When the Japanese bombarded Pearl Harbor, they missed three crucial targets: the United States aircraft carriers that happened to be out at sea during the time of the surprise attack. Although the desolation at Pearl Harbor was grievous, killing 2,402 people and debilitating almost 100 ships and over 300 aircraft, Admiral Yamamoto was not satisfied. He wanted to destroy the aircraft carriers: planes were the real firepower of WWII. If the Japanese had any chance at expanding their empire, the U.S. aircraft carriers needed to disappear.
The U.S. carriers were therefore large targets for the Japanese at the Battle of the Coral Sea (4–8 May 1942). It was the first time the two navies were battling carrier to carrier, and the Japanese wanted to finish what they attempted at Pearl Harbor. But the Japanese were only able to sink one carrier and severely damage another, the USS Yorktown. Although it was engulfed in flames, and the Japanese thought it ruined, the crew salvaged the carrier and sailed it back to Pearl Harbor for repairs. It was finished just in time for another massive attack at the Battle of Midway.
On 4 June 1942, Operation Mai went forth under the direction of Admiral Yamamoto to attack Midway Atoll in shifts: one fleet from each the north, east, and south. Yamamoto wanted to lure the U.S. aircraft carriers to the islands, where he was waiting with his monstrous navy. Little did he know that U.S. codebreakers already knew about the planned attack and had been heavily preparing.
The U.S. knew the date and location of the attack, but they didn’t know exactly where the Japanese fleets were. Before they could spot the enemy, the Japanese had already launched their planes to attack Midway. Luckily, a U.S. scout plane saw the Japanese Zeros heading toward the islands and alerted base.
The U.S. planes launched quickly, trying to get off the ground before the Zeros reached their target. They reached the Japanese in time, but the dogfights didn’t last long. The Japanese pilots had much more experience than the U.S. pilots (many of whom were fresh out of flight school), and the U.S. Wildcat was no match to outmaneuver the Zero. Most U.S. planes were shot down, while only a few Japanese perished.
With the Wildcats taking off from land and being the sole attack thus far, the Japanese did not suspect that the U.S. Navy could be very close. By this time, the U.S. had identified the location of the enemy ships, and it wasn’t long before a Japanese scout plane sighted the U.S. as well.
The U.S. fleet was not where the Japanese thought they were, though. When reporting the location of the U.S. ships to Japanese Admiral Namugo, the scout was mistaken. The U.S. carriers were closer—dangerously closer. At the distance the Japanese mistook the U.S. to be, neither side could launch planes with enough fuel to fly to the enemy ship and back, so the Japanese waited to attack. But the U.S. was certainly close enough, and they knew it.
The USS Enterprise and USS Hornet launched their torpedo planes, but upon reaching their target they were swiftly shot down by patrolling Zeros. Not one torpedo hit any of the Japanese carriers and hardly any planes returned to American carriers, but the attempted attack was enough distraction to let the U.S. dive bombers go unnoticed until it was too late.
The bombers were high in the air with the Japanese carriers directly below. The planes dove to their targets and sunk the Kaga and Akagi. Shortly after, bombers from the USS Yorktown joined the fight and sunk the Sōryū.
The Japanese now had one carrier left. They launched their planes in retaliation and fiercely attacked the USS Yorktown. The carrier was engulfed in flames, but once again the crew revived it. The small victory didn’t last for long, though, as a second group of planes came and finished it off. The crew had to abandon ship.
Unfortunately for the Japanese, they were under the impression that they had sunk two U.S. aircraft carriers—not attacked the Yorktown twice. With the U.S. initially having three carriers and the Japanese having four, Admiral Nagumo thought that after the recent attacks that both sides were now even. He decided to give his men some rest and a bite to eat.
The U.S. knew they now had the lead and were going to make the most of it. After a scout plane sighted the last Japanese carrier, they sent their final team of dive bombers. They quickly finished the carrier, catching the Japanese off-guard. With no powerful carriers left, the Japanese turned back for Japan, and the U.S. headed back to Oahu for a well-deserved break.