1942: Without ever sighting one another, Japanese and American task forces engage near the Midway Atoll, marking the turning point of the Pacific war and ringing down the curtain on the battleship as a dominant offensive naval weapon.
The Battle of Midway began only a month after the inconclusive Battle of the Coral Sea, which was the first time two opposing fleets slugged it out without making visual contact. Airplanes, specifically the dive bomber and the torpedo plane, were the weapons that made this possible and changed the nature of war at sea.
As a result, aircraft carriers now emerged as the most important ships in the fleet, relegating other surface ships to carrier-escort and picket duty, and -- in the case of the battleship and heavy cruiser -- to shore bombardment in support of troop landings.
At Midway, the Japanese committed most of their fleet to the battle they believed would sweep the Americans from the seas, giving them time to consolidate their burgeoning Asian empire and extend their defensive perimeter into the central Pacific. Four fleet carriers -- Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu -- formed two strike forces intended to reduce the American fleet, which would then be destroyed by the battleships.
The American aircraft carriers, which were spared destruction at Pearl Harbor by being at sea that Dec. 7, were the primary targets.
The success of the complex Japanese plan -- devised by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, architect of the Pearl Harbor raid -- rested on deception. Because of this it was bound to failure before a shot was fired, since, unbeknownst to the Japanese, the Americans had broken their naval code and were able to anticipate Yamamoto's every move.
Coupled with this was the fact that Japan's own intelligence proved poor, underestimating the size of the American fleet, and particularly the number of aircraft carriers available to the enemy.
The battle lasted three-and-a-half days. When it was over, all four Japanese carriers had been lost, a number of other surface ships had also been sunk or damaged, and many of the best air crews were dead. The Americans lost the aircraft carrier Yorktown and a number of air crews, but were in far better shape than the Japanese to make good their losses.
The Imperial Japanese Navy was effectively broken at Midway. Although it would remain a formidable force into 1944, it was no longer a dominant one.