly reluctant to be drawn into an all-out battle. Yamamoto reasoned that another attack on the main U.S base at Pearl Harbor would induce all of the American fleet to sail out to fight, including the carriers; however, given the strength of American land-based air power on Hawaii, he judged that Pearl Harbour could no longer be attacked directly. Instead, he selected Midway, at the extreme northwest end of the Hawaiian Island chain, some 1,300 miles (1,100  nautical miles; 2,100  kilometres) from Oahu. Midway was not especially important in the larger scheme of Japan's intentions, but the Japanese felt the Americans would consider Midway a vital outpost of Pearl Harbour and would therefore be compelled to defend it vigorously. The U.S. did consider Midway vital; after the battle, establishment of a U.S. submarine base on Midway allowed submarines operating from Pearl Harbour to refuel and reprovision, extending their radius of operations by 1,200 miles (1,900 kilometres). An airstrip on Midway served as a forward staging point for bomber attacks on Wake Island.

Yamamoto's plan, Operation MI

Midway Atoll, several months before the battle. Eastern Island (with the airfield) is in the foreground, and the larger Sand Island is in the background to the west.

Typical of Japanese naval planning during World War II, Yamamoto's battle plan was exceedingly complex. Additionally, his design was predicated on optimistic intelligence suggesting that USS Enterprise and USS Hornet, forming Task Force 16, were the only carriers available to the U.S. Pacific Fleet. In May 1942, during the Battle of the Coral Sea, USS Lexington had been sunk and USS Yorktown was so badly damaged that the Japanese believed her also to have been sunk. The Japanese were also aware that USS Saratoga was undergoing repairs on the West Coast after suffering torpedo damage from a submarine.

However, more important was Yamamoto's belief the Americans had been demoralized by their frequent defeats during the preceding six months. Yamamoto felt deception would be required to lure the U.S. fleet into a fatally compromised situation. To this end, he dispersed his forces so that their full extent (particularly his battleships) would be unlikely to be discovered by the Americans prior to battle. Critically, Yamamoto's supporting battleships and cruisers would trail Vice-Admiral Chūichi Nagumo's carrier striking force by several hundred miles. Japan's heavy surface forces were intended to destroy whatever part of the U.S. fleet might come to Midway's relief, once Nagumo's carriers had weakened them sufficiently for a daylight gun duel; this was typical of the battle doctrine of most major navies.

Yamamoto did not know that the U.S. had broken the main Japanese naval code (dubbed JN-25 by the Americans). Yamamoto's emphasis on dispersal also meant that none of his formations could support each other. For instance, the only significant warships larger than destroyers that screened Nagumo's fleet were two battleships and three cruisers, despite his carriers being expected to carry out the strikes and bear the brunt of American counterattacks. By contrast, the flotillas of Yamamoto and Kondo had between them two light carriers, five battleships, and six cruisers, none of which would see any action at Midway. Their distance from Nagumo's carriers would also have grave implications during the battle, because the larger warships in Yamamoto and Kondo's forces carried scout planes, an invaluable reconnaissance capability denied to Nagumo.

Aleutian invasion

Likewise, the Japanese operations in the Aleutian Islands (Operation AL) removed yet more ships that could otherwise have augmented the force striking Midway. Whereas prior historical accounts have often characterized the Aleutians operation as a feint to draw American forces away, recent scholarship on the battle has suggested that AL was supposed to be launched simultaneously with the attack on Midway. However, a one-day delay in the sailing of Nagumo's task force meant that Operation AL began a day before the Midway attack.

Prelude to battle

American reinforcements

USS Yorktown at Pearl Harbour days before the battle.

To do battle with an enemy expected to muster four or five carriers, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas, needed every available U.S. flight deck. He already had Vice Admiral William Halsey's two-carrier (Enterprise and Hornet) task force at hand, though Halsey was stricken with psoriasis and had to be replaced by Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, Halsey's escort commander. Nimitz also hurriedly recalled Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher's task force, including the carrier Yorktown (which had suffered considerable damage at Coral Sea), from the South West Pacific Area. It reached Pearl Harbour just in time to provision and sail.

Despite estimates that Yorktown would require several months of repairs at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, her elevators were intact, and her flight deck largely so. The Pearl Harbour Naval Shipyard worked around the clock and in 72 hours, she was restored to a battle-ready state, judged good enough for two or three weeks of operations, as Nimitz required. Her flight deck was patched, whole sections of internal frames had been cut out and replaced, and several squadrons were drawn from Saratoga; they did not, however, get time to train. Nimitz disregarded established procedure in getting his third and last available carrier ready for battle. Just three days after putting into dry dock at Pearl Harbour, Yorktown was again under way. Repairs continued even as she sortied, with work crews from the repair ship USS Vestal, herself damaged in the attack on Pearl Harbour six months earlier, still aboard.

