Jun 3

Admiral Nimitz and the Battle of Midway

Friday, June 3, 2011 12:53 PM


June 3-6, 1942

Battle of Midway

The concluding words of the entry in the CinCPac Command Summary for 3 June were prophetic: “The whole course of the war in the Pacific may hinge on the developments of the next two or three days”.

In July 1976, Proceedings published an adapted excerpt from the biography, Nimitz, by E. B. Potter. The article, a detailed account of the battle and Nimitz’s leadership, highlighted the various elments that contributed to the American victory:

It is now generally known that the American victory over potentially overwhelming odds in the Battle of Midway (3-6 June 1942) was made possible mainly through cryptanalysis of radio transmissions the Japanese sent in their naval operational code. Information from this source reached Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet (CinCPac), via the Pearl Harbor radio intelligence unit (Station Hypo). The unit was headed by Lieutenant Commander Joseph J. Rochefort, who generally made contact with CinCPac headquarters by scrambler (“hotline”) telephone to Lieutenant Commander Edwin T. Layton, Nimitz’ intelligence officer.

In mid-April 1942, Commander Rochefort predicted that the Japanese would soon launch an attack against eastern New Guinea, and that they would follow this with a much bigger attack in the Pacific. Admiral Nimitz estimated that the first operation would be an attempt to capture Port Moresby; the second, a move to seize Midway.

To save Port Moresby, Nimitz rushed Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher to the Coral Sea with a force including the carriers Lexington (CV-2) and Yorktown (CV-5). Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, with the carriers Enterprise (CV-6) and Hornet (CV-8), also headed for the South Pacific. Halsey was delayed, however, by having launched a carrier raid on Tokyo and did not reach the combat area in time. In the Battle of the Coral Sea (4-8 May 1942), the force under Fletcher turned back the seaborne Port Moresby invasion force and sank the light carrier Shoho. In the climactic action of 8 May, the Americans lost the Lexington and suffered damages to the Yorktown.

Admiral Nimitz now ordered Halsey and Fletcher to return to Pearl Harbor on the double. By this time Nimitz had fairly complete information on the Japanese operational plan for Midway. The Second Carrier Striking Force, including two carriers, was to make a diversionary air raid on the American base at Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians. Transports would then land Japanese troops on the far-western Aleutian Islands. On the morning following the Dutch Harbor raid, the First Carrier Striking Force, coming down from the northwest, was to launch the main attack by raiding Midway. Meanwhile, an invasion force would be approaching Midway from the southwest. Admiral lsoroku Yamamoto, Commander-in-Chief of Japan’s Combined Fleet, planned to be at sea, backing up the whole operation with a powerful battleship force, but this fact was unknown to CinCPac.

To Admiral Nimitz the wide dispersion of the Japanese fleet spelled opportunity. He sent Rear Admiral Robert A. Theobald north with a surface force to do what he could to derail the enemy invasion of the far Aleutians. It was clear to the CinCPac staff, however, that the crucial element of the enemy disposition was the First Carrier Striking Force, commanded by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, who six months previously had led the attack on Pearl Harbor. In Nagumo’s force were the carriers Akagi (flagship), Kaga, Hiryu, and Soryu, all veterans of the Pearl Harbor attack, with a screen of two battleships, three cruisers, and 11 destroyers. Only this force could provide the punch needed to knock out Midway’s ground and air defenses, and it alone could provide a concentration of air power great enough to cover the other components of the Japanese fleet. Thus, it alone was essential to the attack. Therefore, Nimitz laid plans to eliminate Nagumo’s carriers. He would place his own carriers northeast of Midway, on the flank of Nagumo’s oncoming force. With the advantage of surprise, his three carriers might knock out Nagumo’s four.

For this plan to succeed, Nimitz had to know when and where to find Nagumo. He assigned the problem to Layton, who reviewed the intelligence findings of the previous three weeks, brooded over charts, and studied Pacific Ocean winds, weather, and currents. He repeatedly telephoned Rochefort to compare notes. At last he felt safe in reporting his estimates to Nimitz.

