Between 4 and 6 June 1942, a great naval battle took place between the United States Pacific Fleet and the Imperial Japanese Navy about 180 miles (288 km ) north-west of America's Midway Atoll. The two small islands that comprise Midway Atoll are located 1,120 miles (1,800 km) north-west of Hawaii and 2,250 miles (3,620 km) east of Japan.

Until this stage of the Pacific War, the Americans had been struggling to survive the powerful Japanese onslaught which began with the surprise attack on the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. That attack destroyed or badly damaged eight American battleships, and left the United States Pacific Fleet greatly inferior in power to the Japanese Imperial Navy. The Battle of Midway would prove to be a decisive contest for naval supremacy in the central Pacific region between the United States Navy and the Japanese Imperial Navy.

In June 1942, the flat sandy islands of Midway Atoll were the focus of a decisive struggle for supremacy in the central Pacific region between the navies of Japan and the United States. Inside the reef, the island in the foreground is Eastern Island. The island furthest from the camera is Sand island.

While the great naval contest took place at Midway, the fate of Hawaii, Australia, and the chain of islands between them, hung in the balance . If the Commander in Chief of Japan's Combined Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, had achieved his aim of destroying the United States Pacific Fleet at Midway, Japan's powerful aircraft carriers and battleships would have been able to strike Hawaii and Australia, and both Hawaii and the Australian mainland would have been exposed to a very real threat of Japanese invasion. The Japanese defeat at Midway destroyed the naval superiority of the Imperial Japanese Navy over the United States Pacific Fleet, freed Australia and Hawaii from a looming threat of Japanese invasion, and laid the foundation for Japan's ultimate defeat.

Location and physical characteristics of Midway Atoll

Viewed purely as a geographical feature of the Pacific Ocean, Midway Atoll was an unlikely focus for the most important battle of the Pacific War.

The atoll was reported and claimed for the United States by Captain N. C. Brooks of the Gambia in 1859. At that time, the treeless coral sand islands had no human inhabitants, but bird life was abundant. Initially called Brooks Island, the atoll acquired the name Midway when it was formally annexed by the United States in 1867.

Although located 1,300 miles (2,100 km) north-west of Honolulu, Midway Atoll is one of the many islands and atolls that comprise the Hawaiian archipelago. The main features of the atoll are two small, relatively flat, sandy islands lying adjacent to each other on the southern side of a lagoon almost completely ringed by coral reef. Sand Island is about two miles in length and reaches a maximum height of 39 feet above sea level. Eastern Island is one and one quarter miles long and reaches a maximum height of 12 feet above sea level. The total land area of both islands is only 1,500 acres (625 hectares). The tough indigenous brush (scaevola) that densely covered large areas of the two islands provided some relief from the harsh glare of the white coral sand. The scaevola brush was gradually augmented by Hawaiian ironwood and Australian eucalypt trees.

The nearest significant landmark to Midway Atoll is tiny Johnston Island, located about 850 miles (1360 km) south-east of Midway.

Midway Atoll acquires strategic importance

The strategic importance of Midway in relation to Hawaii was recognised by Congress as early as 1869 when $50,000 was appropriated for dredging an entrance channel through a break in the western side of the reef, known as the Seward Roads, and deepening an anchorage on the northern side of Sand Island known as Welles Harbor.

Following its defeat in the Spanish-American War of 1898, Spain ceded the Philippines and Guam in the Mariana Islands to the United States, causing the latter to become a colonial power in the Pacific. The transfer of the Philippines to the United States was viewed with deep hostility in Japan where the development was viewed as a threat to Japan's territorial expansion in East Asia. Thereafter, the naval establishments in Japan and the United States prepared for the possibility of armed conflict between their two countries.

Midway is placed under the control of the United States Navy

Convenient access to the Philippines, and the need to protect it, required the United States to provide way stations between Hawaii and the Philippines where US Navy ships could refuel and obtain provisions. Guam joined Midway to become one of those way stations. In 1899, the United States completed its chain of way stations to the Philippines by annexing uninhabited Wake Island in the central Pacific. Technically an atoll, Wake lies 2,300 miles (3,700 km) west of Honolulu. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt placed Midway Atoll under the control of the United States Navy.