On Midway, by 4 June the USN had stationed four squadrons of Consolidated PBY Catalinas — 31 aircraft in total — for long-range reconnaissance duties, and six brand-new Grumman TBF-1 Avengers, the latter a detachment from Hornet's squadron VT-8. The Marine Corps had 19 SBD Dauntlesses, seven F4F-3 Wildcats, 17 Vought SB2U-3 Vindicators, and 21 Brewster F2A-3s. The USAAF contributed a squadron of 17 B-17 Flying Fortresses, along with eight B-26 Marauders equipped with torpedoes: in total 126 aircraft.

Japanese shortcomings

Akagi, the flagship of the Japanese carrier striking force which attacked Pearl Harbour, as well as Darwin, Rabaul, and Colombo, in April 1942 prior to the battle.

Meanwhile, as a result of her participation in the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Japanese carrier Zuikaku was in port in Kure, awaiting a replacement air group. That there were none immediately available was a failure of the IJN crew training program, which already showed signs of being unable to replace losses. Instructors from the Yokosuka Air Corps were employed in an effort to make up the shortfall. The heavily damaged Shōkaku had suffered three bomb hits at Coral Sea, and required months of repair in drydock. Despite the likely availability of sufficient aircraft between the two ships to re-equip Zuikaku with a composite air group, the Japanese made no serious attempt to get her into the forthcoming battle. Consequently, Admiral Nagumo would only have four fleet carriers: Kaga and Akagi forming Carrier Division 1; Hiryū and Sōryū as Carrier Division 2. At least part of this was a product of fatigue; Japanese carriers had been constantly on operations since 7 December 1941, including raids on Darwin and Colombo.

The main Japanese carrier-borne strike aircraft were the Aichi D3A1 dive bomber and the Nakajima B5N2, which was used either as a torpedo bomber or as a level attack bomber. However, production of the D3A had been drastically reduced, while that of the B5N had been stopped completely and, as a consequence, there were none available to replace losses. In addition many of the aircraft being used during the June 1942 operations had been operational since late November 1941; although well maintained, many were almost worn out and had become increasingly unreliable. These factors meant that all carriers of the Kido Butai had fewer aircraft than their normal complement, nor were there enough spare aircraft or parts stored in the carrier's hangers. One positive aspect for the Japanese was that their main carrier fighter was the fast and highly maneuverable Mitsubishi A6M2 "Zero".

Japanese strategic scouting arrangements prior to the battle were also in disarray. A picket line of Japanese submarines was late getting into position (partly because of Yamamoto's haste), which let the American carriers reach their assembly point northeast of Midway (known as "Point Luck") without being detected. A second attempt at reconnaissance, using four-engine Kawanishi H8K flying boats to scout Pearl Harbour prior to the battle (and thereby detect the absence or presence of the American carriers), part of Operation K, was also thwarted when Japanese submarines assigned to refuel the search aircraft discovered that the intended refueling point — a hitherto deserted bay off French Frigate Shoals — was occupied by American warships (because the Japanese had carried out an identical mission in March). Thus, Japan was deprived of any knowledge concerning the movements of the American carriers immediately before the battle.

Japanese radio intercepts did notice an increase in both American submarine activity and message traffic. This information was in Yamamoto's hands prior to the battle. However, Japanese plans were not changed; Yamamoto, at sea on Yamato, did not dare inform Nagumo for fear of exposing his position and assumed that Nagumo had received the same signal from Tokyo. Nagumo's radio antennas, however, were unable to receive such long-wave transmissions, and he was left unaware of any American ship movements.

Allied code-breaking

Admiral Nimitz had one priceless advantage: cryptanalysts had broken the Japanese Navy's JN-25b code. Since the early spring of 1942, the US had been decoding messages stating that there would soon be an operation at objective "AF." Commander Joseph J. Rochefort and his team at Station HYPO were able to confirm Midway as the target of the impending Japanese strike by having the base at Midway send a false message stating that its water distillation plant had been damaged and that the base needed fresh water. The Japanese intercepted this and soon started sending messages that "AF was short on water." Hypo was also able to determine the date of the attack as either 4 or 5 June, and to provide Nimitz with a complete IJN order of battle. Japan's efforts to introduce a new codebook had been delayed, giving HYPO several crucial days; while it was blacked out shortly before the attack began, the important breaks had already been made.

As a result, the Americans entered the battle with a very good picture of where, when, and in what strength the Japanese would appear. Nimitz knew that the Japanese had negated their numerical advantage by dividing their ships into four separate task groups, all too widely separated to be able to support each other. Nimitz calculated that the aircraft on his three carriers, plus those on Midway Island, gave the U.S. rough parity with Yamamoto's four carriers, mainly because American carrier air groups were larger than Japanese ones. The Japanese, by contrast, remained almost totally unaware of their opponent's true strength and dispositions even after the battle began.


Order of battle

Initial air attacks

At about 09:00 on 3 June, a searching Catalina pilot spotted the Japanese Occupation Force some 500 nautical miles (580 miles; 930 kilometres) to the west-southwest of Midway. He mistakenly reported this group as the Main Force. The first air attack took off at 12:30, consisting of nine B-17s operating from Midway. Three hours later, they found the Japanese Tanaka's transport group 570 nautical miles (660 miles; 1,060 kilometres) to the west. Under heavy anti-aircraft fire, they dropped their bombs. Though hits were reported, none of the bombs actually hit and no significant damage was inflicted. Early the following morning, Japanese oil tanker Akebono Maru sustained the first hit when a torpedo from an attacking Catalina struck her around 01:00. This would be the only successful air-launched torpedo attack by the U.S. during the entire battle.

Eastern Island under attack.

At 04:30 on 4 June, Nagumo launched his initial attack on Midway itself, consisting of 36 Aichi D3A dive bombers and 36 Nakajima B5N torpedo bombers, escorted by 36 Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters. At the same time, he launched combat air patrol (CAP), as well as his eight search aircraft (one from the heavy cruiser Tone launched 30 minutes late due to technical difficulties).

Japanese reconnaissance arrangements were flimsy, with too few aircraft to adequately cover the assigned search areas, laboring under poor weather conditions to the northeast and east of the task force. Yamamoto's faulty dispositions had now become a serious liability.

As Nagumo's bombers and fighters were taking off, 11 Catalinas were leaving Midway to run their search patterns. At 05:30, one Catalina reported sighting two Japanese carriers with empty decks, indicating an air strike en route. American radar picked up the enemy at a distance of several miles and interceptors were soon scrambled. Unescorted bombers headed off to attack the Japanese carrier fleet, their fighter escorts remaining behind to defend Midway. At 06:20, Japanese carrier aircraft bombed and heavily damaged the U.S. base. Midway-based Marine fighter pilots, flying F4Fs and obsolescent F2As, intercepted the Japanese and suffered heavy losses, though they managed to destroy four B5Ns and at least three A6Ms. Most of the U.S. planes were downed in the first few minutes; several were damaged, and only two remained flyable. In all, 3 F4Fs and 13 F2As were shot down. American anti-aircraft fire was accurate and intense, damaging many Japanese aircraft and claiming one-third of the Japanese planes destroyed.

The initial Japanese attack did not succeed in neutralizing Midway. American bombers could still use the airbase to refuel and attack the Japanese invasion force; another aerial attack would be necessary if troops were to go ashore by 7 June.

Having taken off prior to the Japanese attack, American bombers based on Midway made several attacks on the Japanese carrier fleet. These included six Grumman Avengers, detached to Midway from the Hornet's VT-8 (Midway was the first combat mission for the VT-8 airmen, and it was the debut of the TBF into combat), Marine Scout-Bombing Squadron 241 ( VMSB-241), consisting of eleven SB2U-3s and sixteen SBDs, plus four USAAF B-26s, armed with torpedoes, and fifteen B-17s. The Japanese shrugged off these attacks with two fighters lost, while destroying five TBFs, two SB2Us, eight SBDs and two B-26s. The first Marine aviator to perish during the battle, Major Lofton R. Henderson of VMSB-241, was killed while leading his inexperienced Dauntless squadron into action and was later honored by having the main airfield at Guadalcanal named after him in August 1942. One B-26, hit by anti-aircraft fire from Akagi, made no attempt to pull out of its run and narrowly missed crashing directly into the carrier's bridge. This experience may well have contributed to Nagumo's determination to launch another attack on Midway, in direct violation of Yamamoto's order to keep the reserve strike force armed for anti-ship operations.

B-17 attack misses Hiryū; this was taken some time between 08:00–08:30. A Shotai of three Zeros is lined up near the bridge. This was one of several combat air patrols launched during the day.

Nagumo's decision

Admiral Nagumo, in accordance with Japanese carrier doctrine at the time, had kept half of his aircraft in reserve. These comprised two squadrons each of dive bombers and torpedo bombers, the latter armed with torpedoes should any American warships be located. The dive bombers were as yet unarmed. As a result of the attacks from Midway, as well as the morning flight leader's recommendation of a second strike, at 07:15 Nagumo ordered his reserve planes to be re-armed with contact-fused general purpose bombs for use against land targets. Some sources maintain that this had been underway for about 30 minutes when at 07:40 the delayed scout plane from Tone signaled that it had sighted a sizable American naval force to the east, although it neglected to describe the composition of this force. New evidence, however, suggests Nagumo did not receive the sighting report until 08:00, so the rearming operation actually proceeded for 45 minutes. Nagumo quickly reversed his order and demanded that the scout plane ascertain the composition of the American force, but another 40 minutes elapsed before Tone's scout finally radioed the presence of a single carrier in the American force. This was one of the carriers from TF 16; the other carrier was not sighted.

