The 'Battle of Midway' was a naval battle of strategic significance fought in the Pacific Ocean between Japanese and US forces (4/7 June 1942).
The battle took place six months after Japan’s 'Ai' carrierborne air attack on Pearl Harbor and one month after the 'Battle of the Coral Sea'. The US naval forces, commanded by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Rear Admiral Frank J. Fletcher and Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, defeated an attacking fleet of the Imperial Japanese navy under the command of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo and Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo to the north of Midway atoll, inflicting devastating damage on the Japanese fleet.
The concept of luring the US aircraft carrier force into a trap by threatening the occupation of Midway was part of an overall 'barrier' strategy to extend Japan’s defensive perimeter in response to the 'Conceal' operation (otherwise the Doolittle air raid) on Tokyo. This operation was also seen as preparing the the way for further attacks against the Fiji, Samoa and Hawaii island groups. The plan was undermined by faulty Japanese assumptions of the US reaction and poor initial dispositions. Most significantly, US cryptographers had been able to determine the date and location of the planned attack, enabling the forewarned US Navy to prepare its own ambush.
The battle pitted four Japanese and three US aircraft carriers against each other. The four Japanese fleet carriers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu, each a unit of the six-carrier force that had attacked Pearl Harbor in 'Ai', were sunk, as was the heavy cruiser Mikuma. The USA lost the fleet carrier Yorktown and the destroyer Hammann, while the fleet carriers Enterprise and Hornet survived the battle fully intact.
After the 'Battle of Midway' and the exhausting attrition of the Solomon islands campaign, Japan’s capacity to replace its losses in matériel (particularly the aircraft carriers) and men (especially the well-trained pilots and maintenance crewmen with which Japan had entered World War II) rapidly became insufficient to cope with mounting casualties, while the USA’s vastly larger industrial base and training capabilities made the replacement of losses and the expansion of the fleet far easier to undertake. Together with the Guadalcanal island campaign, the 'Battle of Midway' is widely considered a decisive turning point in the Pacific War.
After expanding the war in the Pacific to include a number of Western outposts, Japan had attained its initial strategic goals quickly, taking British Hong Kong, the US Philippine islands group, British Malaya, British Singapore, and the Netherlands East Indies. The last, with its vital oil resources, was particularly important to Japan. Because of this, preliminary planning for a second phase of operations was begun as early as January 1942.
Because of strategic disagreements between the Imperial Japanese army and navy, and infighting between the latter’s general headquarters and Yamamoto’s Combined Fleet, a follow-on strategy did not come into being until April 1942. Yamamoto finally won the bureaucratic struggle with a thinly veiled threat to resign, after which his plan for the Central Pacific was adopted. Yamamoto’s primary strategic objective was the elimination of the US carrier forces, which he regarded as the principal threat to the overall Pacific campaign. This concern was acutely heightened by the Doolittle raid of 18 April 1942, in which 16 USAAF North American B-25 Mitchell twin-engined medium bombers launched from the carrier Hornet attacked targets in Tokyo and several other Japanese cities. The raid, while militarily insignificant, was a shock to the Japanese and showed the existence of a gap in the defences of the Japanese home islands as well as the vulnerability of Japanese territory to US bomber attack.
Combined with other successful hit-and-run raids by US carriers in the South Pacific, this showed that US seaborne air power remained a threat, although seemingly reluctant to be drawn into an all-out battle. Yamamoto reasoned that another air attack on the main US naval base at Pearl Harbor would induce the whole of the US Pacific Fleet, including the carriers, to emerge and fight what the Japanese believed would be the decisive battle of the war. However, considering the increased strength of US land-based air power on the Hawaiian islands group since the 7 December attack of the previous year, Yamamoto judged that a direct attack on Pearl Harbor it was now too risky. Yamamoto instead selected Midway, a tiny atoll at the extreme north-western end of the Hawaiian islands chain, some 1,300 miles (2100 km) from Oahu. This meant that Midway was outside the effective range of almost all of the US aircraft based on the main Hawaiian islands. Midway was not especially important in the larger scheme of Japan’s intentions, but the Japanese felt the USA would see Midway as a vital outpost of Pearl Harbor and would therefore be compelled to deploy maximum strength in its defence. The USA did indeed consider Midway vital: after the battle, the USA established at Midway a base allowing submarines operating from Pearl Harbor to refuel and reprovision, extending their radius of operations by 1,200 miles (1930 km). In addition to serving as a seaplane base, Midway’s airstrips also served as a forward staging point for bomber attacks on Wake island, a US possession which the Japanese had seized.
Typical of Japanese naval planning during World War II, Yamamoto’s 'Mi' (ii) plan for taking Midway was very complicated. It required the careful and timely co-ordination of several battle groups over hundreds of miles of open sea. Yamamoto’s thinking was also predicated on optimistic intelligence suggesting that Enterprise and Hornet, constituting Task Force 16, were the only carriers currently available to the Pacific Fleet. During the 'Battle of the Coral Sea' one month earlier, Lexington had been sunk and Yorktown had suffered so much damage that the Japanese believed she too had been lost. However, following very hasty repairs at Pearl Harbor, Yorktown sortied and ultimately played a critical role in the discovery and eventual destruction of the Japanese fleet carriers at Midway. Finally, much of Yamamoto’s planning, coinciding with the general feeling among the Japanese leadership at the time, was based on a complete misjudgement of US morale, which the Japanese believed to have been very hard hit by the string of Japanese victories in the preceding months.
Yamamoto believed that deception would be required to lure the Pacific Fleet into a fatally compromised situation, and thus dispersed his forces so that their full extent (an in particular his battleships) would be concealed from the Americans in the period before the battle. Critically, Yamamoto’s supporting battleships and cruisers trailed Nagumo’s carrier force by several hundred miles: it was intended that the battleships would come forward and destroy whatever elements of the Pacific Fleet might come to Midway’s defence after Nagumo’s carriers had weakened them sufficiently for a daylight 'big gun' battle.
What Yamamoto did not know was that the USA had broken parts of the main Japanese naval code (dubbed JN-25 by the Americans), revealing many aspects of plan to the US Navy, His emphasis on dispersal also meant that none of his formations was in a position to support any of the others. For instance, despite the fact that Nagumo’s carriers were expected to strike at Midway and bear the brunt of the US counterattacks, the only warships in his fleet larger than the screening force of 12 destroyers were two 'Kongo' class fast battleships, two heavy cruisers and one light cruiser. By contrast, Yamamoto and Kondo had between them two light carriers, five battleships, four heavy cruisers and two light cruisers, none of which saw action at Midway. The light carriers of the trailing forces and Yamamoto’s three battleships were unable to keep pace with the carriers of the 1st Mobile Force, Carrier Strike Force and so could not have steamed in company with them. The 1st Mobile Force, Carrier Strike Force was to steam into range at it maximum sustainable speed so as to increase the chance of surprise, and would not have ships spread out across the ocean guiding the US forces toward it. If the other parts of the invasion force needed more defence, the 1st Mobile Force, Carrier Strike Force would make best speed to defend them. Thus the slower ships could not be with the 1st Mobile Force, Carrier Strike Force. The distance between Yamamoto’s 1st Fleet, Main Body and Kondo’s 2nd Fleet, Strike Force, Support Force, Main Body and the carriers of Nagumo’s 1st Mobile Force, Carrier Strike Force was to have grave implications during the battle. The invaluable reconnaissance capability of the reconnaissance floatplanes carried by the cruisers and carriers, as well as the additional anti-aircraft capability of the cruisers and the other two battleships of the 'Kongo' class in the trailing forces, was thus unavailable to Nagumo.
