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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.