After the Doolittle Raid of April 1942 the Japanese no longer felt as secure in their vast Pacific empire. They felt it necessary to expand their defensive perimeter further, smash the United States strategic fleet, and ensure that no American force would ever again slip into Japanese home waters.
The Jap plan was to lure the American carrier fleet into a trap. Situated at the extreme northern end of the Hawaiian island chain, 1200 miles from Pearl, lay Midway Island. Admiral Yamamoto, architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, knew that Pearl Harbor was now too strongly defended by land based plans to be a viable target with which to draw out the American carriers, but Midway was a vital strategic U.S. asset that he correctly assumed the Americans would risk their carriers to defend. He knew that the demoralized U.S. Navy was on the ropes. Of the five fleet carriers that the 7th Fleet had at the beginning of the war, only two remained operational. The Lexington had been sunk at Coral Sea one month prior, the Yorktown pummeled so badly that she also had to have sunk, and the Saratoga was laid up in San Diego, crippled by a Jap Long Lance torpedo. Only the Enterprise and Hornet were still afloat to face his force of four mighty carriers. Or so he thought.
His plan was simple, draw out whatever remained of the 7th Fleet so that his carrier aircraft, masters of the Pacific sky, could pulverize them. His massive fleet of battleships would then destroy whatever was left afloat. Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces (Jap marines) would then land and take Midway Island, expanding the Japanese defensive perimeter and placing Pearl Harbor in peril.
Unknown to Yamamoto was that American Intelligence had broken the Jap code and knew that an attack was coming. But they did not know where. It was expected that Midway was the target, but to be sure the base was instructed to send an un-coded transmission that their salt water desalinization plant was out of service and supplies of fresh water were dropping. When they intercepted the radio transmission telling Admiral Nagumo that his target’s fresh water supply was in jeopardy, they knew the blow would fall at Midway.
The U.S.S. Yorktown had been so badly mauled at Coral Sea that it was expected she would need several months of repair at Pugett Sound before she could be battle worthy again. The Japanese were certain she had in fact sunk, the damage was so bad. She was instead patched together enough for combat operations in only 72 hours at Pearl, loaded with some of the Saratoga’s squadrons, and completed the rest of her emergency repairs while underway to Midway. Instead of two carriers, Nagumo would face three, the Enterprise, Hornet, and the ghost ship Yorktown risen from the dead.
Midway itself had been reinforced and was a force to be reckoned with in her own right, tipping the Japanese advantage to a rough parity. The Navy had sent 31 PBY Catalina’s for long range recon and anti-shipping, and a detachment of six Avenger torpedo bombers from Hornet’s VT-8. The Marines had seven Wildcats, 17 Dauntless dive bombers, and 19 Vindicator dive bombers, along with 21 hopelessly outclassed Brewster Buffalo fighters. The Air Corps had also sent 8 B-26 Marauders and 17 B-17’s.
The opening moves of the battle began at around 1530 on June 3rd, 1942, when a flight of B-17’s from Midway found the Japanese infantry transports about 700 miles to the west. Under intense anti-aircraft fire they dropped their payloads. Unfortunately, while suffering no losses, they also scored no hits.
The battle itself was well and truly joined the next day, June 4th, when Nagumo launched a strike of 108 aircraft against Midway at 0430. Search planes from both sides had been groping for each other’s fleets, and an American Catalina spotted Nagumo’s force first, and the inbound strike aircraft, an hour later.
American aircraft scrambled from Midway, the bombers flying unescorted to hit back at the carriers, while the fighters rose to intercept the inbound Jap planes. At 0620 the air raid began with the Jap aircraft hitting the airstrip on Eastern Island, and the oil tanks and seaplane hangars on Sand Island. Damage on the ground was minimal, the airstrip remaining functional, but in the air the untested American pilots, flying outclassed planes, were devastated. Thirteen of the twenty Buffaloes were shot down, including the commander of VMF221 Maj. Floyd Parks. They only managed to shoot down four Kate bombers and three Zeros in return.
Midway’s bombers didn’t fare much better. Faced with overwhelming Jap air defenses and fighter opposition, not a single bomb or torpedo found their mark while the attacking planes suffered heavy losses. Five TBF Avengers, two SB2U Vindicators, eight SBD Dauntless’, and two B-26 Marauders were shot down. One of the pilots killed was Marine Lofton Henderson of VMSB-241. Guadalcanal’s legendary Henderson Field would later be named in his honor. The ferocity of the attack however, combined with the reports of the minimal damage done in the Midway raid, convinced Nagumo that he needed to launch a second strike against the island. He ordered that his reserve force be rearmed for a ground strike.
