Showdown at Midway June 4-7, 1942
The Imperial Japanese Naval Air Service had set the gold standard for the effectiveness of the Aircraft Carrier on December 7, 1941 with the
Showdown at Midway June 4-7, 1942
The Imperial Japanese Naval Air Service had set the gold standard for the effectiveness of the Aircraft Carrier on December 7, 1941 with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Seven months later, the core of the carrier force was at the bottom of the Pacific, north-east of a sandy little island named Midway. To say the Battle of Midway is legendary would be an understatement. The loss of the core of the Japanese Carrier fleet had no doubt been a shock the Imperial Japanese Navy, as it represented the elite of their supposedly unrivaled Carrier Force. These were the ships that had sailed undetected to Pearl Harbor, crippled the American Battleship fleet, helped conquer the American garrison at Wake, and lay waste to the Royal Navy in the Indian Ocean. Yet, in the span of five minutes three of the carriers were wrecked, with the fourth being sunk later in the day. It was to be the last major offensive operation in the Central Pacific to be undertaken by the Japanese.
Preparations for Midway
The Midway Operation, codenamed MI by the IJN, was the brainchild of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. The Imperial Navy had earlier been humiliated following the Doolittle raid. USS Hornet and USS Enterprise had reached the striking distance of the home islands and launched a successful (albeit minor) attack targets across Japan, including Tokyo proper. It became apparent that if the Japanese wanted to secure victory, the US Carrier fleet had to be destroyed.
The plan was to launch a surprise offensive against Midway Atoll, a relatively important US outpost located directly between the US proper and Japan. Such an outpost could potentially be used by the Japanese to launch regular air attacks against Pearl Harbor. The Americans would no doubt be aware of this. The plan counted that the American Carrier fleet would sortie following the successful invasion of Midway Island. By the time the Americans arrived on the scene, they would stumble into the massive Japanese Invasion fleet, consisting of not just the four carriers (Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu) of the first Air Fleet., but also 11 Battleships (including Yamato), fourteen cruisers, and dozens of destroyers. The IJN hoped this would deliver the knockout blow to the US Navy.
The Japanese were unaware however, that the US Navy was already ware of the Japanese plans against Midway. Earlier in May, an Office of Naval Intelligence cryptology team, under the command of Joseph Rochefort had made significant headway in breaking JN-25, the US Navy designation for the IJN cipher system. Rochefort’s team was able to determine that Midway was the likely target for an upcoming Japanese Invasion. In a clever ploy to confirm the Japanese intent to attack Midway, the ONI ordered the US garrison on Midway to send a false open signal reporting a failure in their Salt Water condensers. When the ONI team later intercepted IJN Traffic requesting additional fresh water supplies for the invasion, it was confirmation that their objective was Midway.
Admiral Chester Nimitz seized the opportunity to lay a trap for the Japanese. Midway was turned into an unsinkable aircraft carrier in the central Pacific. The tiny garrison was reinforced with scores of aircraft from Navy, Army Air Forces and Marine Corps. In addition to the numerous aircraft on Midway, Nimitz would sortie his remaining three carriers across two task forces. Task Force 16 departed first under command of Admiral Raymond Spruance. His command consisted of USS Enterprise and USS Hornet. Task Force 17, under command of Admiral Frank Fletcher was traveling a day behind to allow USS Yorktown to be hastily repaired following the previous Battle of the Coral Sea.
USS Enterprise CV-6, Most Decorated Vessel in the US Navy, due in no small part for her actions at Midway
Nagumo’s Carriers arrived on station North East of Midway on June 4th. At Dawn the Japanese Carriers launched their initial attack against Midway. The strike was commanded by Joichi Tomonaga. Two hours later at 0620, the Japanese strike was intercepted by Marine Fighter Squadron 223 based on Midway. During the short aerial engagement, the Japanese utterly decimated the Marine Fighter Squadron. 16 Marine Aircraft were shot down, primarily the out dated F2A3 Buffalo. When all was said and done, only four of VMF-221’s aircraft were air worthy.
Lieutenant Joichi Tomonaga led the attack against Midway Island and later was killed leading an attack on USS Yorktown. Shortly after decimating the American intercept, the Japanese attacked Midway Atoll proper, destroying numerous surface targets across both Sand Island and Eastern Island. Despite the apparent success of the raid, the Airfield on Midway was still operational. The Japanese strike leader, Lt Tomonaga radioed Akagi informing that a second strike on Midway was needed.
Midway Hits Back
Despite the near total loss of VMF-221, the Americans on Midway were still more than capable of putting up a fight. Before the Japanese attacked Midway, PBY Catalinas from Midway had spotted Nagumo’s carriers. In response, to the report, Midway launched a massive series of attacks consisting of US Army B-26s Marauders, TBF Torpedo Bombers detached from Torpedo Squadron 8, as well as Vindicators and Dauntless Dive bombers from Midway. An additional flight of B-17s was redirected towards the Japanese Carriers.
