June 4-6, 1942
Decisive World War II Battles
The Battle of Midway was one of the most decisive battles of not only World War II but of all military history. Just as the Battles of Britain, France, Stalingrad, El Alamein, Kursk and other major battles of World War II changed the course of the war; the Battle of Midway forever turned the tide of victory against the Japanese Empire.
East Asian Background
Imperial Japan during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was determined to build up its military and economic infrastructure to become competitive with and even surpass the great Western Powers. She was a proud and culturally rich country and was distressed to witness her weakness when surrounded by foreign powers in her own Asian “backyard”.
The Great Powers had colonized and/or controlled virtually all important parts of East Asia. India, (including what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh), Burma, Malaya, strategic parts of China such as Hong Kong were all controlled by Great Britain.
France ruled all of Indo China (present day Viet Nam, Cambodia, Laos) and key areas in China.
The Dutch colony of the East Indies (now known as Indonesia) was ruled by the Netherlands for over 400 years.
The United States ruled the Philippines and many islands throughout the western Pacific. She gained these territories after defeating the Spanish during the Spanish American War of 1898.
Finally, the Soviet Union (Russia), Australia and New Zealand all had interests and territorial control over areas in the Northern and Southern Asian area respectively.
Japan’s Transformation and Empire Plan
Japan’s strategic plan for military and economic transformation was both radical and simple. She put aside centuries of Japanese cultural ideas and tradition and rapidly adopted Western ideas, culture, political, scientific and military thinking and even western dress.
Within a relatively short period of time, Japan transformed herself from an isolated, militarily and economically backward Asian country to an equal of all the world’s great powers. Her economy and military grew at unprecedented speeds. She became one of the most modern nations in the world and one of the most powerful nations.
After defeating Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, Japan quickly took advantage of her newly earned international respect and power and began planning to build an empire of her own.
By the 1930s, Japan had controlled almost half of China and all of Korea. She needed many resources that her country lacked. Needing raw materials such as oil, iron, rubber, cotton and specialty metals; she invaded areas that had these resources and began exploiting these newly conquered lands and people.
Japan incurred international backlash, warnings and resource embargoes from the Great Powers because of her conquests and notorious atrocities committed in China and elsewhere.
Japan’s military leaders realized that she could not survive as a power or even support her economy without access to raw materials such as oil, rubber and iron. Facing increasing trade embargoes from countries such as the United States and Great Britain would cripple Japan within a few years.
During the early 1940s, as World War II began; Japan witnessed the defeat of France and the Netherlands by Nazi Germany and Britain’s ongoing struggle with Germany and Italy. She carefully observed that the United States was known to be very isolationist, not wanting to get involved in yet another world war.
Needing guaranteed access to raw materials and desiring to expand her Empire, Japan made fateful strategic decisions.
During the period of 1940-42 Japan launched her Asian version of the famous German Blitzkrieg style of lightning attack. She rapidly invaded and took control of French Indo China, destroyed most of the United States’ Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor and conquered the American Philippines and other key islands.
Japanese forces then quickly conquered the Dutch East Indies and the British colonies of Singapore, Malaya, Hong Kong and parts of Burma and Borneo. She also bombed Australia and invaded portions of her protectorate territories in New Guinea and other islands.
Japan shocked the world with her conquests. The Japanese Empire now stretched through Asia 6,400 miles from west to east and 5,300 mile north to south with its total circumference an unbelievable 14,200 miles.
America Attacked and Responds
America was rudely awakened on December 7, 1941, a “day that will live in infamy”. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii was a terrible blow to the American Navy in the Pacific. The United States lost 8 battleships (destroyed or severely damaged), 3 destroyers, 3 light cruisers, 3 auxiliaries, 177 planes and suffered 3,297 dead.
Luckily, the Pacific Navy’s aircraft carriers were out to sea and not at Pearl Harbor that fateful day. The aircraft carriers would prove to be the decisive weapons in the coming war.
America quickly declared war on Japan and began to mobilize its military. The strategy of defeating Japan was focused on “island hopping”. This strategy entailed invading and securing Japanese controlled islands ever closer to the mainland of Japan. Once close to the Japanese mainland, bombers could be deployed to bomb Japan into submission.
In order to achieve this strategy, America needed to insure that she had control of strategic islands and other locations throughout the Pacific Ocean. New ships, supplies and sailors were rushed into production and training. America’s industrial capabilities produced war supplies in never before seen amounts.
The aircraft carriers that escaped the deadly Pearl Harbor devastation, began roaming the western and southern Pacific in preparation for counter attacking the Japanese.
The Japanese Navy in turn was seeking to destroy the US carrier fleet and thereby eliminate all naval opposition in the Pacific. The scene was being set for a major, decisive battle
American Secret Advantage
The American Navy quickly gained a major advantage before a shot was ever fired. Navy intelligence code breakers associated with the Combat Intelligence Unit at Pearl Harbor (HYPO), tirelessly worked on attempting to crack the complex Japanese JH-25 code. Communication to and from Japanese ships and bases were coded to protect sensitive information.
In March, 1942 Navy intelligence finally cracked the JN-25 code allowing the Americans to intercept and understand vital communication from the Japanese. This historic intelligence breakthrough allowed the US Navy to understand Japanese battle plans and therefore plan counter attacks. This knowledge eliminated the Japanese element of surprise.
Historic Naval Engagement
The small island atoll of Midway is located approximately 1,300 miles northwest of Hawaii and halfway between Japan and the US west coast. The US had a small naval base on Midway and was aware of certain attack by Japan due to its strategic location.
The Japanese knew that the US Navy would plan to send ships and men to defend Midway and so they planned to set a trap for the Americans and lure the US carriers and naval fleet to the area.
The US Navy, now able to learn of the Japanese Navy’s intentions, began moving ships, planes, equipment and men to the Midway area and prepared for battle.
On June 3, 1942, American planes sighted Japanese forces heading for Midway. On June 4th, Japanese planes began bombing the American base at Midway. The American counter attack sent waves of torpedo bomber planes and fighter planes to attack the Japanese planes and search for the Japanese fleet.
The American planes found the Japanese fleet and inflicted severe damage to its ships. Torpedo and fighter bombers dived from the sky to attack the Japanese fleet. Bomb explosions, anti-aircraft fire and burning ships turned the blue Pacific sky into a surreal smoky black fog.
When the fighting was done; the irreplaceable aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu were sunk along with 2 cruisers, 3 destroyers and other Japanese ships.
The American carrier Yorktown was seriously damaged by Japanese attacks and eventually sunk later. The Americans also suffered a sunk destroyer.
By the end of June 6th, all contact between the two naval forces was lost. But the devastation to the Japanese Navy and their power in the Pacific was total. The epic Battle of Midway stopped the Japanese Empire’s expansion, eliminated Japanese naval supremacy, put Japan forever on the defensive and tipped the balance of power in the Pacific war permanently to the Americans.
The aftermath resulted in Japanese forces; with a limited navy in support, retreating continually from their conquered territories until American forces finally reached the Japanese mainland and bombed Japan into total submission.
Imperial Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945 and signed a formal surrender aboard the American battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo harbor on September 2, 1945.