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Battle of Midway : A Concise Recounting of the Entire Battle and the Results

· Military,Navy

Battle of Midway : A Concise Recounting of the Entire Battle and the Results

“…the enemy lacks the will to fight…”

—Japanese Midway Operations Order, Commander’s Estimate of the Situation

However, the United States had some advantages as well, such as the element of surprise, radar, superior damage control, and the ability of U.S. aircraft to absorb damage. Although the total number of Japanese forces committed to the Midway operation (essentially, almost every operational ship in the Imperial Japanese Navy) far exceeded that of the U.S. Navy none but the four carriers were in a position to effect the outcome of the battle at the critical point and time. In terms of numbers and capabilities of the decisive weapon system of the battle, dive-bombers, the two sides were at rough parity.

The Battle of Midway (4–6 June 1942) was one of the most critical battles of World War II, and one of the most one-sided battles in all of history, although achieved at a very high cost for the U.S. aircraft and aircrew responsible for the victory. It was not, however, a “miracle.” At the decisive point of contact, it was four Japanese aircraft carriers (248 aircraft) and 20 escorts against three U.S. aircraft carriers (233 aircraft) and 25 escorts and an island airfield (127 aircraft = 360 total U.S. aircraft). The Japanese had some significant qualitative advantages, principally the ability to launch a massive integrated multi-carrier strike package rapidly, fighter maneuverability, and better torpedoes. 

Admiral Nimitz, on the other hand, had a very accurate understanding of Japanese intent, based on intelligence, of which code-breaking was only a part, albeit significant. Based on breaking the Japanese Navy general operating code (JN-25B) and the work of Commander Joseph Rochefort’s team in Station Hypo at Pearl Harbor, Nimitz knew that Midway was the objective of Japanese Operation “MI,” knew the approximate timing and approximate forces employed (four or five carriers), and knew that the concurrent Aleutian operation (“AL”) was not the Japanese main effort. Armed with this useful, but still somewhat vague code-breaking intelligence, Nimitz nevertheless insisted that his intelligence officer, Commander Edwin Layton, produce a more precise estimate of where the Japanese carriers would be located when first detected. Using all means of intelligence at his disposal, including his intimate understanding of Japanese thought process from his years of language training in Japan, Layton came up with an estimated bearing, range, and time from Midway Island (325 degrees, 175 nautical miles, at 0600 4 June 1942) that Admiral Nimitz later said was “five degrees, five miles, and five minutes off.” The actual location was a little father off than Nimitz stated, but not by much. Actually, the Japanese carriers arrived a day later than planned, but Layton’s estimate had accounted for weather and the Japanese plan had not (see attachment H-006-2 “ISR at Midway”). Nimitz’s decision, although audacious and risky, was not as much of a “desperate gamble” that some accounts have portrayed, but rather was completely in accord with the principle of “calculated risk” that guided Nimitz and other operational commanders during the battle.

Nimitz also later said that the battle was “essentially a victory of intelligence.” Up to a point, Nimitz’s statement is true. Forearmed with Layton’s estimate, Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher’s two carrier task forces were in the perfect position (designated “Point Luck”) to ambush the Japanese carriers on the morning of 4 June 1942 while the Japanese air strike on Midway Island was recovering. The task forces were TF-17 centered on Yorktown [CV-5] with Fletcher embarked, and TF-16 centered on Enterprise [CV-6] and Hornet [CV-8] and commanded by Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance. Spruance had replaced Vice Admiral William Halsey, bed-ridden with shingles (2019 update: There are some interesting studies by medical historians that indicate it was not shingles, but some other debilitating skin condition with a name I can neither pronounce nor remember.)

Once Spruance made the decision to launch full strike packages from both Enterprise and Hornet as early (and at as long range) as he did, the die was cast. Given the Japanese weakness in shipboard anti-aircraft defense and the inexperience of Japanese fighters, however numerous, in dealing with a protracted multi-axis attack, there were enough U.S. aircraft in the air (117) to deal a mortal blow to all of the Japanese carriers, so long as the American strikes actually found them. Once Enterprise and Hornet launched their strikes, all the Japanese could do at that point would have been to even up the score had they been able to get a counterstrikes airborne (which they weren’t) before the U.S. strikes arrived over their targets.

