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Midway


Aerial photograph of Midway

National Archives #80-G-451086

Midway Island (177.360W 28.21N) is an atoll in the western reaches of the Hawaiian Island chain, some 2200 miles (3500 km) east of Tokyo and 1225 miles (1970 km) northwest of Pearl Harbor. It consists of two small islands, Sand Island and Eastern Island, which were just large enough for airfields. Sand Island is 3800 yards (3500 meters) long and 2000 yards (1800 meters) wide while Eastern Island is 2200 yards (2000 meters) long and 1300 yards (1200 meters) wide. Both islands were on the south edge of a coral reef 6 miles (10 km) across surrounding a mostly shallow, foul lagoon. However, there was a natural anchorage, Wells Harbor, located just northwest of Sand Island and accessible through Seward Roads to the west. Welles Harbor had room for perhaps two or three merchant ships.  The main lagoon could be reached through a dredged channel, Brooks Channel, between Eastern and Sand Island, and its central portion was deep enough for seaplanes. The islands are mostly coral sand covered with scrub and are nowhere higher than 13 feet (4 meters) above high water. There was originally a 42 foot (13 meter) hill on Sand Island, but this was bulldozed down to provide material for a breakwater on the east corner of the island.

The climate is dominated by easterly trade winds and the average rainfall is 42 inches a year, mostly during the winter months. Temperatures remain between about 70F and 80F (20C and 30C) year round.

Midway was ideally located for patrol aircraft and light naval forces, and was an important submarine base later in the war. It already had three runways when war broke out, which were 3250, 4500, and 5300 feet (990, 1370, and 1600 meters) long. A low timber seawall had been built along almost the entire coastline of both islands and there was a lighthouse on Sand Island. The islands were garrisoned by 6 Marine Defense Battalion.

The island was bombarded by a small Japanese destroyer force the night after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese operational plan for the Pearl Harbor attack called for the seaplane base at Midway to be neutralized to cover the withdrawal of the Japanese carrier force. Destroyers Sazaname and Ushio fired a few shells that did light damage but failed to put the seaplane base out of commission. It didn't matter; the Americans had no forces in the area that could have seriously challenged Nagumo's carrier force.

Midway received further reinforcements on 25 December 1941, when VMF-221, originally intended for Wake, was flown off to Midway.  The next day Tangier arrived with men and equipment also originally intended for Wake.

Battle of Midway

One of the most decisive naval battles in history was fought off Midway in June 1942. Yamamoto personally led most of Combined Fleet to invade the island, hoping to draw out and destroy the American carrier forces based in Hawaii, reasoning that Nimitz could not ignore an attack on this important outpost. The operation was spearheaded by Nagumo's carrier force, with Yamamoto and the Japanese battleship force well to the rear.

Yamamoto's choice to fight the battle was criticized at the time and has been ever since. A more logical strategy might have been to attack the lines of communication from the U.S. West Coast to Australia, which were vital to the American war strategy but were much further from the base at Hawaii. Historian Hugh Bicheno speculates that Yamamoto might have been seeking a victory so spectacular that his prestige would allow him to overthrow the Army-controlled Japanese government and open negotiations with the Americans while Japan was still in a position of strength.

Preliminaries. Yamamoto's plan had not met with universal approval among the leaders of the Japanese Navy. The Navy General Staff, led by Nagano, were skeptical that the atoll was worth the effort: It was too tiny to serve as an effective assembly point for any invasion of Hawaii, it would be subject to constant air bombardment by the Americans, and it was so far from Japan that its logistics would be badly strained. The Navy General Staff were also concerned that the operation would take place out of range of any Japanese land-based aircraft, but well within range of American land-based aircraft from Hawaii. Finally, the Americans might choose not to defend the atoll. Yamamoto may have deliberately divided his force in order to avoid spooking the Americans, and Parshall and Tully (2006) have made the blunt assessment that "Kondo [commanding the invasion force] was the bait." However, following the Doolittle raid in April 1942, opposition to Yamamoto's plan evaporated, since Midway could serve as a base for patrols to warn against any future incursion by American carriers into Japanese home waters.

The American code breakers were reading much of the Japanese naval traffic and correctly deduced Yamamoto’s objective. In fact, Nimitz had the necessary intelligence to order a state of "Fleet Opposed Invasion" as early as 14 May 1942. He ordered Yorktown, which had been damaged at Coral Sea and which had returned to Pearl Harbor on 27 May 1942, to expedite repairs. Carriers Enterprise and Hornet had been on their way to the Southwest Pacific following the Doolittle raid, but could not arrive in time to participate in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Nimitz had Halsey deliberately expose his force off Nauru and Ocean Island to force the Japanese to call of a planned invasion of these islands (Operation RY) and to give them the impression the Americans were deploying their carriers in the southwest Pacific. Halsey then returned to Hawaii to replenish before departing for Midway on 28 May. Raymond Spruance commanded the Enterprise force but would come under command of Jack Fletcher in Yorktown once she reached the area. The carrier force would be supported by aircraft from Midway itself, including long-range Catalina patrol aircraft. On 1 June Saratoga, which had been training new air crew following repairs from torpedo damage, completed preparations to get under way from the West Coast and began racing to Midway, but she would not reach the area in time to influence the outcome of the battle.

Yorktown was badly enough damaged that full repairs were estimated to require ninety days. This was probably pessimistic, but the ship had extensive splinter damage, two ruptured port fuel tanks, and three inoperable boilers. In the three days that were available for repair, the fuel tanks were welded closed, damaged equipment was replaced, and watertight integrity was restored as much as possible, but there was not time for the three inoperable boilers to be repaired and Yorktown went into battle with her maximum speed reduced to 27 knots.

