The four-day Battle of Midway in June 1942 was more than just a battle over an air and submarine base. Coming almost exactly six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, it resulted in a surprising – yet decisive – victory for the United States and would change the course of the war in the Pacific.
The location of the Midway Islands and their history are important to know in order to better understand the stakes involved.
A brief history of the Midway Islands
The Midway Islands were, and still are, an unincorporated territory of the US. Located 1,300 miles away from Hawaii’s capital, Honolulu, they are made up of two main islands: the Green and Sand Islands. Although a part of the Hawaiian archipelago, they are not a part of the state of Hawaii.
The islands were claimed by the US in 1859 by Captain N. C. Brooks. They were first named Middlebrooks and then just Brooks, but eventually named Midway after the US formally annexed the islands in 1867.
The islands’ location as a midpoint between North America and Asia made them both strategic and necessary for trans-pacific flights and communication. Beginning in 1935, they served as a stopover point for flights between San Francisco and Manila.
President Theodore Roosevelt handed control of the Midway Islands to the US Navy in 1903. Thirty-seven years later, the Navy began construction on an air and submarine base. It was this base that led to the Islands becoming a target for the Japanese in World War Two.
Why Japan wanted to take Midway
Following the attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, the US’s air and naval forces were substantially depleted. Among the vessels damaged were all eight of its battleships; two were lost completely and the rest were temporarily taken out of commission.
Thus, the US entered World War Two on the defensive. Another attack seemed imminent and it was crucial for American intelligence to crack the Japanese codes so that they could properly prepare for any further assaults.
Pearl Harbour may have been a big win for Japan, but the Japanese wanted more influence and power in the Pacific. And so it decided to launch an attack on Midway. A successful invasion of the islands would have meant the destruction of an American air and submarine base and made future attacks by the US in the Pacific nearly impossible.
Taking control of Midway would have also given Japan the perfect launching pad for other invasions in the Pacific, including of both Australia and the US.
A decisive loss for Japan
Japan launched an attack on Midway on 4 June 1942. But unbeknownst to the Japanese, the US had cracked their book ciphers code and were therefore able to anticipate the attack, countering it with their own surprise assault.
Four days later, Japan was forced to withdraw after losing nearly 300 aircraft, all four aircraft carriers involved in the attack and 3,500 men – including some of its best pilots.
The US, meanwhile, lost only one carrier, the USS Yorktown. With minimal losses, the US quickly began preparations for the Guadalcanal campaign, the Allied forces’ first major offensive against Japan. The campaign launched in the first week of August 1942 and resulted in an Allied victory the following February.
The defeat at Midway stopped the progression of Japan across the Pacific. Never again would the Japanese control the Pacific theatre.