Midway set stage for U.S. win in World War II

Adm. Chester Nimitz fastens the chin strap on his helmet while aboard a destroyer in the Marshalls during his visit in February 1944. Associated Press
Adm. Chester Nimitz fastens the chin strap on his helmet while aboard a destroyer in the Marshalls during his visit in February 1944. Associated Press
Posted: June 04, 2012

The Duke of Wellington said his victory at Waterloo was "the nearest run thing you ever saw." Seventy years ago today, the United States fought a naval battle against Japan that, like Waterloo, was both close and decisive.

The battle of Midway, which began on June 4, 1942, set the tone for the Pacific war and launched the United States on the path to eventual victory. It ended a six-month series of Japanese victories dating back to Pearl Harbor that had plunged the American public into a state of despair. The fall of the Philippines, with its horrific "Bataan Death March," and the capture of Guam and Wake Island, left the United States with no bases west of Hawaii.

Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the man who had planned Pearl Harbor, believed the Japanese had created a defensive perimeter far out into the Pacific. But two events during the string of Japanese victories convinced him that he must draw the United States into a major battle.

On April 18, the United States had bombed Japan with planes launched from the aircraft carrier Hornet. This "Doolittle raid" caught the Japanese war leaders by surprise. They had believed that the Japanese home islands were safe from American attack. A little more than two weeks later, a Japanese naval force targeting Port Moresby in New Guinea was surprised in the Coral Sea by an American task force. The Japanese sank more ships, but were forced to retreat.

Yamamoto decided he must lure the Americans into a major battle to destroy their naval power once and for all in the Pacific. Suffering from what historians call "victory disease," he overreached, sealing Japan’s fate.

The Japanese prepared a plan to attack the last major American base west of Hawaii — by some 1,150 miles — Midway Island. Yamamoto’s plan was, typical of Japanese strategy in the war, overly complex and detailed. A diversionary attack by a Japanese task force would strike American bases in the Aleutian Islands off Alaska in hopes of luring U.S. forces into the northern Pacific. At the same time, a huge Japanese naval armada would strike Midway, land Japanese forces, and thus render Hawaii vulnerable to air attack. The Americans would be forced to move major naval forces back to California. Yamamoto hoped that this would force the United States to recognize Japanese supremacy in the Pacific, a serious misreading of American sentiment after Pearl Harbor.

What Yamamoto didn’t know was that American intelligence had broken the Japanese naval code, JN-25. In one of the most imaginative intelligence coups of the war, Lt. Commander Joseph Rochefort had noted that the Japanese used the designation "AF" in their codes. From his intercepts, he guessed AF was Midway and, in a daring ploy, had Midway broadcast a message that the island’s water-purifying plant was broken. Sure enough, two days later, the Japanese codes mentioned that AF was short of water.

That enabled the U.S. naval commander in the Pacific, Adm. Chester Nimitz, to prepare a surprise for the Japanese. Nimitz gathered his forces, which included three carriers, and stationed them northeast of Midway.

On the morning of June 4, the Japanese raided Midway and did extensive damage. At the same time, American torpedo planes and dive bombers launched strikes against the four Japanese carriers. They were successful.

Adm. Chuichi Nagumo, who had led the attack on Pearl Harbor, ordered a second attack on Midway. While he was rearming his planes, the decks of his carriers loaded with ammunition and gasoline, American dive bombers appeared. In less than 10 minutes, three carriers were sunk. Six hours later, another American strike force found the fourth Japanese carrier and sank it. Nagumo’s forces were routed.

Midway was a disaster for Japan, with losses so great that the Japanese public were told nothing of it until after the war. The Japanese had lost four carriers, 322 planes, some of their best pilots, and a total of 3,500 men. U.S. losses were small by comparison: one carrier, 100 planes, and 300 men.

Two months after Midway, the United States went on the offensive, landing Marines on Guadalcanal. Never again would Japan seize the initiative. The outcome of the Pacific war was settled in those 10 minutes at Midway, where, as one Japanese officer observed, "the Americans had avenged Pearl Harbor."

John P. Rossi is a professor emeritus of history at La Salle University.

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