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The Top 5 Air Battles of World War II: Midway

No. 3 of World War II's 5 Greatest Air Battles

 

 

A short battle, lasting only a few days, Midway’s influence was out of all proportion to its length. Like the Battle of Britain, Midway was a major turning point in the war, but also important for the irreversible changes it heralded in naval warfare.

Japanese Carriers

Japanese aircraft, including Aichi D3A1 Vals, warm up on the deck of an unidentified Japanese carrier before launching. The carrier Soryu is in the background. The Japanese carrier fleet for the attack on Pearl Harbor consisted of Akagi, Kaga, Shokaku, Zuikaku, Soryu, and Hiryu. Four of those six would be lost at Midway. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

The Battle of the Coral Sea weeks before had been notable as the first clash of battle fleets conducted entirely through aircraft, without the ships of either opposing fleet ever making contact with each other. The U.S. Navy had lost the fleet carrier Lexington, fleet oiler Neosho, and destroyer Sims. The fleet carrier Yorktown was also heavily damaged. Needless to say, most of the Pacific Fleet’s battleships were being repaired and salvaged after being sunk at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese lost the light carrier Shoho sunk, plus a cruiser and assorted minesweepers and smaller craft. More importantly, the Japanese fleet carrier Zuikaku was heavily damaged and would be laid up for months, and her sister Shokaku, though undamaged, had lost most of her air group. The two Japanese carriers each could carry 84 aircraft, but at the end of the battle only 39 survived. Coral Sea can be argued to have ended as a tactical victory for the Japanese and a strategic victory for the Allies. While both sides were bloodied, the intent of the operation for the Japanese, an invasion of Port Moresby, was called off because they no longer had enough aircraft to cover their planned landing.

Adm. Chuichi Nagumo

Adm. Chuichi Nagumo, whose caution left Pearl Harbor’s submarine base, ship repair facilities, and tank farm intact, and who six months later would lose his carriers at Midway. National Archives photo

Midway, however, saw a few aircraft arguably turn the tide of war in the Pacific, showing that the airplane could inflict damage far in excess of its cost relative to a battleship.

Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the Midway operation, had developed a typically complicated plan for the invasion of Midway atoll.  Unfortunately for him and for the Japanese fleet, much of his plan depended on surprise, and, unknown to him, surprise had already been lost.

Through the brilliant codebreaking achievements of Lt. Cmdr. Joseph J. Rochefort and Station Hypo, the American carriers Enterprise, Hornet, and the patched-up Yorktown were waiting in ambush at the aptly named Point Luck off Midway when the Japanese fleet arrived. Rear Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher, in overall command, flew his flag from Yorktown, centerpiece of Task Force 17. Task Force 16, comprising Enterprise and Hornet, was commanded by Rear Adm. Raymond Spruance.

USS Yorktown

The USS Yorktown drydocked at Pearl Harbor after the Battle of Coral Sea. Shipyard workers had just three days to patch up Yorktown and return her to the fleet in order for her to participate in the Battle of Midway. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the Midway operation, had developed a typically complicated plan for the invasion of Midway atoll.  Unfortunately for him and for the Japanese fleet, much of his plan depended on surprise, and, unknown to him, surprise had already been lost.

Enterprise Moored at Ford Island, Late May 1942

The USS Enterprise at Ford Island in late May 1942 being readied for the Battle of Midway. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

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