75 years ago…

One of the pivotal battles of WWII started on the 3rd of June and continued on this day…

It took place in the Northern Pacific at a little atoll in the middle of ‘nowhere’, called Midway, made up of Sand and Eastern Islands.

Thanks to the code breakers at HYPO, ADM Nimitz knew the Japanese were going to attack, either on the 4th or 5th of June, 1942. He also knew the order of battle for the Japanese fleets and knew they were spread out.

This photo is from late 1941, with Eastern Is in the foreground and Sand Is in the background. At the time, all airplanes other than seaplanes used Eastern Is.

Official U.S. Navy photo 80-G-451086 from the U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command

VP-44 had been relocated from Hawaii to Midway (Eastern Is) after Pearl Harbor and were flying search patterns extending roughly 500nm out in various directions.

Consolidated PBY-3 Catalina, 1942. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command 80-G-K-14896)

On June 3rd, this crew (one of 22 PBY’s launched that day) started the ball rolling…

Standing, left to right: AMM2c R. Derouin, ACRM Francis Musser, Ens. Hardeman (co-pilot), Ens. J.H. “Jack” Reid (aircraft commander) and Ens. R.A. Swan (navigator). Kneeling, left to right: AMM1c J.F. Gammel, AMM3c J. Groovers and AMM3c P.A. Fitzpatrick. (U.S. Navy)

While they actually discovered the attack fleet, they did not find the Japanese Carriers. They were actually looking for something else…

Their sector for that day was west by southwest, which was in the general area for a possible encounter with the twin- engine “Betty’s”.

The crew hoped for an encounter with one of these aircraft. The night before one of the crew members had traded some beer for 5 new explosive .50 caliber shells from a B-17 crew. The ordnancemen on the crew had loaded them on the port waist gun.

The flight came to the end of their outbound 600 mile leg with no sightings. The crew urged Jack Reid to go further to see if they couldn’t make contact with a “Betty”.  Jack checked with navigator Bob Swan and was assured that they still had plenty of fuel to go another 20 or 30 minutes on the present course. Jack agreed to the plan and told Bob, just give me as heading when we get to the end of the time limit.

The flight continued on for the allotted time and as Bob was about to give Jack the new heading for the  dogleg and at that instant Jack spotted specks on the horizon. He gave the binoculars to the second pilot Gerald Hardeman saying, ”Are those ships? I think we’ve hit the jackpot.”  Hardemen concurred.  Moments later John Gammell, in the nose turret, sang out “Ships dead ahead, about 30 miles dead ahead.” a radio message was immediately sent to Pearl Harbor saying, ”Sighted main body”, minutes later, a second message, ”Bearing 262, distance 700 miles.” Midway being the target of the Japanese force.

Jack Reid scouted the force for another two hours. He kept the Catalina at low altitudes and came up from different positions, counting the sightings at each one and radioing the results. The long wakes in the ocean from the armada led him to either port or starboard of the ships. He knew full well, if detected they would be hit by a sky full of Zero’s to a large force of scouting aircraft.

The force sighted consisted of 17ships, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and transports headed for Midway.

44-P-4 landed back at Midway with little fuel to spare. When asked why they were able to stay aloft for an additional 3 hours, Bob Swan replied, ”Raymond Derouin (the plane captain) has three dependents-a wife and two daughters. He always puts in an extra 50 gallons for each one.”

Note: This was illegal, and AMM2c Derouin could have been in serious trouble if the command had found out, as they were counting individual gallons of gas to fuel all the airplanes that needed to fly daily.

When Reid’s crew called in the sightings, nine B-17s took off from Midway at 12:30 for the first air attack. Three hours later, they found Tanaka’s transport group 570 nautical miles to the west.

Under heavy anti-aircraft fire, they dropped their bombs. Although their crews reported hitting 4 ships, none of the bombs actually hit anything and no significant damage was done. Early the following morning, the Japanese oil tanker Akebono Maru sustained the first hit when a torpedo from an attacking PBY struck her around 01:00. This was the only successful air-launched torpedo attack by the U.S. during the entire battle.

