On June 7, 1942, the Battle of Midway – one of the most decisive American victories in its war against Japan – ended. During the four-day sea and air battle, the overwhelmed U.S. Pacific fleet managed to destroy four Japanese aircraft carriers by losing only one, the Yorktown, thus reversing the trend against the previously invincible Japanese navy.
In six months of offensives, the Japanese triumphed over the Pacific lands, notably in Malaysia, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines and in many groups of islands. The United States, however, was a growing threat, and Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto sought to destroy the U.S. Pacific fleet before it was large enough to surpass its own. Thousands of miles northwest of Honolulu, the strategic island of Midway became the center of his plan to break American resistance to Japanese imperial designs. Yamamoto’s plan consisted of a feint towards Alaska followed by an invasion of Midway by a Japanese strike force. When the American Pacific fleet arrived at Midway to respond to the invasion, it would be destroyed by the superior Japanese fleet which waited in the west. If successful, the plan would eliminate the U.S. Pacific fleet and provide an advanced outpost from which the Japanese could eliminate any future U.S. threats in the Central Pacific.
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Unfortunately for the Japanese, the American intelligence services broke the Japanese naval code and the Americans anticipated the surprise attack. Three heavy aircraft carriers from the United States Pacific fleet were mobilized to challenge the four heavy Japanese aircraft carriers that were fleeing to Midway. In early June, the American command correctly recognized a Japanese movement against the Aleutian Islands in Alaska as a diversionary tactic and maintained its forces massed around Midway. On June 3, the Japanese occupying force was steamed to the island, and B-17 flying fortresses were dispatched from Midway to bomb the strike force, but did not cause damage. Early in the morning of June 4, a PBY Catalina seaplane torpedoed a Japanese tanker, striking the first strike at the Battle of Midway.
Later in the morning, an advanced Japanese squadron of more than 100 bombers and Zero fighters took off from Japanese aircraft carriers to bomb Midway. Twenty-six Wildcat fighters were dispatched to intercept the Japanese force and suffered heavy losses in their heroic defense of Midway Air Base. Shortly thereafter, bombers and torpedo boats based on Midway took off to attack Japanese aircraft carriers, but did not inflict serious damage. The first phase of the battle ended at 7:00 a.m.
Meanwhile, 200 miles northeast, two American attack fleets took the Japanese force by surprise. From approximately 9:30 a.m., torpedo bombers from the three American aircraft carriers descended on the Japanese aircraft carriers. Although almost wiped out, they withdrew enemy fighters and American dive bombers entered, catching Japanese aircraft carriers while their decks were cluttered with aircraft and fuel. The dive bombers quickly destroyed three of the heavy Japanese aircraft carriers and a heavy cruiser. The only Japanese carrier that originally escaped destruction, the Hiryu, dropped all of its planes against the U.S. task force and managed to severely damage the U.S. aircraft carrier Yorktown, forcing his abandonment. Around 5 p.m., dive bombers from the American aircraft carrier Company returned the favor, fatally damaging the Hiryu. He was scuttled the next morning.
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Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto still had many warships at his command, but without his carriers and planes, he was forced to abandon his plans to invade Midway and begin a retreat to the west. On June 5, an American task force continued its fleet, but bad weather saved it from further destruction. On June 6, the sky cleared and American planes resumed their assault, sinking a cruiser and damaging several other warships. After the planes returned to their carriers, the Americans interrupted the pursuit. Meanwhile, a Japanese submarine torpedoed and fatally injured the Yorktown, which was being recovered. It finally overturned and sank at dawn on June 7, ending the battle.
During the Battle of Midway, Japan lost four aircraft carriers, a cruiser and 292 aircraft, and claimed 2,500 lives. The United States has lost the Yorktown, the destroyer USS Hammann, 145 planes, and killed 307. Japan’s losses hampered its naval power – bringing Japanese and American maritime power to an approximate parity – and marked the turning point in the Pacific theater of World War II. In August 1942, the great American counteroffensive began at Guadalcanal and did not stop until the capitulation of Japan three years later.