Midway Atoll in World War II
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Preparing for War
By 1940, tensions between the Japanese and Americans ran high. The U.S. refused to export lumber, iron, and most importantly, petroleum products needed to expand and defend the Japanese empire. With Midway deemed second only to Pearl Harbor, Oahu in importance to protecting the West Coast, airstrips, gun emplacements and a seaplane base quickly materialized on the tiny atoll. But the Navy created a long-term infrastructure as well, creating Naval Air Station Midway.
The Navy working with private industry formed a coalition of contractors known as Contractors Pacific Naval Air Bases (PNAB). PNAB started construction of facilities on Sand and Eastern Islands in the spring of 1940. PNAB Architect Albert Kahn of Detroit, Michigan, designed the Officer's quarters, the mall and several other hangars and buildings.
In his private business, Kahn specialized in factories with many commissions from the Ford Motor Co. His simple, efficient, and aesthetic Naval buildings typically included porthole windows.
Construction of the runways on Eastern Island and the Seaplane Base and other support facilities on Sand Island was completed August 1, 1941. U.S. Naval Air Station Midway was commissioned four months before the start of the war.
Before the start of hostilities, U.S. Marines were stationed on Midway. The Marines were responsible for establishing all the defensive positions and assisted with construction, often serving as stevedores for all the supplies and equipment needed to fortify Midway. The Marines used five-inch guns, built in 1916, and three-inch 1921 vintage guns to defend Midway. America's greatest fear was that Europe would fall to the Nazis, so all of the newest equipment went to the European war theater, and antiquated guns and planes like the Brewster Buffalo went to the Marines in the Pacific.
First Lieutenant George H. Cannon - Photo credit U.S. Navy
"A day that will live in infamy"
What happened on December 7, 1941? Not only were Pearl Harbor, Wake and the Philippines attacked, but Midway was also shelled by two Japanese destroyers. Thought to be bombproof, the command/communications and power plant building was penetrated by a 5 inch shell, probably deflecting off an adjacent laundry building. Marine First Lieutenant George H. Cannon refused medical attention until he was assured communications were restored to his Command Post, even though he had a crushed pelvis. By the time he received medical attention, it was too late, and Cannon died. For his gallant selflessness he received the first Medal of Honor issued to an U.S. Marine in World War II. A street on Sand Island still bears his name.
Bustling with activity, the main seaplane hangar provided shelter to the Patrol Bomber Consolidated - PBY Catalinas, which received maintenance patches and engine repairs. The eyes and ears of the U.S. Navy at Midway in 1942, PBY seaplanes flew around the clock and seaplane ramps were used to launch and retrieve PBYs.
Seaplane hangar - Photo credit USFWS
The enormous seaplane hangar was an easy target. Six shells from the Japanese destroyer attack smashed the hangar and PBY inside, but the civilian contractors quickly rebuilt the structure. During the Battle of Midway, less than six months later, a Japanese pilot dropped a 500-pound bomb, hitting the same side of the hangar. The shrapnel holes in the metal beams stand as evidence of the destruction wrought upon Midway during the shelling of December 7, 1941, and the bombing of June 4, 1942.
During World War II, the U.S. utilized a great military intelligence advantage over the Japanese, in both their radar capabilities and code breaking. The radar on Midway gave position, bearing, and altitude. Intelligence experts discovered that the Japanese planned to attack an unknown site referred to as "AF." To test the theory that Midway was the target, a disinformation message regarding Midway's freshwater supply was sent out over open communication channels. The Japanese intercepted the message and redistributed it in their JN 25 code, saying that "AF" needed fresh water. This strengthened intelligence allowed Admiral Nimitz to reinforce Midway's defenses and station additional bombers, fighters, and torpedo aircraft on Eastern Island in preparation for the suspected attack.
The Battle of Midway
The Japanese wanted naval/air superiority in the Western Pacific. Above all, they needed to ensure the safety of their homeland and protection of the Emperor. After Doolittle's April 18, 1942, raid against Tokyo, Japanese war planners believed that they must widen their zone of defense and somehow destroy the remaining U.S. aircraft carriers in the Pacific. They believed by attacking the Aleutians in Alaska, the U.S. carriers would race to their rescue, where the Japanese carriers could intercept and destroy them at sea, moving on to wipe out Midway's aircraft. Afterward, a gigantic armada could bombard Midway and launch an amphibious invasion of 5,000 Japanese Marines on the U.S. Naval Air Station, which was defended by approximately 4,000 personnel in total, including noncombatants.
What went wrong for the Japanese?
- The Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 proved costly for the Japanese. Needed training was canceled or shortcuts taken. The Japanese also assumed the U.S. casualties at the Battle of the Coral Sea included the U.S. aircraft carrier Yorktown.
- The Americans broke the Japanese naval code and knew the Japanese would strike Midway. The severely damaged Yorktown limped into Pearl Harbor and was amazingly repaired within several days. The Yorktown, Task Force 17 was able to join Task Force 16, U.S. carriers Enterprise and Hornet at a position near Midway called "Point Luck" before the Japanese submarine cordon could establish a warning picket line.
- Another Japanese attempt to gain intelligence, to determine if the U.S. fleet was at Pearl Harbor, failed when two long-range recon floatplanes were unable to refuel from a Japanese submarine at French Frigate Shoals. The submarine tanker was unable to surface because a U.S. seaplane tender was working in the area patrolling PBY aircraft.
Several excellent books have been published about the Battle of Midway. The following briefly summarizes major steps of the battle, but we highly recommend visiting your local library or bookstore to obtain a detailed account of this momentous battle.
June 3, 1942
- The Japanese diversionary attack of the Aleutian Islands occurs.
- PBY Catalina locates Japanese Midway Occupational Force coming from the southwest.
- Midway-based Flying Fortress B-17s try to bomb the landing force, no hits.
- Nimitz clarifies that the above force is not the main body and states the main body (the Japanese carriers) will come from the northwest on June 4.
June 4, 1942
- Before dawn, 16 B-17s leave Midway for second attack on Japanese Invasion Force. PBYs depart in search of the Japanese carriers.
- Japanese carriers launch 108 warplanes to strike Midway.
- PBY spots the Japanese carriers northwest of Midway at a heading of 330 degrees and at about 170 miles out.
- A second PBY reports "many planes" headed toward Midway.
- Remaining U.S. land-based aircraft take off from Eastern Island - B-26 bombers, Grumman single engine torpedo bombers TBF-1, Douglas Dauntless SBD-2 scout/dive bombers, and the Vought Vindicator scout/dive bombers.
- Midway fighter aircraft engage Japanese aircraft 30 miles from Midway and suffer heavy loss.
- Midway under attack - attack is over in about 20 minutes with major damage to facilities on Eastern and Sand Islands.
- Japanese Midway strike commander requests second strike/bombing of Midway.
- U.S. Aircraft from Midway begin attacking Japanese carriers - they score no hits and suffered heavy losses, except for the B-17s which were diverted to attack the Japanese carriers and recorded no hits.
- U.S. Carriers Hornet and Enterprise launch their aircraft to attack the Japanese carriers.
- Japanese Admiral Nagumo orders rearming of planes he has prepared for a possible attack on U.S. ships with land bombs for second strike on Midway.
- Japanese scout plane locates portions of the U.S. Fleet and later the Yorktown.
- Yorktown responds by launching a limited strike with only half of its dive-bombers and fighters taking off.
- Nagumo decides to rearm all planes with torpedoes and armor piercing bombs to attack U.S. ships. Safety precautions are overlooked to ready the aircraft.
- Japanese aircraft return from Midway attack and Nagumo decides to wait to attack the U.S. ships with all aircraft. Japanese carriers turn northeast to engage the reported U.S. carrier.
- U.S. TBD2 Devastors, torpedo bombers from the Hornet and Enterprise attack the carriers without the protection of the Wildcat fighters. Yorktown TBDs attack with the fighter escort but still suffer heavy losses. Forty out of 44 TBD2 aircraft are lost, with no hits. Ensign George Gay is the sole survivor of Hornet's Torpedo Squadron Eight.
- Japanese fighter aircraft protecting their carriers are running out of ammunition and fuel after mopping up after the torpedo bomber attacks.
- Dive-bombers, SBD2 Douglas Dauntless, from the Enterprise and Yorktown arrived over the Japanese carriers and in a 6-minute attack, the Kaga, Akagi, and Soryu were set ablaze. The remaining Japanese carrier, the Hiryu, escapes.
- Hornet's dive-bombers and fighters miss the initial action.
- Aircraft from the Hiryu launch an attack on the Yorktown - three bombs find their mark. Damage control parties had Yorktown underway at two-thirds speed with all fires controlled within two hours after the attack.
- Second wave of Japanese aircraft from the Hiryu attack the Yorktown, thinking that it was another carrier; two torpedoes find their mark - Yorktown abandoned but remains afloat.
- SBD2 dive-bomber planes from all three U.S. Carriers follow the Japanese fliers back to the Hiryu and attack the carrier and set it ablaze. All four Japanese carriers are out of commission.
- Admirals Fletcher and Spruance turned the U.S. Fleet to the east to avoid a nighttime surface battle with the Japanese cruisers and battleships.
June 5, 1942
- Japanese commander Yamamoto cancels Midway invasion.
- The two Japanese carriers hit on June 4 that did not sink were scuttled by the Japanese surface ships.
- PBY Catalina aircraft search the area of the battle and pick up survivors. Ensign George Gay rescued after staying in the water 36 hours.
- All available aircraft from Midway, Enterprise and Hornet searched for Japanese ships still in the area. "It's like shooting ducks in a barrel," responds one pilot because the Japanese ships had no aircraft protection.
- Salvage efforts begin on the Yorktown.
June 6, 1942
- Japanese submarine spots the Yorktown and destroyer escort.
- Midway PBY Catalina aircraft search the area of the battle and pick up survivors.
- Japanese submarine (I-168) torpedoes Yorktown and the U.S. destroyer Hammann. The Hammann was beside the Yorktown aiding the salvage efforts. Two torpedoes hit the Hammann and it sinks within minutes. The Yorktown is hit with two torpedoes and starts listing/sinking.
- Further attacks by U.S. on Japanese fleet occur.
- Yamamoto orders all-out battle on U.S. Fleet, but air search fails to find it, plan given up.
- Japanese withdrawal begins.
June 7, 1942
- USS Yorktown sinks
- U.S. Task Force 17 breaks up. Some ships join Task Force 16 and others return to Hawaii.
At the end of the Battle of Midway, all four Japanese carriers involved in the attack on Pearl Harbor had been sunk, while the United States lost the carrier Yorktown. The Japanese lost 256 of their finest aircraft, and more than 200 of their most experienced pilots and several thousand sailors perished. The Japanese Navy never fully recovered and its expansion into the Pacific had been stopped. American naval power in the Pacific was restored. The American victory at Midway was the turning point of the Pacific campaign of World War II.
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