This question was inspired by another (on a different SE site) about the Avalon Hill board game.

As told in many American history books, the battle of Midway featured four Japanese heavy carriers vs. three Americans, giving the Japanese a potentially decisive advantage. (Plus the Japanese had many more support ships, at least potentially, although this advantage was squandered by the Japanese "wave" approach to the battle.)

But in reading this account (and others), of Midway, I was struck by the fact that while the number of carrier based aircraft was almost equal (248 for the Japanese vs. 223 for the Americans), the latter also had 123 landbased aircraft, on Midway. Essentially, Midway was a fourth "carrier" that had more capacity than any of the actual American carriers (and three of these carried almost as many aircraft as the four Japanese heavy carriers). The Japanese had two light carriers in the "rear" waves (arriving the second day), with a total carrying capacity of 45 aircraft, enough to reduce, but not eliminate the American numerical advantage.

The importance of the American advantage in landbased aircraft was reflected in the fact that the Japanese spent the early part of the battle bombing Midway (and destroying many of these "excess" aircraft), rather than seeking out and destroying the American carriers, perhaps giving the Americans a decisive head start in this regard.

Years later, at the battle of the Philippine Sea, the Japanese relied heavily on land based aircraft to counteract America's numerical advantage in carrier based aircraft. Whether or not the idea is sound, the Japanese clearly believed in it, which may have informed their strategy earlier, at Midway and elsewhere.

What do historians have to say about the role of America's landbased aircraft may have played in determining Japanese priorities and objectives at Midway? Do they credit the Midway based planes with distracting attention from the carriers, or even make the case that with fewer planes, the Japanese "ran out" faster? Has anyone pointed out that a facsimile of the battle, if fought elsewhere without Midway and its planes, might have turned out very differently?

4 Answers 4


Midway was a distraction at a critical moment in the battle, but this more due to luck than anything else. If you replay the Battle Of Midway over again, it is unlikely it would have turned out that way again. Despite the US advantage of surprise and Japanese overconfidence, so much of the battle was down to luck.

Midway made three important (I won't say major) contributions to the battle. The first was to be a known target. The second was scouting. The third was to be a distraction at just the right moment. The actual combat performance of Midway's aircraft had only a minor contribution.

Without Midway, the US fleet would not have known where the Japanese carriers would be.

The Japanese wanted to lure the US carrier fleet, the US Navy's only major offensive capability, into a decisive battle. Midway was chosen as being far enough away from Pearl Harbor to be outside of land-based air attack, but close enough to be a potential threat to Pearl Harbor. The US would have to respond to the invasion and the Japanese would be waiting.

The elaborate Japanese plan of feints and ruses was eavesdropped on by US code breakers who realized Midway was the target. This allowed Midway to be heavily reinforced and the US fleet to be waiting.

During the actual battle, scouting was Midway's most critical contribution, but resulted in a bad decision that happened to work out by luck.

Midway had dedicated PBY scout planes as well as long range heavy bombers. The night before a PBY spotted the Japanese Occupation Force (not the carriers) 500 miles away. The subsequent attack did little, but it did confirm to the Americans that the Japanese had arrived on time.

At 5:34 early morning of the battle, a Midway based PBY spotted the Japanese carriers. Though at extreme range, this allowed the US carriers to attack first. The Japanese did not spot the US carriers until two hours later, the plane spotting for that sector happened to take off late.

However, rather than taking the time (and fuel) to form up and conduct the coordinated attack required against the elite Japanese navy, the US aircraft were thrown at the enemy with no plan. This resulted in a piecemeal attack with aircraft getting lost and bombers being separated from their fighters. The professional Japanese cut them to ribbons. Only through luck did the American dive bombers happen to arrive at just the right time to take advantage of the slaughter while the Japanese fighter screen was down low destroying American torpedo bombers.

While Midway allowed an early attack, the rushed attack should have failed. Spotting the Japanese carriers later would have resulted in a better coordinated attack with a better chance to succeed.

