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Midway Islands battle map

Midway Island battle map.

Troops landing at Solomon Islands

Landing operations on Rendova Island, Solomon Islands, June 30,1943. Attacking at the break of day in a heavy rainstorm, the first Americans ashore huddle behind tree trunks and any other cover they can find.

B-25 bomber

A B-25 bomber built by North American Aviation, Inc. Jimmy Doolittle used this plane in his bombing raid over Tokyo.

Wreckage at Pearl Harbor

Jumbled mass of wreckage of the U.S. destroyers Downes (left) and Cassin (right), Pearl Harbor.

USS California burning

Naval photograph documenting the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, which initiated U.S. participation in World War II. Navy's caption: Abandoning ship aboard the USS California after the ship had been set afire and started to sink from being attacked by the Japanese in their attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Attack on Pearl Harbor

Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Navy fighters at Midway

Douglas Dauntless SBD dive bombers played a key role in the Battle of Midway and elsewhere throughout the Pacific.

Air Power and World War II in the Pacific

In 1940, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto of Japan’s Imperial Navy informed his government that if Japan went to war, he would "guarantee to put up a tough fight for the first six months, but I have absolutely no confidence as to what might happen if it went on for two or three years." Yamamoto’s prediction proved correct. Japan capitalized on careful planning and extensive training to launch an attack that shocked the United States and the rest of the world long enough to capture vast amounts of territory across the Pacific and Asia. But Japan lacked the population, industrial base, and strategic vision to fight the drawn-out war that the Pacific campaign became. Eventually the United States triumphed, able to resupply and fight again after each defeat.


The strategy used by the U.S. in the Pacific was called “island hopping.” The idea was to bypass strongly fortified bases held by the Japanese. By attacking more vulnerable locations, the U.S. not only risked fewer battle losses but also effectively cut off Japanese occupied areas now isolated in the rear, causing them to “wither on the vine.” Although land-based planes could be used in the South Pacific, operations in the Central Pacific characteristically relied on carrier-based air power. As the target softened, battleships would move in and begin to bombard the objective from the sea. Combat troops would then stage amphibious landings, covered by air strikes, and capture the objective, which usually required a lengthy and intense battle. One secured, the naval construction battalions would move in and start building airstrips to provide permanent air cover.


The Japanese began the war with an attack on the U.S. naval port of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. At 7:55 a.m. the first wave of 181 planes attacked; their mission was to destroy all American aircraft in order to prevent a counterattack. Therefore, they attacked the fleet that was anchored in the harbor and also the military airfields on the island. They sent a second wave of bombers 30 minutes later. By 10 a.m. the U.S. Pacific fleet had lost 21 ships, 188 aircraft had been destroyed. and 159 more damaged. Eight hours later, the U.S. Army Air Force base at the Philippines was attacked and its B-17s were destroyed on the ground, allowing the Japanese to take the island relatively unopposed. The Japanese success was overwhelming but not complete. The American aircraft carriers had been sent on missions elsewhere and were safe. And the base facilities and oil storage tanks were left intact, ensuring that the navy could recover. Most importantly, Americans were now united in their desire for war and revenge.


The Japanese continued to sweep across the Pacific, leaving the confused Allies behind. By March of 1942, Japan occupied a quarter of the planet. But it lacked the resources to retain control of its new empire. The wide area was taxing to the limited equipment and number of men. And they had moved so quickly that they did not have a plan for the next stage. Some military leaders wanted to continue west toward the British Empire in India and meet up with the Germans in the Middle East. The Imperial Navy wanted to take Australia. There was no consensus and much bitter inter-service fighting, crippling the overall vision.


The United States also made quick work of recovery from the debacle of Pearl Harbor. In April, navy cryptologists cracked Japan’s most widely used operational code. The decoding process, nicknamed "Magic" allowed the U.S. military to figure out what the Japanese were planning next. And on April 18, USAAF Colonel Jimmy Doolittle led a fleet of carrier-launched B-25s on a bombing raid over Tokyo. The daring raid, although inflicting only minor damage, raised American spirits. In Japan, the shocked Imperial Navy began to change its strategy, realizing that the U.S. fleet was still capable of attack. Yamamoto made a plan to take Midway Island and to lure the U.S. fleet there to be destroyed in one great battle.


But the Japanese were currently moving toward Port Moresby on the island of Papua in New Guinea, en route to Australia. There, on May 8, 1942, they fought the Battle of the Coral Sea. This was the first naval battle where the opposing surface fleets never made visual contact. Japanese aircraft from its carriers, supplemented by land-based aircraft from Rabaul in New Guinea, spent the day launching air attacks on the U.S. carriers. The United States lost the carrier USS Lexington and two other ships, but sank a Japanese carrier. At the end of the day however, even though the U.S. fleet withdrew, the Japanese losses of planes and pilots were so severe that the U.S. achieved a crucial strategic victory, causing the Japanese to cancel their threatening offensive against Australia.


Admiral Yamamoto had planned a brilliant attack for Midway--first he would send light carriers to the Aleutians Islands to serve as a distraction. Then his main carrier force, consisting of four large carriers, would capture Midway. The U.S. fleet would come to rescue the island and there, be defeated in a final great battle. By using Magic, however, the United States learned of the plan and was able to reinforce the island. The Japanese arrived on June 4, 1942, assuming that they were catching the Americans by surprise. Instead, the Americans surprised them with a vigorous attack. When the first wave of American Douglass SBD Dauntless torpedo planes attacked, the Japanese fought back with all they had, unaware that more was to follow. They used up valuable ammunition and fuel and sent their air cover out to fight, leaving the fleet unprotected. Much to their shock, a follow-up wave of Grumman F4F Wildcats and dive-bombers then arrived. By the time Admiral Chuichi Nagumo realized that the attackers came from a carrier fleet, he had lost three of his four carriers; the fourth was destroyed by the end of the day. He also lost 250 planes that day and many of his best pilots.


The Battle of Midway in June 1942 marked a major reversal in the tide of the war. Japan had lost almost all of its aircraft carriers. The Pacific campaigns had become carrier-based, and a battleship without air cover was destined to be sunk. And to add to Japan’s woes, the results of the mobilization of American industry had begun to appear as new aircraft carriers and planes arrived. By the end of 1943, the navy was receiving an average of a new carrier per month, and by the following fall, the Pacific Fleet was bigger than the rest of the world’s navies combined. The planes that were arriving-- U.S Army P-38 Lightnings and U.S. Navy F6F Hellcats--were finally equal to Japan’s Mitsubishi Zero. Additional U.S. Army planes like the four-engine B-24 heavy bombers as well as twin-engine medium bombers also arrived in quantity. And the United States could provide sufficiently trained pilots to fly the new planes, whereas Japan, which had begun the war with the best-trained pilots in the world, could not replace lost pilots quickly enough and was increasingly sending novice pilots. Another serious blow came in April of 1943, when using intelligence from a Magic intercept, P-38s ambushed the plane on which Admiral Yamamoto was flying, killing Japan’s top strategist.


After Midway, Japan focused on the Solomon Islands. This island chain consisted of parallel lines of islands. The center area became the most highly contested area of water in the world. With the Americans based off the island of Guadalcanal, the war had become one of attrition. Japanese ground troops were stranded on some of the islands in desperate need of supplies, and their supply convoys became easy targets for Allied pilots. Destroying their only source of food led to starvation among the Japanese ground soldiers, helping the Marines conquer the islands.


In 1944, the United States captured the Northern Marianas Islands and was able to set up an air base for B-29s to launch bombing raids on Japan under the command of Curtiss LeMay. Japan was hit with both explosive and incendiary bombs, which were especially dangerous in the Japanese cities that were made of paper and wood and lacked adequate fire protection. Still, the Japanese did not surrender; in fact by late spring of 1945, they had begun building up a force to repel any invasion of the country. The force grew to 200,000 men by August. Not ready to face the prospect of heavy casualties if they were to invade Japan, the Americans dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan: one on August 6 on Hiroshima, and the other three days later on Nagasaki. This was the first and only use of nuclear weapons in the war. Although there is no "official" count of the number who died, many agree that approximately 78,000 people were killed instantaneously in Hiroshima and another 70,000 by the end of 1945. Approximately 65,000 died in Nagasaki, either instantaneously by the bomb or by its effects by the end of the year.


On August 15, 1945, Emperor Hirohito of Japan announced his country’s surrender.


Although augmented by the nuclear bomb, industry, and the code-breakers, the navy knew that air power had been instrumental in winning the Pacific Campaign. Soon after Japan’s surrender, the head of naval aviation, Admiral Marc Mitscher declared, "Japan is beaten and carrier supremacy defeated her."


--Pamela Feltus


Sources used for essay

Gunston, Bill. History of Military Aviation. London: Hamlyn, 2000.

Hoyt, Edwin P. Carrier Wars: Naval Aviation from World War II to the Persian Gulf. New York: McGraw Hill, 1989.

Murray, Williamson. War in the Air 1914-1945. London: Cassell Publishing, 1999.

Spector, Ronald. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan. New York: Vintage Books, 1985.

Wragg, David. Wings Over the Sea. New York: Arco Publishing, 1979.


Air War over the Pacific: http://www.geocities.com/Pentagon/Bunker/2206/

Battle of the Coral Sea: http://home.st.net.au/~dunn/coralsea.htm

Bent Prop Project: http://www.bentprop.org

Chronology of Significant Events in Naval Aviation: http://www.history.navy.mil/branches/org4-5.htm

"The Story of the Atomic Bomb." Air Force History Support Office. http://www.airforcehistory.hq.af.mil/PopTopics/abomb.htm

U.S. Air Force Museum: World War II in the Pacific: http://www.wpafb.af.mil/museum/history/wwii/combatp.htm

U.S. Navy Historical Center: http://www.history.navy.mil/index.html

U.S. Navy Historical Center: Isoroku Yamamoto. http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/prs-for/japan/japrs-xz/i-yamto.htm


Additional Reading:

Agawa, Hiroyuki. The Reluctant Admiral : Yamamoto and the Imperial Navy. Tokyo: Kodansha, 2000.

Bergerud, Eric. Fire in the Sky : The Air War in the South Pacific. Boulder, Col.: Westview Press, 2000.

Peattie, Mark R. Sunburst : The Rise of the Japanese Naval Air Power, 1909-1941. Annapolis, Md.: U.S. Naval Institute, 2001.


Educational Organization

Standard Designation  (where applicable)

Content of Standard

National Council for Geographic Education

Standard 1

How to use maps and other geographic representations to acquire and process information.

National Center for History in the Schools

US History

Era 8

Standard 3

The causes and course of World War II

International Technology Education Association

Standard 7

Students will develop an understanding of the influence of technology on history/