Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto said “In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.” That proved prophetic as the turning point of the Pacific Theater of WWII happened almost 6 months to the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Going into the battle of Midway, the Japanese were suffering from losses from the Battle of Coral Sea. This battle was ostensibly a Japanese victory but a costly one. In contrast, the US was able to get repairs to the Yorktown sufficient to get her into action in record time.
In addition, thanks to code-breaking efforts, American forces knew where, and approximately when, the Japanese were planning to attack and could muster their forces to be ready.
Preliminaries of the battle occurred on June 3 when a PBY discovered a Japanese patrol force and a squadron of B-17’s was launched to intercept. The only damage caused by this attack was a torpedo launched from a PBY striking a Japanese tanker.
The next morning, June 4, the Japanese launched an air attack against Midway Island. Midway launched its aircraft, bombers flying off unescorted to attack the carriers while the fighters remained behind to defend the island. The fighters, consisting of 7 F4F Wildcats and 21 obsolete F2A Brewster Buffaloes. suffered massive losses, losing three of the Wildcats and 13 of the Buffaloes with the remainder so heavily damaged that only two remained airworthy.
The base, while damaged, remained usable as a refueling and staging area to continue to attack the Japanese fleet.
The bomber attack on the fleet was repelled with heavy losses at the cost to the Japanese of only two fighters. However, one of the bombers, a B-26, severely damaged made a steep dive toward the carrier Akagi from which it never pulled out. It nearly crashed into the bridge and this near-thing may have been a factor in Japanese admiral Nagumo’s mixed decisions to follow.
Nagumo ordered his torpedo armed reserve planes re-armed with general purpose bombs to use against land targets in order to make a second strike at Midway. However, while this was going on he received word of a sighting of American naval forces. He reversed his order for re-arming and switched back to torpedoes, causing further delays. Incomplete information, including the lack of knowledge of whether the sighted forces included carriers, when combined with a doctrine that called for launching full strikes and not piecemeal forces led to further hesitation.
The hesitation probably did not really matter. American aviation was already on the way.
Mixed communications and navigational errors led to some forces completely missing the targets. Ten Wildcats from the Hornet ran out of fuel and had to ditch.
The first carrier force to meet the Japanese was a flight of TBD Desvastators led by John C. Waldron. Lacking any fighter escort, all of them were shot down, along with 10 of the 14 Devastators from the Enterprise, and 10 of the 12 from the Yorktown without inflicting any damage on the Japanese. Part of this abysmal showing likely stemmed from defective torpedoes, a problem that would yet take some time for the Navy to recognize, let alone correct.
However, American forces gained several benefits from the nominally failed attack by the torpedo bombers. Dealing with this attack on their own ships meant the Japanese were unable for a time to launch an attack of their own. Their Combat Air Patrol was out of position to respond to later attacks. And many of their planes were low on fuel and ammunition and so were put temporarily out of action.
While Waldron and the others were being chopped up by Japanese fighters, a flight of SBD Dauntless dive bombers was also searching for the carriers. Low on fuel they continued their search, finally spotting a destroyer steaming to rejoin the carrier forces.
The dive bombers found the Japanese carriers and attacked. The Japanese fighters, out of place, many on the decks of the ships with fuel lines stretched to them. Two squadrons attacked the Japanese carrier Kaga achieving several hits, including one killing the captain and most of the senior officers and starting several fires on the ship.
Others attacked the Akagi, scoring only one direct hit but a devastating one that penetrated to the hangar deck among armed and fueled aircraft causing secondary explosions. Another missed to the rear, exploding under the ship close enough to damage both the rudder and the flight deck.
Still others hit the Soryu getting multiple hits and causing fires among the refueling operations on the deck.
Both the Kaga and the Soryu were ablaze. The Akagi took longer for the fires to spread out of control, but eventually they did.
The remaining Japanese carrier, the Hiryu, launched a counterattack. They followed the retreating American aircraft back and struck the first carrier they encountered, the Yorktown, hastily patched together after Coral Sea.
While American defenders inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese, they managed to get several hits on the Yorktown, blowing a hole through the flight deck and extinguishing her boilers. Admiral Fletcher had to transfer his flag to the heavy cruiser Astoria.
The crew on the Yorktown were able to make emergency repairs, patching the flight deck and getting three boilers into action so that the Yorktown was able to resume air operations. Indeed, their repair actions had been so effective that the second wave of Japanese attackers on their arrival thought it was a second, undamaged carrier.
This second wave managed to get two torpedoes into the Yorktown, killing her power and causing a 23 degree list to port.
While the Japanese, thinking they had taken out two carriers, rearmed in the thought that they could scrape together enough force to finish what they thought was the one remaining American carrier, the Enterprise launched a final strike of 24 dive bombers, her own and those from the Yorktown left “orphaned” by the Yorktown’s damage.
That was pretty much the end of the main battle. There were a few skirmishes. A Japanese submarine managed to get close enough to finish off the damaged Yorktown and sink the destroyer USS Hammann.
In the end, the Japanese lost four carriers and a heavy cruiser, as well as sustained damage to other ships and had 3057 dead. The US lost one carrier and a destroyer with a total of 307 Americans killed.
Some historians have argued that the battle could have easily gone the other way. American reconnaissance located the Japanese carriers long before the Japanese discovered the Americans. This put the Japanese on the defensive almost from the beginning. Had the Japanese instead been the first to discover their opponents, that might well have turned around and it would have been American Carriers on the bottom of the Pacific with Japanese sailing away victorious. While the US would almost certainly have still won the war in the end–the American industrial base and the coming of the Atomic Bomb made that a near certainty–the war would very likely have been longer and bloodier.