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History of the Battle of Midway

History of the Battle of Midway

The Battle of Midway is heralded by veterans and historians alike as one of the greatest naval battles of all time, and the turning point of the war in the Pacific. Japan’s powerful navy had fought victorious battles at Pearl Harbor and Coral Sea and was looking eastward. Only a small U.S. Navy outpost on Midway Island lay between Japan and Hawaii. Japanese strategists designed an elaborate plan to lure American forces into the open where they could be destroyed. However, American code breakers, who could decipher just ten percent of Japanese signals, understood enough to know the time and place of attack. An American trap was set, as U.S. Navy carriers steamed in position for a first strike. Just after Japanese planes took off at dawn to attack Midway Island, American planes launched at maximum range to strike the Japanese carriers.

Midway Atoll Nov 1941
Midway Atoll Nov 1941

After hours in the air searching for the Japanese forces, a confluence of decisions inspired by chance and courage enabled the American dive-bomber pilots to arrive simultaneously above the Japanese fleet just as its planes were being readied for a second launch, with fuel and ordnance left laying about the deck and hangars. At 1025 that morning, a stunning American victory was accomplished in the span of about five minutes. Three of Japan’s finest aircraft carriers were left burning uncontrollably. Later a fourth Japanese carrier was found and delivered a similar fate. Japan would not recover from these losses for the rest of the war.

Years later, the Nauticos and NAVOCEANO team got the first glimpse of wreckage of one of these great ships, lying 17,500 feet at the bottom of the Pacific. This important discovery, finding everything lying just where it fell over 59 years ago, will help tell the rest of the story of the battle.

Mission to the Battle of Midway Site

The project began by researching the National Archives, where the logs and accounts of ships from the battle are housed. One ship, USS NAUTILUS (SS168) had a special role in the engagement as well as for our search. The NAUTILUS raised its periscope on the morning of June 4th, and observed several plumes of smoke on the horizon. She spent the ensuing hours approaching submerged and undetected until firing three torpedoes at one of the burning Japanese carriers, then narrowly escaped. Records kept by the NAUTILUS led Nauticos back to the scene of the attack. Several members of the NAUTILUS crew are alive today, and they helped Nauticos researchers to refine the search.

Photomosaic of Kaga wreckage captured by the NAVOCEANO-Nauticos Team      Copyright © Nauticos LLC




47 Bell - image 715
Image of the Ship’s Bell captured by the NAVOCEANO-Nauticos Team      Copyright © Nauticos LLC
Haunting image of a sailor's boot resting among manganese nodules and deep-sea worm trails. KAGA's wreckage rests at a depth of 17,500 feet.    Copyright © Nauticos LLC
Haunting image of a sailor’s boot resting among manganese nodules and deep-sea worm trails. KAGA’s wreckage rests at a depth of 17,500 feet. Copyright © Nauticos LLC 

Nauticos analyzed the records and reconstructed the track of the NAUTILUS. Teamed with NAVOCEANO, under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA), a team planned to search an area based on the position of the NAUTILUS attack. Renavigation analyst Jeffrey Palshook validated his analysis, and established a point to base a deep ocean search. NAVOCEANO team leader and geologist, Dr. Devi Joseph mapped a large area to be searched, and selected the most promising targets. Nauticos operations leader, Tom Bethge, was among the first to see sonar images resembling ship wreckage, debris and other compelling signs. Underwater archaeologist and sonar expert Jeff Morris mosaicked sonar images together to render a comprehensible picture. A second mission to Midway was needed, equipped with deep water still and video cameras to classify the sonar contacts. The Navy and Nauticos team returned four months later for that purpose, and were rewarded with the first glimpses of a large piece of wreckage from one of the Japanese aircraft carrier sunk in the great battle.

Identification of the Wreckage

Upon returning from Midway, thousands of photographs and hours of videotape were reduced to a handful. Features of the wreckage were not so pronounced that an untrained eye could comprehend them. Special expertise from naval experts in Imperial Japanese ship construction was needed. Nauticos collaborated with three historians, all having expertise in different aspects of Japanese naval developments during the period. Tony Tully, Jon Parshall and David Dickson studied photographs and video provided by Nauticos in an attempt to identify the piece. Adding their own extensive resources of photographs and drawings of Japanese ships, they determined that the wreckage was composed of two 25mm anti-aircraft gun tubs and the attached structure beneath them. One by one, the Japanese carriers sunk at the Battle of Midway were eliminated on technical merits until only one remained.

Then, making the identification positive, a hinged landing light structure affixed to the outermost edge of the aftermost gun mount was identified as a special unique feature, as seen in photographs and drawings. The wreckage belonged to KAGA.

Locations of bomb hits on KAGA . The first bomb dropped during the attack struck near the spot where the piece of wreckage originally resided.   Illustration courtesy of Jon Parshall.
Locations of bomb hits on KAGA . The first bomb dropped during the attack struck near the spot where the piece of wreckage originally resided.   Illustration courtesy of Jon Parshall.

Now that the final resting place of KAGA is at hand, the relative locations of other ships and aircraft lost in the battle are reasonably well known from the historical records. A return to Midway is planned to further explore the site and commemorate the sailors and aviators who fought there. Nauticos gratefully acknowledges the dedicated efforts of the many engineers, analysts, historians, and veterans who blended their knowledge, skills, and abilities to make this discovery possible.

For a more detailed accounting of the analysis conducted to identify the wreckage discovered at the Battle of Midway, read the IJN Carrier Wreckage: Identification Analysis Report written by Jon Parshall, Tony Tully and David Dickson.