Battle of Midway, June 1942 (Pacific Ocean)

Battle of Midway, June 1942 (Pacific Ocean)

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Battle of Midway, June 1942

In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7th 1941 the Americans were determined to take revenge yet although the attack had missed their carriers and the vital fuel reserves had been left untouched, it would be some time before the American fleet could openly challenge the Japanese. On 18th April 1942 the Americans hit back with a raid of Mitchell B25 bombers bombing Tokyo and several other Japanese cities after taking off from the USS Hornet. The blow had a tremendous impact on the Japanese who believed their homeland safe from attack. Admiral Yamamoto apologised to the Emperor and vowed to destroy the US fleet.

The Japanese plan was to lure the Americans into a trap by attacking the small island of Midway 1,136 miles west of Pearl Harbour. Without Midway US long range patrol planes could not effectively screen Pearl Harbour and it would be open to surprise attack once again making it unusable. The attack would start with a diversionary attack on the Aleutian Island forcing US ships to investigate while an invasion force under Admiral Nagumo would attack the island. Midway was not the main objective, and while the invasion would draw out the US fleet,the main force (including 4 carriers) under Yamamoto would be waiting 300 miles away to trap and destroy the Americans. A huge fleet of over 200 ships (including 11 battleships and 8 carriers) was gathered and divided into 8 task forces, against this the Americans had 3 aircraft carriers, 3 cruisers and 14 destroyers. The Japanese were so confident they even arranged for their mail to be sent to Midway. The attack was planned for June 7th but the Japanese were in for a few surprises.

Despite efforts to confuse them the Americans knew what was going on. The Japanese codes had been cracked and after leaking a message saying that Midway's freshwater plant was broken the Americans new that Midway was the target. Admiral Nimitz had only three carriers, with others either damaged or too far away. The Americans set a trap of their own, with the carrier Yorktown waiting 200 miles north east of Midway. The Americans then set about reinforcing Midway with aircraft, anti aircraft guns, barbed wire and fast torpedo boats. As the Japanese set out for Midway they changed their codes but the damage had been done, by then the Americans even knew how many ships and who their captains were, and what course the Japanese had set. The battle got underway with a series of air attacks by US planes based on Midway with the Japanese attacking the island with their carrier based force.

Neither side did much serious damage as the Japanese fleet proved too well defended and the American crews too inexperienced. During this aerial boxing match the US spotter planes, (Catalinas) proved vital, with their courageous crews performing many acts of bravery to shadow the Japanese fleet and provide vital intelligence. During the height of these attacks a Japanese spotter plane sighted 10 enemy ships only 200 miles from the Japanese task force, the Japanese Admiral realised that with his aircraft reloading with bombs ready for another attack on Midway, he was very vulnerable and needed to reload with torpedoes quickly, then the message came in that the ships contained no carriers so the Japanese continued loading bombs a fatal mistake. Within 20 minutes the report came in that the American ships did have a carrier with them! Again Nagumo changed the loading of the planes and started to retire to allow his planes to rearm, his fighters were just coming in to land being short on fuel, as the last plane landed the American air attack began just as the Japanese were most vulnerable. The first attacks were met by the Zeros on patrol but as they landed to refuel the main American attack struck the now defenseless carriers.

In six minutes the Akagi, Nagumo's flagship carrier was burning, the Kaga was next followed by the Soryu. When Yamamoto received the news he had no choice but to sail on in the now thickening fog. The last Japanese carrier counterattacked and turned the Yorktown into a crippled wreck which slogged on until finally sunk by a submarine on 6th June.The Americans gathered their remaining bombers and attacked again setting the last carrier, the Hiryu, alight. Yamamoto knew that his battleships were too vulnerable to go on without fighter cover (Pearl Harbour had proved how vulnerable battleships were). At 2.55am June 5th the Japanese abandoned the invasion of Midway. The Americans had lost one carrier, a destroyer and 147 aircraft, but the Japanese had lost four carriers, one cruiser, with 280 aircraft going to the bottom on the sunken carriers and a further 52 shot down, hundreds of their most experienced pilots killed. The battle of Midway was to shape the future of the war in the Pacific and to herald in a new age of war at sea, where the aircraft carrier was both the most powerful and the most vulnerable asset.

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At 10.26am on 4 June 1942 the course of World War Two in the Pacific changed utterly. At that moment 37 Douglas Dauntless bombers from the USS Enterprise peeled off into a dive attack on two Japanese aircraft carriers. Within minutes both ships were ablaze, their death throes punctuated by the explosion of fuel lines, badly stowed ordnance and aircraft petrol tanks. Within six hours the other two carriers in their fleet had also been destroyed.

The force that had dominated the Pacific for six months was in ruins, extinguishing the hopes of an empire. Midway was that rarest of engagements - a truly decisive battle.

As noted above, Midway was the last use of the Devastators and Vindicators, as well as the Brewster Buffaloes. New aircraft already in development were altered further to adjust for the lessons learned at Midway. Better protection for pilots and crew were added, as well as heavier armaments. The TBF Avengers, Helldiver dive bombers, and F6F Hellcat all benefited from the experiences of their predecessors at Midway and elsewhere in the Pacific. Throughout the war other weapons were also developed for the USAAF and the Marine Corps, making them the match or better of their Japanese counterparts. Japanese naval and air force planes were the most advanced in the world in 1941. By the end of 1943 they were becoming obsolete.

The Japanese were unable to develop new designs to keep technological pace and as with their naval codes, could not concede western superiority. The battle for the Pacific became a campaign of attrition, with American and Anzac forces shooting down Japanese aircraft using increasingly superior machines, and more effective anti-aircraft fire from ships and shore installations. Japanese industry was able to replace lost airplanes for much of the war, but finding qualified pilots became more of a problem. By the time Japan turned to the use of Kamikaze pilots, many of the pilots dispatched to the combat zones were killed in their first missions, poorly trained and operating obsolete equipment.