Nagumo was now in a quandary. Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi, leading Carrier Division 2 (Hiryū and Sōryū), recommended that Nagumo strike immediately with the forces at hand: 18 Aichi D3A1 dive bombers each on Sōryū and Hiryū, and half the ready cover patrol aircraft. Nagumo's opportunity to hit the American ships, however, was now limited by the fact that his Midway strike force would be returning shortly and needed to land promptly or ditch into the sea. Because of the constant flight deck activity associated with combat air patrol operations during the preceding hour, the Japanese never had an opportunity to "spot" (i.e., position on the flight deck) their reserve planes for launch. The few aircraft on the Japanese flight decks at the time of the attack were either defensive fighters or, in the case of Sōryū, fighters being spotted to augment the task force defenses. Spotting his flight decks and launching aircraft would have required at least 30 to 45 minutes. Furthermore, by spotting and launching immediately, Nagumo would be committing some of his reserve to battle without proper anti-ship armament; he had just witnessed how easily unescorted American bombers had been shot down. Poor discipline caused many of the Japanese bombers ditch their bombs and attempt to dogfight intercepting F4Fs. Japanese carrier doctrine preferred fully constituted strikes, and without confirmation of whether the American force included carriers (not received until 08:20), Nagumo's reaction was doctrinaire. In addition, the arrival of another American air strike at 07:53 gave weight to the need to attack the island again. In the end, Nagumo chose to wait for his first strike force to land, then launch the reserve, which would by then be properly armed and ready.

In the final analysis, it made no difference; Fletcher's carriers had launched their planes beginning at 07:00, so the aircraft that would deliver the crushing blow were already on their way. There was nothing Nagumo could do about it. This was the fatal flaw of Yamamoto's dispositions: They followed strictly traditional battleship doctrine.

Attacks on the Japanese fleet

Ensign George Gay (right), sole survivor of VT-8's TBD Devastator squadron, in front of his aircraft, 4 June 1942.
Devastators of VT-6 aboard USS Enterprise being prepared for take off during the battle.

The Americans had already launched their carrier aircraft against the Japanese. Admiral Fletcher, in overall command aboard Yorktown, and benefiting from PBY sighting reports from the early morning, ordered Spruance to launch against the Japanese as soon as was practical, while initially holding Yorktown in reserve should there be any other Japanese carriers discovered. (Fletcher's directions to Spruance were relayed via Nimitz who, unlike Yamamoto, had remained ashore.)

Spruance judged that, though the range was extreme, a strike could succeed and gave the order "Launch the attack" at around 06:00. He then left Halsey's Chief of Staff, Captain Miles Browning, to work out the details and oversee the launch, which did not go smoothly. It took until a few minutes after 07:00 before the first plane was able to depart Spruance's carriers, Enterprise and Hornet. Fletcher, upon completing his own scouting flights, followed suit at 08:00 from Yorktown.

Admiral Fletcher,Yorktown's commanding officer, along with Captain Elliott Buckmaster and their staffs had acquired first-hand experience in organizing and launching a full strike against an enemy force in the Coral Sea, but there was no time to pass these lessons on to Enterprise and Hornet which were tasked with launching the first strike. Spruance gave at this point his second crucial command, "Proceed to target"—not to fritter away precious minutes, waiting for the strike force to assemble fully, but to proceed to the target as quickly as possible, since neutralizing enemy carriers was the key to the survival of his own task force. Spruance judged that the need to throw something at the enemy as soon as feasible was greater than the need for a coordinated attack among the different types of aircraft (fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes). Accordingly, American squadrons were launched piecemeal and proceeded to the target in several different groups. The lack of coordination was expected to diminish the overall impact of the American attacks as well as increasing their casualties. However, Spruance calculated that this risk was worth it, since keeping the Japanese under aerial attack hampered their ability to launch a counterstrike (Japanese tactics preferred fully constituted attacks), and he gambled that he could find Nagumo with his flight decks at their most vulnerable.

