Seventy years ago today, the Battle of Midway began in earnest when forces of the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Midway Atoll, a small group of islands 1300 miles northwest of Oahu. Over the course of the next 72 hours, the course of the Second World War in the Pacific would change.
The first five months of 1942 saw an almost unbroken string of victories for the armed forces of the Empire of Japan. Japan's strategic goals in the Pacific had been achieved quickly and at relatively little cost. The Philippines, Malaya (now Malaysia), Singapore, and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) had been conquered within months of the attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. The resources found in those areas were crucial to Japan's economy and war-making ability. With them in hand, the Imperial Army and Navy began to plan the second phase of their offensive. There was much infighting, as the two services had maintained a bitter rivalry for almost two generations. There was also debate within the Navy, with one side being led by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Combined Fleet. Yamamoto called for an invasion of Midway, a move that would further demoralize the population of the United States and extend Japan's defensive perimeter in the Pacific. This, he hoped, would drive Washington to the bargaining table in an effort to end the war.
On April 18, 1942, sixteen Army Air Corps B-25 bombers took off from the USS Hornet and hit targets in Japan. While the physical damage done by the raid was insignificant, the psychological damage to the government and military of the Empire was immense. This raid, along with Yamamoto's veiled threats of resignation, brought the Imperial Japanese Navy around to the Admiral's way of thinking. Operation Mai was approved.
Like most Japanese naval operations during the Second World War, Operation Mai was amazingly complicated and required precise scheduling. In addition to the attack on and occupation of Midway, a naval force would simultaneously occupy the islands of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutian Islands. This second invasion was actually successful and resulted in the “Forgotten Battle”, the U.S. Army's retaking of the islands in 1943 under conditions just as brutal as any experienced on the jungle islands and coral atolls of the central and south Pacific.
The fleet assigned to Operation MI (Midway) was the most powerful naval force to ever sail the Pacific up to that point. It was divided up into the First Fleet Main Force of 3 battleships, an escort carrier, two seaplane carriers, and escorting destroyers (including Admiral Yamamoto on his flagship Yamato, the world's most powerful battleship), the First Carrier Striking Force comprised of four aircraft carriers, two battleships, two heavy cruisers, and escorts, and the Second Fleet, which contained all the ships designated to be involved in the actual invasion of Midway. The Second Fleet contained two battleships, four heavy cruisers, a light aircraft carrier, various escorts and all the transports needed to carry the 5,000 troops which would invade and occupy the atoll.
Yamamoto planned to stay several hundred miles behind his carriers and sail in to finish off any American naval forces in the area with his battleships and heavy cruisers after the dive bombers and torpedo planes did their work. This would leave Midway defenseless. Yamamoto had confidence in this plan because he believed there were only two American aircraft carriers in the Pacific which could threaten him: USS Enterprise and USS Hornet. The U.S. Navy had lost the carrier USS Lexington a month before at the Battle of Coral Sea, an engagement fought in the waters southeast of New Guinea. In addition, the USS Yorktown had been severely damaged. The fifth Pacific Fleet carrier, USS Saratoga, was still undergoing repairs at the Bremerton Navy Yard in Washington from a torpedo hit she sustained in January, 1942. With no combat-ready battleships and only two aircraft carriers in the American order of battle, Yamamoto felt confident that his fleet could achieve a decisive victory.
There were two critical facts the Japanese did not know. First, the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz, was aware of Yamamoto's plan thanks to an eccentric group of code breakers operating out of Station Hypo in Hawaii. Thousands of hours of mental strain, wrong turns, and inspiration had led to a major success: the breaking of the JN-25 code. JN-25 was the code used by the Imperial Japanese Navy to encrypt its operational orders; breaking it meant that Nimitz could read Yamamoto's mail. Commander Joseph Rochefort, the head of Station Hypo, believed the Japanese were going to strike Midway, but he could not prove it beyond a doubt. His group had intercepted orders referring to 'AF', but they had no way of knowing for sure the location to which 'AF' referred. To confirm Midway as the target, Nimitz ordered the Marine commander at Midway to transmit a message in the clear stating that the desalination plant on the atoll had broken down and requesting a shipment of fresh water from Pearl Harbor. Within a day of the transmission, the Japanese were sending encrypted messages to the Combined Fleet stating that 'AF' was running low on water. Yamamoto was going for Midway.
The second critical fact was the actual number of carriers available to the Americans. USS Yorktown, heavily damaged at the Battle of Coral Sea, was assumed by the Japanese to be out of the action for at least several months. In fact, she was able to limp back to Pearl Harbor and was immediately put into dry dock. Initial estimates called for the carrier to be sent back to the United States for months of repairs, but Nimitz wouldn't hear of it. Instead, the shipyard at Pearl Harbor was given three days to get the ship ready for a two-week operation; more permanent repairs would have to wait. When she sailed 72 hours later, shipyard workers were still hard at work getting as much done as they could before the battle. Thus, Nimitz had three carriers at his disposal; Yamamoto had four in his Striking Force.
As the defense of Midway was organized, Nimitz ran into another problem: his carrier commander, Vice Admiral Bill Halsey, was sidelined by psoriasis, a skin disease that had kept the old salt from sleeping for weeks. Halsey recommended Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, his escort commander, to replace him. Spruance was not a pilot, but he had worked with Halsey and Nimitz had confidence in him. Rear Admiral Jack Fletcher, who had been in charge of Yorktown's task force, would also be on hand to help Spruance with the air part of the mission.
And so the American task force, centered around three fleet carriers, headed for a point northeast of Midway to meet the Japanese. The destination was not called “Point Luck” by chance: everyone involved who knew the strength of the opposing forces understood that the odds were against the Americans. If these three carriers were lost, the United States would lose Midway and be put on the defensive for months, maybe a year. The Japanese forces would only grow stronger in that time, making an offensive in the Pacific that much more costly in terms of lives and equipment. The United States Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz commanding, had all the chips on the table.