The Douglas Dauntless arrived in the fleet with several problems related to their abilities to drop their bombs on a straight path to the target. One was the release mechanism, which had a tendency to only partially release the bomb, forcing the pilot to maneuver violently for the bomb to clear the aircraft. That problem was corrected by the time the fleet sailed for Midway. Another was a problem with the electrical arming switches, designed to allow the pilots to arm the fuses in the bombs while in flight. Nearly all of the Dauntless bombers had their electrical arming switches worked on in the weeks preceding the Midway operation. Some of them were reinstalled in the aircraft incorrectly.

When Lieutenant Commander Maxwell Leslie, who commanded Bombing Squadron 3 off USS Yorktown, ordered the 17 airplanes of his squadron to arm their bombs he flipped the arming switch and immediately felt the bomb release. He countermanded his order, but at least three other of the planes he commanded lost their bombs. Leslie attacked the Japanese carrier Soryu anyway, diving on the ship and strafing its flight deck, an action for which he was awarded the Navy Cross. Only 13 of the squadron&rsquos 17 aircraft had bombs when it attacked, but all 17 dived on the Japanese ship. Soryu sank in the evening of June 4, gutted by explosions and fires.


As its name suggests, Midway is roughly equidistant between North America and Asia, and lies almost halfway around the world longitudinally from Greenwich, UK. It is near the northwestern end of the Hawaiian archipelago, about one-third of the way from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Tokyo, Japan. Midway is not considered part of the State of Hawaii due to the Hawaiian Organic Act of 1900 that formally annexed Hawaii to the United States as a territory and defined Hawaii as "the islands acquired by the United States of America under an Act of Congress entitled 'Joint resolution to provide for annexing the Hawaiian Islands to the United States..'". Although it could be argued that Midway became part of Hawaii when Middlebrooks discovered it in 1859, it was assumed at the time that Midway was independently acquired by the U.S. when Reynolds visited in 1867, and so was not considered part of the Territory.

In defining which islands the State of Hawaii would inherit from the Territory, the Hawaii Admission Act of 1959 clarified the question, specifically excluding Midway (along with Palmyra Island, Johnston Island, and Kingman Reef) from the jurisdiction of the state. [8]

Midway Atoll is approximately 140 nautical miles (259 km 161 mi) east of the International Date Line, about 2,800 nautical miles (5,200 km 3,200 mi) west of San Francisco, and 2,200 nautical miles (4,100 km 2,500 mi) east of Tokyo.

Geography of Midway [9]
Island acres hectares
Sand Island 1,117 452
Eastern Island 336 136
Spit Island 15 6
Total land 1,549 627
Submerged reef/ocean 580,392 234,876

Midway Atoll is part of a chain of volcanic islands, atolls, and seamounts extending from the Island of Hawaii up to the tip of the Aleutian Islands and known as the Hawaiian–Emperor seamount chain. It consists of a ring-shaped barrier reef nearly five miles (8.0 km) in diameter [9] and several sand islets. The two significant pieces of land, Sand Island and Eastern Island, provide a habitat for millions of seabirds. The island sizes are shown in the table above. The atoll, which has a small population (approximately 60 in 2014, [10] but no indigenous inhabitants), is designated an insular area under the authority of the United States Department of the Interior.

Midway was formed roughly 28 million years ago when the seabed underneath it was over the same hotspot from which the Island of Hawaii is now being formed. In fact, Midway was once a shield volcano, perhaps as large as the island of Lānaʻi. As the volcano piled up lava flows building the island, its weight depressed the crust and the island slowly subsided over a period of millions of years, a process known as isostatic adjustment.

As the island subsided, a coral reef around the former volcanic island was able to maintain itself near sea level by growing upwards. That reef is now over 516 feet (157 m) thick [11] (in the lagoon, 1,261 feet (384 m), comprised mostly post-Miocene limestones with a layer of upper Miocene (Tertiary g) sediments and lower Miocene (Tertiary e) limestones at the bottom overlying the basalts). What remains today is a shallow water atoll about 6 miles (9.7 km) across. Following Kure Atoll, Midway is the 2nd most northerly atoll in the world.

Infrastructure Edit

The atoll has some 20 miles (32 km) of roads, 4.8 miles (7.7 km) of pipelines, one port on Sand Island (World Port Index Nr. 56328, MIDWAY ISLAND), and an airfield. As of 2004 [update] , Henderson Field airfield at Midway Atoll, with its one active runway (rwy 06/24, around 8,000 feet (2,400 m) long) has been designated as an emergency diversion airport for aircraft flying under ETOPS rules. Although the FWS closed all airport operations on November 22, 2004, public access to the island was restored from March 2008. [12]

Eastern Island Airstrip is a disused airfield that was in use by U.S. forces during the Battle of Midway. It is mostly constructed of Marston Mat and was built by the United States Navy Seabees.

Despite being located at 28°12′N, which is north of the Tropic of Cancer, Midway Atoll has a tropical savanna climate (Köppen As) [13] with very pleasant year-round temperatures. Rainfall is evenly distributed throughout the year, with only two months being able to be classified as dry season months (May and June).

Climate data for Midway Atoll
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °F (°C) 80
Average high °F (°C) 70.0
Average low °F (°C) 62.2
Record low °F (°C) 51
Average precipitation inches (mm) 4.85
Average precipitation days 16 14 12 11 9 9 15 15 15 14 14 16 160
Source: Western Regional Climate Center [14]

Midway has no indigenous inhabitants and was uninhabited until the 19th century.