Spruance had relieved Halsey as commander of the Enterprise task force after Halsey came down with a disabling skin disorder. Nimitz had asked Halsey to recommend his own replacement, and Halsey had made the surprising recommendation of his task force's cruiser commander, who had no aviation experience. However, Spruance had a reputation as as a cool, adaptable, intellectual officer, and he was slated to become Nimitz' chief of staff following the battle. Spruance would be assisted by the brilliant but erratic Captain Miles Browning, Halsey's chief of staff. This did not work out well. "Halsey had the facility of taking the best advice of Browning and overruling him when his own judgement cam into conflict", and he was sorely missed at the battle. Spruance's inexperience left him little choice but to let Browning run the air show, and Browning "did a terrible job" (Lundstrom 2006).

Nimitz chose not to commit the battleships of the Pacific Fleet to the Midway battle, a highly unconventional strategy at the time. The battleships were too slow to keep up with the carriers, and Nimitz had no air cover to spare for them. He also lacked sufficient destroyers to simultaneously screen the battleships and continue running convoys between the West Coast and Australia. Nimitz' decision to leave the battle line at San Francisco was a gutsy move given that the Japanese had committed their own battleships to the operation.

Nimitz decided to fight at Midway because he believed his intelligence on Japanese plans gave him an excellent opportunity to ambush the Japanese. He did not share Yamamoto'a assessment that the Americans must defend the atoll. Spruance's flag secretary later recalled that Nimitz instructed Spruance to withdraw and let Midway fall rather than lose his carriers. Nimitz believed that Midway was far enough east that it could easily be recaptured later if necessary. Nimitz chose to fight at Midway, not because the situation was desperate, but because he calculated that the potential fruits of victory were worth the odds.

One reason for Nimitz' confidence was faulty intelligence suggesting that Nagumo would split his carrier armada into two task forces of two carriers each. Nimitz expected one Japanese task force to attack Midway while the second stood further off to provide cover. These dispositions would leave the Japanese vulnerable to defeat in detail. Nimitz instructed Fletcher that Spruance was to take position where he would use the full striking power of his two carriers to knock out the two carriers raiding Midway as soon as they were located. Fletcher was to cover Spruance from further out and use his own striking power against the second pair of carriers when they turned up, or, if they remained unlocated or the situation otherwise warranted, add his strike to Spruance's.

In fact, Nagumo planned to mass all four carriers into a single task force, as he had done during most of his operations from the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was originally scheduled to launch his first raid against the atoll on 3 June, the same day Kakuta's carriers were scheduled to strike Dutch Harbor. Though characterized by a number of American historians as a diversionary operation in support of the Midway campaign, the Aleutians strike was viewed by the Japanese as an independent campaign. However, once the Americans reacted to the attack on Midway, Kakuta's carriers were to come south and help trap the Pacific Fleet while Yamamoto brought forward the Japanese battle line to finish the Americans. Midway was to be captured by then and its airfield used to support the Japanese naval forces.

Midway itself was defended by 6 Marine Defense Battalion, which had been reinforced by elements of 2 Marine Raider Battalion and a detachment of five light tanks and was well dug in. Coastal defenses included guns of up to 7" caliber. Morison notes that the Marine organization closely resembled that of the Japanese at Tarawa later in the war, and suggests that the Japanese would have had a very tough time taking the atoll with the forces they had allocated. Since the Japanese counted on taking Midway before the American fleet arrived, which they estimated would take place on 7 or 8 June, it seems clear the Japanese greatly underestimated the difficulty of their objective. Since the American carriers were already off Midway on 4 June and would decisively defeat the Japanese at sea, the amphibious invasion was never attempted.

Both sides deployed submarines in the area. Most of the American submarines were clustered around Midway itself, with the remainder held back as pickets around Oahu in case the Japanese tried to slip around to attack Pearl Harbor. The Japanese submarines were primarily deployed around Oahu on the assumption that the Americans would not sortie from Pearl  Harbor until word came of the attack on Dutch Harbor. In fact, the Japanese submarines were late arriving on station, and the Americans had already sortied before these submarines could get into position.

The Americans planned to scout the approaching Japanese using the long-range Catalinas from Midway. The Japanese in turn scouted the area southwest of Midway with Mavis flying boats from Kwajalein, but the American carriers were careful to stay out of range of Japanese land bases and these searches accomplished nothing. Another important part of the Japanese search plan was Operation "K", which was to be a reconnaissance of Pearl Harbor conducted by flying boats refueled by tanker submarine at French Frigate Shoals. Had this operation been successfully carried out and the Japanese discovered that the American carriers were not at Pearl Harbor, the battle might have turned out very differently; but the American code breakers had discovered this part of the Japanese plan, and several American ships were stationed at French Frigate Shoals. The Japanese were forced to cancel Operation "K", but failed to get the word to Nagumo, who assumed that the American carriers were still at Pearl Harbor. Nor did the radio team on Yamamoto's flagship, Yamato, pass along to Nagumo their conclusion from traffic analysis that the Americans had just put a carrier force to sea.

Crew of PBY who
        torpedoed a tanker on 3 June 1942
National Archives #80-G-64819

Contact. On 3 June 1942 Kakuta's carriers attacked Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians. The Americans were expecting a raid on Midway the same day, which would have taken place had not Nagumo requested an extra day to finish preparations before sailing. However, the search planes from Midway and from Fletcher's task force failed to detect any Japanese force in the murky weather northwest of Midway. At this point Nagumo was still far out of search range.

However, the Midway Invasion Group (Kondo) was spotted that day by Catalinas at a distance of 700 miles (1130 km) and a bearing of 261 degrees from Midway. The initial flash message, "Main Body", caused some brief concern that this was one of Nagumo's carrier forces, but Nimitz concluded that this was Midway Occupation Force and instructed Fletcher that Nagumo was still expected to approach Midway from the northwest. Ugaki, Yamamoto's chief of staff, was upset that the Midway Occupation Force had been detected so early, but there seems to have been no thought that this might require changing the operational plan.

Kondo's force was unsuccessfully attacked later in the afternoon by B-17s from Midway, which would chalk up zero successes in high-altitude bombing in this campaign. Enterprising ground crews improvised torpedo racks for the Catalinas, which which actually succeeded in putting a torpedo into tanker Akebono Maru in a night attack at 0230 the next morning. However, the tanker was only lightly damaged.

Burning facilities on Midway following Japanese air strike
National Archives #80-G-17056

The Battle Opens. Catalinas were launched from Midway at 0415 on 4 June 1942 with orders to search to 700 miles (1130 km) or until all four Japanese carriers were located. They were then to take refuge at Laysan Atoll southeast of Midway. At the same time, Midway's B-17s were launched with orders to strike Midway Occupation Force unless diverted against the Japanese carriers. The remainder of Midway's striking power (6 TBF Avenger torpedo bombers, four B-26 Marauders fitted with torpedoes, and 27 Marine SBD Dauntless and SB2U Vindicator dive bombers) stood ready to launch at short notice, as did its fighter force of 28 F2A Buffalo and F4F Wildcat fighters. Midway's strike would have to go in unescorted: All the fighters were needed to defend the atoll. Furthermore, because of the differences in cruise speeds of the various types of strike aircraft, coordinating Midway's strike would be next to impossible.

Meanwhile Fletcher had maneuvered to be two hundred miles north of Midway at dawn. He was counting on Midway's Catalinas to locate the Japanese carriers, but he also launched a "security" patrol of ten SBDs from Yorktown to search one hundred miles to his north. After launching the search planes and a combat air patrol of six fighters, he spotted a strike of 8 fighters, 17 dive bombers, and 12 torpedo bombers. This constituted only a part of Yorktown's air group, since Fletcher needed to be able to quickly respot the deck when his search aircraft returned or if additional fighters were needed for the combat air patrol. Spruance, meanwhile, had the full striking power of Enterprise and Hornet (120 aircraft) spotted and ready to deliver a crushing blow to the first Japanese carrier group sighted. A total of 51 fighters were allocated to combat air patrol from the three carriers.

Nagumo launched his first strike against Midway by 0445. This consisted of 108 aircraft (36 D3A "Val" dive bombers, 36 B5N "Kate" torpedo bombers armed with bombs, and 36 A6M "Zero" fighters) representing about half of his striking power. The remaining aircraft (not including 21 Zeros being ferried to Midway) were either assigned to the combat air patrol (12 Zeros) or were standing by in the hangars of Nagumo's carriers (34 Vals, 43 Kates, and 24 Zeros), armed with torpedoes or ready to be armed with armor-piercing bombs, in case an anti-shipping strike was required. If an emergency arose, the 21 Zeros being ferried could be added to the combat air patrol, and the escort Zeros from the Midway strike could augment the task force defense once the strike returned. Rather than launch the full complement of two of his carriers, Nagumo launched half the complement of all four. This was standard Japanese doctrine and allowed a rapid launch and expert coordination of the strike, but it also meant all four carriers would be occupied landing the strike when it returned. This would prove crucial later in the battle.

At the same time, Nagumo launched a search by two Kates, four E13A "Jake" seaplanes from cruisers Chikuma and Tone, and a single obsolescent E8N "Dave" from battleship Haruna to search the semicircle to the east out to 300 miles. The number of search aircraft assigned was so small that the coverage on the outward legs would overlap only out to 150 miles, even in good visibility, and so the search would not be complete until the aircraft had made their doglegs and were halfway home. In addition, one of Tone's search planes was launched late, which threw off the search pattern. One gets the impression that the search was carried out perfunctorily, reflecting the Japanese expectation that no American ships would yet be in the area. In fact, one of the Jakes from Chikuma flew almost directly over the Americans at 0630 but somehow failed to detect the American force.

One of Nagumo's search planes was sighted by a Catalina piloted by LTG Howard G. Ady at 0523, and Ady sighted Nagumo's carriers seven minutes later at a distance of 180 miles (290 km) and a bearing of 320 degrees from Midway. Midway immediately launched every aircraft that could get into the air and redirected the B-17 strike against the Japanese carriers. Fletcher failed to pick up the distance and bearing, and Ady, having spotted just two of Nagumo's carriers, continued his search for the task force containing the other two carriers, as instructed. At 0552 Fletcher picked up a contact report on Nagumo's air strike from another Catalina, which spotted the swarm of Japanese aircraft 150 miles (240 km) from Midway at a bearing of 310 degrees. Fletcher also copied the message to the B-17 force redirecting it against Nagumo's carrier force. Ady's sighting was slightly off: Fletcher was about 220 miles from the Japanese rather than the 200 reported by the Catalinas. At this point Fletcher and Spruance were still working under the assumption that Nagumo had split his force and that a second undiscovered force of two carriers was further out from Midway.

Fletcher continued recovering his search while Spruance sprinted southwest to close to within 175 miles (280 km) of the Japanese carriers, which was the maximum practical range of his torpedo bombers and fighters. According to plan, Spruance would ambush the two carriers attacking Midway while Fletcher awaited the discovery of the second pair of carriers by the Catalinas. Fletcher would then disable one of the second pair of carriers with his strike while Spruance recovered and rearmed his aircraft for the final blow. Should the second pair of carriers not turn up, Fletcher had the option of adding his strike to Spruance's.

At 0620, the Zeros escorting Nagumo's strike annihilated Midway's Marine fighter squadron, shooting down 16 Buffalos and Wildcats with little loss. Although postwar reports are in serious disagreement, at least seven Japanese aircraft were shot down (mostly by heavy antiaircraft fire) and many others damaged; Willmott (1983) concludes that losses over Midway must have been heavier than the Japanese were ever willing to admit, and as many as two-thirds of the strike aircraft may have been damaged or destroyed. The strike aircraft inflicted heavy damage on the facilities, but failed to put the airfield out of action. Nagumo had known since 0542 that he had been spotted, and he braced for the inevitable counterattack from Midway, launching some of the fighters that had been standing by to escort any antishipping strike.

At 0700 Nagumo's strike leader, LT Tomonaga Joichi, sent a message indicating that a second strike was required. Five minutes later, the first Avengers and Marauders reached Nagumo's force. Five Avengers and two Marauders were shot down without scoring any hits, but their attack helped convinced Nagumo, who still did not suspect that American ships were nearby, to begin rearming the torpedo bombers in his reserve strike with high explosive bombs. This violated Yamamoto's orders, and the rearming of so many aircraft waiting in the hangars had only been tested once before, on Hiryu. The process would take two hours, giving Nagumo barely enough time to launch the second strike before his first strike, returning from Midway, needed to begin landing.

Spruance commenced launching his strike at 0700. The original plan called for the aircraft to form up after launch to ensure a coordinated attack. However, the mechanical failure of four dive bombers delayed the launch, and a new sense of urgency was felt at 0740, when Spruance's force was sighted by a Japanese search plane. Spruance abandoned the coordinated strike and the squadrons were ordered to depart separately as soon as they were airborne. The strike was further fragmented by the decision of the squadron leaders to head in different directions. The Enterprise torpedo bombers, which were very late getting into the air, headed well north of the rest of the Enterprise strike group, while the Hornet group headed even further to the north. Lundstrom (2006) speculates that Mitscher ordered his air group to head for the hypothetical location of the undiscovered second Japanese carrier group he believed to be trailing behind the two carriers already sighted.

The search plane responsible for spotting the Americans was the one whose departure from Tone had been delayed, and, ironically, it would likely have neatly circled the Americans without spotting them if it had departed on schedule. It stumbled across Spruance just after beginning its return leg. The pilot, Amari Yoji, reported a force of ten surface ships 200 miles from Nagumo at a bearing of 52 degrees, heading southeast at 20 knots. Amari did a poor job of scouting throughout the battle, failing to identify the presence of a carrier for almost an hour, though the course and speed of the American ships should have been a dead giveaway. The sighting of Spruance' force came as a serious jolt to Nagumo. FIve minutes later Nagumo ordered those torpedo bombers that had not been rearmed to retain their torpedoes and prepare to attack the American ships. A few minutes later the Midway B-17s attacked Nagumo's carriers, suffering no losses but scoring no hits, and they were followed by the Marine dive bombers, which attacked Hiryu and Haruna, scoring no hits and losing almost half their numbers. At 0758 Amari reported that the American force consisted of five destroyers and five cruisers. Nagumo, unimpressed with the effectiveness of the American strikes so far, decided to go ahead with the second Midway strike. Yamaguchi, commanding Hiryu and Soryu, strongly objected to this decision, going so far as to spot his aircraft on deck for an antishipping strike at 0820.

Meanwhile Fletcher, having recovered his search aircraft, was racing southwest after Spruance in case his strike was needed. By 0825 Fletcher was coming within attack range of Nagumo, but, still under the impression that a second force of two carriers was lurking undiscovered to the northwest, he decided to hold back a reserve of 17 dive bombers and six fighters. This left 17 dive bombers, 12 torpedo bombers, and six fighters for his strike. Fletcher trusted his radar to give warning of any Japanese attack in time to avoid being caught with the reserve aircraft fueled and armed on deck. Yorktown's strike commenced launching at 0838 and was instructed to make a running rendezvous on the way to its target for a coordinated attack.

At 0830 Amari finally reported the presence of a carrier in the American force. By now the aircraft returning from the Midway strike were circling the Japanese, many shot up or low on fuel. Nagumo's options were very constrained at this point. He could launch Yamaguchi's strike, but there were few fighters available for escort and it would take half an hour to finish arming and warming up the aircraft on Hiryu's flight deck. By that time aircraft from the first strike would be ditching for lack of fuel. However, the first American air attacks had been so ineffective that Kusaka and Genda Minoru, Nagumo's chief of staff and air operations officer, urged him to land the Midway strike at once, recycle the combat air patrol, finish rearming, and launch a "grand scale air attack" (quoted by Lundstrom 2006.)  But this took a great deal of time, and a recent examination of Japanese records (Parshall and Tully 2006) shows that Nagumo still had at least an hour to go before he would be ready to launch his strike when the American carrier dive bombers arrived overhead.

It was at this point that Nagumo committed what Willmott (1983) identified as his worst mistake of the battle: Rather than open the range to the Americans while rearming his aircraft, he ordered his force to close with the Americans. This played into the hands of the Americans, whose aircraft were significantly shorter-ranged than the Japanese aircraft.

Meanwhile, the strikes from Midway were followed by the first Devastator strikes from the American carriers. LCDR John Waldron, leading the Hornet's torpedo squadron, became frustrated with the air group commander for heading north of where the Japanese ought to be. He turned south, followed by Hornet's fighter squadron. The fighters ran low on fuel and turned back, all ten eventually ditching when they ran out of fuel. The dive bombers split up, one squadron turning southeast and the other continuing west with the air group commander, CDR Stanhope Ring. None of the dive bombers found a target, and fourteen ended up at Midway while the rest returned to Hornet. Waldron headed straight for Nagumo's force, beginning his attack at 0918. His squadron was massacred by the Japanese combat air patrol. By 0936 every plane in the squadron had been shot down. Only a single survivor remained to be rescued after the battle. Two minutes later the Enterprise torpedo squadron attacked and suffered a similar fate, losing all but four of their number and scoring no hits. At 1003 it was the turn of the Yorktown torpedo pilots. Unlike the other strikes, the Yorktown strike was well coordinated and its fighter squadron was positioned above the strike aircraft. But the swarms of Zeros soon had the Yorktown fighters fighting for survival while other Zeros shot down all but two of the torpedo bombers.

