Loss of four aircraft carriers
The Japanese military’s stunning victories at the beginning of the Pacific War fascinated Japanese political and military leaders and won the praise of the Diet, the media and the Japanese public. The goal of the first stage of the campaign—to destroy the core of the U.S. fleet and provide a springboard for southward operations—was achieved more than one month earlier than expected.
In the next stage, however, the Naval General Staff and the Combined Fleet Command each launched separate and uncoordinated campaigns. The Naval General Staff set an eye on capturing Fiji and Samoa—strategic points between Hawaii and Australia—to forestall coordinated moves by the United States and Australia. The Combined Fleet Command, however, insisted that Japan should attack Midway Island to lure U.S. aircraft carriers so that Japan’s Navy would be able to attack and destroy the U.S. fleet.
In order to contain opposition by chief of the Naval General Staff’s Operations Bureau Shigeru Fukutome and other key leaders, Senior Staff Officer of the Combined Fleet Kameto Kuroshima and his staff accepted the additional demand from the Naval General Staff to attack the Aleutian Islands. Under the leadership of Kuroshima, Yasuji Watanabe of the Combined Fleet staff was placed in charge of studying and working out strategy. The plan was designed exclusively by the Combined Fleet.
On April 28, 1942, a study session on the successful first-stage war operations was held aboard the Fleet Flagship Yamato. Yoshitake Miwa, a Combined Fleet staff officer, wrote in his diary: “It was fun to attend a study session on battles we are winning, but it did not have much substance. Everyone behaved like a brave and wise man.” However, it was obvious that the participants in the meeting were all overconfident.
During a war game that began on May 1, 1942, Combined Fleet Chief of Staff Matome Ugaki, who was overseeing the event, ordered a repetition of the exercise at his own discretion when Japan’s mock campaign to attack Midway Island stalled in the face of U.S. aircraft carriers launching attacks on Japanese aircraft carriers. As a result, the number of bombs that hit the aircraft carrier Akagi was changed from nine in the initial game to three in the second game. The Akagi was sunk by the enemy during the first war game but sustained only slight damage in the second game.
Chief of Naval General Staff Osami Nagano ordered a two-pronged campaign—attacks on Midway Island and the Aleutian Islands—on May 5. The First Carrier Strike Force consisting of the Akagi, Kaga and two other aircraft carriers carrying 285 airplanes and commanded by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, departed Hashirajima Island, Hiroshima Prefecture, on May 27 and headed for Midway Island. Under the command of Combined Fleet Commander Yamamoto, other key fleets and the battleship Yamato departed on May 29 and were traveling about 500 kilometers behind the Strike Force’s Ships.
Surprisingly, all leaders of this large naval armada believed that there would be “no possibility of enemy aircraft carriers appearing to counter the Fleet’s advance.” Chief of the Operations Section of the Naval General Staff Sadatoshi Tomioka went as far as saying before the ships departures, “What we fear most in this operation is that the enemy will avoid our fleet and will not launch attacks.” Moreover, only one of 11 submarines, which had been ordered to position themselves for reconnaissance missions to prepare for the possible appearance of U.S. aircraft carriers, actually carried out the order to do so.
The U.S. fleet, which passed the area where the 11 submarines were ordered to position themselves several days before the lone submarine arrived, prepared to ambush Japan’s carrier strike force. Japan was totally unaware that the U.S. military had succeeded in breaking the Imperial Japanese Navy’s codes and had learned of the Japanese operation.
On June 5, Japan’s Midway operation turned into a disaster. At 1:30 a.m., seven reconnaissance planes were supposed to take off together with attack planes heading for Midway Island, but only three were able to do so. The Tone Number 4 reconnaissance plane, which took off 30 minutes late, reported the spotting of “10 ships believed to be those of the enemy”at 4:28 a.m. The U.S. military, meanwhile, had detected Japan’s Carrier Strike Force at 3 a.m.
When the information about enemy ships was conveyed, the Japanese Strike Force was in the process of replacing anti-carrier torpedoes already mounted on airplanes with air-to-surface bombs in preparation for a second wave of attacks on Midway. Nagumo changed his plan and decided to launch attacks on the enemy fleet thus necessitating the reloading of the anti-ship torpedoes on airplanes aboard all four aircraft carriers.
Nagumo’s decision immediately met opposition from Tamon Yamaguchi, commander of the Second Aviation Squadron aboard the aircraft carrier Hiryu, who urged Nagumo to order attack planes to take off immediately. In a carrier versus carrier battle, it is of utmost importance to damage the flight deck of the enemy carrier by getting a head start.
But Nagumo and his staff officer Minoru Genda ignored Yamaguchi’s opinion, having miscalculated that it would be some time before the enemy could strike Japan’s fleet. Nagumo and Genda wanted to give priority to the recovering of the attack planes returning from the first wave of attacks on Midway Island. About one hour later, the carriers Akagi, Kaga and Soryu were attacked by U.S. dive-bombers, caught fire and were thus dead in the water.
In retrospect, Japan did have chances to win the battle but did not take advantage of them. On the eve of the Battle of Midway, the flagship Yamato intercepted signals believed to have been transmitted from an enemy aircraft carrier off Midway Island. Although the Combined Fleet had banned the use of radio communications to ensure the secrecy of its operations, Yamamoto proposed that the Carrier Strike Force be informed. His subordinate, Kuroshima, and another staff officer Akira Sasaki dismissed the idea and Yamamoto did not press the point. In his logbook, Ugaki regretted in retrospect: “There are failings on the part of this command. I am really sorry.”
The Hiryu, the only aircraft carrier that survived the first U.S. attack, fought desperately but was also lost sometime after 2 p.m. that day after being attacked by other enemy planes. The battle ended in half a day; Japan was able to sink only one U.S. aircraft carrier but lost all four of its own.
Chester W. Nimitz, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, analyzed Japan’s defeat in the Battle of Midway as follows: “First of all, they failed to pursue a single objective. The two carriers sent to the Aleutians might well have supplied the decisive margin in the Central Pacific. Had the Midway operation succeeded, the Japanese could have taken the Aleutians at their leisure.”
While Japan’s Combined Fleet had six aircraft carriers, the United States at the time had only three. Japan made the mistake of dividing its carriers into two groups, sending four to attack Midway Island and two to the Aleutian Islands. In addition, Japan’s naval leadership had the preconceived idea that enemy aircraft carriers would never engage the Japanese fleet during its Midway campaign. Semi-official Japanese war history accounts (Senshi Sosho) concluded as follows: “The fact [the Navy] did not have any plans to respond to contingencies such as the emergence of enemy aircraft carriers showed that it arrogantly thought little of its enemy.”