In June of 1942, thousands of American and Japanese forces faced off in the Pacific Ocean in a deadly World War II conflict known as the Battle of Midway. After four days of fighting, the Japanese were forced to retreat.
This key United States victory stymied Japanese efforts to become the dominant power in the Pacific—but not without a cost. The fighting killed 3,057 Japanese troops and 362 U.S. seamen. It also resulted in the loss of seven large ships and hundreds of airplanes on both sides, according to the National WWII Museum.
Now, researchers have completed in-depth underwater archaeological surveys of some of the wreckage, shooting photos and videos that could reveal new insights into the momentous battle.
The group behind the survey is the nonprofit Ocean Exploration Trust. Earlier this month, researchers studied three aircraft carriers that sank during the battle: one American ship, the USS Yorktown, and two Japanese ships, the IJN Akagi and IJN Kaga.
The wrecks are located more than 16,000 feet below the surface and within the bounds of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Battle of Midway survey was part of a broader mission called Ala ʻAumoana Kai Uli, which included 27 days of deep-water exploration to help support the management of the national monument.
The crew reached the site onboard the research ship E/V Nautilus. They then used remotely operated underwater vehicles to capture photos and videos. All told, they spent 43 hours studying the wrecks.
“We methodically circumnavigated these historic wrecks, bringing to light many features in great detail, including their armament, battle and sinking-related damage,” says Daniel Wagner, Ocean Exploration Trust’s chief scientist, in a statement from the group. “Many anti-aircraft guns were still pointing up, providing clues about the final moments on these iconic ships.”
The on-site team worked with more than 100 experts around the world, including archaeologists from Japan, via telepresence technology.
“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, minister of the Japanese Embassy, in Ocean Exploration Trust’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 group also collaborated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which manages the national monument.
After each dive, the crew held ceremonies to honor the men who died at the site. They also live-streamed the video footage online so that those with a personal connection to the conflict—as well as any other interested members of the public—could see the wreckage themselves.
The underwater survey marked the first time anyone had seen the Akagi since it sank in 1942, though it was located in 2019. It also offered the first opportunity to observe the Yorktown in real-time; that vessel was initially found in 1998.
The Battle of Midway took place at the Midway Atoll, a cluster of islands located roughly 1,000 nautical miles northwest of Honolulu. The U.S. Navy had a strategic sea and air base there, which the Japanese tried to occupy as a base for attacking Pearl Harbor.
Though they tried to keep their plans secret, U.S. code breakers were able to decipher their messages. As a result, when Japanese aircraft began attacking U.S. facilities at Midway, American aircraft carriers were already lying in wait.
U.S. aircraft began attacking the Japanese fleet, ultimately sinking three of four Japanese ships. The remaining vessel, the IJN Hiryu, bombed and severely damaged the Yorktown, which a Japanese submarine sank a few days later. Eventually, U.S. dive-bombers also sank the Hiryu.
The victory “put the United States in a position to begin shrinking the Japanese empire through a years-long series of island-hopping invasions and several even larger naval battles,” per the National WWII Museum.