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Prelude to Midway: The Pacific War

Jacob Houston

It was early morning on June 4th, 1942. Over the quiet island atoll of Midway, a giant Japanese force of over 108 carrier based planes flew into attack formation after blowing through the Combat Air Patrol (CAP) fighters sent up by the US Marine forces at Midway. The resulting battle would go down in history as one of the greatest naval battles, and one that decided the course of the war in the Pacific during World War II.

The island country of Japan, located in East Asia had had a long, storied, but isolated history, but with the advent of the late 19th century, the country delved into industrialization. A country considered by the United States to be an economic backwater soon became one of the greatest forces in the East. With the First Sino-Japanese War, The Japanese Empire gained control of not only Korea, but vital territories in China and the island of Taiwan. 

In the resulting years, the Japanese continued growing their empire, defeating the Russian Navy in a surprise victory on the Strait of Tsushima, cementing their place on the world stage as a force to be reckoned with. However, after the end of World War I in 1918, the country was forced on a backfoot with the Washington Naval Treaties, which forced the nation to give up its rapid development of its navy, which at the time rivaled both the United States and Great Britain. 

However, the Japanese continued to expand their territory, invading Manchuria in 1931, beginning the Second Sino-Japanese War, forcing their leave from the League of Nations, and in the following years, nothing seemed to be able to stop the Japanese onslaught except, in a wild turn of events, the United States.

The United States at the end of the 19th century was in a state of rapid expansion of economic, military, and social influence. The advent of Reconstruction and the phase after the American Civil War in the 1860s had brought about a new age of industrialization and corporate power in the country. The United States rapidly expanded west, during the well known Plains Wars, and the country was connected from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean by many different train lines and transportation routes. 

The true test of the United States’s military might came in the late 19th century during the Spanish-American War, where the Americans were able to surmount Spanish control in the Caribbean and in the Pacific, gaining control of numerous overseas colonies. This imperialistic period, which included the purchasing of Alaska and the takeover of Hawaii, thrusted the United States influence into the expanse that was the Pacific, right into the path of the expanding Japanese Empire.

After World War I, naval combat was still said to be dominated by the ruthless battleship, with giant guns and heavy firepower. Nevertheless, the advent of the use of the aircraft carrier brought about a new age in naval warfare, as airborne fighters could use their speed and maneuverability to quickly bomb naval and ground targets and quickly escape into the clouds, rendering most surface ships at the time useless. However, navies around the world considered the battleship to be the paramount addition to naval strength. The United States and Japan, on the other hand, though still producing large battleships with high amounts of firepower, began a workhorse campaign to produce aircraft carriers in rapid fashion.

The Japanese, however, even with the limitations brought on by the Washington Naval Treaty, beat the United States in aircraft carrier production, with modern carriers that would pack a punch in the early stages of the Pacific War. 

The atmosphere in the Pacific during the year 1940 was tense, but when Japanese power encroached too heavily on China and the Philippines, the United States issued an oil embargo on the Japanese. This event was a heavy blow to the imperial might Japan had been trying to build over the years, with 80% of its oil coming from the United States. Thus, the Japanese, in a series of events that would prove the determination to the history of Asia and the world henceforward, began plans for what would become the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

The US fleet had sailed out to Pearl Harbor as a warning to the Japanese that any further encroachment would warrant military action, and the gesture did not go unnoticed. Diplomatic talks fell through, and the Japanese assigned Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, veteran of the Russo-Japanese War, to plan the attack on Pearl Harbor. The admiral reluctantly conceded to planning the attack, hesitant to enter into a war he deemed Japan could not win, but in the end, he created a plan of battle.

During the very early hours of December 7th, 1941, 353 carrier based Japanese planes, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter (the revolutionary carrier fighter at the time with an almost perfect record at the time), the B5N Kate torpedo and high level bomber (the most advanced carrier based torpedo bomber design at the time), and the Aichi D3A Val dive bomber (an older but powerful dive bomber with a high accuracy rate), took off from the Kido Butai, Japan’s prime carrier strike force at the time consisting of the Soryu, Hiryu, Zuikaku, Shokaku, Kaga, and Akagi, all of which were the most powerful carriers at the time. The attack was quick and hit hard, taking over 2,403 US personnel and sinking over seven ships, mainly the heavy battleships anchored. However, the prime targets of the attack, the US aircraft carriers, were missing from the harbor as they were out at sea. This fact heavily disappointed Yamamoto, who saw the attack as only an instigation to force the US into war.

The US, after the attack, had its battleship fleet heavily injured, but its carrier fleet was still intact, something of which they would use to their advantage to the detriment of the Japanese. In the hours following Pearl Harbor, however, the Japanese raided and took over the rest of the American and European colonies and holdings in the Pacific at lightning speed, gaining control of ⅓ of the world's surface in a few months. The US, injured but not defeated, quickly sought to mobilize an accurate response to strike back at the Japanese as quickly as possible.

Admiral Chester Nimitz, a veteran naval submarine commander, was promoted by US President Franklin Roosevelt as Commander in Chief of the US Pacific Fleet in 1941, quickly replacing Admiral Husband Kimmel, the Commander in Chief of the US Pacific Fleet during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Nimitz faced a daunting task of keeping up American morale whilst making sure to efficiently attack and gain victory against the Japanese in the face of the Pearl Harbor attack and the Japanese onslaught.

