When the US was drawn into WWII at Pearl Harbor, there was some immediate response by the US but nothing decisive; nothing militarily significant. The Doolittle raid, as much as it is famous and it did what it was designed to do, was not a militarily relevant mission. It was done to help public morale and to show the Japanese were still kicking.
The battle of Coral Sea was the first true Navy battle in the Pacific between the US and Japan, [far from the first in the pacific] and was a draw. We lost the USS Lexington (CV-2), one of our oldest but few front line aircraft carriers. Also, the USS Yorktown was severely damaged and thought by the Japanese, to be sunk.
We also sank one of their carriers and some secondary ships. At the time of the attack on Peal Harbor, Japan had 10 carriers. We had three in the pacific. The Lexington came after the Pearl Harbor attack.
In a success of code breaking and intelligence that was only learning how to operate at the time, we had discovered the plan the Japanese had to attack Midway Island. We had broken the Japanese Imperial Code but that didn’t mean we could read all the transmissions. At that time, we could decode about one word in eight. And this was the diplomatic code, not the military code. So unless officials were discussing military action, we could not read the code to know military planning.
Ironically, the most trusted and aggressive carrier commander the US had was ill at the time of Midway; Admiral Halsey. His replacement he chose had never commanded a carrier. Admiral Spruance was to take the Hornet and Enterprise to sea to attack the Japanese carriers coming to Midway. Admiral Fletcher would bring the very damaged Yorktown a couple days later.
We knew approximately when and kinda where the Japanese would come. That was it. From the moment the Japanese fleet left home ports, they were on radio silence.
This battle is very American. We were out numbered, injured, our best commander was not able to take part and we were laying it all on the line in the defense of a small Island. But this was not about defending Midway. This was about surprising the Japanese.
The Japanese hoped to attack the Aleutian Islands in Alaska as a diversion, which they did, while conducting a campaign in the south pacific, so the 4 carrier, 100 ship task force headed to Midway in hopes of capturing it, would not be seen and our defenses would be spread.
As a result, they had not planned on us waiting for them. We were, with what we had; all we had. This was an all or nothing gambit for us. We sent out spotter planes from Midway and from the carriers. They combed the ocean looking for the Japanese attack fleet they hoped were there, but feared.
The Yorktown was almost caught up just in time for the action to start. The Aleutians were being invaded and the first wave of air attacks on Midway followed. We spotted the Japanese fleet from spotter planes and headed for them, with every plane we had.
The fortunate irony is that the different flights never coordinated their attacks. Torpedo planes are slower, they leave first, Dive bombers second, then fighters. Then meet up and attack together. This is a very effective approach. IF they all meet up. They didn’t.
The American torpedo planes came in first, but not all together, staggered as they arrived. Not one plane survived. Not one torpedo hit. We lost 100% of our Pacific Torpedo plane fleet in a matter of minutes and nearly all the crew.
It also alerted the Japanese fleet that the US fleet had found them. They had not yet found us. They also didn’t think there were three US carriers. They assumed the Yorktown was sunk. Even if not, it could not have been repaired that fast. It wasn’t, it was bandaged and running on half its steam boilers and with the repair crew on-board, still working.
The next to attack the Japanese fleet was the dive bombers, one flight, not all of them. The first wave didn’t score any damaging hits. But it pulled the Japanese fighter planes away and out of cover so the next wave of bombers went in without being attacked. It was said to be like a practice run. In 5 minutes, three of the four Japanese carriers were mortally struck. Within 30 minutes. All three were under water.
Shortly after this, the Japanese found the Yorktown. They attacked her and disabled her. She was no longer under power and on fire. The Japanese felt it was one of two carriers the Americans had; the Enterprise or Hornet. So they felt that with one carrier left, and one American carrier left in the Pacific, they needed to press the attack on the one remaining US carrier.
As a result, they attacked with all they had left and left the one carrier they had, exposed. It cost them. The second wave of dive bombers and cover fighters from the USS Hornet and USS Enterprise, found the one remaining Japanese carrier and sank it.
The cost was the Yorktown. It was found again. And this time fully disabled. Not sunk, but no longer able to power itself. Since it was no longer burning when the second Japanese attack found it, the Japanese assumed it was the second of the US carriers and the commanders eventually reported that the US had no carriers left.
Something to consider, when the last Japanese carrier sank, the Japanese pilots in the air had nowhere to land. All of them that survived their mission had to ditch in the ocean next to a Japanese ship and be pulled out of the water. NO thanks …
The reason to write about this, other than this being a US victory, is this was the first US victory in the Pacific against Japan. It was a turning point although at the time, we had no idea. The Midway invasion never came. The Aleutian invasion failed. In two battles, Coral Sea and Midway, we cut the Japanese carrier force in half.
The Yorktown was almost brought home. She could not power herself and was sinking so two cruisers put tow straps under her and slung her between them like a wounded soldier. Listing hard they tried to bring her into Pearl. Someone spotted a submarine and they had to cut her loose.
They sunk her claiming to make sure Japan didn’t capture her. In reality I feel they sunk her to make sure the Japanese could not claim to have done so.
At the time of the attack of Pearl Harbor, Japan had a 10 to 3 carrier superiority in the Pacific. After Midway, they had a 5-2 advantage.
This was a very American kinda Battle. We were the under dogs, we were out numbered and we were wounded. We also put it all in on one bet. Win big or lose it all.
Admiral Yamamoto was quoted in saying after the attack on Pearl Harbor, something along the lines of, “I am concerned all we have done is awoken a sleeping dragon.”
He understood us well, when it was too late.
By the end of the war, we had built 13 more Essex class fleet carriers based on the Yorktown design.
We also built 6 more attack carriers, faster and slightly smaller.
We built MANY escort carriers, about 1/3 the size and half the planes. In total by the end of WWII, we had launched 103 new carriers.
Japan launched one.
At one time, the USS Enterprise stood alone in the Pacific as the only US carrier. In a beautiful statement, her crew painted on her deck, “USS Enterprise VS Japan”.
The Enterprise is the only US carrier in the Pacific to survive the entire war.
By the end of the war, the US had the largest navy in the world. Our Navy today, is larger than the next 17 nations combined.