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Midway, 1942: When the Odds Were Against Us

Today, more than six decades later, Americans remember World War II as “The Good War,” and think of the nation’s victory as something that was always assured. Historians, and of course the vanquished, frame America’s victory in terms of manpower, production, and economics, a collection of charts and graphs, facts and figures that, when looked at in isolation, appear to assure that victory was inevitable.

 

USS Yorktown

The USS Yorktown (CV 5) shown shortly after completion in 1937. The three sisters – Yorktown, Hornet, and Enterprise – bore the brunt of the early battles of the war in the Pacific. Library of Congress photo

 

The rapidly diminishing numbers of those who were there know differently. Between the wars, the U.S. armed forces had shrunk in numbers and power, and the nation, despite President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s sometimes clandestine efforts, was woefully unprepared for war.

 

IJNS Kaga

The IJNS Kaga, shown after her reconstruction in the mid-1930s. Often called a sister ship to the Akagi, in fact they were built on two entirely different hulls. The Kaga was built on a battleship hull while the Akagi was built on an Amagi-class battlecruiser hull. Note the ship’s stacks venting downward on the starboard side. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

 

The attack on Pearl Harbor sank the Pacific Fleet’s battleships at their moorings, the Asiatic Fleet had been destroyed or driven from the seas, and Bataan and Corregidor in the Philippines had surrendered. The Battle of the Coral Sea had cost the Japanese one light carrier and forestalled their invasion plans for Port Moresby in New Guinea, but the carrier Yorktown (CV 5) was damaged and Lexington (CV 2) was sunk.

 

IJNS Hiryu

The IJNS Hiryu. A near sister of the IJNS Soryu, the two carriers had islands built on opposite sides of the flight deck (Hiryu port and Soryu starboard), with the thinking being they could steam side by side with aircraft operating in two different patterns that would not interfere with each other. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

 

This left only Enterprise and Hornet in the Pacific, and not much else but what meager task forces could be gathered around them. The Hornet‘s raid on Tokyo, however, had spurred the Japanese to expand their perimeter of conquests, and their next target was Midway atoll.

 

IJNS Akagi

The IJNS Akagi shown pre-war. The Akagi and her sister ship the Amagi were to be beneficiaries of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, and were also to be built on battlecruiser hulls that would otherwise have been scrapped. Amagi’s incomplete hull, however, was ruined in the 1923 earthquake, and the Akagi emerged as a class of one. She was one of two Japanese carriers at Midway built with her island on the port rather than starboard side. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

 

Through the brilliant codebreaking achievements of Lt. Cmdr. Joseph J. Rochefort and Station Hypo, the American carriers Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown, her Coral Sea damage hastily patched up, were waiting at the aptly named “Point Luck” off Midway when the Japanese fleet arrived. Adm. Chester A. Nimitz had decided to stake everything on an ambush on the Japanese fleet with his numerically inferior forces.

 

SBD and TBDs aboard Enterprise

An SBD of either Scouting or Bombing Six and TBDs of Torpedo Six launching from the deck of the USS Enterprise (CV 6) in May 1942. The aircraft still have the red and white horizontal stripes on their tails that were painted out before Midway. They appear to be carrying depth charges and launching for an anti-submarine patrol, as Enterprise arrived too late for the Coral Sea battle. National Archives photo

 

Rear Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher, in overall command, flew his flag from Yorktown, centerpiece of Task Force 17. Task Force 16, comprised of Enterprise and Hornet, was commanded by Rear Adm. Raymond Spruance. Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the Midway operation, had developed a complicated plan for the operation, but much of it depended on surprise, which, because of Station Hypo, he had already lost.

 

Enterprise Moored at Ford Island, Late May 1942

The USS Enterprise at Ford Island in late May 1942 being readied for the Battle of Midway. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

 

Even so, the odds were dauntingly against the U.S. Navy. Yamamoto’s forces included four fleet and two light carriers, 11 battleships, 22 cruisers, 65 destroyers and around 20 submarines. Nimitz could muster only his three carriers, one light and seven heavy cruisers, 17 destroyers and 12 submarines.

Adm. Nagumo, in operational command of the Japanese carriers, simultaneously launched his first strike on Midway early on the morning of June 4, 1942 with a group of scout planes searching for enemy carriers. His cruiser Tone, however, launched her scouts late; one was to patrol the sector containing the American carriers.

 

Torpedo Squadron 6 TBD-1 Devastators

Torpedo Squadron 6 TBD-1 Devastators are prepared on board USS Enterprise for the strike on the Japanese fleet during the Battle of Midway. Only four of the squadron’s 14 aircraft returned. National Archives photo

 

Nagumo’s strike leader soon reported that another attack on Midway would be necessary. Although the ever-cautious Nagumo had kept half his planes back, armed for an attack on the American carriers, he decided to strike them below and re-arm them for a second strike against Midway after the island launched several abortive air strikes against his carriers.

 

B-26 Marauder

The crew of the U.S. Army Air Force Lt. James Muri’s (standing second from left) B-26 Marauder, who made a torpedo attack on the Japanese fleet at Midway. The plane returned a shot-up wreck. National Archives photo

 

The strikes included the first combat outing for the Grumman TBF Avenger. The Avengers were brand new additions to Torpedo Squadron 8 (VT-8) and hadn’t been able to get to Hornet before she sailed, and so a detachment of six flew from the island. Only one returned. Marine SB2U Vindicators and SBD Dauntlesses also attacked the Japanese fleet, as did Army Air Forces B-17s and B-26s, the latter armed with torpedoes.

 

Lt. Cmdr. Lance Massey

Lt. Cmdr. Lance E. Massey, CO of Torpedo Squadron Three (VT-3), in his Douglas TBD-1 “Devastator” torpedo plane at Naval Air Station Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, May 24, 1942. Massey was killed in action on June 4, 1942, while leading VT-3 against the Japanese carrier force. Note “Victory” flag marking on the plane, representing the sinking of a Japanese ship during the Marshall Islands Raid, Feb. 1, 1942, when he was executive officer of Torpedo Squadron Six (VT-6) on USS Enterprise (CV 6). U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

 

Then Tone’s scout plane reported it had sighted an American carrier. Shocked, Nagumo ordered the re-arming of the planes for the second strike on Midway to be stopped, and for the planes to be loaded with torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs for the American carriers, while his returning strike recovered aboard his carriers. In the mad rush, torpedoes, bombs and ammunition lay strewn about the hangar decks; fuel lines snaked everywhere.

 

Lt. Cmdr. John S. Thach and Lt. Butch O'Hare of VF-3 in their Wildcats

Lt. Cmdr. John S. Thach (foreground) and Lt. Butch O’Hare of VF-3 in their F4F-3 Wildcats, April 1942. Thach was the originator of the “Thach Weave,” which minimized the liabilities of the F4F and maximized its virtues in combat against the Zero. While the pugnacious little Grumman fighter couldn’t match the elegant Zero in speed or agility, it was rugged and had great firepower. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

 

Spruance had already launched his aircraft at extreme range, hoping to catch the Japanese in exactly the position they had found themselves. He sent off every plane he had, without enough fuel to form up properly for coordinated strikes. Aboard Yorktown, Fletcher launched later and managed to send a more coordinated strike.

 

Hornet air group morning 6/4/42

The Hornet’s air group, spotted on deck and warming up on the morning of June 4, 1942. U.S. Navy photo

 

Lt. Cmdr. John C. Waldron’s VT-8 found the carriers first. He was under no illusions as to VT-8’s chances without fighter escort, and even before launching told his pilots that if only one of them was left, he expected that pilot to get a hit. The TBDs came in low and slow, locked into their runs just above the wave-tops as the combat air patrol of Zeros scythed into them. Every gun in the Japanese fleet that could bear opened up.

 

Soryu Dodges B-17 Bombs

The Soryu completes a full circle while taking evasive action during an attack by Midway-based B-17s. Although the Flying Fortresses scored no hits, they contributed to keeping the Japanese fleet off balance and disrupting flight operations. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

 

The Zeros came in again and again, the TBDs’ backseaters’ guns chattering back, the waves ahead torn into spray by the stream of shells being fired against the slow Devastators. One by one, the Devastators were shot into the sea, too low to bail out, too fast to ditch. Only a few dropped their torpedoes, none of them scored hits, and only one man, Ensign George Gay, survived.

 

VS-5 SBD Launches to Attack Hiryu

A Scouting Five (VS-5) SBD Dauntless warming on deck before launching to attack the Hiryu, the one remaining Japanese carrier. Although the Hiryu would ultimately sink due to the attack, the Yorktown’s aircraft would have to land elsewhere, as a Japanese strike would cripple her as well. National Archives photo

 

Rearming and refueling attempts continued in the hangar bays aboard the Japanese carriers as the ships heeled over into sharp turns to avoid the attacks, but soon Lt. Cmdr. Eugene E. Lindsey’s Torpedo Six (VT-6) arrived and steadied into their runs.

