In just five minutes, the entire scope of the war had changed. Japan’s massive superiority in aircraft carriers was obliterated in Midway.
The Battle of Midway, which took place on June 4-6, 1942, turned the tide of World War II. Prior to Midway, the Empire of Japan was on a constant quest for expansion. After its epic defeat, Japan would be fighting a defensive war attempting to holding its gains.
The outnumbered American fleet, with courage, tenacity, and no shortage of luck, destroyed the cream of Japan’s aircraft carrier force at Midway. The turning of the war took place in the space of just five minutes delivering a cataclysmic blow that wiped out the aura of invincibility of the Japanese fleet. The Japanese lost half of their carrier strength and their best aircrews. These would prove to be irreplaceable.
At Midway, the Rising Sun began to set.
Leading Up to Midway
In early 1942, the Japanese Empire was riding high following its lightning strike against the sleeping U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor in December 1941. It had swept across Southeast Asia, taken the Philippines, and was moving toward Port Moresby.
Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, understood the industrial might of America and believed that Japan had to strike quickly, destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet, and then get the U.S. to the peace table.
But two events had set back Japan’s plans. First, the Battle of Coral Sea, while technically a draw, had stopped the Japanese invasion from reaching Port Moresby. Second, the Doolittle Raid by land-based B-25 bombers on Tokyo and other major cities had caused concern in Japan. Though the raid caused very little material damage, it shocked the Japanese, who had believed their homeland impregnable.
The Japanese Plan
The Japanese plan was a typically intricate, detailed design. It called for the Japanese to take the tiny atoll of Midway, which is about 1,100 miles west-northwest of Hawaii, under the guise of attacking the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. The Japanese would try to lure the American fleet toward Alaska by beginning the attack there and then striking at Midway.
It was believed that holding those two major points in the Pacific would halt any further attempts against the Japanese homeland. The Japanese believed that the U.S. fleet would be at Pearl Harbor until it would receive news of the attack on Midway and would then sail toward it. Then it could be destroyed in an ambush off of Midway.
But the Japanese plan had several holes in it, the biggest of which was that Yamamoto divided his force into four task forces. They were all spread so far apart that during the battle, they were not able to support each other.
Further, unbeknownst to the Japanese, the Americans had intercepted and partially broken the Japanese Navy’s JN-25b code and had a good idea of their plans. The Americans knew that the Japanese were planning an operation against “target AF” which they thought was Midway. To confirm this, the U.S. decided to bait the Japanese. The American headquarters at Midway sent an uncoded message saying they were having issues with their freshwater condenser. The Japanese intercepted it and their base at Rabaul then transmitted a coded message stating that their objective, code-named “AF,” was short of freshwater.
This allowed the Americans to prepare. As a result, the American carrier force, consisting of the carriers Enterprise, Hornet, and the patched Yorktown, was already well on its way to meet the Japanese northeast of Midway.
The Battle of Midway Begins
Both fleets sent out scout planes in an attempt to find one another. The Japanese reconnaissance was very thin and hadn’t been allocated enough resources to do the job, especially to the northeast. One cruiser, the Tone, had trouble launching its scout plane and it was delayed. It would prove to be a very costly delay.
At 0430 hours on the morning of June 4, Admiral Nagumo, with his carrier force coming out of a squall, launched his air attack on Midway. It consisted of 36 Aichi “Val” dive bombers and 36 “Kate” B5N torpedo bombers escorted by 36 Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters.
Meanwhile, at 0520 hours, a PBY Catalina flying boat spotted the Japanese fleet. The Yorktown recalled her scouting aircraft while the rest of the fleet steamed at 25 knots in a southwesterly direction in search of the Japanese fleet.
About 30 minutes later, the Marine fighters from Midway took off to engage the Japanese air attack. The Americans had 26 fighters but 20 were the obsolete Brewster Buffaloes which were no match for the Japanese Zeros. At 0616, the Americans attacked but the experienced, and better-trained Japanese blew right through them with ease. A total of 17 fighters were shot down or so heavily damaged that they never flew again.
