Six months following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the forces of Imperial Japan seemed all but invincible and poised to continue the conquest of Southeast Asia and the former colonial empires of France, Britain and the Dutch East Indies.
Indeed, the destruction of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Pearl was only an attempt to prevent the United States from standing in the way of the Japanese empire’s seizure of the rich resources the former colonies would bring. Adm. Yamamoto, the mastermind of the Pearl Harbor attack, gambled that by destroying the bulk of America’s naval power in the Pacific, Japan could buy itself six months to a year for the conquest of these valuable possessions.
America was still reeling from the blow that launched us into the war and was scrambling to prepare industrially and militarily to not only prevent Nazi Germany from conquering Europe, but also to strike back at Japan and bring what was largely viewed as a criminal regime to justice.
The American people were growing tired of defeat after defeat and wanted to see our armed forces on the offensive. The table would soon be turned at a point roughly midway between the west coast of the United States and the home islands of Japan.
Considering the large disparity in the forces available to the United States compared to those of the Japanese Empire, the chances were long that America would be able to make much of a dent in that island nation’s newly acquired fortress. In May of 1942, the U.S. had lost its forward presence in the Philippines and Guam, leaving only the aircraft carriers Enterprise, Yorktown, Lexington, Hornet and Saratoga as valid platforms from which to launch strikes at the Japanese. To make matters worse, Lexington would be lost at the Battle of the Coral Sea on May 8 and Saratoga, which was torpedoed in early January, was laid up on the west coast for repairs, leaving three of her air groups on Oahu.
But what America lacked in military assets, she made up for in crack communications intelligence and level-headed leadership. As early as May 15, Adm. Nimitz received solid intelligence from Station Hypo based out of building one at Pearl Harbor that the Japanese intended to occupy Midway atoll, located 1,300 miles northwest of Oahu.
From there, the Japanese would to be able to threaten Oahu and bring out the American carriers for what they hoped to be a final death blow to the Pacific Fleet. Little did the Japan know that not only did Nimitz have the knowledge that they were coming with four carriers, but when and from what direction. In essence, he intended to ambush their ambush.
The admiral knew that our carriers were the most valuable military asset available to the United States, and he would not waste them on a guess. But he trusted his intelligence staff and the commanders, pilots and crews of the two task forces he sent to wait for the unsuspecting invaders. He knew that by concentrating his forces at the right place at the right time he could strike a counter blow to the Japanese that would even the score in the Pacific.
|Hiryu burns on June 5|
On June 4, 1942, the hammer fell on the Japanese Navy. Dive bombers from the carriers Yorktown and Enterprise destroyed Japan’s frontline carriers Hiryu, Soryu, Akagi and Kaga. All four had participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor just six months before, and all four now lay at the bottom of the Pacific.
America had won a decisive battle against a seemingly invincible foe but not without scars, as surviving Japanese aircraft from Hiryu, the last Japanese carrier to be sunk that day, found Yorktown and inflicted damage that would eventually lead to her destruction.
Nonetheless, the Battle of Midway would be remembered as a turning point, if not the turning point in the Pacific Theater of World War Two. As a result of the battle, the United States had crippled Japan’s ability to launch further large-scale mobile strikes against Allied forces, and American forces would soon take the offensive. The American people now had the decisive victory they had been longing for since December of 1941.