Just about six months after the Imperian Japanese Navy (IJN) attacked the United States Naval and Army bases at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the United States Navy handed the IJN a stunning defeat on the ocean near the Midway Islands.
The IJN had planned to lure the USN out of Pearl Harbor by attacking and capturing Midway, and then ambushing the fleet. The idea was not so much to take Midway, although that would be helpful to the Japanese. The main goal of the attack was to destroy the two (so the Japanese thought) US aircraft carriers that were operational in the Pacific Theater of Operations.
Taking Midway and destroying the US fleet would allow Japan to directly threaten Hawaii and the West Coast of the United States. The Japanese thought that this would force the United States to sue for peace and exit the war.
Which is not to say that the Japanese would invade the US mainland, but it’s likely that the US would have had to cede Hawaii and probably Alaska to the Japanese.
Losing those territories would make it impossible for the US fleet to operate in the Pacific Ocean beyond a couple of hundred miles from the coast. That in it’s turn would have made supporting Australia nearly impossible because US ships would have to go across the Atlantic, through the Suez Canal, and then through on to southern Australia.
Japan would be free to press their attacks on to the west towards India and China as they would have more than enough resources.
The outcome of the war hung on winning at Midway.
At least it would seem so.
Unknown to the Japanese, USN cryptographers had broken the Japanese naval code and knew where and when the Japanese planned to attack. This allowed the USN to set up a counter ambush using the THREE carriers that were actually operating in the Pacific.
Early in the morning of June 4 the Japanese commenced aerial operations against Midway. In it’s turn, the US sent land based Army bombers out to attack the Japanese ships. They did little damage, as did land based USN torpedo bombers.
About the same time, United States aircraft spotted the Japanese fleet. Torpedo and dive bombers, along with fighters launched from the US carriers.
The Torpedo Bombers were Douglas Devastators, of pre war design and pretty much obsolete by the time the war started. Slow, under armed, under armored, they were easy prey for the fighters protecting Japanese ships.
14 Devastators from the USS Enterprise (Torpedo 6) launched against the Japanese. Five returned, the rest were shot down.
13 Devastators launched from the USS Yorkgown (Torpedo 3) against the Japanese. Two returned.
15 Devestators launched from the USS Hornet (Torpedo 8) against the Japanese. None returned. Of the crew members, only one, Ensign George Gay survived.
No Japanese ships were damaged.
Here is a video of the crews of Torpedo 8 taken by director John Ford just shortly before the battle.
Their sacrifices were not in vain because while the Japanese were busy slaughtering the torpedo bombers, the dive bombers were able to locate and bomb three of the Japanese carriers.
Starting at about 10:30, the dive bombers struck three of the four Japanese carriers. In about 10 minutes those three ships went from pride of the IJN to burning hulks which would soon be at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
Later in the day, the last Japanese carrier was located and hit. It too would eventually sink.
Perhaps more important than the loss of the ships and planes, was the loss to the IJN of experience pilots, aircrew, mechanics, armorers, and other support personnel.
Unlike the United States, the Japanese did not rotate experience crews back to the homeland so that they could train other pilots.
Combined with losses at the Battle of the Coral Sea, this was a loss from which the IJN could never recover. The war was far from over, but from this point forward the Japanese were on the defensive in the Pacific.
This is a two part documentary, also by John Ford, about the battle.
There is a lot more that you can read about the battle.
Miracle at Midway, was published in 1983 and was the first definitive book on the battle
Shattered Sword was published in 2007, and tells the story from the Japanese side. It is an exhaustive study of the equipment, tactics, and decisions that were in play during the battle.
Never Call Me A Hero A first hand account of the Battle of Midway and US naval operations in the months immediately after Pearl Harbor. This was authored by a pilot who flew many missions up to and including Midway.
Finally, there are other resources on the web. Wikipedia and You Tube have some good information as well. As always, read and watch carefully because not everything is accurate.