Midway – The Battle That Changed the War in the Pacific

Hollywood loves blockbuster films about World War II and the new “Midway” promises to be another box office success. It tells the story of one of the most important and dramatic naval battles in history. Here, you can read the top secret dispatches that came to the White House during that battle.

The spring of 1942 was a terrible time for the U.S. Navy. German U-Boats roamed freely throughout the Atlantic Ocean, sinking ships carrying precious cargo to England and there was little the Navy could do to stop them. In the Pacific, the Japanese Empire reigned supreme, defeating Allied forces on land and at sea. The first real contest of American Naval power against the Japanese in the Battle of the Coral Sea ended with a draw, but laid the foundation for a shocking American victory at Midway just one month later. The Japanese overestimated the damage they had done to the carrier USS Yorktown claiming they had sunk it. Meanwhile two Japanese carriers required extensive repairs which would keep them in dry dock for months.

Even with two of its carriers out of action for repairs the Japanese Navy was much larger and more experienced then the U.S. Navy. Japan could boast 11 battleships, 6 fleet carriers, 4 light carriers, 18 heavy cruisers, 18 light cruisers, 113 destroyers and 63 submarines.

Imperial Japanese Navy’s battle ship, Yamato running full-power trials in Sukumo Bay, 1941

Their flagship, the massive battleship Yamato, was the largest most powerful warship in the world, displacing 72,000 tons when fully loaded. 

The American fleet had been badly damaged at Pearl Harbor and could only muster 7 battleships, 4 aircraft carriers, 12 heavy cruisers, 8 light cruisers 50 destroyers 33 submarines. It was not an even fight.

But the Americans had a very secret weapon – they had broken a Japanese code and were aware that a major attack was planned at a place the Japanese identified as AF. The only problem was the Americans could not agree on where AF was. 

Joe Rochefort

Joe Rochefort was a key figure in the code breaking team based in Hawaii, and he believed AF referred to Midway. But high level Navy officers in Washington didn’t believe it, and thought the Japanese were going to attack Australia instead. Breaking any number of rules, Rochefort convinced the radio operators on Midway to send an unencrypted message over the airways reporting that the water treatment equipment on Midway was broken and they were running out of fresh water. The Japanese picked up the message and when they transmitted that “AF was short of drinking water” Rochefort was proven right. This had enormous consequences as it allowed Admiral Nimitz to commit his entire fleet to ambushing the Japanese when they attacked Midway.

Aerial photograph of Midway Atoll, looking just south of west across the southern side of the atoll, 24 November 1941. Eastern Island, then the site of Midway’s airfield, is in the foreground. Sand Island, location of most other base facilities, is across the entrance channel.

The following secret messages are part of FDR’s Map Room archive. They were sent to Chief of Staff General George Marshall at the White House. These documents were not declassified until 1973 and have never been published in this form before. The first one arrived on May 21st, revealing that the U.S. Navy knew an attack was coming.

Admiral Nimitz began a concerted effort to reinforce the tiny island of Midway, sending B-17s dive bombers, fighters, Marines, and tons of fuel and supplies. The island became so crowded that crews slept in hangers and bomb lockers.

Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina in flight

Long range PBY Catalina seaplanes and B-17s flew reconnaissance missions reaching out 500 miles to try to locate the Japanese fleet headed their way.  Meanwhile the Yorktown was undergoing around the clock repairs in Hawaii to get ready for the battle.

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5) in Dry Dock No. 1 at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, 29 May 1942, receiving urgent repairs for damage received in the Battle of Coral Sea. She left Pearl Harbor the next day to participate in the Battle of Midway. USS West Virginia (BB-48), sunk in the 7 December 1941 Japanese air attack, is being salvaged in the left distance.

The Japanese had three large fleets heading toward Midway; the First Carrier Striking Force with four main carriers and dozens of support ships; the Second Fleet Main Invasion force with troop carriers and nearly a hundred support ships; and the First Fleet Main Force, with Admiral Yamamoto and three Yamato class battleships, two carriers and dozens of support ships. The First Fleet was hundreds of miles behind the Carrier Strike Force and never fired a shot. Yamamoto expected to find just two U.S. aircraft carriers, and he wanted to lure them into battle so his superior force could destroy them. Instead there were three carriers waiting in ambush and many land based fighters and bombers.

The Japanese launched their attack early on the morning of June 3, 1942. This is the first message received at the White House at around 6:00 am.

The first wave of 108 Japanese bombers and fighters hit Midway hard, but they were not able to knock out the runway. The Japanese would need to launch a second attack on the island.  

What Admiral Yamamoto did not realize was that the American carriers, Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet, had already launched their planes and they would catch the Japanese carriers at their most vulnerable, while their planes were on the deck refueling. The first wave of American planes suffered terrible loses, but kept the Japanese fleet from launching their planes. The second wave of U.S. dive bombers arrived at the perfect moment and delivered a devastating blow knocking three carriers out of commission.  The fourth carrier, the Hiryu was sunk the next day.

The burning Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu, photographed by a Yokosuka B4Y aircraft from the carrier Hosho shortly after sunrise on 5 June 1942. Hiryu sank a few hours later. Note the collapsed flight deck over the forward hangar.

At 4 pm another message came into the White House detailing the U.S. attack on the Japanese fleet.  The Navy did not want any word of the attacks leaked to the press until Admiral Nimitz, the Commander in Chief – Pacific (Cincpac) authorized it. 

At 7:00pm a message reporting the damage to Midway arrived at the White House, followed an hour later by another report. The battle raged across hundreds of miles of open ocean, the ship commanders never seeing their opponents, the entire battle fought from the air. Victory hung in the balance.

There was confusion on both sides, but it was becoming clear that the Americans were winning. Finally at 6:00pm on June 5th a summary report reached the White House outlining the results of the battle.

By this time the Japanese fleet, which the Americans called the Orange Force, had four carriers damaged or sunk and had lost more than 3,000 men including many of their best pilots.  The Americans lost one carrier, the Yorktown and 307 men.

The Battle of Midway was a major turning point in the Pacific theater, shifting the initiative from the Japanese to the Americans, allowing the U.S. to launch the attack on Guadalcanal. For more on that battle see https://fdr.blogs.archives.gov/2017/08/07/75th-anniversary-of-the-battle-for-guadalcanal/ .  

By Paul Sparrow, Director FDR Library