Battle of Midway

November 11, 2016

Pearl Harbor was the opening salvo in the battle for the Pacific. By using a surprise attack, the Japanese had hopes of crippling the United States Navy in port. Prior to the start of World War II, Japan had invaded first Manchuria, China, and finally French Indochina. America was leery of Japan’s aggressions but being so far away geographically, was hesitant to go to war to stop them. President Roosevelt compromised with an embargo on shipments of oil and steel, resources Japan’s military efforts were dependent on.

Unfortunately for the United States, instead of seeing the trade embargo as an impediment to their plans, the Japanese instead turned to Dutch and British colonies in Southeast Asia as a potential cache for all the war resources they needed. With the rest of Europe locked in battle with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, the Japanese sensed an opportunity; if they could cripple the largest military base in the Pacific, Pearl Harbor, it might buy them enough time to seize control of the rest of Southeast Asia.

For the Japanese the move was a calculated risk. They knew that if they were forced into a protracted war with the United States they would lose. At the time, Japan lacked the military and economic prowess to outlast the US. The attack on Pearl Harbor needed to be an absolute success in order for the rest of the plan to succeed.

In many respects, for the Japanese Pearl Harbor was a success but they failed to destroy American aircraft carriers or submarines. The attack on Pearl Harbor was best summed up by Admiral Hara Tadaichi in the book Codebreakers’ Victory: How the Allied Cryptographers Won World War II. “We won a great tactical victory at Pearl Harbor and thereby lost the war.” By primarily destroying United States battleships, the Japanese forced the US to contest the Pacific with their submarines and aircraft carriers. Many battles and skirmishes led up to the pinnacle, the battle for Midway.

Battle of Midway Aircraft Carriers

The Battle of Midway pitted US Admirals Chester Nimitz, Frank Jack Fletcher, and Raymond A. Spruance against Japanese Admirals Isoroku Yamamoto, Chuichi Nagumo and Nobutake Kondo. The battle took place near the Midway Atoll. The Japanese hoped to make a quick end of the US in the Pacific before sweeping through Southeast Asia to collect those much-needed resources.

The bulk of the fighting at Midway was done by American bomber and fighter pilots launched from aircraft carriers. The different types of bomber and fighter planes at the disposal of the US required careful planning and a healthy portion of luck. Without both, pilots were just as likely to run out of fuel as find the enemy. Air-launched torpedoes proved ineffective time and again; even when they were able to make direct contact with the target, many failed to detonate.

Japanese Plane Shot Down

The key to victory at Midway came down to tactics. The Japanese preferred to launch full scale attacks, their bombers well-complemented with fighter planes. In contrast, Admiral Spruance judged that it was more critical to US victory to continually send out his bombers in hopes of foiling a Japanese counterattack. Rather than carrying out large-scale attacks, he kept continuous pressure on the Japanese. The American bombers had good aim, perfectly placing their charges onto enemy ammunition stores and fuel tanks, eventually sinking the Japanese aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu, which were part of the force that attacked Pearl Harbor. That proved to be the death knell for the Japanese Navy. With the loss at Midway combined with a failing Solomon Islands offensive at Guadalcanal, the Japanese couldn’t sustain their military conquest. The Battles of Guadalcanal and Midway are generally considered the turning point in the war in the Pacific.

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