Pacific War 14 – Battle of Midway

Pacific War 14 – Battle of Midway

Victory of the Intelligence Service

Battle of the Coral Sea had ended the Japanese advance in the Southern Pacific. There was no further pressure towards Australia, no Japanese ships or aircraft were scouting nor could Allied scouts find any concentrations of Japanese forces. Other areas of the Pacific were also quiet. It was thus obvious to the Allied command that something major was in the works.

US fleet had still not recovered from the losses incurred at Pearl Harbor, and only relatively weak forces were available for defense. The only chance of success in such conditions lay in determining the Japanese intentions ahead of time. This meant a lot of work for the intelligence services, and especially the radio surveillance service.

Americans were not wrong. While the first part of the Japanese plan had failed, the Japanese Navy was working on the second part of the plan, which they considered far more important. This was the attack on Midway islands, which would enable the Japanese a base in range of Pearl Harbor, thus neutralizing the US Pacific Fleet. After this, they could capture Port Moresby at their leisure.

The attack against Midway would include all forces available to the Japanese Navy, commanded by the Admiral Yamamoto in person. Again, the Japanese plan was based around surprise as the key concept of victory. To achieve this, significant forces were detached to mount a diversionary attack against the Aleutian islands – a total of 5 cruisers, 2 aircraft carriers, 11 destroyers and 6 submarines. This forces will be keenly missed in the battle itself.

Main aim of the attack was capture of Midway islands and building of a naval base there, from which the Japanese navy could threaten the Hawaii islands and destroy the US fleet. Attack against the Aleutes was to happen 24 hours earlier, to allow the US fleet to depart towards Alaska while the main Japanese forces took the island with no opposition. Japanese plan included large forces but was, as was the Japanese custom, very complex and comprised of a multitude of simultaneous smaller actions. This had significant negative impact in that it divided the forces, making them both more vulnerable while also making coordination significantly more difficult.

US submarines had been dispatched to reconnoiter significant areas, but noticed nothing of note. Scouting aircraft likewise sent in no noteworthy reports. Yet the Japanese plan was already being executed, with different groups of ships sailing along eight different ways. Separated by hundreds of miles, they were to independently approach the locations of the attack. The goal was to prevent the US from determining the size and the goal of the forces present even should one group be noticed.

Japanese were convinced that surprise will succeed, as it had in most or all of their previous operations. Yet in reality, they had no chance of surprising the enemy this time around. Almost the moment that Japanese navy had left its bases, the US intelligence service reported it to the US command. Despite this, the exact target of the Japanese attack remained uncertain, as Japanese communiques only mentioned a certain “object” of the attack. Most likely target – almost the only logical target – was Midway. But the island had been heavily fortified. This coral reef, only 5 miles in diameter, now had 3 000 naval infantry and 120 aircraft. Its airfield allowed operations by even heavy bombers, and defenses consisted of numerous artillery pieces, mines, underwater obstacles and fortifications. Taking it in a single strike was unlikely, and a prolonged engagement would allow the US fleet to arrive in force regardless of any diversions. Therefore, confirmation was needed that Midway truly was the target of the attack.

Midway atoll 1941

A way to verify the information was needed. Somebody came at the idea that the Japanese themselves could do it, and it was accepted. The Midway islands were connected with Hawaii via an underwater telegraph cable, which provided safe way of communication. By this cable a secret order was sent to Midway, which was to inform Hawaii via an unencrypted communiquee that the water destiller was broken and that production of drinking water was affected.

This was done, and before long, a Japanese message was intercepted stating that the “object” had problems with water supply. With this, the target was confirmed as certainly as it could be.

American Preparations

Meanwhile, Japanese plan was being carried out across an area stretching several thousand square kilometers. Main force sailed from the Yokosuka harbor on 26th May. Aircraft carrier squadron kept to the north in order to approach the Midway islands from the northwest, as this approach would make launching aircraft easier due to prevailling winds. At that time of the year, wind was regularly blowing from the southeast, which meant that carriers would be sailing directly against the wind, allowing the aircraft to take off without carriers having to accelerate to top speed beforehand. Battleships sailed slightly more to the south. Through sheer luck, both groups were sailing through the areas of bad, foggy weather, which saved them from being discovered by the American aircraft that were flying as far as 700 miles from Midway. As the aircraft had no radar, however, they could not find the Japanese fleet in the bad weather.

According to the Japanese plan, first attack was to be carried out by aircraft carrier group under command of vice admiral Nagumo. This group was centered on four aircraft carriers, some of the largest in the Japanese navy: Akagi, with 63 aircraft, Kaga with 83 aircraft, Hiryu and Soryu with 63 aircraft each. In total, Nagumo had 272 aircraft. Escort group consisted of battlecruisers Haruna and Kirishima, two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and 16 destroyers. Two groups of eight tankers in total followed the fleet to provide refuelling.

Artillery bombardment of the islands was to be carried out immediately after the air attack. This was to be carried out by the bombardment squadron consisting of the battlecruisers Kongo and Hiei, three cruisers and 16 destroyers. This squadron sailed far to the south of other squadrons, and joined up with transport convoy coming from Marianas and Marshall Islands. Convoy consisted of 16 transport ships carrying 5 000 troops. Protection was provided by 2 cruisers and 10 destroyers. Convoy also had 3 seaplane carriers carrying 40 aircraft and escorted by destroyers. These were to establish a seaplane base on a small island Kure, some 60 nautical miles to the west of Midway. Fast squadron of four heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and 12 destroyers was assigned to escort this convoy as well as provide support with attack on the island. Further support to this action was to be provided by aircraft squadrons from the Marshall and Marcus islands.

Holding the rear was the majority of the Japanese fleet, headed by the Admiral Yamamoto. He was commanding from the brand new mammoth battleship Yamato, far larger and more powerful than any other battleship then in existence. From there, Yamamoto commanded all of the fleet operations in the Pacific. This squadron sailed the middle way between the carrier and convoy groups so as to be able, in theory, to assist either squadron which required assistance. Yamamoto’s squadron consisted of 7 battleships, 1 light carrier, 2 seaplane carriers, 3 cruisers, 13 destroyers and 5 supply ships.

Far to the north were four smaller Japanese squadrons tasked with attack against the Aleutian islands. Between the Pearl Harbor and Midway were 12 submarines which were to act as a barrage against the US fleet sailing from Hawaii to help. Another 3 submarines were in the area of seaplane activity, to provide seaplanes with refueling station.

Americans were not idle either. As soon as it became clear that the Midway islands were target of the attack, preparations were begun. Still, American forces available were uncomforably weak. Ignoring the Japanese forces sent against the Aleutians, Nimitz had no battleships, two aircraft carriers against six Japanese, 5 heavy cruisers against 10, one light cruiser against 6, and 17 destroyers against 46 Japanese. Carrier Yorktown was still under repairs, but if available it would raise US carrier strength to three carriers.

Despite the unfavorable relation of forces, Admiral Nimitz had little choice but to accept the battle. To turn the tables, he intended to use the same basic idea as the Japanese plan did, and surprise the enemy by attacking first. On the other hand, Nimitz wanted to force a decisive battle within the range of land-based aircraft, thus reinforcing his own air forces.

To achieve this, Nimitz planned to attack suddenly, and only with aircraft and submarines. For this he needed aircraft carriers. He had only two carriers available, Hornet and Enterprise. Attempt to borrow one of British carriers operating in the Indian Ocean failed, while remaining US carriers were in the Atlantic and would not arrive in time. The only option remaining was Yorktown, which had only the day before (27th May) returned from the Battle of the Coral Sea.

USS Yorktown in drydock at Pearl Harbor following the Battle of the Coral Sea

If Yorktown could be repaired, it would increase the strength of US carriers by 50%. This was a massive difference, because in carrier warfare, the enemy that had twice as many aircraft was not just twice as powerful. CAP was twice as powerful, strike element was twice as powerful, scouting element was twice as powerful, and overall far more options were available. Combat in such conditions would result in ratio of hits achieved of somewhere between 8:0 and 14:1, unless, of course, one side got incredibly lucky.

Shipyard in Pearl Harbor achieved the impossible. When Yorktown had come back, estimated time for repairs had been three months. Yet in only 48 hours, Yorktown was repaired and ready for fight. With this, American fleet had 233 carrier-based aircraft to Japanese 272; of those Yorktown carried 75 aircraft. A close to 70% advantage that the Japanese would have in carrier aircraft had Yorktown not been present might well have resulted in 5:1 to 8:1 exchange ratio advantage for the Japanese, and complete destruction of the US squadron, unless luck interfered.

Aware of the Japanese strength, Admiral Nimitz did not miss a single detail. Defenders of Midway were sent war materials they may need, and all 25 available submarines had been sent on various tasks. Twelve of those were assigned as a barrage in the wide area to the west of Midway islands. Three submarines were placed between Hawaii and Midway, and another four to the north of Hawaii. Remainder were sent to the Aleutians to intercept the Japanese diversionary attack.

Task Force 16 left Pearl Harbor as early as 28th May, followed two days later by the Task Force 15 which was waiting on the Yorktown to be repaired. Both squadrons were sailing to the north of Hawaii, turning westwards after several hundred miles. Squadrons met up on the open sea on 2nd June, some 325 miles northeast of Midway, and continued sailing westwards while keeping each other at the edge of visual range. Thus Admiral Nimitz had completely paralyzed the Japanese submarines which he knew would be between the Hawaii and Midway. Japanese submarines remained uselessly sailing the empty ocean.

But this was only first part of the job. The second part now had to be done: finding the Japanese ships. Catalina seaplanes and heavy B-17 bombers kept flying over the areas where they expected to find the Japanese warships. But not a sign was found, despite repeated assurances of the intelligence service that the Japanese fleet was underway. Later, it even reported that the Japanese squadron consisted of 4 aircraft carriers, 4 battleships, 7 cruisers and 22 destroyers. Yet the enemy could not be found.

A U.S. Navy Consolidated PBY-5 ”Catalina” off Sand Island, Midway Islands, after having returned from a patrol in late May or early June 1942

The culprit was again the weather. It was mostly sunny, except for one foggy area some 300 miles to the northwest of Midway. Vice admiral Nagumo’s squadron was sailing precisely through this area, which hid it well from scouting aircraft despite them passing so close that crews could hear aircraft engines overhead. Several times did American scouts overfly the Japanese squadron, but saw nothing. US command may have started to doubt validity of the intelligence reports if many Japanese messages hadn’t been caught which confirmed that something was afoot.

It was on the 4th of June 1942. by the Japanese calendar that something was finally noticed. One of reconnaissance aircraft, a twin-engined Catalina, was some 700 miles to the southwest of the Midway islands. Like other scouts, he was flying at high altitude so as to have as good view of sea as possible. Seeing ships far below, he called it in. But these were not the main forces of the Japanese fleet. What Lieutenant Ryde had come across were transport ships with weak escorts, but even so he brought the news that had been tensely waited for.

Battle Begins

News about discovery of the Japanese ships caused alarm on Midway islands, and before long, nine B-17 heavy bombers were airborne. At 17:04, the enemy squadron was in sight. The bombers immediately attacked, dropping bombs from 3 000 meters. As was usual for high-altitude bombers attacking ships, none of the bombs actually hit anything, and the Japanese ships continued merrily on their way. US forces launched another attack against the transport convoy during the night, as other convoys had not been spotted yet.

Night attack had been done by four Catalina seaplanes. The Japanese were still some 1 000 kilometers away from the islands. This was well beyond the range of fighter cover, but the convoy didn’t have any carrier escort anyway, so the attack could proceed unimpeded. Attack however fared badly: all bombs missed, and the only torpedo hit was against a tanker Akebonu Maru. Tanker was hit at the bow, and continued on its way with only slight dip by the nose.

Admiral Nimitz in his HQ in Pearl Harbor was receiving regular updates via an underwater cable stretching from the Midway to the Pearl. It was clear to him that the noticed Japanese forces were not the main fleet, and thus the search had to continue. They found nothing.

In the meantime, both US carrier squadrons were still sailing near each other. By the morning of the next day they were some 200 miles northeast of Midway. First squadron was commanded by Rear Admiral Spruance, as Halsey was sick. This squadron had aircraft carriers Enterprise and Hornet, protected by 6 cruisers and 6 destroyers. Second squadron was commanded by Rear Admiral Fletcher, who under his command had aircraft carrier Yorktown, 2 cruisers and 8 destroyers. Received news about position of the Japanese transport convoy led Spruance to conclude that Japanese aircraft carriers will be near the island and discovered as soon as the sun rose. He thus directed both squadrons gradually southwards, with the intent of attacking the Japanese from the north – direction opposite from where they would expect the attack to come from.

Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance

In the dawn of 5th of June (4th of June by US time), Japanese carriers launched over 100 aircraft to attack the Midway islands, around a third of them fighters. Just as the last Japanese aircraft were taking off, an American Catalina seaplane entered the area of clouds surrounding them. Commander of the aircraft, Sergeant Adee, was flying low as the clouds were impeding visibility. He entered a rain area, but through the rain noticed a silhouette of an unknown seaplane, identifying it as Japanese Kawanishi Type 94, used by cruisers which launched it by catapult. Type 94 continued on its way and contact was lost, but Catalina continued the flight, soon leaving the area of the clouds. Noticing a cruiser, Adeeretreated into the clouds, before emerging at another place – in the view of the Japanese fleet. Adee called in the sighting: two aircraft carriers, two battleships, cruisers and destroyers.

News were also heard by the Admiral Spruance’s squadron, confirming Spruance’s predictions. He immediately ordered Enterprise and Hornet to launch aircraft. Some time later, another Catalina noticed squadrons of Japanese aircraft flying towards Midway. It immediately notified the island, but by that time Midway’s radar stations had already noticed the inbound aircraft, and raised the alarm. It was only 6 in the morning. All aircraft from Midway’s air fields were removed eastwards to protect them from destruction, bombers and torpedo bombers were sent to attack Japanese ships, while all 26 fighters were to resist the attack.

Despite resistance by fighters, Japanese squadrons arrived over the island. Half an hour after the alert had been raised, Japanese bombs rained down on Midway. Attack was a combination of level bombing from 3 000 meters, precise dive bombing, and strafing by fighters. Anti-aircraft artillery did little to stop the attack, and heavy damage was caused to island facilities and oil tanks. When attack had passed and fighters returned to refuel, it turned out that out of 26 fighter aircraft, 15 had been shot down. But attackers had also suffered heavy losses, losing 30 aircraft – mostly to fighters, with portion shot down by island’s anti-air defenses. At the same time, American squadrons from the Midway were closing in onto Japanese ships, and also incoming, although somewhat more distant, were aircraft from the US carriers.

Japanese air raid on Midway

Admiral Nagumo received at around 7 hours news by the attack group commander that bombardment of the island is finished, but that another attack is necessary as not all targets had been destroyed. But this news had major consequences. At the moment, Japanese carriers had between them some 93 dive and torpedo bombers ready to take off, but these were armed with anti-ship weapons. Upon receiving news, they had to be rearmed with appropriate weapons, and this took time.

But the events went in a completely different direction. Japanese, as usual, did not send carrier aircraft onto reconnaissance missions, relying instead on seaplanes launched from cruisers. Despite the squadron being in area where enemy contact might have appeared at any time, only five seaplanes were available for scouting, and the Japanese were saved from a nasty surprise by sheer happenstance. Namely, while all five were supposed to be on reconnaissance from the early morning, a seaplane from cruiser Tone had mechanical issues which delayed its launch for half an hour. This seaplane was the only one to notice admiral Spruance’s squadron, sending a report at around 7:30.

Having received the news, admiral Nagumo changed decision and instead of bombing Midway again, he decided to attack the US warships. But all his aircraft had been pulled into the hangar and were now rearming. New orders came in: aircraft were to be re-rearmed for attack on ships. Aircraft armed with torpedoes were to keep them, those who had bombs were to replace them with torpedoes again. The result was confusion and chaos.

Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo. Imperial Japanese Navy Portrait photograph, taken circa 1941-42, when he was commander of the First Air Fleet. Original photograph was in the files of Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, USNR. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

While all of this was going on, and before the Japanese aircraft were ready for takeoff, groups of aircraft appeared on the horizon. Nagumo quickly realized that it was too early for his aircraft to be returning from the attack – these were the Americans. These were, in fact, aircraft from Midway; the first to arrive was a squadron of 6 torpedo aircraft, at around 8:10.

