At Midway in 1942, the entire course of the Pacific War was altered in just five minutes.
By May 1942, the Japanese seemed to be winning the Pacific War. They had conquered a huge swath of territory stretching from China almost to Australia, had dealt the US a crippling blow at Pearl Harbor, and had, they thought, destroyed two American aircraft carriers at the Coral Sea (the Lexington and Yorktown), leaving the American Navy with just two remaining carriers in the Pacific (the Enterprise and the Hornet). The Rising Sun seemed unstoppable.
And yet the Japanese Navy commander, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, was worried. He knew that if the war did not end quickly, the United States would be able to start up its massive economic might and overwhelm Japan though sheer weight of numbers. But despite the impressive string of Imperial Navy victories, the Americans showed no signs of willingness to negotiate an armistice. Japan had to act quickly to cripple the remaining US Navy forces, especially the carriers, and force the Americans to the table.
So Yamamoto formed a plan that would ambush the American fleet, destroy the remaining carriers, and leave the US unable to continue the fight. A Japanese task force would be dispatched to take several of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. The US Navy would be compelled to send its remaining forces to defend Alaskan territory, and would immediately set out for the North Pacific. Meanwhile, Yamamoto and his main task force, with the four aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu and 248 combat aircraft, would attack and seize the American base at Midway Island, forcing the US carriers to move to meet this new threat. In the ensuing battle, the heavily outnumbered Americans would be beaten, and Japan would be in a position to dictate terms.
Yamamoto’s plan depended on surprise, so when his battle fleet left Japan for Midway, they sailed in complete radio silence. By June 4, as the feint in the Aleutians was underway, the Japanese carrier force, commanded by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, arrived in position northwest of the island.
Nagumo’s first task was to use airstrikes from his carriers to eliminate the American defenses on Midway Island, especially the US aircraft. These were a collection of Navy planes and Army bombers, some of them obsolete, but they posed a potential threat and had to be eliminated before the slow-moving landing ships could be sent in for the invasion.
At the same time, Nagumo had another consideration: although the assumption was that the American carriers, responding to the ruse in the Aleutians, were still somewhere near Hawaii after just having left port, the Japanese had no firm intelligence that this was so. Lacking information on exactly where the US fleet was, Nagumo was under orders from Yamamoto to take precautions in case the Americans unexpectedly appeared nearby. So Nagumo sent seven floatplanes, carried by his cruisers, to scour the area ahead of him and keep an eye out for the US Navy. (One of these planes, Scout Number Four from the cruiser Tone, was delayed by a catapult problem for half an hour). In Nagumo’s mind, this was just a safety measure—it was not expected that the American carriers would turn towards Midway until the first Japanese air strikes had begun.
Nagumo was also ordered to take another cautionary action: he would launch only 108 of his airplanes against Midway, keeping the remainder aboard his carriers as a reserve. The Japanese carriers had three types of planes. The Aichi “Val” was a dive-bomber, whose mission was to drop high-explosive bombs onto ground targets or armor-piercing bombs onto enemy ships. The Nakajima “Kate” was a dual-role attack plane—it could either drop bombs from high altitude onto ground targets, or drop aerial torpedoes at low altitude against enemy ships. The Mitsubishi “Zero” was a fighter, and its mission was to defend the bombers. While the Vals and Kates of the Midway strike would be armed with bombs for use against ground targets, the reserve force kept aboard the Japanese carriers would be armed with anti-ship bombs and torpedoes, kept ready in case the American fleet was sighted.
But, even as Nagumo was preparing to launch his surprise strike against Midway, it was he who was spotted first. A PBY Catalina patrol plane from the island flew over the Japanese fleet at 5:30 am. The surprise strike was now no longer a surprise, and instead of being caught unawares on the ground by Nagumo’s bombers, the American planes on Midway would already be taking off. The bombers, from the Navy, Marines and Army, were all on their way to attack the Japanese fleet. The fighters, consisting of some obsolete Brewster Buffalos and a handful of Wildcats, were circling Midway to defend against the airstrike that they now knew was coming.
The Japanese force arrived first. The Zero fighters made quick work of the slower Americans, and the Kate and Val bombers swarmed over the island, attacking the oil tanks, hangars and seaplane docks. But the runways were still intact, meaning that Midway’s aircraft still posed a potential threat to the Japanese troop transports. The Japanese strike commander radioed to Nagumo that a second air strike on the island was necessary to knock out the runways.
This wasn’t entirely unexpected: the Japanese already planned that it would take more than one wave to destroy the American airfield. But the Japanese had assumed that the American aircraft would all be caught by surprise on the ground and bombed by the first wave. Instead, all of Midway’s bombers were now making their way towards Nagumo’s carriers.
Over the next 90 minutes, small groups of American bombers arrived piecemeal over the Japanese carrier fleet—everything from Marine Corps Dauntless dive bombers to Navy Avenger torpedo bombers to heavy Army B-17 bombers. Japanese Zero fighters, circling on patrol over the fleet, shot many of them down. And then, another surprise: during the last American air attack at 8:30am, a lone American submarine, the USS Nautilus, suddenly popped up in the middle of the Japanese fleet and fired a torpedo before submerging and running. Nagumo dispatched a destroyer, the Arashi, to pursue the sub, but after an hour of chase, she was unable to corner the Nautilus.
In all, Midway had sent 58 planes against the Japanese fleet, and none of them scored any hits. Around one-third of them had been shot down. But the American air attacks, while doing no damage, did have a significant, though unintended, effect. When Nagumo had received the radio message from his air group that a second wave was needed at Midway, shortly after 7:00am, it left him with a decision. One option was to wait for the planes from the first strike to return to their carriers, refuel and re-arm them, then send them back for a second attack. That would take several hours, allowing the Americans to re-organize their air defenses on the island. The other option was to take the reserve force that had been kept behind on the carriers, switch their anti-ship weapons to ground attack, and launch them as the second wave. That would allow a strike on the Americans before they could recover from the shock of the first assault, and it may perhaps even catch the surviving American bombers on the ground after they landed. But it would leave the Japanese carrier force without any aircraft at all for a period of time, until the planes from the first wave were able to return and be refurbished. The fleet would be defenseless against any American ships in the area.
But, of course, Nagumo did not think there were any American ships in the area—the US carriers would still be somewhere near Hawaii. So Nagumo made his decision: he ordered that the reserve planes be re-armed for a second ground attack against Midway.
However, because of all the American air attacks, Nagumo was now under a time constraint. It would take about 90 minutes to switch the Kate bombers from torpedoes to ground-attack bombs and then launch the strike. Meanwhile, the Japanese planes from the first wave were returning to their carriers, and once they arrived they would be low on gas and have to be recovered first before the second wave could take off. Nagumo therefore had to hurry if he wanted to launch his new attack before the returning first wave arrived. To save time, the support crews in the hangar decks got sloppy, leaving bombs and torpedoes littered around on the floor as they desperately tried to get the planes ready as rapidly as they could.
But then, at 7:45am, even as the Japanese hangar crews were working feverishly, Nagumo received the one message that he dreaded most. The floatplane Scout Number Four from Tone, which had been delayed in its takeoff, now reached the apex of its patrol, and reported that it had found “what appears to be ten enemy surface units”.
It was devastating news. The entire Midway operation had been based on the assumption that the US Navy would not even be in the area until after the island had already been captured and the Japanese carriers were ready and waiting for them.
Nagumo was now forced into a desperate corner, made worse by his lack of information. The scout plane had not mentioned any American aircraft carrier: it was entirely possible that this American group was just a destroyer flotilla or an oil supply convoy on its way to the island. If, on the other hand, the ships turned out to be a carrier group, Nagumo’s fleet was in immediate danger, and he had to attack it first.
