Midway: When the Airplane Sank an Empire (Part I)

Image ‘Battle ship Mikasa’ by Taiyo FUJI. Released under Creative Commons 4.0 (CC BY 4.0) License.

Image ‘Battle ship Mikasa’ by Taiyo FUJI. Released under Creative Commons 4.0 (CC BY 4.0) License.


The date is the 4th of June, 1942. Two of the major aircraft carrier-based fleets of the world are sailing at full speed towards a battle that would seal the fate of their respective nations. Beneath the Summer sun, the crews of the airplanes are boarding their aircraft, ready to write history with their wings and bombs while facing each an enemy decided to win or perish. From the American side, it was a very risky gamble considering how badly damaged the US Pacific fleet was, and the risks and implications defeat would bring. For the Japanese, there was a lot to win, unsuspecting also that there was also too much too lose despite the illusion of absolute triumph the earlier victories made them to believe. In the end, it was the flag of the Empire of the Rising Sun the one that went beneath the waves as a result of a small group of eagles that destroyed the dreams of a perennial and invincible empire.

The Battle of Midway is among the most important (naval) battles in history, whose consequences determined the outcome of a war, evidencing also – like every battle in history – that a small factor like ammunition placed in the wrong place at the wrong moment, a broken secret code for communications, or an unseen squadron of bombers can change history, bringing empires to an end, while opening the way for other nations to rise. This battle is also the example of how in a single moment, the negative strategic situation of one side could change in an instant.

The Battle of Midway is also one of those battles that confirmed the changing trends in naval warfare, tactics and strategy, making of the aircraft carrier and its airplane, the main weapons for the conflicts and times to come, at the point of making such the most important asset to counter a crisis. It also confirmed the declining role of the battleships, which were the kings of the seas for nearly fifty years. This battle was not only an historical milestone, but also a milestone for naval warfare.

Setting the course towards Midway: Strategic background I

There are occasions in which something apparently insignificant and valueless, being located in the middle of nowhere, acquires a very important strategic value regardless of the abovementioned factors. Midway is comprised by two atoll-island that harboured a naval and an air base, located northwest of Hawaii, being an American advanced post guarding the routes eastward toward the Hawaiian island and the continental United States, and capable of supporting American war efforts for any possible conflict in the Pacific with its air assets (as war with Japan was assessed feasible by 1916). It was also important for it was a relay station for a communications submarine cable between Honolulu and Luzon (the Philippines), which would play an important role in the battle to come. It was also the main of defence for the US navy base of Pearl Harbour[1]. Midway was basically the strategic gateway towards the Eastern Pacific and the shield protecting both the Hawaii islands and the continental USA.

For the Japan, Midway was a strategic point whose controlling would allow the Imperial Navy to reach the abovementioned islands and the main US territory, considering its pivotal geographical location. It was a location that, if attacked (and seized), it could provide a strategic shield to its operations in Southeast Asia and Western Pacific, as well as to be an advanced base to project its naval power and offensives further east while neutralizing US naval efforts. In addition, Japan was interested in Midway so to build an intelligence outpost, thus having plans for invasion even back in 1938[2].

The Japanese and American simultaneous expansions in the Pacific during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, made Midway’s strategic importance to increase: It became an invaluable strategic point for the US, and when WWII began, so its interest for the Japanese Imperial Navy. This gradual strategic importance of Midway can only be understood by the strategic background around Midway, which is no other than the aforementioned expansions and strategic interests both the US and Japan were having in Asia, the West Pacific and, ultimately, Midway. This would allow us to understand the reasons of the Battle of Midway and why in particular it took place there.

The Empire of the Rising Sun

Japan’s rising as a major world power began during the 1867-1868 Meiji Restoration, with the Commodore Perry’s fleet entrance into Tokyo Bay and the bombardment of Kagoshima and Shimonoseki by the Royal Navy. Both events had a strong influence over the Japanese Emperor, who decided to make Japan a Great Power and to be equal with the Western powers, never to be dominated by it: basically to make of Japan an empire[3]. As a result, a strong navy and army evolved at the same time the nation was modernizing, which transformed Japan into the only Great Power in Asia, defeating China (which became a main target on economic premises) in 1894-1985 and Russia in 1904-1905, thanks to the modern weaponry and battleships used by the Japanese. Although after the conflict with China Japan was temporarily forced to give back Port Arthur and the Liaotung Peninsula, until the war with Russia[4]. Taiwan and Korea came under immediate Japanese control, with Manchuria being a sort of economic protectorate, being later on invaded in 1931, where the puppet state of Manchukuo was established in order to facilitate Japanese control over the area (Cau, 2011; Gibelli, 1972; Kennedy, 2007; Murray & Millet, 2005; Ralby, 2013; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

Japan’s participation in WWI proved to be a disappointment for the small nation, despite Japan’s seizure of German concessions in China and its Pacific colonies, and the economic benefits in ships and ammunition exports to the Allies. Other territories, including some in Siberia during the Russian Revolution, had to be returned following US and European pressures and their desire to maintain the “Open Door” policy[5]. Consequently, Japan began to adopt a Japanese hegemony approach, which was anti-European and against US ‘Open Door’ policies in essence, and with the Japanese military leading such policies. At the same time, the military emerged as a strong political group within the country, having clashes with the noblemen and some technocrats[6]. The latter held some influence in the 20’s and agreed to sign naval treaties – like the famous Washington Treaty of 1922 – allowing Japan to limit its naval build-up and being in inferiority by a ratio of 15:15:10 in contrast with the US and the Great Britain, to freeze its interests in China, and to fortify all of its Pacific naval bases (Gibelli, 1972; Dahms, 1974; Murray & Millet, 2005)[7].

But the military began to strengthen its political and social influence in the 30’s. The army was basically administrating both Manchuria and Korea, and as the introduction of new assets – the airplanes, mainly – brought closer the industrial complex (the famous zaibatsu) with the military. In the end, the army’s political power became so strong that it decided the conformation of the government, influencing o limiting also the power of the Emperor, making him to approve the army and navy’s war plans against Russia, China, and the European Colonies in Southeast Asia. The Japanese civil society, in turn, strongly supported the military as it perceived it the safeguard of Japan’s order, while the army was revisiting the previous naval treaties, clashing with the US and the British Empire[8] (Gibelli, 1972; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

It might have been that the Japanese expansionistic policies had as origin the decision of the Emperor after the Commodore Perry’s fleet at Tokyo Bay and the British gunships, but there were real economic needs underlying them: Japan considered the military and naval power on equal status to the economic power[9]. For instance, Japan’s industrialization needed the support of raw materials, of which Japan lacked and was forced to import, and it did not have important colonies with strategic resources[10]. Manchuria, Korea and Taiwan were not enough to sustain the country’s industrialization efforts. Then, the Great Depression hit, alongside strong economic barriers limiting its access to the markets of the West colonies markets in Asia, the strong hostility the Great Britain, Russia and the US had towards Japan and its economic activities in both China and Manchuria, and the collapse of the silk market in 1930. As a result, Japan saw the economic exploitation of Chinas as the only solution. This sparked strong opposition from the US, as the US felt China a close state beyond mere economic reasons, which were little in fact. Japan became into an authoritarian state as a result of all these factors combined (Dahms, 1974; Gibelli, 1972; Kennedy, 2007; Murray & Millet, 2005; and Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969)[11].

Russia, in turn, was having strong political interests in China. For instance, Russia was among the main supporters of Chiang Kai-shek, which alarmed Japan given the prospect of stronger military ties between the two countries. Meanwhile, the Kwantung army further deepen the control Japan already had over Manchuria, serving as a platform to advance towards China and as a way to disrupt Russian aid to either side of the Chinese Civil War. As insurgencies began to emerge in the West colonies of Indochina and the Dutch East Indies, Japan deemed them as beneficial in order to erode European influence over Asia (Murray and Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

