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Essay: The Battle of Midway: A Decisive Naval Air Battle in World War II

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  • Published: 1 April 2019*
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  • Words: 1,378 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 6 (approx)
  • Tags: World War II

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The Battle of Midway is known as arguably the most decisive battle in the Pacific and a major turning point in World War II. Fought on June 4th through the 6th in 1942 between American and Japanese forces, this was a naval battle that focused primarily on the use of aircraft rather than ships despite being fought in the middle of an ocean. This would later prove to be the most effective strategy on America’s side, as proven by the astronomical outcome and vast difference between American and Japanese losses. The United States was able to achieve this critical victory not only using crafty military strategy, but also because of US Admiral Chester W. Nimitz’s confidence and adaptation to a new way of fighting a nautical war, by use of aircraft launched from naval carriers, compared to Japan’s Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s consistency to fight a naval battle the old way, by means of a surface battle using mainly ships.

The start of the battle took place long before the first plane took off. As early as May 2nd of 1942, major advances in code breaking allowed for the US to intercept messages from Japanese forces about an upcoming mission set to take place in June. Because the Battle of the Coral Sea had left the US navy badly injured, Admiral Yamamoto had planned an attack on US naval forces in order to obliterate the remaining fleet and seize Midway Island, since doing so would help the Japanese set up a base on Midway so land-based planes could take control over the skies of northern Australia. It was also revealed to Nimitz that the Japanese forces had planned to spread out their fleet to lessen their chances at being detected. However, because these codes were intercepted so soon, Admiral Nimitz had more than enough time to plan a counterattack. After the intercepted release of the Japanese planned day to strike on June 4th, Nimitz assembled three heavy aircraft carriers and stationed them 350 miles northeast of Midway to await the arrival of Yamamoto’s fleet. In addition to this, because the US had bases


The Battle of Midway

in both Midway and Hawaii they had the advantage of about 115 land-based planes. However, this advantage of strategic firepower-placement could only go so far, as the Japanese had the advantage of superiority in number with their 4 carriers, 2 battleships, 2 heavy cruisers, 12 destroyers, and 248 carrier-based aircraft compared to America’s 3 carriers, 7 heavy cruisers, 15 destroyers, 233 carrier-based aircraft, and 127 land-based aircraft (Parshal).

Admiral Nimitz did not let his lack of numbers intimidate him however, since when it comes down to it, the fight was all about quality over quantity. He would later prove that strategy and his skilled naval pilots could trump military strength during the counterattack that took place starting on June 3rd. It was on this date that US bombers were sent out from Midway to take down a spotted Japanese occupation force that was making its way to the island, but was ineffective in inflicting damages (Prados). Soon after, the tides were changed drastically as “early in the morning on June 4th, a PBY Catalina flying boat torpedoed a Japanese tanker transport, striking the first blow of the Battle of Midway” (History). After the first strike was made, a Japanese squadron of more than a hundred planes, including bombers and fighters, took off from the Japanese carriers to attack Midway. After inflicting significant damage on the US base, US forces struck back in a heroic defense to intercept the enemy attackers and suffered heavy losses in the process. After this attack, the planes flew back to the carriers to rearm and refuel, where they were caught off-guard and met with US torpedo-bombers and dive-bombers that destroyed three heavy Japanese carriers and one heavy cruiser. The only Japanese carrier left, the USS Hiryu, responded with two waves of attacks (M.), one of whose aircraft brought down the USS carrier Yorktown, and was later itself brought down the following day. Bad weather on June 5th saved a US task force pursuing Yamamoto’s fleet from further destruction, but on June 6th, US aircraft continued their destruction of the remaining Japanese cruisers and


The Battle of Midway

warships, while a Japanese submarine ultimately torpedoed the Yorktown carrier, thus bringing an end to the battle at dawn on June 7th. Overall, Japanese forces suffered much heavier losses than the American forces; 4 carriers,1 heavy cruiser, 2 hundred and 48 aircraft, and about 3,000 men were lost compared to America’s 1 carrier, 1 destroyer, 150 aircraft, and about 300 men lost (Parshal). The severe Japanese losses greatly impact their naval strength, therefore losing its ability to wage an offensive war and stopping the threat of further Japanese invasions in the Pacific (Hone). This factor is what allows the Battle of Midway to be considered a critical American victory, because the attack left Japan's naval forces so severely wounded that they were no longer considered a threat in the Pacific.

Of course, a war would not be able to be fought without someone to guide it. This is where leaders like Admiral Nimitz and Admiral Yamamoto come in, as they are the ones who ultimately are the ones responsible for every shot called. Though both commanded entire military forces, no two admirals are alike, which is shown in their methods of waging this battle. On one hand, Japanese Admiral Yamamoto is an example of the old method of how a naval war is traditionally fought, by use of battleships fought on the surface. However, US Admiral Nimitz introduced a newer way to engage in battle: through the air. By realizing that Admiral Yamamoto had counted on US forces to fight mainly through ships, like a naval battle would usually be thought, Nimitz saw his opportunity and chose to skip the ships and instead rely on the skills and surprise tactics of his naval aviators to offset the strength in nautical firepower that the Japanese had. This is a prime example of adapting to one's situation, which is one of the characteristics to making a good leader. The ships Nimitz did use did not fight within sight of each other and were mainly carriers for the aircraft that took precedence over most of the fighting, which demonstrated Nimitz’s faith in his aircraft carriers (The Naval Institute


The Battle of Midway

Archives). What also aided Admiral Nimitz’s strength as a leader was his use of resources in radio transmissions to intercept plans made by the Japanese and staying confident in his plans despite the risk. It quickly became clear to him that Midway was in serious danger, but his forces were still suffering damages left by the Battle of the Coral Sea, which left limited ship strength due to losses from being bombed. "He had to defend Midway, but to do so meant risking his precious carriers, only three of which, Yorktown, Hornet, and Enterprise, were operational at the time" (Haskew, M.). This meant that though this battle was going to be a huge gamble for him, Nimitz had faith in his planning and the skill of his aviators to keep Midway. Because he knew the plans Admiral Yamamoto had, he was able to switch from fighting an expected surface battle and instead turning the tides by fighting mainly from the air. These qualities of adapting to the situation, taking risks, and having faith in one's planning are all what made Admiral Nimitz a respected leader.

When it comes down to it, fighting a battle is not about how many people and forces one may have; rather, it is about strategy and adapting to a situation to formulate a plan in order to overcome it. Admiral Nimitz did exactly that; upon interception of a Japanese plan to attack US forces stationed at Midway island, rather than rely on battleships as the Japanese had planned for, he used his air power to turn the tides of the war in the Allies favor and blow away the enemy in the process. This way of execution that was considered nontraditional at the time proved to be beneficial in the long run, and Admiral Nimitz’s way of thinking outside the box and being confident in taking a paid-off risk is one to be admired.

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