American carrier aircraft had difficulty locating the target, despite the positions they had been given. The strike from Hornet, led by Commander Stanhope C. Ring, followed an incorrect heading of 263 degrees rather than the 240 heading indicated by the contact report. As a result, Air Group Eight's dive bombers missed the Japanese carriers. Torpedo Squadron 8 (VT-8, from Hornet), led by Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron, broke formation from Ring and followed the correct heading. However, the 10 F4Fs from Hornet had run out of fuel and had to ditch in the ocean. Waldron's squadron sighted the enemy carriers and began attacking at 09:20, followed by Torpedo Squadron 6 (VT-6, from Enterprise) whose Wildcat fighter escorts also ran low on fuel and had to turn back at 09:40. Without fighter escort, all fifteen TBD Devastators of VT-8 were shot down without being able to inflict any damage. VT-6 lost 10 of their 14 Devastators, and 10 of Yorktown's VT-3's. Twelve Devastators were shot down with no hits to show for their effort, thanks in part to the abysmal performance of their Mark 13 torpedoes. Senior Navy and Bureau of Ordnance officers never questioned why half a dozen torpedoes, released so close to the Japanese carriers, produced no results. The Japanese combat air patrol, flying Mitsubishi A6M2 Zeros made short work of the unescorted, slow, under-armed TBDs. A few TBDs managed to get within a few ship-lengths range of their targets before dropping their torpedoes—close enough to be able to strafe the enemy ships and force the Japanese carriers to make sharp evasive maneuvers.

The American torpedo attacks indirectly achieved three important results. First, they kept the Japanese carriers off balance and unable to prepare and launch their own counterstrike. Second, they pulled the Japanese combat air patrol (CAP) out of position. Third, many of the Zeros ran low on ammunition and fuel. The appearance of a third torpedo plane attack from the southeast by Torpedo Squadron 3 (VT-3 from Yorktown) at 10:00 very quickly drew the majority of the Japanese CAP to the southeast quadrant of the fleet. Better discipline and employment of all the Zeroes aboard might have enabled Nagumo to survive.

By chance, at the same time VT-3 was sighted by the Japanese, three squadrons of American SBDs from Enterprise and Yorktown (VB-6, VS-6 and VB-3, respectively) were approaching from the northeast and southwest. They were running low on fuel because of the time spent looking for the enemy. However, squadron commander C. Wade McClusky, Jr. decided to continue the search and by good fortune spotted the wake of the Japanese destroyer Arashi. The destroyer was steaming at full speed to rejoin Nagumo's carriers after having unsuccessfully depth-charged the U.S. submarine Nautilus, which had earlier unsuccessfully attacked the battleship Kirishima. Some bombers were lost from fuel exhaustion before the attack commenced.

McClusky's decision to continue the search and his judgment, in the opinion of Admiral Chester Nimitz, "decided the fate of our carrier task force and our forces at Midway...." The American dive-bombers arrived at the perfect time to attack. Armed Japanese strike aircraft filled the hangar decks, fuel hoses snaked across the decks as refueling operations were hastily completed, and the repeated change of ordnance meant bombs and torpedoes were stacked around the hangars, rather than stowed safely in the magazines, making the Japanese carriers extraordinarily vulnerable.

Enterprise's air group split up and attacked two targets. Beginning at 10:22, McClusky and his men scored hits on Kaga, while to the north Akagi was attacked four minutes later by three bombers, led by Lieutenant Commander Richard Halsey Best. Yorktown's VB-3, commanded by Max Leslie, went for Sōryū, scoring hits. Simultaneously, VT-3 targeted Hiryū, which was hemmed in among Sōryū, Kaga, and Akagi, but achieved no hits. The dive-bombers left Sōryū and Kaga ablaze within six minutes. Akagi was hit by just one bomb (dropped by Lieutenant Commander Best), which penetrated to the upper hangar deck and exploded among the armed and fueled aircraft there. One bomb exploded underwater very close astern; the resulting geyser bent the flight deck upward and also caused crucial rudder damage. Sōryū took three bombs in her hangar deck, Kaga at least four, possibly five. All three carriers were out of action and were eventually abandoned and scuttled.

Japanese counterattacks

Yorktown at the moment of impact of a torpedo from a Nakajima B5N of Lieutenant Hashimoto's 2nd chūtai.

Hiryū, the sole surviving Japanese aircraft carrier, wasted little time in counterattacking. The first wave of Japanese dive bombers badly damaged Yorktown with three bomb hits that snuffed out her boilers, immobilizing her. However, in about an hour her damage control teams patched her up so effectively the second wave's torpedo bombers mistook her for an undamaged carrier. Despite Japanese hopes to even the odds by eliminating two carriers with two strikes, Yorktown absorbed both Japanese attacks, the second wave mistakenly believing Yorktown had already been sunk and that they were attacking Enterprise. After two torpedo hits, Yorktown lost power and developed a 26-degree list to port, which put her out of action and forced Admiral Fletcher to move his command staff to the heavy cruiser Astoria. Both carriers of Spruance's Task Force 16 were undamaged.

News of the two strikes, with the reports each had sunk an American carrier, greatly improved morale in the Kido Butai. Its few surviving aircraft were all recovered aboard Hiryū, where they were prepared for a strike against what was believed to be the only remaining American carrier.

