After its initial attacks on Pearl Harbor and Allied interests throughout the Pacific, the Japanese navy continued to expand its conquests over the coming months. On February 15, 1942, Japanese forces took Singapore, which was a very humiliating defeat for Britain. On March 9, after a series of extended sea battles, the Dutch colony of Java surrendered. On April 9, the U.S. territory of the Philippines also fell to Japan. Island colonies, territories, and nations in Southeast Asia continued to fall one after the other as Japanese forces exploded across the South China Sea and into the Bay of Bengal, threatening Burma and even India.
On April 18, 1942, U.S. forces launched a daring air raid to demonstrate that Japan itself was susceptible to Allied attack. Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle led the ingenious campaign, which originated from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. Although aircraft carriers were designed to launch fighters, not bombers, Doolittle specially prepared a squadron of sixteen B-25 bombers to fly from the Hornet. The bombers were stripped of all equipment and parts not absolutely necessary for the flight and loaded on board the Hornet with a minimum cargo of bombs.
The lightweight planes managed to take off from the Hornet and fly more than 800 miles to Japan, where they dropped bombs on oil reservoirs and naval facilities in Tokyo and several other cities. The planes then continued on to China to land. Low on fuel, all sixteen planes crash-landed, but two went astray into Japanese-held territory and another landed in Vladivostok, in the eastern USSR. Although the raid did minimal damage to Japan, it was a powerful psychological victory for the United States and demonstrated that the Japanese homeland was indeed vulnerable.
By late spring 1942, Japan had captured most of Southeast Asia and turned its attention southward. In early May, Japanese invasion fleets were ordered to take over Tulagi in the Solomon Islands and Port Moresby on New Guinea—the location of a major Allied base and the last Allied outpost standing between the Japanese navy and Australia. U.S. forces in the area were alerted in advance because of intercepted Japanese radio transmissions. Two American aircraft carriers (the USS Lexington and USS Yorktown), along with several cruisers and destroyers, were dispatched to stop the attacks and protect Port Moresby. The Japanese landed at Tulagi on May 3, before American ships could arrive on the scene. The next day, planes from the Lexington attacked the Japanese forces on the ground at Tulagi and then turned south to join the Yorktown in defending Port Moresby.
The Americans and Japanese finally engaged each other on May 7 in the Battle of the Coral Sea. The entire battle was carried out by carrier-based aircraft, without any ships exchanging shots—the first time in history that a naval battle was waged exclusively from the air. Both sides suffered heavy losses, and the Lexington was sunk. While material losses were comparable for each side, the Allied forces succeeded in their central goal of protecting Port Moresby.
Following the humiliation of the Doolittle Raid and the failure to take Port Moresby during the Battle of the Coral Sea, Japanese strategists knew that something had to be done to eliminate the threat from U.S. aircraft carriers. Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, who had planned the Pearl Harbor attack, was again put in charge.
Yamamoto’s plan involved a massive assault on the Pacific island of Midway and a second, smaller attack on the Aleutian Islands of Alaska with the intent of drawing part of the U.S. Navy away from Midway. The Japanese assembled a huge armada of more than 150 ships for the attack, including four aircraft carriers and seven battleships. As with the Battle of the Coral Sea, however, U.S. intelligence managed to decipher Japanese coded transmissions and determine where the actual attack would take place. The United States responded by sending its entire Pacific Fleet to Midway.
After light U.S. bombing of the Japanese carriers on June 3, 1942, Japan initiated the attack early in the morning on June 4, bombing the U.S. base on Midway Island. American naval planes responded against the Japanese armada in a series of waves. Although the first American attacks were easily repulsed, a group of U.S. dive-bombers finally got through Japanese defenses and near three Japanese aircraft carriers, whose decks were loaded with freshly fueled aircraft preparing for takeoff. The American bombers managed to hit the planes on all three carriers’ decks, setting off a chain of explosions that engulfed the ships in flames and set off ammunition stores in the lower decks of the giant ships. All three carriers were put out of commission and were eventually scuttled by the Japanese themselves. That afternoon, a fourth Japanese carrier was damaged beyond repair.
The Battle of Midway was over by the end of the day. In all, the United States lost one aircraft carrier, one destroyer, nearly 150 airplanes, and just over 300 men. The Japanese toll was far worse: four aircraft carriers, along with more than 230 airplanes and more than 2,000 men.
The nature of the war in the Pacific changed dramatically during the first half of 1942. Japan had begun with a strong offensive but quickly overextended itself by conquering most of Southeast Asia. Furthermore, Japan underestimated the U.S. Navy and took a risky gamble in its attack on Midway. Japan’s losses at Coral Sea and Midway forced it to shift into a defensive mode. Never again would Australia or the U.S. mainland face a serious danger from Japanese attack. Although the war in the Pacific was far from over, for the rest of the World War II, Japan’s struggle would remain a fight to maintain the territory it had already conquered, rather than an aggressive campaign for further expansion. Eventually, Japan would gradually lose all of these earlier gains.