The Battle of Midway occurred June 3 to June 7, 1942 – six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. One of Japan’s main goals during World War II was to remove the United States as a Pacific Power in order to gain territory in East Asia and the southwest Pacific Islands.[i]
Unlike Pearl Harbor, the Americans were aware of Japan’s attack plan at Midway as U.S. Navy crypto analysts had begun breaking Japanese communication codes early in 1942.[ii]
Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, the commander in chief of the U.S. Navy Fleet, had time to plan his defense and put Adm. Raymond A. Spruance as commander of Task force 16, including carriers Hornet and Enterprise, and Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher as commander of Task Force 17, including the carrier Yorktown. A month prior, in the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Yorktown suffered damages, but fortunately was repaired in a few days instead of a couple of months as anticipated and was able to join the fleet.
In the morning of June 4, Spruance’s Task Force 16 was about 10 miles (16 km) southwest of Fletcher and Task Force 17, placing it closer to the Japanese fleet. Fletcher ordered Spruance to sail southwest and engage the enemy. [iii]
There had always been some confusion about who was in command, but Fletcher explained to Samuel Eliot Morison, official Navy historian and writer of History of the United States Naval Operations in World War II [iv], that arriving at Midway on the eve of the battle, although he was in overall command, he gave Spruance command of his two task forces. Fletcher said lack of time for preparation and organization brought him to make that decision. Later, Fletcher again put Spruance in command when the USS Yorktown was hit by planes from the Hiryu and a pair of torpedoes brought the Yorktown to a stop.[v]
The credit is often given to Spruance for the victory at Midway as he was in command at the end of the battle, but Admiral Fletcher was in command when the first three Japanese carriers were sunk, and it was Yorktown‘s VB-3, the Dauntless dive-bomber squadron that would sink the Akagi and the Soryu.[vi]
No matter Fletcher’s change of flagship to the Astoria, the Yorktown destroyed, and Spruance in command at the end of the battle, Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher played a key role in the victory over Japan. The U.S. Navy’s decisive victory in the air-sea battle and its successful defense of the major base located at Midway Island dashed Japan’s hopes of neutralizing the United States as a naval power and effectively turned the tide of World War II in the Pacific. [vii]
To learn more about Admiral Fletcher’s naval career, see the Frank Jack Fletcher papers at the American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
[i] “The Battle of Midway.” The National WWII Museum, https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/battle-midway. Accessed May 7 2020.
[ii] “Battle of Midway.” History, https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/battle-of-midway. Accessed 19 May 2020.
[iv] Morison, Samuel Eliot, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II https://www.amazon.com/History-United-States-Naval-Operations/dp/0762854316/ref=sr_1_8?dchild=1&keywords=samuel+eliot+morison&qid=1589909958&s=books&sr=1-8
[v] “Battle of Midway.” Encyclopaedia Britannica.
[vi] Rickard, J (14 May 2008), Admiral Frank Jack “Black Jack” Fletcher, 1885-1973, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_fletcher_frank.html
[vii] “Battle of Midway.” History.
Post contributed by AHC Processing Archivist Alexandra Cardin.