American counterattack

Late in the afternoon, a Yorktown scout aircraft located Hiryū, prompting Enterprise to launch a final strike of dive bombers (including 10 SBDs from Yorktown). Despite Hiryū being defended by a strong cover of more than a dozen Zero fighters, the attack by Enterprise was successful: four, possibly five bombs hit Hiryū, leaving the carrier ablaze and unable to operate aircraft. (Hornet's strike, launched late because of a communications error, concentrated on the remaining escort ships but failed to score any hits.) After futile attempts at controlling the blaze, most of the remaining crew on Hiryū were evacuated and the remainder of the fleet continued sailing northeast in an attempt to intercept the American carriers. Hiryū stayed afloat for several more hours, being discovered early the next morning by an aircraft from the carrier Hōshō and prompting hopes Hiryu could be saved and perhaps even towed back to Japan. However, soon after being spotted, Hiryū sank. Rear Admiral Yamaguchi chose to go down with his ship, costing Japan perhaps her best carrier commander.

Hiryū, shortly before sinking. This photo was taken by Special Service Ensign Kiyoshi Ōniwa from a Yokosuka B4Y off the carrier Hōshō.

As darkness fell, both sides took stock and made tentative plans for continuing the action. Admiral Fletcher, obliged to abandon the derelict Yorktown and feeling he could not adequately command from a cruiser, ceded operational command to Spruance. Spruance knew the United States had won a great victory, but he was still unsure of what Japanese forces remained and was determined to safeguard both Midway and his carriers. To aid his aviators, who had launched at extreme range, he had continued to close with Nagumo during the day and persisted as night fell. Finally, fearing a possible night encounter with Japanese surface forces and believing Yamamoto still intended to invade, Spruance changed course and withdrew to the east, turning back west towards the enemy at midnight. For his part, Yamamoto initially decided to continue the engagement and sent his remaining surface forces searching eastward for the American carriers. Simultaneously, a cruiser raiding force was detached to bombard the island. The Japanese surface forces failed to make contact with the Americans due to Spruance's decision to briefly withdraw eastward, and Yamamoto ordered a general retirement to the west.

Spruance failed to regain contact with Yamamoto's forces on June 5 despite extensive searches. Towards the end of the day he launched a search and destroy mission to seek out any remnants of Nagumo's carrier force. This late afternoon strike narrowly missed detecting Yamamoto's main body and failed to score hits on a straggling Japanese destroyer. The strike planes returned to the carriers after nightfall, prompting Spruance to order Enterprise and Hornet to turn on their lights to aid the landings.

At 02:15 on the night of 5/6 June, Commander John Murphy's Tambor, lying some 90 nautical miles (100 miles; 170 kilometres) west of Midway, made the second of the submarine force's two major contributions to the battle's outcome. Sighting several ships, neither Murphy nor his executive officer, Ray Spruance, Jr., could identify them and, fearing they might be friendly, Murphy held fire. He did, however, report the ships to Admiral Robert English, Commander, Submarine Force, Pacific Fleet ( COMSUBPAC), but neglected to confirm their course. This report was passed on by English to Nimitz, who then sent it to Spruance. Unaware of the exact location of Yamamoto's "Main Body" (a persistent problem since PBYs had first sighted the Japanese), Spruance assumed this sighting was of the invasion force and moved to block it while staying some 100 nautical miles (120 miles; 190 kilometres) northeast of Midway.

The ships sighted by Tambor were the four cruisers and two destroyers Yamamoto had sent to bombard Midway. At 02:55 these ships received Yamamoto's order to retire and changed course to comply. At about the same time as the course change, Tambor was sighted, and during maneuvers designed to avoid a submarine attack Mogami and Mikuma collided, inflicting serious damage to Mogami's bow. The less severely damaged Mikuma slowed to 12 knots (22  kilometres per hour; 14  miles per hour) to keep pace. This was the most damage any of the 18 submarines deployed for the battle achieved. Only at 04:12 did the sky brighten enough for Murphy to be certain the ships were Japanese, by which time staying surfaced was hazardous, and he dived to approach for an attack. The attack was unsuccessful, and at around 06:00 he finally reported two westbound Mogami-class cruisers.

Over the following two days, first Midway and then Spruance's carriers launched several strikes against the stragglers. Mikuma was eventually sunk by Dauntlesses, while Mogami survived further severe damage to return home for repairs. The destroyers Arashio and Asashio were also bombed and strafed during the last of these attacks. Captain Richard E. Fleming, a U.S. Marine Corps aviator, was killed while executing a glide bomb run on Mikuma and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honour.

Meanwhile, salvage efforts on Yorktown were encouraging, and she was taken in tow by USS Vireo. In the late afternoon of 6 June however, Yorktown was struck by two torpedoes from I-168. There were few casualties, since most of the crew had already been evacuated, but a third torpedo from this salvo struck and sank the destroyer USS Hammann, which had been providing auxiliary power to Yorktown. Hammann broke in two with the loss of 80 lives, mostly due to her own depth charges exploding. Yorktown lingered until just after 05:00 on 7 June.

Japanese casualties

A rescued airman on Midway.

By the time the battle ended, 3,057 Japanese had died. Casualties aboard the four carriers were: Akagi: 267; Kaga: 811; Hiryu: 392; Soryu: 711; a total of 2,181. The heavy cruisers Mikuma (sunk; 700 casualties) and Mogami (badly damaged; 92) accounted for another 792 deaths.

In addition, the destroyers Arashio (bombed; 35) and Asashio (strafed by aircraft; 21) both were damaged during the air attacks which sank Mikuma and caused further damage to Mogami. Floatplanes were lost from the cruisers Chikuma (3) and Tone (2). Dead aboard the destroyers Tanikaze (11), Arashi (1), Kazagumo (1) and the fleet oiler Akebono Maru (10) made up the remaining 23 casualties.


After winning a clear victory, and as pursuit became too hazardous near Wake, American forces retired. Spruance once again withdrew to the east to refuel his destroyers and rendezvous with the carrier Saratoga, which was ferrying much-needed replacement aircraft. The American carriers eventually returned to Pearl Harbour. Historian Samuel E. Morison wrote in 1949 that Spruance was subjected to much criticism for not pursuing the retreating Japanese, and allowing the retreating Japanese surface fleet to escape. Clay Blair argued in 1975 that had Spruance pressed on, he would have been unable to launch his aircraft after nightfall, and his cruiser escorts would have been overwhelmed by Yamamoto's larger and more powerful surface units, including Yamato.

Survivors of the Hiryu picked up by the USS Ballard.

On 10 June, the Imperial Japanese Navy conveyed to the military liaison conference an incomplete picture of the results of the battle. Chūichi Nagumo's detailed battle report was submitted to the high command 15 June. It was intended only for the highest echelons in the Japanese Navy and government, and was guarded closely throughout the war. In it, one of the more striking revelations is the comment on the Mobile Force Commander's (Nagumo's) estimates: "The enemy is not aware of our plans (we were not discovered till early in the morning of the 5th at the earliest)." The Japanese public were kept in the dark as to the extent of the defeat, as was much of the military command structure. Japanese news announced a great victory. Only Emperor Hirohito and the highest Navy command personnel were accurately informed of the carrier and pilot losses. Subsequently, Army planners continued to believe, for at least a short time, that the fleet was in good condition.

On the return of the Japanese fleet to Hashirajima on 14 June the wounded were immediately transferred to naval hospitals; most were classified as "secret patients", placed in isolation wards and quarantined from other patients and their own families to prevent the secret of this major defeat from getting out to the general populace. The remaining officers and men were quickly dispersed to other units of the fleet and, with no chance to see family or friends, were shipped to units in the South Pacific where the majority died. By contrast none of the flag officers or staff of the Combined Fleet was penalized, with Nagumo later being placed in command of the rebuilt carrier force.

The Japanese Navy did learn some lessons from Midway: new procedures were adopted whereby more aircraft were refueled and re-armed on the flight deck, rather than in the hangars, and the practice of draining all unused fuel lines was adopted. The new carriers being built were redesigned to incorporate only two flight deck elevators and new firefighting equipment. More carrier crew members were trained in damage-control and firefighting techniques, although the losses later in the war of Shōkaku, Hiyō and Taihō showed that there were still problems in this area. Replacement pilots went through an abbreviated training regimen, meeting the short-term needs of the fleet; however, this led to a decline in the quality of training. These inexperienced pilots were fed into front-line units, while the veterans who remained after Midway and the Solomons campaign were forced to share an increased workload in increasingly desperate conditions, with few being given a chance to rest in rear areas or in the home islands. As a result, Japanese naval air groups progressively declined in overall quality during the war.

Allegations of war crimes

Three U.S. airmen, Ensign Wesley Osmus (pilot, Yorktown), Ensign Frank O'Flaherty (pilot, Enterprise) and Aviation Machinist's Mate B. F. (or B. P.) Bruno Gaido (radioman-gunner of O'Flaherty's SBD) were captured by the Japanese during the battle. Osmus was held on the Arashi, with O'Flaherty and Gaido on the cruiser Nagara (or destroyer Makigumo, sources vary), and it is alleged they were later killed. The report filed by Admiral Nagumo states of Ensign Osmus, "He died on 6 June and was buried at sea". Nagumo recorded obtaining seven items of information, including the enemy's strength, but did not mention the death of O'Flaherty or Gaido. O'Flaherty and Gaido were tied to five-gallon kerosene cans filled with water and dumped overboard at an unknown date several days or more after the battle.