At 04:30 on 4 June, VADM Nagumo, IJN launched his initial attack on Midway itself, consisting of 36 Aichi D3A dive bombers and 36 Nakajima B5N torpedo bombers, escorted by 36 Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters. At the same time, he launched his 8 search aircraft. Japanese reconnaissance arrangements were flimsy, with too few aircraft to adequately cover the assigned search areas, laboring under poor weather conditions to the northeast and east of the task force. As Nagumo’s bombers and fighters were taking off, 11 PBYs were leaving Midway to run their search patterns. At 05:34, a PBY reported sighting 2 Japanese carriers and another spotted the inbound airstrike 10 minutes later.

American radar picked up the enemy at a distance of several miles, and interceptors were scrambled. Unescorted bombers headed off to attack the Japanese carriers, their fighter escorts remaining behind to defend Midway. At 06:20, Japanese carrier aircraft bombed and heavily damaged the U.S. base. Midway-based Marine fighters, which included 7 F4Fs and 21 F2As, intercepted the Japanese and suffered heavy losses, though they managed to destroy 4 B5Ns and at least 3 A6Ms. Within the first few minutes, 3 F4Fs and 13 F2As were destroyed, while most of the surviving U.S. planes were damaged, with only 2 remaining airworthy. American anti-aircraft fire was intense and accurate, destroying 4 additional Japanese aircraft and damaging many more.

Of the 108 Japanese aircraft involved in this attack, 11 were destroyed, 14 were heavily damaged, and 29 were damaged to some degree. The initial Japanese attack did not succeed in neutralizing Midway: American bombers could still use the airbase to refuel and attack the Japanese invasion force, and most of Midway’s land-based defenses were intact.

On the morning of 4 June,

RADM Fletcher, a surface line officer, was in overall command of the combined TF16/TF17 aboard Yorktown, but he had been ‘taught’ how to use carriers and aircraft by RADM Fitch during the Battle of Coral Sea. He ordered RADM Spruance (another surface line officer who had replaced VADM Bull Halsey) to launch against the Japanese ASAP, while holding Yorktown in reserve in case any other Japanese carriers were found.

Spruance judged that, though the range was extreme, a strike could succeed and gave the order to launch the attack with Halsey’s Chief of Staff, Captain Miles Browning in charge. Browning suggested a launch time of 07:00, giving the carriers an hour to close on the Japanese by almost 30 miles. This would place them at about 155 nautical miles from the Japanese fleet, assuming it did not change course. The first plane took off from Spruance’s carriers Enterprise and Hornet a few minutes after 07:00. Fletcher, upon completing his own scouting flights, followed suit at 08:00 from Yorktown.

Spruance ordered the striking aircraft to proceed to target immediately, rather than waste time waiting for the strike force to assemble, since neutralizing enemy carriers was the key to the survival of his own task force. Accordingly, American squadrons were launched piecemeal and proceeded to the target in several different groups. It was accepted that the lack of coordination would diminish the impact of the American attacks and increase their casualties, but Spruance calculated that this was worthwhile, since keeping the Japanese under aerial attack impaired their ability to launch a counterstrike.

American carrier aircraft had difficulty locating the target, despite the positions they had been given. The strike from Hornet, led by Commander Stanhope C. Ring, followed an incorrect heading of 265 degrees rather than the 240 degrees indicated by the contact report. As a result, Air Group Eight’s dive bombers missed the Japanese carriers. Torpedo Squadron 8 (VT-8, from Hornet), led by Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron, broke formation from Ring and followed the correct heading. The 10 F4Fs from Hornet ran out of fuel and had to ditch.

