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Midway, 1942: When the Odds Were Against Us

Today, more than six decades later, Americans remember World War II as “The Good War,” and think of the nation’s victory as something that was always assured. Historians, and of course the vanquished, frame America’s victory in terms of manpower, production, and economics, a collection of charts and graphs, facts and figures that, when looked at in isolation, appear to assure that victory was inevitable.

USS Yorktown

The USS Yorktown (CV 5) shown shortly after completion in 1937. The three sisters – Yorktown, Hornet, and Enterprise – bore the brunt of the early battles of the war in the Pacific. Library of Congress photo

The rapidly diminishing numbers of those who were there know differently. Between the wars, the U.S. armed forces had shrunk in numbers and power, and the nation, despite President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s sometimes clandestine efforts, was woefully unprepared for war.


The IJNS Kaga, shown after her reconstruction in the mid-1930s. Often called a sister ship to the Akagi, in fact they were built on two entirely different hulls. The Kaga was built on a battleship hull while the Akagi was built on an Amagi-class battlecruiser hull. Note the ship’s stacks venting downward on the starboard side. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

The attack on Pearl Harbor sank the Pacific Fleet’s battleships at their moorings, the Asiatic Fleet had been destroyed or driven from the seas, and Bataan and Corregidor in the Philippines had surrendered. The Battle of the Coral Sea had cost the Japanese one light carrier and forestalled their invasion plans for Port Moresby in New Guinea, but the carrier Yorktown (CV 5) was damaged and Lexington (CV 2) was sunk.

IJNS Hiryu

The IJNS Hiryu. A near sister of the IJNS Soryu, the two carriers had islands built on opposite sides of the flight deck (Hiryu port and Soryu starboard), with the thinking being they could steam side by side with aircraft operating in two different patterns that would not interfere with each other. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

This left only Enterprise and Hornet in the Pacific, and not much else but what meager task forces could be gathered around them. The Hornet‘s raid on Tokyo, however, had spurred the Japanese to expand their perimeter of conquests, and their next target was Midway atoll.

IJNS Akagi

The IJNS Akagi shown pre-war. The Akagi and her sister ship the Amagi were to be beneficiaries of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, and were also to be built on battlecruiser hulls that would otherwise have been scrapped. Amagi’s incomplete hull, however, was ruined in the 1923 earthquake, and the Akagi emerged as a class of one. She was one of two Japanese carriers at Midway built with her island on the port rather than starboard side. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

Through the brilliant codebreaking achievements of Lt. Cmdr. Joseph J. Rochefort and Station Hypo, the American carriers Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown, her Coral Sea damage hastily patched up, were waiting at the aptly named “Point Luck” off Midway when the Japanese fleet arrived. Adm. Chester A. Nimitz had decided to stake everything on an ambush on the Japanese fleet with his numerically inferior forces.

SBD and TBDs aboard Enterprise

An SBD of either Scouting or Bombing Six and TBDs of Torpedo Six launching from the deck of the USS Enterprise (CV 6) in May 1942. The aircraft still have the red and white horizontal stripes on their tails that were painted out before Midway. They appear to be carrying depth charges and launching for an anti-submarine patrol, as Enterprise arrived too late for the Coral Sea battle. National Archives photo

Rear Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher, in overall command, flew his flag from Yorktown, centerpiece of Task Force 17. Task Force 16, comprised of Enterprise and Hornet, was commanded by Rear Adm. Raymond Spruance. Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the Midway operation, had developed a complicated plan for the operation, but much of it depended on surprise, which, because of Station Hypo, he had already 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

Even so, the odds were dauntingly against the U.S. Navy. Yamamoto’s forces included four fleet and two light carriers, 11 battleships, 22 cruisers, 65 destroyers and around 20 submarines. Nimitz could muster only his three carriers, one light and seven heavy cruisers, 17 destroyers and 12 submarines.

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    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-5216">
    Dwight Jon Zimmerman
    Dwight Zimmerman

    And, had Fletcher not ordered the U.S. fleet east out of potential harm’s way, his victory would have been rewarded the following day by defeat, as Yamamoto’s battleships and cruisers were at full steam on an intercept course. Excellent summary!

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham bypostauthor odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-5328">
    Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    Thanks Dwight. And you’re right. But Fletcher and Spruance still took a lot of heat at the time, for their perceived failure to aggressively pursue and sink the rest of the Japanese fleet. I’ve always thought Fletcher got a raw deal from S.E. Morison in his history.