But it was Manchuria and China the most immediate objectives of Japan, mainly because of the potential benefits both would alleviate Japan’s economic woes. In Manchuria, a series of staged attacks gave the Japanese army a reason to fully seize Manchuria in 1932, establish a puppet-state, and ward-off any European influence by occupying key locations in Mukden. Later on, Japan began to attack Chinese northern outposts in 1933, which met little resistance from Russia and the West. Shanghai was attacked and then came under occupation, with Japan withdrawing from the Society of Nations and denouncing the naval pacts signed in the 20’s[12] (Kennedy, 2007; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

The actions in China had some strong consequences in Japan. The government cabinet was deposed by the military during the events in China. But even China was dividing the military over what to do there and their role. Even if the military agreed with actions in China, the Kwantung Army was having the final say, being the actor which set the path towards the war against the US, and ultimately the Battle of Midway. Japanese late alignment with the Axis was sparked by the situation in China, as suspicions about a Russian/communist involvement in China emerged, making Japan to sign the Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany[13] (Murray & Millet, 2005).

As a result of the abovementioned events, the Sino-Japanese War of 1937 sparked, contributing to bring closer US and Japan armed clash. Further Sino-Japanese clashes at northern China, made Japan to send five more divisions into China with the mission of deciding what Japan called ‘The Northern China Incident’. Initially, the Japanese army managed to occupy 5 northern Chinese provinces while facing a Chinese army that albeit more numerous than that from Japan, it was underequipped. But the geographical dispersion ended playing in favour of the Chinese, something the Japanese army, despite its better quality and equipment, and the famous samurai-based ‘Bushido’, was not able to handle given its comparatively smaller size. Direct negotiations with the Nationalists, puppet-states at northern China, and Chinese collaborators all allowed Japan to hold its grip over northern China and advance further south, reaching Shanghai and Nanking. It was during the conquest of Nanking that the Japanese army attacked also Western citizens and even American and British gunboats – the USS Panay and the HMS Ladybird – suffered air attacks (Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969)[14].

Japan expected the conflict in China to be briefly decided through agreements with Chiang Kai-shek and his troops, but he called in for further resistance against Japanese occupation while ‘exchanging time for terrain’. The conflict was simply bound to be a long-time one, affecting Japan’s economic stability while the government radicalized further: as a result, and the need of the industry to support the war efforts, Japan depended more and more of especial raw materials available abroad. Furthermore, Japanese victories in China resulted in further expansionistic policies, with the armies advancing far south, seizing the isle of Hainan thus blocking China from sea and having a strategic platform from where to threaten the Philippines and the French colonies at Indochina. Such advance was deemed necessary by the military in order to seize more resources and to block Chinese supply lines at Indochina. At the same time, Japan decided to become the leader of a Japanese-made Asian order by overthrowing the Europeans and any Western and communist influences (Kennedy, 2007; Murray and Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969)[15].

But the longer the war at China, the willing were many Western nations, being the US the main one, to provide China with aid and to consider the imposition of economic sanctions and even to intervene further, despite US strong policy of neutrality. Following, the 1911 Trade of Commerce and Navigation was abrogated by the US, restricting Japan’s access to US financial institutions. And once Japan established relations with the Axis, the embargo was tightened. The UK supported US measures against Japan, while Germany and the USSR established closer relations in 1939, complicating Japan’s strategic position at the point that the USSR had military clashes with Japan at the Soviet-Manchurian border.

Japan’s strategic position was also complicated by the war at China itself, as a guerrilla war – or what would be denominated currently as “asymmetric conflict” – ensued, which targeted Japanese lines of supply, emerged. As Japan was controlling only the coastal and northern areas of China, the bulk of the Chinese population was free from Japanese rule, let alone the fact that despite the heavy loses, the Chinese army was able to give a fight while fatiguing the Japanese (Dahms, 1974; Kennedy, 2007; Murray & Millet, 2005)[16]. The war simply resulted in a deadlock.

