Seventy-five years ago, Midway Atoll, a tiny point midway between the U.S. and Japan, was the site of an air-sea battle that changed the course of the war in the Pacific.
Beginning on June 4, 1942, the U.S. fleet, under the command of Admiral Chester Nimitz, defended Midway from Imperial Japanese forces, while launching a withering attack upon the Japanese fleet - a monumental turnaround just six months after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor.
By CBSNews.com senior producer David Morgan
Battle of the Coral Sea
Preceding the Battle of Midway, the Battle of the Coral Sea, in May 1942, was notable for featuring battle between aircraft carriers - ships that were never in direct sight of one another. Although the Americans lost more ships in battle, including the carrier USS Lexington and the destroyer USS Sims, Japanese losses of airplanes halted their planned invasion of New Guinea. Other carriers of the Japanese fleet, damaged or with their flight crews decimated, were unavailable for the Battle of Midway the following month.
Pictured: An explosion rocks the USS Lexington, May 8, 1942, possibly the detonation of torpedo warheads. Approximately 216 crewman were lost, while more than 2,700 were evacuated.
American cryptographers had begun breaking Japanese codes in early 1942, and were alerted to a planned attack against a location designated "AF." By sending out a false message that the U.S. base on the Midway Atoll (located about 1,300 miles northwest of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii) was short of fresh water, a Japanese signal mentioned that AF was short of fresh water. The U.S. therefore knew where and when the Japanese intended to attack, and they prepared.
The aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, damaged during the Battle of the Coral Sea, is pictured in dry dock at the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard, May 29, 1942. She left Hawaii the following day to regroup with other American ships off Midway.
Following the Battle of the Coral Sea, Japan's Pacific fleet was dispersed into four groups, one of which was spotted about 500 nautical miles west-southwest of Midway.
But another group was further north, off the Aleutian Islands, working in support of the Japanese army's invasion of Attu and Kiska. Japan's attack on the Aleutians was a diversionary tactic in support of the fleet's engagement at Midway, about 1,600 miles to the south.
Pictured: Oil storage tanks burn at the Dutch Harbor Naval Operating Base, on Amaknak Island in the Aleutians, June 4, 1942.
Ammunition storage on Midway Atoll.
On June 4, 1942, four Japanese aircraft carriers launched torpedo and dive bombers, accompanied by Zero fighter escorts, against Midway. Despite heavy bombardment, the airfield was still usable, and anti-aircraft defenses were still operational.
American fighter planes, launched from the U.S. ships parked to the east, set off to attack the Japanese carriers.
Pictured: F-4 Wildcat fighters and SBD Dauntless dive bombers on the flight deck of the USS Hornet, off Midway, June 4, 1942.
Douglas TBD-1 Devastator torpedo bombers are prepared for launch on the USS Enterprise, June 4, 1942.
The Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi, flagship of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo. Attacked by high-altitude B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, the ship was able to evade direct hits, and 15 American torpedo bombers were all shot down before they could inflict damage. One U.S. airman, George Gay, survived, and watched the ensuing battle from the water, as dive bombers from the Enterprise ripped the Akagi. Fires raged throughout, forcing the crew to evacuate, and the ship to be scuttled.
The Japanese carriers Kaga and Soryu were also sunk.
The Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu maneuvers to avoid bombs dropped by high-altitude USAF bombers at the Battle of Midway, June 4, 1942.
The Hiryu, unscathed, launched planes to attack the Yorktown.
Despite heavy losses from U.S. fighters, the remaining dive and torpedo bombers from the Hiryu inflicted heavy damage to the Yorktown, setting the ship on fire.
A Japanese B5N2 Torpedo bomber is shot down during its attack on the Yorktown.
Japanese bombers attack the Yorktown.
The Yorktown burns at the Battle of Midway.
The Yorktown's crew battles a fire on its deck.
The USS Yorktown, dead in the water, June 4, 1942.
The Enterprise and Hornet launched another strike (incorporating some of the Yorktown's planes that were dispatched to other carriers) upon the Hiryu and her escort ships. Uncontainable fires forced the Hiryu's crew to abandon ship, though hundreds went down with her.
Thirty-nine Japanese sailors who survived the sinking of the Hiryu (who drifted at sea aboard a cutter for two weeks) are pictured after their rescue and capture by the USS Ballard.
Dauntless dive bombers from the Hornet attack the Japanese cruiser Mikuma on June 6, 1942.
The Mikuma, shortly before sinking, June 6, 1942.
The destroyer USS Hammann provided cover for the disabled Yorktown, undergoing salvage operations, until a Japanese submarine broke through defenses on June 6 and launched four torpedoes, striking both the Yorktown and the Hammann. The destroyer sank in a matter of minutes. Eighty lives were lost.
The destroyer Balch guards the Yorktown as the carrier's crew abandons ship. The carrier would capsize and sink by the following day, June 7. In all, 141 crewmembers from the Yorktown died.
On June 6 Commander Isoroku Yamamoto ended the planned invasion of Midway, ordering his ships to retreat. Altogether, the Japanese lost four aircraft carriers, a cruiser, and nearly 300 planes. Japanese casualties numbered approximately 2,500, including hundreds of pilots.
Marine reinforcements disembark the cruiser USS Pensacola at Sand Island Pier at Midway, June 25, 1942. The ship's crew shot down four enemy torpedo bombers during the Battle of Midway.
While the U.S. lost the Yorktown and the Hammann, approximately 145 aircraft, and more than 300 dead at Midway, their decisive victory set the stage for the Americans' island-hopping counter-offensive across the Pacific, pushing back the Japanese for the rest of the war.
For more info:
The Battle of Midway (National WWII Museum)
Battle of Midway (navy.com)