How the Battle of Midway changed the Pacific War
How the Battle of Midway changed the Pacific War

How the Battle of Midway changed the Pacific War

Larry Holzwarth - February 28, 2020

How the Battle of Midway changed the Pacific War
Yamamoto commanded the operation from the battleship Yamato, seen here fitting out before the war. Wikimedia

10. The Japanese changed their naval codes just before the battle began

The story of American codebreakers gaining full knowledge of Japanese plans in the weeks before Midway is well known. Less known is the Japanese changed their codes just before the battle, leaving the Americans unable to listen to their plans during the last week of May, 1942. By then, most of the information needed to counter the Japanese blow was in Nimitz’s hands. The sudden change of the Japanese code raised some concerns in Washington, where officials at the Navy Department expressed the belief the massive operation was actually a planned attack on the American coast. Nimitz remained convinced the attack was intended for Midway Atoll.

When it became evident that Admiral Halsey was unavailable to command the American response (dermatitis), he recommended Rear Admiral Ray Spruance to command his task force. Nimitz concurred, though Spruance was not a carrier commander. Jack Fletcher, in Yorktown, was senior and thus would command the overall force. Fletcher and Spruance recommended the American fleet deploy to the northeast of Midway, a position designated Point Luck. By June 3, the three American carriers were on station, with their escorts, awaiting the appearance of the Japanese. American PBY search planes searched the daylight skies for the approaching enemy, and American submarines were positioned in its path.

How the Battle of Midway changed the Pacific War
US Navy pilots developed a tactic to counter the advantages of the Japanese Zero. Wikimedia

11. Midway proved the effectiveness of a new tactic for fighting the Japanese Zeros

The Japanese A6M Zero fighter airplane was superior in maneuverability and in rate of climb to any aircraft in the US Navy’s arsenal in 1941. Grumman’s F4F Wildcat was the primary US Navy fighter by early 1942, and it was at a decided disadvantage in air-to-air combat. Navy pilots began hearing of the Zero’s capabilities in the summer of 1941. One Naval aviator, John S. Thach, studied the intelligence reports on the Zero and began to develop aerial tactics which would negate the Japanese airplane’s advantages. With his squadron mates, he developed a maneuver in which Wildcats operated in pairs, alongside each other. When either was attacked from behind, the Wildcats turned towards each other, a maneuver repeated as necessary.

Thach experimented with the maneuver – which he called the Beam Defense Position – at San Diego before the war, but it was first used in combat at Midway. It was so successful it became standard Navy operation, known in the fleet as the Thach Weave. Army pilots picked up the maneuver during the Guadalcanal campaign. A similar maneuver was used in jet combat during the Korean War, and the maneuver appeared in the skies over Vietnam in the 1960s. Thach himself shot down three Japanese Zeros at the Battle of Midway, half of the total of six he was credited with during the war. Thach also offered an example of the rotation system adopted by the US Navy following the victory at Midway.

How the Battle of Midway changed the Pacific War
The US Navy rotated combat veterans to train replacements as the fleet expanded. US Navy

12. The United States Navy withdrew many of its best pilots

The massive Naval buildup in the United States, just getting started in the spring of 1942, meant a pending shortage of trained crews and pilots. Following the Battle of Midway, the Navy addressed the problem. Experienced combat pilots, those who had performed the best in combat, were withdrawn from frontline units, rotated back to the United States or Pearl Harbor. There they trained the new recruits and aviators in combat techniques. Lessons learned in the fighting over the early months of the war in many cases replaced theories provided to trainees by instructors with no combat experience. The same was true in positions other than pilots. Lessons learned in damage control, firefighting, anti-aircraft fire, and all aspects of war at sea were conveyed to trainees by veterans.

The US Navy approach was in all ways superior to the Japanese method of retaining their most successful pilots in combat operations. Often, they became more conspicuous in combat, as they assumed leadership roles. As the war continued the most experienced Japanese pilots were gradually reduced by attrition, and the replacements lacked the beneficial knowledge of experienced pilots. American pilot skills improved throughout the war, as did their equipment. John Thach was an example. After Midway, Thach was assigned a training role, and replacement pilots learned the use of the Thach Weave from the man who developed the maneuver.