The hodge-podge of aircraft from Midway attacked across three waves for forty five minutes. Ultimately, they failed to land any hits on the Japanese carriers, and sustained heavy losses in return. The only damage inflicted on one of the Japanese carriers occurred when a USAAF B-26 strafed the deck of Akagi following a failed torpedo attack.
(SBD-2 from VMSB-241, this aircraft is currently on display at the National Museum of Naval Aviation. It is the only aircraft in existence that participated in the Battle of Midway)
Despite not landing any major hits, the planes stationed on Midway managed to shoot down a few of the Japanese CAP planes, and more importantly, kept the Japanese Carrier force off balance. The repeated attacks meant that the carrier force had been thus far tied up without maneuvering incoming attacks as well as bolstering the CAP than it had organization a follow up strike on Midway.
US Carriers Enter the Fray
Upon receiving the Carrier contact report from the PBY, Admiral Fletcher ordered his carriers to immediately launch and hunt down the Japanese Carrier Force. Fletcher signaled Spruance’s Task Force 16 to launch an immediate attack. Spruance complied by launching a massive strike from both USS Enterprise and USS Hornet. In the following hour, TF-17 would launch VB-3, VT-3 and a contingent of planes from VF-3 as a separate strike against the Carriers.
First contact with the Japanese Carriers was made by VT-8 from USS Hornet. Commander Waldron’s squadron broke off from the rest of the Hornet’s Air Group to follow his hunch on where the Japanese Carriers were. Ultimately, he was very much correct, seizing the opportunity he ordered his 16 TBD Devastators to attack Akagi. Unfortunately, the TBDs were dreadfully slow to begin with, and the addition of a thousand pound torpedo did nothing to help. Waldron’s squadron was cut to pieces while making their attack. Only one aviator, Ensign George Gay survived the attack, and his aircraft was shot down. VT-8 scored no hits.
Aviators from VT-8, only ENS George H Gay [center] would survive the Battle
Almost at the instant VT-8 was decimated, VT-6 from USS Enterprise spotted the Japanese Carrier Force. VT-6s Commanding Officer, Eugene Lindsey attempted a text book ‘Anvil Attack.’ In doing this however, his squadron was spotted well before they were on their attack run. VT-6 fared better than VT-8 only in that more of VT-6s aircraft and aviators survived. Five TBDs manage to escape out of a strike of sixteen. Like VT-8, VT-6 failed to damage their target.
(VT-6 preparing to launch during the Battle of Midway)
Nagumo Revises His Plan
Just prior to the string of attacks from Task Force 16’s Torpedo Bombers, Nagumo was handed a disturbing report about US Carriers where there weren’t supposed to be US Carriers. This was rather inconveniently just after he received a report that Midway’s airfield was still operational. His Carriers had just shrugged off three attacks from American aircraft, and while they had been astonishingly ineffective. It was safe to say that while so far the Japanese weren’t losing they certainly weren’t winning the battle either.
Nagumo correctly figured that the Carriers were the bigger threat. He immediately ordered his reserve planes rearmed with semi-armor piercing bombs for an attack against the American ships. However, actually arming and launching these planes was further complicated by the fact that the Americans showed up again and there wasn’t an opportunity to recover the Midway Strike, finish preparing the Carrier strike and launch it when American Torpedo planes were trying to sink his carriers. This cascading series of delays was wonderfully convenient for the US Navy which had even more aircraft inbound towards Nagumo’s Task Force.
“McCluskey! Attack, attack immediately!”
So far, Task Force 16’s strike had been badly organized. Neither the Air Groups from Enterprise nor Hornet had been able to attack as a single unit. After the departure of VT-8, the remainder of the Hornet’s aircraft meandered about, very much lost, until they were forced to cancel their search due to low fuel. Somewhat similarly, VF-6 had reached their maximum range just as VT-6 began their attack. On top of that, the main bulk of Enterprise’s strike, VB-6 and VS-6 were meandering about, also very much lost, and without fighter escort.
As fortune would have it, the SBDs caught a reprieve just as they too reached their turn around point. Commander C. Wade McCluskey spotted a Japanese destroyer Arashi just as she was headed back to Nagumo’s carriers. Figuring he didn’t have much to lose, he turned his direction to follow Arashi for a tad to see where she was going. The gamble wound up paying off. Within short order, McCluskey spotted four carriers with his binoculars and radioed the contact. Without hesitation, he was given permission to attack.
Almost simultaneously, USS Yorktown’s strike had arrived. Despite voiding navigational errors, the Yorktown strike was fraught with two major setbacks. First was the loss of several bombs on aircraft from Lt Leslie’s VB-3, which had been accidentally jettisoned due to an equipment failure. Worse for the aircraft from Yorktown however, was that their strike happened to fly directly in the path of the Japanese CAP. The A6Ms concentrated on Lt Massey’s VT-3 and Lt Cdr Thach’s VF-3. In the ensuing air battle, all but two of VT-3s planes were lost. VF-3 fared better, shooting down several A6Ms but not enough to save most of VT-3.