Not wasting any time, a squadron of Curtiss-Avenger torpedo bombers attacked. These were very slow aircraft, and were under fire from all enemy anti-aircraft weapons. Two aircraft were shot down before they could even begin the attack. Others dropped down to 60 meters of altitude and released torpedoes, but were followed closely by the Japanese fighters. Not a single torpedo hit the target, and only one man from the squadron survived the attack.

American aircraft attacked unsystematically. Instead of combining and carrying out a coordinated attack, each group of aircraft attacked as they arrived to the target. And because these groups were often far between, the Japanese could get all nice and ready for the next attack in peace. Just a short time after the first American squadron had been shot full of holes and destroyed, a squadron of four B-26 medium bombers decided to try their luck. Each of them carried only a single torpedo, but all they managed to achieve was to mess up the parade-exact positioning of ships in the Japanese fleet as Akagi was forced to take evasive action. None of the bombers survived.

Several minutes later a third squadron arrived, consisting of 16 dive bombers. These attacked the aircraft carrier Kaga, achieving three hits but losing half the aircraft in the process. Only a short while later, 15 Flying Fortresses dropped bombs from 6 000 meters, achieving absolutely nothing. Second group of 11 B-17s attemted to repeat the performance for amusement of the Japanese, but these were repelled so strongly that they could not even approach the carriers, choosing instead to bomb a battleship from the escort. In this they were moderately successful, as the battleship received two hits and developed a significant list. In the middle of all the chaos, US submarine Nautilus of 3 900 tons managed to slip into the Japanese formation. It launched a torpedo, which either failed to hit or failed to detonate, was noticed, and showered with depth charges. The perfect opportunity had slipped away.

Admiral Nimitz got very concerned by the minor successes achieved at a very steep price. Japanese were definitely about to attack the Midway islands, which at the moment had little more than very harsh language to defend against the invasion. Surprise attacks by land-based aircraft, on which Nimitz was counting, had yielded little result.

Japanese fleet was now in peace. American attacks had passed without causing too much damage, and now the reports from Tone’s seaplane were coming in. It was following the American squadron, but afraid of being shot down by fighters, had kep its distance. At first it was reporting 5 cruisers and 5 destroyers, and only later on a single aircraft carrier as well. In the meantime, Japanese aircraft that had attacked Midway were beginning to land onto their carriers. At 8:30, first aircraft touched down, and by 9:15 all surviving aircraft had landed. And at the last moment, too, as the scouts were now reporting approach of a new group of US aircraft. These were coming from a completely different direction – they were carrier aircraft.

Quarter an hour later, in 9:30, first American aircraft appeared over the Japanese squadron. This was a consequence of decision made by Admiral Spruance. He had intended to send his aircraft into an attack only two hours later, thus saving them some 200 km of flight to the enemy fleet. This was important due to limited combat radius of his aircraft, but the Japanese attack on Midway forced him to change his plans. Having received news of the attack, he moved quickly to utilize the opportunity, and also preempt any possible Japanese invasion of the islands.

Rear Admiral Spruance’s Chief of Staff proposed to have the attack squadrons take off two hours earlier than intended. This would allow them to attack the Japanese carriers precisely in their most vulnerable moment, when they were recovering and rearming the aircraft. Further, carriers had to fly against the wind when recovering the aircraft, which meant that during that half an hour or more, they could not change the course or speed.

Spruance did not hesitate. Seeing advantages of such an attack, he ordered the launch of all aircraft into the attack. A total of 116 aircraft were launched from Enterprise and Hornet and headed towards the Japanese fleet. Another 18 fighters were launched as Combat Air Patrol, with further 18 remaining on the flight decks, ready to launch.

Admiral Fletcher acted differently. He still had in mind fresh experience of the battle in the Coral Sea, when he had sent all his aircraft in a far too powerful attack which destroyed Shoho, thus spending his striking power and being unable to attack other ships. Thus he now sent only 29 aircraft into the attack, escorted by 6 fighters, leaving remainder on the deck ready for takeoff.

As well-made as the American plan was, the chance again played a major role. Japanese carriers recovered their aircraft more quickly than expected, and as soon as the last aircraft had landed, Admiral Nagumo changed his ships’ direction. American aircraft, having estimated his position with the expectation of Japanese carriers still landing aircraft, searched for the enemy towards southeast, while the Japanese ships had in fact made quite some distance towards the northeast.

Time passed and fuel was getting ever lower, but the American aircraft continued searching for the elusive Japanese ships. Having expended too much fuel, some aircraft managed to reach Midway, but many were forced to ditch into the sea. Others which had enough fuel turned instead to return to their carriers. This included a squadron of 15 torpedo bombers from Hornet. Antique and slow (370 kph) Douglas-Devastators under Captain Waldron were returning to their carrier when they suddenly came across Japanese naval squadron.

LCDR John C Waldron

Waldron immediately informed Admiral Spruance of the location and direction of sailing of the discovered enemy, following up by request to disengage due to lack of fuel. But Admiral Spruance, having finally found the enemy after much uncertainty, was unwilling to let this opportunity slip. Many of his aircraft had been forced to land on Midway or even ditch into the sea due to lack of fuel – his fighting strength could be paralyzed without achieving anything. If he allowed his aircraft to return to refuel, they would lose the enemy with no guarantee of being able to find him again, which would bring the entire American plan into question.

Spruance ordered the squadron to immediately attack. He was well aware that he was sacrificing 15 aircraft and their crew on a fundamentally suicidal mission, but hope was that Japanese carriers will be damaged and thus more vulnerable to follow-up strikes. Whether this was a correct decision is debatable, as it was likely that the Japanese squadron will manage to lose the Americans anyway, whereas if he had ordered aircraft to shadow the Japanese squadron, follow-up strikes could more easily have found it even if this squadron was forced to eventually ditch into the sea.

