The shock of the attack on Pearl Harbor had the United States and its allies on the backfoot in the Pacific for a few months, as they faced defeat after defeat.
The United States Navy resoundingly won the crucial Battle of Midway on June 3-6, 1942. Though one should never overestimate the importance of a single battle, it is generally believed to be the major turning point in the Pacific Theater of World War 2 and therefore one of the defining moments of the entire war.
Today we take the American victory over Japan in the war for granted. But the war may have unfolded quite differently if they had won in Midway, and the battle could have gone either way.
The Leadup to Midway
Having severely hurt the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, the goal of the Japanese Navy was to neutralize American power completely in the western Pacific by eliminating their bases before the US Navy could regroup. They were well on the way to doing so when they conquered the Philippines, Dutch East Indies (Indonesia today), and Singapore.
In the six months since Peral Harbor, the Americans had managed to bring a considerable force to Midway Atoll. They operated out of that appropriately named base midway across the Pacific located in a far-flung part of the Hawaii archipelago.
Regaining some of its previous force, the naval contingent in the Pacific had managed to interdict a slated Japanese invasion of New Guinea in the Battle of the Coral Sea.
Japanese naval command realized that they could not build a secure naval perimeter around the home Japanese islands and the resources they had secured for their empire until they eliminated the threat of the US Navy.
Isoroku Yamamoto, the Marshal Admiral of the Imperial Japanese Navy planned a surprise attack, not unlike the one he pulled off in Pearl Harbor. First, a modest diversionary attack against targets in the Aleutian Islands was executed.
Then the main thrust against Midway followed. The plan was first to attack the base from the air and then send a fleet and land forces towards it in order to directly assault the base.
Yamamoto hoped that this would draw out large-scale reinforcements from Pearl Harbor. He planned to then combine the entire Japanese fleet into one force, which he hoped would ambush and destroy the arriving rescue fleet.
If this plan had succeeded, it would have left the US impotent in the Pacific for several years. After all, it takes a very long time to rebuild carriers and battleships.
Naval Intelligence Saves the Day
This was a good plan and may well have worked. Luckily for the Americans, their naval codebreakers had broken the code used by the Japanese navy not long before. Therefore, when the Japanese were preparing a major attack, Naval Intelligence alerted the command.
The Japanese were careful not to give out the location of the attack, but instead referred to it as “AF.” Analyst Joe Rochefort suspected that meant Midway, but could not be sure.
To ascertain the mystery location, a false traceable American message was released claiming that Midway was out of freshwater. When a subsequent Japanese message noted that “AF” was out of freshwater, the location of the attack was confirmed.
The United States Navy had been caught unprepared at Pearl Harbor. It wouldn’t happen again.
Despite knowing when and where the attack was planned, things did not start well for the Americans. Their first aerial attacks failed, and the Japanese managed to hit the Midway base anyway and cause serious damage.
However, the base remained operable. The American intelligence advantage soon showed. Naval pilots knew where the Japanese carriers were located and hit them repeatedly. Eventually, the Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu carriers caught fire and sank to the bottom of the ocean.
The Japanese fought on bravely with their remaining Hiryu carrier. It focused its sorties on the Yorktown carrier, which had already been damaged at Pearl Harbor, and put it out of action.
However, the battle had turned hopeless for the Hiryu and Japan. All of the remaining American carriers focused on the lone Japanese carriers and sank it. Japanese naval power in the Pacific had received a blow from which it would never fully recover.
Battles do not decide the entire war. It is far more complicated than that. But Midway was incredibly important. Japan had planned to destroy the main body of the U.S. fleet but ended up with the bulk of its carrier fleet at the bottom of the ocean.
It is only thanks to this victory that the US Navy was able to launch its “island-hopping” campaign which isolated Japan and ultimately led to the surrender of the Emperor and his imperial forces.