How the Battle of Midway changed the Pacific War
A submarine attack failed to scratch the Japanese cruiser Mikuma, which was destroyed by Navy bombers. US Navy

13. At least twelve American submarines served at Midway

The American submarines operating in the region where the Battle of Midway occurred did not distinguish themselves, other than USS Nautilus. Submarine communications were not directly to Admiral Fletcher, or to Admiral Spruance after the former ceded command to him. Instead, they were sent to Commander, Submarines, Pacific (COMSUBPAC), Rear Admiral Robert English. English forwarded reports from his submarines to Nimitz, who sent them to his task force commanders. The submarines only communicated with Pearl Harbor while surfaced, during daylight hours they remained submerged as much as possible. Observations made at night were often inaccurate, erroneous, or vague.

USS Tambor sent a message to English describing “four large ships” heading toward Midway on the night of June 5/6. The English-Nimitz-Spruance trail left the latter furious. The information as it was provided left him with nothing but questions. Spruance was a former submarine commander himself (his son was an officer serving in Tambor at the time) and he couldn’t believe a message so vague would be transmitted to superiors. He received the message at a time when the location of the main Japanese invasion force was still unverified by Naval intelligence. Spruance was forced to maneuver to block the reported ships. They were not the main invasion force, as it turned out. After the battle, Spruance had the commander of Tambor, John Murphy, reassigned for his lack of aggression in identifying the enemy ships.

How the Battle of Midway changed the Pacific War
Problems with the Douglas Dauntless occurred before, during, and after the battle. US Navy

14. American dive bombers were plagued with electrical problems

The Douglas Dauntless arrived in the fleet with several problems related to their abilities to drop their bombs on a straight path to the target. One was the release mechanism, which had a tendency to only partially release the bomb, forcing the pilot to maneuver violently for the bomb to clear the aircraft. That problem was corrected by the time the fleet sailed for Midway. Another was a problem with the electrical arming switches, designed to allow the pilots to arm the fuses in the bombs while in flight. Nearly all of the Dauntless bombers had their electrical arming switches worked on in the weeks preceding the Midway operation. Some of them were reinstalled in the aircraft incorrectly.

When Lieutenant Commander Maxwell Leslie, who commanded Bombing Squadron 3 off USS Yorktown, ordered the 17 airplanes of his squadron to arm their bombs he flipped the arming switch and immediately felt the bomb release. He countermanded his order, but at least three other of the planes he commanded lost their bombs. Leslie attacked the Japanese carrier Soryu anyway, diving on the ship and strafing its flight deck, an action for which he was awarded the Navy Cross. Only 13 of the squadron’s 17 aircraft had bombs when it attacked, but all 17 dived on the Japanese ship. Soryu sank on the evening of June 4, gutted by explosions and fires.

How the Battle of Midway changed the Pacific War
Three Japanese aircraft carriers in flames following the dive-bombing attack on June 4, 1942. US Navy

15. Damage control led the Japanese to believe they had sunk two American carriers

After the American dive bombers from Yorktown and Enterprise wrecked three Japanese carriers, (Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu), the sole remaining Japanese carrier counterattacked. Hiryu launched two waves of planes directed at Yorktown, which had been spotted by a scout plane from the cruiser Tone. The first wave hit the American carrier with three bombs, creating large fires and shutting down all but one of the ships’ boilers. They reported their success to Hiryu. By the time the second wave arrived, American damage control efforts had restored the boilers, controlled the fires, and repaired the flight deck. The second wave saw what appeared to be a fully operational American aircraft carrier. They attacked and succeeded in severely damaging the ship with torpedoes.

Reporting their success to Hiryu, Japanese commanders believed that their counterattacks had sunk one carrier and left another in a sinking state. Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi, commanding from Hiryu (Nagumo had evacuated the burning Akagi) reported that two American carriers had been destroyed. Several of Yorktown’s returning bombers landed on Enterprise, which prepared them to turn around and launch another assault on the remaining Japanese carrier. Late in the afternoon of June 4, 24 bombers were launched from Enterprise. The attack led to at least four and probably five bombs hitting the Japanese carrier, destroying the ship and the aircraft it carried.

How the Battle of Midway changed the Pacific War
An American PBY search and rescue aircraft at Midway in 1942. US Navy

16. Spruance risked the entire task force as its bombers returned on June 4

Hornet’s bombers arrived over the already destroyed Hiryu and directed attacks at ships of the escort, but failed to do any damage to the Japanese. The bombers returned to Enterprise and Hornet in the dusk. By the time they arrived at their carriers, they were low on fuel. Night landings were not a routine practice in the US Navy at the time, and showing lights after dark was hazardous. A lighted ship was a sitting duck for submarines, and the Americans were aware of Japanese submarines in the vicinity, though uncertain as to their specific whereabouts. Spruance faced risking his ships or losing his aircraft, and many of the pilots if they ditched in the sea in the dark.

Spruance turned on the lights, probably the riskiest act he committed during the entire battle. As he did so he continued to close the range with the remnants of Nagumo’s fleet, as he had all day. There were no submarine attacks. Once the planes were aboard, Spruance ordered the task force to turn to the east, away from the Japanese, in part due to uncertainty over the location of the Japanese invasion force. Spruance continued to the east until about midnight, when he again turned to head west, toward the last known position of the Japanese. By the time he did, Admiral Yamamoto, commanding the entire operation, ordered the Japanese fleet to withdraw.

How the Battle of Midway changed the Pacific War
Admiral Spruance (left, with Admiral Nimitz), was both criticized and praised for his performance at Midway. US Navy

17. The Americans failed to find the Japanese main body and invasion force

Throughout the day of June 5, 1942, American search planes, from the fleet and from Midway, combed the skies searching for the Japanese fleet. Yamamoto detached a force of cruisers to bombard Midway, encouraged in part by the belief that the Americans had lost two aircraft carriers on June 4. When it became evident that the Japanese carrier strike force had ceased to exist Yamamoto reconsidered. He ordered the bombardment force to withdraw. It was this force which was sighted by Tambor. As the force maneuvered in the dark, two of the cruisers, Mogami and Mikuma, collided. Mogami was heavily damaged in the bow, and the ship was reduced to a top speed of 12 knots.

Mikuma was just lightly damaged, but reduced its speed to that of its companion. The cruisers plodded back toward the main body from which they had been detached. Together the cruisers were prime targets for a submarine attack. Tambor made a long-range attack with torpedoes which missed, and decided not to press in closer for a second attempt. The cruisers remained on a straight course and at slow speed throughout the night, while Japanese sailors in Mogami attempted to make repairs sufficient to allow the cruiser to return home. On the morning of June 6, search planes from Midway and Spruance’s carriers found the limping ships, still well short of the main body of Japanese ships.

How the Battle of Midway changed the Pacific War
Japanese cruiser Mogami, though heavily damaged, survived the battle and was converted to an aircraft cruiser in 1943. Wikimedia

18. The B-17s again failed to hit ships underway on June 6

B-17s flying from Midway found and bombed the two damaged cruisers, with eight bombers releasing their loads on the slow-moving ships. None of the bombs hit. They were followed by an attack by 12 US Marine dive bombers (half of them Vindicators) which also failed to score hits on either cruiser (or their two escorting destroyers). The two cruisers were ordered to head for Wake Island and were on the course when they were attacked by dive bombers from Hornet and Enterprise. 31 bombers hit the flotilla in three separate attacks. Both destroyers were hit by a bomb, suffering severe damage and casualties, but both lived to fight another day. Both cruisers were also hit.

Mogami was hit by a reported six bombs, though quick action disposing of torpedoes and other explosives aboard the cruiser prevented the secondary explosions which hit Mikuma. The latter cruiser was hit by five or six bombs, which detonated the ship’s torpedoes and tore the ship apart. Mikuma sank with heavy loss of life. Mogami survived the attacks, and managed to limp back to the Japanese stronghold at Truk, where the ship underwent extensive repairs. It then moved to Sasebo, Japan for further repairs and modifications. Late on June 7, Spruance called off the pursuit of the withdrawing Japanese.

How the Battle of Midway changed the Pacific War
The last known photograph of Admiral Yamamoto, taken before he was shot down in 1943. Wikimedia

19. The Japanese could not accept that the Americans had broken their codes

For the Japanese, the plan which Yamamoto called Operation MI was a disaster. Many of their most combat-experienced pilots had been killed. The Japanese lost nearly 250 aircraft, four fleet carriers, and a heavy cruiser. 3,057 Japanese sailors and airmen were killed. Yet for the Japanese High Command, the most disturbing aspect of the failure was the potential loss of prestige. On June 15, 1942, Admiral Nagumo submitted his report of the operation (Admiral Yamaguchi died when Hiryu sank). In his report, Nagumo wrote, “The enemy is not aware of our plans (we were not discovered until early in the morning of the 5th at the earliest)”.