Having received their orders, torpedo bombers moved to fulfill them. These were the aircraft that had arrived over the Japanese squadron at 9:30. With no protection, these slow aircraft had to approach the Japanese ships to release torpedoes in low-level flight. All defense concentrated at them, and despite the well-executed attack, no torpedoes hit and no aircraft survived the attack. Out of all of the air crews, only one man survived.

Duel of Aircraft Carriers

Following the destruction of all 15 aircraft that had attacked the Japanese carriers, crews resumed preparation of their aircraft for takeoff as it was clear another American attack may come. American carriers were only 170 miles distant, not even an hour of flight, and reports from scouting seaplanes had convinced the Japanese that the American fleet was far weaker than it really was. Thus they aimed to utilize their advantage and crush the enemy.

Americans were quicker, however. Rear Admiral Spruance had sacrificed his 15 torpedo bombers without much obvious benefit, sending them into a certain death against all tactical recommendations. According to the doctrine, first attack was to be carried out by dive bombers, which were far less vulnerable to enemy fighters and anti-aircraft fire, while torpedo bombers would only attack once dive bombers and fighters had the enemy busy. Unsupported attack by torpedo bombers against a concentrated defense was a meaningless sacrifice: they were easily shot down, and ships can easily avoid torpedoes that had been dropped at a distance.

But suicidal bravery of Waldron’s torpedo plane squadron had one unexpected benefit. They had kept Japanese carriers busy, and so their crews were not able to timely prepare the aircraft for takeoff. This had heavy consequences first for the Americans, and then even worse for the Japanese.

Japanese squadron was stretched in length over almost 15 kilometers. Only American incompetence had saved the Japanese from major losses this far. At this moment, the Japanese carriers had their flight decks full of aircraft that were being prepared for takeoff – time was just after 10 o’clock, some 45 minutes after sacrifice of the torpedo bombers. New group of American aircraft was approaching, this time with strong fighter escort.

Fighter squadron was flying far ahead of the torpedo bomber squadron from Enterprise. Their task was to attract the attention of the Japanese defenses, and allow the torpedo bombers to carry out their attack by the book. But when the fighters arrived, Japanese fighters were still on decks. American squadron commander reported no fighters in the air to torpedo bombers, and abandoned the observation.

Only a few minutes had passed by the time torpedo bombers arrived to their targets, but even this short time was enough for an unpleasant surprise. Japanese fighters had in the meantime launched and were in the air. With no warning, 14 torpedo planes now faced 25 Zero fighters. American aircraft attempted to avoid the attack by flying at just above the sea level, and targeted the carrier Kaga. But they were too slow, and between the Zeroes and anti-aircraft defense, only four torpedo planes survived, achieving no hits.

Mitsubishi A6M Zero

Few more minutes, and another attack group arrived. These were 13 torpedo planes and 16 light fighters from Yorktown. But Zeroes were ready, and the battle did not last long. Torpedo planes attempted to use the chaos to sink Akagi, but seven were shot down even before managing to release a torpedo. Only five torpedoes were dropped in a rather haphazard manner, and Akagi avoided all of them. Only two torpedo bombers survived the engagement.

But sacrifices of torpedo bombers squadrons were not in vain. Majority of Japanese aircraft were still on decks, as takeoff was impossible in conditions of constant combat and maneuvering. At altitude of 6 000 meters, US dive bombers were approaching. It was 10:25, and in clear weather, Lieutenant Commander McClusky could see Japanese carriers maneuvering to avoid torpedoes. Some 5 000 below him was air combat between fighters, and even lower he could see flaming traces of dying torpedo bombers. Absolutely nothing stood between McClusky and his targets.

Unnoticed, uninterrupted and unattended, McClusky could prepare a by-the-book attack. He divided his force so as to be able to attack multiple carriers. Bombers from Enterprise were divided to attack Soryu and Kaga, while bombers from Yorktown were assigned Akagi. Attack was carried out precisely by the textbook. Squadrons kept to prescribed formation before, one by one, the aircraft peeled off and dived towards the assigned target. Surprise was complete, and even as the shrill sound cut the air, no enemy reply came. Only shortly after did sporadic anti-aircraft fire open up, but insufficient to halt or even disrupt the attack. Pilots held off until the last moment to release the payload so as to maximize the probability of hitting the targets. First bombs fell into water, but then Kaga shook under four hits which destroyed her flight deck, hangar spaces and command bridge. Flames enveloped the carrier, and some time after an explosion shook the ship. Be it aircraft fuel or munitions, ship was by then beyond saving.

Bomb damage to Kaga

The flagship Akagi didn’t fare much better. It had been just in the process of turning against the wind when the attack had begun when hit. First bomb had fallen among the 40 aircraft parked on the deck, and this and the following bombs turned the ship into an inferno. Last four aircraft from the group tasked with attacking it, seeing that Akagi was dead anyway, turned their attention to a cruiser and a battleship instead, causing them considerable damage.

Bomb Damage to Akagi

Squadron assigned for Soryu likewise carried out their task well. In but a few moments three bombs fell on the carrier’s deck, destroying aircraft parked on the deck and causing a conflagration much like the one on Akagi. Her escorting destroyer, which had come close in an effort to protect her from the attack, was hit in its machinery spaces by a bomb and disabled.

Bomb damage to Soryu

Only a few minutes were all what was needed to turn the Japanese fleet, which had been sneaking up to its target for eight days, into a collection of scrap metal. But the Japanese did not loose will to fight. They still had one carrier left – Hiryu. It was smaller than Kaga or Akagi, having only 40 aircraft. All of them were not assigned to the attack. Two seaplanes that had launched from escorting cruisers immediately after the US attack had, by chance, followed the aircraft from Yorktown back to their home carrier. It was thus Yorktown that would become the target of the Japanese attack.

While all of this had been going on, on Akagi the staff were trying to get the Admiral Nagumo to leave the ship. In the end, he had to be forcibly dragged out of the flames and forced onto another ship.

Japanese counterattack was organized quickly. Already at 11 o’clock, 18 bombers and 6 fighters left Hiryu’s deck, followed an hour and a half later by another 10 torpedo bombers and 6 fighters. No aircraft were left to defend the carrier – everything had been sent into the attack.

American squadron was now only 80 nautical miles distant. Clear weather and bright noon sunlight made any concealment impossible. Japanese aircraft found Yorktown easily, arriving in just as inopportune time as American aircraft earlier had, precisely as Yorktown’s strike groups were rearming and refuelling. In the air there were 12 fighter aircraft as protection.

Surprise in that moment would have been unpleasant indeed. But the Yorktown had a radar which may not have been perfected, but was very effective. Japanese aircraft were almost 50 kilometers away when the radar noticed them. This was enough to save the ship from surprise and allow at least the most basic measures to be taken. Ship’s speed was immediately increased to 30 knots, and aircraft fuel lines were emptied. Almost as soon as these fundamental measures had been taken, the enemy appeared.

Attack was directed against Yorktown only. Second squadron with remaining carriers was not discovered, despite being nearby. Yorktown thus immediatelly called in help, and CAP fighters of both Enterprise and Hornet raced towards Yorktown, whose fighters were already heavily engaged.

Japanese aircraft pierced through the American defense, despite suffering heavy losses to Yorktown’s CAP in the process. Those that made it through the fighter screen were “greeted” by the anti-aircraft artillery provided by heavy cruisers Astoria and Portland, five destroyers and Yorktown itself. Only six remained by the time they arrived over Yorktown. Then they dived, one by one, towards the carrier. Already the first bomb exploded on the deck, causing a fire. While this fire was quickly put out, the second bomb passed through the chimney and straight into the engine room. There it exploded, disabling a number of boilers. Yorktown lost steam, her engines stopped and ship lost speed.

Third bomb pierced the deck and exploded deep within the bowels of the ship. Large conflagration developed in immediate proximity of the main fuel tanks and ammunition magazines. If either caught fire, ship would be destroyed. But the crew managed to flood the magazines, while fuel was protected with carbon dioxide; thus the immediate danger had passed. By 12:15, everything was over. The attack had ended, and Yorktown was lying immobile on the surface of the sea, spitting black smoke. Admiral Fletcher moved to one of escorting cruisers. In the meantime, Admiral Spruance separated from his squadron two cruisers and two destroyers to reinforce Yorktown’s defense. They arrived soon, and now Yorktown was defended by four cruisers and eight destroyers.

Bomb damage to Yorktown

On Yorktown, crew worked hard to save the ship, and in fact managed a miracle. Fires were extinguished, and only one hour after the Japanese attack that disabled her, Yorktown was capable of receiving and launching aircraft. By 13:15, ship was able to sail at 20 knots. Aircraft were prepared for action, and those that had been in the air landed to refuel and rearm. But the quiet was not to last.

At 14:20, second group of attackers arrived from carrier Hiryu. These were torpedo planes. They attacked simultaneously from four sides at low altitude. Strong defense destroyed most of the aircraft, but four managed to drop torpedoes. Yorktown turned and managed to avoid two torpedoes, but the second pair of torpedoes hit the ship. After 7 minutes of the attack, Yorktown was dead in the water. In but a few minutes, she had already developed 26 degree list, and could capsize at any moment. Because Yorktown had lost power, attempts at counterflooding failed, and it eventually sailed to a halt.

Considering the situation to be hopeless, captain Elliot Buckmaster ordered the ship to be abandoned at 14:57. Hundreds of people abandoned the ship in boats, with ropes, or simply jumped overboard. Nobody was left on the ship – not even the damage control parties, as the captain did not believe that the ship could be saved. Large number of aircraft from Yorktown was airborne when the attack happened, and had to land on the remaining carriers instead.

Elliott Buckmaster

Enterprise and Lexington were now preparing for another strike, as Spruance wanted to sink Hiryu which was doing its best to leave the lethal proximity of the US aircraft carriers. Leaving Yorktown with destroyer Hayman, remainder of the US force sailed westwards to find and sink Hiryu. Japanese carrier was located at around 16 hours. Enterprise immediately launched 24 aircraft – some of them from Yorktown. Half an hour later, Hornet launched a strike of 16 aircraft. Already the first attack resulted in six hits on Hiryu, completely destroying the flight deck. Entire carrier was ablaze, and the second group of aircraft attacked instead ships of Hiryu’s escort group, not wanting to waste ammunition on an already doomed carrier.

After 5 in the afternoon there were no further air attacks. American aircraft were returning to their carriers. Day was gradually nearing its end, with crews of Japanese and American naval squadrons being exhausted from stresses of combat. But the day’s events were not over.

Yorktown was still afloat. Seeing that the flooding has stopped and the expected sinking did not occur, destroyer Hayman took the carrier under tow and started making for Midway. Damage control efforts lasted throughout the night, and it seemed as if ship could be saved, when torpedoes were noticed. Japanese submarine I-68 had managed to sneak up close and launch four torpedoes. Two hit the destroyer which sank immediately, while other two hit the carrier, which managed to remain on the surface until dawn when it, too, sank.

