How Midway Made Headway: The Impacts and Significance of the Battle of Midway, June 1942

Nate Kang

A true watershed within the scope of not just the war it was a part of, but also the whole of world history in general, the Battle of Midway was among the most pivotal military engagements ever fought in the history of humankind. Lasting from June 4 to June 7, 1942 and contested between the naval forces of the Empire of Japan and the United States of America, it was described by military historian John Keegan as “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare” — and not without merit. As the focal turning point in the Pacific Theater, the American victory at Midway was absolutely critical in shaping the overall outcome of the bloodiest single conflict in human history, the Second World War. Helping to truly turn the tide of the conflict in the region in the favor of the U.S., the outcome of the Battle of Midway was a major ‘game-changer’ due to how it either directly or indirectly shaped and influenced the military power and capabilities of both combatant sides, which warfare strategies and tactics were utilized for the rest of the “Pacific War”, and morale and sentiment in both nations.

The Second World War lasted from September 1939 to September 1945, beginning with the Nazi invasion of Poland and concluding with Japan’s formal final surrender. Over the course of those six long years, the lives of anywhere from 70 million to 85 million combined soldiers and civilians were claimed by the devastating warfare, making World War II (as previously mentioned) the most costly, bloody human conflict of all-time. The war pitted two major opposing coalitions against one another: the Axis Powers, led by Germany, Japan, and Italy, and the Allied Powers, led by the “Big Four” of the United Kingdom, Soviet Union, United States, and China. Furthermore, it was primarily divided into two major fronts, or “theaters”, one centered around Europe (and North Africa), and the other located in the Pacific. From 1941 to 1945, the Pacific Theater was hotly contested between Japan and the United States, with the U.S. and the Allies eventually emerging victorious. However, for the entire first half of the fighting, the Japanese military, and especially its navy, reigned absolutely supreme across the regions of both the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Before Midway, generally speaking, the behemoth that was the Japanese Imperial Navy had practically swept aside all of its foes in the Pacific Theater, never losing even a single battle and capturing territory after territory with frightening levels of both swiftness and brutality. Even after an indecisive, yet costly, engagement at the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942), which saw U.S. forces lose more ships but deal Japan heavy damages for arguably the first time in the war, the overall military initiative still remained very much in the hands of the Japanese, the balance of influence and power still heavily tipped in their favor. At the Midway Islands (so named because they are roughly equidistant from Asia and the mainland United States), Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese fleet, planned to wipe out what remained of the American Pacific Fleet following the heavy losses it suffered at Coral Sea. Additionally, a Japanese victory here would put their forces in threateningly close proximity to Hawaii, and even the West Coast! Both sides thus knew the stakes would be extremely high going into the battle. At the behest of U.S. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the Americans, anticipating a Japanese attack at Midway, ‘dug in’ and prepared to give this battle all they had — essentially, it was considered a ‘make-or-break’ situation, setting the stage for a truly epic clash in June.

Yamamoto also had planned to set a trap for the Allies at Midway by diverting American forces with a feint attack in the Aleutian Islands. But unbeknownst to Japan, the Americans

actually possessed an advantage: U.S. cryptographers had succeeded in deciphering their coded messages, some of which contained detailed Japanese battle plans. This made U.S. troops far more prepared for what was to come at Midway than the Japanese anticipated— however, as one piece put out by ​The National Interest ​put it, “​[t]his by no means guaranteed victory, for the United States Navy had [already] been sorely weakened at Pearl Harbor.” Aided by this advantage and having sent practically every salvageable ship, plane, and bomber available to Midway, the U.S. were able to score a decisive triumph over a stunned (and arguably unprepared) Japanese fleet, inflicting extremely heavy damages which severely crippled Japanese naval might and shifting military strategy. Thus, it undeniably altered all future outcomes for the entire remainder of the Pacific War.

Perhaps the most obvious way in which the U.S. victory at the Battle of Midway turned

the tide in favor of the Allies in the Pacific came in the form of the beyond-heavy damages Japan suffered— the absolute sheer amount of manpower, firepower, and military/naval infrastructure they lost in the engagement was truly an irreparable blow. Maritime historian Geoffrey Till commented of Midway: “In terms of [Japanese] losses there can surely be no argument [against their significance].” Over the course of just a few short hours, American divebombers managed to sink all four Japanese carrier ships present at the battle— ​Kaga, Akagi, Sōryū​, and ​Hiryū​. The U.S., meanwhile, only lost one carrier, the already-damaged USS ​Yorktown​. ​Significantly, aircraft carriers were the integral centerpieces of a naval fleet, and sinking even one was considered both extremely impressive as well as strategically devastating. Two-thirds of Japan's airstriking force was also destroyed. Furthermore, the deaths of 5,000 well-trained, highly-skilled Japanese pilots at Midway caused problems because Japan was unable to replace them with equally adept airmen due to the high costs of continuing the necessary intensive training for pilots. Thus, though it already was bad enough for the Japanese to lose as many vessels and men as they did at Midway, even worse for them was the fact that unlike the U.S., they could not afford such losses in material because they lacked the capability to sufficiently ‘fill the gaps’ that said losses created. After Midway, the U.S. Navy held the material advantage for the rest of the war. This shift in advantage undoubtedly played a major role in influencing the results of ensuing U.S. offensive campaigns, including Guadalcanal (1942-1943), turning probable American defeats into critical American victories and making Midway the catalyst for a “sequence” of U.S. victories and successes. In Victory in the Pacific, Albert Marrin argued that

“after June 4, 1942, the defeat of Japan was only a matter of time.” Once an absolutely unbeatable, unstoppable force, suddenly, the Imperial Navy was instantly rendered essentially disabled by their costly material losses at Midway.