The battle has been called "the turning point of the Pacific". However, the Japanese continued to try to advance in the South Pacific, and it was many more months before the U.S. moved from a state of naval parity to one of increasingly clear supremacy. Thus, although Midway was the Allies' first major victory against the Japanese, it did not change the course of the war in the same sense as Salamis; instead, it was the cumulative attrition of Midway, combined with that of the inconclusive Coral Sea battle, which reduced Japan's ability to undertake major offensives. Midway also paved the way for the landings on Guadalcanal and the prolonged attrition of the Solomon Islands campaign, which allowed the Allies to take the strategic initiative and swing to the offensive for the rest of the Pacific War. But most importantly of all, Midway bought the United States valuable time until the new Essex-class fleet carriers became available at the end of the year. The loss of the Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu reduced the number of operational carriers that Japan could use against the US which still had Enterprise, Hornet, Wasp and Saratoga.

The battle showed the worth of pre-war naval cryptologic training and efforts. These efforts continued and were expanded throughout the war in both the Pacific and Atlantic theaters. Successes were numerous and significant. For instance, the shooting down of Admiral Yamamoto's airplane was possible only because of navy cryptanalysis.

Some authors have stated heavy losses in carriers and veteran aircrews at Midway permanently weakened the Imperial Japanese Navy. Parshall and Tully, however, have stated that the losses in veteran aircrew, while heavy (110, just under 25% of the aircrew embarked on the four carriers), were not crippling to the Japanese naval air-corps as a whole: the Japanese navy had some 2,000 carrier-qualified aircrew at the start of the Pacific war. A few months after Midway, the JNAF sustained similar casualty rates at both the Battle of the Eastern Solomons and Battle of Santa Cruz, and it was these battles, combined with the constant attrition of veterans during the Solomons campaign, which were the catalyst for the sharp downward spiral in operational capability. However, the loss of four large fleet carriers, and over 40% of the carriers' highly trained aircraft mechanics and technicians, plus the essential flight-deck crews and armorers, and the loss of organizational knowledge embodied by such highly trained crew, were heavy blows to the Japanese carrier fleet. The loss of the carriers meant that only Shōkaku and Zuikaku were left for offensive actions. Of Japan's other carriers, Taihō was the only Fleet carrier worth teaming with Shōkaku and Zuikaku, while Ryūjō, Junyo, and Hiyō, were second-rate ships of comparatively limited effectiveness. By the time of the Battle of the Philippine Sea, while the Japanese had somewhat rebuilt their carrier forces, the planes were largely flown by inexperienced pilots so the carrier fleet was not as potent a striking force as it was before Midway.

In the time it took Japan to build three carriers, the U.S. Navy commissioned more than two dozen fleet and light fleet carriers, and numerous escort carriers. By 1942, the United States was already three years into a shipbuilding program, mandated by the Second Vinson Act, intended to make the navy larger than Japan's. The greater part of USN aviators survived the Battle of Midway and subsequent battles of 1942, and combined with growing pilot training programs, the US was able to develop a large number of skilled pilots to complement its material advantages in ships and planes.

Discovery of sunken vessels

Mikuma shortly before sinking

Because of the extreme depth of the ocean in the area of the battle (more than 17,000 ft (5,200 m)), researching the battlefield has presented extraordinary difficulties. However, on 19 May 1998, Robert Ballard and a team of scientists and Midway veterans from both sides located and photographed ( artist's rendering) Yorktown. The ship was remarkably intact for a vessel that sank in 1942; much of the original equipment and even the original paint scheme were still visible.

Ballard's subsequent search for the Japanese carriers was ultimately unsuccessful. In September 1999, a joint expedition between Nauticos Corp. and the U.S. Naval Oceanographic Office searched for the Japanese aircraft carriers. Using advanced renavigation techniques in conjunction with the ship's log of the submarine USS Nautilus, the expedition located a large piece of wreckage, subsequently identified as having come from the upper hangar deck of Kaga. The main wreck, however, has yet to be located.


Midway Memorial with Laysan albatross in background.

Chicago Municipal Airport, important to the war efforts in World War II, was renamed Chicago Midway International Airport (or simply Midway Airport) in 1949 in honour of the battle.

Waldron Field, an outlying training landing strip, at Corpus Christi NAS as well Waldron Road leading to the strip, was named in honour of the commander of USS Hornet's Torpedo Squadron 8. Yorktown Blvd leading away from the strip was named for the U.S. carrier sunk in the battle.

An escort carrier, USS Midway (CVE-63) was commissioned on 17 August 1943. She was renamed St. Lo on 10 October 1944 to clear the name Midway for a large fleet aircraft carrier, USS Midway (CV-41), commissioned on 10 September 1945 (eight days after the Japanese surrender). The latter ship is now docked in San Diego, California and is in use as the USS Midway Museum.

On September 13, 2000, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt designated the lands and waters of Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge as the Battle of Midway National Memorial.

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