 

Damaged SBD Aboard Yorktown

A U.S. Navy Douglas SBD-3 “Dauntless” scout bomber, of Bombing Squadron Six (VB-6) from the USS Enterprise (CV 6), after landing on the USS Yorktown (CV 5) at about 1140 hrs on June 4, 1942, during the Battle of Midway. This plane, damaged during the attack on the Japanese aircraft carrier Kaga that morning, landed on the Yorktown as it was low on fuel. It was later lost with the carrier. Its crew, Ensign George H. Goldsmith, pilot, and Radioman 1st Class James W. Patterson, Jr., are still in the cockpit. The damage to the horizontal tail attests to the fact that the SBDs attack was no cakewalk. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

 

This time, seven managed to drop their “fish,” but again they got no hits, and only four recovered aboard Enterprise. As the carriers began to recover from this attack, Lt. Cmdr. Lance E. Massey’s Torpedo Three (VT-3) bore in.

 

VB-8 SBD Traps Aboard Hornet

A VB-8 SBD lands well off centerline, almost on top of the LSO, during the Battle of Midway. U.S. Navy photo

 

Cmdr. John S. Thach’s Wildcats were there to take on the CAP of Zeros, but they were vastly outnumbered, and enough Zeros remained to cut the TBDs to pieces. Five of Torpron Three’s Devastators launched their torpedoes; all missed or failed to explode, and only two returned to their carrier.

 

Yorktown Is Torpedoed

A plume of seawater shoots skyward from the Yorktown as a Japanese torpedo finds its mark. The Yorktown had taken three bomb hits in an earlier attack, but had gotten under way again, fooling the Japanese into thinking they had sunk two U.S. carriers when in fact they had hit the Yorktown twice. The torpedo hits, however, doomed the Yorktown. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

 

The Japanese carriers turned into the wind to spot their decks and launch their strike, unscathed after six attacks and sensing victory. But the screen around the carriers had been scattered by the violent evasive action, and the Zeros were still clawing for altitude after their slaughter of the TBDs.

 

USS Yorktown Sinking

The USS Yorktown lists heavily to port, mortally wounded after taking one of two torpedoes in a second Japanese attack. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

 

At that moment, a lookout aboard Kaga looked up and saw Lt. Cmdr. Wade McClusky’s SBDs wing over into their dives like the unfolding of some great fan, followed by Lt. Cmdr. Maxwell F. Leslie’s Dauntlesses.

 

IJNS Hiryu Burning

The Hiryu shown the morning of June 5, gutted by fire. Her entire forward hangar deck is exposed, the flight deck destroyed, and her forward elevator rests against the island. She was later scuttled. National Archives photo

 

Kaga was quickly hit four times, Akagi two times, and Soryu three. Fully armed, fueled, and bombed up aircraft exploded and fed the fires. In five short minutes, what had seemed certain victory turned to ashes.

 

SBDs of VS-8 Over Mikuma

In a classic photo that has come to symbolize the Battle of Midway, U.S. Navy Douglas SBD-3 “Dauntless” dive bombers of scouting squadron VS-8 from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV 8) approach the burning Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma to make the third set of attacks on her, during the Battle of Midway, June 6, 1942. The Mikuma had been hit earlier by strikes from the Hornet and the USS Enterprise (CV 6), leaving her dead in the water and fatally damaged. Note bombs hung beneath the SBDs. National Archives photo

 

The surviving Hiryu managed to launch attacks that eventually, with the help of submarine I-168’s torpedo attack, sank Yorktown. However, Enterprise and Hornet‘s remaining aircraft found and sank Hiryu, to essentially end the battle that broke the back of the Japanese carrier air arm.

 

Mikuma

The burning Japanese cruiser Mikuma, June 6, 1942. National Archives photo

 

There would be three more long years of fighting, but never again would Japan have the numerical superiority it had enjoyed prior to Midway. It should never be forgotten, however, that the U.S. Navy, outnumbered and reeling from a series of losses, stood its ground and achieved a vital victory against great odds, when losing would have meant that nothing stood between the Japanese and the West Coast of the United States.

This story was originally published on June 4, 2016.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-5216">
    Dwight Jon Zimmerman
    Dwight Zimmerman

    And, had Fletcher not ordered the U.S. fleet east out of potential harm’s way, his victory would have been rewarded the following day by defeat, as Yamamoto’s battleships and cruisers were at full steam on an intercept course. Excellent summary!

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham bypostauthor odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-5328">
    Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    Thanks Dwight. And you’re right. But Fletcher and Spruance still took a lot of heat at the time, for their perceived failure to aggressively pursue and sink the rest of the Japanese fleet. I’ve always thought Fletcher got a raw deal from S.E. Morison in his history.

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