But many of his planes were now already re-armed with weaponry suited for a ground attack on Midway—if he wanted to launch them against the American ships, he would first have to remove their bombs and fit them again with torpedoes before launching them. That would take perhaps an hour. But then the time constraint he already faced would come into effect: the 100 planes from the first wave against Midway would be here and, unable to land while the carriers were launching a strike, they would all run out of gas and have to ditch in the sea.
Once again, Nagumo made his decision: he would land the returning planes from the first wave, arm his entire air force with anti-ship weaponry, then launch all of them against the Americans.
At 8:20am, over half an hour after the American ships were first sighted, came the report, “The enemy is accompanied by what appears to be a carrier”. Although this confirmed the danger that Nagumo faced, it also presented him with an opportunity: all he needed was about an hour to refuel and re-arm all of his recovered planes and launch his entire air group against the American carrier group. It was, he thought, his opportunity to knock the US out of the Pacific War.
But he never got the chance.
Shortly after 9am, a group of planes was sighted on the horizon. They were Devastator torpedo planes from the US carriers. All of them were shot down by patrolling Zero fighters. Immediately after, another group of torpedo planes bore in from a different angle, and then yet another. These too were cut to pieces by Zeros. But now Nagumo realized how much trouble he was actually in—he had seen at least three squadrons of torpedo planes, which meant there were three US carriers within range, not just the two that the Japanese had believed were available. And the Americans had gotten to Midway much more rapidly than were expected. (The Japanese did not know that the US had broken their codes, uncovered the entire Japanese plan from the start, and had been lying in wait for them the entire time.)
Like the attacking American planes from Midway earlier, the US carrier torpedo planes did not score any hits on the Japanese, but they played a crucial role nevertheless. For as long as the American attacks continued, the Japanese would be unable to launch their own strike against the US fleet.
And more importantly, the low-level torpedo bombers drew all the Zeros from the Japanese combat patrol down to low altitudes—inadvertently setting them up for what was to follow. So far on June 4, 1942, Nagumo’s fleet had been attacked by a total of 99 American planes in 8 separate flights from Midway and the American carriers, had shot down 53 of those—and had not itself suffered a single hit.
But at 10:20am, three flights of American SBD Dauntless dive bombers appeared overhead. They had been wandering around aimlessly, unable to find the Japanese, until they had noticed a lone destroyer moving at top speed. It was the Arashi, returning after her unsuccessful hunt for the submarine Nautilus. Following her course, the Americans were led right to Nagumo’s fleet. At 10:22, with no opposition from enemy fighters, they began their steep dives.
Thirty of the SBD’s targeted the Kaga, the largest of the four Japanese carriers. Four bombs crashed through her flight deck and exploded in the hangar deck below. Here, the Japanese crews had dropped bombs and torpedoes everywhere in their rush to re-arm their strike aircraft, and these now detonated too. Within minutes, flames and explosions wracked the Kaga from stem to stern.
The smaller Soryu was the target of thirteen Dauntlesses, who scored three hits. Once again, the fully-fueled and armed bombers in her hangar wreaked havoc, and smoke poured into the sky as she burned furiously.
At first, the Akagi was ignored by the Americans. But as smoke and flame spewed from the Kaga, three of the dive bombers who were attacking her peeled off and went for the nearby Akagi instead. They got only one hit, but like the others it exploded inside the crowded hangar deck and set off a chain of secondary explosions, as haphazardly stacked bombs and torpedoes were detonated.
In less than four minutes, the most powerful aircraft carrier force in the world had been reduced to three smoking wrecks. Although the Battle of Midway would continue for another day, and both the Japanese and Americans would lose another aircraft carrier, it was the dive-bomber attacks that destroyed the heart of the Japanese Navy and won the Pacific War.
Today the US Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola FL has one of the SBD Dauntless dive bombers from Midway on display.