The Battle of Midway
4th June 1942: The historic clash between the Japanese and the US Navy main carrier groups marks a turning point in the Pacific war
Before the war Admiral Yamamoto, Japan’s leading naval strategist and commander of the Combined Fleet, had said:
In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.
The Japanese had successfully ‘run wild’. They had taken Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines and now threatened Australia. On a map of territorial gains they looked hugely successful.
But the Japanese had failed to neutralise the American naval forces in the Pacific with their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor - they had missed the US aircraft carriers. Now they sought to lure the American carriers into a final decisive engagement by invading the island of Midway.
So a little more than six months after Pearl Harbor Yamamoto had one last big gamble left, with another surprise attack. This time the odds were not as he expected them to be. There was to be no surprise attack because the US Navy had cracked the Japanese naval codes. Instead it was the US carrier based planes that were to find the Japanese carriers and launch a devastating assault.
Robert J. Casey1 was a journalist based on one of the heavy cruisers:
I was right at headquarters when first reports began to come in from our planes. The first message was brief. The Jap carriers had been located, a little belatedly, and they were virtually without air cover. Apparently all their planes had been sent out to make the conquest of Midway quick and easy.
However, the squadron commander of the TBD [Douglas Torpedo Bomber] unit reporting, said that his planes were virtually out of fuel.
'Request permission,’ he called, 'to withdraw from action and refuel.
The admiral’s answer was terse. 'Attack at once.’
Like the Battle of the Coral Sea this was a naval battle played out remotely by the carrier planes:
So as I sat down in the chartroom to bite into a ham sandwich, the planes had begun to move in on the carriers. Whatever might be the result, we'd never be able to criticize the quality of our opportunity ...
I sat there thinking. The Jap air admiral undoubtedly had figured us as permanent fixtures in the southwest Pacific where last he had had word of us. So just about now he’d be looking up at the sky suddenly clouded with SBD's [Douglas Scout Bombers] and asking himself the Japanese equivalent of 'Where the hell did those things come from?'
The Torpedo Bombers did not score any hits but brought the Japanese defender’s Combat Air Patrols down to deal with them. This left the skies unexpectedly clear for the US dive bombers which had just found the Japanese carriers as they neared the end of their search and were running low on fuel.
‘At ten twenty the Japanese carriers had not been touched. At ten twenty-six three of them were headed for the briny deep.’
Ensign Lew Hopkins2 was one of the pilots from Bombing Squadron 6 from the USS Enterprise participating in the attack. Much later, when he was a Rear Admiral, he made the point:
It all happened in six minutes. From ten twenty to ten twenty-six. At ten twenty the Japanese carriers had not been touched. At ten twenty-six three of them were headed for the briny deep.
Lieutenant Clarence E. Dickinson3 was piloting a dive-bomber that attacked the Kaga :
We were coming down in all directions on the port side of the carrier ... I recognized her as the Kaga; and she was enormous ... The target was utterly satisfying ... I saw a bomb hit just behind where I was aiming ... I saw the deck rippling and curling back in all directions exposing a great section of the hangar below ... I saw [my] 500-pound [230 kg] bomb hit right abreast of the [carrier's] island. The two 100-pound [45 kg] bombs struck in the forward area of the parked planes.
The defenders on the Akagi were surprised by a separate attack moments later, witnessed by Mitsuo Fuchida4, who had led the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor:
A look-out screamed: "Hell-Divers!" I looked up to see three black enemy planes plummeting towards our ship. Some of our machineguns managed to fire a few frantic bursts at them, but it was too late. The plump silhouettes of the American Dauntless dive-bombers quickly grew larger, and then a number of black objects suddenly floated eerily from their wings.
The US carrier planes had won a stunning victory, three of the four Japanese carriers had been hit - and hit so badly that they would eventually be abandoned and scuttled. At the second strike later in the day found the last remaining carrier, Hiryu, and finished her off as well. This was a decisive victory for the US Navy, a turning point in the war in the Pacific, leaving the Japanese carrier fleet a much less potent force.
It was not a wholly one side battle however. Japanese planes found the USS Yorktown on the afternoon of the 4th June.
LT Joseph P. Pollard5, MC, USN, Medical Officer on board USS Yorktown recalled events:
About 1400 our planes began returning. They had been out a long time and were low on gas. A couple of well-shot-up SBDs [Douglas "Dauntless" dive-bombers] made their crash landings. Then the fighters started coming aboard. Many were riddled with holes.
I began to run across the flight deck to my station but before I arrived there general quarters sounded, Jap planes were upon us. I dived down the ladder for Battle Dressing station #1 and on my way saw one of our fighters fall on one wing and like a shooting star hit the drink. There was a puff of black smoke and that was all. Upon arriving at #1 I lay flat on the deck and hoped that we would not get a bomb in the crowded dressing room or anywhere for that matter.
‘Then all hell broke loose. I saw a burst of fire, heard a terrific explosion and in less then ten seconds was overwhelmed by a mass of men descending from the gun mounts and flight deck into the Dressing Station.’
By this time our AA [anti-aircraft guns] was in full bloom. I had never before heard such a roar - first the 5", then the 1.1s and 20 mm's, the 50 cal, and finally the hastily set up 30 cal. machine guns along the rail. I knew then they were upon us. Then all hell broke loose. I saw a burst of fire, heard a terrific explosion and in less then ten seconds was overwhelmed by a mass of men descending from the gun mounts and flight deck into the Dressing Station.
An instantaneous 500 pound bomb had struck just aft of the starboard side of the middle elevator and shrapnel had wiped out nearly all of the men from AA mounts #3 and #4 (1.1) and also my corpsman who stood on the aft island ladder platform where I usually stood. Another corpsman was injured who was standing in the gear locker doorway.
I was overwhelmed with work. Wounded were everywhere. Some men had one foot or leg off, others had both off; some were dying - some dead. Everywhere there was need for morphine, tourniquets, blankets and first aid. Battle Dressing Station #1 rapidly overflowed into the passageway, into the parachute loft and into all other available spaces.
Read the Oral History interview of Rear Admiral Lewis R. Hopkins for the National Museum of the Pacific War at biblio.org
Quoted in Miller, Donald L. (2001). The Story of World War II.