The disparity of the date was because Japan sits on the other side of the International Date Line. What was surprising about the report was there was no speculation about why the American fleet was there. The Japanese refused to believe that the Americans had broken their naval codes. Even after Admiral Yamamoto was ambushed and killed while on a tour of the front in 1943 the Japanese refused to consider the possibility that their communications were compromised. The Americans continued to listen to Japanese coded information throughout the war, an advantage conferred by their enemy’s contempt of westerners and belief in their own superiority.

How the Battle of Midway changed the Pacific War
Admiral Chuichi Nagumo continued to command the Japanese carrier forces following the Battle of Midway until his death at Saipan in 1944. Wikimedia

20. The Japanese altered their pilot training programs

In the wake of the defeat at Midway, the Japanese faced an immediate and pressing problem. There had been a shortage of pilots before the battle. Midway made it worse. It also removed many of the more experienced pilots. The Japanese responded to the crisis by altering its training programs for pilots. They were converted to abbreviated schedules. After June 1942, Japanese pilots assigned to the fleet had fewer hours in the air, less training in combat tactics and conditions, and few experienced aviators to guide them. From Midway on, the combat capability of Japanese carrier pilots and the units in which they flew degraded.

The Japanese also changed the training for the ship’s crews, and introduced measures designed to prevent the disastrous fires and secondary explosions which gutted the four carriers lost at Midway. The effectiveness of the training they received was questionable, several more Japanese carriers were lost during the war, racked with explosions and crippled by raging fires. The carrier Taiho, designed to be survivable, and with a crew trained in damage control techniques, sank after being hit by a single submarine-launched torpedo (USS Albacore). Its loss was entirely the result of poor damage control by the Japanese officers and crew.

How the Battle of Midway changed the Pacific War
The US submarine base at Pearl Harbor in 1941, from which unrestricted submarine warfare was directed against the Japanese. US Navy

21. Lessons learned at Midway changed American strategy in the Pacific

Midway, despite being a major American victory, revealed several problems which plagued the US Navy, in personnel and equipment. Submarines performed poorly during the battle, other than the actions of the USS Nautilus. These problems had already been observed by senior naval officers. They were blamed on poor training of submarine commanders and crew, an over-reliance on sonar, and a lack of aggressiveness, such as that exhibited by Tambor. Many submarine commanders were fearful of approaching close in to enemy ships, concerned over the exaggerated capabilities of the Japanese sonar. Admiral English instituted policies which rewarded aggressive behavior while weeding out less desirable commanders.

Admiral English was killed in an airplane crash in January 1943 and was replaced by Admiral Charles Lockwood. The latter continued the changes implemented by the English and instituted several new doctrines to improve the morale of the returning crews. He also spearheaded the drive to develop reliable torpedoes, which included a major bureaucratic war within the Navy and its contractors. By 1945 American submarines had destroyed the Japanese merchant fleet, sunk over 200 warships, and served as pickets, lifeguards, and commando delivery vehicles. The submarines went from being a timidly handled weapon to a major reason so many of Japan’s “unsinkable carriers” were abandoned during the war.

How the Battle of Midway changed the Pacific War
An F6F Hellcat aboard the second USS Yorktown in 1943. US Navy

22. Lessons learned at Midway were applied to new American aircraft and tactics

As noted above, Midway was the last use of the Devastators and Vindicators, as well as the Brewster Buffaloes. New aircraft already in development was altered further to adjust for the lessons learned at Midway. Better protection for pilots and crew were added, as well as heavier armaments. The TBF Avengers, Helldiver dive bombers, and F6F Hellcat all benefited from the experiences of their predecessors at Midway and elsewhere in the Pacific. Throughout the war other weapons were also developed for the USAAF and the Marine Corps, making them the match or better than their Japanese counterparts. Japanese naval and air force planes were the most advanced in the world in 1941. By the end of 1943, they were becoming obsolete.