Photograph of B-17 attack on Japanese carriers at Midway
U.S. Air Force #USAF-75712-AC

Seven Deadly Minutes. Up to this point, the Japanese fighter cover had massacred every strike thrown against Nagumo's force with small loss to themselves. However, the Japanese fortunes were about to change. Japanese fighter direction was primitive at this point in the war, in part because the Japanese lacked radar and few of the Zeros carried radio sets. The fighter umbrella became scattered and disorganized repelling so many attacks arrived from widely separated threat axes.

It was at this point (at about 1022) that the Yorktown and Enterprise dive bombers arrived, within moments of each other and just as the surviving Yorktown's torpedo bombers were were attempting to clear the area. The Enterprise group, originally directed too far south and running low on fuel, had spotted Japanese destroyer Arashi steaming at high spead to the northeast. The Enterprise air group commander, Wade McClusky, decided to follow. Her course led straight to Nagumo, and the Enterprise dive bombers approached the Japanese carriers at almost the same moment as the Yorktown dive bombers. Virtually the entire Japanese combat air patrol was still at low altitude, and the scattered cloud cover hid the approach of the American dive bombers until the last moment. There was almost no defensive fire from the surprised Japanese antiaircraft gunners as the Dauntlesses pushed over into their dives. Within a period of just seven minutes Nagumo lost three of his four carriers, and the Midway battle.

Most of the Enterprise dive bombers, 28 in all, went after the first carrier they encountered, Kaga, which was hit by perhaps ten bombs. These penetrated the flight deck and set off gasoline and munitions in the strike aircraft being readied in the hangars below. The explosions destroyed water mains and fire curtains and ensured that the fires could not be brought under control. Although the lower hull remained intact and buoyant, the upper decks were reduced to scrap and the ship was beyond repair even if she could have been towed back to Japan.

The commander of the Enterprise scouting squadron, LT Richad Best, realized that Kaga was hors de combat and that the neighboring carrier, Akagi, was not being attacked. He and his two wingmen diverted to Akagi and made a textbook attack. According Parshall and Tully's recent analysis, Akagi succumbed to a single bomb that penetrated the center of her flight deck and exploded among torpedo bombers being refueled and rearmed on her hangar deck. A second hit mentioned in older histories was in fact a very near miss astern. Like Kaga, Akagi was soon hopelessly ablaze.

Meanwhile Max Leslie led the Yorktown dive bombers against Soryu to the north. Nine of the Dauntlesses scored three hits and doomed the carrier. The other four dive bombers diverted against screening ships but scored nothing more than some very near misses.

Within twenty minutes Nagumo was forced to evacuate Akagi and move his flag to light cruiser Nagara. Only Hiryu was still operational, and Yamaguchi effectively took over the battle. He gathered up his screen and began steaming at high speed to the northeast, towards Fletcher, while preparing to launch his strike. Meanwhile Yamamoto tried to salvage the battle by ordering Ryujo and Junyo from the Aleutians operation to race south and reinforce Nagumo, but they were at least three days away, and neither was a first-line carrier.

Yorktown smoking from bomb hits at Midway
National Archives #80-G-312018

Counterblows. Fletcher still did not have a clear picture of Nagumo's dispositions or the results of the American strikes when he learned at 1120 that his force had been sighted. By this time his returning strike was drawing near and would soon need to land. He had 17 SBDs in reserve and still thought that two of Nagumo's carriers were lurking undiscovered to the northwest. Fletcher launched ten of the SBDs to search northwest and north and the six reserve fighters to join the combat air patrol while he struck the others below and landed his returning aircraft. In the rush of flight operations, no one had the opportunity to report to Fletcher that the Japanese force that had been attacked had included all four carriers and that three had been knocked out.

With the American strikes expended and the American carriers recovering their aircraft, it was the turn of the Japanese. Willmott (1983) has criticized Yamaguchi's decision to attack rather than withdraw and attempt to regroup with Yamato and the Aleutians carrier group, but Yamaguchi was temperamentally almost incapable of such prudence. At 1050 Hiryu launched a strike of 18 Val escorted by six Zeros. A second scout plane, an experimental D4Y "Judy", had been shadowing Fletcher since 1045, and Yamaguchi had an excellent picture of the American dispositions. At this point Yamaguchi and Fletcher were just 95 miles (150 km) apart. The escorting Zeros let themselves be distracted by some stray Enterprise Dauntlesses and the Vals were left unescorted. They suffered terrible losses from the Wildcats and antiaircraft, but seven broke through and managed to put three bombs into Yorktown.  One blew a hole in the flight deck and exploded in the hanger, setting fire to three SBDs, while the second exploded in the stack uptakes on the second deck, extinguishing all but one of the boilers. The third bomb penetrated the forward elevator and exploded on the third deck, starting a small fire. With most of her boilers out, the carrier was briefly out of action, and Fletcher transferred his flag to Astoria. However, by 1355 all but two of the boilers were relit, the fires had been extinguished, and the flight deck was being patched. By 1420 the ship could make fifteen knots. This was still not enough for safe flight operations, and the ten search aircraft were directed to land at Midway.

Yamaguchi was not finished. At 1331 he launched a second strike of ten Kates escorted by six Zeros. By the time this strike spotted Yorktown, at 1430, she was steaming at twenty knots and the strike leader, the same LT Tomonaga who had led the Midway strike, believed she must be a different carrier from the one attacked earlier by the Vals. Yorktown was caught at a vulnerable moment, with just six fighters available for local defense. Only two were able to intercept, and both were shot down by the escorting Zeros after destroying a single Kate. Yorktown scrambled eight more fighters, but they barely had time to intercept before the Kates executed an anvil attack. With a speed of just twenty knots, Yorktown could not evade all the torpedoes, and two struck the port side. Yorktown rapidly developed a list of 25 degrees and was obviously in a bad way. Fifteen minutes later her captain, Eliot Buckmaster, fearing she was on the verge of capsizing, ordered her abandoned. By 1646 some 2280 men had been rescued from the stricken ship, crowding the decks of the screening ships.

