Midway: 4-5 June, 1942
Japan: 4 carriers, 7 battleships, ~150 support ships, 264 carrier aircraft
United States: 3 carriers, ~50 support ships, 233 carrier aircraft, 127 land-based aircraft
Situation: The architect of Pearl Harbor, Admiral Yamamoto, is famously supposed to have said that if he was directed to attack the United States that he could "run wild for six months" across the west Pacific. In fact he did just that for exactly that long; from December 7th to June 7th the Imperial Japanese military had seized almost all of their objectives, particularly the petroleum-producing areas of what is today Indonesia.
Yamamoto's object of greatest concern was the U.S. Navy's fleet aviation forces, what he believed to be the decisive strategic factor in the war with the U.S. Without naval aviation, he believed, the U.S. would not be able to make an effective assault against the Japanese naval perimeter in the west and southwest Pacific, allowing the Imperial forces to hold off the Americans for a time (although it's worth noting that the admiral was convinced that this was only a delay, not a defeat, for the U.S., and that Japan had erred in starting the war with the Americans)
With this in mind, Yamamoto's plan was to bring the USN to decisive engagement in the central Pacific and defeat them. His plan was complex - probably overcomplex, given that his fleets were widely separated and liable to defeat in detail - and well-crafted enough except for a critical intelligence failing: the Imperial Navy's main operational code had been broken (note - this was not the same codebreaking that was classified as "MAGIC") and the USN was well aware of his dispositions and general plan of attack.
The Engagement: Reduced to essentials, the Battle of Midway consisted of both fleets trying to locate each other first in the vastness of the central Pacific. Luck and naval skill played strong parts in this, as did the fleet dispositions, which put the cruiser-borne scout planes of the IJN back with the First Fleet, well away from the Second's flight decks).Both decryption and superior scouting allowed the USN to locate the IJN carriers first. After this the battle came down to a combination of luck and training.
The sequence of attacks was:
1. June 4, 6am: The Japanese carrier air forces of Second Fleet attack Midway Atoll (this as part of the planned preparation for landing and capture). The IJN has not found the US carriers. Strike results prompt the Japanese carrier air arm commander to rearm the aircraft held in reserve for a ground attack.
2. June 4, 7am: The USN Carrier Strike Force (Task Forces 16 and 17) launches individual squadrons as it turns towards the Japanese Second Fleet.
3. June 4, 9-11am: US naval aircraft arrive over the Japanese carrier force. Torpedo attack proves suicidal and without effect (US aerial torpedoes later prove to be defective), but dive bombing sinks three of the four IJN fleet carriers.
4. Jun 4, 11-1pm: Aircraft from IJMS Hiryu, following the US aircraft back to their carriers, badly damage USS Yorktown.5. June 4, 4-5pm: US naval aircraft fatally damage Hiryu, which sinks the following day.
The battle was effectively over by nightfall on the 4th. The next day US submarines located the IJN First Fleet, which consisted of the heavy gun platforms intended to sink the carriers crippled by their naval aviators, and combined with US aircraft to harry it west and out of the battle.
A Japanese submarine sank the Yorktown on 6/7/42, officially the last loss of the battle.
Outcome: Complete tactical/major strategic U.S. victory.
This was NOT the utter "turning point" in the Pacific War; the Japanese did not LOSE the war because of Midway...they could still have managed to salvage a draw of sorts. But the striking arm of Imperial Japan in the Pacific was her Navy. Losing 2/3rd of her fleet carrier decks as well as thousands of naval aviators, crews and carrier officers ensured that she could no longer WIN it.
Impact: The end of Yamamoto's six months, and the end of the Japanese Navy's dominance on the Pacific high seas.
Interestingly, possibly the single longest-lasting and strongest impact of this battle was on the U.S. Navy, whose carrier fixation was hammered in steel set in stone cast inside concrete by this victory. In a sense, the USN has been designed to refight every battle as Midway for the past sixty-six years. Personally, my suspicion is that the nuclear submarine has made the fleet carrier the TBD Devastator of the blue water navy. But we won't know that until the next general naval war which, hopefully, you and I will never see.
Touchline Tattles: The USN made a very short, very sad little film about the aviators of VT-8, Torpedo Squadron 8 of the USS Hornet.Here it is, a reminder that many of those in the "Greatest Generation" paid for its gaudy reputation with their lives. And that the notion that Americans have gone into combat with "hillbilly armor" and inadequate weapons and equipment is not entirely a fault of the Bush Administration.