Layton predicted that the enemy carriers would attack Midway on the morning of 4 June. “They’ll come in from the northwest on bearing 325 degrees,” he said, “and they will be sighted at about 175 miles from Midway, and the time will be about 0600Midway time. “

The apparent completeness and the detail with which the Japanese plan had been made known through cryptanalysis aroused the suspicions of some officers stationed at Pearl Harbor. Why, they asked, should practically the whole Combined Fleet be assigned to the capture of one tiny Central Pacific atoll and a couple of useless islands in the Aleutians? Might not the messages be fakes, deliberately planted to mislead the Americans? Such top secret information is not usually transmitted by radio, even in the securest codes, for all the world to record, scrutinize, and perhaps cryptanalyze.

Nimitz pointed out that the Japanese could be operating in strength in order to meet American opposition. Their main objective might even be to draw out the inferior U.S. Pacific Fleet so that it could be destroyed. The transmission of the plans by radio could mean that Yamamoto was operating on so tight a schedule that he could get them distributed in time by no other means. Nimitz, for want of anything better, decided to base his strategy on the assumption that the intelligence estimates were correct.

He had expected Admiral Halsey, his senior carrier commander, to command the U. S. forces off Midway, but Halsey fell ill with a severe attack of dermatitis. Therefore, Fletcher assumed the tactical command, as he had in the Coral Sea. Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, Halsey’s cruiser commander, took temporary command of the Enterprise-Hornet force (Task Force 16). On the morning of 28 May, this force steamed out of Pearl Harbor and headed for the Midway area. Two days later, Fletcher followed with a hastily patched-up Yorktown, escorted by two heavy cruisers and five destroyers (Task Force 17).

U. S. radio traffic analysis indicated that all segments of the Japanese fleet were under way. Intercepts revealed that seaplanes were en route from the Marshall Islands to scout Pearl Harbor. They never arrived because they could not complete the long flight from the Marshalls and back without refueling. For that purpose they were supposed to meet tanker-submarines in the lagoon of French Frigate Shoals, but Admiral Nimitz had forehandedly stationed a vessel there.

Meanwhile Sand and Eastern islands in Midway Atoll had been converted into the most strongly fortified two square miles in the Pacific. The 3,000 defenders, protected by ground mines, underground shelters, guns in concealed emplacements, and a wilderness of barbed wire, were prepared to hurl back any force that was likely to try a landing. However, Nimitz was dubious about what Midway’s planes could do against enemy carriers. Tiny Eastern Island, where the airfield was, could handle only so many aircraft, and those available were ill adapted for attacking ships. Not a flier on Midway had had any combat experience. About the most that could be expected of them was that, by breaking up the formation of the enemy fleet and drawing off its fighters, they might set it up for the better-trained U. S. carrier aviators.

CinCPac and his staff had shot their bolt. They had deployed their available forces to the best of their ability to meet what looked like impossible odds. There was little more they could do until the enemy appeared. Then they would have their hands full, for Admiral Nimitz, acting as coordinator, was retaining overall command—land, sea, and air.

At dawn on 3 June, key members of the CinCPac staff were at their stations. A little after 0400, U. S. radio-intercept stations began to pick up bits of radio traffic suggesting unusual, possibly enemy, air activity in the eastern Aleutians. Dutch Harbor had in fact been raided from the air, but a report from that base seems to have got no farther than Admiral Theobald, who was at sea under radio silence. Analysis of the intercepts, however, at length convinced CinCPac staff that there had indeed been enemy planes over Dutch Harbor. 

Admiral Nimitz conservatively assessed the overflights as enemy reconnaissance, possibly by cruiser planes, rather than as part of the Japanese operation plan, unfolding right on schedule. Even if he could be sure that the planes were from the Japanese Second Carrier Striking Force, he would still not be certain that Midway was the enemy’s main target or that Nagumo’s First Carrier Striking Force was speeding down from the northwest in the fog to attack Midway. The best evidence of that would be a sighting of the slower invasion force from Saipan heading for the atoll.

Several hours passed without any further word from the north and none at all from the west. At last, a Iittle after 1100 (1230 at Pearl Harbor), the cable from Midway came to life. It was relaying a report, sent in segments from a Catalina patrolling 700 miles to westward: “Main Body … bearing 262, distance 700 … eleven ships, course 090, speed 19.” Nine B-17s, held in readiness at Midway for just such a contact, had promptly taken off and headed west to attack the oncoming enemy force with bombs. At Pearl Harbor, Commander Maurice E. Curts, the CinCPac communication officer, rushed the contact report to Nimitz’ office, where the admiral was consulting with Commander Layton. Nimitz glanced at the dispatch, then sat suddenly erect.

“Layton,” he said excitedly, “have you seen this?”

“What is it, sir?”

“The sighting of the Japanese forces!”

Nimitz was smiling. That in itself was nothing unusual, for he smiled often. His expression now, however, was nothing less than radiant, what Layton called “that brilliant white smile.”

“It just lights up,” said Layton, as though “somebody let in the sun by raising a window shade. His smile and his blue eyes would go right through you.” Nimitz had successfully concealed his anxiety, but now he made not the slightest attempt to hide his relief. He handed the dispatch to Layton.

“This ought to make your heart warm,” he said, chuckling. “This will clear up all the doubters now. They just have to see this to know that what I told them is correct.”

Though the U. S. task forces would almost certainly have picked up the radioed contact report directly from the Catalina, CinCPac communications took the elementary precaution of relaying the report to Admiral Fletcher. In view of the report’s misleading phrase “Main Body,” Nimitz warned: “That is not, repeat not, the enemy striking force.” Thus far, only the invasion force had been sighted, he added, and he reminded Fletcher that the Japanese carriers were due to strike from the northwest the following morning. The chances of sighting them on 3 June were slight because, from a foggy area almost all the way to Midway, dense clouds obscured the ocean.

Before sunset on the 3rd, Admiral Nimitz knew that Dutch Harbor had been bombed that morning and that four Japanese carrier planes had been shot down over the Aleutians. From Midway he learned that the B-17s sent against the invasion force found and attacked it 570 miles out. They reported having hit two battleships or heavy cruisers and two transports—news that the CinCPac staff received with a certain amount of skepticism. In the early evening, four Catalina amphibians took off from Midway for a moonlight torpedo attack on the invasion force. CinCPac relayed all this information to the appropriate commands. Then to Midway and to his task force commanders Nimitz sent a special message: “The situation is developing as expected. Carriers, our most important objective, should soon be located. Tomorrow may be the day you can give them the works.”

The concluding words of the entry in the CinCPac Command Summary for 3 June were prophetic: “The whole course of the war in the Pacific may hinge on the developments of the next two or three days.”

Though few persons on Oahu knew exactly what was going on or what to expect, all felt the tension that spread throughout the area like a tangible presence. At nightfall CinCPac headquarters, not aware that the scheduled Japanese seaplane reconnaissance had been canceled, passed an air-raid warning to 14th Naval District, which sounded an all-out “red” alert. Pearl Harbor Navy Yard was promptly blacked out. Machinery in the repair shops was shut down. Workmen and Marines manned machine guns. Trucks blocked the gates. On the ships in the harbor, gun crews hurried to their stations. At Schofield Army Barracks, many patients were discharged from the hospital to make way for anticipated casualties. In Honolulu civilian defense workers were summoned to duty.

Few CinCPac staff officers slept that night. One of them recalled that Admiral Nimitz dozed on a cot in his office—storing up rest against the coming 48 or more hectic hours, yet ready for any eventuality. Around 0200, the staff communication office, which operated 24 hours a day, received and passed on to Nimitz a report, relayed via Midway, from the Catalina amphibians. It stated that they had torpedoed two of the oncoming invasion force’s ships.

At dawn, 4 June, all the CinCPac staff were at their stations. They knew that when first light came to Midway, where the sun rose one and a half hours later than it did at Pearl, Catalinas would be out to the northwest, patrolling at the edge of the overcast. They were aware also that the report they were awaiting might well be the pivotal communication of the war. Shortly after 0600 it came, an urgent message in plain language, sent via the cable from Midway: “Plane reports two carriers and Main Body ships bearing 320, course 135, speed 25, distance 180.”

Though the Catalina pilot had reported seeing only two carriers, Nimitz was sure that there were four, perhaps five. He glanced at the date-time group on the dispatch. He then went into operations plot and pinpointed the enemy’s position. Afterward he remarked to Layton, “Well, you were only five miles, five degrees, and five minutes off.” At least half the credit for the remarkable accuracy of Layton’s prediction is due to Admiral Nagumo’s navigator, who, through three days of fog and overcast had guided his force unerringly toward its objective.

Here at last was the target the Americans had been waiting for—Nagumo’s First Carrier Striking Force, the force that had opened the war six months before with its raid on Pearl Harbor, the force that now had to be defeated. The brief contact report made clear to Nimitz and his staff that Nagumo had already launched an air attack on Midway. He must have launched his planes much farther out than a mere 180 miles, and he would have done so while his ships were still hidden by the overcast. He had remained on course 135°, toward Midway, so that his returning aircraft could find their carrier decks and in order to shorten their return flight. Nagumo could not have known at the time of launching that the American carriers were on his flank, or he would have launched his planes and shaped course in their direction.

CinCPac staff took for granted that, on receiving the contact report, Midway had launched all its planes so that none could be caught on the ground. The Midway­based bombers and torpedo planes would be heading to attack Nagumo’s carriers, the 28 Marine fighters to tackle his oncoming planes. Off to the northeast, Fletcher had undoubtedly heard the contact report and was acting upon it. Nevertheless, CinCPac communications faithfully relayed the report to him—just in case.

The CinCPac Staff was sure that, despite resistance from the 28 fighter planes, some, perhaps most, of the Japanese bombers would get through to Midway. An attack on the atoll was inevitable, and imminent. At 0625 the expected message came in via the cable, a three-word dispatch: “Air raid Midway.”

Two hours of trying uncertainty ensued, with no messages at all reaching Pearl from U. S. forces at the battle front. Fletcher and Spruance would of course maintain radio silence until they had been located by the enemy. Then, at 0830 there came in from Midway a sad little message: “Only 3 undamaged fighting planes remain. No contact our dive-bombing planes.”

Meanwhile Rochefort and Layton were in excited conversation on the scrambler telephone. Rochefort’s radio intelligence unit had picked up a Japanese voice contact report, evidently from one of Nagumo’s search planes. As interpreted by Rochefort, it read: “Sighted 10 surface ships, apparently enemy, bearing 10°, 240 miles from Midway, course 150°, speed over 20 knots.”

Layton took the sighting report immediately to Admiral Nimitz, who glanced at it. “Are you sure the report didn’t include our carriers being sighted?”

“Yes, sir.”

Nimitz, report in hand, strode into operations plot and handed it to the watch officer, who entered it on the plot. If the reported ships were one of the American carrier groups—and they could hardly be anything else—then the opposing forces were about 150 miles apart, that is, just within effective attack radius, and the Japanese carrier force was about 150 miles from Midway. 

The Midway-based aircraft must have been attacking Nagumo at about the same time that Nagumo’s search plane was informing him of nearby U. S. forces afloat. Intense static in the area through which Nagumo was steaming had, however, blotted out all radio reports from the American aircraft. Only as they returned to Midway were the aircraft able to forward reports to CinCPac, thanks to the cable connection. Their reports were not particularly encouraging. The dive-bombers had apparently hit one enemy carrier, which they said was left smoking. The B-17S reported making three hits on two carriers. On the other hand, the American planes had encountered heavy opposition from Zero fighters and suffered severe losses.

Nagumo’s myopic search pilot, transmitting outside the zone of intense static, continued to send in reports that were heard at Pearl. At 8:09 he identified the “10 surface ships, apparently enemy” as “five cruisers and five destroyers.” Eleven minutes later, having taken another look, he reported, “The enemy is accompanied by what appears to be a carrier bringing up the rear.”

