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Battle of Midway Timeline

Authored By Dan Alex | Last Updated: 9/23/2014

The strategic Pacific island of Midway became center stage for a complex Japanese Navy initiative to help setup a launch post within reach of Hawaii.

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The Battle of Midway was an early key naval battle in the Pacific Theater between the forces of the United States Navy (USN) and the Empire of Japan. Japan was keen on knocking out the remaining American carriers by luring them into a complicated trap - this to include a diversionary invasion of the Alaskan Aleutian Islands in the north. This would force the American carriers out of Pearl for the final deathblow. A Japanese victory would then secure their sphere of influence in the Pacific and help close the range on other targeted islands. The Japanese were also hopeful of an American negotiation to end the war in the Pacific on terms favorable to the Empire. The Americans, however, forged ahead with other plans.


The Midway Atoll was strategically placed in the Pacific Ocean for both sides knew of its general importance for further operations in the region. In late May, a Japanese Naval task force departed Japan to undertake the operation to claim Midway - within their fleet were four aircraft carriers and a ground invasion force. The Northern Task Force began their invasion of the Aleutian Islands with aircraft from IJN Junyo and IJN Runyo but USN Admiral Chester Nimitz held his forces in back from commitment to the ruse.


Unknown to the Japanese, American codebreakers had deciphered details of the planned invasion and recognized the Aleutian assault as merely diversionary which allowed time for the American fleet to set up a counter-ambush all their own. This proved ultra-critical to American success in the following months for their naval power had been hugely restricted after the attack on Pearl Harbor just six months prior. At the American's disposal were aircraft carriers USS Enterprise and USS Hornet. USS Yorktown soon joined them after undergoing repairs while USS Saratoga was still in harbor along the U.S. West Coast, having suffered battle damage.


Some 162 IJN vessels made up the Midway Island contingent. IJN patrol aircraft missed encountering the massed American counter-force though USN patrol aircraft spotted elements of the IJN invasion force some 700 miles to the west of Midway. The battleship IJN Yamato was part of the main fleet and located 300 miles behind. The rest of the force lay 600 miles further south.


USS Enterprise and USS Hornet now waited at their respective positions, ready to strike the unsuspecting Japanese fleet. In the early morning hours of June 4th, Japanese Vice Admiral Nagumo launched over 100 fighters and bombers against Midway - the fighters serving to protect the waves of incoming dive bombers.


The Japanese air groups - and their launching carriers - were spotted by a U.S. Navy PBY Catalina reconnaissance flying boat about an hour later. All of Midway's available fighters were launched in its defense and USS Enterprise and USS Hornet both moved into action. Japanese fighters tangled with the American defense while her dive bombers swooped in and attacked the island's key infrastructure to good effect. However, the defense was more than expected and forced Japanese commanders to consider a second assault wave to help further diminish resistance. The initial attack proved costly for the IJN as some 67 aircraft were either lost to enemy action or landed back at the Japanese carriers with extensive damage. Confusion between the four Japanese carriers also added to the moment and slowly removed initiative away from the attackers. The invading forces were still unaware of any impending involvement from USN carrier groups for none had yet been spotted. The second wave of attack aircraft was green-lighted and refueling and rearming commenced aboard the IJN carrier decks.


At 8:00AM, USS Hornet and USS Enterprise launched a combined force of 151 aircraft. At about this time, a Japanese patrol plane finally spotted the incoming American carriers. Upon news of the sighting, Japanese Admiral Nagumo was taken completely by surprise - his aircraft were still in the process of rearming and refueling and a change of course was ordered for the fleet in response. Mitsubishi "Zero" fighter coverage was called in for local defense.


USS Hornet's bombers flew in but failed to connect their ordnance and 35 of these 41 attacking aircraft were lost to Japanese guns. A 49-strong wave then followed by the Americans and benefited by the actions of the previous wave for Japanese fighter coverage was now down to lower altitude. Japanese carriers IJN Akagi, Kaga and Soryu were all three slammed with American bombs. Akagi was hit twice while Kaga was hit four times and Soryu took on damage from three bombs. Their respective deck aircraft, fully armed and fuelled, began exploding and causing uncontrollable fires.


The Hiryu was luckily removed enough from the collection of the three targeted IJN carriers that she was able to launch her aircraft against USS Yorktown. USS Yorktown was just in process of recovering her aircraft when she was attacked and suffered three direct hits from IJN bombers. Two torpedoes from a second attack wave ultimately finished off the American vessel.


USS Hornet and Enterprise responded in her defense and launched a 40-strong contingent of Douglas SDB dive bombers at IJN Hiryu. Four direct hits destroyed her deck at the bow and four near-hits rattled her under structure. Damaged proved severe enough that Hiryu was eventually placed out of action and later scuttled by the Japanese. USS Yorktown, refusing to sink, was instead towed by accompanying surface vessels while her crew was abandoned. Days later, she was targeted and sunk by a passing IJN submarine, bringing about an end to her USN carrier. Despite her loss, the Americans could claim four important Japanese aircraft carriers - these carriers being Pearl Harbor attack veterans - while also avenging the Japanese attack on Hawaii in the process.


In the end, the Japanese operation was a terrible failure - four key carriers were lost along with thousands of personnel including irreplaceable and experienced airmen and aircraft. American actions during the Midway Campaign ensured their own respective presence in the Pacific Theater would be solidified by the event. For the Japanese military, it had now witnessed its peak as an unstoppable fighting force - and it now faced the very real possibility of defeat with a war inching its way to Tokyo itself.


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There are a total of 26 Battle of Midway Timeline Events. Entries are listed below by date of occurrence.

1942
Monday
May 25th

A large Imperial Japanese Naval force sails for Japan towards Midway Island. The force Is made up of four task forces. One is charged with the invasion of the Aleutian Islands off of Alaska while the other three are to take Midway Island itself and assail the responding USN fleet. One group contains the required four aircraft carriers.

1942
Thursday
May 28th

The final Imperial Japanese Task Force leaves mainland Japan.

1942
Wednesday
June 3rd

The Northern Task Force begins its operation to take the Aleutian Island chain and divert USN forces to the region.

1942
Thursday
June 4th

At 4:30AM, the bombing of Midway Island begins with aircraft from Vice-Admiral Nagumo's First Carrier Strike Force.

1942
Thursday
June 4th

American fighter aircraft take heavy losses but force the Japanese Navy to launch a second attack.

1942
Thursday
June 4th

At 7:28AM, a Japanese reconniassance plane spots spots ten undetermined USN surface ships 200 miles northeast of the Japanese Midway invasion force.

1942
Thursday
June 4th

At 7:52AM, USS Enterprise and USS Hornet launch their dive bombers and torpedo planes.

1942
Thursday
June 4th

At 8:20AM, a surprised Nagumo receives his first report of American carriers in the area.

1942
Thursday
June 4th

At 8:37AM, aircraft of the second Japanese strike force returns to their respective carriers for rearming and refueling.

1942
Thursday
June 4th

At 9:00AM, USS Yorktown launches her aircraft with Nagumo's carrier force as the prime target.

1942
Thursday
June 4th

At 9:18AM, Nagumo reacts to the American presence and changes the course of his Carrier Strike Force.

1942
Thursday
June 4th

Between 9:30AM and 10:00AM, Torpedo planes from the USS Enterprise and USS Hornet begin their attacks on the Japanese carriers.

1942
Thursday
June 4th

The first wave of USN carrier dive-bombers has difficulty in locating their Japanese targets.

1942
Thursday
June 4th

All incoming USN Devastator attackers are shot down by Japanese Zero fighters in the span of six minutes.

1942
Thursday
June 4th

The initial American assault on the Japanese carrier strike force is over by 10:00AM.

1942
Thursday
June 4th

At 10:25AM, a follow-up strike made up of 37 Dauntless dive bombers finds the Japanese carriers - now stocked with armed and fueled aircraft on their decks.

1942
Thursday
June 4th

The three Japanese carriers - Kaga, Soryu and Akagi - are struck with bombs and ultimately sunk.

1942
Thursday
June 4th

At 12:00PM, Imperial Japanese Navy bomber aircraft strike against the attacking USS Yorktown.

1942
Thursday
June 4th

By 2:30PM, the USS Yorktown is severely damaged but does not sink.

1942
Thursday
June 4th

By 3:00PM, the crew of the USS Yorktown has abandoned their carrier. The damaged vessel is towed by USN ships.

1942
Thursday
June 4th

At 5:00PM, the Imperial Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu is set ablaze after being struck by no fewer than five direct bomb hits from aircraft of the USS Enterprise.

1942
Friday
June 5th

The Japanese carrier Hiryu is scuttled.

1942
Saturday
June 6th

The USS Yorktown, now severely damaged and in tow of US Navy forces, is targeted and sunk by a Japanese submarine.

1942
Saturday
June 6th

The island of Kiska is taken by Japanese forces.

1942
Sunday
June 7th

The island of Attu is taken by Japanese forces.

1943
Sunday
August 15th

The Aleutian Islands Campaign comes to a close. The Japanese invasion is ultimately repelled.