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Battle of Midway: The American Counterattack


The Battle of Midway, in June 1942, turned the tide of World War II in the Pacific. This documentary, part of the U.S Navy Heritage Mini-Series, recounts the decisive American victory which resulted in the destruction of 4 Japanese aircraft carriers. The series was produced by Empire Media Group, in conjunction with the Naval History and Heritage Command and the Naval Historical Foundation.

The Battle of Midway was one of the most important naval battles of the Pacific Campaign of World War II. Between 4 and 7 June 1942, only six months after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, and one month after the Battle of the Coral Sea, the United States Navy decisively defeated an Imperial Japanese Navy attack against Midway Atoll, inflicting irreparable damage on the Japanese fleet. Military historian John Keegan called it "the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare." It was Japan's worst naval defeat in 350 years.

The Japanese operation, like the earlier attack on Pearl Harbor, sought to eliminate the United States as a strategic power in the Pacific, thereby giving Japan a free hand in establishing its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The Japanese hoped that another demoralizing defeat would force the U.S. to capitulate in the Pacific War and thus ensure Japanese dominance in the Pacific.

The Japanese plan was to lure the United States' aircraft carriers into a trap.The Japanese also intended to occupy Midway as part of an overall plan to extend their defensive perimeter in response to the Doolittle Raid. This operation was also considered preparatory for further attacks against Fiji, Samoa, and Hawaii itself.

The plan was handicapped by faulty Japanese assumptions of the American reaction and poor initial dispositions. Most significantly, American codebreakers were able to determine the date and location of the attack, enabling the forewarned U.S. Navy to set up an ambush of its own. Four Japanese aircraft carriers - Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu, all part of the six carrier force to launch the attack on Pearl Harbor six months earlier - and a heavy cruiser were sunk at a cost of one American aircraft carrier and a destroyer. After Midway, and the exhausting attrition of the Solomon Islands campaign, Japan's shipbuilding and pilot training programs were unable to keep pace in replacing their losses while the U.S. steadily increased its output in both areas.

Yamamoto's plan: Operation MI

Typical of Japanese naval planning during World War II, Yamamoto's battle plan was exceedingly complex. Additionally, his design was predicated on optimistic intelligence suggesting that USS Enterprise and USS Hornet, forming Task Force 16, were the only carriers available to the U.S. Pacific Fleet. In May 1942, during the Battle of the Coral Sea, USS Lexington had been sunk and USS Yorktown was so badly damaged that the Japanese believed she had been sunk.

The Japanese were also aware that USS Saratoga was undergoing repairs on the West Coast after suffering torpedo damage from a submarine. Although the Japanese did not know for certain the locations of USS Wasp and USS Ranger, they concluded (correctly) that both were operating in the Atlantic.

However, more important was Yamamoto's belief the Americans had been demoralized by their frequent defeats during the preceding six months. Yamamoto felt deception would be required to lure the U.S. fleet into a fatally compromised situation. To this end, he dispersed his forces so that their full extent (particularly his battleships) would be unlikely to be discovered by the Americans prior to battle. Critically, Yamamoto's supporting battleships and cruisers would trail Vice-Admiral Chūichi Nagumo's carrier striking force by several hundred miles.

Japan's heavy surface forces were intended to destroy whatever part of the U.S. fleet might come to Midway's relief, once Nagumo's carriers had weakened them sufficiently for a daylight gun duel; this was typical of the battle doctrine of most major navies.

Yamamoto did not know that the U.S. had broken the main Japanese naval code (dubbed JN-25 by the Americans). Yamamoto's emphasis on dispersal also meant that none of his formations could support each other. For instance, the only warships larger than the 12 destroyers that screened Nagumo's fleet were two battleships, two heavy cruisers, and one light cruiser, despite his carriers being expected to carry out the strikes and bear the brunt of American counterattacks.

By contrast, the flotillas of Yamamoto and Kondo had between them two light carriers, five battleships, and six cruisers, none of which would see any action at Midway,

Their distance from Nagumo's carriers would also have grave implications during the battle, because the larger warships in Yamamoto and Kondo's forces carried scout planes, an invaluable reconnaissance capability denied to Nagumo.

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