"On this occasion, we meet on those same Pacific waters in which Japan and the U.S. once met in battle, but this time as allies and fellow researchers.”
On June 4, 1942, in the midst of World War II, an Imperial Japanese Navy fleet attacked the Midway Islands in the Hawaiian Archipelago. Thousands of American and Japanese forces battled for four days in the Pacific Ocean, resulting in a key American victory that enabled the U.S. to establish dominance in the Pacific.
Now, 81 years later, researchers have released new photos and videos of the wreckage from the Battle of Midway.
Ocean Exploration Trust led the survey of the wreckage site more than 16,000 feet underwater in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM), a UNESCO World Heritage Site and “the largest contiguous fully protected conservation area under the U.S. flag,” according to PMNM’s website.
Researchers studied three sunken aircraft carriers: the USS Yorktown, the IJN Akagi, and IJN Kaga. The crew spent 43 hours studying the wrecks using remotely operated underwater vehicles, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
“This expedition is not only rewriting history and our understanding of these special places, but also pushing the limits of what we thought was possible in terms of interdisciplinary collaboration,” said Daniel Wagner, the chief scientist for Ocean Exploration Trust in a statement from the group. “We methodically circumnavigated these historic wrecks, bringing to light many features in great detail, including their armament, battle, and sinking-related damage. Many anti-aircraft guns were still pointing up, providing clues about the final moments on these iconic ships.”
The non-invasive surveys of the wreckage provided new insights into the battle that took place decades ago. The survey was the first time anyone had seen the IJN Akagi since its sinking in battle, and the first time the USS Yorktown was viewed in real-time.
The researchers also recognized the historical and cultural significance of the PMNM itself to the native Hawaiian culture.
“Each dive was launched and closed with protocol ceremonies to honor this place and all who lost their lives in ways that reflected their significance to Kānaka ʻOiwi (Native Hawaiian), Japanese, and U.S. military families and communities,” the group’s statement read.
The team at the site worked with over 100 experts worldwide via telepresence technology and live-streaming, including archaeologists from both the U.S. and Japan.
“On this occasion, we meet on those same Pacific waters in which Japan and the U.S. once met in battle, but this time as allies and fellow researchers,” says Kosei Nomura from the Embassy of Japan in the group’s statement. “We are reminded that today’s peace and tomorrow’s discoveries are built on the sacrifices of war, and so in my view, it is meaningful that Japan and the U.S. are now deepening their cooperation at Midway, utilizing such cutting-edge technology.”
The Japanese attack on Midway came just six months after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto wanted to eliminate American carrier forces, which he saw as the greatest threat to the Japanese naval campaign in the Pacific.
He turned his attention to the tiny island of Midway at the northern edge of the Hawaiian Archipelago — far enough from the strengthened American military bases but close enough that the U.S. would likely consider it a vital outpost of Pearl Harbor.
The Japanese army’s plan of attack on Midway was incredibly complex and took months to plan fully. During that time, the U.S. had broken crucial parts of the Japanese naval code. American forces headed into the battle with a solid idea of when and where the fight would take place and how strong the Japanese forces would be.
With this critical advantage, the U.S. came out of battle with a decisive victory against the Japanese. Military historian John Keegan called it “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.”
In the end, over 3,000 Japanese forces had been killed, along with over 300 Americans. Nearly one-third of all Japanese casualties were aboard IJN Akagi and IJN Kaga.
The Battle of Midway was a turning point in the Pacific during World War II, and it was the Allies’ first major naval victory against the Japanese.
After viewing the new photos from the wreckage of the battle, read more in-depth about how the U.S. broke Japan’s naval dominance during the Battle of Midway. Or, read about nine of the most famous shipwrecks in history.