The Unsung Heroes of Midway

By May 27, 1942, a week prior to the Battle of Midway, the code breakers at Pearl Harbor were able to advise Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Chester Nimitz that the Japanese Striking Force, which included at least four aircraft carriers, would approach Midway Island from the northwest on June 4 and launch an air attack at first light against the defenses on the island to prepare for an amphibious landing.

With that information Nimitz reinforced Midway with every plane he could mobilize to defend the island and attack the Japanese carriers as they advanced: old Buffalo fighters and a few new Wildcats, Avenger torpedo planes, B-26 and B-17 bombers, Marine Dauntless dive bombers, Vindicators, and amphibious PBYs.  Nimitz planned for three Pacific Fleet aircraft carriers, Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown to be in a flanking position from the projected Japanese track aimed directly at Midway. The complete Nimitz battle plan called for a concentration of force; the carriers, approaching under cover of darkness, would launch planes to meet the planes from Midway over the Striking Force in a simultaneous attack while a major portion of the Striking Force planes were away attacking Midway.

At 0430 on June 4, four Japanese carriers launched 108 planes, approximately half of the total force, to attack the Pacific Fleet shore defenses on Midway.  Seven scouting planes also were launched to search for any Pacific Fleet naval forces. The remaining planes constituted a reserve force: attack planes armed with anti-ship torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs, and a large complement of Zero fighters.  Should the scouts discover Pacific Fleet ships, the reserve force would be ready to launch an immediate attack.

Also at 0430, the Midway command launched twenty-two PBY scouts to search for the Striking Force. The Nimitz plan anticipated a PBY would contact the Striking force at about 0600, and when contact was made the planes from both Midway and the carriers were to take off immediately to attack the Japanese force. At 0603, a PBY from Midway reported contact with the Striking Force.  The attack planes from Midway immediately flew to intercept it, and the Buffalo and Wildcat fighters rose to defend the island.  Six Avengers and four B-26s were the first to attack the Japanese carriers just after 0700. However, the planes from the Pacific Fleet carriers failed to appear because the carriers at 0600 were over sixty miles away from their expected position. The carrier planes were beyond their operating range and could not launch. The execution of Admiral Nimitz’s plan for a simultaneous attack on the Striking Force had failed.

Guarding against attack, the Japanese had Zero fighters in the air and, sighting the approaching planes from Midway, 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. With the carriers out of position there were no Wildcats from the carriers for defense. Coming in low to attack, the Avengers, carrying World War I, thirty-knot torpedoes, focused on carrier Hiryu. The Zeros shot down several immediately. Two Avengers dropped their torpedoes, but they were too far away when they dropped, 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.

Meanwhile, the four B-26s, also carrying torpedoes, targeted flagship carrier Akagi.  The torpedoes they dropped missed widely.  Akagi maneuvered, but the attack was not a serious threat and the Zeros closed in on the B-26s.  One went into the ocean and two escaped after their ineffective torpedo drops. The fourth B-26 was badly shot up and on fire, and the pilot knew he was not going to make it back. He made a suicide run on flagship Akagi, heading straight for the bridge and Striking Force commander Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo. He missed the bridge by scant feet and crashed into the ocean. The B-26 pilot may have thought the last act of his life had failed, but he may have done as much as anyone that day to bring about the victory he gave his life to achieve.   

Nagumo had received a message a few minutes earlier from the commander of the Midway attack force recommending another attack on Midway Island but had not decided how to respond.  Because of the desperate attacks from Midway, and his personal narrow escape on the Akagi bridge, Nagumo decided the reserve force must launch a second attack on Midway. At 0715 he ordered a change in the ordnance of the reserve planes from torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs to the high explosive impact bombs used on land targets. This difficult and time-consuming operation under time pressure caused desperate rearming scrambles on the hangar decks of the carriers and a delay of any attack by the reserve force.

At 0728 a Japanese scout plane sent a message – ten Pacific Fleet ships sighted, ship types not disclosed. What to do? Nagumo had just ordered an ordnance change on the planes, and he was uncertain about the action to take. Second in command Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi aboard Hiryu thought there should be an immediate attack of the reserve force with whatever ordnance they were carrying. The size of the enemy force was significant and probably included a carrier. An immediate launch also would clear the decks for the returning Midway attack, expected about 0830. After delaying for several minutes Nagumo ordered the ordnance changeover to stop pending clarification of ship types.

Further complicating matters, at 0800 the Marine Dauntless squadron of sixteen dive bombers attempted a low-level glide bombing attack. The carriers had to maneuver, and the Zeros leaped on this squadron and shot down half the planes. The rest were scattered before they had any chance to make a hit.  The B-17s from Midway arrived over the Striking Force about 0810, but their bombs dropped from 20,000 feet were ineffectual.  If there had been Zeros at high altitude early in the day to defend against dive bombers, the early low-level attacks by the planes from Midway drew them down, as there were no Zeros opposing the B-17s when they attacked. At 0820 the Vindicators arrived and attacked a battleship.

Also at 0820, the Japanese scout finally reported a carrier in the Pacific Fleet force. Yamaguchi recommended an immediate attack even if it meant the Midway force had to ditch in the ocean. The Midway force returned, low on fuel, beginning at 0830.  Nagumo ordered the Midway force to land. All planes were recovered by 0917, but an attack of all four refueled and rearmed air groups against the Pacific Fleet carriers would not be ready to launch until about 1045.

Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, now steaming independently in command of carriers Enterprise and Hornet, closed the range at full speed and dispatched air groups at maximum range from both carriers starting about 0710. At 1025, after an extended search and running very low on fuel, Dauntless dive bombers from Enterprise, in the last possible moments before they had to turn back to their carrier, found and destroyed two Japanese carriers. At the same time, Yorktown dive bombers destroyed a third carrier.  Several hours later, rearmed and refueled Enterprise dive bombers destroyed the fourth carrier, but not before its attack on Yorktown led to the loss of that ship.  At the end of the day, Pacific Fleet carrier pilots had scored a major victory that marked a turning point in the Pacific War.

Many brave fliers from Midway went to their deaths in the ocean that morning, having inflicted hardly more than a scratch on a single Japanese ship.  But their constant hammering caused the carriers to maneuver constantly. The Zeros had to stay in the air defending the carriers, which committed the flight decks to their operations.  The attacks also caused uncertainty and confusion in the Japanese command that resulted in hasty changes in tactics. Nagumo’s order to change ordnance, and the delay that followed, was a direct result of the Midway fliers’ 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 fighter defense early in the engagement made huge contributions to that victory.  Without their sacrifices the outcome of the battle could have been different.

Author note:
Dale A. Jenkins is the author of Diplomats & Admirals, 402 pages, Aubrey Publishing Co., New York, Dec., 2022

[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

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