The Japanese had failed to neutralise the American naval forces in the Pacific with their surprise attack on Pearl Harbour. Now they sought to lure the American carriers into a final engagement by invading the the island of Midway.
There was to be no surprise attack because the US had cracked the Japanese naval codes. Instead it was the US carrier based planes that were to find the Japanese carriers and launch a devastating assault. Robert J. Casey was a journalist based on one of the heavy cruisers:
I was right at headquarters when first reports began to come in from our planes. The first message was brief. The Jap carriers had been located, a little belatedly, and they were virtually without air cover. Apparently all their planes had been sent out to make the conquest of Midway quick and easy.
However, the squadron commander of the TBD [Douglas Torpedo Bomber] unit reporting, said that his planes were virtually out of fuel.
‘Request permission,’ he called, ‘to withdraw from action and refuel.
The admiral’s answer was terse. ‘Attack at once.’
So as I sat down in the chartroom to bite into a ham sandwich, the planes had begun to move in on the carriers. Whatever might be the result, we’d never be able to criticize the quality of our opportunity …
I sat there thinking. The Jap air admiral undoubtedly had figured us as permanent fixtures in the southwest Pacific where last he had had word of us. So just about now he’d be looking up at the sky suddenly clouded with SBD’s [Douglas Scout Bombers] and asking himself the Japanese equivalent of ‘Where the hell did those things come from?’ …
If these planes have failed in their mission or fought a draw or left the Japanese carriers usable we may expect a quick and vicious attack in return. If by some remote juju we have put all four carriers out of commission we have just about gained mastery of the Pacific …
Presently the word filtered back to us that the attack had been a complete success. All the carriers had been hit and severely damaged. At least three of them were burning. One, apparently had been sunk in the first two or three minutes of the engagement.
One battleship of the north group of the force that we had attacked was afire. A second battleship had been hit. Reports from the Army told of hits on two more battleships and another carrier. Discounting these messages to the fullest extent and recognizing how easy it is for one observer to duplicate the report of another, it was still obvious that we had had something of a field day, still obvious that the bulk of ]apan’s attacking planes must presently be going into the drink for want of any other place to land.
The US carrier planes had won a stunning victory, three of the four Japanese carriers had been hit – and hit so badly that they would eventually be abandoned and scuttled. At the second strike later in the day found the last remaining carrier, Hiryu, and finished her off as well. This was a decisive victory for the US Navy, a turning point in the war in the Pacific because it left the Japanese fleet so weakened.
Contemporary film of the battle directed by John Ford: