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Midway

The Battle of Midway

Converted for the Web from "Battle Of Wits: The Complete Story Of Codebreaking In World War II" by Stephen Budiansky

Battle of Midway Navy painting
The Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma capsizes and sinks. Charcoal by Griffith Baily Coale. Click here for more Battle of Midway images from the Navy Art Collection.
A little before 6:00 A.M. on June 4 a PBY Catalina float plane droned through the bright morning sky. Lieutenant Howard B. Ady and his crew had been searching a sector northwest of Midway since well before dawn. Then came the electrifying message from Ady's plane: PLANE REPORTS TWO CARRIERS, TWO BATTLESHIPS, BEARING 320 DEGREES, DISTANT 180 MILES, COURSE 135 DEGREES, SPEED 25 KNOTS. Only an hour earlier Nimitz had asked Layton to give him a specific prediction of when and where the Japanese carriers would be first spotted. Layton swallowed hard and hazarded 0600, from the northwest at a bearing of 325 degrees, at a distance 175 miles from Midway. When Nimitz received the PBY's report in his operations room he could not resist tweaking his intelligence officer; turning to Layton he dryly commented, "Well, you were only five minutes, five degrees, and five miles out."

Fifteen minutes later a patrol of six Marine F4F Wildcat fighters from Midway ran headlong into a hornet's nest -- an incoming wave of Japanese Zeros and bombers. Captain John F. Carey, leading the Wildcats, went after one of the bombers but was instantly struck in the legs by machine-gun fire from the tail gunner. He was able to make it back to Midway and land with both tires punctured, but with no strength in his legs he was unable to apply the brakes. The plane crashed into a revetment and two ground crewmen pulled him from the wreckage and wrestled him to cover -- just as the first bombs began to crash about the airfield. Most of the Midway fighter force consisted of slow and outmoded F2A-3 Buffalos, nicknamed "Flying Coffins," and they were no match for the Zeros. Buffalos were so slow that a Zero flying level could outpace a Buffalo in the steepest dive it could safely execute. In all, fifteen of the twenty-six Midway fighters were shot out of the sky; others landed in the midst of the Japanese bombing and were destroyed on the ground. Only two of the planes would ever fly again.

But Midway was better prepared with antiaircraft armament, and that evened the score. Sixty-seven of the 108 Japanese attackers were destroyed or damaged so badly as to be put out of action. At 7:00 A.M. Lieutenant Joichi Tomonaga, leading the attack, urgently radioed Nagumo: another strike was needed. Nagumo agreed, then hesitated. Ninety-three aircraft aboard the carriers Akagi and Kaga had been held back from the first wave, fitted with torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs to be used against any American ships that might appear. But there were no reports of American ships; surely the U.S. carriers were still back at Hawaii. Nagumo hesitated a few more minutes, then finally gave the order to replace the planes' weapons with land-attack bombs. The process would take an hour.

Reconnaissance was not a strong point of the Japanese Navy. At 7:28 A.M. a float plane reported ten enemy ships; it took the plane another forty minutes to incorrectly identify them as cruisers and destroyers, and it was almost a full hour after his initial report that the pilot almost casually added: ENEMY FORCE ACCOMPANIED BY WHAT APPEARS TO BE AN AIRCRAFT CARRIER. Alarmed, Nagumo ordered the armament changed out once again in preparation for a strike against the American carrier. But at that moment Tomonaga's returning strike force was circling and running dangerously low on fuel, waiting to land. They would have to be recovered first, refueled, and relaunched before the bombers could be brought up to the flight decks -- still more maddening delay.

In command of TF 16 was Admiral Raymond Spruance, who had taken Halsey's place at the last minute when Halsey had been packed off to a Honolulu hospital suffering from an odd dermatitis that covered his entire body. Spruance was almost the opposite of the pugnacious Halsey, a cerebral and even cautious commander with cool, steady judgment. But in the Battle of Midway, Spruance stretched "calculated risk" to the limit. When the Japanese Striking Force was located, Spruance quickly determined that it would be several hours before he would be in the best position to launch his planes. He decided not to wait; risking everything, he let loose with an all-out attack at once. Spruance knew that striking immediately would increase the odds of catching the Japanese ships at their point of maximum vulnerability, just as they were recovering the Midway strike force. He also knew it meant that his own torpedo bombers would run out of fuel before they could make it back to their ships. With luck they might be able to land at Midway; more likely, they would have to ditch their planes and make the best of it.

