The Battle of Midway

A Critical Turning Point in World War II

Battle of Midway Memorial

It was called the Miracle at Midway; the unforeseen American victory over the Japanese that not only dealt a fatal blow to the Imperial Japanese Navy but changed the entire course of the war in the Pacific. Weinberg contends it was “time pressures, over-confidence, and a ridiculous plan” that led to the Japanese undoing.[1] Overy indicates the Japanese obsession with the traditional rules of sea warfare, similar to the one used against Russia in the Straits of Tsushima, was the major contributing factor that led to their defeat at Midway.[2] While both these points are correct there is also the almost desperate approach taken by the American’s that clearly influenced the outcome at Midway. All points considered there can be little dispute that the Battle at Midway was an important turning point in World War II in general and the Pacific theatre in particular.

Awarded with the benefit of hindsight it is clear to see the flaws in many of the decision points within the Japanese strategic planning in the Pacific. Of course the underlying objective to drive the American’s out of the war was not only sound but strategically important to the Japanese initiative. As a tiny island nation with limited natural resources it was critically important for Japan to expand its sphere of influence into the Pacific.[3] To accomplish this Japan knew there were the colonial interests of several countries to deal with; Great Britain, the Netherlands, and the United States.[4] The assault on Pearl Harbor, meant to cripple the American fleet enough to prevent their interference with Japan’s other plans, though clearly a devastating surprise to the international community did not yield the results Japan assumed; the United States declared war on Japan and within days was fully engaged in both the Pacific and European theatres.

Though the citizens of the United States fully supported the abandonment of its position of isolationism with this declaration of war, the losses at Pearl Harbor were critical and put the United States in a defensive position. Japan, fully committed to its expansion and looking to strengthen their defensive positions in the Pacific, then looked to the Coral Sea. Intelligence alerted the United States to the coming events who in conjunction with the Australian’s sent fleets to the area. Again the Japanese wielded heavy losses to the Allied forces sinking and critically damaging several ships. The Japanese also suffered considerable loss putting a temporary halt to the plans at Port Moresby.[5] While the battle was not a resounding victory for the Allies it did disrupt Japanese momentum, a point that would change the tenor of the war.

Not to be dissuaded the Japanese continued with their original plans; they would re-attempt at Port Moresby and go forward with Midway. Perhaps believing their own propaganda the Japanese failed to see the flaw in that approach; attacking Midway would reduce the strength of the attack at Port Moresby and vice versa. While many within the Japanese military feared resources were spread far too thin the initial successful assault on Midway seemed to instead confirm Yamamoto’s plan. Victory however would be short lived for the Japanese who would be caught off guard during their preparations for a second assault. Dive bombers from the United States Enterprise, serendipitously stumbled upon the Japanese at just this moment and within minute’s yielded heavy damage to three of the four Japanese carriers.[6] The resulting American victory was the turning point in the Pacific theatre putting Japan in a defensive position; a position they would never again leave.

The Battle of Midway, the Japanese loss, and the American victory would have profound implications for both countries. Loss of ships, carriers, and most importantly trained pilots would essentially end the Japanese naval initiative in the Pacific. The United States would re-secure Pearl Harbor and become a primary participant in the war. The American’s would also understand the importance of intelligence and therefore put considerable efforts toward that end.[7] The American’s would further curtail Japanese plans in the Indian Ocean by keeping them occupied at the Solomon Islands.[8] Perhaps most important to the overall war effort, this American victory allowed Roosevelt’s promise of “Europe first” to remain unbroken and thus focus considerable effort on the defeat of Germany.

     [1] Gerhard L. Weinberg, A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 335

     [2] Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won. (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005).

     [3] John Plowright, The Causes, Course, and Outcomes of World War Two. (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007)

     [4] Ibid, 184

     [5] Gerhard L. Weinberg, A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. 334

     [6] Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won.

     [7] John Plowright, The Causes, Course and Outcomes of World War Two.

     [8] Gerhard L. Weinberg, A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II