70 years ago this week: Battle of Midway Island (June 4-7, 1942)

(Today our Navy command observed the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Midway as in commemoration of the recent Memorial Day holiday.  This was a different take on Memorial Day observations as it took a look at a specific, historical battle.) 

Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto

As was mentioned in my previous Memorial Day post, the Japanese fleet set off for Midway Island on May 27, 1942.  Their intent was draw U.S. Navy carrier forces into a trap by attacking Midway Island, one of the few military installations U.S. forces occupied west of Pearl Harbor and the Hawaiian Islands.  Once U.S. carriers responded to the Midway attack by seeking out Japanese carrier force, the hammer of Japanese battleship forces would then attack and destroy the U.S. carrier fleet.  All the U.S. battleships assigned to the Pacific theatre had been destroyed or damaged just six months prior to the Battle of Midway when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Several factors contributed to the eventual U.S. victory at Midway.

  • U.S. cryptologists had successfully figured out the Japanese code used for its operational forces.  The Japanese had been delayed in fielding their own more advanced code in the weeks leading up to Midway.  As a result, Allied forces in the Pacific were able to read Japanese message traffic, and knew both where and when – within a day or two – the Imperial Forces were expected to hit Midway Island.
  • Aircraft carrier U.S.S. Yorktown (CV-5), heavily damaged and thought by the Japanese to have been sunk during the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 7-8), limped back to Pearl Harbor on May 27 and was turned around in sufficient fighting condition in just 3 days!  Yorktown was able to sail as the core of Task Force 17 on May 30.
  • On 29 May, seaplane tender (destroyer) USS Thornton (AVD-11) arrived at French Frigate Shoals to relieve light minelayer USS Preble (DM-20) on patrol station there. The presence of U.S. ships at French Frigate Shoals prevented the Japanese from refueling flying boats to reconnoiter Pearl Harbor.  As a result, the Japanese had no intelligence on the departure and makeup of Task Forces 16 (U.S.S. Enterprise and U.S.S. Hornet) and 17 (U.S.S. Yorktown). 
  • Radio silence insisted upon by Japanese Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto prevented what sporadic information Japanese intelligence could discern about Task Force departures from Pearl Harbor from reaching Vice Admiral Nagumo Chuichi‘s Carrier Strike Force.

Overview of the fighting during the Battle of Midway, as taken from the Naval History and Heritage Command, Battle of Midway link:  

U.S. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz

Just after midnight on 4 June, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, based on patrol plane reports, advised Task Forces 16 and 17 of the course and speed of the Japanese “main body,” also noting their distance of 574 miles from Midway. Shortly after dawn, a patrol plane spotted two Japanese carriers and their escorts, reporting “Many planes heading Midway from 320 degrees distant 150 miles!”

The first attack on 4 June, however, took place when the four night-flying PBYs attacked the Japanese transports northwest of Midway with one PBY torpedoing fleet tanker Akebono Maru. Later that morning, at roughly 0630, Aichi D3A (“Val”) carrier bombers and Nakajima B5N (“Kate”) torpedo planes, supported by numerous fighters (“Zekes”), bombed Midway Island installations. Although defending U.S. Marine Corps Brewster F2A (“Buffalo”) and Grumman F4F (“Wildcat”) fighters suffered disastrous losses, losing 17 of 26 aloft, the Japanese only inflicted slight damage to the facilities on Midway. Motor Torpedo Boat PT-25 was also damaged by strafing in Midway lagoon.

Over the next two hours, Japanese “Zekes” on Combat Air Patrol (CAP) and antiaircraft fire from the Japanese fleet annihilated the repeated attacks by the American aircraft from Marine Corps Douglas SBD (“Dauntless”) and Vought SB2U (“Vindicator”) scout bombers from VMSB-241, Navy Grumman TBF (“Avenger”) torpedo bombers from VT-8 detachment, and U. S. Army Air Force torpedo-carrying Martin B-26 (“Marauder”) bombers sent out to attack the Japanese carriers. Army Air Force “Flying Fortresses” likewise bombed the Japanese carrier force without success, although without losses to themselves.

Between 0930 and 1030, Douglas TBD (“Devastator”) torpedo bombers from VT 3, VT-6, and VT-8 on the three American carriers attacked the Japanese carriers. Although nearly wiped out by the defending Japanese fighters and antiaircraft fire, they drew off enemy fighters, leaving the skies open for dive bombers from U.S.S. Enterprise and U.S.S. Yorktown. VB-6 and VS-6 “Dauntlesses” from Enterprise bombed and fatally damaged carriers Kaga and Akagi, while VB-3 “Dauntlesses” from Yorktown bombed and wrecked carrier Soryu. American submarine Nautilus (SS-168) then fired torpedoes at the burning Kaga but her torpedoes did not explode.

