The Battle of Midway
The United States was traumatized by Pearl Harbor. California’s state government ordered the mass deportation of Japanese-American citizens to internment camps inland. Many people fled east, fearing an imminent invasion. Spy scares and sabotage rumors swept the Pacific coast cities, and Los Angeles fired hundreds of anti-aircraft shells into an empty sky. As Japan seized the Philippines, Singapore, Malaya, and Indonesia, its troops seemed, for a time, invincible. The tide turned, however, when the US Navy won a decisive victory near the mid-Pacific island of Midway.
The vast distances of the Pacific made aircraft carriers the most important weapons in that theater of war. Planes launched from their decks enabled their commanders to see for several hundred miles in every direction, as the two fleets sought one another. The absence of the American carriers from Pearl Harbor when it was attacked turned out to have been very important, enabling the US Navy to persevere. Knowing this, Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto devised a plan to ambush them. He expected them to challenge his planned invasion of Midway Island. By luring them them there, he would attack and damage them from the air, then finish them off with his battleships’ big guns.
American code breakers, however, had mastered the Japanese system, “Magic,” learned of these plans, and enabled Admiral Chester Nimitz to plan an ambush of his own. His aircraft carriers, the Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown, were supported by ground-based Flying Fortresses from the military airfield at Midway itself. Japanese planes attacked the field on the morning of June 4, 1942, but did not destroy its capacity to launch planes.
American torpedo bombers then tried to retaliate against the Japanese carriers, which had been identified the previous day by a reconnaissance plane. They proved to be slow and vulnerable. Nearly all of them were shot down, doing no significant damage. But minutes later, a group of 37 American dive bombers from the Enterprise found the Japanese fleet and attacked. Luckily for them, the Japanese carriers’ decks were crowded with planes, being loaded with aviation fuel, bombs, and torpedoes. In rapid succession, the American dive bombers were able to set fire to three of the four principal Japanese carriers, the Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu. They also sank a heavy cruiser and later in the day, the fourth and last carrier, the Hiryu. Five thousand Japanese men were killed, more than three hundred planes and their crews destroyed, and the four vital ships sunk.
Although the American fleet suffered the loss of the carrier Yorktown, which had been damaged a few weeks earlier at the Battle of the Coral Sea, then hastily repaired, this was a relatively modest price to pay for the catastrophic damage inflicted. Coral Sea and Midway were the first naval battles in history where the two fleets never came over the horizon to one another. No ships’ guns were fired except against attacking enemy aircraft.
After Midway, the initiative in the naval war swung sharply in the Americans’ favor once and for all. Japan’s dispersed holdings across the Pacific required naval re-supply, which the US was now able to disrupt. American submarines did even more damage to Japanese freighters than German submarines did to Allied ships in the Atlantic, with the added advantage of better air support and dominance of the ocean’s surface.
Tomorrow, we’ll witness the single most important battle of the entire war, Stalingrad, on the Eastern front, between September 1942 and February 1943. It was a defeat so severe for Nazi Germany’s armies that they could never again dictate the terms of battle to their foes. It inaugurated their long retreat and eventual defeat.
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