War in the Pacific: The First Year
Glorious Month of June: Midway and the Aleutians
On April 18, 1942, under the command of Lieutenant
Colonel James Doolittle, B-25 Mitchell bombers were launched from the
aircraft carrier USS Hornet, and successfully bombed Tokyo. Japanese
military leaders had no idea the bombers had been launched from a
carrier (a revolutionary concept at the time). Strategists thought the
attack must have originated from American bases on Midway or in the
Aleutian Islands. When asked from where the bombers had originated,
Roosevelt jokingly replied "Shangri-la," the fictional, hidden paradise
in James Hilton's novel, Lost Horizon. The attack itself caused little
damage, but boosted American morale, and perhaps more importantly, led
the Japanese to revise their strategy.
Japanese Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, who believed that
a prolonged struggle with the United States could only lead to a
Japanese defeat, was convinced that the Japanese must lure the remaining
American fleet, especially the aircraft carriers, into a decisive
battle. Yamamoto proposed a two-pronged operation against Midway, the
main objective, and a diversionary attack to Alaska's Aleutian
The Japanese proposed to invade key islands in the
Aleutians to secure their northern flank, and to provide a possible
route for the invasion of North America.
American torpedo bombers fly in
formation near Midway Atoll in search of Japanese Admiral Nagumo
Chuichi's naval forces. The Battle of Midway, an Allied victory, is
considered the turning point of World War II in the Pacific and the
first defeat of the Imperial Japanese Navy in nearly 300 years.
(photo has been digitally altered)
The diversion in the Aleutians did not fool the
Americans, who had broken the Japanese naval code and knew of the
enemy's true intentions. The Battle of Midway, between June 3-6, 1942,
was the result. Admiral Nagumo Chuichi dispatched his carrier-based
bombers to attack the island of Midway, and then discovered there was an
American task force, including three aircraft carriers commanded by Rear
Admirals Frank J. Fletcher and Raymond A. Spruance, near his fleet. When
the Americans launched their torpedo bombers against the Japanese, they
were virtually destroyed by Japanese fighters and anti-aircraft fire.
Ensign George Gay was the only survivor of the doomed Torpedo Squadron
8. No Japanese ships were touched. The Japanese, however, failed to
detect U.S. dive-bombers flying overhead, which in a matter of minutes
determined the outcome of the battle and influenced the course of the
war in the Pacific. The Battle of Midway resulted in the loss of four
Japanese carriers: Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu. The carrier USS
Yorktown was the only loss for the Allied cause.
With the major defeat at Midway, the Japanese decided
to continue the Aleutians operation in the hopes of gaining some
victory. Following the air raids on the American base at Dutch Harbor,
towards the eastern end of the Aleutian chain, 2,500 Imperial troops
invaded the islands of Attu and Kiska on the morning of June 7, 1942.
They captured ten U.S. sailors who manned the weather station on Kiska,
as well as forty native Aleuts and a Bureau of Indian Affairs teacher on
Attu. Attu and Kiska, along with Guam in the Mariana Islands, Wake
Island in the central Pacific, and the Philippine Islands, were the only
American territories occupied by enemy forces during the Second World
Colonel James Doolittle (second from
left) and crew members. The raid on Tokyo influenced Japanese strategy,
leading to the Battle of Midway.