Just when the US carriers were spotted, the Japanese were busy recovering the first raid on Midway and preparing for the second. This was Midway's critical contribution.

Midway was far better defended than the Japanese anticipated (which should have tipped them off that something was wrong), and they had been attacked (ineffectively) by land-based Midway bombers. This convinced the Japanese that a second strike was necessary. Just as they were about to recover the first strike force and preparing the reserves for a second strike, the American carriers were spotted.

While the Americans decided to strike with whatever was on hand, the Japanese did not. It was decided to take the time to recover the Midway strike force, rearm for anti-ship work, and launch a full strike. This had two consequences.

Had the Japanese attacked immediately, their full strike force would have been on the way to the US carriers even as three of their four carriers were being sunk. This may have resulted in heavier losses for the US and the probable loss of the Midway Islands (the Japanese had a fleet of battleships in reserve). Even so, a tactical stalemate would have still been a strategic victory for the US: the US could replace air crews and carriers, the Japanese could not.

The other consequence was at the moment the US dive bombers attacked, the Japanese carriers were busy fueling and arming aircraft. The effect of the relatively few US bomb hits (Akagi was only hit by one) were greatly magnified by hangers and decks full of ammunition and fuel. Fires raged out of control and secondary explosions did considerably more damage than the bombs themselves. Lax Japanese damage control also helped the situation along.

Again, the timing was down to luck. Had the US attack arrived an hour earlier or later, Midway would have provided no advantage. Had the scout plane which spotted the carriers taken off on time the Japanese would have been prepared and Midway would have provided no advantage.

Had the Japanese not been so overconfident and so sure of their deception plan, Midway's heavy defenses should have tipped them off that something was wrong with their plan. With a more alert Japanese commander, Midway might have been a detriment.

As for the actual combat performance of Midway, their aircraft did very little. Their beefed up AA defenses did more, but were ultimately irrelevant.

The land-based bombers hit nothing. At this stage of the war, the US still believed that high level bombing of naval targets could be effective. It wasn't. They did help by inadvertently acting as scouts early in the battle and by attacking so ferociously to convince the Japanese that a second strike was necessary.

Midway had only 28 fighters, mostly woefully obsolete Brewster Buffaloes, and were wiped out in the first attack. They shot down a few aircraft.

Midway had very heavy anti-air defenses, recently beefed up in anticipation of a battle. In the first attack, the Japanese lost 11 aircraft with 14 heavily damaged, and 29 more lightly damaged. This might seem like a lot, but the Japanese had 248 aircraft. Most were lost without even being launched in the first US carrier strike that sunk three of the four carriers.

One thing to realize is that carrier operations are restricted not by the number of planes available, but by the ability to get them on and off the ship. Due to their straight deck and very crowded hangers, a WWII carrier cannot launch a strike while recovering aircraft and vice versa. While launching a strike, the aircraft waiting to launch will be sitting on the deck as illustrated here waiting to be catapulted off by the two, slow to recover, steam catapults. Post WWII, larger carriers and angled flight decks allowed planes to be launched and recovered at the same time.

In addition to launching and recovering strikes, there is the routine launching and recovery of scouts and Combat Air Patrol (CAP). A typical CAP at this stage of the war was just six fighters. The rest were held in reserve, under maintenance, or being refueled and rearmed to relieve the CAP.

So while Midway definitely played a part in the battle, the effects were mostly down to luck. Replay the battle again, change a few very minor factors like timing, and Midway's effect would have been even less.

