Chapter 2: Japanese Plans: Toward Midway and the North Pacific

Apparently ignoring this setback in the Coral Sea, Japan next turned toward the Central and North Pacific to launch the second complicated operation on her schedule. Admiral Yamamoto's two-pronged thrust at Midway and the Aleutians would automatically wipe clean the Coral Sea reverses and extend the outer perimeter of defense a safer distance from the home islands. And in the bargain, Yamamoto hoped, these attacks would lure forth the remainder of the U.S. fleet so that he could finish off the job he started on 7 December.1

The admiral accepted his aviators' reports that they had destroyed both U.S. carriers in the Coral Sea, and he therefore reasoned that the U.S. could bring no more than two flattops against him anywhere in the Pacific. Actually the Pearl Harbor yard had put the Yorktown back into operation in less than 48 hours so that the U.S. had three carriers, including the Enterprise and the Hornet. But against these Yamamoto had seven, and four seaplane carriers as well. His force also contained 11 battleships, including three of the latest type.2 The U.S. had no battleships--or at least none in position for this upcoming battle.3 And Yamamoto also had a substantial edge over the U.S. in cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. But the Japanese admiral squandered this lopsided advantage by dispersing his armada in widely scattered groups and opened himself for defeat in detail by the inferior U.S. Pacific Fleet.4

This Japanese fleet, divided for the complicated plan into five major forces, with some of these split into smaller groups, steamed eastward independently to carry out the various phases of the second step in this strategy for 1942. Planes from two light carriers in the Second Mobile Force would strike Dutch Harbor, Alaska on 3 June to confuse the U.S. command


and to cover diversionary Japanese landings in the western Aleutians by the Occupation Forces for Adak-Attu and Kiska. Next the Carrier Striking Force, commanded by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, would soften Midway with the planes from the big fleet carriers Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, and Soryu,5 and would then move on to strike the first blow at the U.S. Pacific Fleet if it challenged in a sortie from Pearl Harbor.

Admiral Yamamoto's Main Body, including three battleships and a light cruiser of his force plus the Aleutian Screening Force for four battleships and two light cruisers, then would go in for the kill against the U.S. Fleet. This engagement would be followed, after darkness on 5 June, by Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo moving in to shell the U.S. base for two days. Then Kondo's convoyed Transport Group would approach to land the Midway Occupation Force of 5,000 ground troops. While crossing the Pacific, Yamamoto remained some hundreds of miles to the rear with his Main Body, awaiting word from the Advance Expeditionary Force of large fleet submarines already manning stations on the approaches to Pearl Harbor to warn about sorties of the American ships.

This ambitious plan might have worked, even though it was over-intricate. But again the Japanese had allowed their optimism and overconfidence to cast the U.S. Pacific Fleet in the role of a timid character actor cued for a vulnerable "walk-on" part. They begged the question of tactics before their plan moved to the operational stage. The U.S. Fleet, according to Japanese plans, would be steaming for the Second Mobile Force in the Aleutians, or would be vacillating in Hawaiian waters, until the strong Carrier Striking Force hit Midway and revealed the target of the main effort.6 In either event nothing but the small Marine garrison force would stand in the way of the occupation of Midway, and the Japanese would have an air base of their own there before the U.S. Fleet could reach them.

But, as at the Coral Sea encounter, the U.S. Fleet already had sortied to await the Japanese*. For more than a month Nimitz had been aware that something like this was in the wind, and he bet nearly everything he had that the strike would hit Midway. The weakened Pacific Fleet stood some 300 miles northeast of Midway, there to refuel, before the Japanese picket submarines took position. As a result, these boats sighted no U.S. ships and radioed no reports, and Admiral Nagumo discovered the presence of the U.S. carriers in a most unpleasant manner.


Table of Contents ** Previous Chapter (1) * Next Chapter (3)


[*] Due, no doubt, to continuing classification at the time of writing, this account is reticent on the role played by Magic--the incredibly successful American code-breaking effort: Nimitz did not need to gamble, he was reading the Japanese Navy's communications nearly as soon as the Japanese commanders.

[1] Battle That Doomed Japan, Chaps 4 and 5, passim. The Aleutians phase was intended only as a diversion and to protect the northern flank of the Midway thrust, the plan being to withdraw the landing troops in September. Ibid., 79.

[2] Adm Yamamoto flew his flag in the Yamato, the largest, fastest, and most heavily armed (18" guns) ship in the world.

[3] Although some of the battleships knocked out at Pearl Harbor had been put back in service, and three others had been brought around from the Atlantic, these ships were operating from the west coast as a final defense for the U.S.

[4] In view of subsequent developments, Morison describes Yamamoto's disposition as "cockeyed." Coral Sea and Midway, 77-79. See also Battle That Doomed Japan, 73-78. These Japanese authors, although sometimes carefully kind to Yamamoto (who was killed later in a Solomon Islands air action), are most often highly critical of the Japanese Navy and of war plans in general. Although the work is valuable and serious (n.b. the final two paragraphs of the book, at pages 247-248), the authors sometimes sound like men on the morning after, ruefully surveying the night before.

[5] Absent members of the original Pearl Harbor striking force were the Shokaku and the Zuikaku, the former undergoing Coral Sea damage repairs, and the latter reforming its air groups battered in that same action. Presence of these big carriers at Maidway might well have been decisive.

[6] Fuchida and Okumiya state that Japanese plans "calculated that the enemy naval forces would be lured out by the strike on Midway Island and not before." Battle That Doomed Japan, 128. But in this calculation their overconfidence must have been tempered somewhat, else why the diversion into the Aleutians? Morison discusses this faulty Japanese strategy, probably more realistically. Coral Sea and Midway, 74-79.

Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation