U.S. Navy Douglas SBD-3 “Dauntless” dive bombers from scouting squadron VS-8 from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) approaching the burning Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma to make the third set of attacks on her, during the Battle of Midway, 6 June 1942. Mikuma had been hit earlier by strikes from Hornet and USS Enterprise (CV-6), leaving her dead in the water and fatally damaged. Note bombs hung beneath the SBDs.
By Nolan Nelson
In late December 1941, Navy Secretary Frank Knox and FDR met and selected Chester Nimitz to command the Pacific Fleet, which at that time the public perceived as residing at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt said, “Tell Nimitz to get the hell out to Pearl and stay there until the war is won”. Knox informed Nimitz by saying, “You’re going to take command of the Pacific Fleet, and I think you will be gone a long time”.
On Christmas Day 1941 Admiral Chester Nimitz arrived by Catalina flying boat to take command. He did not bring any staff with him. When the door opened, he was assailed by a poisonous atmosphere from black oil, charred wood, burned paint, and rotting flesh. The boat ride to shore engulfed the party in the panorama of sunken hulls and floating wreckage, punctuated by the bodies of dead sailors still surfacing from the blasted ships.
He spent the first days learning everything he could about his new assignment and confirmed the public’s perception was wrong. The dry dock, repair shops, and tank farm were intact. The carriers, their escorts, and the submarines stood ready to take the offensive. He immediately sent submarines into Japanese waters, and conducted carrier operations disrupting Japanese Initiatives. Admiral Raymond Spruance said of Nimitz, “The one big thing about him was that he was always ready to fight….And he wanted officers who would push the fight to the Japanese”.
Nimitz decided some very good men had taken a terrible beating and were now suffering terrible reminders and apprehensions. When he officially took command December 31, he told the assembled staffs he had complete and unlimited confidence in every one of them. He related that as head of officer personnel in Washington, he knew they had been selected for their competence. But if any wanted to leave, he would individually discuss their futures and do all he could to get them the assignments they wanted.
However, there were a few key staff members he wanted to stay with him. They included Commander Joe Rochefort, Jr. and Lieutenant Commander Edwin T. Layton. These men had not unscrambled the new Japanese call signs or broken into the revised naval code to warn of the Pearl Harbor attack. However, they later provided the key intelligence convincing Nimitz to hazard all his carriers at Midway.
For the Japanese the battle for Midway was part of their strategy for establishing the next line of their Pacific Ocean defensive parameter. They intended to conquer Port Moresby in New Guinea, Samoa, Fiji, New Caledonia, and the Western Aleutians. Thereby, Australia would be severed as a base for an American counter-offensive and the northern flank of the Home Islands would be protected. Specifically, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto considered this initiative would provide the opportunity to draw out Nimitz for the decisive naval battle contemplated by American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan.
This sea fight began with Chester Nimitz determined to force the enemy into a major battle, but he faced long odds. Solid intelligence had discerned a complex plan disbursing Japanese forces, but Nimitz still had to consider the basic principle of U.S. intelligence that an enemy will act according to the best use of their capabilities. For Nimitz that meant giving to concentration as the best option.. He was also troubled by the uncertainty of enemy dispositions expected because of storms west and northwest of Midway. In fact weather was to play an important part in hiding Japanese carriers from detection.
His final instructions to admirals Raymond Spruance and Frank Fletcher were, “In carrying out the task assigned in Op Plan 29-42, you will be governed by the principle of calculated risk, which you will interpret to mean the avoidance of exposure of your force to attack by superior enemy forces without the prospect of inflicting, as a result of such exposure, greater damage to the enemy”. To understand Nimitz’s and the flyers tenuous position consider that gathering every available U.S. Navy ship achieved an order of battle for Midway, where they might be outnumbered more than three to one. Author Gordon W. Prange compiled it as follows:
Heavy aircraft carriers 4
Light aircraft carriers 2
Heavy cruisers 10
Light cruisers 6
Heavy Aircraft Carriers 3
Light Aircraft Carriers 0
Heavy Cruisers 6
Light Cruisers 1
This abbreviated narrative now excludes the contribution of thousands, whose combined efforts provided the vital margin needed for victory. Preparing Midway for invasion and assembling the carrier task forces at point “Luck” to attack the Japanese required prodigious achievements in logistics, ship repair, and inspired assessments of naval intelligence. This narrative also does not describe how paying the bitterer price for mistakes in strategic planning, tactical execution, and operational doctrines contributed heavily to the Japanese defeat. Instead the narrative relates the fearful sacrifice of a few brave men, who in close combat attacked the four heavy carriers of the First Carrier Striking Force on June 4, 1942.
The Japanese transport group was discovered on June 3, but the next morning the curtain rose for the carrier battle. At 5:30AM the PBY patrol by Lieutenant Howard Ady radioed discovery of the Japanese carriers. Fifteen minutes later the PBY patrol by Lieutenant William Chase radioed in the clear, “Many planes headed Midway. Bearing 320 degrees distance 150 miles. These warnings enabled the remaining 66 aircraft crammed onto Midway to get into the air. The updates provided by Ady enabled Admirals Raymond Spruance and Frank Fletcher to launch carrier attacks. All Midway aircraft made attacks against the Japanese carriers except for 21 Marine Brewster Buffalos and 7 Wildcat fighters dedicated to repelling the attackers.
