In the first six months after its attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Japanese navy swept the Pacific and Indian Oceans from Hawaii to Ceylon. It sank dozens of American, British and other Allied ships, often in one-sided victories.
The goal was to clear such a vast region of sea around Japan that no counterattack would be practical, forcing the U.S. and other Allies to accept domination of the western Pacific and Southeast Asia.
But a Japanese plan to round out its successes led instead to a decisive defeat of the Japanese navy at the Battle of Midway. Four of the six Japanese aircraft carriers that had struck at Pearl Harbor went to the bottom of the ocean, compared with just one American carrier lost. The initiative in the Pacific War shifted relentlessly toward U.S. and Allied forces.
A Sea Battle — and an Information Battle
Today, as recounted by Alan Taylor in Atlantic magazine, Midway is most remembered as the first great, full-scale clash between fleets of aircraft carriers. Indeed, it was only the second battle between carriers — the first was just a month earlier, the Battle of the Coral Sea, in which the U.S. Navy fought a Japanese task force to a draw.
But even before the first airstrikes were launched, as Mark Munson reports at warontherocks.com, the Battle of Midway also demonstrated the decisive role of the information battlefield in modern warfare.
The Japanese high command had devised a complex plan intended to catch the Americans by surprise and complete the elimination of U.S. naval strength that had begun at Pearl Harbor. Instead, thanks to American codebreakers and information analysts, it was the Japanese navy that was taken by surprise and defeated.
Midway Island, some 1,500 miles west of Hawaii, was the last outpost west of Hawaii that was still in U.S. hands — and the first vital link in the chain of bases that the U.S. would need to take the war to Japan. A Japanese landing there would thus deliver a crippling blow — and perhaps pave the way for an invasion of Hawaii itself.
As part of the operation, Japan’s Admiral Yamamoto and his colleagues dispatched coordinated forces across thousands of miles of the Pacific, extending as far as Alaska. These forces were intended to leave American commanders uncertain of what objectives the Japanese would strike at. What Admiral Yamamoto did not know was that the Americans had partially broken the Japanese top secret naval code.
Seeking the Identify of “AF”
The information provided by the code breakers was tantalizing but not complete. Japanese communications revealed that an attack was intended on a place code-named “AF.” American analysts suspected that AF was Midway, but how could they be sure?
To find out, the U.S. base on Midway was secretly ordered to broadcast a message “in the clear” (uncoded) saying that it was running low on drinking water. The Japanese intercepted the message — as they were intended to — and were soon reporting that “AF” was short of water.
For the Japanese, it was a fatal mistake. They had been tricked into revealing their objective, while they remained in the dark about American moves in response. Japanese planners also mistakenly thought that the carrier USS Yorktown had been sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea. In fact, it only had been damaged, and was already back in service.
Thus, the Japanese commanders thought that their four aircraft carriers were opposed by only two American carriers, when in fact they faced three, plus American aircraft on Midway itself. The coming battle would be more even than they realized — while their own complex plan left Japanese forces so spread out that they could not all support each other.
Fire From the Sky, Fire on the Sea
The battle itself began on June 3, 1942, when an American reconnaissance plane spotted part of the Japanese fleet. An airstrike by B-17s based on Midway had no effect. The next day, June 4, Japanese aircraft hit Midway, where they did considerable damage, but also got a tough reception from defending Grumman F4F Wildcats.
But by that time, as Taylor notes, U.S. counterstrikes had already been launched toward the Japanese fleet.
The American strikes, launched at extreme range, were not perfectly coordinated. The first waves of torpedo bombers, coming in low to launch their torpedoes, were pounded by antiaircraft fire and defending Japanese Zero fighters, and suffered heavy losses while scoring no hits. (Defective American torpedoes contributed to the failure.)
But when American dive bombers appeared a few minutes later, approaching at high altitude, the Zero fighters were caught in the wrong position, too low to engage the new attackers. In addition, the Japanese carrier flight decks were crowded with planes being armed and fueled for follow-up strikes.
Thus, the American dive bombers caught the Japanese carriers in the worst possible situation, their decks littered with bombs and gasoline hoses. Within minutes, three Japanese carriers were aflame from stem to stern. Later in the day a fourth suffered the same fate. All would sink or be scuttled by the next day.
As all this was unfolding, Japanese airstrikes pounded the USS Yorktown, which would eventually sink on June 7. By then, the Japanese task force was retreating, crippled by the loss of its carriers. The Battle of Midway was over, but the Japanese navy would never fully recover from its losses — not only the four carriers, but trained pilots and crews as well.
Modern aircraft carriers do not carry either torpedo bombers or dive bombers, which have been superseded by more capable strike aircraft. Thus, the most enduring lesson of Midway is that controlling the information battlefield is the key to victory.
The modern expression for this information battlefield is C4ISR, standing for Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance. While computers did not yet exist in 1942, improvements in technology have only increased the power of information as the most decisive weapon of all.