19th century Edit

The atoll was sighted on July 5, 1859, by Captain N.C. Brooks, of the sealing ship Gambia. [16] [17] The islands were named the "Middlebrook Islands". [16] Brooks claimed Midway for the United States under the Guano Islands Act of 1856, which authorized Americans to occupy uninhabited islands temporarily to obtain guano. There is no record of any attempt to mine guano on the island. On August 28, 1867, Captain William Reynolds of USS Lackawanna formally took possession of the atoll for the United States [18] the name changed to "Midway" some time after this. The atoll was the first Pacific island annexed by the United States, as the Unincorporated Territory of Midway Island, and was administered by the United States Navy.

The first attempt at settlement was in 1870, when the Pacific Mail Steamship Company started a project of blasting and dredging a ship channel through the reef to the lagoon using money put up by the United States Congress. The purpose was to establish a mid-ocean coaling station to avoid the high taxes imposed at ports controlled by the Kingdom of Hawaii. The project was a failure, and the USS Saginaw evacuated the channel project's work force in October 1870. The ship ran aground 21 October at Kure Atoll, stranding 93 men. On 18 November 5 men set out in a small boat to seek help. On 19 December 4 of the men perished when the boat was upset in the breakers off of Kauai. The survivor reached the U.S. Consulate in Honolulu on Christmas Eve. Relief ships were despatched and reached Kure Atoll on 4 January 1871. The survivors of the Saginaw wreck reached Honolulu on 14 January 1871.

Early 20th century Edit

In 1903, workers for the Commercial Pacific Cable Company took up residence on the island as part of the effort to lay a trans-Pacific telegraph cable. These workers introduced many non-native species to the island, including the canary, cycad, Norfolk Island pine, she-oak, coconut, and various deciduous trees along with ants, cockroaches, termites, centipedes, and countless others. [ citation needed ]

On January 20, 1903, the United States Navy opened a radio station in response to complaints from cable company workers about Japanese squatters and poachers. Between 1904 and 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt stationed 21 Marines on the island to end wanton destruction of bird life and keep Midway safe as a U.S. possession, protecting the cable station.

In 1935, operations began for the Martin M-130 flying boats operated by Pan American Airlines. The M-130s island-hopped from San Francisco to China, providing the fastest and most luxurious route to the Far East and bringing tourists to Midway until 1941. Only the very wealthy could afford the trip, which in the 1930s cost more than three times the annual salary of an average American. With Midway on the route between Honolulu and Wake Island, the flying boats landed in the atoll and pulled up to a float offshore in the lagoon. Tourists transferred to the Pan Am Hotel or the "Gooneyville Lodge", named after the ubiquitous "Gooney birds" (albatrosses).

World War II Edit

The location of Midway in the Pacific became important militarily. Midway was a convenient refueling stop on transpacific flights, and was also an important stop for Navy ships. Beginning in 1940, as tensions with the Japanese rose, Midway was deemed second only to Pearl Harbor in importance to the protection of the U.S. West Coast. Airstrips, gun emplacements and a seaplane base quickly materialized on the tiny atoll. [22]

The channel was widened, and Naval Air Station Midway was completed. Midway was also an important submarine base. [22]

On February 14, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8682 to create naval defense areas in the central Pacific territories. The proclamation established "Midway Island Naval Defensive Sea Area", which encompassed the territorial waters between the extreme high-water marks and the three-mile (4.8 km) marine boundaries surrounding Midway. "Midway Island Naval Airspace Reservation" was also established to restrict access to the airspace over the naval defense sea area. Only U.S. government ships and aircraft were permitted to enter the naval defense areas at Midway Atoll unless authorized by the Secretary of the Navy.

Midway's importance to the U.S. was brought into focus on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Midway was attacked by two destroyers on the same day, [22] and the Japanese force was successfully repulsed in the first American victory of the war. A Japanese submarine bombarded Midway on February 10, 1942. [23]

Four months later, on June 4, 1942, a major naval battle near Midway resulted in the U.S. Navy inflicting a devastating defeat on the Japanese Navy. Four Japanese fleet aircraft carriers, Akagi, Kaga, Hiryū and Sōryū, were sunk, along with the loss of hundreds of Japanese aircraft, losses that the Japanese would never be able to replace. The U.S. lost the aircraft carrier Yorktown, along with a number of its carrier- and land-based aircraft that were either shot down by Japanese forces or bombed on the ground at the airfields. The Battle of Midway was, by most accounts, the beginning of the end of the Japanese Navy's control of the Pacific Ocean.

Starting in July 1942, a submarine tender was always stationed at the atoll to support submarines patrolling Japanese waters. In 1944, a floating dry dock joined the tender. [24] After the Battle of Midway, a second airfield was developed, this one on Sand Island. This work necessitated enlarging the size of the island through land fill techniques, that when concluded, more than doubled the size of the island.

Korean and Vietnam Wars Edit

From August 1, 1941, to 1945, it was occupied by U.S. military forces. In 1950, the Navy decommissioned Naval Air Station Midway, only to re-commission it again to support the Korean War. Thousands of troops on ships and aircraft stopped at Midway for refueling and emergency repairs. From 1968 to September 10, 1993, Midway Island was a Naval Air Facility.

With about 3,500 people living on Sand Island, Midway also supported the U.S. troops during the Vietnam War. In June 1969, President Richard Nixon held a secret meeting with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu at the Officer-in-Charge house or "Midway House".

Missile Impact Location System Edit

From 1958 through 1960 the United States installed the Missile Impact Location System (MILS) in the Navy managed Pacific Missile Range, later the Air Force managed Western Range, to localize the splash downs of test missile nose cones. MILS was developed and installed by the same entities that had completed the first phase of the Atlantic and U.S. West Coast SOSUS systems. A MILS installation, consisting of both a target array for precision location and a broad ocean area system for good positions outside the target area, was installed at Midway as part of the system supporting Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) tests. Other Pacific MILS shore terminals were at the Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay supporting Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) tests with impact areas northeast of Hawaii and the other ICBM test support systems at Wake Island and Eniwetok. [25] [26] [27]

Naval Facility Midway Edit

During the Cold War the U.S. established a shore terminal, in which output of the array at sea was processed and displayed by means of the Low Frequency Analyzer and Recorder (LOFAR), of the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS), Naval Facility (NAVFAC) Midway Island, to track Soviet submarines. The facility became operational in 1968 and was commissioned January 13, 1969. It remained secret until its decommissioning on September 30, 1983, after data from its arrays had been remoted first to Naval Facility Barbers Point, Hawaii, in 1981 and then directly to the Naval Ocean Processing Facility (NOPF) Ford Island, Hawaii. [25] [28] U.S. Navy WV-2 (EC-121K) "Willy Victor" radar aircraft flew night and day as an extension of the Distant Early Warning Line, and antenna fields covered the islands.

Civilian handover Edit

In 1978, the Navy downgraded Midway from a Naval Air Station to a Naval Air Facility and large numbers of personnel and dependents began leaving the island. With the war in Vietnam over, and with the introduction of reconnaissance satellites and nuclear submarines, Midway's significance to U.S. national security was diminished. The World War II facilities at Sand and Eastern Islands were listed on the National Register of Historic Places on May 28, 1987, and were simultaneously added as a National Historic Landmark. [21]

As part of the Base Realignment and Closure process, the Navy facility on Midway has been operationally closed since September 10, 1993, although the Navy assumed responsibility for cleaning up environmental contamination.

2011 tsunami Edit

The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami on March 11 caused many deaths among the bird population on Midway. [31] It was reported that a 1.5 m (5 ft) high wave completely submerged the atoll's reef inlets and Spit Island, killing more than 110,000 nesting seabirds at the National Wildlife Refuge. [32] Scientists on the island, however, do not think it will have long-term negative impacts on the bird populations. [33]

A U.S. Geological Survey study found that the Midway Atoll, Laysan, and Pacific islands like them could become inundated and unfit to live on during the 21st century, due to increased storm waves and rising sea levels. [34] [35]

Midway was designated an overlay National Wildlife Refuge on April 22, 1988, while still under the primary jurisdiction of the Navy.

From August 1996, the general public could visit the atoll through study ecotours. [37] This program ended in 2002, [38] but another visitor program was approved and began operating in March 2008. [12] [39] This program operated through 2012, but was suspended for 2013 due to budget cuts. [5]

On October 31, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 13022, which transferred the jurisdiction and control of the atoll to the United States Department of the Interior. The FWS assumed management of the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. The last contingent of Navy personnel left Midway on June 30, 1997, after an ambitious environmental cleanup program was completed.

On September 13, 2000, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt designated the Wildlife Refuge as the Battle of Midway National Memorial. [40] The refuge is now titled as the "Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial".

On June 15, 2006, President George W. Bush designated the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a national monument. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument encompasses 105,564 square nautical miles (139,798 sq mi 362,074 km 2 ), and includes 3,910 square nautical miles (5,178 sq mi 13,411 km 2 ) of coral reef habitat. [41] The Monument also includes the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge and the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

In 2007, the Monument's name was changed to Papahānaumokuākea (Hawaiian pronunciation: [ˈpɐpəˈhaːnɔuˈmokuˈaːkeə] ) Marine National Monument. [42] [43] [44] The National Monument is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the State of Hawaii. In 2016 President Obama expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, and added the Office of Hawaiian Affairs as a fourth co-trustee of the monument.

Midway Atoll forms part of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands Important Bird Area (IBA), designated as such by BirdLife International because of its seabirds and endemic landbirds. [45] The atoll is a critical habitat in the central Pacific Ocean, and includes breeding habitat for 17 seabird species. A number of native species rely on the island, which is now home to 67–70 percent of the world's Laysan albatross population, and 34–39 percent of the global population of black-footed albatross. [46] A very small number of the very rare short-tailed albatross also have been observed. Fewer than 2,200 individuals of this species are believed to exist due to excessive feather hunting in the late nineteenth century. [47] In 2007–08, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service translocated 42 endangered Laysan ducks to the atoll as part of their efforts to conserve the species.

Over 250 different species of marine life are found in the 300,000 acres (120,000 ha) of lagoon and surrounding waters. The critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals raise their pups on the beaches, relying on the atoll's reef fish, squid, octopus and crustaceans. Green sea turtles, another threatened species, occasionally nest on the island. The first was found in 2006 on Spit Island and another in 2007 on Sand Island. A resident pod of 300 spinner dolphins live in the lagoons and nearshore waters. [48]

The islands of Midway Atoll have been extensively altered as a result of human habitation. Starting in 1869 with the project to blast the reefs and create a port on Sand Island, the environment of Midway atoll has experienced profound changes.

A number of invasive exotics have been introduced for example, ironwood trees from Australia were planted to act as windbreaks. Of the 200 species of plants on Midway, 75 percent are non-native. Recent efforts have focused on removing non-native plant species and re-planting native species.