Devastators of VT-6 aboard USS Enterprise being prepared for take off during the battle (USN Photograph)

Waldron’s squadron sighted the enemy carriers and began attacking at 09:20, followed by Torpedo Squadron 6 (VT-6, from Enterprise) whose Wildcat fighter escorts also ran low on fuel and had to turn back at 09:40. Without fighter escort, all 15 TBD Devastators of VT-8 were shot down without being able to inflict any damage. Of the 30 aircrew of VT-8, one man, Ensign George H. Gay, Jr., was the only survivor. VT-6 lost 10 of its 14 Devastators, and 10 of Yorktown’s VT-3’s 12 Devastators were shot down with no hits to show for their effort, due to the performance of their unimproved Mark 13 torpedoes.  Midway was the last time the TBD Devastator was used in combat.

The Japanese combat air patrol, flying Mitsubishi A6M2 Zeros made short work of the unescorted, slow, under-armed TBDs. A few TBDs managed to get within a few ship-lengths range of their targets before dropping their torpedoes—close enough to be able to strafe the enemy ships and force the Japanese carriers to make sharp evasive maneuvers—but all of their torpedoes either missed or failed to explode. ENS Gay was able to close to close range, and fly parallel to the Kaga, which allowed him to attempt to escape, but he was jumped by more Zeros and shot down. He survived 30 hours in the water before being picked up.

Despite their failure to score any hits, the American torpedo attacks indirectly achieved three important results. First, they kept the Japanese carriers off balance and unable to prepare and launch their own counterstrike. Second, the poor control of the Japanese combat air patrol meant they were out of position for subsequent attacks. Third, many of the Zeros ran low on ammunition and fuel. The appearance of a third torpedo plane attack from the southeast by VT-3 from Yorktown at 10:00 very quickly drew the majority of the Japanese CAP to the southeast quadrant of the fleet. 

By chance, at the same time VT-3 was sighted by the Japanese, three squadrons of SBDs from Enterprise and Yorktown were approaching from the southwest and northeast. The Yorktown squadron (VB-3) had flown just behind VT-3, but elected to attack from a different course. The two squadrons from Enterprise (VB-6 and VS-6) were running low on fuel because of the time spent looking for the enemy. Squadron commander C. Wade McClusky, Jr. decided to continue the search, and by good fortune spotted the wake of the Japanese destroyer Arashi, steaming at full speed to rejoin Nagumo’s carriers after having unsuccessfully depth-charged U.S. submarine Nautilus, which had unsuccessfully attacked the battleship Kirishima. Additional US bombers were lost from fuel exhaustion before the attack commenced.

After the battle,Admiral Chester Nimitz, said that McClusky’s decision to continue the search and attack “decided the fate of our carrier task force and our forces at Midway …”

All three American dive-bomber squadrons (VB-6, VS-6 and VB-3) arrived almost simultaneously at the perfect time, locations and altitudes to attack. Most of the Japanese CAP was focusing on the torpedo planes of VT-3 and were out of position, armed Japanese strike aircraft filled the hangar decks, fuel hoses snaked across the decks as refueling operations were hastily being completed, and the repeated change of ordnance meant that bombs and torpedoes were stacked around the hangars, rather than stowed safely in the magazines, making the Japanese carriers extraordinarily vulnerable.

Beginning at 10:22, the two squadrons of Enterprises air group split up with the intention of sending one squadron each to attack Kaga and Akagi. A miscommunication caused both of the squadrons to dive at the Kaga. Recognizing the error, Lieutenant Commander Richard Halsey Best and his two wingmen were able to pull out of their dive and, after judging that Kaga was doomed, headed north to attack Akagi. Coming under an onslaught of bombs from almost two full squadrons, Kaga sustained four or five direct hits, which caused heavy damage and started multiple fires. One of the bombs landed near the bridge, killing Captain Jisaku Okada and most of the ship’s senior officers.

