The fatal five minutes in the Pacific that changed World War II

At the Midway Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, Imperial Japan and the United States of America waged one of history’s greatest wars. The outcome continues to inspire and enthral.

Aircraft are prepared for launching on USS Enterprise  in the early morning, 4 June 1942
Aircraft are prepared for launching on USS Enterprise in the early morning, 4 June 1942

The Japanese surge across Southeast Asia and the Pacific in the four months from December 1941 to April 1942 had been every bit as impressive as the German blitzkrieg in the spring and summer of 1940.

Japanese war planners had set out to seize all the resources necessary to feed Japan’s burgeoning industries and armed forces, and to establish an effective defensive perimeter around this vast new empire, the grotesquely misnamed ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’.

By spring 1942, the Japanese controlled Manchuria, a large part of coastal China (including the British colony of Hong Kong), French Indo-China, Thailand, Burma, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, and countless other countries and territories.  

These gains had not only been made at lightning speed, but at minimal cost – for the loss, in fact, of about 15,000 men, 380 aircraft, and four destroyers.

Douglas Dauntless flying over USS Enterprise
Douglas Dauntless flying over USS Enterprise

The intention had always been to seize the territories needed for national self-sufficiency and then to go over to the defensive.

In practice, this could not be done, for the Japanese Empire would never be secure in control of its massive conquests in the face of powerful Pacific rivals. The British might easily be held on the India–Burma border, at least for the time being – the British Empire was fighting a desperate struggle against Japan’s Axis allies to defend the home island and keep open its supply lines in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. The Americans were an altogether different matter.

The United States could not tolerate a Japanese-dominated Pacific, nor the immense damage to American prestige represented by the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

Admiral Chuichi Nagumo (1887-1944)
Admiral Chuichi Nagumo (1887-1944)

As such, two particular anxieties pressed upon the Japanese Naval High Command – two possible bases for an effective US counterattack. The US aircraft carriers had escaped the destruction at Pearl Harbor, and they could continue to operate out of their Hawaii base, roughly mid-Pacific. Then there was Australia, which was both an Allied stronghold and a potential Allied springboard for a counter-thrust into Borneo, New Guinea, and the Solomons.

The United States looked east to Europe and west across the Pacific with equal concern. From December 1941, it was fighting two wars with similar vigour. From the outset, it sought ways to strike back at Japan.

At Midway, the Americans found their opportunity.

A squadron of Grumann Avenger torpedo-bombers in flight.
A squadron of Grumann Avenger torpedo-bombers in flight.

The Pacific Ocean is the biggest single battle space on Earth. More than 60 million square miles in extent, the approximate mid-point – the Midway Atoll – is 2,000 miles from any continent. Across this vast area, between December 1941 and August 1945, Imperial Japan and the United States of America waged one of history’s greatest wars.

The Battle of Midway, on 4 June 1942, was the turning point in that war, the moment when the Japanese surge that began with Pearl Harbor ended and the Americans went over to the strategic offensive. Thereafter and continuously, until the bitter end, at Okinawa and Hiroshima, the Japanese were on the defensive in a war of attrition they could not possibly win.

USS Yorktown was the target of two Japanese air-strikes. It is seen here at the moment of a torpedo impact.
USS Yorktown was the target of two Japanese air-strikes. It is seen here at the moment of a torpedo impact.

Yet the odds were stacked against the Americans at Midway, and mid-morning on the day of battle they were facing a disastrous defeat – one that might have lost them both Midway and Hawaii, and therefore control of the Central Pacific; one that might have added years to the length of the war.

The stakes could not have been higher. Yet the battle was turned around by the action of just 34 airmen in a mere five minutes – what military historian John Keegan has called ‘the fatal five minutes’ that delivered ‘the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare’. This is no exaggeration: at 10.25am on 4 June 1942, the Japanese had maritime and air supremacy in the Central Pacific; by 10.30am, they had lost the war.

Admiral Chester Nimitz (1885-1966)
Admiral Chester Nimitz (1885-1966)

This extraordinary turnaround confirmed what another military historian, Basil Liddell Hart, referred to as ‘the chanciness of battles fought out in the new style by long-range sea-air action.’

It also confirmed that the age of the general fleet action by lines of great battleships was over. Midway was a carrier battle in which the opposing fleets never saw each other. The decisive weapons were seaborne aerial bombers. Nothing in naval warfare would ever be the same again. 

The Battle of Midway is now the subject of two epic feature films. The first was released in 1976 and starred Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, and a host of other top American actors. A second, directed by Roland Emmerich (of Independence Day fame), is due for release this month.

Does Midway deserve the hype? Was it really the greatest battle of the war?


This is an extract from a 14-page special feature on the Battle of Midway, published in the December 2019 issue of Military History Matters. 

Our special this time offers a detailed military analysis of Midway. Editor Neil Faulkner discusses the men, the machines, the grand strategy, and the tactical imperatives that made the battle. He then provides a blow-by-blow account of the action, setting in context ‘the fatal five minutes’ that transformed the war in the Pacific.

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