At the start of the War in the Pacific, the United States had suffered devastating defeats that made it seem as if the Empire of Japan could conquer the Pacific. Still reeling from the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the Americans and their allies had a long way to go before they could halt and reverse the Japanese aggression. By early the following summer, however, three events gave the United States the morale boost and stronger footing in the Pacific that it needed to press forward in the war. These were events that altered the course of the war.
Despite the devastation of the Pearl Harbor attack, the Americans refused to be intimidated by the aggressors, and so, over the course of three months, they took part in operations that helped cripple Japan’s morale and fighting abilities. Over the course of April through June of 1942, these three events altered the course of the war, and can be largely credited for setting the stage for the Allied victory in the Pacific Theater.
April 1942 – The Doolittle Raid
There was one thing many American citizens and servicemembers wanted after news of the Pearl Harbor attack went public: revenge. Though fear initially coursed through the nation, it wasn’t enough to curb the desire for vengeance. More than 2,400 Americans died the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the nation’s morale was at an all-time low. Then came April, 1942, when the United States took the first step in turning the tide of the war.
Launching what’s became known as the Doolittle Raid, 16 B-25 bombers took off from USS Hornet (CV-8) to pull off a daring attack against the Japanese in their own back yard. The intention wasn’t to severely cripple the Imperial Japanese forces, but instead to send a message. The assault, led by Lieutenant Commander James Doolittle, targeted Tokyo, knowing that it would send a chilling message to Japan: that the nation wasn’t safe.
The raid provided a much-needed boost to American morale, as the raid proved Japan wasn’t an invincible superpower.
May 1942 – The Battle of the Coral Sea
In the wake of the Doolittle Raid, Japanese officials needed to take drastic action. It couldn’t seem like the raid had seriously affected the nation, so the Imperial Japanese Navy set its sights on strengthening their defenses in the Pacific by seizing Port Moresby and Tulagi. They believed that this would make it difficult for the Allies to have a strong presence closer to Japan.
After signals intelligence alerted the Allies to Japan’s plan, the Americans deployed carriers to the Coral Sea, where the first carrier battle in history would unfold. In terms of both losses and casualties, the engagement was costly for both sides, but it ended in a strategic victory for the Allies. Technically, Japan had inflicted more damage—including the loss of the American aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-2)—but for the first time, the Allies stopped the Japanese advance across the Pacific.
June 1942 – The Battle of Midway
After the mixed success of the Battle of the Coral Sea, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto decided to carry out an attack that had the potential to destroy the US Pacific Fleet. Had it succeeded, the attack would have shattered American morale and eliminated it as a power in the Pacific.
In an attempt to extend Japan’s defensive perimeter—a direct response to the Doolittle Raid— the Japanese decided to occupy Midway Atoll, with the eventual aim of invading the Hawaiian Islands. What Japan didn’t realize is that the United States knew about the plan even before it was launched.
Unlike the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States was prepared for this attack. Having cracked the encrypted Japanese communications, the Americans had a clear reading on when and where the attack was going to take place. They had to move with caution, in order to not tip the Japanese off. If the Americans could keep the same level of secrecy as that which Japan maintained before the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, they could do considerable damage to the Japanese Navy.
As the Japanese approached, they believed they had the upper hand, but the American forces ambushed the incoming carrier fleet. From June 4th to the 7th, the two navies engaged in the waters near Midway, but it was the United States that emerged victorious. Though the Americans suffered significant losses, it was Japan’s Navy that was severely damaged. Four of Japan’s remaining aircraft carriers—all of which had participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor—were lost, and the fleet was irreparably weakened. While Japan began by fighting a war of expansion, it was forced to switch to defense after the humiliating loss at Midway. Although the war would grind on for another three years, this was the battle that turned the tide in the Allies’ favor.
Coming just weeks apart, these were the events that altered the course of the War in the Pacific, putting the Allies decisively on the offensive.