Ho'okele Staff | Jun 08, 2012
After destroying U.S. forces in Hawaii and the Philippines on Dec. 7, 1941, Japan achieved most of its war goals to conquer resource-rich areas in the Pacific.
But after the Doolittle Raid on their home islands and their defeat in the Coral Sea, the Japanese sought to expand their defensive perimeter, prevent further raids on the home islands and destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s aircraft carriers.
In pursuit of these objectives, the commander of the Combined Fleet, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, led an invasion force to conquer the Midway atoll near the western end of the Hawaiian chain.
Supporting the invasion was a strike force led by the same commander that had attacked Oahu on Dec. 7 – Adm. Chuichi Nagumo and four of the six aircraft carriers from that raid – Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu. The other two carriers, Shokaku and Zuikaku, had fought in the Coral Sea and were being repaired and refitted. Japan’s ultimate objective was to convince the United States to negotiate an end to the war.
U.S. communications intelligence allowed American commanders to guess what Yamamoto was up to. Adm. Chester W.
Nimitz, the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, sent the aircraft carriers Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown to meet the Japanese.
Yorktown had been badly damaged at the Battle of the Coral Sea, but despite estimates that she would require several months of repairs at Puget Sound, the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard restored Yorktown to a battle-ready state in just 72 hours.
On June 3, 1942, at 3:30 p.m., nine B-17s from Midway found the Japanese invasion fleet 570 nautical miles west of the island. They attacked through heavy anti-aircraft fire but inflicted no damage on the Japanese ships.
Then on June 4, 1942, at 9:30 a.m., U.S. Navy torpedo planes from the Hornet, Enterprise and Yorktown made a series of attacks on the Japanese carriers. Only six heavily outnumbered Wildcats were on hand to engage the intercepting Japanese Zero’s. The torpedo bombers suffered almost total losses and scored no hits. However, their attacks delayed the Japanese preparations to strike the U.S. carriers and disorganized the defensive fighter screen.
At 10:20 a.m., three squadrons of U.S. Navy dive bombers, two from Enterprise and one from Yorktown, found Akagi, Kaga and Soryu – partially by following a Japanese destroyer that was hurrying to rejoin the fleet after driving off an American submarine.
The U.S. dive bomber squadrons attacked almost simultaneously. In five minutes, all three Japanese carriers were on fire and out of action. Nagumo was forced to transfer his flag from Akagi to the cruiser Nagara. By dawn on the following morning, Akagi, Kaga and Soryu had all sunk to the bottom of the Pacific.
A few hours after the destruction of Akagi, Kaga and Soryu, Japanese aircraft from Hiryu struck back at 1 p.m. USS Yorktown was bombed and torpedoed. Her crew was forced to abandon ship.
Late in the day, at 6 p.m., U.S. Navy dive bombers found and bombed the Hiryu.
On June 6, the U.S. Navy was trying to salvage Yorktown when she was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Yorktown sank early the next morning.
The Battle of Midway was the equalizer in the Pacific war.
Yamamoto called off the attempt to invade Midway and retreated west. Afterwards, Japan could not match American military resources and initiative, and the United States went on the offensive.
The Battle of the Philippine Sea on June 19 and 20, 1944 took place as U.S. forces invaded the Mariana Islands, which allowed U.S. Army Air Forces to base heavy bombers within range of Japan itself.
Americans nicknamed the action as the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot” due to the disproportionate Japanese aircraft losses.
Ultimately, the Japanese Navy lost approximately 600 aircraft and hundreds of pilots in addition to three aircraft carriers. Shokaku sank after torpedo hits from the U.S. submarine Cavalla started a chain reaction of fires and explosions.
Later, on Oct. 25, 1944 in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, U.S. forces moved to retake the Philippines and isolate Japan from its conquered territories, including its supply of oil and other war materials.