Destruction of the Japanese Squadron

Far in the West another tragedy was ongoing. There, after American strikes, lay the remnants of the Japanese fleet. From hundred kilometers away one could notice clouds of black smoke rising from the Japanese carriers. All of them were ablaze, with crews desperately fighting to save them in what appeared to be a clearly doomed effort. Oil and avgas were burning, and many secondary explosions shook the carriers, interfering with the damage control efforts. Cruisers and destroyers closed with the carriers to assist with the damage control efforts.

On one carrier these efforts were beginning to show results. The fire onboard Soryu was being brought under control and localized. There was hope the carrier could be saved, and order was given to tow it to Japan. All was in vain however, for US submarine Nautilus was nearby. Nautilus snuck up to the carrier, hitting it with three torpedoes. Soryu did not immediately sink, but its list increased and the fire renewed. Fighting against fire lasted for several more hours, but the fire continued to slowly spread. Eventually it reached the main fuel tanks, and Soryu exploded, taking 700 men of her crew down with her.

USS Nautilus underway in early 1930s

Soryu had blown up at 19:15. Only ten minutes later she was followed by Kaga, one of the largest Japanese carriers. That morning’s attack had turned Kaga into a pile of scrap metal, and a massive fire kept destroying it through the afternoon. Eventually, the flames caught the stores at the bottom of the ship. Avgas and munitions blew up what remained of the ship, along with 800 men of her crew.

Nearby was still burning Akagi. Ever since Admiral Nagumo with his staff had left the ship, it still continued onwards. Any connection and communication with machinery spaces had been cut due to the fire, and personnel in machinery spaces suffocated to death. Propulsion still worked, but gradually ground to a halt. Fire was tearing it apart, and after some time, the ship began to sail again with no obvious reason. Most likely explanation was that the heat caused boilers to start producing steam, and since there was noone left alive to close the valves, steam went into the turbines and caused them to start turning on their own.

Akagi kept up this ghastly performance for a long time, sailing in circle because link with the rudder was gone. Whereas other carriers had sunk by the evening, Akagi burned throughout the night. And throughout the entire night, her crew fought to save her. But all their efforts were in vain. Fire burned ever more strongly, and no part of the ship was spared. In the night, she seemed a ghost ship: giant steel monstrosity slowly sailing of her own will while flames reached from her almost a hundred meters into the sky. Cruisers and destroyers, illuminated by the flame, attempted to save this extremely important ship, but dawn was growing closer while situation was not improving. With dawn, ships would be easily found and attacked, as the column of smoke was easily visible as far as a hundred kilometers away. With no air cover, and crews which had spent 30 hours awake, it was not hard to guess what would be the outcome if American carriers attacked them.

Carrier could obviously not be left for the enemy to recover, but staying with it was not possible either. After requesting – and receiving – permission from Admiral Yamamoto, surviving crew was transferred to other ships. Rising sun witnessed the sad end of the ship, as several torpedoes from escorting ships sent it to the bottom.

Battle of Midway was also very hard on the commander of Japanese navy, Admiral Yamamoto. The Commander in Chief of the Japanese navy did not participate in combat with his naval squadron, but he and his staff were very involved in all other fleet activities. First news were good. Attack against the Aleutians had succeeded without significant resistance, and Yamamoto at that point did not know how important the ships assigned to a diversionary action will turn out to be. First news of air engagements – attack on Midway and destruction of US torpedo bombers – were also good. But around 11 hours, news turned bleak, and kept bleak.

Yamamoto tried to save the critical situation. He recalled the battleships and cruisers he himself had sent two days earlier towards Aleutians as reinforcements, and also ordered light carriers Ryujo and Junyo to abandon the Aleutian operations and come to Midway as quickly as possible. His own squadron started moving towards Midway. But all of this was too late. Aleutian groups would need several days to transit to Midway, and at the same time, bad news constantly arrived. As evening arrived, Japanese carriers began to sink one by one, thus making them permanently unavailable – a blow that was not softened even by the successful attack against Yorktown. Over 250 aircraft had been lost, while at the same time Yamamoto was unaware of how serious American losses were. Thus, at 10 in the evening, Yamamoto decided to call off the operation. All squadrons were to move to the rendezvous point, with the exception of the invasion convoy and its escorts. Soon after the convoy too was recalled, and only the convoy escort squadron was to bombard Midway before retreating. This squadron consisted of very fast ships: cruisers Kumano, Suzujo, Mikuma and Mogami, light cruiser Zincu and 12 destroyers.

Kumano in October 1938

During the night, the entirety of Japanese fleet disappeared to the west, with only the bombardment squadron sailing eastwards. Night was dark, with no moonlight, and only at 2:15 did submarine Tambor notice Japanese ships some 90 miles west of Midway. News caused alarm on Midway, as it was believed this was the main Japanese attack. But while the defenders on Midway were focused on the news of approaching fleet, a lone Japanese submarine – I-168 – approached Midway from the East, her commander having decided to bombard the island on his own initiative.

I-168 used the cover of darkness to approach the island, opening fire with its 120 mm guns at dawn. This caused panic among the defenders who were convinced that the Japanese landing was imminent. But I-168 did not wait to overstay its welcome, and before long ceased firing, diving and slipping away.

News of the unknown enemy ships was sent already during the night to admiral Spruance. He too believed these to be the main forces that were preparing the attack against the island, and thus moved to intercept, keeping high pace of 25 knots. At the same time, Yamamoto’s main force was slipping away.

