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The Battle of Midway

The pivotal battle of the war in the Pacific was all about the aircraft carriers.

U.S.S. Enterprise - Battle of Midway
The navies of Japan and the U.S. had very different techniques for launching and recovering aircraft from the decks of their carriers. Naval historians point to these differences as key to the U.S. victory at Midway. Photo by Naval History & Heritage Command, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

We recognize the 80th anniversary of one of the most significant battles of World War II. After months of demoralizing losses for the Allies, the Battle of Midway was the first major victory in the Pacific theater and halted Japanese expansion. The Battle of the Coral Sea, only a month earlier, holds the distinction of being the first battle fought entirely from aircraft carriers. However, the actions of the leaders, pilots and sailors on the carriers at the Battle of Midway shaped how future naval battles would be fought and the course of the war.

Prior to summer 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had enjoyed virtually unchallenged dominance in the Pacific. The Japanese had embraced the concept of carrier-based naval warfare for more than a decade before the war began. They invested in building and refitting their carriers, and their men had been sailing and operating carriers since the 1920s. The U.S. did not fully appreciate the strategic and tactical value of a carrier fleet in modern warfare until much later, leaving the U.S. Navy playing catchup in producing aircraft carriers and training men to operate them. 

At the outset of the war, both sides were learning the strategies and logistics of carrier warfare. The U.S. Navy was eager to try new ideas to close the gap between it and its more experienced adversary, while the Japanese, confident in their superiority, were slow to recognize that their years of carrier experience had been largely untested and the carrier battle playbook was still being written.

Battle dates: June 4-6, 1942

U.S. aircraft carriers: USS Yorktown, USS Hornet, USS Enterprise


Japanese aircraft carriers: Akagi, Kaga, Sōryū, Hiryū

Number of aircraft carried by fleet carriers: 35-55

Number of aircraft carried by light carriers: 30-50

Read “Plane Facts: Aircraft Carriers” to learn more about them.

U.S. aircraft involved: PBYs, Grumman TBF Avengers, SBD Dauntless dive bombers, TBD Devastator torpedo-bombers, F4F-3 Wildcats, Vought SB2U Vindicators, Brewster F2A Buffaloes, B-17 Flying Fortresses, Martin B-26 Marauders

Japanese aircraft: Mitsubishi A6M2 Model 21 “Zero” fighters, Nakajima B5N2 “Kate” torpedo bomber, Aichi D3A1 “Val” dive bomber, Yokosuka D4Y1 “Judy” carrier bomber, Aichi E13A “Jake” reconnaissance seaplane, Nakajima E8N2 “Dave” reconnaissance seaplane


U.S. admirals: Chester W. Nimitz, Frank Jack Fletcher, Raymond A. Spruance

Japanese admirals: Isoroku Yamamoto, Nobutake Kondō, Chūichi Nagumo, Tamon Yamaguchi

Missing from the action: Two Japanese light carriers, Zuikaku and Shōkaku, still in port for repairs and replenishing after being damaged at the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Missing from the action: U.S. Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey was not at the Battle of Midway but in a hospital bed recovering from shingles.

Surprise appearance: The USS Yorktown, the United States’ largest and most capable carrier at the time.

Reason for the surprise: Japanese intel believed the Americans had left it to sink at the Battle of the Coral Sea.


What they really did: Yorktown returned to Pearl Harbor for repairs.

Planned repair time: 3 months

Actual repair time: Just over 48 hours of emergency repairs.

Japanese losses: Approximately 3,057 men, four fleet carriers, one heavy cruiser and 248 aircraft.

U.S. losses: Approximately 307 men, one fleet carrier (Yorktown), one destroyer and 144 aircraft.

Japanese strategy: Bringing all its available sea power to battle.

Consequence: The Imperial Navy lost four of its heavy carriers at Midway.

Number of fleet carriers before June 1942: U.S.-4; Japan-6

Number of fleet carriers after Battle of Midway: U.S.-4; Japan-2

Number of fleet carriers produced during World War II: U.S.-13; Japan-9

Number of light carriers produced during World War II: U.S.-9; Japan-5

Even more costly to the Japanese:was the loss of experienced sailors and pilots at Midway.

Number of Japanese pilots trained per year before Midway: 50

Number of U.S. military pilots trained per year before Midway: Tens of thousands (27,000 in 1941)

Japanese pilot training time: 9 months

U.S. pilot training from zero time to commission: 6 months

Total combat aircraft produced during World War II: U.S.-306,000; Japan-67,000

Nagumo’s decision to rearm the second wave of aircraft:to attack the carriers rather than Midway Island caused a delay in preparing the second wave for launch, leaving the Japanese carriers vulnerable.

Damage control: The U.S. drained refueling lines and filled them with an inert gas (carbon dioxide) to prevent additional explosions and damage.

Magic bullet: One bomb dropped by SBD Dauntless pilot C. Wade McClusky hit the upper hangar deck of the Kaga, causing a fire that rapidly consumed the ship.

Flight deck: Typically, the top deck of the carrier where aircraft are launched and recovered.

Hangar deck: A lower deck where aircraft were repaired, refueled and rearmed.

Number of elevators used to move aircraft between decks: Three

The efficiency of launch and recovery cycle are critical to battle success: Spot, launch, recovery.

Straight flight deck: Such early aircraft carriers could operate one cycle at a time because the same strip was needed for takeoff and landing.

Spot: Positioning aircraft on the carrier to facilitate current operation and allow for refueling and rearming.

U.S.N. recovery technique: Spot returning aircraft on the bow of the flight deck during the recovery cycle while aircraft continued to land.

Order: Fighters land first, taking the most forward position. Then dive bombers and torpedo bombers.

Process: They are spotted, refueled and rearmed at the bow of the carrier.

Arrangement: Aircraft spotted at the bow of the ship are moved astern, fighters in front, bombers in the rear, ready for the next wave.

Japanese strategy: Carriers at Midway rearmed their aircraft on the hangar deck.

No room at the inn: Aircraft that could not land on their own ship would have to wait, land on a different carrier in the fleet, or ditch in the sea.

Complication #1: Carriers under attack cannot launch aircraft because of the need to maneuver and the hazard of having armed and fueled aircraft on the deck.

Complication #2: Carriers must turn into the wind for aircraft to take off, which limits maneuvering options during the launch process.

Wrecks discovered: USS Yorktown on May 19, 1998; Kaga on October 18, 2019, Akagi on October 20, 2019


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