The Causes of Japan's Defeat at Midway

A major flaw in the Japanese Midway strategy was the complexity of the operation. The Japanese assembled an invasion force of over two hundred ships. The warship component for the combined Midway and Alaskan 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 (one still damaged from the Battle of the Coral Sea), eight cruisers, and fourteen destroyers. If the Japanese had concentrated their massive naval power and focussed it against the United States Pacific Fleet at Midway, instead of dispersing it in a wide arc between Alaska and Midway, Japan would almost certainly have overwhelmed and destroyed the much smaller American fleet. When the complex plan began to break down, the Japanese warships were too widely dispersed for Yamamoto to concentrate his forces and regain the initiative.

Another major flaw in Japan's Midway strategy was the attitude of the Japanese Navy planners. Believing that Japan was invincible in war, the Japanese planners made the fatal mistake of underrating American military capabilities and response. They compounded this mistake with an over-confident belief that the Japanese strategy would take the United States completely by surprise, and that Japan would retain the initiative throughout their complex offensive.

Based solely on the comparative size and strength of the contending forces, the Japanese should have easily defeated the United States at Midway. The Americans faced seemingly overwhelming odds. It appears quite clear that the United States snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by a combination of better intelligence gathering, clever planning, extraordinary good luck, and the heroism of American air and ship crews.

The Significance of the Battle of Midway for the United States

In the great naval battle at Midway between 4-6 June 1942 the three American aircraft carriers Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet won a remarkable and pivotal victory. The loss by Japan of four of its 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 Pacific region. The Imperial Japanese Navy would never again exercise naval supremacy in the Pacific Ocean or threaten Hawaii, Alaska and the western coast of the United States. After Midway, the United States Pacific Fleet was able to go on the offensive against the Japanese at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Japan lacked the capacity to replace the lost carriers and aircrews in time to resist the American counter-offensive.

Although Japan never recovered from the defeat at Midway, it still possessed a powerful navy, and many more tough naval battles would be fought before Japan released its grip on the countries it had conquered in the South-West Pacific.

The fate of Hawaii in the event of a crushing Japanese victory at Midway remains today a topic of some interest and lively debate. As we have seen in Midway Overview, the Japanese intended that the capture and occupation of Midway Atoll would be the first stage for an attack on the Hawaiian Islands. At the highest levels of Japan's Combined Fleet, the attack on Hawaii was known as Eastern Operation.

There have been suggestions from time to time that a crushing Japanese victory at Midway might have led to an immediate attempt by Admiral Yamamoto to invade Oahu. It is usually suggested that such an attempt would have been doomed to failure in the face of strong American resistance. However, such a scenario can be dismissed as fanciful. Yamamoto was too wily to attempt to storm Oahu while the island's defences were strong, and he had no intention of doing so.

If the extent of the Japanese victory at Midway had enabled Eastern Operation to proceed, the scenario may have developed along the following lines.

The Japanese would almost certainly have appreciated the need to isolate Oahu from the United States and destroy its defensive capability. With Japanese naval supremacy in Hawaiian waters established, and a powerful and efficient long-range submarine force available to block reinforcements and supplies to Hawaii from the United States, the Japanese Navy could then have placed Oahu under siege with top priority given to destruction of fuel storage tanks, ship and submarine servicing facilities, ammunition and fuel dumps. By July 1942, the fleet carriers Zuikaku and Shokaku would have been fully operational again and able to join the attack on Oahu. Yamamoto's Hawaii plan provided for the capture of America's Johnston Island in August 1942. This small island is located 710 miles from Pearl Harbor and contained a naval air station and airfield in 1942. Japanese medium bombers based at Johnston island would have been able to join the carrier-launched air attacks on Oahu. On their approach to Oahu, these bombers could have been protected by Zero fighters launched from the Japanese carriers.

The Battles of Midway and Coral Sea demonstrated that besieging Japanese warships would have faced little risk from B-17 bombers, and American Army Air Force fighter aircraft were no match for the Japanese Zero in 1942. Someone may say "but what about the threat to the Japanese warships from American submarines?" If facilities to fuel and service American submarines somehow survived a full-scale Japanese assault on Oahu, the Japanese warships blockading Hawaii still had little to fear from American submarines. In 1942, American torpedoes almost invariably ran erratically or failed to explode on impact with Japanese ships.

To those who suggest that this is a fanciful scenario, I can only say that I have received an opinion from a retired US Navy admiral who was serving on Hawaii during WW II. He has expressed the view that a major American disaster at Midway, followed by an immediate and sustained Japanese attack on the fuel tanks and other installations that serviced the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, could have made continued operations by the fleet in Hawaiian waters very difficult.

The next step in the Eastern Operation would have been to establish air and naval bases on the large island of Hawaii to increase the pressure on Oahu. With Japanese submarines and surface warships patrolling the eastern approaches to Hawaii, and two thousand miles of unbroken ocean separating Hawaii from the American West Coast, the defence of Hawaii would be a logistical nightmare and there would be little short-term prospect of succour for the beleaguered garrison of Oahu.

It has been suggested that if Japan succeeded in capturing Oahu, sustaining the population of the main Hawaiian island would have been beyond the logistical capabilities of the Japanese. In support of this contention, reference is often made to the study made in January 1942 by Captain Shigenori Kami of the Imperial Navy General Staff. See Dr John J. Stephan's "Hawaii under the Rising Sun" at page 99. Kami's logistical study was undertaken at a time when Navy General Staff was opposed to Eastern Operation, and the study was produced for the express purpose of opposing Combined Fleet's planned Hawaiian operation. Kami formed the view that Hawaii could be captured by Japan, but he also concluded that Japan lacked the shipping tonnage to maintain the importation of food and other supplies to Hawaii at 1941 levels. However, there is no evidence to suggest that Yamamoto ever intended to accept the responsibility of ensuring that the population of Oahu continued to enjoy steak and eggs for breakfast once a Japanese blockade was in effect or in the event that Oahu was surrendered to the Japanese. If Japanese practice in other conquered territories can be taken as a guide, it is almost certain that the Japanese would have required the American population of Oahu to feed themselves or starve.

It appears from those close to Admiral Yamamoto in 1942, that he planned to tighten a noose around Oahu, and hopefully, use the fate of the population of Oahu as a bargaining chip to draw America into peace talks that would lead to a negotiated end to hostilities between Japan and the United States, and American acceptance of Japan's dominance of the central and western Pacific regions, including the Philippines and Australia. Placing the inhabitants of Oahu under threat of starvation could well have been part of Yamamoto's plan to place pressure on the United States to talk peace.

Three Japanese divisions, and they are named in "Hawaii under the Rising Sun" at pages 117-118, were already training for a landing on the island of Hawaii when the Japanese were defeated at Midway, and the Hawaii invasion plan was then shelved.

There is no evidence to suggest that Yamamoto had any intention to attack the West Coast of the United States. He would have been well aware of the enormous logistical difficulties that would have faced the Pacific Fleet in defending Hawaii in 1942 if it was forced to withdraw to the American West Coast. He would have been even more acutely aware of the logistical nightmare that would have faced Japan if he had sought to carry the war to the American West Coast.

We know what Admiral Yamamoto hoped to achieve in Hawaii, but it is somewhat pointless to speculate upon whether or not he could have achieved it. There are simply too many variables. It should be sufficient to give thanks that Midway was an American victory, and an extraordinary one at that!

The Significance of the Battle of Midway for Australians

The importance of the Battle of Midway for Australians lies in the fact that the loss of four powerful fleet aircraft carriers deprived Japan of the capability to mount a full-scale invasion of the Australian mainland and to support with those carriers its aggression against Australia and her territories to the north of the mainland. If those four powerful Japanese aircraft carriers had been available to support Japan’s invasion of Australia's Territory of Papua in July 1942, the fate of Australia may well have been sealed in that same year.