Nevertheless, although intelligence could set the stage for victory, the battle still actually had to be fought and won by the skill, courage, and blood of those who flew the planes, manned the anti-aircraft batteries, and peered through the periscopes. The Japanese fought with great tactical prowess, and extreme tenacity and bravery, as evidenced by Japanese pilots who somehow held their flaming planes in the air long enough to drop their bombs and torpedoes. Despite the initial U.S. advantage of surprise, the battle could have easily gone the other way, such as when Hornet’s air group, except for the torpedo bombers, completely missed the Japanese; or had the Japanese carrier Akagi survived the one bomb that actually hit her, the Japanese counterstrike from that carrier could well have taken out all three U.S. carriers—based on how much damage was later inflicted on Yorktown by Hiryu’s relatively small and uncoordinated last-ditch strikes (three direct bomb hits and two torpedo hits). 

Four waves of U.S. torpedo bombers (six new TBF Avengers and four USAAF B-26 Marauders from Midway, and 41 older TBD Devastators in three squadrons from the carriers) suffered grievous losses likened to the Charge of the Light Brigade, each wave encountering between 15 and 30 Zero fighters, but not one torpedo bomber turned away. One TBF and two B-26s crash-landed on Midway afterward, and only six of the TBDs made it back to the carriers; only three of the aircraft were flyable. Of the 99 men in the 42 torpedo planes that were lost, only three survived the battle. The skipper of Torpedo Squadron EIGHT (VT-8) off Hornet, Lieutenant Commander John Waldron, had told his squadron during the pre-launch brief that “if only one plane is left, I want that man to go in and get a hit.” That’s exactly what his squadron tried to do, following Waldron’s direction to the last man. As 14 of the 15 TBDs of VT-8 went down one after the other in flames, the last plane, piloted by Ensign George “Tex” Gay, stayed on course and dropped his torpedo at the carrier Soryu before being shot down. Soryu avoided the torpedo and Gay was the sole survivor of the attack. The other two torpedo squadrons (VT-6 and VT-3) displayed equal valor with the same result: no hits and great loss.

The slaughter of the torpedo bombers was not part of the American plan, but was the result of the U.S. inability to effectively coordinate a multi-carrier strike, or even a single air group strike. Nevertheless, the sacrifice of the torpedo bombers was not in vain. Their attacks, and those of Midway-based Marine Corps SBD Dauntless dive-bombers (8 of 16 lost) and SB2U Vindicator dive-bombers (4 of 11 lost), and Army Air Forces B-17 Flying Fortresses, strung out over two and a half hours (all with numerous near misses but no hits), forced the Japanese carriers to constantly launch and recover fighter aircraft in between wild defensive maneuvering. The result was that the Japanese carriers were unable to spot their decks for a counter-strike launch. They were still over 45 minutes from being ready to launch their dive-bombers and torpedo planes (not five minutes as in early accounts), when the decisive attack by U.S. Navy dive-bombers commenced. Two squadrons from Enterprise and one squadron from Yorktown (launched over an hour later) arrived simultaneously over the Japanese carriers by complete coincidence.

During the Battle of Midway, a Japanese heavy cruiser of the Mogami class lies low in the water after being bombed by U.S. naval aircraft, seen in this 1942, file photo. Bursts from anti-aircraft fire fill the air. (AP Photo)

Admiral Nimitz, who had commanded several submarines early in his career, was disappointed in the performance of the U.S. submarines at Midway. Of 19 U.S. submarines in TF 7, only three made contact with the Japanese (although seven were guarding the approaches to Hawaii, and therefore would not have made contact since the Japanese didn’t go there). Grouper (SS-214) was repeatedly strafed, bombed, and depth-charged, and was unable to close on the Japanese carriers. For whatever reason, Tambor (SS-198) did not engage the heavily damaged cruisers Mikuma and Mogami (and her skipper was immediately relieved of command after the battle). Grayling (SS-209, host to Nimitz’s Pacific Fleet change-of-command ceremony) was mistaken for a Japanese cruiser and bombed by U.S. B-17s (fortunately, no bombs hit, which was also the case with over 320 bombs dropped by the B-17s on actual Japanese ships).

