Midway Atoll is 600 miles away from Hawaii. Almost immediately upon taking command, Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC) Chester W. Nimitz asked the island commander what he would need to defend the island against attack. “More of everything,” the commander replied. Nimitz responded with more men, planes, barbed wire and guns. If Midway fell, as Wake and Guam did in December, than Hawaii itself would be threatened with constant air attack, even invasion. Midway had to hold.
Across the Pacific, Nimitz’s counterpart, Isoroku Yamamoto, was drawing up plans for the biggest operation since the start of the war, even bigger than Pearl Harbor. All of his four active fleet carriers, one light carrier, and even his new battleship, Yamato, the most powerful gunship afloat, would commit to a two-pronged attack. Yamamoto planned to take Midway after a sustained air bombardment, and feint to the North Pacific. While the United States Fleet would try to stop landings on Attu and Kiska in the Aleutians near Alaska, his main body would be landing on Midway. Running the Americans around the Pacific, the superior numbers of the Imperial Japanese Navy would sink the United States Pacific Fleet in a decisive engagement. Yamamoto was under no illusions. This would decide the fate of the war — soon the industrial output of the United States would begin to surpass his forces in size and technology. All the Americans would need then was skill and experience, which they were gaining every day.
What Yamamoto did not know, was that Allied codebreaking was reading his operational orders. The Imperial Japanese Navy used a code called JN-25b. Since it was a version of the diplomatic code the United States had been reading since 1937, cryptographers had started reading Japanese naval radio traffic since they had relocated to Pearl Harbor after the initial attack. While the Naval Intelligence team under Lieutenant Commander Rochefort did not know the intended target — codenamed AF — he did have the whole details behind the plan.
Nimitz, on his last visit to Midway Atoll before the battle, told the island’s radio station to broadcast in clear language that they were short of water. Listening posts on Kwajalein reported to the Naval command in Kure that AF was short of water. Rochefort knew AF was Midway.
Thus, when Admiral Chuichi Nagumo and his four carriers, Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu, and their escorts, arrived off Midway, they had no idea that three American carriers were waiting for them. After initial unsuccessful attacks by a ragtag group of Army, Navy, and Marine units, Nagumo felt confident enough to attack Midway. The raid by over 400 aircraft caused considerable damage without knocking Midway out. The flight commander, Lieutenant Joichi Tomonaga, radioed Nagumo that a second attack was needed. While the second wave was being readied, a scout plane that had been delayed during launch finally reported in. It reported an American carrier about 200 miles away. Another flight was sent off after the reported carrier. They found the USS Yorktown, and several bomb hits made the carrier lose power and start to take on water.
Soon after torpedo planes from the USS Yorktown, USS Hornet, and USS Enterprise under Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher came in to attack the Japanese Fleet. Flying TBD Devestators, old, slow, and undergunned, the Devestators were chopped to pieces by fighters that had to lower their landing gear to stay behind the American planes.
In one group, USS Hornet’s Torpedo Squadron 8, only one man survived out of sixteen planes and forty-eight aircrew. The exploits of Squadron Leader Lieutenant Commander John Waldron became legend, as Torpedo 8 flew into combat and was cut to pieces. The torpedo planes were able to draw off the Japanese fighter cover. The Japanese who witnessed it began to realize that the Americans were willing to sacrifice themselves in battle.
On the morning of June 4, Lieutenant Commander John Thach led a six-plane F4F Wildcat sortie from VF-3, escorting twelve Douglas TBD Devastators of VT-3 led by Lieutenant Commander Lance Massey from Yorktown, when they discovered the main Japanese carrier fleet. They were immediately attacked by fifteen to twenty Japanese fighters. Thach decided to use his newly developed maneuver, marking its first combat usage, the “Thatch Weave.” An F4F pilot and his wingman zoom back and forth on an axis, so that any enemy plane that gets on one tail is lined up by the guns of the other F4F. Although outnumbered and outmaneuvered, Thach managed to shoot down three Zeros and a wingman accounted for another, at the cost of one Grumman F4F Wildcat.
When the Midway group was recovered, they were in the process of being rearmed for another land attack as another report of a second carrier came in. The report threw Nagumo and his staff into chaos. Should he proceed with the second attack on Midway, or rearm for attacking ships? Nagumo ordered the planes rearmed with torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs. A second report contradicted the scout plane’s report, and Nagumo again ordered the planes rearmed for land attack. Finally, another report from the scout confirmed the presence of the American carriers. Under pressure, many of the weapons handlers left bombs and torpedoes all over the hangar deck.
The fighter aircraft were still on the deck chasing American torpedo bombers when the next group came in. As the Midway flight was being rearmed, two groups of SBD Dauntless dive bombers came in from high above the Japanese Fleet. Within five minutes, the Soryu, Akagi, and Kaga were burning wrecks. The remaining carrier, Hiryu, recovered the aircraft still in the air. Only eighteen were still capable of combat. They went after the last reported position of the Americans. Lieutenant Tomonaga took off again, with only enough fuel to fly to the target.
They found the Yorktown again, but she was under her own power and the list had been corrected. Again, several bomb hits stopped her boilers. Abandon ship was called, and the escorts took her crew off. Her captain, Elliot Buckmaster, tried to board with a salvage party a few hours later.
Submarine I-68 was trailing the Yorktown. While the salvage party was making progress, the submarine fired a spread of torpedoes and crashed dived. One torpedo hit the USS Hammann, broke her back and she went down with most of her crew. Another hit the Yorktown, dooming the ship. Some of the salvage party went down with the ship, still alive in a compartment cut off by flooding.
Hiryu did not escape. At 1600 Hours she was found by planes from all three American carriers, flying from the two remaining flattops.
The next day, American carrier planes again found the retreating Japanese fleet. Two cruisers, the Mikuma and Mogami, were seriously damaged and collided. Mikuma sank, and Mogami limped back to port.
The Battle of Midway was a huge defeat for the Japanese. Yamamoto apologized personally to the Emperor, and offered his resignation. It was declined. The Japanese doctrine from then on would be to consolidate their positions and stop the Americans. The wounded were secretly brought back to Hiroshima Bay and sneaked into military hospitals under tight security. No word of the disaster was leaked to the Japanese public, or even to other military units.
Midway stopped the zenith of Japanese military advancements. It would be another three years of escalating casualties and violence before the war ended.