The loss of four large attack carriers, including Kaga at Midway, was a crucial setback for Japan, and contributed significantly to Japan’s ultimate defeat.
Hundreds of miles off Midway Atoll, nearly halfway between the US and Japan, a research vessel is launching underwater robots miles into the abyss to look for warships from the famed Battle of Midway.
According to The Washington Post, weeks of grid searches around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands have already led the crew of the Petrel to one sunken warship, the Japanese ship the Kaga. This week, the crew is deploying equipment to investigate what could be another.
Historians consider the Battle of Midway an essential victory for the U.S. and a key turning point in WWII.
“We read about the battles, we know what happened. But when you see these wrecks on the bottom of the ocean and everything, you kind of get a feel for what the real price is for war,” said Frank Thompson, a historian with the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, D.C., who is onboard the Petrel. “You see the damage these things took, and it’s humbling to watch some of the video of these vessels because they’re war graves.”
Until now, only one of the seven ships that went down in the June 1942 air and sea battle — five Japanese vessels and two American — had been located.
The expedition is an effort started by the late Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft. For years, the crew of the 250-foot (76-meter) Petrel has worked with the U.S. Navy and other officials around the world to find and document sunken ships. It is illegal to otherwise disturb the underwater U.S. military gravesites, and their exact coordinates are kept secret.
Kaga’s aircraft first supported Japanese troops in China during the Shanghai Incident of 1932 and participated in the Second Sino-Japanese War in the late 1930s. With other carriers, she took part in the Pearl Harbor raid in December 1941 and the invasion of Rabaul in the Southwest Pacific in January 1942. The following month her aircraft participated in a combined carrier airstrike on Darwin, Australia, helping secure the conquest of the Dutch East Indies by Japanese forces. She missed the Indian Ocean raid in April as she had to return to Japan for repairs after hitting a reef in February.
Following repairs, Kaga rejoined the 1st Air Fleet for the Battle of Midway in June 1942. After bombarding American forces on Midway Atoll, Kaga and three other IJN carriers (the Akagi, Soryu and Hiryu which along the Japanese cruiser Mikuma are still unaccounted for) were attacked by American aircraft from Midway and the carriers Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown. Dive bombers from Enterprise severely damaged Kaga; when it became obvious she could not be saved, she was scuttled by Japanese destroyers to prevent her from falling into enemy hands. The loss of four large attack carriers, including Kaga at Midway, was a crucial setback for Japan, and contributed significantly to Japan’s ultimate defeat. In 1999, debris from Kaga including a large section of the hull was located on the ocean floor at a depth in excess of 5,000 meters (16,404 ft); 350 miles (560 km) northwest of Midway Island.
The Petrel crew hopes to find and survey all the wreckage from the entire battle, an effort that could add new details about Midway to history books.
Earlier this year, they discovered the USS Hornet aircraft carrier, that helped win the Battle of Midway but sank in the Battle of Santa Cruz near the Solomon Islands less than five months later. More than 100 crew members died.
“On the occasion of the discovery of the Kaga, we send our thoughts and prayers to our trusted and valued friends in Japan. The terrible price of war in the Pacific was felt by all our navies. From that painful lesson, we have become the closest of allies and friends committed to maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific,” stated Rear Adm. Brian P. Fort, Commander, Naval Forces Japan.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy