The Battle of Midway Background (and Notable Ships)

The Battle of Midway was one of the most important battles in the Pacific Theatre during World War II. The battle took place June 4–7, 1942 at Midway Atoll between the Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States Navy. The Japanese Combined Fleet had a total of four fleet carriers: Akagi, Kaga, Sōryū and Hiryū; two light carriers; seven battleships; 150 cruisers, destroyers and auxiliaries, including Arashi, Mogami, Mikuma and I-168; and 276 aircraft. The American fleet had three carriers: Enterprise, Yorktown and Hornet; no battleships; 50 cruisers, destroyers and auxiliaries, including Hammann, Nautilus and Tambor; and 360 aircraft. The Japanese command hoped to destroy the American carriers that had been missed at the earlier attack on Pearl Harbor. 

The Japanese divided their Combined Fleet into three separate fleets.  The first fleet was the invasion fleet. This fleet was told to launch an invasion of the islands, and to draw the American carriers to Midway. The second fleet was the carrier fleet. This fleet was to ambush and disable the American carriers coming to defend Midway. The last fleet was the main fleet. This fleet was composed of the battleships that were sent to finish off the American carriers. At this point in history, battleships were still being seen as the dominant ship in a nation’s navy; though the Battle of the Coral Sea a month earlier had started to shift people’s perspective about the role of the carriers. The Japanese scheme to have three distinct fleets to accomplish one goal was a complicated plan; made more complicated by the fact that the Americans knew what was coming, thanks to the code-breaking efforts of Station HYPO.

Station Hypo Code-breaking Efforts

Station HYPO was one of the Allied code-breaking stations that focused on breaking the Japanese naval codes. The Japanese had plans to attack a location known as Target AF, which HYPO believed would be on the American territory of Midway Atoll; but the higher-ups in Washington DC believed that the Japanese were going to try and attack Australia again, after their failed attempt in April, or somewhere up in the Aleutian islands in Alaska. HYPO decided to prove to Washington that the Japanese were planning on attacking Midway by sending a message to Midway Command via an undersea cable (which had been already laid between Hawaii and Midway) to have Midway send back an unencrypted report via radio saying that Midway’s water desalination plant had broken down. A few days later, a message was intercepted from the Japanese that said that Target AF’s water treatment plant was broken. HYPO let Washington decrypt the message, so that the Washington DC code-breakers would know that they were wrong and that Japanese were really planning on attacking Midway. More Japanese communications continued to be deciphered, and the new communications let Station HYPO know all the details of the Japanese plan of attack, including the who, what, when, where, how, but not the why. (We still don’t really know the real reason the Japanese wanted to attack Midway.) Station HYPO let Midway know about the upcoming invasion, so the garrison on the islands could be prepared. The American fleet was also notified so that they could arrive precisely at the worst time and place for the Japanese plan.

Island Attack and Counterattack

Although the battle took place June 4th-7th, the Midway garrison had been searching for the Japanese forces ever since Station HYPO told them about the invasion. The garrison located the Japanese invasion fleet on June 3rd and launched an attack on the Japanese forces. The Midway garrison launched a strike of B-17s, which claimed to have damaged and sunk Japanese ships, though we now know that no major damage was inflicted.

The following day, the Japanese carrier fleet launched a wave of planes at the Midway islands at the same time that the Midway garrison was sending out another strike force. This strike force had a smattering of planes, including the Dauntless, the Avenger, the PBY Catalina, the B-26 and the B-17. Three of those five types of planes are not made for attacking ships, but the pilots did anyway. The Midway force did not achieve any sinkings. The leader of the Dauntlesses from Midway was Major Lofton R. Henderson, after whom Henderson Field of Guadalcanal fame was named. The few fighters (Wildcats) on the island were held back to stop the Japanese planes. The Japanese planes smashed through the meager defence force, and laid waste to the islands; though not enough damage was dealt as the American bombers could still land and refuel on the island, so the Japanese leadership decided to send out another wave.

While this was happening, the US submarine Nautilus snuck through the Japanese defences and kept popping up in the middle of the Japanese fleet, and even launched two torpedoes at the Japanese ships. Although neither of the torpedoes did any damage, one of the Japanese destroyers, Arashi, was ordered to sink Nautilus. Arashi stuck around for about an hour or so, trying to sink Nautilus, but she survived. Arashi then decided to head back to the Japanese fleet, having lost sight of the submarine. Arashi will play a major role later on.

