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.