Lead paint on the buildings posed an environmental hazard (avian lead poisoning) to the albatross population of the island. In 2018, a project to strip the paint was completed. [49]

Pollution Edit

Midway Atoll, in common with all the Hawaiian Islands, receives substantial amounts of marine debris from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Consisting of 90 percent plastic, this debris accumulates on the beaches of Midway. This garbage represents a hazard to the bird population of the island. Every year 20 tons of plastic debris washes up on Midway, with 5 tons of that debris being fed to Albatross chicks. [50] The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates at least 100 pounds (45 kg) of plastic washes up every week. [51]

Of the 1.5 million Laysan Albatrosses that inhabit Midway, nearly all are found to have plastic in their digestive system. [52] Approximately one-third of the chicks die. [53] These deaths are attributed to the albatrosses confusing brightly colored plastic with marine animals (such as squid and fish) for food. [54] Recent results suggest that oceanic plastic develops a chemical signature that is normally used by seabirds to locate food items. [55]

Because albatross chicks do not develop the reflex to regurgitate until they are four months old, they cannot expel the plastic pieces. Albatrosses are not the only species to suffer from the plastic pollution sea turtles and monk seals also consume the debris. [54] A variety of plastic items wash upon the shores, from cigarette lighters to toothbrushes and toys. An albatross on Midway can have up to 50 percent of its intestinal tract filled with plastic. [51]

The usual method of reaching Sand Island, Midway Atoll's only populated island, is on chartered aircraft landing at Sand Island's Henderson Field, which also functions as an emergency diversion point runway for transpacific flights.

Battle of Midway, June 1942 (Pacific Ocean) - History

Index to the Battle of Midway, 4 - 6 June 1942

Last updated: 20 February 2007

This image depicts Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo's flagship Akagi after it had been attacked at the
Battle of Midway by the SBD dive-bombers of Lieutenant Richard H. Best, USN and his two wingmen.

This painting of the doomed Akagi at the Battle of Midway was painted by the internationally respected artist John Hamilton (1919-93). The
original painting is displayed in The Pentagon in Washington, DC, and is one of a series by John Hamilton entitled "War in the Pacifc".

In the great naval battle at Midway in the central Pacific between 4 and 6 June 1942, the outnumbered United States Pacific Fleet won a remarkable victory against a much more powerful Imperial Japanese Navy carrier force. The Japanese aggressors intended to capture the last garrisoned American island outpost west of Hawaii and complete the annihilation of the United States Pacific Fleet that had begun with Japan's treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.

Before Midway, the United States had been struggling to survive the powerful Japanese onslaught. The loss by Japan of four of its most powerful aircraft carriers at Midway marked the turning of the tide against the seemingly invincible Japanese Navy and thwarted Japan's ultimate aim which was to invade Hawaii.

Historical research has now revealed that the Japanese intended the capture of Midway Atoll to be the first step in tightening a steel noose around Hawaii before the end of 1942. The Japanese hoped to use the fate of the population of Hawaii as a bargaining chip to draw the Americans into peace talks that would lead to a negotiated end to hostilities between Japan and the United States, and American acceptance of Japan's domination of most of the central and western Pacific, including the Philippines and Australia.

In this section of the Pacific War Web-site, viewers will be able to follow each enthralling phase of the great battle at Midway for control of the central and western Pacific Ocean. Paintings of aspects of the battle by famous artists augment the contemporary black and white images. Additional historical material has been provided for those who wish to look beyond the battle and understand the place of Midway in Japan's strategic aims.

The Midway section also includes gripping eyewitness accounts of the battle under the index heading "They served their Country at the Battle of Midway".

Battle of Midway in the Pacific: History & Significance

Nothing distinguished the dawn of June 2, 1942, from countless other dawns that had fallen over tiny Midway atoll in the North Pacific. Nothing, that is, except the tension, the electric tension of men waiting for an enemy to make his move. On Midway’s two main islands, Sand and Eastern, 3,632 United States Navy and Marine Corps personnel, along with a few Army Air Force aircrews, stood at battle stations in and near their fighters, bombers, and seaplanes, waiting for the Japanese attack they had been expecting for weeks. The carrier battle of Midway, one of the decisive naval battles in history, is well documented.

But the role played by the Midway garrison, which manned the naval air station on the atoll during the battle, is not as well known. Midway lies 1,135 miles west-northwest of Pearl Harbor, Oahu. The entire atoll is barely six miles in diameter and consists of Sand and Eastern islands surrounded by a coral reef enclosing a shallow lagoon. Midway was discovered in 1859 and annexed by the United States in August 1867. Between 1903 and 1940, it served both as a cable station on the Honolulu­ Guam­Manila underwater telegraph line and as an airport for the Pan American Airways China Clipper (Miracle 5). In March 1940, after a report on U.S. Navy Pacific bases declared Midway second only to Pearl Harbor in importance, construction of a formal naval air station began. Midway Naval Air Station was placed in commission in August 1941. By that time, Midway’s facilities included a large seaplane hangar and ramps, artificial harbor, fuel storage tanks and several buildings. Sand Island was populated by hundreds of civilian construction workers and a defense battalion of the Fleet Marine Force, while Eastern Island boasted a 5,300-foot airstrip. Commander Cyril T. Simard, a veteran naval pilot who had served as air officer on the carrier USS Langley and as executive officer at the San Diego Air Station, was designated the atoll’s commanding officer. Along with the naval personnel manning the air station was a detachment of Marines. The first detachment was from the Marine 3rd Defense Battalion it was relieved on September 11, 1941, by 34 officers and 750 men from the 6th Defense Battalion under the command of Lt. Col. Harold D. Shannon, a veteran of World War I and duty in Panama and Hawaii. Shannon and Simard meshed into an effective team right away. World War II began for Midway at 6:30 a.m. December 7, 1941, when the garrison received word of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At 6:42 p.m., a Marine sentry sighted a flashing light out at sea and alerted the garrison.

Three hours later, the Japanese destroyers Sazanami and Ushio opened fire, damaging a seaplane hangar, knocking out the Pan American direction finder and destroying a consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat. The Japanese retired at 10:00 p.m., leaving four Midway defenders dead and 10 wounded. On December 23, 1941, Midway’s air defenses were reinforced with 17 SB2U-3 Vought Vindicator dive bombers, 14 Brewster F2A-3 Buffalo fighters, and pilots and aircrews originally intended for the relief of Wake Island. The Buffaloes and Vindicators were cast-off aircraft, having been replaced by the Douglas SBD-2 Dauntless dive bombers and Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat fighters on U.S. aircraft carriers. The Buffaloes became part of MarineFighter Squadron 221 (VMF-221), while the Vindicators were put into Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 241 (VMSB-241), both making up Marine Air Group 22 (MAG-22) under Lt. Col. Ira B. Kimes. Midway settled into a routine of training and anti-submarine flights, with little else to do except play endless games of cards and cribbage, and watch Midway’s famous albatrosses, nicknamed gooney birds, in action (Stevens 56). Then, in May 1942, Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, commander in chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, came up with a plan, called Operation Mi, to draw out the U.S. Pacific Fleet by attacking Midway. Using Midway as bait and gathering a vast naval armada of eight aircraft carriers, 11 battleships, 23 cruisers, 65 destroyers and several hundred fighters, bombers and torpedo planes, Yamamoto planned to crush the Pacific Fleet once and for all. Alerted by his code-breakers that the Japanese planned to seize Midway, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander in chief, Pacific Command, flew to the atoll on May 2, 1942, to make a personal inspection. Following his inspection, Nimitz took Simard and Shannon aside and asked them what they needed to defend Midway. They told him their requirements. “If I get you all these things, can you hold Midway against a major amphibious assault?” Nimitz asked the two officers. “Yes, sir!” Shannon replied. It was good enough for Nimitz, who returned to Oahu (Robertson 58). On May 20, Shannon and Simard received a letter from Admiral Nimitz, praising their fine work and promoting them to captain and full colonel, respectively. Then Nimitz informed them that the Japanese were planning to attack Midway on May 28 he outlined the Japanese strategy and promised all possible aid. On May 22, a sailor accidentally set off a demolition charge under Midway’s gasoline supply. The explosion destroyed 400,000 gallons of aviation fuel, and also damaged the distribution system, forcing the defenders to refuel planes by hand from 55-gallon drums. All the while the Marines continued digging gun emplacements, laying sandbags and preparing shelters on both islands. Barbed wire sprouted along Midway’s coral beaches. Shannon believed that it would stop the Japanese as it had stopped the Germans in World War I. He ordered so much strung that one Marine exclaimed: “Barbed wire, barbed wire! Cripes, the old man thinks we can stop planes with barbed wire” (Miracle 27)! The defenders also had a large supply of blasting gelatin, which was used to make anti-boat mines and booby traps. On May 25, while the work continued, Shannon and Simard got some good news. The Japanese attack would come between June 3 and 5, giving them another week to prepare.

That same day, the light cruiser St. Louis arrived, to deliver an eight-gun, 37mm anti-aircraft battery from the Marine 3rd Defense Battalion and two rifle companies from the 2nd Raider Battalion. On May 26, the ferry USS Kittyhawk arrived with 12 3-inch guns, 5 M-3 Stuart light tanks, 16 Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive bombers, and 7 Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters, along with 22 pilots–most of them fresh out of flight school, May 29 saw the arrival of four Martin B-26 Marauder medium bombers from the 22nd Bomb Group. These planes were specially rigged to carry torpedoes and led by Captain James Collins. That same day, 12 Navy PBY-5A Catalinas joined the 12 PBY-5s stationed on Midway. Beginning on May 30, Midway’s planes began searching for the Japanese. Twenty-two PBYs from Lt. Cmdr. Robert Brixner’s Patrol Squadron 44 (VP-44) and Commander Massie Hughes’ VP-23 took off from Midway lagoon, then headed out in an arc stretching 700 miles from Midway in search of the Japanese. Midway got further air reinforcement on June 1 when six new Grumman TBF torpedo bombers, commanded by Lieutenant Langdon K. Fieberling, arrived. None of the TBF pilots had ever been in combat, and only a few had ever flown out of sight of land before. The TBF would later be named Avenger in honor of its combat introduction at Midway. By June 1, both Sand and Eastern islands were ringed with coastal defenses. Six 5-inch guns, 22 3-inch guns and four old Navy 7-inch guns were placed along the coasts of both islands for use as anti-aircraft and anti-boat guns. As many as 1,500 mines and booby traps were laid underwater and along the beaches. Ammunition dumps were placed all around the islands, along with caches of food for pockets of resistance and an emergency supply of 250 55-gallon gasoline drums. Midway had practically everything it needed for its defense. Along with the 121 aircraft crowding Eastern Island’s runways, Midway had 11 PT-boats in the lagoon to assist the ground forces with anti-aircraft fire. A yacht and four converted tuna boats stood by for rescue operations, and 19 submarines guarded Midway’s approaches. Even with those preparations, there were problems. The air station’s radar, an old SC-270 set installed on Sand Island, showed many blips that were more often albatrosses than aircraft. Also, there was no plan for coordinating Midway’s air operations, which were dependent on a mixture of Army Air Force, Navy and Marine pilots and crews. With that in mind, Midway’s commanders believed their only chance was to attack the Japanese carriers when they were located, in the hope of catching them with their planes on deck. “This meant exquisitely precise timing, a monumental dose of luck, or both,” Admiral Nimitz explained. “Balsa’s [Midway’s] air force must be employed to inflict prompt and early damage to Jap carrier flight decks if recurring attacks are to be stopped….” By June 2, the Pacific Fleet’s three aircraft carriers–Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown–were in position northeast of Midway, but only a few key officers were aware that Midway’s defenders would be supported by them. Midway’s Navy pilots were told not to “expect any help from the U.S. carriers they’re off defending Hawaii.” Midway’s only chance was for Nimitz’s carriers to take the Japanese by surprise. Early on the morning of June 3, the PBYs of VP-44 and VP-23 took off on their 700-mile search missions, joined by B-17 Flying Fortresses on their own search and attack missions. The remaining aircraft on Midway were armed, fueled and waiting for orders to take to the air once the Japanese carriers were located. At 9:04 a.m., Ensign Charles R. Eaton, patrolling 470 miles from Midway, sighted three ships and got a burst of anti-aircraft fire for his trouble. Eaton quickly radioed Midway with the first enemy ship contact report of the battle. Seven hundred miles west of Midway, Ensign Jack Reid flew his PBY-5A across a largely empty ocean, nearing the end of the outward leg of his patrol. He found nothing of interest and started to turn back. Just as he did, Reid saw some specks on the horizon 30 miles ahead. At first he thought they were dirt spots on the windshield. Then he looked again and shouted to his co-pilot, Ensign Gerald Hardeman, “Do you see what I see?” “You’re damned right I do,” Hardeman replied (Miracle 49). At 9:25 a.m., Reid radioed, “Sighted main body,” to Midway and began tracking the Japanese ships. Midway ordered Reid to amplify his report, and at 9:27 he radioed, “Bearing 262 degrees, distance 700.” At 10:40 he reported, “Six large ships in column…” At 11 a.m., “Eleven ships, course 090 degrees, speed 19.”

