Seventy-five years ago this week the U.S. Navy pulled off one of the all-time upsets in the history of military affairs when it defeated the Imperial Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway. Beginning on December 7, 1941, with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that crippled the U.S. Pacific fleet as it lay at anchor, the Imperial Japanese Navy put together an incredible run of victories. Japanese naval forces decimated the Allied fleet at the Battle of the Java Sea on February 27, 1942, while the Japanese army conquered British, Dutch, American, and Australian territories throughout the Southwest Pacific and Southeast Asia. The period culminated with the fall of the Philippines and the surrender of 12,000 American troops—the largest mass surrender to a foreign power in U.S. military history.
American forces were down but not out. On April 18, 1942, 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers led by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle took off from the USS Hornet and bombed Tokyo and other cities in Japan. The bombers caused only minor damage, but Japanese military leaders, ashamed that they had allowed an attack on their homeland, resolved to expand Japan’s defense perimeter by taking U.S.-held Midway Island in the Central Pacific. The stage was set for one of the most dramatic naval battles in history.
The U.S. Pacific fleet had only three serviceable aircraft carriers along with a handful of cruisers and destroyers with which to defend Midway. One of the carriers, the USS Yorktown, had been badly damaged at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May, and only joined the task force steaming towards Midway after heroic repair work performed by workers at Pearl Harbor. But the U.S. Navy had an advantage that evened the odds: its cryptanalysts had broken the Japanese naval code. The American commanders at Midway, Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance and Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, understood the Japanese battle plans and knew the composition of the enemy task forces steaming towards Midway Island. This knowledge would allow them to position their ships advantageously and surprise the Japanese carrier task force commander, Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo, who initially focused his attacks on the island’s airstrip.
Even with the advantage of excellent intelligence, victory at Midway was improbable. Success was the result of inspired leadership, bravery, and a good bit of luck. The Japanese scout plane that first sighted the U.S. carriers had an inoperable radio. The U.S. air squadrons headed for the Japanese fleet became disorganized, with the result that the initial wave of torpedo bombers arrived at the rendezvous point without fighter escort. They courageously attacked anyway and were shot down to a man. But to do so the Japanese fighters came down to sea level, denuding their task force of overhead cover. On the flight decks of the Japanese carriers, aircraft were first armed with bombs to target the still usable Midway runway and then rearmed with different ordnance when the U.S. carriers were finally sighted. Just as the aircraft were launching, amidst flight decks filled with bombs and fuel lines, U.S. dive bombers appeared overhead. Three Japanese carriers were soon raging infernos; a fourth was dispatched later in the day with a subsequent strike. The Yorktown, hit by Japanese bombs and torpedoes but still afloat, was later sunk by a Japanese submarine while being towed back to Hawaii.
The Battle of Midway eviscerated Japanese naval air power in the Pacific and halted the momentum Japanese forces had gained with the Pearl Harbor strike. By the slimmest of margins, a relative handful of naval aviators turned the tide of battle and put the U.S. armed forces on the path to victory in the Pacific. Over the next eight months the strategic momentum would inexorably shift to the Allied side as the invasion of Guadalcanal and the attacks on Buna and Gona in New Guinea ensnared Japanese forces in an unwinnable battle of attrition from which they would never recover.
The Battle of Midway still resonates today. It teaches us the value of intangible factors in military affairs—leadership, courage, and chance—as well as the importance of behind the scenes influences such as codebreaking and intelligence. Superior numbers and technology do not always prevail in war—a lesson that the U.S. military must take to heart as it embraces an uncertain future.