For months following the attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the atmosphere was full of static and concern in the United States. Save for a few isolated breakthroughs, the Americans were largely on the defensive in the Pacific. The Doolittle Raid in April of 1942 was a lashing effort to boost morale, but it was not until the Battle of Midway that the tide in the Pacific had begun to truly turn. The failure of the Japanese to successfully cripple the force projection elements in the Pacific during the Pearl Harbor attack were destined to bite the Imperial Japanese Navy in this engagement.

Prior to the battle, the Americans had broken Japanese naval codes and planted false information in their own communications to confirm their results. The Japanese landing fleet was spotted as early as 3 June after the Americans had determined the date, time, and location of the planned attack. To pre-empt the attack, the Americans will launch a total of twenty-four B-17’s in two flights to seek and destroy these forces. They are unsuccessful each time. By 0430 local time on 4 June 1942, the Japanese begin their attack on Midway with the launch of 108 fighters and fighter-bombers. American forces at Midway respond with a flight of 37 aircraft, but the damage inflicted upon the enemy is light and only two aircraft return undamaged. By 0700, the air raid on Midway ends with the Japanese returning to their carriers.

Admiral Nagumo’s fleet had launched spotters prior to rearming his aircraft for a second air raid on Midway. It had been determined that additional raids would be necessary to achieve their mission objective. However, that objective changed when the spotter plane spotted the Yorktown carrier group. Nagumo instead changes his choice for the raid to target the Yorktown. Before Nagumo is able to launch his aircraft, 26 Dauntless aircraft launched from Yorktown surprise attack the Japanese fleet at 1022. The Japanese carrier Kaga was sunk in this engagement, turning the tide of the battle. Shortly after, at 1026, additional aircraft strike and sink Soryu. A third wave of aircraft strike at Nagumo’s ship, Akagi, setting it on fire and stalling counterattacks.

Nagumo had been so focused on Yorktown, that he was not aware that Hornet and Enterprise had entered the operational area. A Japanese counterattack from Hiryu strikes and eventually sinks Yorktown after all hands are ordered to abandon ship. The combined air power from Hornet and Enterprise seeks out and sinks Hiryu shortly after 1700. Both Hiryu and Akagi finally sink on 5 June. Having lost four aircraft carriers and without means to replace them, the Japanese eastward expansion is abandoned. The Americans had successfully thwarted the Japanese plot to move on Midway and had crippled their ability to project force across the Pacific.

References

Millett, Allan R.; Maslowski, Peter; Feis, William B. For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States from 1607 to 2012. Expanded. Free Press, New York. 2012.

Murray, Williamson; Millett, Allan R. A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 2000.

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