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Japan's Attempt to Recreate Pearl Harbor Failed at the Battle of Midway

December 7 may be a date which will live in infamy, but in June 1942, the tides turned.


When Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, citizens of the United States were shocked. Despite conspiracy theories to the contrary, the U.S. government had no forewarning of the attack and had refused to fully enter the fray brewing in Asian and European countries. At Pearl Harbor, Admiral Iskoroku Yamato and Commander Minoru Genda of Japan had crafted a plan to put the U.S. Navy out of commission in anticipation of the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. Japan managed to damage 21 ships, destroy 188 planes and other aircraft and kill over 2,000 sailors, soldiers, airmen, and marines during the two airstrikes. They tried to recreate the same impact in the Battle of Midway six months later—but American preparation foiled their attempt.

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Since the Pearl Harbor strike, American forces continued to show a reluctance to join into full battle in the Pacific Theater. Japanese command, certain that American entrance would mark their downfall, were attempting to remove their ability to enter the fray. Certain that key carriers like the USS Yorktown had been taken down in previous attacks like Pearl Harbor and the Battle of the Coral Sea, Admiral Yamato began work on another complicated strategy, coordinating multiple battle groups over leagues of the open sea.

Meanwhile, the Americans, despite Japanese assumptions, were hard at work prepping for the incoming conflict. Not only did they rapidly repair the USS Yorktown, U.S. cryptanalysts were busily attempting to crack the Japanese Navy's code. Although they weren't able to decipher full messages by the time of the Battle of Midway, they had been able to uncover the date of the planned attack, the location, and even the approximate strength in numbers that Japan would be bringing along.

As a result, when Japanese forces were spotted on June 3, a day before the planned attack, the United States Army Air Corps were prepped—and dispatched nine B-17 Flying Fortress planes to hassle the incoming Japanese Occupation Force. Despite America's nearly fully-briefed status of this attack, pulling off a victory at Midway was a long shot. The Japanese air force, thanks to the reputation of its deeply dedicated pilots and its intricate planning, was a terrifying foe. As explored in an upcoming film, Midway, and iconic books like Walter Lord's Incredible Victory and Gordon W. Prange's Miracle at Midway, the result of this closely-fought battle was not only a surprise to both combatants, it also changed the tide of the Pacific War.

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Below, you'll find a snippet of Prange's definitive recounting of the multi-day battle. Prange, who was a history professor, a service member during WWII, the Chief Historian for General MacArthur, and a preeminent WWII scholar, brings his full intellectual prowess to the forefront in Miracle at Midway.

Read on for an excerpt of Miracle at Midway.




Miracle at Midway

By Gordon W. Prange

Like so many Americans in assessing Pearl Harbor, most Japanese analysts of Midway erred in believing that the fault lay in their own nation’s errors of omission or commission. Neither the United States after Pearl Harbor nor Japan after Midway could bring itself to admit that on those occasions they had not been masters of their fate. It would be just as wrong to assume that the Americans passively reaped a harvest of enemy mistakes at Midway as to credit Japan’s victory at Pearl Harbor solely to American error. Midway was a positive American victory, not merely the avoidance of defeat.

The breaking of JN25 ranked high among the credits for the United States. Genda and his fellow officers had expected that some day the naval codes might be cracked, but they never dreamed that the Americans had broken JN25 as completely as they did. He credited their “earnest efforts to get Japanese information as much as possible” as one reason for their victory. Ugaki suspected that somehow the United States had learned of the Japanese plans well before the sighting of the invasion force, but he never considered a code break, or at least never mentioned it in his diary. Some of the junior officers were more perceptive, agreeing among themselves that the Americans must have broken the naval code, “otherwise, they could never have launched a concentrated attack upon our force from the flank with three carriers.”

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Hypo’s accomplishment was a tribute to the skill and dedication of [Commander Joseph] Rochefort and his colleagues. While Rochefort seemed to regard as routine his tricking the Japanese into confirming that AF meant Midway,* we believe he deserves full credit for a clever idea that worked.

Ironically, when [Admiral Chester] Nimitz recommended to [Admiral Ernest J.] King that Rochefort be decorated for his brilliant contribution, King turned it down on the basis that no one person should be singled out for intelligence work in connection with Midway. If this reasoning were carried to its logical end, no one would ever receive an award for anything, because human achievement is largely a cooperative matter. One is forced to the conclusion that, in King’s eyes, intelligence was good enough to win battles, but not quite respectable.

