Ode to Midway
Annual Ode to the US Navy and the Battle of Midway
June 4-6, 1942
During Memorial Day and the first week of June, we pay respect to our fallen military heroes. The week is also full of 20th Century warfare anniversaries. Tantamount will be commemoration of the Allied D-Day assault against the Nazis on the beaches of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944. The Israeli-Arab 6-Day War began on June 5, 1967. The Marshall Plan was introduced on June 5, 1947. And Israeli jet pilots destroyed Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear reactor on June 7, 1981.
Yet a US Navy battle this same week, just 6 months after Pearl Harbor and a full 2 years before D-Day, is often forgotten, yet it certainly represents the greatest naval victory in history, and perhaps the pivotal event in world military history since the Battle of Little Round Top at Gettysburg in July 1863. It is the Battle of Midway, which, like Gettysburg, occurred over a three-day period, June 4-6, 1942.
The Japanese WWII strategy was to destroy the U.S. Navy quickly, parallel with the successful tactics of the German infantry blitzkriegs in Europe. The December 1941 surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor destroyed or damaged 8 American battleships - then the core of US Naval groups.
Pearl Harbor was the first attack. The Battle of Midway, just 6 months later, was to be Japan’s coup de grace.
New warfare paradigms had shattered the Old Guard military structure that had existed more-or-less since medieval times. Germany coupled a new military strategy – the Blitzkrieg -- with an advanced new weapon – the Panzer tank brigade. The result was that German armies over-ran countries in mere days or weeks.
Similarly, Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor was an equally revolutionary development, in effect a strategic equivalent and precursor to intercontinental missiles. Japan had built a dozen aircraft carriers, and with them the Zero fighter, vastly superior to any fighter plane in the world. This combination, along with highly-trained pilots, resulted in Japan having mobile military airfields which could roam the oceans and attack unannounced from a hundred miles beyond the horizon. In an age before advanced radar, these carriers could launch the equivalent of one-sided, un-announced intercontinental missile attack.
At the outset of WWII, the Japanese Navy was vastly more powerful than the US Navy. The US had only 6 aircraft carriers worldwide, of various classes, compared to Japan's 10 carriers (with 3 more emerging from Imperial shipyards in the ensuing weeks). In addition, Japan had developed a naval fighter plane, the Zero fighter, in a class of its own, complete with a large trained pilot corps.
Even more stunning, after the devastation of the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese superiority in battleships was 11-to-0. In short, Japan had an overwhelmingly strong navy.
The Japanese Plan.
The Japanese Midway strategy was two-fold: To take over the U.S.-controlled island of Midway, which would deny the U.S. the ability to stage any operations in the Western Pacific; and, to destroy the remaining US Pacific Fleet. Without the US Navy to defend the West Coast, or to stop Japan’s empire building in the far east, Japan intended Midway to be the decisive, take-out blow against the US.
Japan's tactics were to attack Midway, which would draw the remaining U.S. fleet out of Pearl Harbor to defend the important island. The lurking Japanese armada lying-in-wait off Midway would then destroy the U.S. fleet.
Coincident with the Midway attack, a small Japanese carrier group first launched an attack on Alaska, a feint – second-guessed over the ensuing decades – perhaps designed to split the U.S. Fleet into smaller groups, one responding to the Alaskan attack, the other to Midway.
Off the western horizon of Midway, out of sight of the US Midway scout planes, Japan had amassed an overwhelming carrier and battleship attack force, laying in wait to surprise and destroy the US forces. The combined Japanese Alaskan and Midway forces, including those in support role, involved 200 ships, including 8 carriers, 11 battleships, 22 cruisers, 65 destroyers, 21 submarines and approximately 700 aircraft.
The US Naval forces were tiny, in comparison.
Had the Japanese achieved their objective of a quick knock-out of the US Pacific Fleet at Midway (following the devastation at Pearl Harbor), the US West Coast would have been substantially defenseless against the Japanese Navy just 6 months into the war. Although the US had authorized a naval shipbuilding program the prior year, the launch of those boats was months away. It is entirely possible – and the subject of much Monday morning quarterbacking by military thinkers – that threatened or actual Japanese naval attacks on the US West Coast would have caused the US to agree to a ceasefire with Japan. It could have also forced the U.S. to divert scarce naval assets away from Europe, thereby allowing Germany to prevail over England and thus win the war.
"Midway was far more than a decisive naval victory. It was far more than the turning of the tide in the Pacific war. In a strategic sense, Midway represents one of the turning points of world history--and in that role it remains under-appreciated."
-- James R. Schlesinger, former US Secretary of Defense
The Surprise Counter-Attack.
Unknown to the Japanese, their military codes had been broken by the US codebreakers just weeks before the Midway attack. With solid warning that the Japanese were amassing their forces for a surprise assault on Midway and any US Naval ships that came to Midway’s defense, the US neither split its fleet nor held any carriers in reserve.
Rather, the U.S. gambled and sent all three American carriers - the entire US carrier fleet in the Pacific - to lay in wait for the Japanese flotilla at Midway.
In short, it was a surprise counterattack on a surprise attack.
Japanese Attack the Island. As the Japanese launched their attack on Midway Island, they had no idea that the US carrier forces lay off the horizon a couple hundred miles to the east. On June 4, 1942, four Japanese aircraft carriers launched a strike with over 100 combat planes against the Naval Air Base at Midway. The US Midway base and its airplanes were damaged, but not completely destroyed.
Annihilation of U.S. Torpedo Bombers. As the Japanese attacked Midway Island, squadrons of US torpedo planes from the USS Hornet, the USS Enterprise and the USS Yorktown, launched their surprise counter-attacks on the Japanese carrier fleet.
The US torpedo bombers came in "low and slow" over the water to drop their torpedoes. One by one, they were blown from the sky by the superior Japanese Zero fighters. Not a single US torpedo bomber scored a hit on the 4 Japanese carriers.
Almost every US pilot and crew was killed, including by Japanese patrols that pulled American fliers out of the water and executed them. Only 2 of 42 torpedo bomber squadrons survived.
But the men of those 40 doomed squadrons from the Hornet, Enterprise and Yorktown had not died in vain. The Japanese Zero fighter cover normally would have flown high above the Japanese carriers, forming a protective bubble. But in order to repel the torpedo bombers on their “low and slow” approach, the Zeros had been brought down to low altitude, all while the Japanese flotilla scrambled in evasive maneuvering.
The Japanese mistakenly believed that the doomed torpedo bombers from the Hornet, Enterprise and Yorktown had been launched from Midway Island. In response, the Japanese Admiral Nagumo decided to strike Midway again. Returning Japanese fighters were re-armed with bombs for the attack on Midway’s airfields. But as the Japanese were preparing their fighters, they received a delayed report from one of their scouting planes, warning of a sighting of a US carrier. Nagumo reversed himself, and ordered that his fighter planes be re-armed with torpedoes. Thus, the decks of the Japanese carriers – painted yellow, with a red sun signifying the Japanese imperial war regime - were strewn with bombs, torpedoes and fuel tanks.
Nagumo's 5-Minutes of Glory. A few moments after 10:00 a.m., June 4th, 1942, the Japanese Admiral Nagumo and his staff believed that they had just annihilated all of the U.S. air cover for Midway, and in addition, their massive armada including 4 aircraft carriers with vastly superior planes and pilots was ready to attack the just-sighted U.S. carrier. Surely, the U.S. carrier group would be similarly destroyed.
Thus, at 10:15 a.m., June 4, 1942, Admiral Nagumo believed that Japan was moments away from defeating the United States. The War of the Pacific was about end in glorious victory for the Empire of the Rising Sun.
The Dive Bombers Arrive. Yet, at this critical moment, the so-called "lost squadron" of US planes from the USS Enterprise arrived at high altitude over the Japanese carrier group. Lt. Cmdr.Wade McCluskey’s dive bomber group had failed earlier to locate the Japanese fleet, and rather than turn his fighters back to his carrier, he changed course to search out the Japanese ships. They were located by trailing a Japanese destroyer trying to catch up to its flotilla.
McCluskey’s squadron of 32 dive bombers was then joined by two other U.S. dive bomber squadrons, and they came upon an extraordinary situation: Four sitting duck Japanese carriers, with their protective shield of Zero fighter planes either thousands of feet below (having shot down the US torpedo bombers) or sitting on the carrier decks being refueled:
“If they’d looked up they coulda seen us, but they were too busy trying to destroy the torpedo planes that had gotten there first.”
