On this day in 1942, the decisive Battle of Midway ends in a stunning victory for the U.S. Navy; at the end of four days of fighting, the mighty Imperial Japanese Navy had lost four aircraft carriers, nearly 250 aircraft and more than 3,000 personnel. In contrast, U.S. losses amounted to the carrier USS Yorktown, destroyer USS Hammann and 307 combat dead. With seamanship and air power buoyed by brilliance, bravery and dumb luck, the clash is seen as fully presaging Japan’s eventual and total defeat three years later.
One month previous, Japan had shown her cards; the Empire was seeking to draw a bold line across the vast Pacific from Port Morseby, next door to Australia, in the South, through Midway Island, near to Hawaii, and ending North in the Alaska islands of Kiska and Attu. From there, Japan could continue expanding eastward, threatening invasion of the North American mainland, and with it, the Pacific Northwest, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In point of fact, on June 3 Japan had begun her assault on the Aleutians, and was in possession of Alaskan territory in view of Grandpa Palin’s house.
Despite the setback of May 1942 in the indecisive Battle of the Coral Sea near Port Moresby, the Japanese had continued with plans to seize Midway Island and move further up the Aleutians. Seeking a naval showdown with the numerically inferior U.S. Pacific Fleet, Adm. Yamamoto Isoroku sent out the bulk of the Japanese fleet, including four heavy and three light aircraft carriers, with orders to engage and destroy the American fleet and invade Midway.
U.S. intelligence had divined Japanese intentions after breaking the Japanese naval code, however, and the Americans were ready: three heavy aircraft carriers of the U.S. Pacific Fleet were mustered. These ships were stationed 350 miles northeast of Midway and awaited the advance of Yamamoto’s armada. Whereas the Japanese had no land-based air support, the Americans from Midway and from Hawaii could commit about 115 land-based planes.
The battle began on June 3, 1942, when U.S. bombers from Midway Island struck ineffectually at the Japanese invasion force about 220 miles southwest of the U.S. fleet. Early the next morning Japanese planes from the strike force attacked and bombed Midway heavily, while the Japanese carriers escaped damage from U.S. land-based planes. As the morning progressed, the Japanese carriers were soon overwhelmed by the logistics of almost simultaneously sending a second wave of bombers to finish off the Midway runways, zigzagging to avoid the bombs of attacking U.S. aircraft, and trying to launch more planes to sink the now-sighted U.S. naval forces. A wave of U.S. torpedo bombers was almost completely destroyed during their attack on the Japanese carriers at 9:20 AM, but at about 10:30 AM 36 carrier-launched U.S. dive-bombers caught the Japanese carriers while their decks were cluttered with armed aircraft and fuel.
The U.S. planes quickly sank three of the heavy Japanese carriers and one heavy cruiser. In the late afternoon U.S. planes disabled the fourth heavy carrier (scuttled the next morning), but its aircraft had badly damaged the U.S. carrier Yorktown. On June 6 a Japanese submarine fatally torpedoed the Yorktown and an escorting American destroyer; that day a Japanese heavy cruiser was also sunk. The Japanese, however, appalled by the loss of their carriers, had already begun a slow retirement on the night of June 4–5 without attempting to land on Midway.
By June 7, Japan’s ambitions eastward had reached their high water mark. The tide was now ebbing for the Empire and Pearl Harbor architect Yamamoto, who presaged his own defeats years earlier with the remark “Anyone who has seen the auto factories in Detroit and the oil fields in Texas knows that Japan lacks the national power for a naval race with America.”