Hitler’s blitz swept through Poland, the low countries, and France from September 1939 to June 1940, but it paled in comparison to the military feat accomplished by the Japanese in an even shorter period of time. Adolph’s European conquest geographically would not even cover the Japanese home islands, yet Japan extended its power and control 4,000 miles east toward Hawaii, 4,000 miles south toward Australia, and 4,000 miles west into the Indian Ocean. Admiral Nagumo’s fleet alone had swept almost 50,000 miles across the high seas from Japan to Hawaii and back, to New Britain, to Truk, to Java, to the Celebes, toward Australia, toward Ceylon and back to Japan. The triumphant Japanese had lost but 23 war-fighting vessels, none larger than a destroyer. Though 300,000 tons of Japanese merchant shipping went to the bottom, what they captured in Allied harbors more than exceeded their losses.
On the surface, it all seemed to come easily for the Japanese. In a mere five months, every objective of the imperial grand scheme had been achieved. Across 10,000 miles of ocean from Hawaii to Australia to India, the Combined Fleet reigned supreme. The Allies had been routed out of the Southwest Pacific with the exception of New Guinea. No one on the imperial staff doubted Port Moresby on New Guinea’s south coast would soon capitulate, just as the other Allied bastions had. Once Japan moved east into the Bismark Archipelago and finished securing the Solomon Islands, Australia would be dealt with next.
Japanese military doctrine stressed offense. Their fighting ships, aircraft, submarines, and ground forces were designed for and functioned well when on the attack. Little consideration was given to defense. When attacked, the Japanese soldier, sailor, airman, flag officer, or even emperor had difficulty reacting properly. Poorly considered attempts at swift vengeance were the typical response: the April 18, 1942, Doolittle Raid a prime example. The imperial staff planning focused on continuing the offensive, since reverting to a hold-and-consolidate posture might indicate temerity and yield the initiative to the Allies.
As the lights were going out in the Philippines in late April and early May, American listening posts picked up message traffic indicating a Japanese invasion force was proceeding around the northern side of New Guinea, intent on seizing Port Moresby. This outpost was the last remaining Allied base of any size north of Australia. An Allied loss here would put Japan’s air power well within reach of the southern continent’s northern extremities and provide jumping off points should invasion of Eastern Australia be in the offing.
Admiral Nimitz in Hawaii and General MacArthur in Australia recognized the extreme threat to Australia that this Japanese gambit represented. To ambush the invasion, Nimitz ordered into action both the Lexington under Rear Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch and Yorktown under Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, the overall commander of the task forces that included escorting cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and tankers.
En route to the battle for Port Moresby, the 4th Japanese fleet under the command of Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inouye included two carriers, Zuikaku and Shokaku, along with one light carrier, Shoho, four heavy cruisers, submarine-hunting destroyers, and 14 troop/supply transports. The Japanese task force swung east for a stop on May 3 at Tulagi. The Japanese were lucky; the Australians had abandoned their outpost on this small island three days prior. Without opposition, a garrison made up of troops, seaplanes, destroyers, minesweepers, and support equipment disembarked and occupied the small island and its harbor located just north of Guadalcanal in the Solomons. Then the main force continued on toward Port Moresby.
Upon learning of the Tulagi landings while at sea, Fletcher launched an air strike on May 4, from 100 miles south. Three waves of planes struck the island’s new tenants. One Japanese destroyer had to be beached, and five seaplanes were sunk, as were four barges and three minesweepers. But Fletcher had given himself away. He withdrew his force south, then swung west, hoping to surprise the Port Moresby-bound transports, which his intelligence estimated were about to appear rounding the eastern tip of New Guinea on the sixth.
But Admiral Inouye instructed his invasion transports to remain at sea while he detached his striking force to take up hot pursuit of the maneuvering American carriers. On the night of May 6, the two fleets passed 60 miles abeam each other going in opposite directions. A Japanese scout plane, flying well to the south of the two American carriers, spotted the U.S. oiler Neosho and her escort, the destroyer USS Sims, before 8 a.m. on the 7th, yet the Japanese crew reported these ships as a “carrier and cruiser.”
Later that morning, a U.S. scout plane alerted Fletcher that two Japanese carriers and four heavy cruisers were headed his way from the northwest. It, too, was mistaken. The carriers were now southeast. Based on these botched reports, both sides felt pressed to act. Thus began what would come to be known as the Battle of the Coral Sea. The Japanese launched two strikes in the direction of their sighting. Both found the ships, but the first strike employed level bombing from altitude. All bombs missed. This was not the case for the second attempt by dive bombers. Shortly after noon, the Sims went to the bottom and the Neosho was reduced to a drifting wreck that was scuttled four days later.
Fletcher’s strike involved 93 aircraft. They found the wrong ships just before noon. Lieutenant Commander Weldon L. Hamilton in an SBD Dauntless dive bomber spotted the light carrier Shoho and decided that, light or not, it was a carrier and needed to be sent to the bottom. All 93 aircraft took part in one continuous, chaotic, attack lasting 26 minutes.
At the Combat Information Centers aboard both American carriers, little of the garbled radio transmissions made much sense. Suddenly, Lieutenant Commander Robert E. Dixon, Lexington’s second SBD flight leader, transmitted clearly and loudly, “Scratch one flattop! Dixon to Carrier, scratch one flattop!” The tension on the carriers exploded as men cheered in jubilation.
It was, in retrospect, a hollow rejoicing. That same day, May 7, some 2,700 miles to the northwest, General Wainwright formally surrendered the Philippines to the Japanese.
On May 8, Japanese and American scout planes out over the Coral Sea located each other’s main fleets east of New Guinea. Every available aircraft was launched by both sides. Yorktown was hit by one delay-action bomb that penetrated four decks and exploded, killing 64 sailors. The Lexington was hit by at least two torpedoes and two bombs but kept up steam even though on fire. She began to list, but the crew counter-flooded compartments with oil ballast to stabilize her while they fought the fires.
Lexington’s airborne planes along with those from the Yorktown spotted the carrier Shokaku turning into the wind to launch aircraft. The attack was on. American torpedo bombers launched at too great a distance and missed, but the dive bombers had better luck. One bomb struck near the bow and one aft. A third later smashed into her deck. The now heavily damaged Shokaku limped away, her decks of steel and planks mangled and burning.
The American planes headed home, with Lexington’s aircraft recovering aboard in spite of her heavy damage. Just after one in the afternoon, a smoldering fire aboard the Lexington, caused by a motor generator left running, spread to high-octane fuel, touching off a succession of explosions. Seven hours later she went to the bottom. Fletcher then reversed course for Hawaii with his remaining carrier and supporting ships.
Though the Japanese suffered less damage and loss, the invasion of Port Moresby was turned away, since Inouye withdrew his fleet to Japan for repairs. The engagement was the first carrier versus carrier engagement and the first between naval forces that never came within sight of each other. This was the second time a Japanese invasion had been turned back, the first being the initial Wake Island attack in early December 1941.
The battle of the Coral Sea was the third naval probe by the American fleet, and Admiral Yamamoto’s concern regarding maintaining the initiative now peaked. Though the first two U.S. forays involved the Gilbert and Marshal Islands in February and the Marcus Islands in March, the Coral Sea operation was a deep Pacific probe. Early on, Yamamoto became fully aware that air power was making the difference in virtually every operation the Japanese were conducting, and that the proper application of that arm would determine the outcome of the war. In that light, he felt the aircraft carrier, not the battleship, determined fleet strength, and as such the Allied carriers needed to be dealt with promptly while the Japanese Navy had numerical superiority. Early in Yamamoto’s career, the Russian fleet had been surprised at Port Arthur, then drawn into battle at Tsushima Strait where they were soundly defeated. What works, works, was Yamamoto’s creed, and he intended to repeat the performance. A strike at Midway, two small islands (Sand and Eastern) located 1,150 miles northwest of Hawaii, would be the setting, an operation that was sure to draw the American carriers into battle. Only this time, instead of being an ordinary seaman fighting the battle, he would be the commander who devised and orchestrated Japan’s most decisive victory.
