Ahead of the 80th anniversary of one of the most pivotal naval battles ever, we take a look back at how the Battle of Midway was reported in several U.S. newspapers, offering a rare glimpse into how the encounter was perceived as it happened by the press, American commanders and even a fighter pilot shot down from the sky.
To revisit the other events that dominated news coverage eighty years ago, check out our wonderful collection of authentic 1942 newspapers.
Turn the page to:
- Why was the Battle of Midway significant?
- “U.S. Fleet Chasing Japs to Strike Knockout Blow”
- “Flier Describes Jap Sea Defeat”
- “Midway ‘Surprise’ Failed”
Six months after Japan’s devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, which destroyed 188 American aircrafts and killed over 2,000, and a month after the Battle of the Coral Sea, which both Japan and America navies claimed as a victory, the Imperial Japanese Navy attempted to ambush American aircraft carriers in order to occupy Midway, an atoll at the Northwest end of the Hawaiian Island chain, around halfway between Japan and the United States in the Pacific Ocean.
However, thanks largely to radio intelligence, the U.S. Navy was able to become aware of the full details of the planned attack, and strategise its own ambush accordingly. During the battle, four of the six Japanese aircraft carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbor were sunk. The Japanese also lost 248 aircraft and over 3,000 troops. Because of the knock-on effect the battle had in the Pacific War overall, severely weakening the Japanese naval force and forcing them to halt planned attacks on other U.S. bases, the victory at Midway is often considered one of the most decisive in world history.
The front page of the June 7, 1942 edition of the Los Angeles Examiner features two separate articles on the Battle of Midway. The first, written by Richard Haller, best summarises the key points of the news story:
“PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii, June 6. – United States naval and air forces, pursuing the surviving units of a Japanese invasion armada in mid-Pacific were reported closing in tonight for an attempted knockout after crippling an estimated eight or more enemy vessels.”
The article goes on to correctly predict the significant effect the victory would have on the Pacific War as a whole:
“The resounding victory scored by American warships, submarines, planes and guns in decisively repulsing a major enemy seaborne thrust at strategic Midway Island was hailed as possibly an important turning point in the war of the Pacific.”
It also analyses the impact on the Japanese’s larger plans:
“It even was regarded as possible, in view of the apparent size of the enemy’s expedition, that the Japanese had intended not only to overwhelm tiny Midway, but also to proceed for an attempted invasion of Hawaii, where the Pacific conflict was born exactly a year ago.”
And even without the benefit of hindsight just yet, the article is well aware of the scale of the victory and its immediate benefits for the American war effort:
“Whatever the eventual result may show in terms of respective losses in the opposing forces, one thing was certain. That is that for the time being at least the United States retains a firm grip on its westernmost stronghold in the mid-Pacific, Midway Island, 1149 miles northwest of Hawaii.”
The article also mentions the communiqué from U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, some of which was printed verbatim in the other front page article by Joseph A. Borg:
“The enemy’s damage has been very heavy, indeed, involving several ships in each of the carrier, battleship, cruiser and transport classes. This damage is far more in proportion to that which we have received.”
“While it is too early to claim a major Japanese disaster, it may be conservatively stated that United States control remains firm in the Midway area. The enemy appears to be withdrawing, but we are continuing the battle.”
The Haller actually wraps up by acknowledging the slight ambiguity in Nimitz’s communiqué, and offering some more information from outside of the official line of enquiry:
“Although Pearl Harbor’s official naval sources declined to go beyond Nimitz’s communiqué in detailing the epic engagement, unofficial reports said thousands of Japanese troops were aboard the enemy’s transports. Casualties amid Japanese trained personnel were believed extensive, as was the damage incurred by the enemy’s ships.”
The Borg article, which itself labelled Nimitz’s reports “conservative and guarded”, doubles down on the sentiment that this could be a major turning point in the war:
“This was interpreted in Washington to mean that a minimum of eight and as many as 12 Jap warships and transports were badly damaged in the engagement.”
“It was considered possible that if the damage inflicted was great enough many of the crippled enemy ships may never be able to return to their bases.”
The top news story on June 9, 1942 was the eye-witness account, the very first to come directly from the scene, offered by Ensign George H. Gay Jr., a naval aviator whose plane was shot down during the Battle of Midway. Gay, who spent 24 hours floating at sea, had what was described as a “ringside seat” and “fish-eye view” of the rest of the battle unfolding.
According to the San Francisco Call Bulletin:
“He witnessed practically the entire operation of the American attack on three of Japan’s aircraft carriers.”
The Baltimore News-Post called Gay’s story a “naval epic”, while the New York Times said:
“For twenty-four hours Ensign Gay… drifted in the seas and obtained one of the most amazing eyewitness stories of a major naval engagement in the history of sea warfare.”
Gay’s assignment had been to drop a torpedo onto Japanese ships. The Times describes how, as Gay approached in his plane joined by a gunner and a radio man, the cluster of three Japanese carriers was already on the ropes:
“Below lay three Japanese carriers… One of the larger carriers already burned fiercely, while Japanese cruisers and destroyers wheeled around it waiting to rescue personnel.”
