In early 1942, the Japanese Empire was riding high, after the lightning strike at the sleeping U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, they swept across the Pacific is a series of victories. They swept across Southeast Asia, had taken the Philippines and were moving toward Port Moresby.

But two events had set back their plans and caused them some concern. The Battle of the Coral Sea, while technically a draw, had stopped the Japanese invasion from heading to Port Moresby. But more disconcerting to a Japanese perspective was the Doolittle Raid by land-based B-25 bombers on Tokyo and other major cities. The raid caused very little damage but shocked the Japanese, who believed their homeland impregnable.  

But what followed in early June 1942 turned out to be one of the most decisive battles of the war. The outnumbered American fleet, with courage, tenacity and no shortage of luck in the space of just a five-minute window, delivered a cataclysmic blow, wiped out the aura of invincibility of the Japanese fleet. The Japanese lost half of their carrier strength, but more importantly, they lost the cream of their aircrews. Those would prove to be irreplaceable.

Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack knew the industrial might of America and knew the Japanese had to strike quickly in the war and then get the U.S. to the peace table. He had a run of stunning victories that shocked the world. In five minutes, this all came to an end. From this point forward the Japanese would be on the defensive for the rest of the war. The Rising Sun had already begun to set.

The Plan: The Japanese plan was to take the tiny atoll about 1100 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 a blow at Midway.

It was believed that holding those two major points in the Pacific would halt any further attempts at the Japanese homeland and give them enough warning. The Japanese were under the impression that the US fleet would be at Pearl Harbor until they received news of the attack on Midway and would then sail toward it. Then the American fleet could be destroyed.

But the Americans had intercepted and broken the Japanese code and knew of their plans. They thought the target was Midway but decided to bait the Japanese into revealing their plans. In the open, the HQs at Midway sent message traffic that they were having issues with their fresh water condenser. Sure enough the Japanese in their next coded message stated that their objective, code-named “AF” was short of fresh water.

As a result, the American carrier force consisting of the carriers Enterprise, Hornet and the band-aid patched Yorktown were already well on their way to meeting the Japanese northeast of Midway.

The Order of Battle for both fleets can be found here:

The Battle Begins: Both fleets sent out scout planes in an attempt to find one another. The Japanese reconnaissance was very thin, without enough help, they didn’t allocate 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 Admiral Nagumo launched his air attack on Midway consisting of 36 Aichi “Val” dive bombers and 36 “Kate” B5N torpedo bombers, escorted by 36 Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters.

At 0520 on the morning of June 4, a flying boat, a PBY Catalina had 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.

At 0553, the Marine fighters on 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 were blown right thru by the Japanese. A total of 17 fighters were shot down and 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 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 back into the hangar decks to change from torpedoes to bombs. This occurred at 0710 and took precious time.

At 0728 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 course 150.  

Nagumo kept waiting for confirmation, while the minutes ticked by. At 0758 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 and refueled and rearmed before escorting the next attack on Midway. Then compounding his dilemma, he got the report that he dreaded. The American ships appeared to include an aircraft carrier. This was at 0820.

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. It was the most vulnerable time for the Japanese carriers. It was exactly then that 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 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 but above them, there was no air cover. Everything had gone in the Japanese favor…until now.

The Battle Turns in Minutes: Two groups of American dive bombers undetected lurked above. Lieutenant-Commander Maxwell Leslie from the Enterprise had 17 Dauntless Dive Bombers and Lieutenant-Commander Wade McClusky from the Yorktown had 18. Like birds of prey, they plummeted straight out of the sky.

Below, the Japanese had finally rearmed and refueled their entire aircrews. The flight decks were full of planes, fully armed, fueled and 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 as the 1000-pound bombs screamed in. 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 1000-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 then transferred his flag to the light cruiser Nagara.

Dauntless dive bombers circle over smoking Japanese ships

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 which exploded into a sheet of flame which 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 was a flaming wreck. The Emperor’s portrait was immediately transferred to a waiting destroyer signaling the ship was doomed.

At the same time, Max 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. Of their bombs, three 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 warming up, just like Akagi and Kaga. The Soryu was engulfed in flames. Soryu was doomed. 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 their best, most experienced pilots, were gone. The carrier force was shattered and only the Hiryu, some miles away was untouched.

A Japanese survivor of the battle, 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, it may be said that 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 he 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 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 Sunk: Hiryu had launched her attack group consisting of 18 dive bombers and six fighters commanded by Michio Kobayashi and they linked up with ten torpedo bombers and six more Zeros. They followed at a distance, 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 own 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.

Yorktown set afire in the first Japanese attack.

Admiral Fletcher was forced to move his flagship to the cruiser Astoria. But the American damage control parties worked magic. They put the fires out, got the ship restarted and made 20 knots. They refueled their Wildcats and launched eight as the second Japanese air strikes began. The Americans already had four in the air and a dozen fighters couldn’t break thru the cordon of fighters and the torpedo bombers hit Yorktown with two torpedoes. They penetrated the fuel tanks and caused massive flooding. That caused 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.

While this was on-going, Admiral Spruance had launched an attack looking for 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 just like the other three carriers. By 2123, all of her engines stopped and the order to abandon ship came at 0230 the next morning.

Yamamoto ordered the general retirement of Japanese forces the next day. The four heavy cruisers which were to provide heavy bombardment in the invasion of Midway, which included the Kumano, Suzuya, Mikuma, and Mogami 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 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.

Mikuma is a flaming wreck after US dive bombers pound it.

The next day, Spruance launched an air attack and 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 began work and the ship was going to be towed when a Japanese submarine, I-168 penetrated her destroyer screen and put two torpedoes into her. Yorktown finally sunk on June 7th at 0600. The Battle of Midway was over.

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 the battle.

It 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.

Photos: US Archives