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Pacific Front4th June 1942

Battle of Midway

How decisive was the Battle of Midway?
After the inconclusive action that was the Battle of the Coral Sea, the scene was set for an epic encounter between the Americans and Japanese in the Pacific around Midway.

Video Transcript

Commentary: In June 1942 the American Pacific fleet prepared for one of the most important battles of the whole war. A battle which would be decided by air power. For the Pacific was to see the first carrier based war in military history. And in this war the Americans possessed one gigantic advantage. American intelligence had broken the Japanese Imperial naval cipher - JN 25. Admiral Nimitz, the American commander in the Pacific, would make excellent use of the secrets the codebreakers gave him. Thanks to this intelligence he knew that the tiny atoll of Midway in the Pacific was about to be attacked by the Japanese. At first light on the morning of the 4th June 1942 the Japanese did as the codebreakers had said they would – and bombed Midway prior to a land invasion. This was all part of a wider Japanese plan. First capture Midway and then move on to Hawaii. But the Japanese had no idea that the Americans knew all about their intentions. Admiral Yamamoto, the mastermind of the Japanese plan, hoped that this operation would be just as much of a shock to the Americans as Pearl Harbour had been – his last brainchild. 

Wartime archive narration: Then suddenly the trap is sprung.

Commentary: Instead, this time it was the Americans who surprised the Japanese. Wildcat fighters and Douglas Dauntless torpedo planes were launched from three different American carriers and flew to attack the Imperial fleet.  Meantime the Japanese fighters that arrived to confront the Americans had been expected.

Words of Bill G. Roy (American sailor, USS Yorktown): A Japanese torpedo bomber attack group was approaching Yorktown, and fighter intercepts were made about fourteen miles out. Three Japanese planes were shot down by Wildcats as they approached. All enemy planes were taken under heavy gunfire by Yorktown and her screening warships. The sky was black with shell bursts.1

Commentary: The battle would prove to be a great victory for the Americans. All four of the Japanese aircraft carriers involved in the battle were destroyed.

Sir Max Hastings: It was clear to an awful lot of people at the time, and it’s certainly clear to us now, that the war in the Far East was over after Midway. The Japanese themselves knew this. Every Japanese scenario that they’d written, and that Yamamoto and others had put together before the Pearl Harbour attack was launched, agreed that the only hope was to achieve a quick, sharp victory. That in a long war the Americans must prevail.

Words of Mitsuo Fuchida (Japanese captain Akagi flagship): Deck plates reeled upward in grotesque configurations. Planes stood tail up, belching livid flame and jet-black smoke. Reluctant tears streamed down my cheeks as I watched the fires spread. Climbing back to the bridge, I could see that the Kaga and Soryu had also been hit and were giving off heavy columns of black smoke. The scene was horrible to behold.2

Sir Max Hastings: The fundamental truth was that Japan was an industrially relatively weak society, with a GNP a small fraction of that of the United States, which was absolutely bound to lose a long war. Which had very brave soldiers, and some quite good ships, and some quite good aircraft, but which very, very soon after the war got going, once the Western Allies got into their stride, found itself being hopelessly outdistanced by the Allies in technologies, not to mention quantities and materiel. 

Wartime archive narration: Men and women of America, here come your neighbours’ sons, home from the day’s work. You want to meet them. There’s Jimmy Thatch - seven meatballs on his plane. 

Commentary: Together with the more inconclusive Battle of the Coral Sea, fought the month before, the American victory at Midway meant that it would be next to impossible for the Japanese navy to win this war. 

Wartime archive narration: How many more today, skipper?

Professor Robert Dallek: The battle at Coral Sea and the battle at Midway - we win those two battles and that begins to change the complexion and thrust and development of the war. But even then, there’s a huge amount of fighting that has to go on with great sacrifices.

Wartime archive narration: At eventide we buried our heroic dead. The last salute from their comrades and their officers.

Commentary: The problem was that even though the Japanese had suffered a serious set back at Midway, they showed no signs of giving up the fight. And meantime tens of thousands of Allied servicemen were dying. 

Professor Robert Dallek: By the end of 1942 the United States had as many men and as much in the way of resources, material resources, in the Pacific as it was potentially using against Germany. This was a surprise to them, and what it spoke to was the fact that the Japanese turned out to be much more difficult to combat than they thought would be the case.


1 Photographer's Mate William (Bill) G. Roy, USN, 'I filmed the Battle of Midway from USS Yorktown' [www.yorktownsailor.com]

2 Mitsuo Fuchida and Masatake Okumiya, Midway: The Japanese Story, Cassell, 2002, p. 213