This report brought the CinCPac staff crowding around the plot. They were sure that Nagumo now had information on which he was bound to act. He had to do something, and do it quickly, about that American carrier. CinCPac staff agreed that the Japanese admiral had two choices. He could launch an attack at once with his reserve aircraft. If he did that, the planes returning from Midway would have to remain in the air until the launching had been completed. There was a strong possibility that many of them, low in fuel after their long flight, would crash into the sea. Or Nagumo might first recover, refuel, and rearm the Midway planes before launching. He would thus be able to send out a much more powerful attack , but the attack would be delayed at least an hour. Meanwhile American planes would certainly be en route to strike Nagumo’s force. Should they succeed in bombing the Japanese carriers while the latter were refueling and rearming aircraft, the carriers would explode like giant firecrackers.

Although Midway-based Catalinas were out patrolling, no new information about the position or course of the Japanese carriers came over the cable. Nimitz was equally uninformed about the operations of the American forces. Fletcher continued to maintain radio silence, even though the Japanese now knew where he was.

Thus, just as the crucial battle of the war was reaching a climax, CinCPac suffered an information blackout. Nimitz managed to look unruffled, but officers who knew him well could see that he was deeply worried. One officer said, “Admiral Nimitz was frantic; I mean, as frantic as I’ve ever seen him.” The admiral sent for Commander Curts. “Why aren’t we getting messages?” he demanded. “Why aren’t we hearing something?” Curts replied somewhat lamely that he didn’t know, but that he didn’t want to send a message out there saying, ”I’m having no reports. Report something.” Nimitz agreed that that would not do at all.

The Japanese were not so reticent. Before 1000, two fairly long radio messages emanated from their carrier force. The Americans could not read the encoded messages, but Rochefort’s men reported that they came from the carrier Akagi, Nagumo’s flagship. One of them had recognized the touch on the key as that of one of the Akagi‘s chief warrant officers, an operator whose “fist” was so bad that someone had remarked that he “hits the key like he’s kicking it with his foot.” If Station Hypo could not read the messages, it at least now had Nagumo’s current call sign for future reference.

Nimitz’ sole source of information concerning the U. S. carrier forces continued to be the Japanese search pilot. A little before 0900, the pilot had radioed to the Japanese force: “Ten enemy torpedo planes heading toward you.” The planes could only be from the American carriers. CinCPac and his staff concluded that Nagumo was now either just completing the launching of his reserve aircraft or, as seemed more probable, he was recovering his planes from Midway, in which case he would not be able to launch until after 1000.

At 0926, the cable relayed to Pearl a Catalina report placing the oncoming invasion force 320 miles from Midway. Next over the cable came reports from Midway-based bombers and torpedo planes newly returned to the atoll. Apparently the Midway aircraft were continuing to take heavy losses while inflicting little or no damage on the enemy. Finally at 1008 the Enterprise broke silence in an unexpected manner. In CinCPac’s communications center a voice on the carrier’s audio frequency was heard to shout, “Attack immediately!” Someone identified the voice as that of Captain Miles Browning, the chief of staff whom Spruance had inherited from Halsey. Browning’s cry must have been in response to a report from American aviators that they had found the enemy.

After another long period of silence, Nimitz sent out inquiries, and Layton asked Rochefort via the hot-line telephone whether the U. S. carriers had attacked Nagumo’s force and, if so, what the Japanese reaction was. “Don’t we have anything on this?” Layton inquired.

“Not a thing.”

“Have we tried the other frequencies?”

“We’ve tried every frequency we know they’ve got.”

Admiral Nimitz and his staff concluded that in this instance no news might be good news. If the enemy carriers were not transmitting, it could be because they were no longer able to do so. At 1100 Rochefort’s radio intelligence unit intercepted a transmission, or a fragment of a transmission, in plain-language Japanese: “Inform us position enemy carriers.” This message, which obviously had been sent from the Nagumo force to one of its search planes, implied that at least one Japanese carrier was able and ready to counterattack. Fifty minutes later Nagumo himself radioed a long message in code to an unidentified addressee. The call sign was his, but the operator was not the heavy-handed warrant officer of the Akagi. One of Rochefort’s people had made a study of identifying operators and recognized the fist as that of the chief radioman in the cruiser Nagara. Evidently the Akagi had been damaged too heavily to serve as flagship, and Nagumo had shifted to the cruiser.

