On 3 June 1942, Japanese planes from the light carrier Ryugo strafed and bombed Dutch Harbor on the island of Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands. The Japanese hoped to lure the American carriers into the open with the attack on American soil. As the American carriers respond to the attack on Alaska, they were to be destroyed by the four carriers of Admiral Nagumo’s Kido Butai which was fast approaching the island of Midway.
However the Americans were already there and waiting. On 2 June 1942, Admiral Fletcher’s Task Force 17 rendezvoused with Admiral Spruance’s TF 16 at “Point Luck” 325 miles north east of Midway. The next day, 3 June 1942, aircraft from Midway Island spotted the Japanese invasion fleet and the three American carriers, the USS Hornet, the USS Enterprise, and the USS Yorktown, began steaming west to engage the Japanese.
In the early morning hours of 4 June 1942, Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, the Victor of Pearl Harbor, assumed that the greatest threat to his aircraft carriers, the Kaga, Akagi, Hiryu and Soryu, were the land based bombers on Midway Island. He had no idea that three American carriers were lurking nearby.
Nagumo’s first strike on Midway Island did extensive damage to the airfield but a second strike was needed. While he was arming for a second land attack, one of his reconnaissance planes radioed that they had spotted an American carrier. With the first strike’s planes returning and low on fuel, he sent his second strike back below decks to rearm for a naval attack while he recovered the first strike. Unknown to him, an American attack was on its way.
Due to confusion on the American carriers, navigation errors in the search, and haste to launch the attack, the Americans were not synchronized. The coordination between Admiral Fletcher’s aircraft from the Yorktown, and Admiral Spruance’s aircraft from the Enterprise and Hornet was poor at best. Moreover, the attacks were supposed to be integrated: with torpedo bombers, dive bombers, and escorting fighters all arriving over the target simultaneously. This would have dispersed defending Japanese fighters and anti-aircraft fire, but some squadrons couldn’t find their compatriots, some squadrons didn’t wait around, and some waited in the wrong spot. To make matters worse, Nagumo’s carriers made a slight course correction, and many planes flew to the wrong spot only to find empty ocean. The Battle of Midway looked to be a repeat of the Battle of the Coral Sea.
Fortunately, individual squadrons found the Japanese on their own. The first were the torpedo bombers of LtCdr “Lem” Massey’s Torpedo Squadron Three (VT-3), followed shortly by LtCdr John Waldron’s Torpedo Squadron Eight (VT-8). As the Japanese planes were being recovered, the American torpedo bombers attacked and the defending Japanese Zeros made short work of the low and slow flying TBD Devastators. The six fighters of LtCdr Jim Thach’s Fighter Squadron Three couldn’t adequately protect their vulnerable wards and the TBs suffered almost 100% casualties. Of the twenty seven torpedo bombers that attacked, only two from Waldron’s squadron returned, and only one man from VT-8 survived: wounded and floating in the ocean was a young ensign, George Gay. As the historian Samuel Elliot Morrison pointed out, “For about 100 seconds, the Japanese thought they had won the Battle of Midway, and the war.”
They could not have been more wrong.
Two squadrons of Dauntless dive bombers approached almost simultaneously. The first, Max Leslie’s Bombing Three (VB-3) was the last squadron to take off from the aircraft carriers, and was actually the only squadron to have an accurate idea of where the Japanese were. The second squadron, Bombing Six (VB-6) was escorted by LtCdr Wade McCluskey’s Fighting Six (VF-6). Initially, they couldn’t find the Japanese ships. But, McClusky, low on fuel, decided not turn back even though he knew most of his planes would have to ditch in the ocean. His persistence paid off when he spotted a lone Japanese destroyer sailing at flank speed. He decided to follow it, and it led his planes directly to Nagumo. Adm Nimitz would credit McClusky’s decision, that of a relatively junior field grade officer, as one of the most important of the war; “It decided the fate of carrier task force and our forces at Midway…”
The suicidal torpedo runs by VT’s 3 and 8 were not in vain. They forced the defending Japanese Zeroes near sea level to chase the slow TBs and left the sky above the Japanese carriers free of air protection. The American dive bombers took advantage of the clear approaches to their targets.
In four minutes, from 10:22 to 10:26 am on 4 June 1942, VB-6 from the USS Enterprise screamed out of the sun and scored direct hits on the Kaga and Akagi, while VB-3 from the USS Yorktown pounded the Soryu. The Japanese carriers had decks packed with bomb and fuel laden planes, and the American dive bombers turned them into exploding infernos. Only the Hiryu escaped complete and catastrophic destruction.
The Hiryu responded and launched two counterattacks which severely damaged the Yorktown later that morning. That afternoon, planes from the Enterprise, including ten originally from the Yorktown, so damaged the Hiryu that she had to be scuttled. Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi, probably the best Japanese carrier admiral of the war, chose to go down with the ship in shame.
Without air cover, Admiral Yamamoto turned his battleships and the invasion fleet around. By the evening of 4 June 1942, the Japanese lost four carriers, all of their aircraft, most of their experienced pilots, and incalculable crew and staff experience in carrier operations. They would never recover from the loss. The dreaded Kido Butai, the most powerful and feared fleet in history, was no more. The massacre of the torpedo bombers during the Battle of Midway was the Japanese high water mark. There were still three long years left in the Pacific fight but initiative was now with the Americans and would stay that way for the rest of the war.