As the Japanese deck crews busily rearmed the carrier’s planes with contact bombs to hit Midway with, one of their scout planes spotted the American fleet to the east. Now Nagumo faced a dilemma. His Midway strike force was returning and needed to land, while at the same time he had to stop loading his reserve force for a Midway strike, rearm them with anti-ship munitions for a strike against the American carriers, and spot them on teh flight deck for launch.
Carrier flight decks are confusing and dangerous on good days during normal operations. Simultaneously recovering aircraft while arming and fueling a strike package after having fought off an attack created a jumbled mess of fuel lines lying across the decks and improperly stowed live munitions scattered across the hangar decks. It was during this mass of confusion, at about 0930, that the first American torpedo planes found the Jap carriers.
When the PBY had spotted the force earlier that morning Admiral Fletcher had ordered an immediate strike. At 0700 the American strike force had taken off piecemeal in an effort to hit the Japs quickly, rather than waiting for a coordinated strike force to form up. As a result, and due to the accompanying dive bombers taking the wrong course, the three squadrons of torpedo bombers reached the Jap fleet alone at 0920. TBD Devastators from the Hornet’s VT-8 were the first in and lost every single plane, Ensign George Gay being the only survivor. VT-6 from the Enterprise struck twenty minutes after VT-8 began their torpedo runs, and suffered almost the same fate. VT-3 followed at 1000.
At the same moment that the Japanese spotted VT-3, three squadrons of dive bombers from the Enterprise and Yorktown had finally spotted the Jap fleet. Enterprise’s VB-6 and VS-6, commanded by Lt. Cmdr. Wade McCluskey had taken the wrong course and had only found the Jap fleet through sheer luck when they spotted the wake of the destroyer Arashi who was steaming at full speed to catch up to Nagumo’s force after unsuccessfully attacking the US submarine Nautilus. Yorktown’s VB-3, which had taken off an hour after McCluskey, had followed the correct course and was over the Jap fleet at the same moment as McCluskey. While the Zeros wave hopped in pursuit of the low flying torpedo bombers of VT-3 and the survivors of VT-6, and the ships AA guns were aimed at the deck to destroy yet another fruitless toorpedo plane attack, the rearming of the second strike continued on the crowded decks and in the cramped hangars of the Japanese carriers. Several thousand feet above their heads, unobserved, the hammer blow was about to fall.
At 1022 the two squadrons from Enterprise screamed down at Akagi and Kaga, while simultaneously Yorktown’s squadron targeted the Soryu. The Kaga took five bomb hits, the Soryu three. Only one bomb hit the Akagi, but that was all it took. It pierced her flight deck and exploded among the fueled and armed aircraft. The fuel lines and ordnance left unsecured on the decks of the Jap ships exploded in massive fireballs and in less than six minutes three of Japan’s best fleet carriers were blazing hulks, destined for the Pacific floor. In those brief six minutes of Divine Intercession the tide of the Pacific war changed and Japan’s fate was sealed.
Only the Hiryu remained operational and she wasted no time in counterattacking. Her dive bombers found the Yorktown and pummeled her with three direct hits. An hour later however Yorktown’s damage control parties had so effectively patched her up that a second wave of torpedo bombers mistook her for the undamaged Enterprise. Two blows which the Japanese had hoped would knock out two separate carriers and give them a chance at victory, were instead taken solely by the Yorktown. She stayed afloat however until June 6 when she was finally sunk by the Japanese submarine I-168.
After the raids on Yorktown, Nagumo mistakenly believed he had taken out both the Yorktown and the Enterprise and prepared a final blow against the Hornet, the sole remaining American carrier.
Aircraft from the Enterprise found her first though. After five bomb hits the Hiryu too was ablaze and was abandoned.
The entire Japanese Midway carrier force, four of her finest fleet carriers, had been sunk, a blow from which Japan would never recover. Six months after it had begun the Japanese Empire’s great Pacific offensive was over.
Seventy years ago today the sleeping giant which Yamato had so rightly feared was fully awake and hell bent on final vengeance.