Of course, all of Hypo’s information would have been useless had Nimitz not accepted Rochefort’s estimate of the situation and acted upon it. This, too, is the mark of a true leader—the ability to place faith and confidence in one’s staff and to use one’s experts effectively. Nimitz had long since shaken off the chains of the old “museum complex” which had driven so many intelligence experts up the walls—the squirreling away of data for their own sake without putting them to practical use. Nimitz’s concept of intelligence was dynamic: Facts were high grade ore to be sifted carefully, the pure metal of knowledge extracted and forged into a weapon to defeat the enemy.

From this breakthrough stemmed all the successful American strategy. Once Nimitz knew that the Japanese were headed for Midway with the Nagumo carrier force in the lead, he knew not only where and approximately when he would have to fight, but how to fight. This would be an air battle, so he would leave his battleships on the west coast where they would not clutter up the action. He must have every available flattop, hence the drive anything, because human achievement is largely a cooperative matter. One is forced to the conclusion that, in King’s eyes, intelligence was good enough to win battles, but not quite respectable.

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But knowledge of when, where and how the enemy will strike is no guarantee of victory. Forewarning cannot produce ships, or multiply trained pilots and their aircraft like the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Victory at Midway resulted from American intelligence, civilian as well as military, from the wise use of what was available.

Nimitz did not allow himself to become paralyzed by the enormity of the enemy force headed his way. It would have been understandable had he looked at the comparative pictures of the Japanese fleet steaming toward him and the forces at his disposal, then tacitly admitted the situation was impossible. He could have decided to abandon Midway temporarily to its fate and move his precious carriers and cruisers to the west coast or keep them huddled in and around Pearl Harbor.

Instead, he acted promptly and aggressively, deliberately hurling his smaller force against a much stronger enemy. Knowing that he did not have the power for a head-on confrontation, he ordered [Rear Admiral Frank Jack] Fletcher and [Admiral Raymond A.] Spruance to place their task forces on the flank of Nagumo’s First Air Fleet. For he realized that if Midway were to be saved, his forces would have to come to grips with the enemy’s aerial striking force at the earliest possible moment and from a position of strategic advantage. That the U.S. Navy had at Midway two commanders like Fletcher and Spruance with the will and the guts to hit the enemy first and with all their strength was a combination of fortune and Nimitz’s good judgment.

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Throughout his battle report, Nagumo bewailed the lack of time to prepare for Midway. Yet the best minds in the Japanese Navy had been planning Operation MI for months, and even so, virtually all of them regretted the haste. But what about Fletcher and Spruance? They had only a few days to prepare for the enormous challenge. Fletcher brought the badly damaged Yorktown into Pearl Harbor on the afternoon of May 27, and plunged absolutely cold into the Midway problem. Spruance sailed into Pearl Harbor just one day ahead of Fletcher, to discover that the Japanese were going to tackle Midway and that he was the new commander of Task Force Sixteen. After a few hurried conferences with Nimitz and Fletcher, Spruance went to sea on the morning of May 28. Two days later Fletcher was ready to sortie, his carrier battleworthy and his strategy worked out with Spruance.

Fletcher’s decision to split his task force upon rendezvous with Spruance was a flash of inspiration. A good tactical commander not only knows the principles of war, he knows when and how to manipulate them. Fletcher’s separating his numerically inferior force in the face of the enemy was a classic example of this flair. Had the three American carriers remained bunched, the tragedy of Yorktown could well have been multiplied by three, for no one could dispute the skill and daring of Nagumo’s pilots. Once they were over a target, that target was virtually a dead duck. This chain reaction of destruction was precisely what happened to the First Air Fleet, whose carriers were within easy range of one another.

“Later, Fletcher had to make another crucial decision. He knew well that the admiral who led his ships to the first major American sea victory of World War II would be a popular hero, assured of his place in history. Yet, when he realized that he could no longer command his air striking units at top efficiency, he turned the reins over to Spruance. This was an act of selfless integrity and patriotism in action. The reputations of Nimitz and Spruance have overshadowed Fletcher, but he was the link between the two, a man of talent who had the brains and character to give a free hand to a man of genius.