USS Yorktown – June 4, 1942

At 1100, the one Japanese carrier that escaped destruction that morning, Hiryu, launched “Val” dive bombers that temporarily disabled Yorktown around noon. Three and a half hours later, Hiryu’s “Kate” torpedo planes struck a second blow, forcing Yorktown’s abandonment. In return, “Dauntlesses” from Enterprise mortally damaged Hiryu in a strike around 1700 that afternoon. The destruction of the Carrier Strike Force compelled Admiral Yamamoto to abandon his Midway invasion plans, and the Japanese Fleet began to retire westward.

On 5 June, TF 16 under command of Rear Admiral Spruance pursued the Japanese fleet westward, while work continued to salvage the damaged Yorktown. Both Akagi and Hiryu, damaged the previous day, were scuttled by Japanese destroyers early on the 5th.

The last air attacks of the battle took place on 6 June when dive bombers from Enterprise and Hornet bombed and sank heavy cruiser Mikuma, and damaged destroyers Asashio and Arashio,as well as the cruiser Mogami. At Admiral Spruance’s expressed orders, issued because of the destruction of three torpedo squadrons on 4 June, “Devastators” from VT-6 that accompanied the strike did not attack because of the threat to them from surface antiaircraft fire. After recovering these planes, TF 16 turned eastward and broke off contact with the enemy. COMINT intercepts over the following two days documented the withdrawal of Japanese forces toward Saipan and the Home Islands.

Meanwhile, on the 6th, Japanese submarine I-168 interrupted the U.S. salvage operations, torpedoing Yorktown and torpedoing and sinking destroyer USS Hammann (DD-412). Screening destroyers depth-charged I-168 but the Japanese submarine escaped destruction. Yorktown, suffering from numerous torpedo hits, finally rolled over and sank at dawn on 7 June.

Luck also turned out to be on the American side as well; but it was luck that was made possible through better intelligence gathering, cryptology breakthroughs, industrial capabilities (e.g. U.S.S. Yorktown’s quick shipyard turnaround), superior naval leadership and carrier tactics.  Not the least of any of the aforementioned factors, the fighting spirit, dedication, and bravery of U.S. military personnel determined the course of the Battle of Midway and by doing so, defined the high-water of Japanese designs for the Western Pacific.

Casualties were relatively light for American forces (300 dead, U.S.S. Yorktown sunk) compared to the over 3000 dead and four aircraft carriers lost by the Japanese.  The real measure of U.S. and Allied success was what the defeat did to Japanese designs to force the Allies out of the central Pacific so that Japanese forces could have their way in the western Pacific. 

From Midway forward, the World War II Pacific Theatre would slowly but decidedly turn to the Allies favor.  Due to the significant losses in aircraft carriers, airplanes, pilots, and even their trained aircraft mechanics, Japanese forces would suffer from the loss of air superiority.  And Japanese weaknesses in manufacturing capacity and the flow of raw materials made replacing lost ships extremely difficult and virtually impossible in the case of aircraft carriers.  As a result,  Japanese military operations would turn from offensive to defensive in nature as the Allies slowly closed the circle around the Japanese homeland.

The Battle of Midway, along with those at Coral Sea and the Doolittle Raid over Japanese home islands, marked the beginning of the Age of the Aircraft Carrier, which after 70 years still serves as the backbone of any prolonged American military presence in oceans around the world.

So despite that our Memorial Day has already passed, take a few moments to reflect on what these men and their machines accomplished in interests of freedom and American interests 70 years ago this week.

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8 thoughts on “70 years ago this week: Battle of Midway Island (June 4-7, 1942)

  1. It’s like having a bit of the history channel along with lawn care tips right at your fingertips. Someone from the national scene has be made aware of this site

    • Interesting link. I noticed that IJN sub picket line around Hawaii was set a day or two after the US Fleet had sailed to Midway, good timing for US.

  2. Detailed account, the only thing missing was a feeling of seasickness, surely this is a naval era of a type we will never see again.

    The Yorktown is a big part of this story. Yorktown’s aircraft were the force that caught the Japanese rearming their planes with air to ship weapons after already arming them with air to ground weapons. Yorktown actually went to sea enroute to Midway with technicians still working on her repairs, a good example of US industrial might, a big component in the eventual US victory in WW II. Industrial might demonstrated ironically when the IJN carriers damaged at Coral Sea, with the Yorktown, were still in Japanese dry-docks as the US fleet steamed into Tokyo Bay to accept Japan’s unconditional surrender more than 3 years later.

    Very interesting how things like the USN patrols stopped the Japanese from making proper recon of Pearl Harbor.

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