ASSESSING THE PLACE OF MIDWAY IN WORLD WAR II

"The annals of war at sea present no more intense, heart-shaking shock…the qualities
of the United States Navy and Air Force and the American race shone forth in splendour".

Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Britain in 1942 - speaking about Midway

Midway was the most important battle of the Pacific War

In the great naval battle at Midway between 4 and 6 June 1942 the three American aircraft carriers Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet won a remarkable and pivotal victory over the Imperial Japanese Navy. The loss by Japan of four of its six best aircraft carriers and several hundred of its most experienced and skilful aircrews marked the turning of the tide against Japan in the Pacific War. The crushing defeat inflicted on the Japanese Navy by the very much smaller United States Pacific Fleet put an end to Japan's ambition to dominate the whole of the western and central Pacific regions. The defeat at Midway threw the Japanese Navy on the defensive for the first time in World War II, and it would never again exercise naval supremacy in the Pacific Ocean. The boldness that characterized Japan’s renowned fighting Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was replaced by caution after his disastrous defeat at Midway.

SBDS OVER AKAGI by R. G. Smith

This superb painting by a master of naval aviation, the late R.G. SMITH, depicts one of the defining moments of the Pacific War when the tide turned against the Japanese aggressors at America's Midway Islands. Lieutenant Richard H. Best, USN and his two wingmen in their Douglas Dauntless SBD dive-bombers have just launched a successful attack on the Japanese flagship aircraft carrier Akagi.

The Americans won their remarkable victory against the far more powerful and battle-toughened Japanese Navy by a combination of superior planning and code-breaking, plain good luck, and ultimately, by the extraordinary heroism displayed by American aircrews. The victory is all the more astonishing for the fact that the air groups of Enterprise and Hornet failed to co-ordinate their attacks on the Japanese carrier fleet. Many of the American aircrews were untried in battle; the American torpedo planes were obsolete; their torpedoes were unreliable; and the American F4F Wildcat fighter planes lacked the speed and agility of the deadly Japanese Zero fighter.

Few battles in history can match Midway for high drama. As a result of excellent leadership, Yorktown’s Air Group had no difficulty locating and destroying the Japanese fleet carrier Soryu. Of Hornet’s Air Group, only that ship's torpedo squadron VT-8 found the Japanese carriers, and lacking fighter escort, launched a gallant but doomed attack on them. The Enterprise SBD dive-bombers would probably not have found the Japanese carriers but for an extraordinary stroke of luck that caused them to sight and follow a Japanese destroyer that was returning to the Japanese carrier force, and led the SBDs directly to it. The result is history. The Enterprise dive-bombers destroyed two of Japan’s most powerful carriers. Many of Enterprise’s aircraft failed to return to their carrier. If chance had not intervened at this critical stage of the battle, the three American carriers would have had to face powerful attacks by combat-toughened aircrews from three of Japan’s best carriers. Yorktown was superbly commanded and this carrier and its escort warships had more combat experience than Enterprise and Hornet. Despite this advantage, Yorktown was crippled by two successive attacks from one Japanese carrier – the Hiryu. With greatly depleted air groups, and mostly inexperienced aircrews, the odds would have been heavily against the survival of Enterprise and Hornet. Any surviving crippled or badly damaged American carriers would have been very lucky to survive Japanese submarine attack on the long journey back to Pearl Harbor.

Speaking of his extraordinary victory over Napoleon at Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington made the famous comment: "The nearest run thing you ever saw in your life, by God!" The Iron Duke’s comment can fairly be applied to Midway. The odds at Midway were stacked so heavily against the Americans that the distinguished military historian Walter Lord felt compelled to describe the battle in his book as "Midway: The incredible victory". Lord went on to say of the battle:

"They had no right to win. Yet they did, and in doing so they changed the course of the war. More than that, they added a new name - Midway - to that small list that inspires men by example – Marathon, the Marne, the Somme, and Rorke’s Drift. Even against the greatest odds, there is something in the human spirit – a magic blend of skill, faith, and valour that can lift men from certain defeat to incredible victory."

In addition to the introductory quote at the beginning of this chapter, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was moved to say of Midway:

"This memorable American victory was of cardinal importance, not only to the United States, but to the whole Allied cause…At one stroke, the dominant position of Japan in the Pacific was reversed…"

Despite acknowledgment from distinguished historians such as Churchill and Lord that Midway ranks as one of the great battles in world history, this Pacific War battle has been allowed by governments most benefited by the American victory to largely slip from public consciousness. The United States Navy is a notable exception in so far as it commemorates Midway every year.

Perhaps it is the sheer drama of Midway and the fascination that extraordinary heroism is capable of producing in those who study history that has caused its pivotal role in the Pacific War and its potential to alter the course of World War II to be neglected by many military historians.

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto intended to destroy at Midway what remained of the United States Pacific Fleet after his treacherous attack on its base at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. The destruction of the US Pacific Fleet at Midway would almost certainly have resulted in Japan taking control of the whole of the Pacific Ocean west of Hawaii, including Australia and all of the islands between Hawaii and Australia. The American counter-offensive at Guadalcanal in August 1942 would not have been possible. The Japanese would have been able to establish their planned major airbase on Guadalcanal and disrupt the movement of troops and materiel between Australia and the United States. With its lifeline to the United States severed, it is likely that the eastern coast of Australia would have been invaded and occupied by the Japanese before the end of 1942. By losing Australia to the Japanese, the United States would have lost the base that provided its springboard for recapture of the Philippines.

There are those who argue that the Guadalcanal Campaign was equal to, or more important than Midway in shaping the course of the Pacific War, but that argument is logically flawed. It puts the cart before the horse because Midway laid the foundation for Guadalcanal. Without the American victory at Midway, the Guadalcanal Campaign as we know it could not have taken place.

For these reasons, Midway can fairly be assigned the status of the most important battle of the Pacific War.

A compelling reason to re-assess the status of Midway in World War II

Although Midway’s importance to the course of the Pacific War is beyond question, many military historians appear to have given little thought to assessing the place of Midway in the overall context of World War II.

For three decades after the end of World War II, Japan’s massive Midway Operation was believed to have had only two aims – completing the destruction of the US Pacific Fleet that had begun at Pearl Harbor, and capture of America’s Midway Atoll outpost in the central Pacific. We are indebted to the research of Professor John J. Stephan of the University of Hawaii for disclosing that the Japanese Midway Operation in 1942 had a very important third aim. Japan’s Admiral Yamamoto intended to use a Japanese victory at Midway as the foundation for a major assault on the Hawaiian Islands, beginning in October 1942 and peaking in March 1943. Yamamoto believed that total destruction of the US Pacific Fleet and the placing of a Japanese ring of steel around the Hawaiian Islands might persuade the United States to agree to peace talks with Japan.


Author’s Note:

Prior to his retirement, Professor Stephan taught modern Japanese history at the University of Hawaii. Fluent in Japanese, he has also lectured in history at some of Japan’s most prestigious universities.


Although not widely known until the publication of Professor Stephan’s "Hawaii under the Rising Sun: Japan’s Plans for Conquest after Pearl Harbor" (University of Hawaii Press, 1984), Yamamoto’s hope for a negotiated resolution of the Pacific War, by attacking Hawaii and using the fate of its population as a bargaining chip, was supported at the highest levels of the Japanese Army General Staff following the Doolittle Raid on Japan (at pages 113-115). This extraordinary aspect of the Japanese Midway Operation is covered in another chapter of this history of the Battle of Midway.

The research findings of Professor Stephan provide a compelling reason to re-assess the place of Midway in the Pacific War and to examine how the destruction or crippling of the US Pacific Fleet at Midway could have affected the course of World War II.

To achieve this, it is necessary to look at the broad context in which the Battle of Midway was fought, including the consequences of two decades of neglect of America’s defence forces after World War I, and the political and strategic situation of the United States in mid-1942. In examining the possible consequences of an American defeat at Midway, and to avoid an exercise in alternative history, it is necessary to look at real possibilities and not fanciful ones, and to be constrained by knowledge of Japan’s strategic intentions in mounting the Midway operation and the possible limitations imposed by the Midway battle on Japan’s military capabilities.

For our purposes, it is necessary to bear in mind that (a) at the start of World War II, the American regular army was no larger than that of tiny Belgium’s, and its equipment was mostly obsolete; (b) at the start of World War II, the US Navy had been starved of funds by Congress for two decades, and all of its battleships and many of its smaller warships were relics of the World War I era; (c) after Pearl Harbor, and two decades of neglect by Congress, it took the United States almost two years to rebuild its naval strength, that is to say, until late 1943; (d) during 1942, President Roosevelt came under intense pressure from the American people and Congress to combat the Japanese menace in the Pacific more vigorously; and (e) even the industrial strength of the United States was being severely strained in 1942 and the first half of 1943 by the very heavy Allied shipping losses produced by U-boats in the Atlantic.

These are large topics and important matters of American history because they affected the course of World War II significantly. They are too long to include in this chapter, but they have been covered in detail on this web-site in chapters dealing with the path to Pearl Harbor and the Battle of the Atlantic.

The effect of an American defeat at Midway on the Pacific War

For Japan's purposes in mid-1942, the planned destruction of the fighting capability of the US Pacific Fleet in the central and western Pacific would have been achieved by the sinking or crippling of the three American carriers Yorktown, Enterprise, and Hornet at or immediately following the Battle of Midway. If that had happened, and assuming that at least two of Yamamoto's Midway fleet carriers were still operational, I believe that he would have ordered all of his operational carriers (including Junyo and Ryujo in Alaskan waters) to pursue and destroy any crippled or badly damaged American carriers withdrawing to Pearl Harbor. I draw this conclusion based on Yamamoto’s character as an aggressive admiral prior to Midway, the confidence that his hero status in Japan bestowed, and his willingness to take risks to achieve his ends. One of those ends was the total destruction of the US Pacific Fleet, and Emperor Hirohito and his Imperial General Headquarters expected Yamamoto to achieve this during the course of the Midway Operation. Based on the same considerations, I would expect Yamamoto to appreciate the need to destroy the submarine servicing facilities at Pearl Harbor before withdrawing temporarily from Hawaii.

If the three US Pacific Fleet carriers had been either destroyed or crippled at Midway, I think it is unlikely that the Commander in Chief of the US Navy, Admiral Ernest King, would have allowed the last remaining Pacific Fleet carrier Saratoga to remain at Hawaii. Admiral King believed that the Japanese would be likely to attack Hawaii, and possibly the West Coast of the United States, if the US Pacific Fleet was defeated at Midway. He was wrong about the existence of any significant threat to the West Coast, but Professor Stephan has provided grounds to justify Admiral King’s fear for the safety of Hawaii. Saratoga would have been very vulnerable to destruction by air attack if berthed at Pearl Harbor and very vulnerable to air and submarine attack in waters off Hawaii. I believe that Admiral King would have felt obliged to withdraw America's last operational Pacific Fleet carrier to join the smaller carrier Wasp in protecting the West Coast of the United States. If Midway had been an American defeat, it is likely that political pressure for Saratoga to return and contribute to the defence of the West Coast would have been irresistible.

As I have indicated above, a Japanese victory at Midway would almost certainly have enabled Japan to take control of the whole of the Pacific region west of Hawaii before the end of 1942. The destruction of the US Pacific Fleet at Midway was also intended by Yamamoto to lay the foundation for a sustained attack on the Hawaiian Islands, beginning with an invasion of the sparsely populated large island of Hawaii in October 1942. We know that Yamamoto hoped to use Hawaii as a bargaining chip to secure peace talks with the United States. There is no evidence that Yamamoto intended to launch an early invasion of Oahu even if the US Pacific Fleet had been destroyed or crippled at Midway. The Japanese admiral was not a fool. It is far more likely that he would have gone about achieving his ends by placing a tight naval blockade around the Hawaiian Islands, including Oahu, with the intention of bombarding and starving the population of the islands into surrender. With 2,200 miles of unbroken ocean separating Hawaii from the American West Coast, providing support for the defence of Hawaii from the West Coast would have been a logistical nightmare.

How would the United States respond to an imminent Japanese threat to Hawaii?

During the six months following Pearl Harbor, the war news for Americans had been uniformly grim. A succession of defeats for the Allies had occurred in the Pacific theatre. Hong Kong and Singapore had fallen. The Japanese had conquered Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, and most of Burma and New Guinea. The American army in the Philippines had surrendered to the Japanese after a desperate but doomed resistance. Even Coral Sea was difficult to view as an Allied victory, as indeed it was, when the United States had lost far more carrier tonnage than Japan. The Germans were striking deeper into the Soviet Union and were poised to seize the strategic Caucasian oil fields. In North Africa, Rommel had pushed into Egypt and was threatening to drive Allied forces back to the Suez Canal.

Off the eastern seaboard of the United States, German submariners had found a killing ground and their U-boats sank 675,000 tons of American shipping in the first three months of 1942. The rapid build-up of the US Navy that began in 1940 did not include escort vessels for convoys, or development of sophisticated anti-submarine equipment and tactics of the kind developed and used by the British Navy. The situation was so desperate that Britain and Canada had to provide the United States with ninety-five escort vessels to protect American shipping in the Atlantic.