Admiral Fletcher, informed of these intercepts, at last broke radio silence, but only to report that Yorktown planes had attacked two enemy carriers. He added: “Have no indication of location of additional carriers which have sighted this force.” Shortly afterward, the Pearl Harbor radio intelligence unit intercepted the report of an airborne Japanese flight leader, “We are attacking the enemy carrier.” The flight leader was then heard ordering the aircraft under his command, “Attack! Attack! Attack!”

Then into CinCPac communications center came a message in plain English, “Am being attacked by large number of enemy bombers.” It was sent by ship’s radio to CinCPac, but no originator was shown, and attempts to authenticate it were fruitless. The explanation came twenty minutes later, when Fletcher sent a correctly identified coded message, “Have been attacked by air 150 miles north of Midway.”

CinCPac was kept informed, if somewhat belatedly, of what was happening to the Yorktown. Three bomb­hits having left her dead in the water, Admiral Fletcher and his staff had transferred to the cruiser Astoria (CA-34). Shortly after 1500, when the damaged carrier was again under way, she was the target of a second attack, this time by torpedo planes, which hit her at least twice. Because the Yorktown began to list badly and was apparently about to capsize, Captain Elliott Buckmaster gave the order to abandon ship. Hours later, after the last of her crew had been fished out of the water, the carrier was still afloat and had undergone no appreciable change in trim. Fletcher therefore requested CinCPac to send tugs and told him that, unless othetwise directed, he and his Task Force 17 would protect and attempt to salvage the Yorktown, while Spruance’s Task Force 16 continued to engage the enemy. Admiral Nimitz raised no objections; he wanted no effort spared to save the carrier, and in his opinion Spruance was entirely capable of taking over the tactical command.

The bad news about the Yorktown was somewhat offset by a dispatch from Spruance. He reported that between 0930 and 1100 that morning “air groups from Task Forces 16 and 17 attacked carriers of enemy force consisting of probably 4 carriers, 2 battleships, 4 heavy cruisers, and 6 destroyers. All 4 carriers believed badly damaged. ” He concluded his report: “Our plane losses heavy.”

Aircraft from Midway and from the Yorktown, the latter launched before she was damaged, were frantically searching the ocean for the source of the attacking planes. A shore-based Catalina found three burning ships 170 miles northwest of Midway. Some 45 miles farther out on the same bearing, the Yorktown planes found an undamaged enemy carrier, identified as the Hiryu. She was accompanied by two battleships, three cruisers, and four destroyers. Against this target the Enterprise and the Hornet launched 40 dive­bombers, while Midway sent a dozen B-17s, six of which were just approaching Eastern Island, having been ordered from Hawaii to Midway.

By the early evening of 4 June, Admiral Nimitz and his staff were reviewing the events of the day with guarded optimism. If the information thus far received was to be taken literally, the Americans had defeated the Nagumo force. But most of the favorable reports were based on observations by Army aviators, and they were not trained in assessing battle damage at sea. Even the careful Spruance had reported “all 4” enemy carriers badly damaged that morning. Yet in the early afternoon planes from one of those carriers had knocked out the Yorktown.

Results of the attack launched against the Hiryu from Midway and by Task Force 16 were not transmitted to CinCPac until the bombers had returned from their mission, the crews had been debriefed, and repetitions had been removed from their reports. Midway’s dispatch arrived at Pearl Harbor a little after 2200; Task Force 16’s, some 20 minutes later.

Said Midway: “Fortresses en route from Pearl made 2 hits on smoking carrier bearing 320, distance 170. Reported 2 other ships in area burning and 2 additional on fire about 125 miles on same bearing.”

Spruance reported: “At 1700 to 1800 air groups of Task Force 16 attacked enemy force consisting of 1 carrier, 2 battleships, 2 or more heavy cruisers, several destroyers. Carrier hit several times with 500- and 1000-pound bombs and when last seen burning fiercely. At least 4 hits on battleship, which was burning. One heavy cruiser also hit and burning. At 1750 enemy force in position lat. 30-41 north, long. 177-41 west, course west, speed 15 knots, with destroyers joining from southeast. Three ships believed carriers previously attacked were observed to southeastward still burning ….”

When Nimitz had read that far, he looked up. His countenance was glowing with “that brilliant white smile.” If the Hiryu was burning fiercely and the Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu, hit that morning, were still burning, all four carriers were almost certainly beyond salvage. An American victory seemed assured unless Spruance were to blunder badly, and Nimitz believed Spruance was no blunderer. Nimitz immediately released a prepared message to all his forces:

“You who participated in the Battle of Midway today have written a glorious page in our history. I am proud to be associated with you. I estimate that another day of all-out effort on your part will complete the defeat of the enemy. ”

The CinCPac Command Summary, probably echoing Nimitz, called the day’s operations “the start of what may be the greatest sea battle since Jutland. Its outcome, if as unfavorable to the Japs as seems indicated, will virtually end their expansion.”

The battle did indeed end the Japanese expansion, but of that the Americans could not then be sure. On the other hand, the Americans did not suspect until the end of the war how perilously close their own forces had come to defeat. Admiral Nagumo had elected to land, refuel, and rearm his planes from the Midway strike before launching against the American ships. Meanwhile, Midway was counterattacking. Aircraft from Eastern Island struck at the Japanese force in five successive waves. They achieved no hits. Next came three separate attacks by torpedo planes from the Hornet, the Enterprise, and the Yorktown. Nearly all of these were shot down without inflicting any damage whatever.

At 1000, the four Japanese carriers had on their flight decks a strike force armed, fueled, and ready to take off, and a second strike force being readied below. Nagumo ordered his counterattack, and his carriers turned into the wind to launch. At that moment, bombers from the Yorktown and the Enterprise, undetected by the Japanese, dove from 15,000 feet and, in seconds, changed the whole course of the war. They released bombs that hit the Soryu, the Kaga, and the Akagi, setting off lethal fires and explosions in all three.

The Hiryu, escaping unscathed to the north with some of the Japanese surface vessels, first launched bombers, then torpedo planes that found and disabled the Yorktown. At 1700, dive-bombers from the Enterprise located the Hiryu just as she was about to launch an attack on the other American carriers. They scored four direct hits on the Japanese carrier, setting off explosions and uncontrollable fires.

Admiral Fletcher, having transferred from the heavily listing Yorktown to a cruiser, turned the command over to Admiral Spruance. That night, Admiral Yamamoto canceled his Midway operation and ordered a general retirement of his forces. Spruance pursued the enemy fleet through 5 June. On the 6th, his dive-bombers overtook two heavy cruisers, damaged and slowed down by having collided with each other. The bombers sank one of the cruisers and left the other a barely floating wreck.

Japanese troops landed without opposition on the Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska. The Yorktown, en route for Pearl Harbor under tow, was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine. Despite these setbacks, the Battle of Midway was a clear-cut American victory. It was won by carrier planes. The land-based bombers, their crews untrained for hitting moving ships, dropped more than 300 bombs without achieving a single hit.

For the Americans the victory was not cheap: one carrier and one destroyer sunk, 307 men killed, 147 aircraft lost, extensive damage to installations at Midway, moderate damage to installations at Dutch Harbor, and Attu and Kiska lost. Japanese losses were not so severe as wartime estimates indicated, but they were severe enough to reverse the course of the Pacific war: four carriers and one heavy cruiser sunk, another heavy cruiser wrecked, one battleship, one oiler, and three destroyers damaged, 322 aircraft lost, and 2,500 men killed, including many experienced pilots.

In the first euphoria of victory, before the cost in lives had been totted up, Admiral Nimitz could not resist making a pun in his famous communiqué of 6 June:

“Pearl Harbor has now been partially avenged. Vengeance will not be complete until Japanese sea power is reduced to impotence. We have made substantial progress in that direction. Perhaps we will be forgiven if we claim that we are about midway to that objective.”


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