  • 1
    Longer than I like in an answer, but essentially correct. + 1
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 19, 2015 at 14:01
  • 5
    @T.E.D. I thought "no" would be too short. :) I started only considering the failure of the Midway fighters and bombers. Then I considered the OP's question of what if Midway wasn't there at all and it turned into a full blown analysis.
    – Schwern
    Aug 19, 2015 at 19:31
  • 1
    @setobot5000 1) Agree. 2) Attacks by Midway were an hour before the carrier attacks, I believe the Japanese had time to replenish their CAP. 3) A good point. Yes, Nagumo was not an aviator. But he had been in command of the First Air Fleet for over a year with great success at Pearl Harbor & the Indian Ocean Raid. Spruance was appointed very shortly before Midway as a replacement for Halsey, but he did know how to operate with carriers. Fletcher was the only commander with carrier v carrier experience at Coral Sea.
    – Schwern
    Aug 21, 2015 at 2:07
  • 1
    Actually, the Japanese had different doctrine and did not store and arm aircraft on the deck, but only down in the hangars. They actually had to lower planes to the hangar and bring them up to rearm. This stretched out their preparation time considerably over the US carriers.
    – Oldcat
    Aug 21, 2015 at 19:47
  • 1
    What actually sucked down the CAP was the initial attacks from the carrier planes - the torpedo bombers. The Midway land based air attacks were about an hour earlier, ample time for the CAP to recover altitude. The continual attacks did delay the preparation for a second strike.
    – Oldcat
    Aug 21, 2015 at 19:52

The direct military effect of the land based bombers was zero, as they did not inflict a single hit on the Japanese fleet in their multiple sorties. Level bombing was very ineffective during the entire war in hitting Japanese ships in motion, and none of the planes on Midway were trained in the dive-bombing attacks that would prove crucial.

The distraction of attacking Midway and advantage in scouting and surprise was more important, but the US did not need a large number of planes to perform that mission. Most of the planes based at Midway took off and either avoided the area during the attack or went off for a bombing run at the Japanese. Only a few were hit by the raids, which were meant more to soften the island up for the invasion.

The Japanese did not know of the US fleet, and did not use strike planes for scouting, so absent a bomb attack on Midway these planes would be idle. The land based planes on Midway were a priority for the Japanese since they were the only force they knew about. If the US fleet was known to be present, Midway would presumably be ignored - as it was as soon as the fleet was spotted.

While part of the distracting raids that kept the Japanese busy during the morning was due to Midway's planes, some also was due to the dispersed US carrier strike with torpedo planes from all ships and bombing elements from the Hornet coming early and from multiple directions and at different times. Then the Enterprise and Yorktown dive bombers came in together, unexpected, and did the real damage.

Without the distractions, the Japanese fleet might have suffered less damage on the initial hits and might have been able to save a carrier or two for later use. With better luck at Midway they might have damaged or sunk a second carrier. In other carrier battles, the tradeoff was more even.

The real key was the strategic surprise of the code breaking and quick repair of the Yorktown that let the US get an equivalent force in place undetected and get in the first strike.

But even so, a Japanese carrier damaged was out a considerable time, while the US could repair their ships much more rapidly. Damage control was very good on US ships, and poor on Japanese ships. The US had a huge reserve of potential pilots, the Japanese had none. And when the Essex class ships arrived in 1943, the Japanese would have been overwhelmed.

  • 1
    The analysis looks sound - but I will await a couple of key references before casting a vote. Aug 18, 2015 at 18:57
  • 1
    The book Shattered Sword by Parshall and Tully is probably the best work on the battle these days, but Lord's Incredible Victory is also good. Nothing in the answer is from a specific work, as it is just extrapolating from general knowledge of the situation and the OP's own facts as given.
    – Oldcat
    Aug 18, 2015 at 19:06
  • 2
    "[Land based bombers] did not inflict a single hit on the Japanese fleet in their multiple sorties" There was one torpedo strike by a PBY against a transport ship and a few successful strafing runs. This is totally nit-picking and in no way changes the answer, just a little tid-bit I picked up in doing the research. Those interrogations of Japanese officers are fascinating reading.
    – Schwern
    Aug 20, 2015 at 6:53
  • To clarify, my answer was speaking only about the Kido Butai, the separate Japanese carrier strike force at Midway, and the effect of land based air support on it and the help it gave the US carrier fleet, without directly saying so. Including the remainder of the grand fleet gives that result you mention, and land based air certainly could have been effective on an actual invasion fleet and the landing craft - which is why the carrier strike force was along in the first place in Japanese planning.
    – Oldcat
    Aug 21, 2015 at 19:42

Two things doomed Nagumo's carrier battle group.

