IT IS JUNE 4, 1942. Spearheaded by four aircraft carriers, the Japanese mobile task force steams toward Midway Atoll in the Central Pacific, hoping to lure into battle the remnants of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The Japanese do not know that, thanks to American code analysts, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz knows they are coming and has positioned his three operational aircraft carriers—Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown— to ambush the would-be ambushers.
The day opens with the Japanese carrier force trading blows with American pilots based on Midway. Japanese bombers badly damage enemy facilities on the atoll; Imperial Navy gunners and pilots shoot most American attackers out of the sky. At 7 a.m. carriers Enterprise and Hornet launch planes against the Japanese carrier force; an hour later so does Yorktown. The attack is a fiasco. Squadrons of torpedo planes from all three American carriers locate the Japanese fleet but are shot down without scoring a hit. Flying separately, American dive-bombers take the wrong course and never do find the foe.
Soon Japanese scout planes spot the three American carriers and the Japanese fling all their strength against the ships. Japanese pilots sink Yorktown, then Enterprise and Hornet. By dusk America has suffered a naval defeat to rival the disaster that rocked Pearl Harbor and the nation six months ago.
This scenario is historically accurate in four respects. Midway did suffer major damage from a Japanese attack on the morning of June 4. The atoll’s pilots lost heavily in a fruitless attempt to bomb the Japanese carrier force. The American torpedo squadrons were nearly wiped out without scoring a hit, and in the battle the Yorktown was sunk. The scenario is partially accurate in a fifth way: American dive-bomber pilots did search unsuccessfully for the Japanese carriers. They might have had to turn back had a squadron commander not seen an enemy destroyer’s wake, which, he deduced, indicated a path to the Japanese carrier force.
The chief departures from history are, of course, the destruction of Enterprise and Hornet, and the survival of Japanese carriers Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu –, and So -ryu –. Historically, Akagi, Kaga, and So -ryu – did incur mortal damage when U.S. dive bombers finally located them around 10:20 a.m. on June 4; Hiryu –, badly hit late in the afternoon, sank early the next day.
What if the Japanese had won at Midway? In Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (2005), authors Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully offer a response.
Win or lose, these historians argue, the Japanese could never have seized the Hawaiian Islands. By June 1942, Oahu, the chain’s key element, was garrisoned by 100,000–150,000 soldiers. Japanese planners reasoned that to capture Hawaii, the Empire would need to deploy at least 45,000 men —a grave underestimate— but even so, Parshall and Tully point out, that figure “represented an invasion force 10 times larger than they had ever landed amphibiously at one time.”
A Japanese victory at Midway definitely would have precluded the Americans’ August 1942 counteroffensive at Guadalcanal. Japanese incursions would have posed a more serious threat to Australia and New Guinea because the U.S. could not have stopped them. “The Japanese certainly would have moved into the South Pacific largely unimpeded, occupying the New Hebrides, Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga,” Parshall and Tully maintain. This would have placed Imperial forces squarely athwart the main line of supply between the United States and Australia. The Japanese might conceivably have invaded northern Australia.
But in the end, the authors contend, none of this would have mattered. By 1942 Japan’s industrial capacity had peaked, whereas the American war machine was still growing. By mid-1943, the U.S. was launching an Essex-class carrier at the rate of one ship every two months. By August 1945, 17 Essex-class flattops would enter service, to say nothing of 9 Independence-class light carriers and dozens of small but useful escort carriers. “Since the day the battle was fought, the American victory there has been labeled as ‘decisive,’” Parshall and Tully observe. “But…win or lose at Midway, it was extremely unlikely that the Japanese were going to win. How, then, can such a battle be considered decisive?”
This analysis, however, overlooks how a putative Midway disaster would have affected American planning and execution. Losing grievously at Midway would have placed great pressure on the Roosevelt administration to forego the Allied “Germany First” strategy in favor of retrieving the situation in the Pacific.
For sound geopolitical reasons the U.S. would have had to maintain the supply line to Australia, and if the Japanese followed a triumph at Midway by seizing islands straddling that route, the Americans would have had to capture those bastions, demanding reallocation of troop transport and landing vessels from the European Theater to the Pacific.
This nearly happened anyway. In July 1942 Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, frustrated by British resistance to undertaking an early cross-Channel attack, recommended a shift to the defensive in Europe and adoption of a Pacific First strategy. FDR vetoed this approach—enabled, in part, by the American victory at Midway, which established that existing Allied forces in the Pacific could take on Japan. Defeat at Midway would have argued the opposite.
Abandonment of Germany First could have no other effect but to prolong the war in Europe by many months, perhaps allowing the Soviet Union to gain control of Western Europe. Certainly hostilities would have ground on long enough for the Manhattan Project to complete the first atomic bombs, which the U.S. then would have dropped not on Japan but on targets in Germany. Victory at Midway would not have won Japan the war, but could well have given the Second World War a very different turn.
Originally published in the August 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.