In early May, 1942, Commander Joseph J. Rocheport cracked a Japanese code and learned of the plan to seize Midway, a naval base, 1,150 nautical miles northwest of Oahu. Admiral Chester Nimitz acted quickly. The newly repaired Yorktown (CV-5) and the Enterprise (CV-5) and Hornet (CV-8), both just returned from the Doolittle Raid, were dispatched to Midway. Admiral William “Bull” Halsey fell ill just before the forces left Pearl Harbor and Admiral Raymond Spruance replaced him. Vice Admiral Frank “Black Jack” Fletcher, who lead forces at the Battle of the Coral Sea, would lead the effort and serve as the senior-most officer present.
The last week of May, the Japanese Midway Occupation Force left Ominato Harbor and the main force left Hashirajima. The United States Force left Pearl Harbor for “Point Luck,” three-hundred and fifty miles northeast of Midway to wait.
On June 3, the Japanese attacked a naval base at Dutch Harbor, in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska. The battle produced some damage, killed about a hundred people, and the Japanese did capture two islands. This attack served as a feint to pull ships away form the Pearl Harbor-Midway area. Later that morning Ensign Jewell H. Reid, a Catalina pilot, spotted the incoming Occupation Force, prompting nine B-17s from Midway to attack the incoming force to no success. At 0430 June 4th, Navy Catalina search planes were in the sky. By 0500 the Japanese had launched a strike force of 108 planes heading towards Midway. By 0530, Catalina Flight 58 spotted the empty Japanese carrier decks. Shortly before 0600, Spruance’s task force was heading into battle and combat planes were launched shortly after 0700. By 0830, Fletcher’s air group was also launching.
Meanwhile, several flights left Midway and located the Japanese fleet but were soon slaughtered. From 0630 to 0640 the Japanese bombed Midway, then headed back to the fleet. The Japanese force commander, Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, changed his next action from a fleet attack to a second Midway attack, which meant switching torpedoes for bombs. The first Midway attack force had not yet arrived back to the Japanese carriers when the second force was being readied. Before the airplanes were ready, a Japanese search plane, from the Tone, sighted the United States Fleet. This caused the second attack to be switched back to a fleet attack. It is commonly believed that Nagumo’s flip-flopping on the second attack cost Japan the war.
While the Japanese prepared for their second attack, several things happened. A Marine Dauntless squadron attacked the enemy fleet and perished. A B-17 squadron from Midway attacked the Japanese fleet, but scored no hits. Then Major Norris, a Marine pilot, and his squadron attacked the Japanese fleet but were chased back to Midway by Zeros. The last attack at this time was from the USS Nautilus, a submarine. Its commander, Lieutenant Commander William Brockman, ordered a torpedo fired at a battleship. The submarine was then subjected to depth charges by the Japanese.
By 0918, the Japanese pilot, Lieutenant Joichi Tomonaga, who led the strike against Midway returned and landed. The fleet’s second in command, Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi, advised that the Japanese force should launch now, but Nagumo ignored the advice. This allowed torpedo planes from the Hornet to attack the force. Additional torpedo planes, bombers, and fighters followed from Task Force 16. Fletcher sent in thirty-five more planes and held the rest in reserve. The Japanese force changed course to the northwest to avoid another attack. When the American planes reached the reported sight of the enemy fleet, they found only empty sea. The squadron split and the one led by Commander Stanhope C. Ring turned left to no avail. Lieutenant Commander Clarence W. McClusky’s flight turned right again to no avail. Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron who was further behind the others took a course further right than McClusky’s. Waldron and his flight spotted and attacked the Japanese fleet; sadly, only one pilot survived. A squadron led by Eugene Lindsey, which had trailed Waldron’s, attacked the Japanese fleet. Only four planes survived. Despite the American losses, the air attacks left the Japanese fleet in disarray.
At 1015, Japanese aircraft located and attacked the Yorktown. Meanwhile, three squadrons from the Yorktown attacked the Japanese fleet; McClusky’s squadron followed a destroyer, the Arashi, back to its fleet; and Commander Maxwell F. Leslie also found the Japanese fleet. Leslie’s squadron dive-bombed and greatly damaged the Kaga, a Japanese carrier. McClusky’s flight divided in two and attacked the carriers Soryu and Akagi, the Japanese flagship. Within six minutes, all three carriers were ablaze. The Soryu and Kaga sunk that evening. The Akagi would be considered unsalvageable and was sunk by a Japanese destroyer.
