The Unsung Heroes of Midway

In early 1942, Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto ordered the Striking Force (the Kido Butai) with four fully armed carriers, Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, and Soryu, to attack the island of Midway.  When the Pacific Fleet carriers that had escaped the Pearl Harbor raid rushed to oppose the attack, the Striking Force would sink them.  

Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Chester Nimitz had three carriers available to oppose the Japanese advance: EnterpriseYorktown, and Hornet.  Each carrier had two squadrons of dive bombers, one squadron of torpedo planes and one squadron of F4F Wildcat fighters.  He also had the Hypo Group, a brilliant cryptography operation at Pearl Harbor that told him the Striking Force would launch an attack on Midway from 240 miles at first light on June 4.  Nimitz reinforced Midway with every plane he could mobilize: F2A Buffalo and Wildcat fighters, Avenger torpedo planes, B-26s and B-17s, Marine Dauntless dive bombers, Vindicators, and amphibious PBYs.  Most pilots were neophytes.   To crush the Striking Force, Nimitz planned a simultaneous attack by the planes from his three carriers and the planes from Midway in a concentration of force while half of the Japanese planes were away attacking Midway.  

At 0603 on June 4, a PBY scouting plane reported contact with the Japanese carriers.  Every flyable plane on Midway took to the skies.  The Buffaloes and Wildcats defended Midway, and the other planes flew to intercept the Japanese carrier fleet.  The three carriers were to launch their complements of dive bombers and torpedo planes, and the Wildcat fighters were to be split between defending the attack planes and staying back to defend the carriers as combat air patrol (CAP). 

Just after 0700 the first planes from Midway – six Avengers and four B-26s -reached the Striking Force.  However, the planes from the carriers were nowhere to be seen.  The carriers at 0600 were over sixty miles distant from the assigned position 200 miles north of Midway,[1] and their planes were out of range.  There could be no attack from any of the carriers, and no Wildcats to defend the Midway fliers.  The Nimitz plan for a concentration of force on the Japanese carriers had failed.

The Japanese had Zero fighters in the air and quickly launched more – about thirty in total.   The Japanese Zero, possibly the best fighter plane in the world at the time, had a huge speed advantage over the attacking planes.  Coming in low to attack, the Avengers, carrying torpedoes, focused on Hiryu. The Zeros shot down several immediately.  Two Avengers dropped their torpedoes at Hiryu, but they were too far away when they dropped.  The World War I-vintage torpedoes travelled at only thirty knots, and Hiryu, which at flank speed could make thirty-four knots, simply turned away.  There were no torpedo hits, or even good chances for hits, and the Zeros sent five of the six Avengers flaming into the ocean. [2]

Meanwhile, the four B-26s, also carrying torpedoes, targeted Akagi.  The torpedoes they dropped missed widely.  Akagi maneuvered, but the attack was not a serious threat.  The Zeros closed in on the B-26s.  One went into the ocean and two escaped after their ineffective torpedo drops.  The pilot of the fourth B-26, badly shot up, realized he was not going to make it back, and if he was going to die he was going to take out the bridge of the Japanese flagship.  The plane, trailing smoke, bored in straight at the Akagi bridge and straight at Striking Force commander Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo.  At the last moment the plane veered slightly, missed the bridge by a few feet and fell into the ocean.[3]  The B-26 pilot may have done as much as anyone that day to bring about the victory he gave his life to achieve.  

At 0715, after the encounter with the B-26, a panicked Nagumo decided to launch another attack on Midway Island.  He ordered a change in the ordnance of the planes held in reserve, from the 1500-pound, 18-foot torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs to high explosive impact bombs, on all four of his carriers.  This difficult procedure would delay the launch until about 0930.   

At 0728 a scout plane sent a message – ten enemy ships sighted, 100 miles away.  Ship types, unmentioned  What to do? Nagumo messaged frantically to the scout – identify ship types.  There was no immediate reply from the scout.  He thought for fifteen minutes – a lifetime in a carrier battle.  At 0745, the order: Change high explosive ordnance back to torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs.  The exhausted hangar deck crews struggled to comply with this latest order.  Further complicating matters, at 0800 the Marine Dauntless squadron of sixteen planes attempted a low-level glide bombing torpedo attack.  The Zeros leaped on this squadron and shot down half of them.  There were no hits.  The B-17s arrived about 0810, but their bombs dropped from 20,000 feet scored no hits.  At 0820 the Vindicators arrived, shunned the carriers and focused on a battleship.

Also at 0820, the scout finally reported a carrier in the formation of ten ships, and the Midway attack force was returning about 0830, low on fuel. What to do?  Nagumo ordered the Midway force to land.  He would refuel and rearm the entire complement of planes on all four carriers, then launch a combined attack on the Pacific Fleet carrier force.  A launch of all four air groups could not begin before 1030.

Two hours after the first of the Midway fliers were shot down, beginning about 0920, Hornetand then Enterprise torpedo squadrons, with a total of over thirty planes, found the Striking Force and attacked the Japanese carriers without fighter support.  Zeros shot down almost all of them.  There were no hits.  Another hour later, at 1020, a massive Japanese counterattack was almost ready to launch against the Pacific Fleet carriers that could have resulted in a Japanese victory.  At 1025, Dauntless dive bomber pilots from Enterprise and Yorktownfound the Striking Force and, diving from 20,000 feet, destroyed three of the four carriers.  The fourth carrier, Hiryu, was destroyed a few hours later, but not before its attack on Yorktown led to the loss of that ship.  

Many brave fliers from Midway went to their deaths in the ocean that morning with hardly more than a scratch on a single Japanese ship.  But the constant hammering by the Midway fliers caused the carriers to maneuver constantly, and the Zeros had to stay in the air defending the carriers, which committed the flight decks.  Nagumo’s order to change ordnance, and the delay that followed, was a direct result of their relentless determination and sacrifice.

The Battle of Midway was a great victory, and the unsung heroes who flew from Midway into the teeth of the Zero fighters early in the engagement made huge contributions to that victory.  Without their sacrifices the outcome of the battle could have been different.

[1] Action Report, Battle of Midway. From: Commander, Cruisers, US Pacific Fleet, To: Commander-in-Chief, US Pacific Fleet, Para 3. Pearl Harbor, T.H., June 14, 1942

Morison, Samuel Eliot, Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions, Naval Institute Press, 1949, p.102

Potter, E.B., Nimitz, Naval Institute Press, 1976, p. 87

[2] Morison, ibid, pp. 105-112

[3] Parshall and Tully, Shattered Sword, Potomac Books, 2005, pp. 149-152