Right then six of the new Avenger torpedo planes and four B-26 Marauders took off for the Japanese fleet. They attacked with no fighter protection and were annihilated. Only one Avenger and two B-26s made it back to Midway. They achieved no hits.
But the first Japanese air attack on Midway did not achieve the results needed to knock out the defenses. The air commander, Lt. Tomonaga, radioed that a second strike was necessary. Nagumo then ordered the torpedo bombers, kept in reserve in the event of an American fleet sighting, back into the hangar decks to change their torpedoes to bombs. This occurred at 0710 and took precious time.
At 0728 hours Nagumo finally heard from the Tone’s scout plane and the report threw him into indecision. The scout reported 10 ships bearing 010 degrees, 240 miles from Midway moving at 20 knots.
Nagumo kept waiting for confirmation while the minutes ticked by. After 30 more precious minutes went by, the scout plane reported the American ships consisted of destroyers and cruisers. It was then that the first American air attack happened. Nagumo had to wait for the Zeros to be recalled, refueled, and rearmed before escorting the next attack on Midway. Then at 0820, compounding his dilemma, he got the report that he dreaded. The American ships appeared to include an aircraft carrier.
Nagumo then had to clear his flight deck again as Tomonaga’s planes were returning dangerously short on fuel. This wasn’t completed until 0918. With the sighting of the American carrier, Nagumo then changed his orders again. All four carriers in the strike force, the Kaga, Hiryu, Akagi, and Soryu now had to change back from bombs to torpedoes. In this most vulnerable time for the Japanese carriers, the Japanese lookouts signaled an approaching swarm of American aircraft.
The Hornet’s slow, lumbering Devastator torpedo bombers, without fighter protection, were lining up for the attack. Fifty Japanese Zeros launched into them and chewed them to pieces. Most were shot down before ever getting close enough to launch. The few that did launch torpedoes all missed. Only one member of the entire squadron, Ensign George Gay, survived the devastation and clung to a rubber seat cushion before he would risk inflating his life raft. Gay would have a front-row seat for the entire battle.
The Enterprise’s 14 Devastator torpedo bombers with just six F4F Wildcat fighters met a similar fate. Only two planes survived and the Japanese suffered no torpedo hits. The Zeros were flitting about at sea-level chewing up the easy pickings. Everything had gone in the Japanese favor… until now.
The Battle Turns
Two groups of American dive bombers lurked above the Zeros undetected: Lieutenant-Commander Maxwell Leslie from the Enterprise with his 17 Dauntless Dive Bombers and Lieutenant-Commander Wade McClusky from the Yorktown with his 18. The two groups arrived almost simultaneously over the Japanese fleet from the southwest and northeast. They had no fighter protection, but the Zeros were all wave hopping below after the survivors of the two thwarted torpedo squadron attacks. Like birds of prey, the Dauntless dive bombers plummeted straight out of the sky.
Below, the Japanese had finally rearmed and refueled all their aircraft. The flight decks were full of planes, fully armed and fueled as the carriers were turning into the wind to launch.
A Japanese lookout screamed out that enemy dive bombers were attacking just as the crews on the ships heard the high-pitched whine of the Dauntless dive bombers in their near-vertical dives. Japanese survivors recalled watching transfixed as the dots from the planes grew bigger. One bomb hit the Akagi (Nagumo’s flagship) amidships opposite the bridge and pierced the aircraft lift before exploding in the hangar deck stacked with torpedoes. It destroyed the lift and set off several secondary explosions.
Another 1,000-pounder hit squarely among the Kate dive bombers awaiting takeoff. They were all immediately engulfed in a maelstrom that consumed the entire flight deck. In just seconds, Nagumo’s proud flagship had been reduced to a flaming wreck. Adding to the devastation, fuel, bombs, and torpedoes stored below ignited in a series of huge explosions. Nagumo was then forced to transfer his flag to the light cruiser Nagara.