Japan re-established relations with Germany and other the Axis powers in 1940 with the Tripartite Pact, which established that Germany would provide Japan with military aid, only served to antagonize further Japan and the US. This pact, from the Japanese point of view, was meant to avert any military aid the US or the USSR would provide to China or the Southeast Asian European colonies. Germany’s advance through Western Europe only made the US more resolute in aiding China and the European colonies and moving the bulk of the US Navy to Pearl Harbour, revisiting even the neutrality policies. Then, a partial embargo against Japan restricted its access to scrap metal, steel, oil and other strategic resources, posing a serious dilemma for the Japanese on the courses of action to take (Gibelli, 1972; Murray & Millet, 2005).

Then, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and Japan signed a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union. Both events neutralized the soviet threat against the main islands and Manchuria. As a result, Japan was able to make use of its most important asset while concentrating in the South: The Japanese Imperial Navy and its aviation branch. The navy would help Japan in addressing the issues of resources and food, as the reserves were about to run empty. But alongside economic needs, there was also the aim of hampering US military aid to China so to prevent it to becoming a major risk. In doing so, Japan really never calculated that the US would go at war against Japan, as Germany was dominating most of Europe and threatening the British Empire, close to defeat the Soviets. Moreover, Japan considered the US a “weak and consumerist” nation unable to go to war (Kennedy, 2007; Murray & Millet, 2005).

When Japan began to implement a 1936 “keep the north, march south” strategy, it began to march towards French Indochina, which resulted in US freezing Japanese financial assets and to further strengthen the embargo[17]. 1941 was the year in which the mood for a Japanese-American war was at its highest, with Japan’s army and navy both doing detailed preparations for war. Japan was trapped between facing economic strangling or face the US; the choice became obvious. The navy, with its 2000 combat places, 10 battleships and 10 aircraft carriers, was ready to “go south”, but an attack against Pearl Harbour was required in order to neutralize US naval power and any US intervention once Japan invaded the Philippines[18]. Japan once again estimated that victory against the US would be achieved in a short period of time, with a strong and decisive strike (Dahms, 1974; Gibelli, 1972; Kennedy, 2007; Murray & Millet, 2005)[19]. Such assumption would mark the grave of the Japanese Empire, and doom the bulk of its aircraft carrier fleet to lie at the bottom of the ocean.

In the next part, a review on the Japanese actions prior Pearl Harbour will be reviewed, as well as the strategic effects such movements and the attack had, as they were the initial stage towards the Battle of Midway. On the same way, the strategic background of the US will also be reviewed, so to understand why it held interests in Asia and the Pacific, why it was considering those regions as vital, and what was the role Midway was playing in such events.



Bergamino, G. &., Palitta, G. (2015). El Gran Libro de la Guerra. [L’arte della guerra, Herminia Bevia, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Tikal (Original work published in 2015).

Cau, P. (2011). Batallas del Mundo. [Battaglie, Maria Pilar Queralt, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Tikal (Original work published in 2006).

Col. Ellis, D. R. (2002). The History and Strategic Importance of the Midway Island. (20020806 399). Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania: US Army War College. Retrieved from:   http://oai.dtic.mil/oai/oai?verb=getRecord&metadataPrefix=html&identifier=ADA404725 on 09.08.2016

Dahms, H. G. (1974). La Segunda Guerra Mundial. [Das Zweiten Weltkrieg, Victor Scholz, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Bruguera (Original work published in 1963).

Gibelli, N. J. (1972). La expansión japonesa. In La Segunda Guerra Mundial (Vol.2. pp. 121–140). Buenos Aires, Argentina: Editorial Codex.

Kennedy, P. (2007). Auge y Caida de las Grandes Potencias. [The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, J. Ferrer Aleu, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Editorial deBolsillo (Original work published in 1987).

MacDonald, J. (1993). Grandes Batallas de la II Guerra Mundial (pp. 64 – 71). [Great Battles of World War II, Luis Ogg, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Ediciones Folio (Original work published in 1993).

Murray, W. & Millet, A. R. (2005). La guerra que había que ganar [A War to be Won, Critica S.L, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Critica. (Original work published in 1998).

