At various times in its history the atoll has served as a coaling stop, a station on the transoceanic cable route, a fueling stop for the Pan Am flying boats, and a useful if exposed Navy patrol plane base.
In the dark early days of 1942, after the stunning successes of the Imperial Japanese Navy against all comers in the Pacific, Admiral Isoroko Yamamoto turned his eyes toward the island of Midway. Hoping to bring about the great decisive naval battle that Japanese Naval doctrine was built on, he set out with the largest fleet assembled to that time, with the twin objective of capturing Midway and luring the remains of the United States Pacific Fleet to its destruction.
Consider for a moment the force being brought to bear. 190 ships of all types, even if one leaves aside the Aleutian force (which had no bearing on the main show at Midway anyway) there were still 89 ships in the fleet that intended to lift the Rising Sun over Midway. 11 battleships, including the monster Yamato, who's 18 inch guns were capable of hurling a broadside of more than 13 tons. The hard core of the Japanese fleet was Admiral Chuichi Nagumo's First Air Fleet, built around the veteran, battle hardened aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu.
To oppose this massive force bearing down on Midway, Admiral Chester Nimitz had no battleships worth bringing to the fight. However, more importantly, he had the aircraft carriers Yorktown, Enterprise, and Hornet. Even so, they were spread so terribly thin, with only 22 ships in all, with so much to do. Yorktown sailed for Midway bearing the partially healed scars from a bomb hit a Coral Sea. Hornet's air group had never even seen combat. Even so, they sailed out to meet the Japanese. All things considered, they really had no choice.
It is a classic David vs. Goliath story. It is a story of tremendous valor assisted by a healthy dose of luck. There is tragedy and heroism, moments of comic relief and utter terror. More than anything, Midway is the single greatest moment in the history of American arms, at a time when the situation the nation faced was darker and bleaker than any time before.
Before the clash at Midway, the Japanese Navy had been on the advance in every theatre. Afterward, every move they made was defensive, for the United States had traded their shield for a sword, and there would be no stopping the advance until the Empire of Japan was defeated.