In order to obtain the support of the Imperial Japanese army for the 'Mi' (ii), the Imperial Japanese navy agreed to support the army’s 'Al' invasion of the USA through the Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska ('Aq' and 'Aob'), part of the organised incorporated Alaska Territory. The Japanese army occupied these two islands to place the Japanese home islands outside the range of US land-based bombers in Alaska. Similarly, most Americans feared that the occupied islands would be used as bases for Japanese bombers to attack strategic targets and population centers along the USA’s western coast. The Japanese 'Al' operation removed yet more ships that could otherwise have augmented the force striking at Midway. Whereas many earlier historical accounts consider the 'Al' to have been a feint to draw divert US forces away from the central Pacific, the original Japanese battle plan indicates that 'Al' was intended to be launched simultaneously with the attack on Midway, but a one-day delay in the departure of Nagumo’s task force resulted in 'Al' beginning one day before the Midway attack.
To do battle with an opponent expected to muster four or five carriers, Nimitz, the commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas, needed every available flightdeck. He already had at hand Vice Admiral William F. Halsey’s task force, centred on the carriers Enterprise and Hornet, though Halsey was stricken with severe dermatitis and had to be replaced by Spruance, Halsey’s escort commander. Nimitz also hurriedly recalled Fletcher’s task force, including the carrier Yorktown, from the South-West Pacific Area.
Despite estimates that Yorktown, damaged in the 'Battle of the Coral Sea', would require several months of repairs at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, her elevators were intact and her flightdeck largely so. The Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard worked round the clock, and in 72 hours the carrier was restored to a battle-ready state, deemed sufficient for two or three weeks of operations, as Nimitz required. Her flightdeck was patched, and whole sections of internal frames were cut out and replaced. Repairs continued even as the ship departed Pearl Harbor, with work crews from the repair ship Vestal, herself damaged in the attack on Pearl Harbor six months earlier, still aboard.
Yorktown's partially depleted air group was rebuilt using whatever aircraft and pilots could be found: thus the Scouting Five (VS-5) squadron was replaced by the Bombing Three (VB-3) squadron from Saratoga, and the Torpedo Five (VT-5) squadron was similarly replaced by the Torpedo Three (VT-3) squadron. The Fighting Three (VF-3) squadron was reconstituted to replace the VF-42 unit with 16 and 11 pilots from VF-42 and VF-3 respectively, with Lieutenant Commander John S. Thach in command. Some of the aircrew were inexperienced, which may have contributed to an accident in which Thach’s executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Donald Lovelace, was killed. Despite efforts to get Saratoga, which had been undergoing repairs on the US western coast, ready for service, the need to resupply and assemble sufficient escorts meant she was unable to reach Midway until after the battle.
On Midway, by 4 June the US Navy had stationed four squadrons of Consolidated PBY twin-engined flying boats (31 boats in total) for long-range reconnaissance duties, and six brand-new Grumman TBF Avenger single-engined torpedo bombers from Hornet's VT-8. On the island, the US Marine Corps stationed 19 Douglas SBD Dauntless single-engined dive-bombers, seven Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat single-engined fighters, 17 Vought SB2U Vindicator single-engined dive-bombers and 21 Brewster F2A Buffalo single-engined fighters. The USAAF contributed a squadron of 17 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress four-engined heavy bombers and four Martin B-26 Marauder twin-engined medium bombers equipped with torpedoes. In total, therefore, Midway’s air arsenal comprised 126 aircraft. Although the F2A and SB2U machines were already obsolete, they were the only aircraft of their types available to the US Marine Corps at this time.
During the 'Battle of the Coral Sea' one month earlier, the Japanese light carrier Shoho had been sunk, while the fleet carrier Shokaku had been severely damaged by three bomb hits and was in dry dock for months of repair. Although the fleet carrier Zuikaku escaped the battle undamaged, she had lost almost half her air group, and was in port in Kure awaiting replacement aircraft and pilots. That there were none immediately available was the result of the failure of the Imperial Japanese navy’s crew training programme, which was already revealing signs of being unable to replace losses. Instructors from the Yokosuka Air Corps were therefore used in an effort to make up the shortfall.
It has been suggested that the combination of the surviving aircraft and pilots from Shokaku and Zuikaku could have provided Zuikaku with almost a full composite air group, but this would have run contrary to Japanese carrier doctrine, which stressed that carriers and their air groups must train as a single unit. By contrast, US air squadrons were considered interchangeable between carriers. In any event, though, the Japanese apparently made no serious attempt to get Zuikaku ready for the imminent operation.
Carrier Division 5, comprising the 1st Mobile Force, Carrier Strike Force's two most advanced carriers, was therefore not available, which meant that Nagumo had only two-thirds of Japan’s fleet carriers at his disposal: Kaga and Akagi constituting Carrier Division 1, and Hiryu and Soryu constituting Carrier Division 2. This was the result partially of fatigue as the Japanese carriers had been in constant operation, including raids on Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory and Colombo in Ceylon, since 7 December 1941. Nonetheless, the 1st Mobile Force, Carrier Strike Force sailed with 248 aircraft on the four carriers: 60 on Akagi, 74 on Kaga that had an oversize Nakajima B5N2 'Kate' single-engined torpedo bomber squadron, 57 on Hiryu and 57 on Soryu.
The main Japanese carrierborne offensive aircraft were the Aichi D3A1 'Val' single-engined dive-bomber and the B5N2 single-engined torpedo bomber and level bomber. The primary carrierborne defensive and escort aeroplane was the fast, long-ranged and very nimble Mitsubishi A6M Reisen 'Zero' single-engined fighter. For a variety of reasons, production of the D3A had been drastically reduced, while that of the B5N had been stopped completely: as a result, therefore, there were no aircraft of these two types available for the replacement of losses. In addition, many of the aircraft being used during the June 1942 campaign had been operational since late November 1941 and, although they were well-maintained, many were almost worn out and had become increasingly unreliable. These factors meant that all of the carriers of the 1st Mobile Force, Carrier Strike Force had fewer aircraft than their normal complement, with few spare aircraft or parts stored in the carriers' hangars.
In addition, Nagumo’s carrier force suffered from several defensive deficiencies. Japanese carrier anti-aircraft guns and associated fire-control systems had several design and layout failings which limited their capabilities. The Imperial Japanese navy’s combat air patrol thinking was based on the use of too few fighters, and was also hampered by an inadequate early warning system, including a lack of radar. Moreover, poor radio communications with the fighter inhibited effective command and control of the combat air patrol. The carriers' escorting warships were deployed as visual scouts in a ring at long range rather than at close range as anti-aircraft escorts, a task for which they lacked training, doctrine and sufficient anti-aircraft guns.
Japanese strategic reconnaissance arrangements before 'M' (i) were also in disarray. A picket line of Japanese submarines was late getting into position, in part as a result of Yamamoto’s haste, which let the US carriers reach their assembly point to the north-east of Midway without being detected. A second reconnaissance attempt, using Kawanishi H8K 'Emily' four-engined flying boats in the 'K' operation, to scout Pearl Harbor before the battle and detect whether or not the US carriers were present, was thwarted when the Japanese submarines assigned to refuel the flying boats discovered that the intended refuelling point, a hitherto deserted bay off French Frigate Shoals, was now occupied by US warships because the Japanese had carried out an identical mission in March. Yamamoto was thereby deprived of any knowledge concerning the movements of the US carriers in the period immediately preceding the battle.
Japanese radio intercepts did notice an increase in both US submarine activity and message traffic, and this information was in Yamamoto’s hands before the battle. The Japanese plans were not changed: at sea in the super-battleship Yamato, Yamamoto assumed that Nagumo had received the same signal from Tokyo, and did not communicate with him by radio in order not to reveal his position. Contrary to earlier historical accounts, these messages were also received by Nagumo before the start of the battle. For reasons which remain unclear, Nagumo neither altered his plans nor took additional precautions.
In preparing for the battle, Nimitz had one critical advantage: US cryptanalysts had partially broken the Imperial Japanese navy’s JN-25b code. Since a time early in 1942, the USA had been decoding messages stating that there would soon be an operation at objective 'AF'. The location of 'A' was initially unknown, 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 of water'. No Japanese radio operators who intercepted the message seemed concerned that the Americans were broadcasting an uncoded signal that a major naval installation close to the Japanese threat was experiencing 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 Japanese order of battle.
At this time the Japanese had a new codebook, but its introduction had been delayed, enabling HYPO to continue reading messages for several more crucial days. The new code, which took several days to be cracked, came into use on 24 May, but the important breaks had already been made. As a result, the Americans entered the battle with a good picture of where, when and in what strength the Japanese would appear. Nimitz knew that the Japanese had negated their numerical advantage by dividing their ships into four separate task groups, so widely separated that they were essentially incapable of mutual support. This dispersal resulted in few fast ships being available to escort the 1st Mobile Fleet, Carrier Strike Force, thus reducing the number of anti-aircraft guns protecting the carriers. Nimitz calculated that the aircraft on his three carriers, plus those on Midway island, gave the USA an approximate parity with Yamamoto’s four carriers, mainly because US carrier air groups were larger than those of the Japanese. The Japanese, by contrast, remained largely unaware of their opponent’s true strength and dispositions even after the battle had begun.
The forces deployed by Japan and the USA for 'Mi' (ii) and the culminating Battle of Midway were considerable.
The Japanese forces for 'Mi' (ii) and the related 'Al' undertakings comprised three fleets, of which Yamamoto’s 1st Fleet, Main Body and Kondo’s 2nd Fleet, Strike Force, Support Force, Main Body were concerned exclusively with 'Mi' (ii). Under Yamamoto’s personal command, the 1st Fleet had two main elements, and Kondo’s 2nd Fleet was the Midway Invasion Force of two main and two subsidiary sections.
The 1st Fleet, Main Body comprised Rear Admiral Gihachi Takayanagi’s 1st Battleship Division (super-battleship Yamato, and battleships Mutsu and Nagato), the Carrier Group (light carrier Hosho with eight Yokosuka B4Y1 'Jean' single-engined biplane torpedo bombers) and destroyer Yukaze), the Special Force (seaplane carriers Chiyodo and Nisshin), the Screening Force with Rear Admiral Shintaro Hashimoto’s 3rd Destroyer Squadron (light cruiser Sendai and destroyers Fubuki, Shirayuki, Hatsuyuki and Murakumo of the 11th Destroyer Division and Isonami, Uranami, Shikinami and Ayanami of the 19th Destroyer Division), and the 1st Supply Group with the oiler Naruto and the supply vessel Toei Maru.
The second element of the 1st Fleet was Nagumo’s 1st Mobile Force, Carrier Strike Force with Nagumo’s own 1st Carrier Division (fleet carriers Akagi carrying 18 D3A1, 18 B5N2 and 24 A6M2 aircraft, and Kaga carrying 20 (including two spare) D3A1, 27 B5N2 and 27 A6M2 aircraft), and Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi’s 2nd Carrier Division (fleet carriers Hiryu carrying 18 D3A1, 18 B5N2 and 21 A6M2 aircraft, and Soryu carrying 16 D3A1, 18 B5N2, 21 A6M2 and two Yokosuka D4Y1 'Judy' single-engined dive-bombers serving in the experimental reconnaissance role), the Support Group with Rear Admiral Hiroaki Abe’s 8th Cruiser Division (heavy cruisers Tone with three Aichi E13A1 'Jake' and two Nakajima E8N2 'Dave' single-engined reconnaissance floatplanes, and Chikuma with three E13A1 and two E8N2 floatplanes), Rear Admiral Tamosu Takama’s 3rd Battleship Division, 2nd Section (battleships Haruna with three E8N2 floatplanes and Kirishima with three E8N2 floatplanes), the Screening Force with Rear Admiral Susumu Kimura’s 10th Destroyer Squadron (light cruiser Nagara and destroyers Nowaki, Arashi, Hagikaze and Maikaze of the 4th Destroyer Division, Kazagumo, Yugumo and Makigumo of the 10th Destroyer Division, and Urakaze, Isokaze, Tanikaze and Hamakaze of the 17th Destroyer Division), and Captain Masanao Ota’s 1st Supply Group (oilers Kyokuto Maru, Shinkoku Maru, Toho Maru, Nippon Maru and Kokuyo Maru escorted by the destroyer Akigumo).
The primary warship component of the 2nd Fleet was Kondo’s own 2nd Fleet, Strike Force, Support Force, Main Body, whose subordinate elements were Rear Admiral Gunichi Mikawa’s 3rd Battleship Division, 1st Section (battleships Kongo and Hiei), Kondo’s own 4th Cruiser Division, 1st Section (heavy cruisers Atago and Chokai), Vice Admiral Takeo Takaji’s 5th Cruiser Division (heavy cruisers Myoko and Haguro), the Screening Force based on Rear Admiral Shoji Nishimura’s 4th Destroyer Squadron (light cruiser Yura and destroyers Murasame, Samidare, Harusame and Yudachi of the 3rd Destroyer Division, and Asagumo, Minegumo and Natsugumo of the 9th Destroyer Division), Captain Sueo Obayashi’s Carrier Group with the light carrier Zuiho carrying 12 B5N2 and 12 A6M2 aircraft, and escorted by the destroyer Mikazuki, and Captain Jiro Murao’s Supply Group with the oilers Sata, Tsurumi, Genyo Maru and Kenyo Maru as well as the repair ship Akashi.
The A6M2 strength on the Japanese carriers included 21 aircraft of the 6th Air Group which had been embarked for the air garrison of Midway island after this had been captured.
The 2nd Fleet's other primary element was Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka’s 2nd Fleet, Midway Occupation Force, Transport Group with Colonel Kiyonao Ichiki’s 5,000-man assault and occupation force (5th Kure Special Naval Landing Force, 5th Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force, 'Ichiki' Detachment based on the 28th Regiment and two labour battalions) carried in Captain Minoru Ota’s group based on the transports Kiyozumi Maru, Keiyo Maru, Zenyo Maru, Goshu Maru No. 2, Toa Maru, Kano Maru, Argentina Maru, Hokuriku Maru, Brazil Maru, Kirishima Maru, Azuma Maru and Nankai Maru, the patrol boats PB-1, PB- 2, PB-34 and the oiler Akebono Maru: the three patrol boats carried special naval landing force assault elements. Tanaka escorted these with his 2nd Fleet, Escort Force led by the light cruiser Jintsu and otherwise comprising the destroyers Kuroshio and Oyashio of the 15th Destroyer Division, Yukikaze, Amatsukaze, Tokitsukaze and Hatsukaze of the 16th Destroyer Division, and Shiranui, Kasumi, Arare and Kagero of the 18th Destroyer Division. Further support was provided by Rear Admiral Ruitaro Fujita’s 2nd Fleet, Seaplane Tender Group with the seaplane carrier Chitose carrying 16 Nakajima A6M2-N 'Rufe' single-engined fighter floatplanes and four E13A floatplanes, and the seaplane tender Kamikawa Maru carrying eight A6M2-N and four E13A floatplanes, and escorted by the destroyer Hayashio and Patrol Boat No. 35, which like the other three patrol boats was also carrying troops.
The occupation convoy and force was further supported by Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s 2nd Fleet, Occupation Support Force using Kurita’s own 7th Cruiser Division (heavy cruisers Kumano, Suzuya, Mogami and Mikuma), and Commander Nobuki Ogawa’s 8th Destroyer Division (destroyers Asashio and Arashio). The oiler Nichiei Maru was attached to the 2nd Fleet, Occupation Support Force.
The last substantial component was Captain Sadatomo Miyamoto’s 2nd Fleet, Minesweeper Group with the minesweepers Taka Maru No. 3, Taka Maru No. 5, Showa Maru No. 7 and Showa Maru No. 8 as well as the submarine chasers Ch-16, Ch-17 and Ch-18. There were also the the supply ship Soya and the cargo ships Meiyo Maru and Yamafuku Maru.
There were two other Japanese forces involved in 'Mi' (ii). Vice Admiral Teruhisa Komatsu’s 6th Fleet, Advance Submarine Force (otherwise the Advance Expeditionary Force ), controlled from the light cruiser Katori anchored at Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall islands group, comprised I-168, I-169, I-171, I-174 and I-175 of the 3rd Submarine Squadron, and Rear Admiral Chimaki Kona’s 19th Submarine Squadron (submarines I-156, I-157, I-158 , I-159, I-162, I-164, I-165 and I-166 of the 5th Submarine Division, and I-121, I-122 and I-123 of the 13th Submarine Division delivering aviation fuel and fuel oil to Lisianski island and French Frigate Shoals).
Lastly, there were the land- and shore-based aircraft of Vice Admiral Nishizo Tsukahara’s Tinian-based 11th Air Fleet, which comprised Captain Chisato Morita’s Midway Expeditionary Force with 36 A6M2 fighters and 10 Mitsubishi G4M1 'Betty' twin-engined medium bombers on Wake island, as well as six flying boats at Jaluit island, and Rear Admiral Minoru Maeda’s 24th Air Flotilla with Captain Fujiro Ohashi’s Chitose Air Group on Kwajalein island with 36 A6M2 and 36 B5N2 aircraft, Captain Samaji Inoue’s 1st Air Group on Aur and Wotje islands with 36 A6M2 and 36 B5N2 aircraft, and Captain Daizo Nakajima’s 14th Air Group at Jaluit and Wotje with 36 Kawanishi H6K 'Mavis' four-engined flying boats.
Controlled by Nimitz’s Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas were the Carrier Striking Force with two carrier-centred task groups. Fletcher’s TF17 comprised Task Group 17.5 (Carrier Group) with Captain Elliott Buckmaster’s fleet carrier Yorktown carrying the 25 F4F-4 fighters, 37 SBD-3 dive-bombers and 15 Douglas TBD-1 Devastator torpedo bombers of the VF-3, VB-3, VS-5 and VT-3 squadrons, Rear Admiral William W. Smith’s TG17.2 (Cruiser Group) with the heavy cruisers Astoria and Portland, and Captain Gilbert Hoover’s TG17.4 (Destroyer Screen) with the destroyers Hammann, Anderson, Gwin, Hughes, Morris and Russell, and Spruance’s TF16 comprised the TG16.5 Carrier Group with Captain George D. Murray’s fleet carrier Enterprise carrying the 27 F4F-4, 37 SBD-2/3 and 14 TBD-1 aircraft of the VF-6, VB-6, VS-6 and VT-6 squadrons, and Captain Marc A. Mitscher’s fleet carrier Hornet carrying the 27 F4F-4, 35 SBD-3 and 15 TBD-1 aircraft of the VF-8, VB-8, VS-8 and VT-8 squadrons.
Gunfire support for the carriers was provided by Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid’s TG16.2 (Cruiser Group) with the heavy cruisers Minneapolis, New Orleans, Northampton, Pensacola and Vincennes, and the light anti-aircraft cruiser Atlanta, and by Captain Alexander R. Early’s TG16.4 (Destroyer Screen) with the destroyers Phelps, Worden, Monaghan and Aylwin of Destroyer Squadron 1, and Balch, Conyngham, Benham, Ellet and Maury of Destroyer Squadron 6.
There was also a group of oilers in the form of Cimarron and Platte escorted by the destroyers Dewey and Monssen, and the Midway Relief Fueling Unit based on the oiler Guadalupe escorted by the destroyers Blue and Ralph Talbot.
Under the command of Rear Admiral Robert H. English’s Submarine Force, Pacific Fleet, at Pearl Harbor were TG7.1 (Midway Patrol Group) with Cachalot, Flying Fish, Tambor, Trout, Grayling, Nautilus, Grouper, Dolphin, Gato, Cuttlefish, Gudgeon and Grenadier, TG7.2 (Roving Short-Stop Group) with Narwhal, Plunger and Trigger, and TG7.3 (Oahu Patrol) with Tarpon, Finback, Pike and Growler.
Midway island itself was garrisoned by air and ground elements. The air element at the Naval Air Station Midway was Colonel Ira Kimes’s Marine Aircraft Group 22 with the VMF-221 and VMSB-241 squadrons (27 SBD-2 and Vought SB2U-3 Vindicator dive-bombers, 21 F2A and seven F4F-3A fighters, and one light utility aeroplane), Simmard’s naval air component based on detachments of Patrol Wings 1 and 2 (31 Consolidated PBY-5 and PBY-5A flying boats), a detachment of six TBF-1 torpedo bombers of the VT-8 squadron from Hornet, and a USAAF detachment of Major General Willis H. Hale’s 7th AAF with 17 B-17 heavy and four B-26 medium bombers.
The land element, under the command of Colonel Harold Shannon, was Companies C and D of the 2nd Raider Battalion and the 6th Defense Battalion (Reinforced).
Also based at Midway island were the 1st Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron with eight PT-boats (two of them currently at Kure atoll) and four small patrol craft. The destroyer-based seaplane tenders Thornton and Ballard, and the destroyer Clark were at French Frigate Shoals, four motor yachts adapted as patrol craft were at Lisianski, Gardner Pinnacles, Laysan and Necker islets, and the oiler Kaloli, auxiliary gunboat Crystal and fleet tug Vimeo were in the Pearl Harbor and Hermes Reef areas.
Nagumo’s force sortied from Hashirajima, an island in Hiroshima Bay in Japan’s Inland Sea, on 27 May. At about 09.00 on 3 June, Ensign Jack Reid, piloting a PBY of the VP-44 patrol squadron sighted the Japanese 2nd Fleet Escort Force in a position 580 miles (930 km) to the west-south-west of Midway, but mistakenly reported this group as the 1st Fleet, Main Body.
Nine B-17 bombers took off from Midway at 12.30 for the first air attack. Three hours later, the bombers found Tanaka’s transport group 960 miles (1060 km) to the west. Harassed by heavy anti-aircraft fire, they dropped their bombs. Although their crews reported hitting four ships, none of the bombs actually hit anything and no significant damage was inflicted. Early in the following morning, the Japanese oiler 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 US forces during the entire battle.
At 04.30 on 4 June, Nagumo launched his initial attack on Midway itself, the attack force comprising 36 D3A dive-bombers and 36 B5N level bombers, escorted by 36 A6M fighters. At the same time, he launched his seven search aircraft (two B5N machines from Akagi and Kaga, four E13A machines from Tone and Chikuma, and one short range E8N from the battleship Haruna; an eighth aeroplane was launched from the heavy cruiser Tone 30 minutes late). Japanese reconnaissance arrangements were flimsy, with too few aircraft for adequate coverage of the assigned search areas, labouring under poor weather conditions to the north-east and east of the task force. As Nagumo’s bombers and fighters were taking off, 11 PBY flying boats were leaving Midway to run their own search patterns, and at 05.34 a PBY reported sighting two Japanese carriers and another spotted the inbound air attack 10 minutes later.
Midway’s radar picked up the Japanese raid at a distance of several miles, and fighters were scrambled to intercept. US bombers were also launched to attack the Japanese carriers, their fighter escorts remaining behind to defend Midway. At 06.20, Japanese carrierborne aircraft bombed and heavily damaged the US base. Midway-based US Marine Corps fighters led by Major Floyd B. Parks, which included six F4F and 20 F2A machines, intercepted the Japanese and suffered heavy losses, though they managed to destroy four B5N bombers as well as a single A6M fighter. Within the first few minutes, two F4F and 13 F2A aircraft were shot down, while most of the surviving US aircraft were damaged, with only two remaining airworthy. US anti-aircraft fire was intense and accurate, destroying three additional Japanese aircraft and damaging many more.
Of the 108 Japanese aircraft involved in this attack, 11 were destroyed (a figure including three which ditched), 14 were heavily damaged, and 29 were damaged to a lesser degree. However, the initial Japanese air attack did not neutralise Midway: US bombers could still use the air base to refuel and attack the Japanese invasion force, and most of Midway’s land-based defences remained intact. Japanese pilots reported to Nagumo that a second airl attack on Midway’s defences would be required if troops were to go ashore by 7 June.
Having taken off before the arrival of the Japanese attack, Midway-based US bombers made several attacks on the Japanese carrier force. The US attackers included six TBF torpedo bombers detached to Midway from Hornet's VT-8: the 'Battle of Midway' was the combat debut of both VT-8 and the TBF. The US Marine Corps' Scout-Bombing Squadron 241 (VMSB-241), consisting of 11 SB2U-3 and 16 SBD aircraft, as well as four USAAF B-26 bombers of the 18th Reconnaissance Squadron and 69th Bomb Squadrons armed with torpedoes, and 15 B-17 bombers of the 31st, 72nd, and 431st Bomb Squadrons. The Japanese repelled these attacks and the attacking force, losing only three A6M fighters while destroying five TBF, two SB2U, eight SBD and two B-26 aircraft. Among the dead was Major Lofton R. Henderson of VMSB-241, killed while leading his inexperienced Dauntless squadron into action: the main airfield on Guadalcanal was named after him in August 1942 during the first stages of 'Watchtower'.
After dropping its torpedo and searching for a safer escape route, a B-26 piloted by Lieutenant James Muri flew directly down the length of Akagi while being chased by interceptors and anti-aircraft fire, which had to hold their fire to avoid hitting their own flagship. As it flew down the length of the ship, the B-26 strafed Akagi, killing two men. Another B-26, which had been seriously damaged by anti-aircraft fire, did not pull out of its run, and instead headed directly for Akagi's bridge: either attempting a suicide ramming or out of control as a result of battle damage or a wounded or killed pilot, the aeroplane narrowly missed crashing into the carrier’s bridge, which could have killed Nagumo and his command staff, before it cartwheeled into the sea. This experience may well have contributed to Nagumo’s determination to launch another attack on Midway, in direct violation of Yamamoto’s order to keep the reserve strike force armed for anti-ship operations.
While the air attacks from Midway were taking place, the US submarine Nautilus found itself near the Japanese fleet, attracting attention from the escorts. At about 08.20, the boat made an unsuccessful torpedo attack on a battleship and then had to dive to evade the escorts. At 09.10 the submarine launched a torpedo at a cruiser and again had to dive to evade the escorts, the destroyer Arashi then spending considerable time chasing Nautilus.
In accordance with Yamamoto’s orders for 'Mi' (ii), Nagumo had kept half of his aircraft in reserve. These comprised two squadrons each of dive-bombers and torpedo bombers. The dive-bombers were as yet unarmed, for the Japanese doctrine was that dive-bombers were to be armed on the flightdeck. The bombers were armed with torpedoes in case any US warships were located.
At 07.15, Nagumo ordered his reserve aircraft to be re-armed with contact-fused general-purpose bombs for use against land targets. This was a result of the attacks from Midway, as well as of the morning flight leader’s recommendation of a second attack on the island. Rearming had been under way for about 30 minutes when, at 07.40, the delayed scout floatplane from the cruiser Tone signalled that it had sighted a sizeable US naval force to the east, but neglected to specify its composition. Later evidence suggests Nagumo did not receive the sighting report until 08.00. Nagumo now quickly reversed his order to rearm the bombers with general-purpose bombs and demanded that the scout floatplane ascertain the composition of the US force it had reported. Another 20 to 40 minutes elapsed before Tone's scout finally radioed the presence of a single carrier in the US force. This was one of the carriers from TF16, but the other carrier was not sighted.
Nagumo was now in a quandary. Yamaguchi, leading Carrier Division 2 (Hiryu and Soryu, recommended that Nagumo attack immediately with the forces at hand, namely 16 D3A1 dive-bombers on Soryu and 18 on Hiryu, and half the ready cover patrol aircraft. Nagumo’s opportunity to hit the US ships was now limited by the imminent return of his Midway attack force, whose aircraft needed to land promptly or otherwise ditch into the sea for lack of fuel. Because of the constant flightdeck activity associated with combat air patrol operations during the preceding hour, the Japanese never had an opportunity to position their reserve aircraft on the flightdeck for launch.
The few aircraft on the Japanese flightdecks at the time of the attack were either defensive fighters or, in Soryu's case, fighters being spotted to augment the combat air patrol. Spotting his flightdecks and launching aircraft would have required at least 30 minutes. Furthermore, by spotting and launching immediately, Nagumo would be committing some of his reserves to battle without proper anti-ship armament, and probably without fighter escort; indeed, he had just witnessed how easily the unescorted US bombers had been shot down.
Japanese naval doctrine preferred the launching of fully constituted attack packages than piecemeal attacks. Without confirmation of whether the US force included carriers (information was received only at 08.20), Nagumo’s reaction was doctrinaire. In addition, the arrival of another land-based US air attack at 07.53 gave weight to the need to attack the island once again. In the end, Nagumo decided to wait for his first attack force to land, and then launch the reserve, which would by then be properly armed with torpedoes.
Had Nagumo opted to launch the available aircraft around 07.45 and risk the ditching of the aircraft of Tomonaga’s attack force, they would have formed a powerful and well-balanced attack package that had the potential to sink two US carriers. Moreover, fuelled and armed aircraft inside the ships presented a significant additional hazard in terms of damage to the carriers in an event of attack, and keeping them on the decks was much more dangerous than getting them airborne. Whatever the case, at that point there was no way to stop the US attack on his ships as Fletcher’s carriers had launched their aircraft from 07.00: Enterprise and Hornet had completed launching by 07.55, but Yorktown only at 09.08, so the aircraft that would deliver the crushing blow were already on their way. Even if Nagumo had not strictly adhered to carrier doctrine, he could not have prevented the launch of the US attack.
The Americans had already launched their carrierborne aircraft. Fletcher, in overall command aboard Yorktown, and benefiting from PBY sighting reports from the early morning, ordered Spruance to launch his aircraft against the Japanese as soon as he could, while initially holding Yorktown in reserve in case any other Japanese carriers were located.
Spruance judged that, though the range was extreme, an attack could succeed and gave the order to launch the aircraft. He then left Halsey’s chief-of-staff, Captain Miles Browning, to work out the details and oversee the launch. The carrierborne aircraft had to be launched into the wind, so the light south-easterly breeze would require the carriers to steam away from the Japanese at high speed. Browning therefore suggested a launch time of 07.00, giving the carriers an hour to close on the Japanese at 25 kt. This would place them at about 178 miles (287 km) from the Japanese fleet, assuming the latter did not change course. The first aircraft took off from Spruance’s carriers Enterprise and Hornet a few minutes after 07.00. Fletcher, upon completing his own scouting flights, followed at 08.00 from Yorktown.
Fletcher, along with Yorktown's commanding officer, Captain Elliott Buckmaster, and their staffs had acquired the first-hand experience needed in organizing and launching a full attack against the Japanese in the 'Battle of the Coral Sea', but there had been no time to pass these lessons on to Enterprise and Hornet, which were tasked with launching the first attack. Spruance ordered the attack aircraft to proceed to target immediately, rather than waste time waiting for the assembly of the entire attack force, since the neutralisation of the Japanese carriers was the key to the survival of his own task force.
While the Japanese were able to launch 108 aircraft in just seven minutes, it took Enterprise and Hornet more than one hour to launch 117 aircraft. Spruance judged that the need to throw something at the Japanese as early as possible was greater than the need to co-ordinate the attack by aircraft of different types and speeds. Accordingly, US squadrons were launched piecemeal and proceeded to the target in several groups. It was accepted that the lack of co-ordination would diminish the impact of the US attacks and increase US losses, but Spruance calculated that this was acceptable as keeping the Japanese under air attack impaired their ability to launch a counterattack by their preferred tactic of fully constituted attacks, and he gambled that he would find Nagumo with his flightdecks at their most vulnerable.
The US carrierborne aircraft had difficulty locating the target, despite the positions they had been given. Hornet's attack force, led by Commander Stanhope C. Ring, followed an incorrect heading of 265° rather than the 240° indicated by the contact report and, as a result, Air Group Eight’s dive-bombers missed the Japanese carriers. VT-8, from Hornet, led by Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron, broke formation from Ring and followed the correct heading. The 10 F4F fighters from Hornet ran out of fuel and had to ditch.
Waldron’s squadron sighted the Japanese carriers and began its attack at 09.20, followed at 09.40 by VF-6 from Enterprise, whose F4F fighter escorts lost contact, ran short of fuel and had to turn back. Without fighter escort, all 15 of VT-8’s TBD torpedo bombers were shot down without being able to inflict any damage. Ensign George H. Gay was the only survivor of VT-8’s 30 men: he completed his torpedo attack onSoryu before he was shot down, but the carrier evaded his torpedo. Meanwhile, VT-6, led by Lieutenant Commander Eugene E. Lindsey, lost nine of its 14 TBD torpedo bombers, and another later ditched, and 10 of 12 TBD torpedo bombers from Yorktown's VT-3, which attacked at 10.10, were shot down with no hits to show for their effort, thanks in part to the abysmal performance of their unimproved Mk 13 torpedoes. The 'Battle of Midway' was the last time the TBD was used in combat.
The Japanese combat air patrol of A6M2 fighters made short work of the unescorted, slow and under-armed TBD attackers. A few of the TBD aircraft managed to get within a few ship-lengths range of their targets before dropping their torpedoes (close enough to be able to strafe the Japanese ships and force the carriers to make sharp evasive manoeuvres) but all of their torpedoes either missed or failed to detonate. The performance of US torpedoes in the early months of the war was extremely poor, as shot after shot missed by running directly under the target (deeper than intended), detonated prematurely or hit targets (sometimes with an audible clang) and failed to detonate at all. Remarkably, senior US Navy and Bureau of Ordnance officers never questioned why half a dozen torpedoes, released so close to the Japanese carriers, produced no results.
Despite their failure to score any hits, the US torpedo attacks achieved three important results. Firstly, they kept the Japanese carriers off balance and unable to prepare and launch their own counterattack. Secondly, the poor control of the Japanese combat air patrol meant the fighters were out of position for subsequent attacks. Thirdly, many of the A6M fighters ran low on ammunition and fuel. The appearance of a third torpedo bomber attack from the south-east by Yorktown's VT-3, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Lance E. Massey at 10.00 very quickly drew the majority of the Japanese combat air patrol to the fleet’s south-eastern quadrant. Better discipline and the employment of a greater number of A6M fighters in the combat air patrol might have enabled Nagumo to prevent (or at least to mitigate) the damage caused by the forthcoming US attacks.
By chance, at the same time that VT-3 was sighted by the Japanese, three squadrons of SBD dive-bombers from Enterprise and Yorktown were approaching from the south-west and north-east. Yorktown's VB-3 had flown just behind VT-3, but elected to attack from a different angle. The two squadrons from Enterprise, VB-6 and VS-6, were running low on fuel because of the time they had spent looking for the Japanese. The air group’s leader, Commander C. Wade McClusky, 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 her unsuccessful efforts against Nautilus, which had itself unsuccessfully attacked the battleship Kirishima. Some bombers were lost from fuel exhaustion before the start of the attack.
McClusky’s decision to continue the search and his judgement, in the opinion of Nimitz, 'decided the fate of our carrier task force and our forces at Midway.' All three US dive-bomber squadrons, namely VB-6, VS-6 and VB-3, arrived almost simultaneously at the perfect time, locations and altitudes to attack. Most of the Japanese combat air patrol fighters were concentrating their attentions on the torpedo bombers of VT-3 and were thus out of position. Meanwhile, armed Japanese attack aircraft filled the carriers' 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 Enterprise's air group divided with the intention of sending one squadron each to attack Kaga and Akagi, but a miscommunication caused both of the squadrons to stoop on Kaga. Recognising the error, Lieutenant Richard H. Best and his two wingmen were able to pull out of their dives and, after judging that Kaga was doomed, headed north to attack Akagi. Deluged by bombs from almost two full squadrons, Kaga took three to five direct hits, which caused heavy damage and started several fires. One of the bombs landed on or right in front of the bridge, killing Captain Jisaku Okada and most of the ship’s senior officers.
Several minutes later, Best and his two wingmen dived on Akagi. Mitsuo Fuchida, who had led the 'Ai' attack on Pearl Harbor, was on 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 machine guns managed to fire a few frantic bursts at them, but it was too late. The plump silhouettes of the US Dauntless dive-bombers quickly grew larger, and then a number of black objects suddenly floated eerily from their wings.'
Although Akagi sustained only one direct hit, almost certainly that of the dropped by Best, it proved to be a fatal blow: the bomb struck the edge of the midship deck elevator and penetrated to the upper hangar deck, where it exploded among the armed and fuelled aircraft in the vicinity. Nagumo’s chief-of-staff, Ryunosuke Kusaka, recorded 'a terrific fire…bodies all over the place…Aircraft stood tail up, belching livid flames and jet-black smoke, making it impossible to bring the fires under control.' Another bomb exploded under the water very close astern, and the resulting geyser bent the flightdeck upward 'in grotesque configurations' and caused crucial rudder damage.
Simultaneously, Yorktown's VB-3, commanded by Max Leslie, attacked Soryu, scoring at least three hits and causing extensive damage. Petrol ignited, creating an inferno, while stacked bombs and ammunition detonated. VT-3 targeted Hiryu, which was hemmed in by Soryu, Kaga and Akagi, but achieved no hits.
Within six minutes, Soryu and Kaga were ablaze from stem to stern as fires spread through the ships. Struck by only one bomb, Akagi took longer to burn, but the resulting fires quickly expanded and soon proved impossible to extinguish, and this ship too was eventually consumed by flames and had to be abandoned. As Nagumo began to grasp the enormity of what had happened, he appears to have gone into a state of shock. Witnesses saw Nagumo standing near the ship’s compass looking out at the flames on his flagship and two other carriers in a trance-like daze. Despite being asked to abandon the ship, Nagumo did not move and was reluctant to leave Akagi, just muttering 'It’s not time yet.' Nagumo’s chief-of-staff, Rear Admiral Ryunosuke Kusaka, was able to persuade Nagumo to leave the critically damaged Akagi and the admiral, with a barely perceptible nod and tears in his eyes, agreed to go. Nagumo transferred his flag to the light cruiser Nagara. All three carriers remained temporarily afloat, as none had suffered damage below the waterline, other than the rudder damage to Akagi. Despite initial hopes that Akagi could be saved or at least towed back to Japan, all three carriers were eventually abandoned and scuttled. While Kaga was burning, Nautilus appeared once again and fired three torpedoes at her, scoring one hit that failed to detonate.
Now the sole surviving Japanese carrier, Hiryu wasted little time in counterattacking. The carrier’s first attack wave, consisting of 18 D3A dive-bombers and six A6M escorting fighters, followed the retreating US aircraft and attacked Yorktown, the first carrier they encountered, hitting her with three bombs, which blew a hole in the deck, snuffed out all but one of her boilers, and destroyed one anti-aircraft mount. The damage also forced Fletcher to move his command staff to the heavy cruiser Astoria. Damage-control parties were able to patch the flightdeck and restore power to several boilers within one hour, giving the carrier a speed of 19 kt and allowing her to resume air operations. A total of 16 Japanese aircraft (13 dive-bombers and three fighters) had been lost in this attack, and two other fighters had turned back early after they were damaged attacking some of Enterprise's SBD dive-bombers returning from their attack on the Japanese carriers.
About one hour later, Hiryu's second wave of attackers, comprising 10 B5N bombers and six A6M fighters, arrived over Yorktown, on which the repair efforts had been so effective that the Japanese pilots assumed that Yorktown must in fact be a different, undamaged carrier. They attacked, crippling Yorktown with two torpedoes: the ship lost all power and developed a 23° list to port. Five torpedo bombers and two fighters were shot down in this attack.
News of the two attacks, with the mistaken reports that each had sunk a US carrier, greatly improved Japanese morale. The few surviving aircraft were recovered aboard Hiryu. Despite their heavy losses, the Japanese believed that they could assemble enough aircraft for one more attack against what they believed to be the only remaining US carrier.
