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Battle of Midway

BATTLE OF MIDWAY 75th

75 years ago, on June 4th, 1942, the fate of the Pacific rested on the shoulders of America's Sailors at Midway. Find out how this inspiring story of bravery and sacrifice turned the tide of WWII, and forever changed the course of history.

75 years ago, on June 4th, 1942, the fate of the Pacific rested on the shoulders of America's Sailors at Midway. Find out how this inspiring story of bravery and sacrifice turned the tide of WWII, and forever changed the course of history.

June 4–7, 1942:
Witness America's greatest naval victory unfold.

The Pacific Theater

In the wake of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the U.S. was at war with Japan. By early 1942, the Japanese were continuing to flex their naval might, seeking to target Navy carriers not destroyed at Pearl Harbor, and keen on eliminating the Navy presence and threat in the Pacific. Determined to stop that momentum and break out of a primarily defensive mode, the Navy intensified its intelligence gathering efforts and zeroed in on Japanese communications. Progress to this end was on display by mid-April when the Navy teamed with the Army to launch the proactive Doolittle Raid on Japan’s home islands, and then again a few weeks later, when the Navy held their own in the Battle of Coral Sea. This was the first carrier-based fight of the war – a new type of engagement where opposing ships never actually saw or directly fired upon one another. The showdown at Midway was on the horizon.

A Secret Advantage

What helped the Navy gain the upper hand in the Pacific more than anything else was its ability to know what its enemy was planning to do before they did it. And this advantage came from the critical work of dedicated Navy code breakers – particularly those associated with the Combat Intelligence Unit in Pearl Harbor known as HYPO. Leading up to Midway, they were on a relentless quest to crack the complex Japanese JN-25 code, which carried the opposition’s most secure communications. Messages were routinely intercepted and exhaustively analyzed with mathematical, technical and creative skill. And by March of 1942, the code was finally broken – essentially giving access to the Japanese playbook of planned operations. Having secretly taken away the Japanese element of surprise, the Navy was able to shift to the offensive and, at Midway, turn a planned ambush by the enemy into one of its own.

The Significance of Midway

How a small atoll in the middle of the Pacific became the site of the most significant naval battle in American history should not be a complete surprise. It was a location of strategic importance for both sides – and a testament to the power of presence. Approximately 1300 miles northwest of Pearl Harbor and close to halfway between Japan and the West Coast of the U.S., Midway was already the site of a Navy base. Fittingly, it would be the focal point of a calculated Japanese plan. The Japanese goal was to attack Midway, capture it and use it as an advance base that would establish an eastern shield for its own Pacific operations. They knew the U.S. would defend it with all available resources and hoped to lure the Navy carriers and fleet into a trap. But the U.S. knew of the plan ahead of time and would be ready to deploy its three aircraft carriers and supporting force of ships, submarines and aircraft accordingly. 

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE EPIC BATTLE OF MIDWAY

The days leading up to the Battle of Midway were filled with intense anticipation, planning and activity. The ongoing intelligence breakthroughs and daily communications intelligence (COMINT) briefings gave Navy Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, credible information that he was confident in and willing to act upon. The advance notice provided time to thoughtfully prepare a strategic battle plan and get all ships, aircraft and equipment in place. And with the brave and capable Sailors he trusted ready to carry out the orders and operations, the stage was set for an epic battle and momentous victory.

Below are some highlights of how the battle ultimately played out:

June 2, 1942 – Navy carriers, aircraft, ships and personnel take their positions on and around Midway

June 3, 1942 – Initial sightings of Japanese forces en route to Midway are reported

June 4, 1942 – Japanese planes begin bombing Midway around first light; successive waves of counterattacks by American torpedo planes and bombers are launched; the four Japanese carriers (Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu) are bombed and sunk or sinking by day's end; the Navy carrier USS Yorktown is seriously damaged but does not go down

June 5, 1942 – Remaining elements of the Japanese fleet are pursued westward; salvage work on the now-in-tow USS Yorktown is underway

June 6, 1942 – Navy air attacks conclude; the USS Yorktown, its crew off board but still being towed by Navy fleet forces, is mortally torpedoed by Japanese submarines

June 7, 1942 – Though the USS Yorktown finally succumbs to its damages and is sunk, the battle is an undeniable victory for the Navy and America

 

Find more details about the Battle of Midway on the Navy Timeline or by checking out The Course to Midway.

VICTORY BY SEA, AIR AND LAND

Beyond being a definitive statement by way of victory, the Battle of Midway was a true showcase of the broad range of Navy power and capabilities. It ushered in a new era of carrier-based warfare and an age where aviation and air power would be key. But it also displayed how awe-inspiring it can be when everything comes together at once: ships at sea, aircraft launching from carrier decks as well as land-based runways, submarines patrolling beneath the waves–all of it guided strategically by information collected and converted into actionable intelligence. Even 75 years later, the Navy continues to draw from the lessons learned at Midway and other battles of the past. Knowing where we came from helps inform where we’re going.

Now, take an opportunity to learn about the direct tie the modern Navy has to the past. Explore today's vessels and aircraft. Get a feel for life on a ship, life on a sub or life in a squadron today. And see how those early origins of Navy cryptology, intelligence and information warfare have evolved into roles within the Information Dominance Corps – plus how many other Navy careers and jobs were influenced by this decisive naval victory.

HONORING A 75-YEAR LEGACY

The story of Midway is a shining example of bravery and sacrifice from Sailors across the Pacific. A story of steadfast determination and necessary ingenuity. A reminder of the fighting spirit of the Navy that is always present when and where it's needed. As we honor the 75th anniversary of Midway on June 4th, we must remember the Sailors who served the cause, the lives that were lost, and the aircraft and ships that went down in the fight.

Extraordinary contributions were made by thousands of Sailors, including much of the Navy's leadership. Admirals Chester W. Nimitz, Raymond A. Spruance, William Frederick Halsey, Jr., and Frank Jack Fletcher together commanded and led the battle boldly and decisively. Code breaker and Captain Joseph John Rochefort led the team that broke the Japanese JN-25 code. Aviator and Ensign George Henry Gay, Jr. was the sole survivor of Torpedo Squadron 8. Aviator and Captain Clarence W. McClusky led the air group scout bombers that sunk two of the Japanese carriers. And submariner and Lieutenant Commander John W. "Spuds" Murphy of the USS Tambor (SS-198) managed to damage two Japanese ships without firing a torpedo. Together with the rest of the Sailors at Midway, they helped the United States dramatically alter the outcome for the war in the Pacific.

THE USS Midway Lives On

Commissioned just a week after the end of World War II, the USS Midway pays homage to the battle of its namesake and, as the flagship carrier of its class, served proudly for an unprecedented 47 years until its decommissioning in 1992. Today, it takes anchor in San Diego, Calif., where it is on display as the USS Midway Museum.

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