This Day in History: An American victory at the Battle of Midway

On this day in 1942, the Battle of Midway is fought. The Japanese had taken Americans by surprise at Pearl Harbor mere months before. Now the United States would strike a decisive blow of its own.

Americans entered battle with a priceless advantage: They’d recently broken a Japanese naval code. The U.S. Navy had a pretty good idea of when, where, and how the Japanese would attack.

They’d barely figured out the “where”! As cryptanalysts listened to the intercepted messages, they kept hearing references to location “AF,” but they didn’t know where AF was. Could it be Midway? They decided to test the theory.

The personnel at Midway were asked to broadcast an uncoded radio message, reporting that their water purification system was broken. And wouldn’t you know it? American intelligence soon picked up a coded Japanese message, faithfully reporting that “AF” had a water shortage.

Japan had been tricked into confirming the location of “AF.”

The Japanese attack was sighted on radar early on June 4, as expected. Naturally, Midway was already on alert. Moreover, three United States aircraft carriers hovered nearby, just beyond the reach of Japanese radar.

The battle that followed was intense. Japanese planes rained down fire on the Midway atoll, but Americans returned unrelenting antiaircraft fire. In the meantime, American planes from Midway took off toward the Japanese carriers. “All of these attacks would be bravely carried out but ineffective, scoring no hits on any Japanese ship,” historian Ian W. Toll describes. “But the continuous pressure of new air attacks, however ineffectual, put the Japanese off balance.”

Torpedo bombers from the U.S. aircraft carriers finally arrived, but they fared badly. Mitsuo Fuchida, an officer aboard the Japanese carrier Akagi, later recounted his “breathless suspense, thinking how impossible it would be to dodge all their torpedoes.” But most of these planes did not have fighter escorts, and they were quickly defeated.

Nevertheless, the Japanese were contending with their own problems. Their commanding officer had waffled on whether to arm his planes with land bombs (to attack Midway) or torpedoes (to attack the American fleet). Ultimately, the Japanese carriers were caught in a vulnerable position. Some planes were refueling; some were rearming with torpedoes. Bombs and torpedoes were lying around the hangar deck of the carriers, not yet returned to their magazines: All this material created a risk of secondary explosions in the event of a strike.

Complicating matters, even those planes that were already in the air were flying too low to deal with what came next: American dive bombers.

Yes! The Navy’s most effective weapon chose that inconvenient moment to arrive.

“The terrifying scream of the dive-bombers reached me first,” Fuchida recounted, “followed by the crashing explosion of a direct hit. There was a blinding flash and then a second explosion, much louder than the first. . . . Then followed a startling quiet as the barking of guns suddenly ceased. I got up and looked at the sky. The enemy planes were already gone from sight.”

Within about five minutes, three aircraft carriers in the Japanese fleet were effectively destroyed, including hundreds of pilots, planes, aircraft maintenance crews and repairmen. A fourth aircraft carrier would be lost by the end of the day.

Americans suffered losses, too, but their victory was undeniable: Japan’s ability to fight an air war had been severely compromised.