In preparation, an odd exercise had been tested. Called Operation K, two H8K1 Emily flying boats took off from Wotje Island in the Marshalls on March 4. They set down at French Frigate Shoals, a reef 487 miles northwest of Honolulu, Hawaii. Refueled by submarines, they then launched on a night reconnaissance and bombing mission over Pearl Harbor, Oahu. U.S. Army radars detected the Japanese planes while they were some 200 miles from Oahu. Fighters were launched to intercept, but were unable to obtain visual contact in the dark. The two Emily seaplanes arrived over Oahu just after two in the morning, but the island was shrouded in clouds. Both planes released their bombs above what they thought was Ford Island and subsequently reported success. One stick of bombs actually struck harmlessly on Mount Tantalus above Waikiki. The other string splashed into the sea at the entrance to Pearl Harbor. In view of the reported results, Yamamoto incorporated a similar mission into his maturing Midway Plan, which had been forwarded to the imperial staff in April.
The generals and admirals in Tokyo had other ideas. Being debated were three options: thrusts toward either Australia, India, or Hawaii. The “Australia first” group considered the continent a grave threat, an eventual springboard for an Allied counteroffensive. As such, Australia needed to be under Japanese control or its sea lanes closed to U.S. shipping. But the Army generals vigorously opposed the idea of invading Australia. The China problem had given them no illusions regarding the task being suggested. The Army staff concluded it could not assemble the 10 or more divisions needed for such an operation. Navy staff officers bristled, suspecting the Army was holding back its divisions, counting on the success of Hitler’s upcoming Caucasus offensive in the spring to allow Japan to initiate a ground offensive against the Russians in the vulnerable Soviet Far East. The Army was also opposed to extending control westward into the Indian Ocean. A proposed amphibious assault on Ceylon would again pull divisions from China and make things there vulnerable to a Soviet counter.
The Hawaii option envisioned occupation of Midway, Johnston and Palmyra Islands from which air power could be brought to bear on Hawaii to support amphibious landings there. Once Hawaii was under Japanese control, the U.S. would effectively be shut out of the Central and Western Pacific. But surprise would no longer be available, and the amount of airspace over the Hawaiian Islands was considered too extensive for medium bombers and long-range fighters to adequately cover.
While the fractured staff worked toward a solution that all could agree upon, plans had gone forward to at least isolate Australia by extending control east beyond New Guinea into the Solomon Islands, plus the New Caledonia, Fiji Islands, and Samoa area.
Yamamoto’s scheme at Midway, though complex, seemed more manageable than the other three options the staff was deliberating. More importantly, the Army had no objections, their contribution to the effort being minimal.
Yamamoto wanted to draw out the American carriers via a feint at the Aleutians immediately prior to the assault on Midway. The plan would require the largest Japanese naval commitment to date. Within the Combined Fleet, the only outspoken opposition against the plan came from Vice Admiral Inouye and his 4th Fleet staff. Inouye had presided over the debacle on the first attempt to invade Wake Island. It was one of his destroyers that was among the largest Japanese war ships lost during the first four months of the war. Yamamoto, not altogether thrilled with the 4th Fleet performance to date, ignored Inouye’s rebuff. But the admiralty staff in Tokyo also had misgivings about the value of Midway, and in particular the heavy logistic requirement needed to supply both it and the Aleutian Islands once occupied. After successfully invading Midway, long-range bombers from Hawaii could attack the island, while Japanese land-based medium bombers on Midway would be limited in their ability to respond in kind. Due to its size, Midway offered little hope for dispersal and concealment of aircraft, fuel, and munitions, while the Hawaiian Islands had ample locations to disperse everything. Continuous day and night air patrols would be required around Midway to minimize losses from these expected forays.
The admiralty staff eventually leaned toward the isolation of Australia. They believed that severing the sea lanes would be the best way to draw out the American carriers. In doing so, the decisive battle would occur much farther from Hawaii such that logistics issues for both sides would be equalized.
Yamamoto threw aside these objections, claiming the most direct way to isolate Australia was to “destroy the enemy’s carrier forces, without which the supply line could not in any case be maintained.” Japan’s superiority over the U.S. Pacific Fleet in carriers alone at that time was nearly three to one, with Japan possessing seven large and four light carriers against America’s four large carriers. The admiral also pointed out that even if the four U.S. carriers could not be drawn to battle, “we shall still realize an important gain by advancing our defensive perimeter to Midway and the Western Aleutians without obstruction.”