Navy Recruiting Command. (n.d). Battle of Midway. US Navy. Retrieved from: http://www.navy.com/battle-of-midway.html on 11.08.2016

Ralby, A. (2013). Atlas of Military History: from Antiquity to the Present Day. Bath, UK: Parragon Books.

Rothberg, A., Fredericks, P. G., & O’Keefe, M. (1969). Los primeros cañonazos. In Historia de la Segunda Guerra Mundial (Vol.I, pp. 39–79). [Eyewitness History of World War II, Editorial Marin, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Marin. (Original work published in 1969).



[1] See: Macdonald, 1993, p.64. And: Ellis, 2002, pp. 5-9

[2] See: Ellis, 2002, pp.9 – 11. Macdonald, 1993, p.64. And: Navy Recruiting Command. (n.d.). Battle of Midway. US Navy. Retrieved from: http://www.navy.com/battle-of-midway.html on 11.08.2016

[3] Such policies implied, among other things, the establishment of a mandatory military service of 3 years for every male between 17-40 years old, which made the army accessible for every Japanese, receiving training from French and German instructors. This resulted in one of the most powerful infantry in the world then. See: Bergamino & Palitta, 2015, p.205. On the other hand, Japan’s expansionism was nothing but the manifestation of the predominant ideas of imperialism that swept across Europe during those days, with Japan simply following suit. See: Dahms, 1974, pp.10-11.

[4] Japan emulated the German Empire in the process, as well as the British empire for its fleet build-up. In addition, the Japanese navy was crucial for both wars, with the Battle of Tsushima being its most famous feat. See: Cau, 2001, pp, 138-139. Gibelli, 1972-2, p. 121. And: Kennedy, 2007, p. 334.

[5] As Japan took over the former colonies in the Pacific, the US began to feel worried as they posed a threat to Hawaii and other North American Southeast Asian and Pacific territories, deploying naval assets. See: Gibelli, 1972-2, p.131.

[6] Bergamino & Palitta (2015) remark that the army’s importance was due to the fact the War minister reported only to the Emperor, resulting in an army with strong political influence. See: p.205.

[7] Despite the treaty, it seems Japan was building ships that were above the frameworks established by this very same treaty. See: Kennedy, 2007, p.476.

[8] Noteworthy to point out that Japan was a very unstable country, and for this reason the army enjoyed such perception and support.

[9] See: Kennedy, 2007, p.334.

[10] There were also pressing issues of demographic grow

[11] Only the 1% of US foreign investments made to China, as well as the 4% of exports, while US economic relations with Japan were far greater than with China. See: Murray & Millet, 2005, p.226.

[12] The inability of the Society of the Nations and other Great Powers in stopping Japan’s advances in China contributed in giving the military more power, at the point that they became the dominant sector until 1944. See: Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969, pp.39-47.

[13] This pact established the German and Italian hegemony in Europe, and Japanese hegemony in Asia, implying that all the signatories would assist each other mutually in case another power would attack any. This particular statement explains US involvement against the three powers. See: Cau, 2011, pp. 164-165.

[14] Although the Japanese gave compensations to the US and apologized for the incident.

[15] The tool to organize Japanese hegemony over Asia was the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

[16] However, the Japanese were exerting an almost total blockade against China and the Nationalist forces.

[17] It took advantage of the chaos that followed the falling of France and the Netherlands in 1940, as well as the British Empire concentration in defending its metropolitan territories. Also, the Vichy Regime authorized Japan to occupy Indochina.

[18] The reader must bear in mind that the Philippines was still under US administration.

[19] Some Japanese high officials, including Admiral Yamamoto, held some doubt about this evaluation.

3 responses to “Midway: When the Airplane Sank an Empire (Part I)

  1. Pingback: Midway: When the Airplane Sank an Empire (Part II) | Drakkar: Defence, Strategy and Security

  2. Pingback: Midway: When the Airplane Sank an Empire (Part IIIb) | Drakkar: Defence, Strategy and Security

  3. Pingback: Midway: When the Airplane Sunk an Empire (Part IV) | Drakkar: Defence, Strategy and Security

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