The Battle of Midway may be the most important naval engagement of WWII. In the battle, which lasted from June 4 to June 6, the balance of power and strategic initiative shifted from the Japanese Imperial Navy to the U.S. Navy. Two months after Midway the United States would go over to the offensive invading the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. They would remain on the offensive until the Japanese surrender in 1945.

Numerous books and movies have attempted to tell the story of that battle with varying degrees of success, promoting some inaccurate ideas about what actually occurred. But some recent historical accounts have corrected a pair of major inaccuracies over the last 15 years.

Operation AL, the Invasion of the Aleutian Islands

Accepted as gospel in most western accounts of the battle was the assertion that the Japanese navy’s operation against Midway Island included air attacks and an invasion of the Aleutian Islands off Alaska was a diversion. As these accounts go, the American Navy would respond to the attack on the Aleutians by sending its carriers to the North West Pacific, then the attack on Midway would take place and the U.S. would find itself trapped between two Japanese fleets and would be annihilated. Instead of taking the bait offered to him, a wily Admiral Nimitz acted on intelligence that said Midway was the actual intended target of the Japanese and ambushed the Japanese carriers from a position northeast of Midway. Except that does not appear to be what happened at all.

Historians Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully in their book Shattered Sword, The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway incorporate Japanese Imperial Navy records of the battle to convincingly dispel the myth of the Aleutian Islands diversion.

On April 18th, 1942, 16 Army B-25 bombers flew off the carrier USS Hornet and struck military targets in Tokyo and half a dozen other cities in Japan. The effect was stunning to the Japanese who could not conceive of having their homeland attacked by the Americans. In response, the Japanese High Command overreacted and in doing so doomed its entire war effort.

Prior to the Doolittle Raid, the Japanese Imperial Staff was inclined to direct its operations towards the Indian Ocean, invade Britain’s main naval base at Cylon, and drive British forces from Burma. Japan believed the broad defensive parameter it had created in the Pacific had gone far enough. With supply lines stretched and limited naval power to patrol a vast ocean empire the strategy was to hold what it had while expanding into the Indian Ocean to secure supplies of rubber and oil coming from Java and Malasia in order to continue its conquest of China.

Admiral Yamamoto had wanted to expand eastward into the Pacific, invade the Hawaiian Islands, and drive the American fleet all the way back to the U.S. mainland. The Battle of the Coral Sea and the unexpected appearance of two American aircraft carriers had convinced him that striking at the U.S. Navy battleships at Pearl Harbor had not eliminated the threat from America’s navy. America’s five big fleet carriers had proven to be a dangerous threat that had to be destroyed. Yamamoto’s problem was the factional nature of Japan’s military. He controlled the navy, but lacking a substantial naval infantry force he was at the mercy of the Army to provide him with the troops and transports for any island invasions he might want to try. The Japanese Army not only refused to commit any troops to take Hawaii but actively opposed the plan. The Army complained that the Hawaiian Islands were too big and well-defended to be invaded successfully and, even if an invasion were successful, far too distant to be supported and supplied by the Army’s transport ships.

As a compromise, Yamamoto fell back on the idea of invading Midway Island instead with the hope that by threatening an island so close to Hawaii, Nimitz would be compelled to send his carriers to defend the islands and thus be destroyed. With the U.S. carrier fleet out of the way, invading Hawaii would no longer be required.