In November of 1942, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, following the German army’s defeat at El Alamein, reported to the House of Commons that “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
The year 1942 would prove to be a watershed year for the Allied forces fighting desperately to turn the tide against their Axis enemies. For the United States, early May of 1942 looked anything but hopeful. In the Pacific theater, the Japanese Empire now extended through the conquered regions of southeast Asia, New Guinea and vast stretches of the central Pacific. Nowhere was the seeming invincibility of the naval and military forces of Imperial Japan more evident than in the Philippines.
On May 6, at what many would view as the nadir of America’s initial defeat in the Pacific War, Gen. Wainwright was forced to surrender the remaining American forces held up on Corregidor, and Japanese dominance of the western Pacific seemed secured. But almost imperceptibly, the tide would begin to turn the very next day.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had left the U.S. Pacific Fleet crippled, but not defeated, and the United States had no intention of simply “waiting it out” until overwhelming forces could be mustered for a counter-attack.
Three thousand miles south of Corregidor lay the Coral Sea. On May 7, aircraft from the USS Lexington and USS Yorktown destroyed the Japanese carrier Shoho, thwarting the planned invasion of Port Moresby. Had the invasion been successful, Japanese aircraft from that location would have threatened the eastern coast of Australia and more importantly, the Japanese navy would have been primed for further conquest to the south. America’s limited naval forces had been used with maximum results. But the best was yet to come.
What America lacked in military assets, she made up for in crack communications intelligence and level-headed leadership. As early as May 15, Adm. Nimitz received intelligence from Station Hypo at Pearl Harbor that the Japanese intended to occupy Midway atoll, located 1,300 miles northwest of Oahu. Once again the commander of the Pacific Fleet made a bold and aggressive move. He knew where and when the Japanese would arrive. With supreme confidence in the skill of his Sailors and a little luck, he could ambush the strike force and turn the tables on the enemy.
On June 4, 1942, the hammer fell on the Japanese navy. Dive bombers from the carriers Yorktown and Enterprise destroyed Japan’s frontline carriers Hiryu, Soryu, Akagi and Kaga. All four had participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor just six months before, and all four now lay at the bottom of the Pacific. The Battle of Midway had been a decisive American victory. As a result of the battle, the United States had crippled Japan’s ability to launch further large-scale mobile strikes against Allied forces. Though it would be another year before the United States’ industrial capacity began to fill the world’s battlefields with the wherewithal to crush the Axis’ ability to resist, America’s aggressive actions in May and June of 1942 halted any significant Japanese advances and bought precious time for the marshalling of the forces that would eventually roll back the enemy.
America’s military leadership understood very well that the Japanese Empire was nowhere near defeat. Many years of hard struggle lay ahead if the tough and determined Japanese soldiers were going to be pried away from their strongholds in New Guinea, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies and the numerous islands and atolls in the central Pacific. But the string of humiliating and costly defeats that marked the beginning of World War II had surely come to an end. America’s victory at Midway was the first irreversible Axis defeat of the war and the beginning of the end for the empire of Japan.