In the months following the opening of the Pacific War, Yamamoto’s efforts in protecting of Tokyo and the Imperial Palace became close to an obsession. He had established the picket boat line, yet the U.S. Navy incursion at Marcus Islands in March made him nervous. But all the arguments against Yamamoto’s Midway plan paled when the unthinkable did happen.
Doolittle’s Raid on Tokyo on April 18 ended the wrangling. The admiralty staff threw in the towel and signed off on the Yamamoto venture. Key to its success was timing. Yamamoto wanted the mission launched in early June when the moon was full. Complex maneuvers would be conducted at night, and the fleet’s lack of radar once again was having a direct impact in strategic decisions. A delay until July’s full moon was considered unacceptable by Yamamoto.
A mission rehearsal, or rather a table-top war game, was scheduled by Yamamoto on the Yamato during the first week in May. The exercise went smoothly. It did so because chief of staff Rear Admiral Matome Ugaki canceled or revised the adverse rulings of the game’s umpires at every negative outcome. In one reported instance of what would become supreme irony, the Japanese officer acting as the American player rolled his dice the first time and sank four of Yamamoto’s carriers. The Japanese side complained that it was not possible for this to happen and had him re-roll. This attempt resulted in one carrier sunk and two damaged.
That same week, the New Guinea part of the headquarters plan to isolate Australia hit a snag as a consequence of the Battle of the Coral Sea. Once again Vice Admiral Inouye had failed to deliver on time. The Japanese staff, now with increased urgency, sought a means to prevent the U.S. fleet from establishing a secure sea lane to and from Australia. How to go about it was what had them stymied. Yamamoto with his Midway plan offered a solution.
Two fleet commanders who would find themselves in leading roles at Midway, Vice Admirals Kondo (Second Fleet) and Nagumo (First Air Fleet), were engaged in battle operations during the planning cycle. By the time they learned of the proposed operation, it was no longer being argued, but had been locked in. Thus the Japanese Combined Fleet began assembling for the largest naval operation in history.
The plan called for over 200 ships and submarines including 8 carriers bearing over 700 planes, 11 battleships, 22 cruisers, 65 destroyers, 21 submarines, plus 80 transports and auxiliary support ships, all arranged in 16 different fleets. The required fuel alone exceeded that needed for a full year of peacetime operations.
At naval headquarters on Oahu, Admiral Nimitz had an element that most wartime commanders could only dream about. Designated Station Hypo, it was the admiral’s code-breaking team led by Commander Joe Rochefort. The commander was regarded by some as brilliant but eccentric, often wearing a red smoking jacket and carpet slippers at work. He assembled a group of similarly minded code breakers whose work would ultimately change the outcome of the war. By the first week in May, Station Hypo had already discovered that Yamamoto had a grand scheme in the works. What they did not yet know was the where and when. The Japanese began referring to the next battle as occurring at point AF. But where was AF? Rochefort thought it was Midway, but had to prove it. He got the nod from Admiral Nimitz to send a message to Midway via secure underwater cable asking them to transmit in the clear that their fresh-water distilling plant was out of service. The hope was that the Japanese would intercept the transmission and comment on it. They did. On May 20, code breaker Tommy Dyer working in Station Hypo decoded a message sent to Tokyo from the Japanese listening station now on Wake Island. The message alerted Yamamoto regarding a water emergency at point AF. Bingo!
Nimitz now had enough deciphered message traffic from Japan to convince him that the next push by the Japanese was toward Midway and the Aleutians. This was no gambit aimed at an Australian outpost on a backwater island thousands of miles away. This was aimed at American soil, and there would be no thought of anything but a maximum response.
Nimitz had already visited Midway on May 2, ordering an increase in the garrison force and aircraft needed to defend the island. Nineteen Marine Corps SBD-2 Dauntless dive bombers, seven F4F Wildcat fighters, 30 PBY flying boats, plus 18 B-17 and four B-26 bombers were added to the air power on station, bringing the total to 119 aircraft. The admiral also stationed 20 submarines in three patrol arcs around the island at 100, 150, and 200 miles out. All were in place as the Nagumo force closed the distance to Midway.
Nimitz did not ignore Alaska. The command arrangement there was a merger of U.S. Army, Navy, and Canadian forces, with the U.S. Navy as the senior service.