In 1905, the larger Sand Island acquired a cable station connecting Hawaii and the Philippines. In 1935, Pan American Airways began development of a seaplane base on Sand Island, and Midway became a regular stop on the San Francisco-Manila route.

In 1938, the US Navy's Hepburn Report recommended immediate development of Midway as a naval air and submarine base. The report recommended that facilities be established at Midway for two patrol plane squadrons; two divisions of submarines; and establishment of a pier, channel, and turning basin inside the lagoon for large auxiliary vessels. The report was accepted, and in 1939, a new southern entrance to the lagoon, known as Brooks Channel, was blasted and dredged by US Army engineers between Sand and Eastern Islands. Brooks Channel then became the usual means of entry to Midway by sea. The United States Navy established a seaplane base on Sand Island and an airfield on the smaller Eastern Island.

Following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, the Japanese attacked and captured the American outposts of Guam and Wake Island. At the beginning of 1942, this Japanese aggression had left Midway Atoll as the westernmost American outpost in the central Pacific region. By May 1942, the atoll had become an important forward fuelling station for American submarines and an armed sentinel designed to protect the Hawaiian Islands against a repetition of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Land-based bombers and fighters were stationed on the Eastern Island airfield. Operating from Sand island, long-range PBY Catalina flying boats patrolled the sea approaches to Midway and the Hawaiian Islands. US Marines provided defensive artillery and infantry.

Placing the Midway Operation in its historical context

In March 1942, Japan's Navy General Staff and the Imperial Navy's Combined Fleet had conflicting strategic priorities in the Pacific region. The Navy General Staff wanted an immediate invasion of coastal areas of north-eastern and north-western Australia to deny the United States access to the Australian mainland as a springboard for a counter-attack on Japan's southern defensive perimeter, which Japanese military aggression had expanded to include New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

Navy General Staff's plan to capture strategically important areas of the Australian mainland was opposed by the Commander in Chief of Japan's Combined Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who wanted the highest priority to be given to drawing the aircraft carriers of the United States Pacific Fleet to a decisive battle at Midway Atoll in the central Pacific where they could be destroyed by the Japanese Navy. Yamamoto had fixed 4 June 1942 as the date for this decisive battle. At this stage, Admiral Yamamoto did not disclose to his colleagues at Navy General Staff that his Midway plan was the first step in a more ambitious Combined Fleet plan to attack and invade Hawaii.

Admiral Yamamoto, Commander in Chief of Japan's Combined Fleet, was the architect of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He conceived the plan to use the Midway Operation as a means both to destroy the US Pacific Fleet and lay the foundation for an invasion of Hawaii.

Admiral Yamamoto's opposition to an early invasion of the Australian mainland was supported by Japan's army generals who argued that their forces were over-extended, and that time was needed for Japan to consolidate its massive territorial conquests. Army opposition forced deferment of the Navy General Staff plan to invade the Australian mainland. Navy General Staff then produced a compromise plan that involved isolating Australia from the United States by seizing and fortifying a chain of islands between New Guinea and Samoa. Being acutely conscious of the danger of a defence alliance between Australia and the United States, Japan's Imperial General Headquarters approved the compromise plan on 15 March 1942 as a means of "neutralising" Australia. The military dominated Japanese government believed that Australia could be bullied into surrender if it was compelety isolated from the United States.

Between 2 and 5 April 1942, discussions took place in Tokyo between senior officers of Navy General Staff and Combined Fleet. Admiral Yamamoto's operations officer, Commander Yasuji Watanabe, now disclosed the full scope of Yamamoto's Midway plan, including the fact that it was intended to be the first step towards an invasion of Hawaii. Combined Fleet had assigned the code reference Eastern Operation to its plan to attack Hawaii. Yamamoto's plan was opposed by two officers of the Plans Division of Navy General Staff, Captain Sadatoshi Tomioka, and his air expert, Commander Tatsukichi Miyo, but reluctantly accepted by Navy General Staff when Yamamoto threatened to resign if his plan was not adopted.

