Military Intelligence History: The Battle of Midway, The Complete Intelligence Story


The Battle of Midway in June of 1942 was one of the most important naval battles in world history and a turning point in the Second World War. Between June 4 and 7, aircraft from aircraft carriers Enterprise, Yorktown, and Hornet of the U.S. Navy’s Task Forces 16 and 17 ambushed and sank the Imperial Japanese Navy’s carrier force that only six months before had attacked Pearl Harbor and terrorized the Pacific. The Battle of Midway is important to memorialize and remember for many reasons. Among these reasons is that it is an inexhaustible source of still-relevant lessons on how to successfully apply intelligence at all levels of war.

Intelligence Collection and Analysis

At the root of the American victory at Midway was U.S. Navy intelligence successfully breaking Japanese codes and discovering the Japanese Navy’s plans to attack Midway Atoll.

Station Hypo was the team of U.S. signals intelligence (SIGINT) analysts led by then-Commander Joseph “Joe” Rochefort. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, Station Hypo began attempting to decode messages transmitted using theJN-25 code. By late April, Rochefort’s team assessed that the Japanese were planning major operations against the central Pacific and Aleutians. In a famous trick, Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Chester Nimitz approved a ruse proposed by Rochefort that saw the American garrison at Midway send a fake message “in the clear” (on open channels) regarding broken water evaporator units on the island. Almost immediately afterward, American listening posts intercepted Japanese transmissions mentioning the water shortage and the need to bring along extra water to support the operation. The identity of the Japanese objective was conclusively determined as Midway.

In his memoirs , Pacific Fleet Intelligence Officer Lieutenant Commander Edwin “Eddie” Layton recounted presenting the fruits of Hypo’s work on May 27th at the Pacific Fleet staff conference where the U.S. plans to ambush the Japanese force near Midway were approved, giving Nimitz a stunningly predictive assessment:

Summarizing all my data, I told Nimitz that the carriers would probably attack on the morning of 4 June, from the northwest on a nearing of 325 degrees. They could be sighted at about 175 miles from Midway at around 0700 local time.

On the morning of the battle, as the initial American reports sighting the Japanese force began to trickle in, Nimitz remarked to Layton with a smile, “well, you were only five minutes, five degrees, and five miles out.” Layton’s assessment allowed Nimitz to take a “calculated risk” by devoting three of his precious aircraft carriers (still scarce at that stage of the war) to the battle. The foreknowledge provided by this intelligence justified the presence off Midway of USS Yorktown (CV-5), damaged at the Battle of Coral Sea, but rushed back into action after a few days of frantic repairs at Pearl Harbor. This allowed the two U.S. task forces to roughly match the 229 planes onboard the Japanese carriers.

The penetrating knowledge and understanding of the Japanese demonstrated by Layton and Rochefort resulted both from technical proficiency in intelligence collection as well as an institutional and individual commitment to understanding the potential Japanese enemy. Both men were graduates of a program that detailed dozens of officers to study Japanese language and culture in Japan (with others similar studying China and Russia) during the interwar years.

Bizarrely absent from the debate in recent years over mandated STEM degrees for those seeking commissions as Navy officers has been any desire to incentivize foreign language training or skills for its intelligence personnel.  Despite the existence of the Foreign Area Officer (FAO) career field and the longstanding Olmsted Scholar program, where some officers (often on track to command) end up learning languages, it is discouraging to note a lack of interest in cultivating similar skills among Layton’s modern naval intelligence successors. If the Olmsted Foundation is the tool that the Navy is using to select and train foreign language experts for the officer corps overall, the Navy needs to look at other options because only eight naval intelligence officers have been selected for that program since 2008.

Read the Remainder at War on the Rocks