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
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

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