In the ensuing Japanese attack on Midway beginning at 6:16AM, 14 of the 21 Brewster fighter pilots died prompting Captain Philip R. White to say, “It is my belief that any commander that orders pilots out for combat in F2A-3’s (Brewster Buffalo) should consider them lost before leaving the ground”. Captain Francis McCarthy, flying one of the Wildcats, was also killed after shooting down one of eight Zeros attacking him and wingman Lt. Roy Corry Jr. Overall only 10 fighters survived the fight and only two were in shape to fly again.
The attacks by land based planes on the Japanese carriers began at 7:48AM. First six TBF Avenger torpedo bombers lead by Navy Lieutenant Langdon K. Fieberling of Torpedo 8 made their attack. These were some of the new torpedo bombers that should have replaced the hopelessly outdated Devastators Lt. Cdr. John Waldron had onboard Hornet, but they were 24 hours late reaching Hawaii. The planes obtained no hits, but five of six aircraft were destroyed including Fieberling’s and only two of 18 men survived to return to Midway. Ens. Bert Earnest and Radioman Harry Ferrier thereby became with Ens. George Gay the other two “lone survivors” of Torpedo 8.
Next the Army Air Corps made its appearance. Captain James Collins lead four Army B-26 medium bombers rigged to carry torpedoes in the first ever attempt to attack enemy ships. They had to launch at less than 1,000 yards to hit 30 knot aircraft carriers with 33 knot torpedoes. Also most torpedoes failed when released at over 50 feet and at speeds exceeding 126 mph; a speed at which this aircraft often stalled and crashed when landing. Two of four planes with their 7 man crews perished, and no hits were obtained.
Marine dive bombers closely followed the B-26’s. At 7:55AM Major Lofton Henderson (for whom Henderson Field at Guadalcanal was named) attacked with 16 Dauntless dive bombers of which 8 were lost with their two man crews. Henderson’s crews were untrained in dive bombing tactics and again no hits were obtained.
Lieutenant Colonel Walter C. Sweeney at 8:39AM lead 13 long range Army B-17’s over Nagumo’s position in a level bombing attack from 20,000 feet and obtained no hits on the carriers or escorts. One aircraft was damaged by a Zero and one man was injured, but overall the Japanese were reluctant to attack the heavily armed bombers.
At 8:30AM Major Benjamin Norris led eleven Vindicator dive bombers to the Japanese fleet. The aircraft were considered so ancient pilots called them “wind indicators”. These planes displayed such fragility their fabric fuselage was reinforced with 4” hospital masking tape. They never reached the carriers and unsuccessfully attacked a battleship. Amazingly only two fell to enemy attacks, but two more were lost at sea with their two man crews because of low fuel.
Next into the battle from 9:18AM to10:15AM came Torpedo 3, Torpedo 6, and Torpedo 8 from the USS Yorktown, USS Enterprise, and USS Hornet respectively. In all Lt. Commander Lance E. Massey, Lt. Commander Gene Lindsey, and Lt. Commander John Waldron lead 42 Devastator torpedo bombers. The squadrons had become separated from their dive bombers and fighters that were intended to accompany them for coordinated attacks. Waldron left deliberately replying to Lt. Commander Stanhope C. Ring’s order to follow him, “I know where the damn Jap fleet is; the hell with you.” Now alone these 100 mph torpedo bombers had to evade 300 mph Zero fighters, and withstand concentrated task force anti-aircraft fire before launching at less than 1,000 yards.
In pressing home their attacks, 35 aircraft with their two man crews were lost. Ens. George H. Gay, Jr., who crashed in the midst of the Japanese carriers, was the lone survivor of this Torpedo 8 attack and was rescued by a PBY the next day. The only fighters about were six from Fighting 3 lead by Lt. Commander “Jimmy” Thach that tangled with a horde of Zero fighters and lost one aircraft. Those from Fighting 6 lead by Lieutenant Jim Gray lost track of their torpedo bombers and kept circling at 20,000 feet to protect the dive bombers they never found. Eventually these fighters returned to the Enterprise in total frustration.
The USS Hornet fighters and dive bombers spent a fruitless morning. Lt. Commander Ring led Bombing 8, Scouting 8, and Fighting 8 exactly as ordered by Captain Marc Mitscher and then searched to the south until fuel was critical and each squadron proceeded independently. Lt. Commander Robert R. Johnson leading Bombing 8 was unable to find the Hornet and landed on Midway, but 3 of the 14 aircraft had to ditch on the way for lack of fuel. Lieutenant Stan Ruehlow leading Fighting 8 remained determined to find the Hornet, but all ten aircraft had to ditch, and Ens. Mark Kelly and Ens. George R. Hill were never found. That morning there were 29 empty seats in the Hornet ready room. Fifteen seats belonged to Torpedo 8 pilots slaughtered that morning by the Japanese. The 11 were for Bombing 8 that refueled at Midway and later returned to the Hornet.