While agreeing in principle that the decisive confrontation with the US Pacific Fleet would take place at Midway Atoll, Navy General Staff insisted that the Midway Operation be combined with a simultaneous operation to capture and occupy American islands in the Aleutian chain off the western coast of Alaska. Navy General Staff wanted to anchor Japan's eastern defensive perimeter in the Aleutians to deny the United States military access to the islands in the event that the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. Although reluctant to divide his massive naval force, Yamamoto agreed to combine the Aleutian and Midway operations. He saw some value in the Aleutian Operation as a means of diverting American attention from Midway.

Navy General Staff remained highly sceptical about the timing of Yamamoto's Midway plan and refused to agree that the Midway-Aleutian Operations should begin on 3 June 1942 as Yamamoto had demanded. Navy General Staff doubted whether preparations for the complex Midway and Aleutian Operations could be completed by 3 June and insisted that they be deferred until late June. Navy General Staff was unwilling to permit resources already allocated to Operation MO (the capture of Port Moresby and Tulagi) to be reallocated to the Midway-Aleutian offensives.

The Yamamoto plan was then put to Major General Shin'ichi Tanaka at Army General Staff who bluntly rejected it as an unwarranted extension of Japan's eastern defensive perimeter. Tanaka correctly suspected that one of the aims of the Midway Operation was to lay the foundation for an assault on Hawaii.

The Halsey-Doolittle Raid alters Japan's strategic priorities

The retaliatory air raid on military targets in Tokyo and other Japanese cities by Lieutenant Colonel Doolittle’s carrier-launched bombers on 18 April 1942 put an abrupt end to the dispute between Japan's generals and admirals concerning the Midway Operation and dramatically altered Japan’s strategic military priorities. When it became apparent that the Doolittle air raid on Japan had originated from Hawaii, Japan's generals accepted Admiral Yamamoto's argument that the Midway Operation should be directed both to destruction of the US Pacific Fleet and extension of Japan's eastern defensive perimeter to Hawaii and the Aleutians. The generals offered troops for the Aleutian Operation and a reinforced infantry regiment to participate in the capture of Midway Atoll. The generals also assigned three divisions to be trained for an amphibious assault on Hawaii in late 1942.

Despite misgivings about the limited time available for planning and preparing such a complex offensive, Japan's Imperial General Headquarters agreed that the highest priority should be given to the Midway and Aleutian operations.

The full scope of Admiral Yamamoto's Midway and Eastern Operations

The primary objectives of the Japanese attack on America's Midway Atoll in the central Pacific on 4 June 1942 were to complete the destruction of the United States Pacific Fleet, to capture Midway Atoll, and to establish Midway as a springboard from which Japan could launch an attack on the Hawaiian islands in late 1942.

After capturing Midway Atoll and destroying the US Pacific Fleet, the next Japanese target would have been Johnston Island which is located about 850 miles (1360 km) south-east of Midway and about 710 miles (1136 km) south-west of Pearl Harbor. Johnston Island already had an established US Navy airstrip in May 1942. The capture of Johnston Island would have enabled Japanese medium bombers based on the island to join carrier-launched aircraft in sustained attacks on American military and defence-related targets on Oahu. Johnston Island was also intended to be the springboard from which Japanese forces would invade and capture Hawaii, the largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago. Once entrenched on Hawaii, the Japanese intended to tighten a steel noose around the main island of Oahu and hoped to use the fate of its population as an inducement to draw the United States into peace negotiations that would recognise Japanese domination of the whole of the western and most of the central Pacific.

The warship component assembled by Japan's Admiral Yamamoto for the simultaneous Midway and Aleutian offensives included eleven battleships, eight aircraft carriers, twenty-three cruisers, and sixty-seven destroyers. Against this awesome armada, the Americans could only field three aircraft carriers, eight cruisers, and fourteen destroyers. One of the American carriers, USS Yorktown, would go into battle still bearing damage from the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942.