USS Tambor

During the night, submarine Tambor followed the Japanese squadron, but surface ships’ higher speed meant that they soon lost the submarine. Cruisers sailed in a line ahead formation, headed by the squadron command ship Kumano. Kumano’s observers noticed a submarine in the night, or perhaps imagined it. Whatever the case, order was given for all ships to make a simultaneous 90 degree turn. But between the lag in transmission of signals and the fact it was night, last cruiser in the line, Mogami, sailed straight into the cruiser Mikuma which was just turning. Both cruisers were heavily damaged, and had to sail with reduced speed. Admiral Yamamoto was immediately informed of the situation, and at 3 in the morning ordered operation to be cancelled. Damaged cruisers were to be left with an escort of destroyers, while all other ships were to cease the operation and sail to the rendezvous point, some 400 miles to the northwest of Midway. Fleet remained there during the 6th of June and until the 7th, reasonably safe from air attacks due to distance and foggy weather.

Left with weak escort, cruisers Mogami and Mikuma carried out basic repairs and made for the west as well. Mogami could sail at no more than 16 knots, while Mikuma had a damaged propeller, and was leaking oil from tanks, leaving a wide trace on the surface. Two destroyers of their escort sailed alongside the cruisers.

At dawn of the next day, numerous American aircraft took off to carry out reconnaissance in multiple directions. US command still expected attack on the island – but nothing was found. Foggy weather interfered with scouting, but numerous groups of ships were still discovered sailing westwards. Several groups of B-17 flying fortresses took off the island, numbering 36 aircraft in total, and went to bomb the discovered ships. But the ships had disappeared in the fog, and couldn’t be found. One squadron of 6 flying fortresses, flying at 3 000 meters, noticed a ship. They immediately dropped bombs and the ship disappeared. Formation commander reported the news: “Japanese cruiser sunk in 15 seconds”. This “Japanese cruiser” was actually American submarine Grayling which, seeing that it was being bombed, crash-dived and thus prevented an unfortunate accident.

Aircraft from Hornet and Enterprise had taken off early in the morning. Hornet’s aircraft attacked small groups of Japanese ships with no particular success. Others had more luck. Flying over the sea, a squadron of 12 aircraft from Enterprise noticed a long oil spill trace. Following it, they soon came across two damaged Japanese cruisers and two destroyers. They immediately attacked the ships, but heavy anti-aircraft fire interfered with the attack and no bomb hits were scored. The only hit was scored when a pilot of a heavily damaged aircraft, himself wounded, rammed his plane into Mikuma’s aft superfiring turret. The turret and much of the superstructure on the aft portion of the ship burnt down.

This was only the beginning. Americans now knew where the Japanese ships were, and sent numerous aircraft. In total, 112 aircraft attacked the Japanese warships. Despite the stiff defense, and poor targeting by already tired aviators, attacks were so numerous that they could not be avoided.

Worst hit was Mikuma, which received several direct hits. Ship started to list, and her engines were disabled. Deck and superstructure were on fire, and heat caused the torpedoes in launch tubes to explode. Engines stopped, and the damaged ship was left helplessly drifting. Both destroyers, seeing that the ship could not be saved, closed in to rescue the crew.

Mikuma (A Mogami class cruiser) sinking after being hit by bombers from USS Enterprise and Hornet. Battle of Midway 1942

American aircraft now turned their attention onto the destroyers. One was hit and quickly sunk, to be followed by Mikuma which rolled over shortly thereafter. Second destroyer saved as many of crew as he could – far too few, before leaving to join the other cruiser. Mogami was also under attack, but was able to avoid bombs by smart maneuvering. Attacks lasted for some more time before American aircraft left, having spent all their munitions. Two surviving Japanese ships limped across the ocean to the base on island of Truk.

With this, the battle of Midway was over. This battle was the first serious defeat that Japanese navy had suffered since 1592. The Japanese had lost four aircraft carriers, one cruiser and two destroyers. Many other ships were heavily damaged. Also lost were 253 aircraft and 3 500 men. Among the dead was rear admiral Yamaguchi, who had chosen to go down with his ship, the carrier Hiryu. This was a major blow to the Japanese navy, as Yamaguchi had been seen by many as a successor to Admiral Yamamoto. Worse blow however was the loss of highly trained, elite aircraft crews, which is something the Japanese would never be able to compensate for.

By contrast, American losses were relatively minor. They lost one aircraft carrier, one destroyer, 150 aircraft and 307 men.

Japanese defeat is even worse because it could have been avoided. Japanese command had effectively accepted parity in what they considered one of key engagements in the war. It is difficult to understand why two aircraft carriers had been sent to Aleutian islands, especially since large carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku that could have carried 72 aircraft each could not be deployed as they were undergoing air wing replacement and retraining due to losses incurred in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Especially since Shokaku itself had also suffered physical damage and could not have been deployed to Midway even had air wing been available. It is also difficult to understand why Yamamoto had insisted on attacking the Port Arthur, or if he did decide to attack it, why he did not concentrate all the available carrier forces on it. With six fleet carriers, two light carriers and three small carriers, Yamamoto could have crushed the US carrier fleet then and there, and then simply sail into Pearl Harbor completely unopposed while sipping on champagne.

On the American side, their victory was well earned even if much of it came down to Yamamoto’s mismanagement of the entire Coral Sea – Midway campaign. Even so, American efforts had shown them to often be clumsy, and their crews insufficiently trained. Several times the US fleet was saved basically by sheer luck. Even so, both sides fought well and with honor.

Battle of Midway reinforced the lessons of the Battle of the Coral Sea, which had shown that aircraft carriers were the dominant weapon of the naval war in Pacific. In both battles, ships of both sides never actually came within gun range of each other. Shipborne artillery was used only for defense against air attacks, and battles were decided by carrier duels.

4 thoughts on “Pacific War 14 – Battle of Midway

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