The Flagship IJN Akagi
On the night of June 3rd 1942 the Japanese First Carrier Strike Force under the command of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo sailed east toward the tiny Midway Atoll. Midway was the target of an operation designed by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto to draw out the remnants of the United States Pacific Fleet, destroy them and set the conditions for Japanese victory and the subsequent dominance of the Pacific by the Empire of Japan. Nagumo had seen many of the risks involved in the plan and considered it an “impossible and pointless operation” before the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, but even Nagumo fell in line as Yamamoto relentlessly lobbied for the operation, in spite of political opposition and opposition from the Imperial Army.
Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo
As the First Carrier strike force closed within 300 miles of Midway on the night of June 3rd 1942 Nagumo and his staff prepared for the battle that they and many others believed would be the decisive battle. Aircraft received their final preparations, bombs were loaded and as night faded into early morning air crew arose, ate their breakfast and went to their aircraft.
The ships had been observing radio silence since they departed their bases and anchorages in Japan the previous week. Honed to a fine edge the crews of the ships and the veteran aircrews anticipated victory.
The crews of the ships of the task force and the air groups embarked on the great aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu as well as their escorts were confident. They had since the war began known nothing but victory. They had devastated the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and roamed far and wide raiding allied targets and sinking allied shipping across the Pacific and deep into the Indian Ocean. Commander Magotaro Koga of the destroyer Nowaki wrote in his diary “Our hearts burn with the conviction of sure victory.”
However, Nagumo and his sailors had no idea that most of what they knew about their American opponents was wrong, just as Yamamoto had no idea that American code breakers had broken the Japanese Naval codes and determined that the Japanese were going to attack Midway.
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto
Though confident that the Americans could field no more than two operational carriers, the Yorktown, which they believed had been sunk at Coral Sea was operational and joined by the air group from the damaged Saratoga had joined Enterprise and Hornet northeast of Midway. An operation designed to get aerial surveillance of US Fleet dispositions at Pearl Harbor had been cancelled because the atoll at French Frigate Shoals that the Japanese flying boats would operate from was occupied by a small US force. Likewise the line of Japanese submarines arrived on station a day late, after the US carrier task forces had passed by. Those aboard the First Carrier Strike Force, including Nagumo or his senior commanders and staff had no idea that the Americans not only knew of their approach but were already deployed in anticipation of their strike.
Within a day all of the Japanese carriers would be sunk or sinking. Thousands of Japanese sailors would be dead and the vaunted air groups which had wreaked havoc on the Allies would be decimated, every aircraft lost and the majority of pilots and aircrew dead. It would be a most unexpected and devastating defeat stolen out of the hands of what appeared to be certain victory.
In the next couple of days I will write some articles on Midway and republish older articles on this site. The fact of the matter is that like Yamamoto and the Japanese that many military leaders, including those of the United States make assumptions about campaigns and battles that turn out to be wrong. Wars are often expected to be short, decisive and glorious but many times end up long, indecisive and agonizing. History has shown that to be the case for the United States in every fight it has been engaged since the Second World War, even when we win every pitched battle.
I think that there is a lesson to be learned from the Japanese who sailed into the night on June 3rd 1942 and saw the sunrise of June 4th. There is no battle, campaign or war that goes according to plan. Thousands of Japanese sailors and airmen went to bed on the night of the 3rd expecting that the following night, or within the next few days they would be celebrating a decisive victory. Thousands of them would be dead by the night of the 4th of June and the ambitions of the Empire of Japan to defeat the United States Navy and end the war would be dealt a decisive defeat from which they would never recover.
The Japanese had known nothing but victory and on the night of June 3rd 1942 they expected nothing more than victory. However the wisdom of the Romans was proved right yet again. Quoted in the movie Patton the legendary US General said:
“For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeteers, musicians and strange animals from conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conquerors rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children robed in white stood with him in the chariot or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”