-- Wilbur Roberts, U.S. Dive Bomber
The Japanese carrier decks were painted yellow, with the empire’s huge “Rising Sun” red circle painted on the bow of each carrier. This was a further gift to the U.S. dive bombers -- a red targeting ball on a yellow deck, set against a dark gray ocean:
“Here are the arrogant Japanese with their bright yellow decks with a meatball up on the bow.”
--Lt. Richard Best, U.S. Dive Bomber
Apogee of the Japanese Empire. At 10:22 a.m., June 4, 1942, the U.S. dive bombers - armed with bombs, not torpedoes - attacked the Japanese carrier fleet from high altitude in classic dive-bomber style. The Japanese had only a few minutes to savor what they thought had been a victory over the United States; it all evaporated within 5 minutes, courtesy of the dive bombers.
There were 4 Japanese carriers at Midway. The U.S. dive bombers immediately scored hits on 2 of those carriers (the Akagi and the Kaga) by precision dropping the bombs onto the carriers' loaded decks. There was no Japanese fighter cover in place at higher altitude to repel the attacks. A couple of bombs from US dive bombers, aided by the re-fueling tanks, torpedoes and bombs stacked on the decks of the Japanese carriers, turned into an inferno. Akagi and Kaga were destroyed.
Shortly thereafter, a dive bomber squadron from the USS Yorktown attacked and destroyed the third Japanese aircraft carrier, the Soryu. Notably, these Yorktown dive bombers attacked with only a dozen working bombs.
Later, a small squadron of dive bombers from the USS Enterprise attacked and burnt the fourth and last Japanese carrier, the Hiryu, but not before Hiryu was able to launch an attack that disabled the USS Yorktown.
All four Japanese carriers at Midway – the Akagi, the Kaga, the Soryu and the Hiryu, burned and sank to the bottom of the Pacific.
The ailing Yorktown was later sunk by a Japanese submarine while limping back to Pearl Harbor.
Minor skirmishes between the retreating US and Japanese naval groups continued through June 6th.
When various other skirmishes ended by June 6, Japan had lost 4 carriers, 332 aircraft, and hundreds of its best pilots and crew. The US had lost only one carrier, 144 planes and scores of pilots.
Japan had 9 aircraft carriers when Midway began. One day later, it had only 5.
The U.S. had only 3 carriers going into the Battle of Midway. After Midway, it still had 3 carriers, as the USS Saratoga came out of dry-dock and replaced the sunken Yorktown.
Japan had planned to seize Midway, and emerge from the battle with a 9-0 carrier advantage, giving the mobile airfields and its Zero fighters free reign of the Pacific (including over Pearl Harbor and even the US West Coast). Instead, Midway remained in U.S. hands, and the overwhelming Japanese carrier dominance was reduced to a basic parity. The Battle of Midway was nothing short of a complete rout of the vastly superior Japanese Navy.
With the US war shipyards already producing at full capacity, Japan had lost at Midway its one chance to defeat the US via an early take-out. Instead, it was a matter of time before the massive US industrial war machine would overwhelm the imperial militarized Japanese.
10:15 a.m., June 4, 1942, turned out to be the height of the fascist Imperial Japanese Empire. Unscathed and convinced of victory over the US after destroying almost every U.S. torpedo bomber in the initial engagements of June 4th, Japan's war effectively became a lost cause by 10:30 a.m.
The US Navy - outnumbered in carriers, ships, technology, planes and pilots - had achieved the greatest naval victory in modern history.
The near total destruction of the first wave of U.S. pilots and crew on board the “low and slow” torpedo bombers was not in vain; it alone made possible the exact conditions that allowed the U.S. dive bombers to send the Japanese armada to the bottom of the ocean just minutes later. And as the Japanese aramada sank, so too sank any realistic chance of Japan prevailing over the U.S. in WWII.
So during this Memorial Day remembrance, member the Battle of Midway, its codebreakers, and the dozens of torpedo-bombers and dive-bombers of the U.S. Navy who may well have changed the course of history.