The Battle of Midway
June 3 - 6, 1942
BEFORE THE STORM:
THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY:
AN INTRODUCTION

Pearl Harbor Revisited

To understand the full magnitude of the Battle of Midway, we must briefly re-visit the "day of infamy." The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is worthy of its own intensive study, something that will not be done here. However, a basic understanding of Pearl Harbor will give you the additional pieces necessary to construct the puzzle of events that is the Battle of Midway.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7, 1941 sank or damaged eight battleships, three light cruisers, three destroyers and four support ships. Eighty-seven naval and seventy-seven Hawaiian Air Force planes would never fly again. Worse yet, 2403 American service men and civilians were killed and another 1178 wounded. All this damage and carnage cost the Japanese just twenty-nine planes along with fifty-five airmen, and five midget submarines with nine crewmen.

"Thus it is said that one who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be endangered in a hundred engagements... One who knows neither the enemy nor himself will invariably be defeated in every engagement." Art of War, Sun-tzu

 

INTRODUCTION

While without question one of the greatest tactical victories of all time, the Japanese strike against US forces on Oahu was not the great strategic victory that Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander In Chief of the Rengo Kantai (Combined Fleet), had hoped for. Yamamoto knew the Japanese could not win a prolonged war against the United States- a war Yamamoto opposed. However, if ordered to fight, he reasoned Japan "will have no hope of winning unless the US fleet in Hawaiian waters can be destroyed."1

The sole purpose of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was to immobilize CinCPAC (Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet) Admiral Husband E. Kimmel's fleet at the outset of hostilities. This, along with the occupation of the Philippines (to cover her northern flank for the move south), would allow the Japanese to advance into the natural resource rich Dutch East Indies and French Indo China without fear of US intervention for six months. In addition, with Kimmel's fleet out of the picture, the Japanese could advance into other US territories without fear of a counter attack, meaning a large buffer zone around Japan and her natural resource bastion. By the time the US Pacific Fleet had recovered, it was hoped, the Rengo Kantai would be in a position to crush it in the "Great All Out Battle." Then the Japanese would "have everything she needed and sit back and hold out forever."2

 

THE ATTACK

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7, 1941 sank or damaged eight battleships, three light cruisers, three destroyers and four support ships. Eighty-seven naval and seventy-seven Hawaiian Air Force planes would never fly again. Worse yet, 2403 American service men and civilians were killed and another 1178 wounded. All this damage and carnage cost the Japanese just twenty-nine planes along with fifty-five airmen, and five midget submarines with nine crewmen. Unfortunately, for the Japanese, the United States Navy's primary strategic offensive weapons were either not present (aircraft carriers) or were not attacked (submarines). In addition, the air attack failed to hit other important targets, like the tank farms and repair facilities, which meant that Pearl Harbor would continue to operate as the US Pacific Fleet's primary base.

 

AFTERMATH: ANALYSIS

When one looks through the glasses that were the Hawaiian Operation, the Japanese did "immobilize" a portion of the US Pacific Fleet for about six months before the first major fleet action of the war occurred at Coral Sea in early May of 1942. Mission accomplished, right? Well, perhaps. Once those glasses are removed, the picture clarifies and looks less like the Van Gogh it appeared to be. In the author's opinion, the Japanese plan was flawed, and therefore, so was its execution. Granted, this opinion is strongly supported by over forty years of hindsight, but some far sighted Japanese Naval officers came to this same conclusion in December of 1941.

The basic idea of knocking out the US Fleet to cover the Southern Operation was sound. However, it failed to give the Japanese a decisive strategic advantage over the American Pacific Fleet. As CinCPAC wrote to Chief of Naval Operations Frank Knox on December 10:

Since the appearance of the enemy in this area all tactical efforts with all available forces have been vigorously prosecuted toward locating and destroying enemy forces primarily carriers. Our heavy losses have not seriously depleted our fast striking forces nor reduced morale and determination. Pearl must be used for essential supply and overhaul facilities and must be provided with additional aircraft both army and navy also relief pilots and maintenance personnel. Pearl channels clear. Industrial establishment intact and doing excellent work...3

This amazingly accurate assessment of the situation by a stunned commander gave a true indication of the strategic situation as it existed for the US Navy a mere seventy-two hours after the attack. Indeed, within three months of the attack US carriers would hit Japanese outposts in the Central Pacific- hardly the six months called for by Yamamoto. So how could this happen? The Combined Fleet had spent nearly one year planning for this "knock out punch," yet they had failed to take full advantage of both tactical and strategic surprise at Oahu to deliver such a blow. How could this be? Well, a couple of factors worked against the Japanese.

First, Yamamoto's failure to stress to his local commanders that US carriers be not only Priority Number 1, but the only target worth striking, greatly weakened its punch. Because carriers were officially given only a marginally higher priority than battleships, Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, commander of the Itokukuu Kantai (First Air Fleet) at Pearl Harbor, considered the sinking of four US battlewagons as a great victory. Not only that, but planners estimated heavy losses among his task force, a fact pre-attack war games seemed to confirm. Nagumo not only shared in these estimates, but added his own gloomy outlook on the operation. So, like a nervous boxer looking to score points while avoiding getting hit, Nagumo thought he had scored an incredible victory. He therefore felt compelled to withdraw to the relative safety of Japan, rather than press his advantage (which included every carrier commanders dream: local air superiority) and knock the champ out with the first punch. The scorecard of history would show that while bloodied, the US was far from beaten on that first Sunday of War.

Tennessee (right), while not severely damaged at Pearl Harbor, was jammed against the forward quay by West Virginia. Tennessee was not able to leave her berth until the quay was blasted sometime after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Note the fire damage on Tennessee's stern, the result of burning oil from Arizona. (Not Pictured)

USN-Navy Historical Center4

Not only was, in Nagumo's rigid mind, his work done, the Japanese had no information on the location of US carriers. He greatly feared they would launch a devastating counter attack if he struck Pearl Harbor again- very similar to the event which would cripple the Japanese navy a mere seven months later at Midway. While Nagumo knew enough to fear American carriers in the present, he failed to understand that their survival would haunt him for the rest of the war.

The Japanese controlled the situation much more than Nagumo realized. According to their own estimates, they had sunk four battleships and destroyed four hundred aircraft, leaving nothing to fear from Oahu. Up to the time they pointed their bows west for the return home, the First Air Fleet had not hit many targets that would accomplish the goal of covering the move south. With their limited striking range and speed, US battleships, had they not been sunk at Pearl Harbor, would have posed little threat to the Japanese move into the South Pacific. However, carriers, with more and longer ranged hitting power, greater speed and flexibility, if not eliminated, threatened the entire Japanese Navy. These failures at Pearl Harbor cost the Japanese dearly at Midway, just seven months later.

The Japanese plan, as brilliant as it proved to be tactically, had yet another flaw- it did not include a contingency for success beyond the wildest expectations of the attackers. Based upon their own estimates and pre-attack war games, the planners of the Hawaiian Operation fully expected to lose between one-third and one-half of the attacking force. Alternate plans were laid out for everything from the premature discovery of the task force to their failure to find the fleet at Pearl Harbor. It seems odd that an operation planned in such detail for such an extended period of time would fail to have a plan that would take advantage of the local air superiority which reared itself on December 7, 1941. When Nagumo had the opportunity to bring back to Japan "every one of his ships with not so much as a chip in its paint"5, there was no reason in his mind that he should not withdraw.

