Six months after Japan bombed U.S. military installations in Hawaii, including Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 7, 1941, the outnumbered U.S. Navy crushed the Imperial Japanese Navy in an epic battle near Midway Island in the Pacific Ocean.
The battle initially was planned by Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto to take out U.S. Pacific carriers. Yamamoto was the chief planner of the attack on Hawaii.
The U.S. carriers, a major threat to Japan’s quest for territory throughout the Pacific, were not in port at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. Japan’s concern was highlighted by the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, in April 1942, in which modified U.S. Army Air Corps bombers were launched from the carrier Hornet (CV-8). The raid on Tokyo was the first air strike on the Japanese mainland.
Midway Island was a vital outpost, and beyond the range of U.S. planes in Hawaii. Yamamoto, who had served in the United States in the 1930s, was confident the United States would defend Midway Island, sending its carriers and giving Japan the opportunity to cripple the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
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Yamamoto’s plan was to lure the U.S. into position for Japan’s carriers to attack. The U.S. Navy would not know the strength of Japan’s fleet, stationed over hundreds of miles of ocean.
However, U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Chester W. Nimitz knew a great deal about the Japanese plan because the Navy’s intelligence unit in Hawaii, Station HYPO, had broken Japan’s naval code.
So the Battle of Midway, fought mostly by carrier-based warplanes, resulted in a decisive victory for the Allies, with the destruction of four large Japanese carriers. This crippled Japan’s navy and allowed the U.S. and its allies to be on the offensive in the Pacific. A total of 38 U.S. and 93 Japanese warships were involved in the epic naval battle, which began on June 3, 1942, and continued through June 6.
Bombers from Midway attacked the enemy carriers on June 3, without major damage, and early on June 4, Japanese planes heavily damaged the base on Midway. Then, U.S. carrier planes sank three of the four Japanese carriers.
Midway Island remained a U.S. Naval Station for several years after World War II. In 1959, I was stationed on Midway, working in the Naval Exchange. I recall a small brass plaque at the Administration Building, commemorating the 1942 battle. In the 1950s, Navy aircraft crews flew around-the-clock missions to over Alaska and back to Midway as part of the U.S. defense system in the Pacific.
South Carolina has a special connection to the Battle of Midway through the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum and the USS Yorktown (CV-10).
The Yorktown at Patriots Point was named in honor of USS Yorktown (CV-5), one of the three U.S. carriers in the Battle of Midway. The others were the Hornet (CV-8) and USS Enterprise (CV-6). The earlier Yorktown (CV-5) had been heavily damaged in the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Japanese apparently thought it was out of service.
Because of the breakthrough on the code, Admiral Nimitz expected at least four, possibly five, Japanese carriers. Nimitz knew he needed all the strength he could employ, so he made it a priority to have CV-5 ready. The ship survived initial attacks in the Battle of Midway but was fatally damaged in a later attack by the fourth enemy carrier and sank two days later.
The museum is opening a new exhibit, a replica of CV-5’s flight deck, so visitors can experience how much the Yorktown was listing when its crew abandoned ship. A WWII veteran who survived the attack 75 years ago will share his story at Patriots Point in a free symposium, “Remember the Battle of Midway,” at 7 p.m. Monday aboard the Yorktown (CV-10).
All four of the Japanese carriers sunk in the Battle of Midway were part of the attack on Hawaii six months earlier. In the months prior to December 1941, Yamamoto had cautioned Japanese military leaders that attacking the United States would awaken a sleeping giant. He was prophetic.