Several minutes later, Best and his two wingmen dived on the Akagi. Mitsuo Fuchida, the Japanese aviator who led the attack on Pearl Harbor, was on the Akagi when it was hit, and described the attack:

A look-out screamed: “Hell-Divers!” I looked up to see three black enemy planes plummeting towards our ship. Some of our machineguns managed to fire a few frantic bursts at them, but it was too late. The plump silhouettes of the American Dauntless dive-bombers quickly grew larger, and then a number of black objects suddenly floated eerily from their wings.[103]

Although Akagi sustained only one direct hit, it proved to be a fatal blow: the bomb struck the edge of the mid-ship deck elevator and penetrated to the upper hangar deck, where it exploded among the armed and fueled aircraft in the vicinity. Nagumo’s chief of staff, Ryūnosuke Kusaka, recorded “a terrific fire … bodies all over the place … Planes stood tail up, belching livid flames and jet-black smoke, making it impossible to bring the fires under control.” Another bomb exploded under water very close astern; the resulting geyser bent the flight deck upward “in grotesque configurations” and caused crucial rudder damage.

Simultaneously, Yorktowns VB-3, commanded by Max Leslie, went for Sōryū, scoring at least three hits and causing extensive damage. Some of Leslie’s bombers did not have bombs as they were accidentally released when the pilots attempted to use electrical arming switches. Nevertheless, Leslie and others still dive-bombed, strafing carrier decks and providing covers for those with bombs. Gasoline ignited, creating an “inferno,” while stacked bombs and ammunition detonated. VT-3 targeted Hiryū, which was hemmed in by Sōryū, Kaga, and Akagi, but achieved no hits.

Within six minutes, Sōryū and Kaga were ablaze from stem to stern, as fires continued to spread through the ships. Akagi, having been struck by only one bomb, took longer to burn, but the resulting fires quickly expanded and soon proved impossible to extinguish; she too was eventually consumed by the flames and had to be abandoned. All three carriers remained temporarily afloat, as none had suffered damage below the waterline, other than the rudder damage to Akagi caused by the near miss close astern. Despite initial hopes that Akagi could be saved or at least towed back to Japan, all three carriers were eventually abandoned and scuttled.

Japanese response-

Hiryū, the sole surviving Japanese aircraft carrier, counterattacked with D3As and 6 fighter escorts, followed the retreating American aircraft and attacked the first carrier they encountered, Yorktown, hitting her with three bombs, which blew a hole in the deck, snuffed out her boilers, and destroyed one anti-aircraft mount. The damage also forced Admiral Fletcher to move his command staff to the heavy cruiser Astoria.

Yorktown at the moment of impact of a torpedo from a Nakajima B5N of Lieutenant Hashimoto’s 2nd chūtai

Repair teams were able to temporarily patch the flight deck and restore power to several boilers within an hour, giving her a speed of 19 knots (35 km/h; 22 mph) and enabling her to resume air operations. Thirteen dive bombers and three escorting fighters were lost in this attack (two escorting fighters turned back early after they were damaged attacking some of Enterprises SBDs returning from their attack on the Japanese carriers).

Approximately one hour later, Hiryū’s second attack wave, consisting of ten B5Ns and six escorting A6Ms, arrived over the Yorktown; the repair efforts had been so effective that the Japanese pilots assumed that Yorktown must be a different, undamaged carrier. They attacked, crippling Yorktown with two torpedoes; she lost all power and developed a 23-degree list to port. Five torpedo bombers and two fighters were shot down in this attack.

News of the two strikes, with the reports each had sunk an American carrier (actually both strikes had damaged, but not sunk, Yorktown), greatly improved morale in the Japanese carrier task force. Its few surviving aircraft were all recovered aboard Hiryū. Despite the heavy losses, the Japanese believed that they could scrape together enough aircraft for one more strike against what was believed to be the only remaining American carrier.

