Remembering Midway

On June 4, 75 years ago, the Battle of Midway started. On that day in 1942, four large Japanese carriers and two small carriers, holding together about 300 aircraft began their assault on the remote American base on Midway Island. They were accompanied by 11 capital ships, 16 cruisers, and 53 destroyers.

The Japanese attack was a ruse to draw in American forces and ambush them. Unbeknownst to Japanese, the American signals intelligence was already on them. A smaller American force of three carriers, 8 cruisers and 17 destroyers was scraped together to surprise the Japanese. The Americans had no illusion it would be an easy fight. As Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully ground breaking work Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway:

‘Japan’s carrier force in particular was truly without peer. At Pearl Harbor it demonstrated a level of sophistication that the U.S. Navy would not be able to replicate for another two years… Likewise, Japanese carrier aircraft—epitomized by the marvellous Mitsubishi Zero—were in many cases superior to those used by the U.S. Navy at this stage of the war.’

Against the odds, the American side prevailed. Parshall and Tully ably sum up what made the battle extraordinary:

‘Midway contains all the timeless elements that define a classic clash of arms—an apparent mismatch in the strength of the combatants, a seesaw battle with the initiative passing back and forth, acts of tremendous heroism on both sides, and an improbable climax.’

Midway is typically characterized as a “decisive battle”, one that turned the tide in the Pacific. Writing in War on the Rocks in 2013, Tom Hone propounded this view in an article aptly titled “The Importance of the Battle of Midway”.

While no one denies Midway was a significant and extraordinary battle, other naval historians including Parshall and Tully point out that Japanese strategy was flawed from the start and that the seeds of defeat had already been sowed six months earlier at Pearl Harbor. The most pithy assessment of Midway’s siginificance probably comes from H.P. Willmott: ‘With only slight exaggeration, before Midway the Japanese met nothing but victory, and after Midway the Americans commanded nothing but success.’

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