May and June 1942 saw two tremendous conflicts on the high seas in which the opposing fleets did not actually see each other or exchange salvoes. They were aircraft-carrier-based battles in the Pacific. The first, fought in the Coral Sea (4-8 May, 1942) ended in one carrier sunk on either side, plus another gravely damaged. The opponents were the United States and Japan.
The Japanese admiral was Isoruku Yamamoto, commander-in-chief. Mistaken intelligence informed him that two US carriers had been destroyed in the Coral Sea engagement. He deduced from this that America would not able effectively to oppose an assault on Midway Island in the Central Pacific. He therefore summoned a vast fleet of more than 165 ships, including eleven battleships, which surely should have ensured victory in a concentrated attack, but he apparently made several mistakes: two Japanese aircraft carriers were dispatched to cover a diversionary attack on the Aleutian Islands but they failed to join the main carrier force at Midway. The Japanese fleet was so spread out that only two of the five forces were near enough to each other for support; then again the fleet that should have provided the carriers with cover from anti-aircraft batteries was still nearly five hundred miles away.
The United States had learned from much experience to use the fleet as escorts for its carriers. In addition Admiral Nimitz, the US commander, had broken the secret Japanese codes and knew what they were going to do. Being the man he was, he decided to concentrate all his available ships – three carriers, eight battle cruisers and fifteen destroyers against the four Japanese carriers assaulting Midway. The Japanese had early success when they destroyed many US aircraft on the ground, as well as shooting down thirty-three aircraft for a loss of only six of theirs.
Nimitz ordered his carrier aeroplanes to attack the Japanese when they were re-fuelling and servicing their aircraft on the carriers. Three Japanese carriers were destroyed by American dive-bomber pilots in less than ten minutes. The fourth Japanese carrier Hiryu was sailing separated from the others and was able to strike Yorktown badly damaging her; the job was finished later by a Japanese submarine. But Hiryu herself did not escape unscathed! She was severely damaged in the engagement and was scuttled (seaplugs pulled out) on 5 June.
The Americans lost one aircraft carrier, one destroyer and 132 aircraft at the Battle of Midway. The fight itself did not alter the course of the war, because Japan still had two fleet carriers and six smaller ones. Japan was still superior in battleships and cruisers, but Midway showed that the enormous Japanese fleet was not invincible, as many had said it was. The United States still had three large carriers and one smaller one. In fact Midway was where Japan suffered her first major naval defeat. The propaganda effect was enormously encouraging for both the United States and her allies in Europe and around the Commonwealth.
Chester William Nimitz had directed the battle by radio from his headquarters at Pearl Harbor (q.v.). Later in 1944 he destroyed the Japanese Navy at the Battle of Leyte Gulf by which time he was already a supremely popular figure with American forces. He became US Fleet Admiral in December, 1944.