And the American counter attack-

Late in the afternoon, a Yorktown scout aircraft located Hiryū, prompting Enterprise to launch a final strike of 24 dive bombers (including 6 SBDs from VS-6, 4 SBDs from VB-6, and 14 SBDs from Yorktown’s VB-3). Despite Hiryū being defended by more than a dozen Zero fighters, the attack by Enterprise and orphaned Yorktown aircraft launched from Enterprise was successful: four, possibly five bombs hit Hiryū, leaving her ablaze and unable to operate aircraft. Hornets strike, launched late because of a communications error, concentrated on the remaining escort ships but failed to score any hits.

After futile attempts at controlling the blaze, most of the crew remaining on Hiryū were evacuated and the remainder of the fleet continued sailing northeast in an attempt to intercept the American carriers. Despite a scuttling attempt by a Japanese destroyer that hit her with a torpedo and then departed quickly, Hiryū stayed afloat for several more hours, being discovered early the next morning by an aircraft from the escort carrier Hōshō and prompting hopes she could be saved, or at least towed back to Japan. Soon after being spotted, Hiryū sank. Rear-Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi, together with the ship’s captain, Tomeo Kaku, chose to go down with the ship, costing Japan perhaps her best carrier officer.

Hiryū, shortly before sinking. Taken by Special Service Ensign Kiyoshi Ōniwa from a Yokosuka B4Y off the carrier Hōshō.

William Keonig’s reconstruction of the timeline and positions of the various participants.

“Seeschlachten der Weltgeschichte” by William Koenig (German Version of “Epic Sea Battles” ISBN-10: 0706404459 ISBN-13: 978-0706404456)

Timeline of the Battle of Midway (acc. to William Koenig)
4 June
  • 04:30 First Japanese takeoff against Midway Islands
  • 04:30 10 planes (Yorktown) begin to search for the Japanese ships
  • 05:34 Japanese ships detected by a PBY from Midway I.
  • 07:10 6 TBF Avengers and 4 USAAF B-26 (from Midway I.) attack
  • 07:50 67 dive bombers, 29 torpedo bombers, 20 Wildcats take off (Spruance)
  • 07:55 16 dive bombers of the US Navy (from Midway I.) attack
  • 08:10 17 B-17s (from Midway Islands) attack
  • 08:20 11 bombers of the US Navy (from Midway I.) attack
  • 09:06 12 torpedo bombers, 17 dive bombers, 6 Wildcats take off (Yorktown)
  • 09:18 Nagumo to Northeast
  • 09:25 15 torpedo bombers (Hornet) attack
  • 09:30 14 torpedo bombers (Enterprise) attack
  • 10:00 12 torpedo bombers (Yorktown) attack
  • 10:25 30 dive bombers (Enterprise) attack Akagi and Kaga
  • 10:25 17 dive bombers (Yorktown) attack Soryu
  • 11:00 18 Vals and 6 Zekes take off from Hiryu
  • 11:30 10 planes (Yorktown) take off to search for remaining Japanese ships
  • 12:05 First attack on Yorktown
  • 13:30 Hiryu detected by a Yorktown plane; 24 dive bombers take off against Hiryu (Spruance)
  • 13:31 10 Kates and 6 Zekes take off from Hiryu
  • 13:40 Yorktown again in service, making 18 knots
  • 14:30 Second attack on Yorktown
  • 15:00 Yorktown abandoned
  • 16:10 Soryu sunk
  • 17:00 Dive bombers attack on Hiryu
  • 19:25 Kaga sunk

As darkness fell, Rear Admiral Fletcher, obliged to abandon the derelict Yorktown and feeling he could not adequately command from a cruiser, ceded operational command to Spruance. To aid his aviators, who had launched at extreme range, he had continued to close with Nagumo during the day and persisted as night fell.

Finally, fearing a possible night encounter with Japanese surface forces, and believing Yamamoto still intended to invade, based in part on a misleading contact report from the submarine Tambor, Spruance changed course and withdrew to the east, turning back west towards the enemy at midnight. For his part, Yamamoto initially decided to continue the engagement and sent his remaining surface forces searching eastward for the American carriers. Simultaneously, he detached a cruiser raiding force to bombard the island.