Nautilus (SS-168), Lieutenant Commander William Brockman commanding, tried to attack the Japanese carrier force and was strafed by an aircraft, tried again and was bombed by an aircraft, and tried again and was depth-charged by the light cruiser Nagara while setting up an attack on the battleship Kirishima. As soon as the depth charging ceased, Brockman boldly came back to periscope depth and fired on Kirishima with two torpedoes. One hung in the tube and the other missed, and Nautilus was then heavily depth-charged. Later in the day, Brockman tried yet again and succeeded in firing a spread of four torpedoes, all of which malfunctioned, at the dead-in-the-water and burning Kaga, only to barely survive another brutal depth-charge attack (42 depth charges, two of which clanged off her hull, but did not explode). The one torpedo that hit Kaga failed to explode and the buoyant after body served as a flotation device for swimming Japanese sailors. Brockman was awarded a Navy Cross. Of note, however, it was the Japanese destroyer Arashi, trying to catch up to the Japanese carriers after being left behind to depth-charge Nautilus, that led Lieutenant Commander Clarence Wade McClusky and two Enterprise dive-bomber squadrons to the Japanese carriers and their doom. Later in the war, however, armed with torpedoes that actually worked, more aggressive skippers like Brockman, and a steady stream of “Ultra” intelligence (derived from broken Japanese codes), U.S. submarines would go on to inflict significantly more losses to the Japanese than any other U.S. weapons system, at great cost (52 submarines) as well.

Corpsmen treating casualties on board USS Yorktown (CV-5), shortly after the carrier had been hit by Japanese bombs on 4 June 1942. The dead and wounded were members of the crew of 1.1-inch machine gun mount Number 4, in the center background. They were struck by fragments from a bomb that exploded on the flight deck just aft of the midships elevator. This view looks directly to starboard from the front of the midships elevator. The aircraft crane is at left, with 1.1-inch gun mount Number 3 visible in the upper left corner. Note bearded chief petty officer walking by, flight deck clothing worn by some of those present and fire extinguisher in the lower left (80-G-312021).

The USS Yorktown lists heavily to port after being struck by Japanese bombers and torpedo planes in the Battle of Midway on June 4, 1942 during World War II. A destroyer stands by at right to assist as a salvage crew on the flight deck tries to right the stricken aircraft carrier. A few hours later, the Yorktown was hit with Japanese torpedoes and sank. ( AP Photo/U.S. Navy)

However, in broad daylight, the skipper of the Japanese submarine I-168 (which had previously provided accurate, and ignored, intelligence on Midway Island’s state of readiness, and had even shelled the island) picked his way through five escorting U.S. destroyers and torpedoed Yorktown at pointblank range. I-168 sank the destroyer Hammann (DD-412) that was alongside Yorktown, which went down in under four minutes, many of her swimming crew killed by the detonations of her own un-safed depth charges (81 of 251 crew lost). Even with the two additional torpedo hits, Yorktown remained afloat until finally succumbing on the morning of 7 June. I-168 subsequently survived, with heavy damage including leaking chlorine gas, an extensive depth-charge attack (61 depth charges) by the U.S. destroyers.

Some historians argue that Midway was not “decisive” because (with 20/20 hindsight) the ultimate victory over Japan was never in doubt, Midway or no Midway, but was merely the inevitable application of overwhelming U.S. industrial power. Although “what-if” scenarios are generally frowned upon by professional historians, had the battle resulted in a military defeat for the United States, President Roosevelt would have had an extremely difficult time maintaining his very politically unpopular “defeat Germany first” strategy. Imagine a very different world in which Nazi Germany had had time to develop an atomic bomb, or the Soviets had had time to overrun all of western Europe. British Prime Minister Churchill’s statement regarding the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain, that “never had so much been owed by so many to so few” applied just as well to the few naval aviators who turned the tide at the Battle of Midway.

After the battle, the New York Times banner headline read “US Army Fliers Blast Two Jap Fleets at Midway.”

The headline in the Japan Times in Tokyo read “[Japanese] Navy Wins Epochal Victory.”

(Over the years I have read probably almost every book on Midway ever written, including the classics, Incredible Victory by Walter Lord, Miracle at Midway by Gordon Prange, and, of course, Samuel Eliot Morison’s coverage of the battle. However, declassification of most World War II intelligence records in the 1970s and newer access to Japanese sources have significantly changed many of the conclusions of those earlier works. A relatively recent work, Shattered Sword by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully, is an extraordinary piece of research, telling the battle mostly from the Japanese side using many Japanese sources, and is probably the most comprehensive and accurate book on Midway I have read. For this reason most of the numbers for casualties, etc., that I use are from this book, although other sources may vary.)

The Battle of Midway Written by US Navy Rear Admiral Samuel J. Cox

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