Late in the afternoon, a scout aeroplane from Yorktown located Hiryu, prompting Enterprise to launch a final wave of 24 dive-bombers in the form of six SBD machines from VS-6, four SBD machines from VB-6 and 14 SBD machines of Yorktown's VB-3. Despite the fact that Hiryu was defended by a strong cover of more than 12 A6M fighters, the attack by Enterprise and orphaned Yorktown aircraft launched from Enterprise was successful: four (possibly five) bombs hit Hiryu, leaving her ablaze and unable to operate aircraft. Hornet's attack, launched late because of a communications error, concentrated on the remaining escort ships, but failed to score any hits. One of Enterprise's dive-bombers hit Hiryu on the bow, crippling the carrier so badly that it effectively rendered the carrier immediately out of service.
After futile attempts to control the blaze, most of the crew remaining on Hiryu were evacuated and the remainder of the fleet continued steaming to the north-east in an attempt to intercept the US carriers. Despite the scuttling attempt by a Japanese destroyer, which hit her with a torpedo and then departed quickly, Hiryu remained afloat for several more hours. She was discovered at a time early in the following morning by an aeroplane from the escort carrier Hosho, prompting hopes that the carrier could be saved, or at least towed back to Japan, but soon after being spotted, Hiryu sank. Together with the ship’s captain, Captain Tomeo Kaku, Yamaguchi chose to go down with the ship, costing Japan perhaps its best carrier officer.
As night descended, each side took stock and made tentative plans to continue the battle. Obliged to abandon the derelict Yorktown and feeling he could not adequately command from a cruiser, Fletcher ceded operational command to Spruance, who knew that the USA had won an enormous victory but was still unsure of what Japanese forces remained and was therefore determined to safeguard both Midway and his carriers. To aid his aircrews, 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 take Midway island, a belief based in part on a misleading contact report from the submarine Tambor, Spruance changed course and withdrew to the east, turning back to the west and the Japanese at 00.00. For his part, Yamamoto initially decided to continue the battle and sent his remaining surface forces searching to the east for the US carriers. At the same time, Yamamoto detached a cruiser raiding force to bombard Midway island. The Japanese surface forces failed to make contact with the US ships as Spruance had decided on a brief withdrawal to the east, and Yamamoto ordered a general withdrawal to the west. It was fortunate for the USA that Spruance did not pursue, for had he come into contact with Yamamoto’s heavy ships, including Yamato, in the dark, the Imperial Japanese navy’s superiority in night attack tactics at the time would probably have meant that his cruisers would have been overwhelmed and his carriers sunk.
Spruance failed to regain contact with Yamamoto’s forces on 5 June, despite extensive searches. Toward the end of the day, Spruance launched a search-and-destroy mission to seek out any remnants of Nagumo’s carrier force. This attack, late in the afternoon, narrowly missed detecting Yamamoto’s main body and failed to score hits on a straggling Japanese destroyer. The attack aircraft returned to the carriers after the fall of night, prompting Spruance to order Enterprise and Hornet to turn on their lights to aid the landings.
At 02.15 on 5 June, Tambor was some 105 miles (170 km) to the west of Midway, and then made the second of the submarine force’s two major contributions to the battle’s outcome, although its impact was heavily blunted by the boat’s captain himself. Sighting several ships, neither Commander John Murphy nor his executive officer, Edward Spruance (son of Admiral Spruance) could identify them. Uncertain as to whether they were friendly or not and unwilling to approach any closer to verify their heading or type, Murphy decided to send a vague report of 'four large ships' to Rear Admiral Robert H. English, the Commander, Submarine Force, Pacific Fleet. This report was passed on by English to Nimitz, who then sent it to Spruance. A former submarine commander, the last was 'understandably furious' at the vagueness of Murphy’s report as it provided him with little more than suspicion and no concrete information on which to make his preparations. Unaware of the exact location of Yamamoto’s 1st Fleet, Main Body, a persistent problem since the time PBY flying boats had first sighted the Japanese, Spruance was forced to assume the 'four large ships' reported by Tambor represented the main invasion force and so moved to block it, while remaining 120 miles (195 km) to the north-east of Midway.
In reality, the ships sighted by Tambor were the detachment of four cruisers and two destroyers Yamamoto had sent to bombard Midway. At 02.55, these ships received Yamamoto’s order to retire and changed course to comply. At about the same time, Tambor was sighted and during manoeuvres designed to avoid a submarine attack, the heavy cruisers Mogami and Mikuma were involved in a collision that inflicted serious damage on Mogami's bow. The less severely damaged Mikuma slowed to 12 kt to keep pace. Only at 04.12 did the sky brighten enough for Murphy to be certain the ships were Japanese, by which time staying surfaced was hazardous and he dived to approach for an attack. The attack was unsuccessful, and at about 06.00 Murthy finally reported two 'Mogami' class cruisers steaming to the west, before diving again and playing no further role in the battle. Limping along on a straight course at a mere 12 kt, Mogami and Mikuma had been almost perfect targets for a submarine attack. As soon as Tambor returned to port, Spruance had Murphy relieved of duty and reassigned to a shore station, citing his confusing contact report, poor torpedo shooting during his attack run, and general lack of aggression, especially as compared to Nautilus, the oldest of the 12 boats at Midway and the only boat which had successfully placed a torpedo on target.
Over the next two days, several attacks were launched against the stragglers, first from Midway, then from Spruance’s carriers. Mikuma was eventually sunk by SBD dive-bombers, while Mogami survived further severe damage to return home for repairs. The destroyers Arashio and Asashio were also bombed and strafed during the last of these attacks.
Meanwhile, efforts to save Yorktown were encouraging, and she was taken in tow by the fleet tug Vireo. Late in the afternoon of 6 June, however, the Japanese submarine I-168, which had managed to slip through the cordon of destroyers, fired a salvo of torpedoes, and two of these struck Yorktown. There were few casualties aboard as most of the crew had already been evacuated, but a third torpedo from this salvo struck the destroyer Hammann, which had been providing auxiliary power to Yorktown. Hammann broke in two and sank with the loss of 80 lives, mostly because her own depth charges exploded. With further salvage efforts deemed hopeless, the remaining repair crews were evacuated from Yorktown. Throughout the night of 6 June and into the morning of 7 June, Yorktown remained afloat, but by 05.30 on 7 June,observers noted that her list to port was increasing rapidly. Shortly after this, the ship turned onto her port side, and lay that way, revealing the torpedo hole in her starboard bilge. Buckmaster’s US flag was still flying. All ships half-masted their colours in salute. Two patrolling PBY flying boats appeared overhead and dipped their wings in a final salute. At 07.01, the ship rolled over and slowly sank, stern first, with her battle flags flying.
By the time the battle ended, 3,057 Japanese had died. Akagi had lost 267 men, Kaga 811, Hiryu 392 and Soryu 711 for a total carrier death toll of 2,181 men. The heavy cruisers Mikuma lost 700 men and Mogami 92 men. In addition, the destroyers Arashio lost 35 men and Asashio 21 men after both had been damaged during the air attacks which sank Mikuma and caused further damage to Mogami. Floatplanes were lost from the cruisers Chikuma (three aircraft) and Tone (two aircraft). The dead aboard the destroyers Tanikaze (11 men), Arashi (one man) and Kazagumo (one man), and also the fleet oiler Akebono Maru (10 men) constituted the remaining 23 casualties.
By the end of the battle, the USA had lost the carrier Yorktown and the destroyer Hammann. A total of 307 Americans had been killed, including Major General Clarence L. Tinker, commander of the 7th Army Air Force, who had personally led a bomber attack from Hawaii against the retreating Japanese forces on 7 June: he was killed when his aeroplane crashed near Midway island.
After winning a clear victory, and as pursuit became too hazardous near Wake island, the US forces retired. Spruance once again withdrew to the east to refuel his destroyers and rendezvous with the carrier Saratoga, which was ferrying much-needed replacement aircraft. Fletcher transferred his flag to Saratoga during the afternoon of 8 June and resumed command of the carrier force. For the remainder of that day and then 9 June, Fletcher continued to launch search missions from the three carriers to ensure the Japanese were no longer advancing on Midway. Late on 10 June a decision was made to leave the area and the US carriers eventually returned to Pearl Harbor.