American Carrier Strikes

The American carriers also sent out an attack force, though as Americans had not practiced multi-carrier operations at this point in time, the launchings took forever, and the squadrons got separated. The American torpedo bombers arrived first, and did not achieve any sinkings, partly due to the slow torpedo planes which could easily be shot down, and partly due to the fact that the American Mark 13 torpedoes early models were not particularly effective at exploding. (The US government did a study on the Mark 13 torpedoes in mid-1943, and concluded that only a third of the torpedoes that successfully launched, actually exploded.) VT-8, Hornet’s torpedo squadron, suffered 29 out of the 30 aviators dead in their attack alone.

While the American torpedo bombers were flying into a wall of lead, most of the American dive bombers were lost. Fortunately, Enterprise’s dive bombers found Arashi steaming back to the Japanese fleet, and unnoticed, the dive bombers followed her course to the Japanese fleet. When Enterprise’s dive bombers arrived, they saw a virtually unprotected Japanese fleet, thanks to the torpedo bombers distracting all of the Japanese defences. The two dive bomber squadrons of Enterprise targeted Akagi and Kaga, though due to miscommunication between the leaders of the squadrons of Enterprise, the dive bombers all targeted Kaga. Richard Best, commander of VB-6, one of Enterprise’s dive bomber squadrons, pulled out of his dive along with his two wingmen, and retargeted Akagi. At the same time, the dive bombers of Yorktown (the only group of dive bombers that did not get lost on the way to the Japanese carriers) were targeting Sōryū. All three Japanese carriers targeted at this time were hit, with Kaga suffering four hits, Sōryū taking three hits, and Akagi taken out of commision with only one hit.

Japanese Counterattacks

A little while later, having rearmed and refueled the remaining Japanese planes, Hiryū launched two waves of attacks on Yorktown. The first wave, consisting of the remaining Japanese dive bombers, struck Yorktown, and destroyed her flight deck and snuffed out the boilers, bringing Yorktown to a stop. Her damage control crew struggled to put out the fires that had broken out, but managed to do so; even repairing the flight deck and relighting the boilers. Her crew managed to do all of this in an hour, so that when Hiryū’s torpedo bombers arrived over Yorktown, the pilots believed Yorktown to be a completely different and undamaged carrier. This time, Hiryū’s strike managed to do enough damage to Yorktown, that her men were forced to abandon ship, and her crew expected her to sink soon. Enterprise retaliated by launching another strike on Hiryū. Richard Best led the attack on Hiryū, and is one of two pilots ever to land an attack on multiple carriers in one day. Norman Kleiss is the other pilot, and he also achieved this in the Battle of Midway. His first carrier hit was Kaga. Hiryū was mortally struck right at the front, and was scuttled the next day.

Events of June 5th and 6th

Going back to Yorktown, she defied the odds and lasted through the night.  The next day, some of her crew who had been missed during the evacuation alerted a nearby destroyer, and rescue and salvage operations were soon underway. A tugboat arrived from Pearl Harbor and started towing Yorktown back to Pearl Harbor albeit very slowly. Hammann, a destroyer, pulled alongside Yorktown to provide assistance and power to the repair crew on Yorktown. In the middle of the repair work, I-168, a Japanese submarine, crept through the American ships, and fired a salvo of torpedoes at Yorktown and Hammann. Hammann took one torpedo right in the middle, and broke in two. Yorktown was hit by two torpedoes, and sank gradually. 

That same day, the American submarine Tambor snuck amidst four Japanese cruisers, and was quickly spotted. Tambor quickly dove beneath the surface to avoid damage, and waited. When no attack came, Tambor resurfaced, and looked at the Japanese cruisers. One of them, the Mikuma, had major damage to the front of the ship. What the men aboard Tambor did not realize is that when their sub was spotted earlier, the commander of the four Japanese cruisers ordered the cruisers to simultaneously turn 45° to the right to avoid a torpedo attack. Mikuma was third in the line of cruisers, and accidentally turned 90° instead, and she ran into Mogami, just behind her. Both Mikuma and Mogami were stopped dead in their tracks, and were later fruitlessly attacked by aircraft from Midway. Enterprise and Hornet, however, launched a successful attack the next day, and Mikuma was sunk.

Conclusion

The Battle of Midway was a great victory for the American forces, as they fought with million-to-one odds and came out on top. The results of the battle allowed the Americans to stop the Japanese advance dead in its tracks, and deal an almost-but-not-quite mortal blow to the Japanese Navy. The Japanese still had a large number of ships left, but the Americans had destroyed the four of the six Japanese carriers who attacked Pearl Harbor, and had (unknowingly) killed a large number of the top Japanese pilots. This battle, in combination with the Guadalcanal campaign, stalled the Japanese military plans just enough to give the Americans enough valuable time to  ramp up their production of ships and training of crew, until the Americans enjoyed both a numerical and technological advantage.