Spruance was shocked by the attack on Yorktown. Exaggerated pilot claims had left him believing all four Japanese carriers had been put out of action. His air groups had been savaged and his staff had botched the rendezvous with the returning aircraft (Point Option). Although he signaled Fletcher at 1145 that he was preparing to strike again, the strike had still not been launched by 1445, when one of Fletcher's search planes located Hiryu. However, by 1542 Enterprise had 25 Dauntlesses in the air, while Hornet began launching its force of 16 Dauntlesses at 1613. By 1700 they had found Hiryu, just as Yamaguchi was spotting six Vals and nine Zeros for yet another strike. Four bomb hits blew the forward elevator against the bridge and set the Japanese carrier blazing from bow to stern.

Burned out hull of carrier Hiryu
Naval History and Heritage Command #NH 73065

Aftermath. Shortly after 1900 both Soryu and Kaga sank. Akagi lasted until 0520 the next morning, while Hiryu did not sink until 0912.

Yamamoto tried to salvage something from the disaster by ordering his heavy surface units to race east to seek a night engagement. He planned a rendezvous 175 miles (280 km) northwest of Midway and just 100 miles (160 km) west of Yorktown. Here he would mass a force of two battleships, four heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and seven destroyers with air cover from light carrier Zuiho. This was more than enough to overwhelm the Americans in a night surface battle. However, Spruance, to whom Fletcher had given tactical command at 1811, had wisely retired to the east, knowing that he had already won a great victory and there was little more he could accomplish that was worth risking his remaining carriers. He planned to turn back west in time to give Midway air cover at dawn if necessary. By 0255 on 5 June, Yamamoto realized that he would not get his night battle, and he ordered a general retirement rather than risk exposure to a dawn air attack.

Spruance planned to be 175 miles (280 km) northeast of Midway at first light on 5 June, where he could either attack any surviving Japanese carriers, protect Midway from an invasion, or pursue the fleeing enemy, as the situation required. His carriers had 65 Dauntlesses, 54 Wildcats, and three Devastators still operational, a force much reduced from the previous day but still formidable. However, at 0300 word came that Midway had been shelled by a submarine (I-168) and at 0217 submarine Tambor reported a number of surface ships 90 miles (145 km) west of Midway. Spruance was warned that Midway was about to be invaded, and he raced southwest to disrupt the landings. Midway prepared to launch 10 Catalinas and eight B-17s at first light to find and attack the force to the west, and English ordered his submarines to close on Midway and attack the invasion force.

In fact, Midway Invasion Group had already turned back. It was the heavy cruisers of Kurita's Cruiser Division 7 that had closed to within a hundred miles of Midway. At 0342, after the Japanese cruisers received Yamamoto's recall order and turned away to retire, Tambor was sighted by lookouts. Kurita ordered an emergency turn, but Mogami was slow to get the order and rammed Mikuma, distorting her bow all the way to the first turret and reducing her speed to 14 knots. Kurita ordered the slightly damaged Mikuma to escort Mogami out of the area, but they were discovered at 0630 by the Catalinas. A force of six Vindicators and six Dauntlesses flown by Marine pilots was launched from Midway at 0700 and followed Mikuma's oil slick to the target. None scored a hit, and one of the squadron leaders, Richard Fleming, was shot down and crashed into the ocean (not one of Mikuma's turrets, an enduring myth of the battle.) Minutes later 8 B-17s dropped 39 500-pound (800-kg) bombs but missed with every one.

Spruance spent most of 5 June chasing shadows to the northwest of Midway. At 0700 a Catalina reported two cruisers 174 miles (280 km) at 286 degrees from Midway; this was Kurita's undamaged cruisers. At 0900 a Catalina reported a burning carrier, two battleships, and three or four cruisers 240 miles (390 km) at 324 degrees from Midway; the carrier was in the right position to be Hiryu, which had not yet sunk, but the description of the other ships matched Nagumo's screen, which had cleared the area by then. The carrier sighting was confirmed at 0853, but Spruance did not launch his strike of 65 Dauntlesses until 1513. The late launch was a consequence of the long distance to the target, the unfavorable light southeasterly wind, and a bizarre incident in which Spruance's borrowed chief of staff, CPT Miles Browning, wanted the strike armed with 1000 pound (454 kg) bombs that would leave them insufficient range to return. The aviators complained loudly to Spruance, who overruled the chief of staff, and Browning disappeared to sulk in his quarters. The aircraft found no target larger than destroyer Tanikaze, which neatly dodged the rain of bombs from the American aircraft.

Combat photograph of Dauntlesses over damaged Japanese
        cruiser

National Archives #80-G-17054

After recovering his strike, Spruance reduced speed to conserve fuel, and by dawn on 6 June he was 340 northwest of Midway. A dawn search by 18 Dauntlesses was launched to search the western semicircle to 200 miles (320 km) while a strike was spotted on deck. At 0645 one of the search planes reported a carrier and five destroyers 128 miles (206 km) southwest and Spruance charged off to the attack. At 0730 another search plane reported two cruisers and two destroyers in the same general area. The message from the first pilot was misheard by his radio operator; he actually though he had seen a battleship and five destroyers. Mogami was so damaged that it looked like a smaller ship than its sister Mikuma. At 0757 a strike of 26 Dauntlesses roared off after the cruisers, attacking at 0950 and inflicting just two hits on Mogami. One aircraft was lost. At 0950 Spruance launched his reserve strike of 31 Dauntlesses and 3 Devastators, the latter with instructions to stay back if there was heavy antiaircraft fire; they were the only torpedo bombers Spruane had left. Given such instructions, the TBDs never attacked, but the dive bombers put two more bombs into Mogami and at least five into Mikuma, setting off her torpedo stores and dooming the cruiser. A strike at 1420 of 24 Dauntlesses and eight Wildcats put one more bomb into Mogami but could not finish here. She limped away but was so badly damaged that she would take over a year to repair.

The Japanese also got in some final blows as they retreated. On the night of 6 June, General Clarence Tinker personally led a flight of B-24 Liberators to knock out the Japanese air base on Wake. It was an overcast night, preventing navigation by star sightings, and the aircraft never found the island. Tinker's aircraft disappeared early in the flight and was never seen again.

More grievous was the loss of Yorktown. The crippled American carrier was sighted by Japanese cruiser seaplanes on 5 June and I-168 was ordered to close and attack. Early in the afternoon of 6 June, as the Americans were getting ready to rig a tow, I-168 succeeded in penetrating the American destroyer screen and putting two more torpedoes into Yorktown.  Another torpedo sank destroyer Hammann, which was alongside to assist with the salvage operation. Hammann sank almost at once with heavy loss of life, further aggravated by the explosion of her depth charges, which in the confusion following the torpedoing were left armed and exploded when the sinking destroyer reached their fuse depth. These killed many survivors in the water and did enough additional shock damage to Yorktown to seal her fate. However, she remained stubbornly afloat until the morning of 7 June, when she finally capsized.

Nimitz briefly considered sending the American carrier forces north to the Aleutians, where the situation was still unclear. However, with their air groups badly depleted and their fuel supply critical, and fearing a trap, Nimitz ordered the carriers back to Pearl Harbor on 11 June.

The battle was a decisive tactical and strategic victory for the Americans. The Japanese lost four of their first-line fleet carriers, a heavy cruiser, over 250 aircraft, and 3057 dead. These included 110 of their most experienced air crew and hundreds of irreplaceable ground crew. The Americans lost the Yorktown, a destroyer, 144 aircraft, and 362 dead, including 104 aircrew.  Instead of destroying the remnants of the Pacific Fleet and threatening Hawaii, the Japanese had lost the strategic initiative. The battle restored the balance of power in the Pacific and prepared the way for the American counteroffensive at Guadalcanal. As Willmott (1983) notes, not a single ship in Yamamoto's armada would survive the war.

One of the myths of the battle is that the Japanese suffered catastrophic losses in their naval air arm. The casualty figures show that their losses were only slightly greater than those of the Americans, and represented less than a quarter of the aircrew assigned to 1 Air Fleet. The worst losses were the carrier ground crews and the carriers themselves. Their loss forced most of the Japanese Navy's pilots to operate off of primitive land bases with poorly maintained aircraft during the decisive South Pacific campaign, in which the Japanese Navy's air power would be ground down by attrition.

Japanese order of battle

Combined Fleet (Yamamoto)

 
Advance Expeditionary Force (Komatsu)     


 
CL Katori (at Kwajalein)



 
Submarine Squadron 3 (deployed between 20N 166.33W and 23.5N 166.33W)     





I-168





I-169




I-171




I-174




I-175



Submarine Squadron 5 (deployed between 28.33N 162.33W and 26N 165W)     





I-156





I-157




I-158




I-159




I-162





I-164 Sunk




I-165




I-166



Submarine Division 13 (Transporting aviation fuel and fuel oil to Lisianski Island and French Frigate Shoals)     





I-121




I-122




I-123

First Mobile Force (Nagumo)



Carrier Division 1 (Nagumo)



CV Akagi
Sunk




21 A6M Zero





21 D3A Val





21 B5N Kate




CV Kaga
Sunk




30 A6M Zero




23 D3A Val




30 B5N Kate


Carrier Division 2 (Yamaguchi)




CV Hiryu
Sunk




21 A6M Zero




21 D3A Val




21 B5N Kate



CV Soryu
Sunk




21 A6M Zero




21 D3A Val




21 B5N Kate


Cruiser Division 8 (Abe)




CA Tone




CA Chikuma


Battleship Division 3, Second Section




BB Haruna




BB Kirishima


Destroyer Squadron 10 (Kimura)




CL Nagara




Destroyer Division 10





DD Kazagumo





DD Yugumo




DD Makigumo




DD Akigumo



Destroyer Division 17





DD Isokaze




DD Urakaze




DD Hamakaze




DD Tanikaze



Destroyer Division 4





DD Arashi




DD Nowaki




DD Hagikaze




DD Maikaze


Supply Unit





AO Kyokuto Maru





AO Shinkoku Maru





AO Toho Maru




AO Nippon Maru




AO Kokuyo Maru

Midway Occupation Force (Kondo)



Covering Group (Kondo)



Cruiser Division 4, First Section





CA Atago





CA Chokai



Cruiser Division 5 (Takagi)





CA Myoko





CA Haguro



Battleship Division 3, First Section (Mikawa)





BB Kongo





BB Hiei



Destroyer Squadron 4 (Nishimura)





CL Yura





Destroyer Division 2






DD Murasame






DD Harusame





DD Yudachi





DD Samidare




Destroyer Division 9






DD Asagumo






DD Minegumo





DD Natsugumo



Supply Unit





AO Genyo Maru




AO Kenyo Maru




AO Sata





AO Tsurumi





AR Akashi





CVL Zuiho






12 A6M Zero





11 D3A Val




DD Mikazuki



Close Support Group (Kurita)




Cruiser Division 7 (Kurita)




CA Suzuya





CA Kumano




CA Mogami Severely damaged




CA Mikuma Sunk



DD Asashio




DD Arashio



AO Nichiei Maru


Transport Group (Tanaka)
Transporting a total of about 5000 troops



Destroyer Squadron 2 (Tanaka)




CL Jintsu





DD Kuroshio





DD Oyashio




DD Hatsukaze




DD Yukikaze




DD Amatsukaze




DD Tokitsukaze




DD Kasumi




DD Arare




DD Kagero




DD Shiranuhi



AO Akebono Maru
Slightly damaged



PB-1
These three patrol boats carried the SNLF assault elements



PB-2



PB-34



AP Argentina Maru (12,755 tons, 20 knots)




AP Brazil Maru (12,752 tons, 21 knots)




AP Azuma Maru (6646 tons, 16.5 knots)




AP Hokuriku Maru (8360 tons, 16.0 knots)




AP Kano Maru (8572 tons, 16.5 knots)




AP Kirishima Maru (8121 tons, 15.5 knots)




AP Kiyozumi Maru (8614 tons, 16.5 knots)




AP Meiyo Maru




AP Nankai Maru (8416 tons, 16 knots)




AP Toa Maru (6732 tons, 15 knots)




AP Toa Maru #2 (6732 tons, 15 knots)




AP Yamafuku Maru




5 Kure SNLF




5 Yokosuka SNLF



Ichiki Detachment
Built around 28 Infantry Regiment



2 labor battalions



Seaplane Group (Fujita)




CVS Chitose





20 seaplanes




CVS Kamikawa Maru





8 seaplanes




DD Hayashio




PB-35


Minesweeping Group




AM Taka Maru #3




AM Taka Maru #5




AM Showa Maru #7




AM Showa Maru #8



SC Ch-16




SC Ch-17



SC Ch-18



AE Soya




AK Meiyo Maru




AK Yamafuku Maru


Main Body (Yamamoto)


Battleship Division 1 (Yamamoto)



BB Yamato




BB Mutsu




BB Nagato


CVL Hosho




8 B5N Kate


DD Yukikaze



CVS Chiyodo
Carrying 2 MTB and 6 midget submarines


CVS Nisshin


Destroyer Squadron 3 (Hashimoto; some elements escorting Aleutian Screening Detachment)




CL Sendai




Destroyer Division 11





DD Fubuki





DD Shirayuki




DD Hatsuyuki




DD Murakumo



Destroyer Division 19





DD Isonami




DD Uranami




DD Shikinami




DD Ayanami



Destroyer Division 20





DD Amagiri




DD Asagiri




DD Yugiri




DD Shirakumo


Aleutian Screening Detachment (Takasu)




Battleship Divison 2





BB Ise





BB Hyuga




BB Fuso





BB Yamashiro



Cruiser Division 9 (Kishi)





CL Oi





CL Kitakami



AO Toki Maru




AO Naruto




AO San Clemente Maru (8366 tons, 12 knots)




AO Toa Maru

U.S. order of battle

Pacific Fleet (Nimitz)

 
Carrier Striking Force (Fletcher)     


 
Task Force 17 (Fletcher)


 
Task Group 17.5




 
CV Yorktown
Sunk




 
VF-3







25 F4F-4 Wildcat





VB-3







18 SBD-3 Dauntless






VS-5







19 SBD-3 Dauntless     






VT-3







13 TBD-1 Devastator




Task Group 17.2 (Smith)





CA Astoria





CA Portland



Task Group 17.4





DD Hammann
Sunk




DD Hughes




DD Morris




DD Anderson




DD Russell




DD Gwin



Task Force 16 (Spruance)




Task Group 16.5





CV Enterprise






VF-6







27 F4F-4 Wildcat





VB-6







19 SBD Dauntless





VS-6







19 SBD Dauntless





VT-6







14 TBD-1 Devastator




CV Hornet






VF-8







27 F4F-4 Wildcat





VB-8







19 SBD Dauntless





VS-8







18 SBD Dauntless





VT-8







15 TBD-1 Devastator



Task Group 16.2 (Kinkaid)





CA New Orleans





CA Minneapolis




CA Vincennes




CA Northampton





CA Pensacola





CLAA Atlanta




Task Group 16.4





Destroyer Squadron 1






DD Phelps






DD Worden






DD Monaghan





DD Aylwin




Destroyer Squadron 6






DD Balch





DD Conyngham






DD Benham






DD Ellet





DD Maury




Oiler Group





AO Cimarron





AO Platte




DD Dewey





DD Monssen


Submarines (English)



Task Group 7.1 Midway Patrol Group




SS Cachalot




SS Flying Fish




SS Tambor




SS Trout



SS Grayling



SS Nautilus




SS Grouper



SS Dolphin




SS Gato



SS Cuttlefish



SS Gudgeon



SS Grenadier


Task Group 7.2 "Roving Short-Stops"




SS Narwhal



SS Plunger




SS Trigger


Task Group 7.3 North of Oahu Patrol




SS Tarpon



SS Pike



SS Finback



SS Growler

Shore-Based Air (at Midway)



32 PBY Catalina
From Patwing 1 and Patwing 2


6 TBF Avenger
From VT-8


Marine Air Group 22




VMF-221





20 F2A Buffalo





7 F4F-3 Wildcat




VMSB-241





11 SB2U-3 Vindicators





16 SB-2 Dauntless


Detachment, 7 Air Force (Hale)




4 B-26 Marauder




19 B-17 Flying Fortresses


Midway Local Defenses



6 Marine Defense Battalion



Elements, 2 Marine Raider Battalion



Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 1




8 PT (Midway)




2 PT (Kure)




4 PC



AVD Thornton (at French Frigate Shoals)



AVD Ballard (at French Frigate Shoals)


DD Clark  (at French Frigate Shoals)


AO Kaloli (Pearl and Hermes Reef)



YP Crystal (Pearl and Hermes Reef)



AM Vireo (Pearl and Hermes Reef)



4 PY at Lisianski, Gardner Pinnacles, Laysan and Necker


Midway Relief Fueling Unit



AO Guadalupe



DD Blue



DD Ralph Talbot

In the month following the battle, an additional three runways were built on Sand Island, two of 7500 foot (2300 meter) length and a third of 8600 foot (2600 meter) length. A submarine base was completed in the spring of 1943 on Eastern Island and a second breakwater constructed south of Sand Island to create a protected submarine basin. In 1944 seven submarine and two tender piers were constructed in the submarine basin. The island remained a U.S. military base until 1993 and is now a wildlife refuge.


References

Larrabee (1987)

Lundstrom (2006)

Morison (1949)

Parshall and Tully (2006)

Prange (1982)

Rottman (2002)

Symonds (2011)

Willmott (1983)



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