The Japanese surface forces failed to make contact with the Americans because Spruance had decided to briefly withdraw eastward, and Yamamoto ordered a general withdrawal to the west.

This ended the second day of the Battle of Midway.


75 years ago… — 19 Comments

  1. Seems I always learn something new reading your blog. I never knew PBYs could carry torpedoes. Talk about big ones! Big, slow and needing to get in close with no air cover must have made that a high risk endeavor.

  2. Based on the available technology & scarcity of reliable intel, it’s always amazed me that the battle went as well for the U.S. as it did.

    • A LOT of things came together. On the HYPO side alone (from Wikipedia:

      “Since early 1942, the US had been decoding messages stating that there would soon be an operation at objective “AF”. It was initially not known where “AF” was, but Commander Joseph Rochefort and his team at Station HYPO were able to confirm that it was Midway; Captain Wilfred Holmes devised a ruse of telling the base at Midway (by secure undersea cable) to broadcast an uncoded radio message stating that Midway’s water purification system had broken down. Within 24 hours, the code breakers picked up a Japanese message that “AF was short on water.”

      No Japanese radio operators who intercepted the message seemed concerned that the Americans were broadcasting uncoded that a major naval installation close to the Japanese threat ring was having a water shortage, which could have tipped off Japanese intelligence officers that it was a deliberate attempt at deception. HYPO was also able to determine the date of the attack as either 4 or 5 June, and to provide Nimitz with a complete IJN order of battle.

      Japan had a new codebook, but its introduction had been delayed, enabling HYPO to read messages for several crucial days; the new code, which would take several days to be cracked, came into use on 24 May, but the important breaks had already been made.”

  3. My oldest brother was a crewmen on a PBY flying out of NAS Atlanta along the coast of GA, SC and FL during Korea. He loved that plane and, yes, they did carry torpedoes on occasion. Good report and enjoyed reading it. Thanks!

  4. WSF- Yep, they clanked when they walked… They also had guns and would close to point blank range to shoot at ships. They also had air battles with various Japanese airplanes!

    Rev- Agreed!

    Peter- No question! And thankfully, it worked out for us in the end. I’ve seen the actual debrief chart for the battle, with all the Hypo notations on it. It IS amazing!

    CP- You’re welcome, and thanks for confirming the Torps!

  5. The bridge over the Missouri River between Pierre and Ft. Pierre, SD(where he was born) is the John C Waldron Memorial Bridge. It was rededicated a couple years ago and actual signs were put up, as even though it had been renamed decades before, there were nothing to designate it at the bridge.

  6. John Williams wrote his most original piece in honor of Midway.

  7. drjim- Amen!

    Randy- You’re welcome!

    JFT- That’s great. I’m glad they didn’t change it…

    Grog- OH yes, an amazing man, leading an amazing group!

    Stretch- Yep!

    drjim- Agreed!

  8. Hey Old NFO;

    The battle of Midway broke the aura of invincibility that the Japanese had cloaked themselves with and the loss of those 4 carriers and the experienced crews that they had was a loss that the Japanese aviation never recovered from. Awesome posting! 🙂

  9. Thanks for the excellent post. I’ve always maintained that anyone who doubts the existence of The Lord should study WWII in some detail.

  10. Pingback: 75 years ago: Battle of Midway | Notes

  11. Minor nit, regarding the photo of the flying PBY. The credit notes it as a PBY-3.
    Wrong. It has wheels, which makes it a -5A, at minimum. The initial sighting crew is grouped around a wheel assembly of a -5A, BTW. I don’t know if that is the actual aircraft they used.

    The increased weight of the -5A shortened the range of the aircraft. Unless the surrounding reefs disallowed it, you would really want to be flying an earlier model.

    Well, it did come with that bow “eyebrow” turret.