Only three dive bombers attacked Akagi; the remainder lined up on Kaga and Soryu. Kaga was hit with four bombs in quick succession. The first hit just forward of the superstructure, igniting a fuel truck that exploded into a sheet of flame that killed everyone on the bridge in a flash. The other three bombs fell among the planes crowded on the flight deck awaiting take-off and started the same chain of events as on Akagi. In seconds Kaga met the same fate as Akagi. The emperor’s portrait was immediately transferred to a waiting destroyer signaling that the ship was doomed.
Lieutenant Clarence E. Dickinson, a pilot in McClusky’s group, later said of the attack,
“We were coming down in all directions on the port side of the carrier… I recognized her as the Kaga, and she was enormous… The target was utterly satisfying… I saw a bomb hit just behind where I was aiming… I saw the deck rippling and curling back in all directions exposing a great section of the hangar below… I saw my 500-pound bomb hit right abreast of the carrier’s island. The two 100-pound bombs struck in the forward area of the parked planes…”
At the same time, Maxwell Leslie’s dive bombers from the Yorktown, veterans of the Coral Sea, and the most experienced combat pilots in the Navy at that point, attacked in three separate waves. Three of their bombs hit the target. One bomb penetrated the hangar deck and destroyed the lift, pinning it to the bridge. The remaining two bombs lit among the parked aircraft that were warming up. The doomed Soryu was engulfed in flames. Captain Yanaginoto ordered the crew to abandon ship less than 20 minutes later.
In the space of just five minutes, the entire scope of the war changed. Japan’s massive superiority in aircraft carriers, as well as its best, most experienced pilots, were gone. The carrier force was shattered and only the Hiryu, some miles away, was still untouched.
A Japanese survivor of Midway, Mitsuo Fuchida, wrote about the horrifying events after the war:
“At 1024 the order to start launching came from the bridge by voice-tube. The [air officer] flapped a white flag, and the first Zero fighter gathered speed and whizzed off the deck. At that instant a lookout screamed: ‘Hell-divers!’ I looked up to see three black enemy planes plummeting toward our ship. Some of our machine guns managed to fire a few frantic bursts at them, but it was too late. The plump silhouettes of the American ‘Dauntless’ dive-bombers quickly grew larger, and then a number of black objects suddenly floated eerily from their wings. Bombs! Down they came straight toward me! I fell intuitively to the deck and crawled behind a command post mantelet [(rolled mattresses providing protection from shrapnel)].
The terrifying scream of the dive-bombers reached me first, followed by the crashing explosion of a direct hit. There was a blinding flash and then a second explosion, much louder than the first. I was shaken by a weird blast of warm air. There was still another shock, but less severe, apparently a near miss. Then followed a startling quiet as the barking of guns suddenly ceased. I got up and looked at the sky. The enemy planes were already gone from sight.
The attackers had gotten in unimpeded because our fighters, which had engaged the preceding wave of torpedo planes only a few moments earlier, had not yet had time to regain altitude.
Consequently, in truth, the American dive-bombers success was made possible by the earlier martyrdom of their torpedo planes. Also, our carriers had no time to evade because clouds hid the enemy’s approach until [they] dove down to the attack. We had been caught flat-footed in the most vulnerable condition possible – decks loaded with planes armed and fueled for an attack.
Looking about, I was horrified at the destruction that had been wrought in a matter of seconds. There was a huge hole in the flight deck just behind the amidship elevator. The elevator itself, twisted like molten glass, was drooping into the hangar. Deck plates reeled upward in grotesque configurations. Planes stood tail up, belching livid flame and jet-black smoke. Reluctant tears streamed down my cheeks as I watched the fires spread, and I was terrified at the prospect of induced explosions which would surely doom the ship.”
Hiryu and Yorktown Sink
Hiryu had launched her attack group consisting of 18 dive bombers and six fighters commanded by Michio Kobayashi and they linked up with 10 torpedo bombers and six more Zeros. From a distance, they followed the American planes heading back to Yorktown.
American Wildcat fighters defending the ship jumped all over the Vals and shot down 10; anti-aircraft fire downed another two. The six survivors lined up for their attack. Three bombs struck Yorktown, knocking out all of her boilers and forcing the carrier into a stop. One bomb started a huge fire on the flight deck and a third penetrated to the fourth deck and ignited a fire that threatened the forward magazines and fuel tanks.