  1. Nagumo's lack of scouting. He took too much for granted. He just assumed the US carrier fleet to be days a way around Pearl Harbor. The Japanese assumed there were just two US carriers remaining (not the three the US actually had). While the submarine screens arrived too late to detect the US carrier task force, Nagumo should still have located them with scout planes.

  2. The uncoordinated amateurish nature of the US attacks (from midway) gave US the decisive edge. The initial WAVES, which arrived in a dribs and drabs, were all slaughtered by the JAPANESE Combat Air Patrol, BUT they did prevent the overly cautious Nagumo from launching his counter strike. He never got to launch his reserve planes (which was about 1/2 his forces) because he was rearming them for anti-ship operations. And when the dive bombers came, his carriers to blow up like fire crackers by just a couple of bomb hits.

With perfect hindsight, he should have launched every single reserved plane with anti-ship ordnance the moment the enemies were sighted. He was still obsessing with a second strike on Midway... but the japanese KNEW midway would require multiple strikes anyway.... so he should have immediately switched his focus on the US carriers as that really was his primary mission all along.

So to answer your question. The sacrifices of the Midway land based planes turned out to be critical. They scored 0 hits. BUT they totally messed up Nagumo.

  • Half of Nagomo's forces were held in reserve for sea threats. When Nagomo's first attack on Midway failed to destroy the Midway defenses at 07:15, Nagumo ordered his reserve planes to be re-armed with bombs to finish off midway. When they finally sited the American Naval force at 8:00 Nagumo reversed himself and reordered his reserves to again be fitted for sea based attacks. When his second wave was finally ready to launch Nagomo's first wave needed to land. However, Fletcher's carriers had launched beginning at 07:00 and were already on their way.
    – user27618
    May 6, 2019 at 20:05
  • @JMS: yes that is true.. BUT.. 1. had Nagumo scouted better.. he would have known of the US carrier threat sooner.. 2. had he launched his reserve immediately.. (which he could have)... his planes wouldn't be sitting in the carrier, loaded with fuel and ordnance waiting to be detonated. May 6, 2019 at 20:09
  • 1. agreed, The Japanese were supposed to have scounted Pearl to ensure the carriers were there, but that mission was scrapped when the plane couldn't be refueled. 2. Again True, but Naguma was working within Japanese doctrine by holding back half his forces.
    – user27618
    May 6, 2019 at 20:29
  • +1 from me good answer.
    – user27618
    May 6, 2019 at 20:34

Question: Did land based airpower give the Americans a decisive advantage at the Battle of Midway?

I would have to say yes. First the land threat required Nagumo's to split his forces across land and sea threats. Nagumo didn't have enough planes to accommodate this. So when half his planes failed to destroy midway's land based air assets, He drew into his reserve meant to defend against sea based threats. When the sea based threats emerged (America's 3 aircraft Carriers) Nagomo's flight decks were full of planes configured for land based attack and his sea based reserves were expended. So absolutely the land based threat made the battle more complex and that complexity allowed the Americans to exploit their advantage. The advantage was the Americans had fore knowledge of the Japanese attack, and had their naval assets laying in wait; while the Japanese believed they had time to first destroy midway's defenses before the US Navy could respond.

I would also say while the land based planes when attacking Nagumo's forces failed to score significant hits, and cost the American's significant losses. The land based planes did two things which proved really important to the battle's outcome.

(1) They consumed time. As the battle emerged Nagomo's forces were repelling air attacks from the land based assets almost continuously from 07:10 - 9:30am.

(2) One land based B-26 made a suicide run against Nagomo's flag ship the Akagi and while he missed and ended up in the ocean along side the Akagi, he came very close to crashing into Nagomo's bridge. This happened just before Nagomo made the decision to use his sea defensive reserve to attack midway. which was one of his biggest mistakes of the battle. It's easy to assume that that B-26 near miss in attacking the Akagi weighed on Nagomo's mind when making that costly mistake.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.