The Battle of Midway, while still relatively early (4-7 June 1942) in the Second World War, has been viewed historically as a turning point in the war. The implications of the Battle of Midway loss to the Japanese war effort were many. The battle exposed the deficiencies in naval leadership by Japanese commander Isoroku Yamamoto after the Battle of the Coral Sea onward. The Japanese ships Shokaku and Zuikaku were left unavailable for the Attack on Midway; and, Yamamoto believed that both the Lexington and Yorktown had been sunk during the Battle of the Coral Sea – when in fact it was only the former which was lost by the United States. In planning for the Attack and capture of Midway Island, Yamamoto incorrectly divided his forces by sending a diversionary fleet to the Aleutian Islands; thereby weakening his overall force for Midway. From Ronald H. Spector in Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan: “Historians have criticized Yamamoto for spreading his forces all over the northern Pacific. Had the Japanese aligned their forces differently, they might have had eight carriers instead of four opposing the American carrier task forces at Midway.”1The Japanese leadership also remained under the umbrella of delusion in believing in their invincibility – even after the defeat in the Coral Sea.
It’s the Code
Mitsuo Fuchida and Masatake Okumiya, both of whom took part in the Battle of Midway, note in their ‘Analysis of Defeat’ in Midway: The battle That Doomed Japan, the Japanese Navy’s Story, citing intelligence as another critical factor in the loss at Midway, thus exposing more deficiencies in Japanese naval operations: “Viewed from the Japanese side, this success of the enemy’s intelligence translates itself into a failure on our own part – a failure to take adequate precautions for guarding the secrecy of our plans.”2 From the American perspective, the work done by the cryptanalysts was essential to the U.S. victory at Midway. The Americans had broken JN25, the IJN’s operational code: “As a result, American cryptanalysts were becoming more successful in deciphering enough of the IJN’s operational signals traffic to discern the overall intent of the Imperial Navy’s plans.”3 The code had been broken prior to the Battle of the Coral Sea, in March of 1942; thereby ensuring victory prior to Midway.4
American naval brilliance
The U.S. Navy gained control over the Pacific in 1942, which put Japan in a defensive posture for the remainder of the war – probably one of the more overarching implications of the Battle of Midway’s decision. The Yorktown was ultimately lost on 6 June 1942, but at a cost: “It was small compensation for the loss of four carriers and the flower of the Japanese naval air force. One of the greatest sea battles of all time was at last over and America has gained control of the Pacific.”5
The now weakened IJN was left with far fewer experienced pilots with which to participate in key battles such as the Battle of the Philippine Sea in 1944. The War in the Pacific became a ‘carrier war’, and showcased naval aviation’s potential and its dramatic impact not only for sea-borne attacks on enemy ships but as a support arm for amphibious assaults and invasions. By debilitating the IJN early in the war, the US was now enabled by a stronger navy, and began to initiate its ‘island hopping’ campaign in the Solomon Islands in August of 1942. As Gerhard Weinberg advises in A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II, the implications for Japan reached other theaters: “The Japanese losses and the American victory prevented a major new Japanese offensive either in the south or in the Indian Ocean and opened the way for the Americans to stage a counter-attack in the Solomon Islands…and prevented them from any return to an offensive in the Indian Ocean, an operation they had hoped for and promised to the Germans.”6
The loss of talented pilots at Midway would leave a gap that was unrecoverable for the IJN at Midway. Notes Richard Overy: The losses of ships and aircraft at Midway were hard enough to sustain, but the pilots were almost irreplaceable. The six hundred carrier officers were outstanding avaitors…”7 Overy adds that Japanese naval officers interrogated after the war determined the Midway loss as the turning point of the war.
1 Ronald H. Spector, Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan (New York: Vintage Books, 1985) 166-167.
2 Mitsuo Fuchida and Masatake Okumiya, Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan, the Japanese Navy’s Story (Annapolis: Bluejacket Books, 1955) 269.
3 Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully, Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Washington D.C.: Potomoc Books, 2005) 60.
5 John Toland, The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945 (New York: The Modern Library, 2003) 340.
6 Gerhard L. Weinberg, A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) 339.
7 Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995) 43.
Fuchida, Mitsuo and Masatake Okumiya. Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan, the Japanese Navy’s Story. Annapolis: Bluejacket Books, 1955. Page references are to the 2001edition.
Overy, Richard. Why the Allies Won. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995. Page references are to the 1997edition.
Parshall, Jonathan and Anthony Tully. Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway. Washington D.C.: Potomoc Books, 2005.
Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan. New York: Vintage Books, 1985.
Toland, John. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945. New York: The Modern Library, 2003.
Weinberg, Gerhard L. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Page references are to the 2005 edition.