Just six months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, which nearly decimated the United States’ naval power, the United States found an opportunity to even the playing field.
Adm. Chester W. Nimitz had a valuable asset the Japanese could not foresee — the U.S. Navy intelligence had broken Japan’s naval code. The U.S. now knew the timing and location of the next Japanese attack. The intercepted information showed that the Imperial Japanese Navy was divided and none of their battle formations could support each other, making it easier for Nimitz to defend and counter against an attack. Japan remained almost totally unaware of the surviving carriers – or the planned U.S. attack, and appeared to assume that America was still inoperable from the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor.
In the buildup for the approaching battle, one notable carrier was USS Yorktown. Japanese dive bombers had severely damaged Yorktown one month prior at the Battle of Coral Sea. Japan expected it to sink or be out of the fight for months to come. Just three days after docking at Pearl Harbor for repairs, it was battle ready. Now with USS Yorktown back in the fleet, Nimitz could successfully defend Midway Island.
Marine aviators at Midway Island with Marine Air Group 22 were also ready for the upcoming fight.
During the Battle of Midway, in June 1942, Marine Corps dive-bomber pilot Capt. Richard E. Fleming took charge of the squadron after his commander was shot down in the initial attack against Japan’s fleet. Fleming risked his life by exposing himself to enemy fire in order to score a hit on a Japanese aircraft carrier. Despite his own injuries, and flying a severely damaged aircraft through hazardous weather and total darkness, Fleming made it back to base in one piece. The following morning, he led his unit to bomb more enemy carriers and ships. Fleming commenced his glide bombing attack from 4,500 feet through heavy anti-aircraft opposition and continued his attack even after being hit and while his plane was burning. Amidst a hail of 179 hits from Japanese fighter guns and antiaircraft batteries, he descended to 500 feet, dropped his bomb toward the stern of the Japanese cruiser Mikuma, and then crashed to the sea in flames. Fleming received the Medal of Honor for his dauntless perseverance and unyielding devotion to duty.
In addition to these attacks, torpedo planes from the USS Yorktown and two other carriers, the USS Enterprise and the USS Hornet, destroyed four Japanese carriers while fighters took down 200 experienced Japanese pilots. In contrast, the U.S. lost about 150 planes and USS Yorktown, which received heavy damage from submarine torpedo attacks. The crew of Yorktown had enough time to abandon ship to safety before it sank.
The U.S. victory at Midway was the first step starting the momentum that led to eventual U.S. naval superiority. The battle is often referred to as the turning point of the Pacific theater, reducing Japan’s ability to make major offensive moves and paving the way for continued allied operations and advances in the Pacific.