Seventy-five years ago this week… a “miracle” changes the course of the war

This week is the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway, one of the most decisive naval battles in American history, and possibly in world history.  It was certainly the first major Allied victory against the Japanese fleet in World War Two.

Why is this American victory called a “miracle”, most notably by renowned historian Gordon Prange in his bestseller Miracle at Midway? Because the possibility of an American victory seemed so remote, and the circumstances of the American victory were so unlikely.

The American victory at Midway demonstrated the importance of good intelligence, particularly good cryptanalysis, as American intelligence officers were able to break parts of the Japanese naval codes and use that to determine where the Japanese were going to strike next: Midway Atoll, a small pair of islands at the far western end of the Hawaiian Islands. Midway is actually closer to Tokyo (about 2,200 miles) than it is to San Francisco (about 2,800 miles) and thus could have provided Japan with an airfield to use to attack the Hawaiian Islands (again), and possibly a base to launch a full-blown invasion of Hawaii.  But the primary reason for the Japanese attack on Midway was that the Japanese wanted to lure the American fleet out from Hawaii and defeat it in a decisive battle.  By this point in the war the United States had only three aircraft carriers in the Pacific: Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown.  Yorktown had been so badly damaged the previous month in the Battle of the Coral Sea that the Japanese actually believed she had been sunk.  But instead the carrier returned to Pearl Harbor, and through some incredibly efficient repair work worthy of Montgomery Scott, managed to reduce a predicted repair time from several months to about 72 hours.  So the Japanese would be facing three American carriers instead of two.  And the Americans knew they were coming.

Reinforcements were sent out to Midway, eventually numbering over 120 aircraft, although these forces were quite a mixed bag: Some B-17 heavy bombers and B-26 medium bombers from the US Army Air Force; PBY Catalina patrol aircraft and some TBF Avenger torpedo bombers from the US Navy; and a large number of aircraft from various Marine Corps squadrons, particularly older F2A Buffalo fighters and SB2U Vindicator dive-bombers. Some of these planes were quite obsolete and/or outclassed by Japanese aircraft, but they were what was available, and so they were sent.

An American PBY aircraft discovered the Japanese on the morning of June 3rd, and immediately aircraft were launched from Midway to attack.  The next day a Japanese tanker was damaged by a torpedo dropped from another PBY.  In turn, the Japanese launched a major air attack on Midway island.  Oscar-winning film director John Ford was on the island at that time, working for the Navy, and so he filmed part of the raid.  He eventually made a short film about the Battle of Midway.  Below is a digitally restored version of his film.

American fighters rose up to intercept the incoming Japanese raid, but the American fighters were largely outclassed by the Japanese A6M Zero fighters, and so many American planes were shot down.

Thus far the Americans had lost a lot of aircraft in return for doing little damage to any Japanese ships and shooting down a total of 11 Japanese aircraft and damaging several dozen more.  Still, the Japanese failed to knock out the airfield, although they did do a fair bit of damage. Japanese pilots reported that another strike was needed.

In the meantime all three American carriers launched strikes on the Japanese fleet, although the planes were ordered to proceed without forming up in a single raid, so the American attacks arrived piecemeal. Ultimately, this proved to be somewhat fortuitous, although many of Hornet‘s aircraft didn’t arrive at all, except for the torpedo squadron.

The obsolete American torpedo bombers arrived first, and were almost completely annihilated.  In Torpedo Squadron 8, off the USS Hornet, all 15 planes were shot down.  There was only one survivor (Ensign George Gay) out of 15 pilots and 15 gunners.    But the sacrifice of the torpedo bombers cleared the way for the dive bombers, which arrived over the Japanese fleet to virtually no opposition, as the Japanese fighters were down at sea level or rearming and refueling.  So the American dive bombers attacked the Japanese carriers, who had started rearming their planes to attack Midway Island again.  When bombs started hitting the Japanese carriers, they exploded amongst rearming planes loaded with aviation gasoline and bombs and amidst hangar decks loaded with as-yet unstowed torpedoes and antiship bombs.  Within less than five minutes three of the four large Japanese carriers were burning.

Ultimately the Japanese lost all four of their large fleet carriers present at the battle: Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, and Soryu.  Additionally, the Japanese fleet also lost one heavy cruiser sunk (Mikuma) and another heavily damaged (Mogami), plus two damaged destroyers and a damaged tanker.  More than 3,000 Japanese sailors had died, as opposed to about 300 American sailors who died in the USS Yorktown (which was hit by Japanese aircraft and eventually sunk by I-168, a Japanese submarine) and the destroyer USS Hammann, also sunk by that Japanese submarine.

The American victory at Midway was a major turning point in World War Two.  It helped precipitate the Solomon Islands campaign that began in August 1942, which cemented the security of the U.S. – Australia shipping lanes and began to chip away at the territory controlled by Japan in the Pacific.

Eventually, the US Navy established a submarine base on Midway, which put American submarines over 1,000 miles closer to the Japanese islands than Pearl Harbor.  My own grandfather’s submarine (USS Cutlass) left for its 1945 war patrol from Midway Island, if memory serves.

~Geoff

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