Admiral Fletcher was forced to move his flagship to the cruiser Astoria. But the American damage control parties, one of the areas that the American Navy had trained hard on, worked magic. They quickly put the fires out, got the ship’s boilers restarted, and made 20 knots. They refueled their Wildcats and launched eight as the second Japanese airstrikes began. The Americans already had four in the air but the dozen American fighters couldn’t break through the cordon of Zeros. The Japanese torpedo bombers hit Yorktown with two more torpedoes. These penetrated the fuel tanks and caused massive flooding causing the ship to list at 26 degrees to port. All power was lost, so counterflooding was impossible. Captain Buckmaster ordered the crew to abandon ship at 1500.
The Japanese pilots in the second attack didn’t see any indication of the burning American carrier from the first airstrike and assumed that the carrier had sunk. Not realizing that the Yorktown was repaired so quickly, they believed that they’d sunk a second carrier.
While the fighting over the Yorktown was ongoing, Admiral Spruance launched an attack against the Hiryu. The Americans arrived with 24 Dauntless dive bombers just as Hiryu was recovering her planes from the Yorktown attack. The Dauntless dive bombers incinerated the Hiryu with four bomb hits which set her ablaze. By 2123, all of her engines had stopped; the order to abandon ship came at 0230 the next morning.
Yamamoto considered continuing the attack on Midway during the night, but without any air cover, his surface fleet, although still very strong, would be at the mercy of American carrier-borne strikes from both the Hornet and Enterprise. He ordered the general retreat of Japanese forces the next day. The four heavy cruisers, Kumano, Suzuya, Mikuma, and Mogami, which were to provide heavy bombardment in the invasion of Midway, were closest to the island. They were sighted by an American submarine, the Tambor, which in turn was sighted by the Japanese. As the ships turned, the Mogami continued straight ahead and collided with Mikuma. The Japanese left the Mikuma and two destroyers to escort the heavily damaged Mogami while the rest of the task force steamed off.
Marine dive bombers attacked the cruisers but they all missed their target. One plane, however, piloted by Captain Richard Fleming, crashed into the after turret of the Mikuma. Fuel fumes were sucked down the intake of the starboard engine room and exploded killing everyone in the engine room.
The next day Spruance launched an air attack. The Mikuma was blown from the water and sunk. Miraculously, Mogami survived and made it to Truk Harbor. Meanwhile, the Yorktown was still afloat. Salvage parties had begun their work and the ship was about to be towed when a Japanese submarine penetrated her destroyer screen and put two torpedoes into her. Yorktown finally sunk on June 7 at 0600. The Battle of Midway was over.
The Japanese lost approximately 3,057 men, four aircraft carriers, one cruiser, and hundreds of aircraft, but what hurt most was the loss of Japan’s most experienced pilots. Because of the heavy losses incurred, the Japanese pushed replacement pilots through abbreviated training programs. As a result, their pilots would soon be fodder for the U.S. pilots who would be gaining in training and experience.
The United States lost approximately 362 men, one aircraft carrier, one destroyer, and 144 aircraft. Three sailors who were captured were murdered by the Japanese after the battle. Ensign Frank O’Flaherty, a pilot from Enterprise, and Aviation Machinist’s Mate Bruno Peter Gaido, O’Flaherty’s radioman-gunner, were interrogated on the cruiser Nagara and then killed by being tied to water-filled kerosene cans and thrown overboard. Ensign Wesley Osmus, a pilot from Yorktown, was killed with an ax and then thrown overboard.
Midway has been justifiably characterized as the turning point in the Pacific War. While the U.S. didn’t actually get the newer Essex class of aircraft carriers until the end of 1942, the strategic initiative had been lost by Japan. Later that year, the United States invaded Guadalcanal, something that would’ve been impossible had the U.S. lost at Midway.
The Japanese defeat marked the beginning of a long, difficult, and bloody island-hopping campaign that swallowed up the Japanese empire until the United States arrived in Tokyo Bay in September 1945.
This article was originally published in 2019. It has been updated and edited for republication.
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