The Japanese were unable to develop new designs to keep technological pace and as with their naval codes, could not concede western superiority. The battle for the Pacific became a campaign of attrition, with American and Anzac forces shooting down Japanese aircraft using increasingly superior machines, and more effective anti-aircraft fire from ships and shore installations. Japanese industry was able to replace lost airplanes for much of the war, but finding qualified pilots became more of a problem. By the time Japan turned to the use of Kamikaze pilots, many of the pilots dispatched to the combat zones were killed in their first missions, poorly trained and operating obsolete equipment.

How the Battle of Midway changed the Pacific War
USS Bunker Hill was barely missed by a Japanese bomb during the Battle of the Philippine Sea in 1944. US Navy

23. Spruance became a fleet commander for most of the rest of the war

Following the victory at Midway, Admiral Spruance served as Nimitz’s Chief of Staff. In September he was assigned as Deputy Commander in Chief. Eventually, Nimitz created an arrangement in which Spruance and Halsey alternated in command of the Central Pacific Campaign’s Naval units. When Spruance commanded the steadily growing American Naval forces, they were called Task Force 58, Fifth Fleet. During periods of Halsey in command it was Task Force 38, Third Fleet. Spruance commanded Fifth Fleet when it destroyed the Japanese fleet anchorage at Truk, in which 44 Japanese ships and 250 aircraft were destroyed.

He was also in command at the Battle of the Philippine Sea, where the US Navy broke the back of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s air fleet. The Americans sank three aircraft carriers and destroyed over 600 Japanese aircraft. Although Halsey was better known to the public, which he ensured by maintaining close relations with reporters, Spruance’s periods with the fleet were greater contributions to the American victory in the Pacific. Some historians believe Spruance was too cautious, others that Halsey was too aggressive. There is no debate however regarding the magnitude of the victory over the Japanese at the Battle of the Philippine Sea, known to the pilots who participated in it as the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.

How the Battle of Midway changed the Pacific War
A recovering Ensign George Gay, one of the few survivors from the American torpedo plane attacks, holds a newspaper which exults “Japanese At Midway Smashed”. US Navy

24. Midway ensured the United States would not sue for peace

After the Pearl Harbor attack galvanized America, several catastrophes in the Pacific War had an adverse effect on morale. The fall of the Philippines shocked the United States, as did the surrender of the British at Singapore. Admiral Yamamoto believed that another shock was necessary, one in which the American forces suffered a crushing blow at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Destroying the American carrier fleet (which had been a goal at Pearl Harbor) would make Hawaii indefensible and the American West Coast exposed to Japanese attack. Yamamoto believed that after victory at Midway the Japanese would be able to dictate terms to the Americans.

Instead, six months after the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, some of the same ships which carried out the December 7 attack were sent to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Pride in the American Navy and Marine Corps was restored. The Japanese people weren’t told of the defeat, but the Americans ate up stories of the victory, which was magnified in newspapers and magazines. John Ford produced an 18-minute documentary which won an Oscar in 1942 (Best Documentary) and was popular across the country. Midway ensured the Americans would remain in the war, through the grim campaigns ahead, until the Japanese Empire was destroyed.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway”. Anthony Tully, Jonathan Parshall. 2005

“Fighting for Survival”. David Lee Bergeron, US Naval Institute, Naval History. December, 2019

“The Tale of Eleven”. Barrett Tillman, Naval History Magazine. August, 2019. Online

“Battle of Midway: 4-7 June 1942”. Article, Naval History and Heritage Command. Online

“The Japanese Story of the Battle of Midway”. Report of Chuichi Nagumo, Office of Naval Intelligence, United States Navy. May, 1947

“Code Breaking in the Pacific”. Peter Donovan, John Mack. 2014.

“Thach Weave: The Life of Jimmie Thach”. Steve Ewing. 2004

“The Operational Failure Of U. S. Submarines At The Battle Of Midway – And The Implications For Today”. Thomas G. Hunnicutt, CDR, USN. Naval War College. March, 1997. Online

“Task Force 16 Action Report”. COMMANDER Task Force 16 (Rear Admiral Ray Spruance). June 16, 1942. Online

“Midway’s Strategic Lessons”. Article, Naval History and Heritage Command. Online

“Former World War II ‘Zero’ fighter pilot laments Japan’s wartime past”. Rebecca Wright, CNN. August 13, 2015

“How They Won the War in the Pacific: Nimitz and His Admirals”. Edwin Palmer Hoyt. 1970