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No command decision which Nimitz made in connection with Midway was more important, more far-reaching than his selection of Spruance to command Task Force Sixteen. He was almost unknown outside the small world of U.S. Navy brass, and he was not an airman. But [Vice Admiral William F.] Halsey recommended him and Nimitz gladly concurred. “It was a choice I never regretted,” he said. “Spruance had excellent judgment; he was the type who thought things through very carefully after a thorough examination of all the facts, and then, when he decided to strike, struck hard. Spruance like Grant was the type who took the war to the enemy. I sorely needed commanders of that type,” he emphasized. “Spruance was also bold but not to the point of being reckless. He had a certain caution, too, and a feeling for the battle.”

Nimitz’s opinion of Spruance is that of a patron evaluating a protégé, one American admiral assessing another, a friend weighing the merits of a friend. It has been said that the best praise is an enemy’s praise. Here is Watanabe’s judgment: “Spruance personality was very high quality. He had air admiral’s best character—strong, straight thinker, not impulse fluctuating thinker; he aims right at main point and go, no stop. That is good admiral.”

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  • A map of the Battle of Midway.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Spruance displayed those qualities from first to last at Midway. As soon as he knew where his target was, he hit with every available plane. He led his fleet with a sure hand, a delicate sense of timing. His turning east on the night of June 4 was exactly the right thing to do to avoid a Japanese night attack. By the same token, going west on June 5 was the correct decision, for it frightened the Japanese badly. Spruance displayed a nearly uncanny ability to read the enemy’s mind. All along the line, he kept the Japanese guessing and off balance.

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Spruance not only knew when to be aggressive, he knew when to stop. Very few admirals in his position could have resisted the temptation to go whooping after the retreating foe. But Spruance knew the exact point where courage becomes damn-foolishness. Furthermore, he knew his mission—to protect Midway—and stuck with it, despite the alluring will o’the wisps to westward. Second only to preserving Midway from invasion was the necessity of saving his carriers to fight again. Therefore he refused to be lured in reach of Wake Island’s land-based bombers or beyond his own line of communications.

Naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison paid just tribute to Spruance:

Fletcher did well, but Spruance’s performance was superb. Calm, collected, decisive, yet receptive to advice; keeping in his mind the picture of widely disparate forces, yet boldly Seizing every opening, Raymond A. Spruance emerged from this battle one of the greatest admirals in American naval history.

At the lower level, the American fighting men were magnificent. Time and again in the Pacific War, the United States’ junior officers proved their valor and good sense. Reid’s decision to go beyond his sector enabled him to find the Invasion Force in advance of the Japanese schedule. This discovery would not in itself have given the U.S. task forces time to reach the area, but it did give the garrison a chance to be armed and ready. Intelligence on Oahu had already done so, but Reid’s sighting was a welcome confirmation that Rochefort’s men were correct. [Lieutenant] Ady’s spotting of the Nagumo force had no appreciable effect on the air raid on Midway, but it did pinpoint the enemy’s location for Fletcher and Spruance. Thereafter, [Lt. Commander John C.] Waldron, reaping the benefit of his study of Japanese tactics, used his initiative to find the enemy carriers when others, following a more rigid line of thought, missed the fight altogether. Most important, [Lt. Commander Wade] McClusky’s search in an unconventional pattern discovered the First Air Fleet and enabled the dive bombers to make the attack which turned almost certain defeat into triumph.

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Individual American fighting men demonstrated their bravery again and again. In the attack on the carriers, they kept coming in the face of Zeros, antiaircraft, and the sight of their comrades falling in flames. Genda paid his opponents the true compliment of one warrior to others: “Their fighting spirit, repeating attacks in spite of heavy losses sustained, should also be credited for the victory.” Two Japanese analysts likewise stated generously, “No one could have foreseen the effectiveness of their courageous attacks; their tenacity brought the Battle of Midway to a tragic end.”

Okumiya has observed, “It has been said from old times that a battle is a succession of mistakes and that the party which blunders less emerges victorious.” There is considerable truth in that somewhat cynical assessment, and it would be idle to deny that the United States forces made mistakes at Midway, mistakes so serious that the Japanese might well have won in spite of themselves. Spruance was being more than modest when he remarked bluntly, “We were shot with luck.”

Genda thought that the American “poor skill in torpedoing” was the worst weakness on this side, and Kusaka justly criticized “the sporadic rather than concentrated nature of the attacks.”

Americans prided themselves upon their technology, yet in many instances the quality of materiél was little short of miserable. The 500-lb. and 1,000-lb. bombs did not disable armored ships until the target had been “knocked to pieces by many more hits than should be necessary.” The United States had not yet gotten around to having armored flight decks on its carriers, so they were quite inflammable. It was indeed fortunate that if the Americans had to lose any flattop, the Japanese concentrated on the already beat-up Yorktown.

“Action with Enemy” forms submitted by the B-17 pilots all too frequently mention mechanical snafus which hampered them and in some cases cancelled whatever effectiveness they might have had: “On take off … the exhaust pipe on my number one engine ruptured …”; “Only 3 bombs dropped due to malfunction of racks”; “Did not drop bombs due to failure of interphone.”

Communications between the various forces involved left much to be desired. Enterprise’s skipper pulled no punches in evaluating:

Numerous contact reports initiated from the forces at Midway had a negative evaluation. The absence of amplifying reports after the initial contact report was made … might have been disastrous to our forces. Lack of amplification of contacts and failure of Midway based planes to provide continuous tactical scouting on June 4 and June 5 probably prevented complete destruction of enemy forces.

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Hornet’s air report struck out even more sharply: “This failure to receive adequate information from our land based forces raises the question as to whether or not full dependence can be placed in units other than our own.” The report reached this conclusion: “As the tactical situation was in our favor, it was only through errors on our part that we did not gain a more impressive victory.”

[Lt. Colonel Ira E.] Kimes had a complaint of his own on behalf of his land-based troops: “We had no idea how they were faring as far as other forces in the vicinity were concerned, or what our forces afloat were doing. That seemed like a defect in communications planning.”

Some types of aircraft proved quite inadequate or unsuitable for the purpose to which they were put, none more so than the B-17. The United States would build bigger, faster, more destructive aircraft than the Flying Fortress, but never one quite so beloved. Grace and power in every line, readily responsive to the pilot’s touch, the B-17 might be considered the answer of the Air Age to the Yankee clipper. It seemed impossible that this legendary machine could not do everything asked of it.

Midway provided an opportunity to prove once and for all that high altitude, land-based bombers could sink or seriously damage maneuvering surface vessels. But the B-17 struck out and so did the B-26. Later, some air enthusiasts insisted that the number of planes per target was far too small to call this experience a fair test. Of course, if Emmons had. been able to send up horizon-to-horizon B-17s, one or two might have scored a hit from sheer volume, but this would have done real violence to the principle of “Economy of Forces.” Three Dauntless dive bombers, doing the job for which they were built, polished off Akagi to the point where the Japanese had to scuttle her.

One puzzle which persists is why the defenders of Midway failed to obey Nimitz’s instructions to leave the defense of Midway up to its own antiaircraft guns, concentrating the fighter planes upon the enemy flattops.* True, these fighters were hand-me-downs to the Marines from the carriers, and, as events proved, no match for the Zeros. But if they had accompanied the bombers and torpedo planes from Midway against the First Air Fleet, they just might have distracted the Japanese fighter umbrella sufficiently to save some American lives or even to permit a hit or two. Near Midway, they suffered terrible losses with no real results to show for it.

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Perhaps one answer lay in the profound contempt many fighter pilots felt for antiaircraft. During peacetime, major tactical emphasis had been on how to avoid enemy AA. But in combat the pilots soon found that the enemy fighter posed by far the greater danger. In an official interview, Thach remarked,”

… I have done, roughly, two-thirds of my fighting in our own anti-aircraft fire and the other third in the Jap anti-aircraft fire, and I think that it is of little value in stopping a determined attack. They may shoot down a few planes but both the Japanese and our attacking pilots ignore it completely.

But, as many and as grievous were the United States errors and snafus, those of Japan were worse. Nimitz, Fletcher, and Spruance emerged as winners, and military historians have placed the name of Midway on that surprisingly small list of “decisive battles.”

Want to keep reading? Download Miracle at Midway today.

Although the Pacific Theater of World War II, sometimes called the Pacific War or the War against Japan, continued for some three years after the Battle of Midway, the beginning of the end could be traced back to this battle. In many ways an extension of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Japan's main goal was to encourage the crumbling of the Republic of China, which was supported by Soviet and American forces, and expand the landmass of its own empire. Before it melded into WWII, the Second Sino-Japanese War resulted in one of the most atrocious battlefield occurrences in history—the Rape of Nanking. Soon, American and Allied forces felt they had no choice but to join the war more completely, especially as the Axis forces consolidated behind Japan. The War against Japan came to a close with the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, leading to their surrender and Victory over Japan Day on August 15, 1945.

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