The Battle of Midway was the third US Naval action predicated on carriers. First was the Doolittle Raid followed a short time later by the Battle of the Coral Sea. This third carrier action would so devastate the Japanese carrier fleet that the tide of the war would turn against the Japanese.
The Doolittle Raid convinced the Japanese high command that an expanded security zone was necessary. To that end, the push into the south Pacific resulted in the Battle of the Coral Sea; a costly victory that the Japanese could not exploit and blunted the Japanese advance.
It was decided by the Japanese High Command that the Midway Atoll located in the Central Pacific would be part of that expanded security zone. A zone anchored in the south by occupying the Solomon and New Hebrides Islands, the western most islands of the Aleutian Chain in the north and a fortified Midway in the Central Pacific.
US intelligence services had been deciphering parts of the Japanese radio code (JN25b) since March and began to suspect that Midway, (code named “AF” by the Japanese) was the next Japanese move. They concocted a ploy that is remarkable to this day. US Command Pearl Harbor sent a coded message to Midway Command to reply by plain language radio that the island’s desalinization plant was malfunctioning and requested a new plant. Japanese radio traffic later confirmed the suspicions of US intelligence in a coded message that “AF was running low on potable water”.
By careful dissection they were able to decipher enough of the radio traffic to know that the plan of attack and occupation was to be conducted by four different and widely dispersed task groups. The carriers were to attack first bombing the Island’s defenses with the invasion fleet big guns of the battle ships following in order to conduct mop up operations against any remaining opposition and occupy the atoll. This division of forces would deny the carriers vital support and would turn out to be a fatal mistake by the Japanese.
With this intelligence in hand, Admiral Chester Nimitz began to draw his defenses together. Admiral William Halsey’s “Doolittle Raid” (task force 16) consisting of the carriers Hornet and Enterprise was placed under the command of Admiral Raymond Spruance. Halsey had contracted severe dermatitis and could not sail with the group. A hastily repaired Yorktown commanded by Admiral Jack Fletcher (task force 17) sortied with the group by drawing surviving pilots, aircraft and crew men from the carrier Lexington sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea and the remainder from the Carrier Saratoga still undergoing a major resupply after repairs on the west coast.
Placing the carriers to the north east of Midway, using search aircraft based on Midway plus the carriers own scout planes the Americans awaited the arrival of the Japanese. Intel intercepts made the date of the attack on Midway to be June 4 or 5. A Navy PBY operating from Midway made the first contact around 09:00, June 3. Mistaking the transport group for the main attack group, bombers operating from Midway attacked but did no damage.
June 4, the slug fest begins at 04:30 as the US carrier Yorktown launches search aircraft; simultaneously the Japanese launch their planes to attack Midway. It ends with the loss of two carriers for the Japanese, the Soryu and the Kaga on June 4, the carriers Akagi and Hiryu on June 5 while the American carrier Yorktown would sink on June7 after a valiant effort to extinguish fires that burned out of control.
A radical change in Japanese Naval strategy occurred in the 1930s that the carrier would be the chief offensive weapon of the Japanese Navy replacing the battle ship. To make this strategy most effective, the carriers needed to be massed together in order to make concentrated first strike offensives. This strategy of strength worked well at Pearl Harbor, but with fore knowledge the Americans were able to find and destroy the enemy carriers.
American carrier forces by contrast were separated by 25 miles, making the search more difficult for the Japanese.
The internet is awash with documentaries, plus there are books and movies that describe the battle far better than my simple prose.
Four fleet carriers, the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu, all sunk; 1 heavy cruiser, the Mikuma sunk and the heavy cruiser Mogami badly damaged and 3,057 Japanese dead. 248 Japanese aircraft were destroyed further depleting Japanese air forces.
By contrast US forces lost one carrier, the Yorktown and one destroyer the Hammann and 307 killed and 150 aircraft destroyed.
The action at Midway stopped the Japanese cold, their dreams of a bastion in the Central Pacific lost. It was not the end of Japanese Imperialism and their Navy was by no means defeated; but the attrition of experienced pilots, mechanics and other essential aviation personnel would begin to take its toll on the efficiency of the Japanese carrier forces.
The Battle of the Coral Sea had delayed Japanese designs for the taking of Port Moresby, but it did not stop the Japanese from landing on and building an airfield on Guadalcanal. That would precipitate another carrier battle in the South Pacific, “The Battle of the Eastern Solomons”, next in this examination of US carrier actions.