LCDR Jimmy Thach was one of the first USN Aces of the war
Despite this chaos, the battle turned in the favor of the US Navy with in an instant. The SBDs from Enterprise had arrived over the carriers and began their attack. McCluskey dove in on Kaga with 30 other dive bombers from both VB-6 and VS-6 in tow. Three SBDs under the command of VB-6 CO, Richard Best would break off and make a run for Akagi after seeing the concentration on Kaga. VB-3 slipped past the CAP and made their attack on Soryu.
Damaged SBD-3 Dauntless from VB-6 following the attack on Kaga. After Midway the SBD still is easily one of the most famous carrier based planes of the war
Kaga was hit first and unquestionably the hardest. She was struck by probably four 500 pound and a 1,000 pound bombs, ranging from stem to stern. Akagi was hit by a single bomb from Richard Best’s Dauntless. Soryu was hit almost simultaneously by VB-3. She was hit three times by 1,000 pound bombs, which put her out of action almost immediately. With their work done, the American aircraft ran for their home carriers. Within a few minutes, the majority of the prized Japanese Carrier Fleet was on fire, with only Hiryu remaining to continue the fight.
Hiryu Stands Alone
Despite transferring his flag, following the severe damage to Akagi, Nagumo was more than willing to continue the fight. Japanese scouts had been able to locate both TF 16 and 17 and finally giving Admiral Nagumo a clear picture of the enemy presence. He was now heavily outnumbered, and the entire operation had gone horribly wrong. Still, he figured there had to be a way to turn the battle around. In around an hour, Hiryu launched the first of two attacks against the American carriers, consisting of 18 D3A Val Dive bombers, under Lieutenant Michio Kobayashi, while an hour later 10 B5Ns under Lieutenant Tomonaga started their flights.
Kobayashi’s D3A1s were picked up on radar as soon as they had entered range. VF-3 was ordered to scramble. Despite highly effective intercepts from VF-3s Wildcats, a few of the bombers managed to slip past and drop their bombs. USS Yorktown, despite the best efforts of her Captain; Elliot Buckmaster, was hit three times, temporarily knocking out her boilers, as well as setting her on fire. Still, Yorktown’s damage control crews managed to repair the boilers and put out the fires. In an almost inhumanly short period of time, Yorktown was back in the fight.
Yorktown burning after bomb hits
Tomonaga’s B5Ns made their attack a little over two hours later.. Interestingly, this second flight was convinced they were engaging a different carrier. The repairs to Yorktown left her looking almost pristine to the scene that the previous strike had reported. Once again VF-3 was forced to intercept, this time engaging just as Tomonaga’s planes began their attack runs. Tomonaga’s plane was shot down almost immediately, by Lt Cdr Thach. Four more were shot down; however, two of the torpedoes dropped by the B5Ns hit Yorktown, crippling her for good. She quickly took on a heavy list and lost power. Within 30 minutes, Yorktown’s crew had been ordered to abandon ship.
The abandoned Yorktown, listing heavily
Despite the damage to Yorktown, the end of the battle was more or less sealed. Just around the same time as the second strike on Yorktown, USS Enterprise and USS Hornet were launching a second attack, this one aimed at sinking Hiryu. The attack comprised of not just the planes from Enterprise and Hornet, but also VB-3 which hand landed onboard Enterprise.
At 1701, the American strike had made contact with Hiryu. Despite the best of the attempts of the CAP planes, the strike pummeled Hiryu. She received four hits just fore of the island from 1,000 pound bombs. The attack blew apart the flight deck, as well as the few planes below decks. The remaining American planes (mostly from Hornet) that had not dropped on Hiryu made passes at nearby vessels for no effect.
Burning hulk of Hiryu. Note that the large object just forward of the Island is the forward hangar elevator
Hiryu’s loss, as well as those of Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu sealed that the Battle of Midway as a catastrophic defeat for the Imperial Japanese Navy. Upon hearing of Hiryu’s loss, Admiral Yamamoto ordered Operation MI cancelled. Nagumo’s surviving vessels were to leave the waters around Midway and ultimately head back to Japan. There would be very little subsequent action. The Cruiser Mikuma was sunk while trying to escape to friendlier waters, and the already wrecked USS Yorktown was finished off by Japanese submarine I-168. The Battle was such a humiliation that the IJN covered up the loss, and went as far as to promote it as a great victory in the press. Following Midway, the IJN ceased offensive operations in the Central Pacific. The initiative swung from the Japanese and squarely towards the Americans.
For the US Navy, the victory at Midway was unimaginable. It was the first substantial, clear victory for the US Carrier Fleet. It provided a morale boost for not just the US Navy but the American public as well. Strategically, Midway paved the way for the subsequent Guadalcanal Campaign later in the year, which would ultimately represent the turning point of the Pacific war.
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