Thus, he organized the Marshall-Gilbert Islands Raid in 1942, with the American carriers Yorktown and Enterprise, both of which would go down as Pacific War legends. The United States, with its obsolete but deadly fleet of aircraft including the Grumman F4F Wildcat fighter (obsolete at the time but still effective when in the right hands), the TBF Devastator torpedo bomber (outclassed completely by its counterparts but still effective when its torpedoes were working correctly), and the SBD Dauntless dive bomber (very effective in 1942, could also be used as a fighter in some cases). The attack, though ineffective, packed a heavy punch, and morale in both American servicemen and the American public rose dramatically, with three Japanese auxiliary ships sunk with over 18 aircraft destroyed. The Americans only lost 14 aircraft and left the raid with one cruiser damaged. 

However, the Japanese, surprised and angry at the raid, sent two carriers from the Kido Butai to give chase to the American attack fleet, but eventually abandoned any hopes of striking back for the time being. 

The Japanese, in the aftermath, launched the Indian Ocean Raid, with the famed Kido Butai in tow, quickly sinking the British battleship Repulse and aircraft carrier Hermes. The Raid would go on to solidify the Japanese Navy as a formidable power in the Pacific and the rest of the world.

The Americans, emboldened by the morale rise due to the Marshall-Gilbert Islands Raid, initiated one of the most daring aircraft raids in history. Army Colonel James Doolittle requested the use of Army B-24 Liberator bombers to launch an attack against Tokyo and surrounding Japanese cities that were contributing to the war effort. The attack did not seem feasible at first as B-24 bombers were not designed to take off from aircraft carriers, but the raid eventually got approval as a way to heighten American morale even more and pack another punch against the Japanese. 

On April 18th, 1942, B-24 bombers led by Colonel Doolittle took off from the US aircraft carrier Hornet about 700 miles from the center of Tokyo, Japan. Many hours later, the bombers arrived over the skies of Japan, dropping heavy payloads on Japanese factories and shipping. The attack, again, was ineffective, but served to boost American morale across the board, something they would need in the coming months. 

The Japanese, growing increasingly irritated and upset at the continuous raids by US carriers allowed Admiral Yamamoto to go forth with his Operation MI, which was designed around totally and completely destroying the American carrier fleet at sea, thus rendering American sea power useless in the Pacific for the time being. The attack wo,uld be meticulously planned over the coming months, something that would attract the attention of the Americans. 

In the meantime, however, the Japanese initiated Operation MO, or the invasion of Port Moresby in the South Pacific. Yamamoto reluctantly sent his carriers Zuikaku and Shokaku down to escort the army supply and troop ships to the shores of Port Moresby, but little did he know that the United States had intercepted Japanese code with their formidable Naval Intelligence Codebreaker arm (HYPO) led by Commander Joseph Rochefort, and had sent the carriers Lexington and Yorktown to intercept the Japanese fleet. 

The ensuing battle was the first carrier to carrier battle in history, and neither side could see each other as they were hundreds of miles away, sending continuous aircraft strikes over and over again in a contest for who packed the biggest punch. The Japanese prevailed, losing only the light carrier Shoho with the Shokaku getting heavily damaged. However, the Americans paid the heavy price of losing the Lexington with the Yorktown being crippled. The Japanese, though winning the battle tactically, lost the strategic edge, which in turn allowed the Allies to regroup and successfully defend Port Moresby. The Battle of the Coral Sea would be almost like a warm up for the oncoming Battle of Midway, which would decide the course of the Pacific War.

Operation MI, to Yamamoto was a complex strategic plan to decisively destroy the American carrier fleet at the small island atoll of Midway. The atoll was located not so far from Hawaii and an attack there would surely thrust the American carrier force out into the open, directly into the path of the Japanese fleet, consisting of four carriers, Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, and Soryu. After launching an air attack on Midway to cover for a feigned attack on the island, the fleet would regroup and launch against any American carriers that would arrive. Yamamoto himself would trail 250 miles behind the main fleet in his flagship, Yamato. 

The plan was complex, in some ways overcomplicated, but nevertheless it was approved for use, especially after the Doolittle Raid and the continuous American carrier raids during the beginning months of 1942. However, there was still a fear that the American carriers would still show up, and thus the Japanese organized Operation KA, a planned seaplane mission to check on the status of the American fleet with a flyover at Pearl Harbor. 

The United States, however, had begun the rearrangement of its fleet after the Battle of the Coral Sea, and licked its wounds of any further estrangement from its main carrier task forces. However, HYPO had been intercepting Japanese naval code being sent back and forth from the High Command and the fleets at sea. Objective AF was what they seemed to be centered around, and all the buzz from most of the skippers of supply ships and naval destroyers seemed to all communicate about Objective AF. Commander Rochefort asserted that Objective AF must have been Midway.

Thus, Nimitz, against the primary recommendation of Washington DC, set out to meet the Japanese fleet. However, he ran into several problems. First, if Rochefort was wrong, and Midway was not the objective, moving the American fleet out to Midway could leave the entire West Coast US open for Japanese invasion and bombing. Also, the only US carriers available for the battle were the Enterprise and the Hornet, against the four mighty fleet carriers of the Japanese fleet. It was a 2 to 4 disadvantage and Nimitz knew it. Thus, he tried to push for the repairs of the Yorktown, which was said to have to take more than three months to fully repair, however, Nimitz had it repaired in three days. 

The task forces would meet in an ensuing battle in which the Americans would win a decisive victory, but the road to that victory was costly and is central to understanding exactly how the United States gained its footing earlier on during the Pacific Theater of World War II.


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