On top of this unrelieved succession of Allied disasters, how would the American people have responded if their Pacific Fleet had been defeated at Midway and this had created a grave threat to the population of Hawaii from the powerful Japanese Navy? Most present-day Americans would probably say that their fellow Americans in 1942 would have united behind their President, as they did after Pearl Harbor. However, American history does not appear to offer such an assurance. Citing examples as far back as the War of 1812, the distinguished American historian, Professor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has shown that American voters have repeatedly declined to unite behind their President and his party in time of war. Referring to 1942, Schlesinger said:

"Pearl Harbor had galvanized the republic more completely even than the recent terrorist outrage (September 11). Yet in the mid-term elections held eleven months after Pearl Harbor, the Democrats lost fifty seats in the House and eight in the Senate". See: Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. "Politics after September 11".

Why did so many American voters turn against President Roosevelt’s Democratic Party in November 1942 despite the great American victory at Midway five months earlier? Assistant Professor of History at Ashland University, John Moser, has rejected as myth suggestions that Americans in World War II had stoutly backed President Roosevelt through the dark six months of continuing defeat that followed Pearl Harbor.

"A spate of propaganda over the past ten years about the 'greatest generation' has contributed to a widely-held belief that during World War II Americans accepted such developments stoically, without complaint, and that bad news only intensified their resolve to see the fight through to a successful finish. In fact, the reverse was true. Americans were stunned by these reversals, and were quick to look for someone to blame. For a while the British appeared to be a convenient target….Nor was the administration immune to criticism, particularly for its commitment to defeating Germany first. Given that it had been the Japanese who had attacked Pearl Harbor, Americans found it difficult to understand why in the first months of the war more U.S. troops were being sent to the United Kingdom than to, say, the Philippines, where they might help General Douglas MacArthur to stop the invading Japanese forces. A Gallup poll showed that a substantial majority of the population believed that Japan was the nation’s 'chief enemy', and therefore, that most of the country’s resources should be committed to the Pacific. In fact, as late as mid-1943 a bipartisan group of senators—all of whom, it should be noted, had a history of opposition to the President’s policies—were accusing the administration of an almost criminal neglect of the war against Japan."

See: John Moser, "Have we given in to defeatism?"

If Midway had been an American defeat, with the implications that have been addressed above, I believe that Americans would have faced the greatest defence crisis in the history of their republic. This defence crisis would almost certainly have produced a political crisis of a magnitude never before experienced by Americans since 1776. In this situation, I believe that President Roosevelt would have been placed under enormous political pressure to alter America’s strategic priorities by diverting substantial military resources from the war against Germany to the onerous and urgent tasks of defending Hawaii and holding the Japanese war machine at bay. The pressure to do so would have been even greater when the full extent of the Japanese threat to the Hawaiian Islands became apparent in October 1942 with the Japanese invasion of the large island of Hawaii.

The effect of an American defeat at Midway on the war against Germany

An American defeat at Midway would almost certainly have required massive diversion of American resources to strengthen the capacity of the Hawaiian Islands to resist a lengthy Japanese siege. This would have required transportation of troops, military equipment, and food by convoy across 2,200 miles of open ocean likely to have been infested by Japanese submarines and surface raiders.

Vast quantities of American military resources, food, and oil had been moving in convoy to Britain, the Soviet Union, the Mediterranean, and North Africa across the Atlantic. Many of the ships engaged in moving those resources across the North Atlantic were sunk by U-boats in 1942 and the first half of 1943. The loss of merchant shipping and cargoes was so heavy that even the massive industrial resources of the United States were strained by the U-boat war until mid-1943. The impact of a substantial diversion of American resources to the Pacific from Europe and North Africa, and especially, from the Battle of the Atlantic, does not bear thinking about. Even with the massive help provided by the United States, the British were struggling to survive in the Battle of the Atlantic until mid-1943 when the tide finally turned against the German U-boats.

It is impossible to exclude the very real possibility that any major diversion of American resources from Europe, the Atlantic, and North Africa to the Pacific during the critical second half of 1942 and the first half of 1943 could have led to Britain’s defeat, and consequently, an Allied defeat in the European theatre. D-day could not have happened if Britain had succumbed to Nazi Germany.

Even if the British had managed to survive the U-boat menace in the Atlantic that peaked in March 1943, a major diversion of American military resources to the Pacific would almost certainly have delayed the sequence of Allied invasions of North Africa, Sicily, and Normandy. That diversion to the Pacific would also have slowed and sharply reduced the build-up in Britain of the massive military resources that were necessary for D-Day to take place in 1944. It is impossible to exclude the very real possibility that an American defeat at Midway could have delayed D-Day until June 1945 at the earliest. That would have given Field Marshal Rommel an extra year in which to strengthen the coastal defences of Normandy and make successful Allied landings even more difficult.

It is a great pity that more historical analysis has not been devoted to the truly frightening consequences for the Allies of an American defeat at Midway.

James Bowen

15 June 2005

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