On June 4, 1942 the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) initiated the main portion of Operation MI against the United States. The goals of Operation MI were multifold. First, the Japanese wanted to seize Midway Island. Midway was to become an operational base from which the Japanese could directly threaten Hawaii. In addition, part of the plan was to sink the two remaining operational US Navy aircraft carriers in the Pacific.
The Japanese thought that the loss of the last remaining carriers would so demoralize the United States that the US government would sue for peace and allow the Japanese military to continue it’s conquest and slaughter of Asia unmolested.
Part of the battle plan had started earlier when the IJN attacked the Aleutian Islands in order to secure the chain and prevent the United States from using the islands as air force bases.
There were two major problems with the plan for Operation MI. First, the United States had three, not two operational carriers in the Pacific. The USS Yorktown had been seriously damaged, but not sunk, at the Battle of the Coral Sea. The ship, and just as importantly its Air Group were ready for battle and part of the fleet poised to defend Midway.
Second, and arguably more important, cryptographers of the United States Navy had broken the Japanese Naval Code and were able to decipher at least part of the plan in advance. Knowing the target and timing of the planned attacks allowed the USN to position it’s carriers northeast of Midway, which was not what the Japanese expected.
Despite those advantages, the Japanese still held an advantage in terms of numbers of ships and planes. The early phases of the battle went poorly for the United States. Early attacks by U.S. Army Air Corps B-17s missed the Japanese ships and inflicted no damage.
Later in the morning, a succession of torpedo attacks by Torpedo Squadrons from the Enterprise, Yorktown, and Hornet resulted in no damage to the Japanese and heavy loss of life amongst the Devastator crews. VT-8 lost all 15 planes and all but one of the crew.
Their sacrifice was not in vain as the flurry of low level torpedo plane attacks forced the Japanese fighter planes flying above the carriers to drop to sea level to fend off the attacks. As a result USN dive bombers were able to attack and hit three of the four Japanese air craft carriers. In about ten minutes, the three aircraft carriers were heavily damaged and ultimately sank later on. As importantly, their Air Groups were destroyed with heavy loss of life among the pilots, ground crews, and other support personnel. This would come back to haunt the Japanese later on in the war as shortages of personnel were as crippling as the loss of pilots.
By days end, the last IJN carrier had been damaged beyond repair and the Japanese attack had been halted. Four of the six IJN carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbor the previous December had been sunk. The other two were back in Japan having been damaged and losing most of their Air Groups at the Battle of the Coral Sea a month previous to Midway.
After the Japanese disaster of the 4th, the remaining fleet turned around to return to Japan. Over the next three days a series of running battles caused more loss of Japanese ships. On June 7, the Yorktown and destroyer Hammann were struck by Japanese torpedoes launched by submarine. The Hammann had been along side the Yorktown and providing assistance while the Yorktown crew tried to salvage the carrier. After the attack, the Yorktown was abandoned and sank.
There is a lot more to the story and my readers who haven’t already should read a detailed history of the battle. From this point on, the Japanese were on the defense although it would take more than three more years of vicious fighting to finally defeat Japan.
Which nation, I’ll remind the readers, was the aggressor in Asia starting in the mid 1930s. That aggression included an attack on the USS Panay four years before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
I’ll leave you with this video. It was made by famous director John Ford, who served in the US Navy during World War II. The beginning of the video tells the story of how and why it was created.