As American planes swarmed, the Japanese ships retaliated with “terrific” firepower. In the midst of this, Gay’s gunner relayed that he had been hit. But, as the News-Post describes, Gay continued towards the targets:
“Sufficiently near the huge carrier, Gay launched his projectile, then swung sharply over the target and sped astern as fast as his plane could carry him.”
But despite completing his mission, Gay was to pay the price:
“Suddenly an explosive shell from a Zero fighter ripped through his plane’s rudder controls. The blast seared Gay’s left leg. Almost simultaneously a small-caliber bullet hit his upper left arm.”
Gay had no choice but to bring his plane down into the sea. Neither his gunner nor his radio man survived. The Times describes how Gay was able to remain so long at sea without being detected by machine-gunning Japanese soldiers:
“At 11 A.M., the pilot, alone watched the tail surfaces of his plane disappear. Now a bit of luck held with him. Out of the sinking wreckage floated the bag containing the deflated rubber life raft – and a black cushion on which the bombardier kneels while working… He ducked under the cushion as enemy fighters swarmed overhead.”
Gay removed the bullet from his arm and bandaged his wounded leg underwater before observing the rest of the battle. Twenty minutes after he landed in the water, American dive-bombers “rocketed into view” above the three Japanese carriers. As the News-Post writes:
“From his precarious perch on the crest of the waves Gay saw them blast at the two unharmed carriers, scoring direct hits. Tremendous fires burst from the two vessels. Great clouds of smoke billowed from them, with flames flaring from the tops of the dark columns. Internal explosions aboard the vessels sent new gushes of smoke and fire belching from them at various intervals, Gay said. When the assault ended the second carrier of the Kaga class was on fire from bow to stern.”
As morning turned to afternoon, the Japanese “made frantic attempts to mitigate the damage”, eventually bringing a destroyer alongside the one remaining carrier to rescue survivors. Above, Japanese planed circled, with no place to land:
“They would pass above her, apparently circling in vain attempts to land, then soar out of sight and then return again. Darkness fell and the planes disappeared. He never learned what happened to them.”
At twilight, Gay finally though it safe to inflate the life raft, which required “emergency patches on several bullet holes.” He fell asleep and was awoken the next morning by the dregs of the battle:
“He was awakened towards morning from his fitful slumber by three explosions which he believed may have been demolition charges planted in the wrecked carriers.”
As he was airlifted to the safety of a U.S. Navy patrol plane, he saw the surface of the water above the sunken carriers “littered with black Japanese life rafts”. Gay finally said of the Japanese’s three carriers, two of which were of the 26,900-ton Kaga class, that one could be counted as a “certain loss” and the other two as probable losses. The News-Post article ends by stating that:
“The two carriers which Gay listed as “probable” Jap losses later were pursued by American forces engaged in finishing off crippled vessels of the beaten Jap armada.”
Gay’s testimony was particularly noteworthy because of the thirty men operating from the USS Hornet aircraft carrier he was the only one to survive; not only was this great for news, but his observations of what happened at the Battle of Midway were invaluable to Admiral Nimitz also. Gay would go on to receive the Navy Cross, Purple Heart and Presidential Unit Citation for his actions at Midway.
The June 9 New York Times also featured an article by Hanson W. Baldwin on page 8 attempting to put the Battle of Midway, now two days concluded, into perspective. It begins positively:
“It is clear that the Japanese have suffered a repulse… If battered and damaged Japanese forces, probably disorganized and slowed down, could be cut off from their bases and destroyed, a defeat might be turned into a catastrophe.”
… before becoming more grounded:
“We have won a victory, but we may have fallen short of a Manila Bay or a Tsushima.”
… and then even self-critical:
“And it must be borne in mind that because of the demanding necessities on a one-ocean fleet of a seven-seas strategy, the total strength of our Pacific Fleet was inferior in numbers to the combined Japanese Fleet.”
“Our battleships are of slow speed; the obsolescent design of most of them cost us heavily at Pearl Harbor.”
The article looks back at the possible reasons why the Japanese ambush failed, now that a couple of days have passed and the smoke has cleared:
“That they failed may be due to two causes – radio intelligence, which played so large a role in the Battle of Jutland, and, as Admiral King mentioned, to land-based reconnaissance planes, probably in part Army bombers.”
The article notes that the American army’s “losses could be replaced while the enemy’s were cumulative”, and that “if Midway and Hawaii were the objectives of the enemy fleet, as undoubtedly they were, those objectives never even came within gunshot range”. It ends with a rational-yet-encouraged outlook on the battle:
“The end of the story is not yet written, and what actually happened may have differed radically from what we think happened. Our losses may prove to be more serious than the optimistic communiqués warrant. But even so, the enemy’s losses are so considerable, particularly when coupled with those sustained in the Coral Sea action, as to tend to alter the ratio of naval strength in the Pacific in our favor and thus change the complexion of Pacific strategy.”