The remaining Japanese carrier, Hiryu, launched her planes and attacked the Yorktown. The Yorktown was damaged and Admiral Fletcher moved his flag to the Astoria CA-34 at 1220, even though the Yorktown was quickly repaired. At 1430 the Hiryu’s planes’ second attack forced the abandonment of the Yorktown. Joseph Adams aboard the Yorktown stated, “There was no rush or panic among the men,” during the evacuation.
At 1530 planes left the Enterprise and they were joined thirty minutes later by planes from the Hornet. Meanwhile, Nagumo, not knowing the Yorktown was struck twice, believed that two American carriers were dead in the water and planned to launch a strike against the final carrier. The Task Force 16 planes led by McClusky reached the Hiryu and attacked it at 1703. The Hiryu was engulfed in flames and was later forced share the Akagi’s fate.
On June 5, Admiral Yamamoto, from his position several thousand miles away, canceled the occupation of Midway. One June 6, Admiral Spruance launched an air strike on the cruiser Mikuma and sunk it. Meanwhile, the Yorktown, by order of its captain, Elliot Bruckmaster, was tied to the destroyer Hammann DD-412 for repair. A Japanese submarine, I-168, attacked the two ships, sinking the Hammann in two minutes. The Yorktown drifted through the night and sunk at 0701, six months to the hour after the attack at Pearl Harbor.
The Battle of Midway devastated the Japanese. They lost four aircraft carriers, one heavy cruiser, two-hundred seventy-five planes, and 4,800 personnel. The American forces lost the Yorktown and the Hammann, most of the planes, ninety-two officers, and two-hundred fifteen enlisted men. This battle destroyed Japanese naval superiority and ended Japanese naval offensives. CINCPAC Communiqué, issued on June 6, called Midway a major victory and boasted, “Perhaps we will be forgiven if we claim we are about midway to our objective!”
The Battle of Coral Sea and Midway together turned the tide of the war. They are the Gettysburg and Vicksburg of the Pacific. Both ended Japanese imperialistic goals and devastated Japanese fleets. In fact, Midway was Japan’s first naval defeat since 1592 against Korea. They also established the art of naval air warfare and United States naval supremacy in the Pacific Ocean. Both battles succeeded due to Admiral Nimitz’s planning, followed and adapted by Admiral Fletcher, and effective dispatching of his forces. Fletcher described the effects of the battle he led by writing, “The first battle [Coral Sea] saved Australia and marked a new experience for the Japanese fleet, retreat. The second battle [Midway] broke the back of the Japanese naval air arm, with four of her best aircraft carriers going down and hundreds of her best pilots lost.”
I hope this wasn’t too confusing to follow! There was a lot going on at Midway and this post just hits the high points and scratches the surface.
Bicheno, Hugh. Midway. London: Cassell, 2007.
Field, John. “Life and Death of the U.S.S. Yorktown.” In American Expressions on the War and the Peace, edited by Annie Laurie Mohair and Doris Benadete, 87-99. New York: American Book Company, 1943.
Fletcher, Frank Jack. Forward to Rendezvous at Midway: USS Yorktown and the Japanese Carrier Fleet. New York: The John Day Company, Inc., 1967.
Frank, Pat and Joseph D. Harrington. Rendezvous at Midway: USS Yorktown and the Japanese Carrier Fleet. New York: The John Day Company, Inc., 1967.
Midway (film). Universal Pictures, 1976. While this film is considered by some to be cliched and is full of stock footage from other battles, it does at least hit the high points of the battle for those who prefer watching over reading. While I have not watched the classic documentary Victory at Sea, the battle may be covered there as well. If someone knows for sure, please comment!
Naval Department Communiqués and Pertinent Press Releases—CINCPAC Communiqué No. 3, June 6, 1942.
Naval Department Communiqués and Pertinent Press Releases—No. 88, June 12, 1942.
Naval Department Communiqués Pertinent Press Releases—No. 97, July 14, 1942.
Naval Department Communiqués Pertinent Press Releases—No. 98, July 17, 1942.
Sims, Edward H. Greatest Fighter Missions of the Top Navy and Marine Aces of World War II. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1962.
Steinway, Rodger. “Pearl Harbor to Midway.” Military History, June, 2001.
Tueja, T.V. “Midway.” American History Illustrated, July/August, 1992.
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