It was noted in 1949 that Spruance had been subjected to much criticism for not pursuing the retreating Japanese, thus allowing their surface fleet to escape, but in 1975 it was argued that had Spruance pressed forward, he would have been unable to launch his aircraft after the fall of night and his cruisers would have been overwhelmed by Yamamoto’s powerful surface units, which included Yamato. Furthermore, the US air groups had suffered considerable losses, including most of their torpedo bombers, and this made it unlikely that they could have been effective in an air attack against the Japanese battleships, even if they had managed to catch them during the day. Also, by this time Spruance’s destroyers were critically short of fuel.
On 10 June, the Imperial Japanese navy provided the military liaison conference an incomplete picture of the results of the battle, and Nagumo’s detailed battle report was submitted to the high command five days later. The battle report was intended only for the highest echelons in the Imperial Japanese navy and government and was guarded closely throughout the war. In it, one of the more striking revelations is the comment on Nagumo’s estimates: 'The enemy is not aware of our plans (we were not discovered until early in the morning of 5 June at the earliest).' In reality, the whole operation had been compromised from the beginning by US codebreaking efforts.
The Japanese public and much of the military command structure were not told of the extent of the defeat: Japanese news announced a great victory. Only Emperor Hirohito and the highest naval command personnel were accurately told of the carrier and pilot losses. Consequently, even the Imperial Japanese army continued to believe, for at least a short time, that the fleet was in good condition.
On the return of the Japanese fleet to Hashirajima on 14 June the wounded were immediately transferred to naval hospitals. Most of the wounded were classified as 'secret patients', placed in isolation wards and quarantined from other patients and their own families to keep this major defeat secret. The remaining officers and men were quickly dispersed to other units of the fleet and, without being allowed to see family or friends, were shipped to units in the South Pacific, where most were later killed in battle. None of the Combined Fleet's flag officers or staff were penalised, and Nagumo was later placed in command of the rebuilt carrier force. One of the reasons that Nagumo was not relieved of command was that he reported that two US carriers had been sunk, not the one which had actually sunk.
As a result of the defeat, new procedures were adopted whereby more Japanese aircraft were refuelled and rearmed on the flightdeck rather than in the hangars, and the practice of draining all unused fuel lines was adopted. The new carriers being built were redesigned to incorporate only two flightdeck elevators and new firefighting equipment. More carrier crew members were trained in damage-control and firefighting techniques, although the losses of Shokaku, Hiyo and especially Taiho later in the war indicates that there were still problems in this area.
Replacement pilots were pushed through an abbreviated training programme in order to meet the short-term needs of the fleet, but this also led to a sharp decline in the quality of the pilots produced. These inexperienced men were fed into front-line units, while the veterans who remained after Midway and the Solomon islands campaign were forced to share an increased workload as conditions grew more desperate, with few being given a chance to rest in rear areas or in the home islands. As a result, Japanese naval air groups as a whole progressively deteriorated during the war while those of their US adversaries continued to improve.
Three US airmen were captured during the battle: these were Ensign Wesley Osmus, a pilot from Yorktown, Ensign Frank O’Flaherty, a pilot from Enterprise, and Aviation Machinist’s Mate Bruno Peter Gaido, O’Flaherty’s radio operator/gunner. Osmus was held on Arashi, and O’Flaherty and Gaido on the cruiser Nagara or the destroyer Makigumo according to differing sources. O’Flaherty and Gaido were interrogated and then killed by being tied to water-filled kerosene cans and thrown overboard to drown. Osmus was slated for the same fate, but he resisted and was murdered on Arashi with a fire axe and his body thrown overboard. The killing of Osmus in this manner was apparently ordered by Arashi's captain, Commander Watanabe Yasumasa, who was himself killed when the destroyer Numakaze sank in December 1943.
Two enlisted men from Mikuma were rescued from a life raft on 9 June by the submarine Trout and taken to Pearl Harbor. After receiving medical care, at least one of these sailors co-operated during interrogation and provided intelligence. Another 35 men from Hiryu were recovered from a lifeboat by the auxiliary seaplane tender Ballard on 19 June after being spotted by a US search aeroplane. They were taken to Midway island and then transferred to Pearl Harbor by the naval cargo vessel Sirius.
The 'Battle of Midway' has often been called 'the turning point of the Pacific', and was the Allies' first major naval victory against the Japanese. Had Japan won the battle as thoroughly as did the USA, it might have been able to reach sand take Midway Island. Saratoga would have been the only US carrier in the Pacific, as no new ships of this type were completed before the end of 1942. While the US would probably not have sought peace with Japan, as Yamamoto hoped, Japan might have revived the 'Fs' operation to invade and occupy the Fijian and Samoan island groups, attacked Australia, Alaska and Ceylon; or even attempted to seize Hawaii.
Although the Japanese continued their efforts to secure more territory, and the US Navy did not progress from parity to superiority and then supremacy over the Imperial Japanese navy until after several more months of hard combat, the 'Battle of Midway' allowed the Allies to switch to the strategic initiative, paving the way for the 'Watchtower' landing on Guadalcanal and the prolonged but ultimately successful attrition of the Solomon islands campaign. The 'Battle of Midway' allowed this to occur before the first of the new 'Essex' class fleet carriers became available at the end of 1942. Arguably, the 'Battle of Guadalcanal' can be seen as the land counterpart of the maritime 'Battle of Midway'.
Some have made the case that its heavy losses in carriers and veteran aircrews at Midway permanently weakened the Imperial Japanese navy, but others have averred that the heavy losses in veteran aircrew (110, representing just less than 25% of the aircrew embarked on the four carriers) were not crippling to the Japanese naval air corps as a whole. However, the Imperial Japanese navy had 2,000 carrier-qualified aircrews at the start of the Pacific War, and the loss of four fleet carriers and more than 40% of the carriers' highly trained aircraft mechanics and technicians, plus the essential flightdeck crews and armourers, and the loss of organisational knowledge embodied in such highly trained crews, was still a huge blow to the Japanese carrier fleet. A few months after the 'Battle of Midway', the Imperial Japanese navy air service sustained similar casualty rates in the 'Battle of the Eastern Solomons' and 'Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands', and it was these battles, combined with the constant attrition of veterans during the Solomon islands campaign, which were the catalyst for the sharp downward slide in the corps' operational capability.
After the battle, Shokaku and Zuikaku were the only large carriers left of the original 'Ai' attack force. Of Japan’s other carriers, Taiho, which was not commissioned until a time early in 1944, would be the only fleet carrier worth teaming with Shokaku and Zuikaku; Ryujo and Zuiho were light carriers, while Junyo and Hiyo, although technically classified as fleet carriers, were second-rate ships of comparatively limited capability. In the time it took Japan to build three carriers, the US Navy commissioned more than 24 fleet and light fleet carriers, and numerous escort carriers. By 1942 the USA was already three years into a shipbuilding programme mandated in 1938.
Both the USA and Japan accelerated the training of aircrew, but the former had an altogether more effective pilot rotation system, which meant that more veterans survived and went on to the training or command roles in which they were able to pass on to trainees the lessons they had learned in combat. By the time of the 'Battle of the Philippine Sea' in June 1944, the Japanese had nearly rebuilt their carrier forces in numerical terms, but their aircraft, many of which were obsolete, were flown largely by inexperienced and poorly trained pilots.
The 'Battle of Midway' showed the worth of pre-war naval cryptanalysis and intelligence-gathering. These efforts continued and were expanded throughout the war in both the Pacific and Atlantic theatres. Successes were numerous and significant: for instance, cryptanalysis made possible the 'Vengeance' interception and shooting down of the aeroplane carrying Yamamoto in 1943.
The 'Battle of Midway' redefined the critical importance of naval air superiority for the remainder of the war when the Japanese suddenly lost four of their six most capable fleet carriers. Without any form of air superiority, the Japanese never again launched a major offensive in the Pacific.