Perhaps one can not write orders to exploit such a situation as that which existed on Oahu that Sunday morning. Maybe only an aggressive commander like Yamamoto or Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi (commander of the Second Carrier Division) would have been able to carry out the attack on Pearl Harbor to its fullest potential. While it would have been true, as Commander Minoru Genda stated, "Nagumo would have been a standing joke for generations if he attacked Pearl Harbor again"6 without locating the American carriers first, his lack of aggressiveness in exploiting the success of the first wave meant a far weaker victory than the casualty numbers would seem to indicate. Maybe Yamaguchi, while not an "air admiral", would have followed Genda's advice: Call the tankers from their station northwest of Hawaii and spend several days searching for US carriers. Once those carriers were dealt with, the strike force could return to Japan via the Marshall Islands and make repeated strikes on Hawaii as they went. But, Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, from the time of the war games in fall to the sortie of his force from Japan, thought strictly in terms of a hit and run raid. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the "by the book" Nagumo, like a scared child who succeeded in stealing from the Boogie Man's cookie jar, should have decided to withdraw rather than go for the jugular.

California listing after being hit by two torpedoes. Next in line are Maryland (left) and the capsized Oklahoma. The burning Arizona is hidden behind the cloud of smoke in the center of the picture.

USN-NARS7

 

FINAL CONCLUSION

The Japanese failure to shift the strategic balance of power in the Pacific decisively to her side, therefore, was not the result of an oversight in hitting remaining strategic targets (such as oil storage facilities, dock yards, and submarines) on Oahu after the first two waves, as is popularly believed, or a lack of recognition that carriers and aircraft were the new arbitrators of power, but rather to a plan which lacked a truly visionary strategic goal and a leader flexible enough to make the most of a great situation. Because of this, no matter how great the tactical victory, this operation was one of, if not the biggest, strategic failure in military history. Instead of knocking out the Pacific Fleet, it forced it to turn to the weapons that would eventually defeat them: carrier aviation and submarine warfare.

 

DECEMBER 8, 1941 - MAY, 1942

In spite any failures at Pearl Harbor, the Pacific Ocean in late May of 1942 was a large Japanese lake. While not the great victory it was thought to be at the time, its timing could scarcely have been better. It is the goal of all military organizations to fight its enemy when they are weakest and you are strongest. The US military simply did not possess the military strength to fight both the Japanese and Germans simultaneously, and US politicians labeled Nazi Germany "the greater of two evils." Therefore, the Japanese Navy and Army ran wild in the Pacific, trying to gobble up as much of the Pacific as it could before America's industrial might became too much to overcome. First Guam, then Wake and then the Philippines, among others, fell to the Japanese. One after another, British and US territorial islands fell as the Japanese attempted hakko ichiu: to bring the Eight Corners of The World under one roof. It took months after Pearl Harbor for those who had no business in the business to be replaced by more competent men, starting with Admiral Chester W. Nimitz appointment as CinCPAC on December 31. Replacements and reinforcements were the dreams of all the commanders in the Pacific- dreams that resulted in more nightmares than one cares to remember. The minor carrier raids that were carried out in February and March 1942 had little effect on the rushing Japanese. The British were in worse shape and could be of little help - even though they had two years of war fighting experience, she was in a desperate fight for her life on the North Atlantic. This left America virtually alone, except for a little help from Canada and Australia, to be the guardian of freedom in the Pacific. It was a task America simply wasn't ready for. This was perhaps the lowest point in American history since the Civil War.

There were some good signs. The Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in mid-April, while doing little in the way of military damage, was a huge morale booster, for both the military and civilian at home alike. Perhaps the best news was the tactical loss/strategic draw fought at the Battle of the Coral Sea in early May. Not only did the Navy finally decide how to employ its best offensive weapon, but the aura of invincibility was smashed with the sinking of the carrier Shoho. As an added bonus, unknown at the time, damage to Shokaku and the loss of aircraft and crews by Zuikaku meant that the two sister carriers wouldn't be able to help their fellow Pearl Harbor mates at Midway. But even in this, the brightest moment to date in the Pacific War, the US Navy lost Lexington and Yorktown was severely damaged. The underdog American Navy needed a decisive victory, not only a victory for the public, but a victory that the military could hang its hat on. The problem was the inexperienced, under equipped US service man needed to beat the experienced, battle-hardened Imperial Japanese Navy. This is their story.

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