Battle of Midway, June 1942 (Pacific Ocean) - History

The Battle of Midway, fought over and near the tiny U.S. mid-Pacific base at Midway atoll, represents the strategic high water mark of Japan's Pacific Ocean war. Prior to this action, Japan possessed general naval superiority over the United States and could usually choose where and when to attack. After Midway, the two opposing fleets were essentially equals, and the United States soon took the offensive.

Japanese Combined Fleet commander Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto moved on Midway in an effort to draw out and destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet's aircraft carrier striking forces, which had embarassed the Japanese Navy in the mid-April Doolittle Raid on Japan's home islands and at the Battle of Coral Sea in early May. He planned to quickly knock down Midway's defenses, follow up with an invasion of the atoll's two small islands and establish a Japanese air base there. He expected the U.S. carriers to come out and fight, but to arrive too late to save Midway and in insufficient strength to avoid defeat by his own well-tested carrier air power.

Yamamoto's intended surprise was thwarted by superior American communications intelligence, which deduced his scheme well before battle was joined. This allowed Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, to establish an ambush by having his carriers ready and waiting for the Japanese. On 4 June 1942, in the second of the Pacific War's great carrier battles, the trap was sprung. The perserverance, sacrifice and skill of U.S. Navy aviators, plus a great deal of good luck on the American side, cost Japan four irreplaceable fleet carriers, while only one of the three U.S. carriers present was lost. The base at Midway, though damaged by Japanese air attack, remained operational and later became a vital component in the American trans-Pacific offensive.

For artworks related to the Battle of Midway, see the Navy Art Gallery page The Battle of Midway.

For further information and links to related resources, see Frequently Asked Questions: Battle of Midway, 4-7 June 1942.

If you want higher resolution reproductions than the Online Library's digital images, see: "How to Obtain Photographic Reproductions."

Click on the small photograph to prompt a larger view of the same image.

Aerial photograph, looking just south of west across the southern side of the atoll, 24 November 1941. Eastern Island, then the site of Midway's airfield, is in the foreground. Sand Island, location of most other base facilities, is across the entrance channel.

Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the U.S. National Archives.

Online Image: 127KB 680 x 765 pixels

Reproductions of this image may also be available through the National Archives photographic reproduction system.

Battle of Midway, June 1942

Burning oil tanks on Sand Island, Midway, following the Japanese air attack delivered on the morning of 4 June 1942.
These tanks were located near what was then the southern shore of Sand Island. This view looks inland from the vicinity of the beach.
Three Laysan Albatross ("Gooney Bird") chicks are visible in the foreground.

Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

Online Image: 85KB 740 x 615 pixels

Reproductions of this image may also be available through the National Archives photographic reproduction system.

Battle of Midway, June 1942

Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu maneuvering during a high-level bombing attack by USAAF B-17 bombers, shortly after 8AM, 4 June 1942.
Note ship's flight deck markings, including Katakana identification character "hi" on her after flight deck.
This image is cropped from USAF Photo # 3725 AC.

Online Image: 108KB 595 x 765 pixels

Reproductions of this image may also be available through the National Archives photographic reproduction system.

Battle of Midway, June 1942

The burning Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu , photographed by a plane from the carrier Hosho shortly after sunrise on 5 June 1942. Hiryu sank a few hours later.
Note collapsed flight deck over the forward hangar.

Donation of Kazutoshi Hando, 1970.

U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

Online Image: 109KB 740 x 520 pixels

Battle of Midway, June 1942

Scene on board USS Yorktown (CV-5), shortly after she was hit by three Japanese bombs on 4 June 1942. Dense smoke is from fires in her uptakes, caused by a bomb that punctured them and knocked out her boilers.
Taken by Photographer 2rd Class William G. Roy from the starboard side of the flight deck, just in front of the forward 5"/38 gun gallery. Man with hammer at right is probably covering a bomb entry hole in the forward elevator.
Note arresting gear cables and forward palisade elements on the flight deck CXAM radar antenna, large national ensign and YE homing beacon antenna atop the foremast 5"/38, .50 caliber and 1.1" guns manned and ready at left.
This view forms a panorama with Photo # 80-G-312019.

Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the U.S. National Archives.

Online Image: 119KB 700 x 645 pixels

Reproductions of this image may also be available through the National Archives photographic reproduction system.

Battle of Midway, June 1942

SBD "Dauntless" dive bombers from USS Hornet (CV-8) approaching the burning Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma to make the third set of attacks on her, during the early afternoon of 6 June 1942.
Mikuma had been hit earlier by strikes from Hornet and USS Enterprise (CV-6), leaving her dead in the water and fatally damaged.
Photo was enlarged from a 16mm color motion picture film.
Note bombs hung beneath these planes.

Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

Online Image: 152KB 740 x 610 pixels

Reproductions of this image may also be available through the National Archives photographic reproduction system.

Battle of Midway, June 1942

USS Hammann (DD-412) sinking with stern high, after being torpedoed by Japanese submarine I-168 in the afternoon of 6 June 1942.
Photographed from the starboard forecastle deck of USS Yorktown (CV-5) by Photographer 2nd Class William G. Roy. Angular structure in right foreground is the front of Yorktown 's forward starboard 5-inch gun gallery.
Note knotted lines hanging down from the carrier's flight deck, remaining from her initial abandonment on 4 June.

Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the U.S. National Archives.

Online Image: 59KB 740 x 620 pixels

Reproductions of this image may also be available through the National Archives photographic reproduction system.

Battle of Midway, June 1942

Ensign George H. Gay at Pearl Harbor Naval Hospital, with a nurse and a copy of the "Honolulu Star-Bulletin" newspaper featuring accounts of the battle. He was the only survivor of the 4 June 1942 Torpedo Squadron Eight (VT-8) TBD torpedo plane attack on the Japanese carrier force.
Gay's book "Sole Survivor" indicates that the date of this photograph is probably 7 June 1942, following an operation to repair his injured left hand and a meeting with Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.

Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the U.S. National Archives.

Online Image: 86KB 580 x 765 pixels

Reproductions of this image may also be available through the National Archives photographic reproduction system.

For artworks related to the Battle of Midway, see the Navy Art Gallery page The Battle of Midway.

For further information and links to related resources, see Frequently Asked Questions: Battle of Midway, 4-7 June 1942.

The Battle of Midway

The Japanese surge across Southeast Asia and the Pacific in the four months from December 1941 to April 1942 had been every bit as impressive as the German blitzkrieg in the spring and summer of 1940.

Japanese war planners had set out to seize all the resources necessary to feed Japan’s burgeoning industries and armed forces, and to establish an effective defensive perimeter around this vast new empire, the grotesquely misnamed ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’.

By spring 1942, the Japanese controlled Manchuria, a large part of coastal China (including the British colony of Hong Kong), French Indo-China, Thailand, Burma, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, and countless other countries and territories.

These gains had not only been made at lightning speed, but at minimal cost – for the loss, in fact, of about 15,000 men, 380 aircraft, and four destroyers.

The intention had always been to seize the territories needed for national self-sufficiency and then to go over to the defensive.

In practice, this could not be done, for the Japanese Empire would never be secure in control of its massive conquests in the face of powerful Pacific rivals. The British might easily be held on the India–Burma border, at least for the time being – the British Empire was fighting a desperate struggle against Japan’s Axis allies to defend the home island and keep open its supply lines in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. The Americans were an altogether different matter.

The United States could not tolerate a Japanese-dominated Pacific, nor the immense damage to American prestige represented by the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

As such, two particular anxieties pressed upon the Japanese Naval High Command – two possible bases for an effective US counterattack. The US aircraft carriers had escaped the destruction at Pearl Harbor, and they could continue to operate out of their Hawaii base, roughly mid-Pacific. Then there was Australia, which was both an Allied stronghold and a potential Allied springboard for a counter-thrust into Borneo, New Guinea, and the Solomons.

The United States looked east to Europe and west across the Pacific with equal concern. From December 1941, it was fighting two wars with similar vigour. From the outset, it sought ways to strike back at Japan.

At Midway, the Americans found their opportunity.

The Pacific Ocean is the biggest single battle space on Earth. More than 60 million square miles in extent, the approximate mid-point – the Midway Atoll – is 2,000 miles from any continent. Across this vast area, between December 1941 and August 1945, Imperial Japan and the United States of America waged one of history’s greatest wars.

The Battle of Midway, on 4 June 1942, was the turning point in that war, the moment when the Japanese surge that began with Pearl Harbor ended and the Americans went over to the strategic offensive. Thereafter and continuously, until the bitter end, at Okinawa and Hiroshima, the Japanese were on the defensive in a war of attrition they could not possibly win.

Yet the odds were stacked against the Americans at Midway, and mid-morning on the day of battle they were facing a disastrous defeat – one that might have lost them both Midway and Hawaii, and therefore control of the Central Pacific one that might have added years to the length of the war.

The stakes could not have been higher. Yet the battle was turned around by the action of just 34 airmen in a mere five minutes – what military historian John Keegan has called ‘the fatal five minutes’ that delivered ‘the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare’. This is no exaggeration: at 10.25am on 4 June 1942, the Japanese had maritime and air supremacy in the Central Pacific by 10.30am, they had lost the war.

This extraordinary turnaround confirmed what another military historian, Basil Liddell Hart, referred to as ‘the chanciness of battles fought out in the new style by long-range sea-air action.’

It also confirmed that the age of the general fleet action by lines of great battleships was over. Midway was a carrier battle in which the opposing fleets never saw each other. The decisive weapons were seaborne aerial bombers. Nothing in naval warfare would ever be the same again.

The Battle of Midway is now the subject of two epic feature films. The first was released in 1976 and starred Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, and a host of other top American actors. A second, directed by Roland Emmerich (of Independence Day fame), is due for release this month.

Does Midway deserve the hype? Was it really the greatest battle of the war?

This is an extract from a 14-page special feature on the Battle of Midway, published in the December 2019 issue of Military History Matters. 

Our special this time offers a detailed military analysis of Midway. Editor Neil Faulkner discusses the men, the machines, the grand strategy, and the tactical imperatives that made the battle. He then provides a blow-by-blow account of the action, setting in context ‘the fatal five minutes’ that transformed the war in the Pacific.

Interested in receiving the latest cutting-edge research and detailed analysis from world-renowned historians? Click here to find out more about subscribing to the magazine.

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