The code name was "AF." The objective: Midway. A tiny atoll in the Pacific Ocean, halfway between the United States of America and Japan, Midway was the prize for which a major naval battle was waged during World War II. The winner took control of the Pacific Theater of Operations. The loser would be on the defensive the rest of the war.
By March, 1942, four months after the devastating Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy Combat Intelligence Office was sniffing something in the air. Although communications had gone black right before Pearl Harbor, Commander Joseph J. Rochefort and his staff of analysts were once again reading the Japanese naval code, JN-25, and there was much to read. Radio traffic had greatly increased and although it seemed to point to an operation to invade Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians, Rochefort had a suspicion bigger game was afoot.
When looking at a map of the Pacific Ocean, it becomes clear to a viewer that there isn't much to see between the U.S. and Japan. Why would the Japanese waste their formidable seapower on Dutch Harbor? It didn't make sense to Rochefort. However, he was a skilled analyst and his gift for seeing the bigger picture led him to the question: what if the Japanese intended to take over Midway? It would provide them a base 50 percent closer to the U.S., from which they could launch offensives against Hawaii, and possibly, eventually, to the West Coast. It made perfect sense to Rochefort, but he was having problems confirming his suspicions. All he had was a code name: AF.
In May, having already forecasted the Battle of the Coral Sea, Rochefort turned to a little trickery to smoke out the "AF" code. He had the radio operator at the U.S. base on Midway radio in plain English to Hawaii that their desalination plant had broken down and they needed replacement parts. Then, they listened to the Japanese traffic. A few days later, one of Rochefort's staff intercepted the message that "AF" was low on fresh water. Target confirmed.
Rochefort's information gathering had already given Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific, enough to deploy his carriers at Coral Sea. Although the U.S. lost the USS Lexington, two of Japan's newest carriers, Shokaku and Zuikaku, sustained heavy damage and their air crews were decimated. Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet, thought the carrier USS Yorktown too damaged at Coral Sea to fight at Midway, but she limped home to Pearl Harbor where a swarm of builders and fitters restored her to operational status in about a week. The carrier count was Japan: 4; U.S.: 3.
The next problem was the planes. The U.S. war machine had not yet managed to turn out a fighter to deal efficiently with the notorious Japanese Zero. The Zero was fast, maneuverable and deadly against the older, slower U.S. fighters and their even slower dive bombers and torpedo planes. Nevertheless, all three carriers had full fighting, bombing and scouting groups. The carriers sortied at Point Luck, an invisible dot in the Pacific.
The morning of 3 June 1942 dawned on the U.S. carriers. It was 4 June where the Japanese were, steaming toward Midway. Secondary, diversionary attacks were launched in the Aleutians, but the U.S. was prepared for these attacks and they did little except damage the facilities. A U.S. scout plane had happened upon the Japanese battle fleet early that morning and had radioed their position back to the carriers. The critical element of surprise had been lost. Japanese scout planes had little luck in locating the U.S. fleet, except for one, launched late. By the time that plane reported in, the Japanese had already launched their first attack against Midway itself and although the atoll sustained heavy damage, the Japanese carriers were finding themselves fighting waves of U.S. bombers and torpedo planes.
The deadly Zeroes took care of the majority of these planes, but they were a nuisance and being unable to radio back to Admiral Yamamoto for instructions — the Japanese were maintaining strict radio silence — First Carrier Striking Force Admiral Chuichi Nagumo found himself in an unenviable position. Those planes must be coming from somewhere. But where? They couldn't possibly all be stationed at Midway, and as far as Admiral Nagumo knew, the U.S. only had one operational carrier, which couldn't possibly account for so many planes.
The late scout plane provided the answer for Nagumo — or what he thought was the answer. The scout plane reported a group of about 10 ships. Although this worried Nagumo, he felt the most important objective was a second attack against Midway itself. This left him with a peculiar situation on his carriers.
As Nagumo and his staff debated whether to send more bombers out to find the U.S. fleet or make a second attack on Midway, the flight crews had suspended operations. Until they had a decision from the bridge, they had bombers on deck: some armed with torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs for attacking ships, some armed with regular bombs for a second Midway attack. Bombs, torpedoes, fuel lines and tanks were spread all over the flight decks, instead of being stowed below, as was normal procedure. They were also in the process of recovering and refueling the fighter squadrons flying air cover over the vulnerable flattops.
About 10:20 a.m., for the umpteenth time that morning, the Japanese carriers were alerted to the presence of U.S. bombers. Previous attacks had not been successful, since the Zeroes had dealt effectively with the planes, completely wiping out the USS Hornet's torpedo squadron. However, these planes were coming along at precisely the right time. The Japanese carriers were floating firebombs. Squadrons from carriers Yorktown and Enterprise "pushed over" and by 10:30 a.m., carriers Akagi, Kaga and Soryu were blazing wrecks. The fourth carrier, Hiryu, was north of the fleet and escaped damage. Her turn would come later that afternoon.
In the meantime, the three other carriers were being abandoned, and Admiral Nagumo transferred his flag from the Akagi to a nearby destroyer. The Hiryu's commander, Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi, recovered many of the planes already in flight, refueled them and sent them out to find the U.S. fleet. They found the Yorktown and attacked.
The Yorktown survived this hit with major damage, and abandon ship was ordered, but some repair crews stayed on and eventually, restarted the engines. Yorktown's task force commander, Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, thought she could be towed back to Pearl Harbor. Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, commander of the other task force with the Hornet and the Enterprise, ordered another attack against the Japanese fleet. A U.S. scout plane found the Hiryu and she was bombarded. Although not immediately put out of commission, the resulting fires soon proved too much for the crew and the ship was abandoned.
Japanese submarine I-168 found the Yorktown being towed back to Pearl Harbor the next morning. A few torpedoes finally sank her. The U.S. planes also found the heavy cruisers Mogami and Mikuma and sank Mikuma. They returned to their carriers and Admiral Spruance turned back east in the night, not willing to risk a night engagement.
By the time the smoke cleared, the U.S. still had three carriers in operation. The Japanese had none, since those damaged at Coral Sea were still being repaired. The damaged Zero fighter captured after the attack on Dutch Harbor led to the development of Grumman's F4F Hellcat, which was designed to capitalize on the Zero's weaknesses. After the Hellcat started flying, the Japanese lost what little air superiority they had. The U.S. now had the offensive advantage. The Japanese were on the defensive for the rest of the war.
The U.S. had won its most decisive naval battle — one that ranks with England's defeat of the Spanish Armada. The Battle of Midway was the beginning of the end for the Imperial Japanese Navy, and ultimately of World War II.