The Japanese carrier task force had withstood eight separate attacks over nearly three hours without a single hit. Not counting the B-17’s that stayed at 20,000 feet, Navy, Marine, and Army flyers pressed home attacks with 79 aircraft. Of those 58 were destroyed, 126 of 174 men perished, and no hits were obtained. While the Japanese found satisfaction in thwarting the attacks, they faced complete frustration in efforts to re-arm and spot aircraft from the hanger decks to strike the American carriers.
Now at 10:20AM Bombing 3, and Scouting 6 and Bombing 6 from the USS Yorktown and USS Enterprise respectively found the carriers. They arrived over the carriers while most Zero fighters were still at low altitude finishing off the last American torpedo bombers. The 18 planes of Commander Max Leslie’s Bombing 3 delivered three fatal hits to one carrier, probably the Soryu. For Bombing 6 and Scouting 6, Lieutenant Wade McClusky as group commander, and Lieutenants Earl Gallaher and Richard Best as section leaders attacked the Akagi and Kaga. Most of Best’s section incorrectly followed McClusky and Gallaher in attacks that inflicted five hits and five near misses on the Kaga. Best and his two wingmen attacked the Akagi. The two wingmen obtained near misses, but Best’s 1,000 lb bomb exploded amongst aircraft on the hanger deck to start an uncontrollable fire.
The Japanese task forces that had been impervious to harm from 7:48AM to 10:23AM saw three of their heavy carriers turned into burning wreckage in six minutes. However, a price had to be paid. Max Leslie’s planes returned safely, but Scouting 6 and Bombing6 lost 16 aircraft and 11 of 38 two man crews.
The Japanese turn came at 11:52AM when Yorktown radar plot reported, “Bogeys 32 miles and closing”. In spite of fearful losses, the Japanese scored hits with three bombs at noon and at 2:42PM their torpedo plane attacks scored two hits and forced the Yorktown to abandon ship. The defending Combat Air Patrol lost one Wildcat compared to 22 of 30 Japanese aircraft lost to fighters and anti-aircraft fire.
There was still one heavy carrier unaccounted for, and at 2:45PM Lieutenant Sam Adams of Scouting 6 radioed Admiral Spruance its location. The Admiral had no fighters or torpedo bombers, but ordered Lieutenant William E. Gallaher aloft at 3:30PM to lead 24 planes from three dive bombers squadrons. A half hour later the Hornet launched 16 dive bombers lead by reserve Lieutenant Edgar Stebbins. These 40 aircraft encountered anti-aircraft fire, lighting attacks from Zeros, and superb evasive ship handling. However, there were just too many planes and bombs. At least four hits and many near misses transformed the Hiryu into the fourth blazing funeral pyre of the day. All three dive bombing squadrons got hits and three aircraft with crews were lost.
There were attacks before and after June 4 during the Battle of Midway costing the Japanese Combined Fleet other ships. However, the loss of these four heavy carriers and the many superbly trained aircrews and technicians achieved by the fortitude, and valor of these few men proved fatal to Japanese plans.
This splendid victory by Navy, Marine and Army Air Corps flyers over the First Carrier Striking Force permanently seized the initiative from the Japanese. One could easily paraphrase Winston Churchill to say never have so many who fought in the Pacific owed so much to so few. Not counting the B-17’s that stayed aloft, about 550 flyers closely engaged the Japanese and suffered nearly 300 deaths. Walter Lord and Gordon W. Prange considered this accomplishment incredible and miraculous. For Mitsuo Fuchida and Masatake Okumiya, it was the battle that doomed Japan.
Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan by Mitsuo Fuchida and Masatake Okumiya
Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions by Samuel Eliot Morison
Miracle at Midway by Gordon W. Prange
Incredible Victory by Walter Lord
Shattered Sword by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully
Nimitz by E.B. Potter
A Dawn Like Thunder by Robert J. Mrazek
The Last Flight of Ensign C. Markland Kelly, Junior USNR by Bowen P. Weisheit
The Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy by Paul S. Dull
USNI Blog: http://blog.usni.org/?s=Midway
Action Report: USS Hornet (CV-8) Midway
Battle of Midway, Commanding Officer, USS Yorktown, report of 18 June 1942
Battle of Midway: 4-7 June 1942, Online Action Reports: Commanding Officer, USS Enterprise, Serial 0133 of 8 June 1942
MK XIII Aerial Torpedo
Martin B-26 Marauder
Vindicator SB2U Dive Bomber
Douglas TBD Devastator
I find no evidence the planes flew with bombardiers on June 4 or had Norden bombsights.
Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress
B-17 Crew Requirements and Standard Operating Procedures
Midway Film by John ford
Valor: Marauders at Midway
The Nimitz Graybook
Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryū
Japanese aircraft carrier Kaga
Japanese aircraft carrier Sōryū
Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi
(Therefore average top speed 30.6 knots)