The Japanese had already dodged a series of ineffectual attacks from Midway-based B-17 and B-28 bombers and outmoded SBU Vindicator dive bombers (the pilots of the latter sardonically called them "Wind Indicators" for their habit of spinning around when landing in a crosswind). The American carriers were equipped with more modern aircraft, but these at first seemed destined to the same fate as the Midway force. Three squadrons of TBD Devastator torpedo bombers were cut to pieces by antiaircraft fire and by the swarm of fifty Zeros protecting the Japanese fleet. It was almost a massacre: Of the forty-one planes that attacked, only four made it back. But just as the melee was ending at about 10:20 A.M., forty-nine SBD Dauntless bombers from Yorktown and Enterprise slipped in unnoticed at fourteen thousand feet.

Lieutenant Commander Clarence Wade McClusky, air group commander of the Enterprise, had led thirty-two of the Dauntlesses to the Japanese fleet's last reported position only to find empty ocean. Running short of fuel, he at last spotted the wake of a Japanese destroyer and decided to follow it. The decision paid off: A few minutes later, and there below him, in full view, were Kaga and Akagi. McClusky pushed his nose down, heading straight for the carriers in a seventy-degree dive. Kaga, its deck crowded with planes and scattered with armament and fuel lines, took a direct hit. The ship's communications officer hurried toward the bridge to urge the captain to move to safety; then two more bombs struck, and when he looked again the bridge was gone. Akagi's deck went up in a chain reaction of exploding planes and armament. Commander Minoru Genda, air officer of the First Air Fleet, who had been confined to bed with pneumonia and who had dragged himself, feverish, to the bridge to watch his air crews launch the first wave, now surveyed the carnage and uttered a single word of ironic understatement: Shimatta -- "we goofed."

The carrier Soryu meanwhile was hit twice by the Dauntless squadron from Yorktown, led by Lieutenant Commander Maxwell F. Leslie. The ship erupted in flames so intense that the hangar doors melted. The fourth Japanese carrier, Hiryu, shrouded in haze, escaped for the moment, and she at least would have her revenge. Hiryu immediately launched an attack against the Yorktown; one bomb smashed through the ship's side and sailed through the coffee urn in the ready room before lodging in the stack and exploding, knocking out five of the boilers and slowing the ship from thirty knots to a crawl. A series of torpedo hits finished her off, and the order to abandon ship was given at 2:55 P.M.

But the American forces would have the final word that fateful day. All airworthy dive bombers left on the Enterprise, twenty-four planes, were ordered out against Hiryu. No fighter escort could be spared; they had to remain to protect the American ships. At 4:45 P.M. the dive bombers spotted the enemy, and four bombs set her ablaze. In the space of a day, four of the six carriers that had launched the attack against Pearl Harbor had been destroyed. Japan lost more than three hundred aircraft and three thousand men. Yamamoto had obtained his decisive confrontation.

Nagumo kept the news from Yamamoto as long as he dared; when the Commander in Chief was finally told that his gamble had failed, he sank into a chair stunned and speechless. Demoralized and hesitant, Yamamoto at first ordered a cruiser bombardment of Midway for the following morning, then countermanded it. Yamamoto's huge battleship force, stripped of its air cover, was now like a short-armed, muscle-bound boxer. It could only land a blow against an opponent who grappled in a close embrace, and Spruance prudently kept his distance, pulling back to the east through the night to where he could still threaten with his aircraft without being threatened by Japanese guns. Yamamoto's huge battle force still outgunned the Americans by orders of magnitude. But with his carriers gone, he was left with no choice but to retire from the battlefield.

Copyright © 2000 by Stephen Budiansky. All rights reserved. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

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