Equally crucial was the impact Midway had upon both sides’ military tactics and strategies in general. Midway led to a dramatic shift in the ways both the U.S. and Japan ‘operated’; this change persisted for the next three years, all the way up until the end of the fighting. For one thing, the battle marked the last time in World War II when Japan was truly on the offensive in the Pacific Front, as the Imperial Navy’s advance towards the Americas was checked by the U.S. victory at Midway. After Midway, the two sides essentially switched places, and it was now the Americans who were on the attack, and the Japanese on the defensive and slowly retreating. In September of 1943, General George Marshall, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff at the time and a future Secretary of State, reported that in retrospect, the crushing American victory fifteen months prior had wound up being so impactful because it had completely stopped any momentum of the Japanese conquest, and because it resulted in the aforementioned change in positions from aggressor to defensive for Japanese forces. Japan would never regain the offensive again, and U.S. forces kept pushing onward in the Pacific for the war’s remainder. In addition to this, the U.S. Pacific Fleet, growing in both size and strength, went on to adapt a strategy known as “island-hopping” (also called leapfrogging) that focused on conquering small, but strategically important, Japanese-controlled islands throughout the Pacific in hopes of eventually reaching Japan’s main islands— a plan which proved to be quite effective. The way enemy carriers were wiped out at Midway by U.S. divebombers also immediately convinced American press (and some military leaders) that maintaining air superiority would be absolutely essential to military success against a foe like Japan, so greater emphasis was placed upon developing American aerial power into an organized and powerful force, from bombers to land-based air power.

One more major change gripped the U.S.’s wartime strategy as a result of the Battle of Midway. Following the battle, the United States (who had always possessed industrial capabilities and resources far greater than those of their Japanese adversaries), perhaps bolstered and inspired by their great success at Midway, increased military industrial production as they began to concentrate more and more on the Pacific Theater. They used this boost in output to go on the offensive against the now-vulnerable Japanese Imperial Navy. Notably, after June 1942, American factories began to produce military aircraft at a rate up to sixteen times higher than Japan could manage! Simply put, Japan could only dream of matching the U.S. in terms of industrial power. Though they continued to fight fiercely to the very end, it was this deficiency that arguably helped lead the Japanese military to eventually resort ​to so-called “Tactics of Despair” near the end of the war, with many of their officers well aware that their chances of victory were growing ever-slimmer as American victories piled up over time. As they were pushed further and further back on the defensive, the Japanese battle plan grew less regimented and organized, and they instead tried to turn to practices like guerrilla warfare and suicide kamikaze a​ ttacks. These last-ditch tactics failed, and Japan eventually became all but resigned to a fate of defeat in the Pacific.

Thirdly, American and Japanese morale and wartime sentiment changed quite sharply following the Battle of Midway— in two very different directions. The magnitude of the U.S. victory at Midway obviously provided a boost in the morale of their soldiers— moreover, though, news of this ‘inspiring’ American triumph also provided the people of the homefront with a renewed spirit of enthusiasm and zeal for supporting the war effort, including for sentimental reasons. According to Geoffrey Till:

[W]ithout [the victory at Midway], [President Franklin] Roosevelt would have found it impossible to hold the line against those who wanted a reversal of priorities between the European and the Pacific theaters of war. A success at Midway was necessary in order to satisfy the American public’s need for retribution after [the 1941 Japanese attack on] Pearl Harbor. Without it, the American contribution to the war... would have to have been reduced in scale and delayed in time.

As for Japan, Midway caused a significant decline in sentiment, especially among the Japanese high command. As hard to believe as it may be, the crushing blow the Imperial Navy suffered at Midway actually marked the first time Japan had lost a naval battle in 350 years, when Korean Admiral Yi Sun-shin successfully repelled a Japanese invasion. Without a doubt, this would have seemed a major blow to the pride, sense of tradition, and spirits of the Japanese Empire and its great navy. Lastly, despite the fact that the military high command went to great lengths in order to cover up the humiliation suffered at Midway from the eyes of both lesser Japanese military men and the general public of the nation,

commanders grew so distraught and ashamed, that a small number of them even considered an attempt to broker an early peace with the enemy — in essence, these men wished to ‘give up’ and capitulate to the U.S. before the Japanese control of the Pacific had disappeared completely! Thus, perhaps the internal disarray which resulted from the entertainment of such a resolution did in fact help contribute to Japan’s ultimate failure(s) in the Pacific Theater against the United States.

In conclusion, the outcome of the 1942 Battle of Midway cemented its place and significance in history by not only having tremendous impact upon the results of the Pacific Theater alone, but also by aiding Allied strategy and position worldwide, definitively qualifying it as one of the largest turning points of the largest, deadliest, arguably most impactful armed conflict ever to occur. Whereas at the beginning of the year 1942, the outlook for the Allied Powers appeared at best grim and at worst disastrous in virtually every theater around the globe, coupled with the Battle of Stalingrad in the Soviet Union, Midway was absolutely influential in shifting the conflict in favor of the Allies by the conclusion of the year, thus altering the timeline of modern world history as we know it.

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