Chased by faster, more nimble Japanese Zeros, and dodging antiaircraft fire, American pilots in Douglas Devastators dropped their torpedoes, aiming at enemy battleships and carriers far below, floating like toy boats in the turquoise water, somewhere near a tiny, remote atoll known as Midway, after its location roughly halfway between North America and Asia. All but a few were consigned to watery graves in the depths of the Pacific.
Their sacrifice wasn’t in vain, however, for they distracted the enemy, keeping the lethal Zeros away from American dive bombers, who unleashed fires of vengeance on some of the very ships that had wrought so much destruction at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, six months before.
One hit. Two hits. Three. Four. Five.
“Let’s hit them again,” one pilot said into his radio. “Let’s hit them all.”
“Gee, I wish I had one more bomb,” another called.
Within minutes, American firepower reduced three Japanese carriers to flames. Two would be at the bottom of the sea by nightfall.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Japanese, already in possession of Korea and much of China, had continued their assault on American and European possessions in the Far East: the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, Singapore, Burma, Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). They fell like dominoes, many of their defenders murdered or captured, their people all but enslaved.
Finally, during the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, the U.S slowed them down. It had cost the carrier USS Lexington (CV 2), as well as an oiler and a destroyer, and had left USS Yorktown (CV 5) limping back to Pearl Harbor for repairs, but the Navy had forced two Japanese carriers into dry dock in the process, carriers that would be out of commission for months.
By that time, said Robert Cressman of the Navy’s History and Heritage Command, “the Navy’s carriers were learning their trade and carrying out virtually uncontested raids on the Japanese defensive perimeter (Marshalls and Gilberts, Wake and Marcus). ... The Halsey-Doolittle Raid [on the Japanese home islands] cemented Japanese resolve to go after Midway and provoke a confrontation with our CVs that had bedeviled them since February 1942.”
But Japanese commanders didn’t realize that American cryptographers had cracked much of their code and knew the enemy was planning an attack on a location known as AF.
Intelligence analysts suspected AF was Midway, a strategic stopover and refueling point that would put Japanese bombers a mere 1,200 miles from Hawaii. If they succeeded in taking the atoll, “we would have had to remove our fleet base to the West Coast,” Alvin Kernan, an historian and author who was also a 3rd class aviation ordnanceman on USS Enterprise (CV 6), said in a 2007 documentary.
Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet, agreed with the assessment, but he needed proof in order to convince his superiors at the War Department to risk the fleet on such a gamble. He ordered Midway’s commanders to report in via an undersea cable, advising headquarters in Hawaii that their water distillation plant had broken.
Two days later, Americans intercepted a Japanese message saying AF was running low on water.
This was our great occasion. “A great battle was coming. ... This was something like Nelson sailing to Trafalgar or the Civil War battle of the ironclads.” - Alvin Kernan.
The Battle Begins
The race was on, with the power of two great navies steaming full speed ahead toward Midway, although many Sailors didn’t know something historic was going to happen until two or three days before the battle, remembered Willard “Bill” Norberg, then a yeoman 3rd class on the Enterprise.
Split into main, striking and occupation forces, Japanese strength consisted of four aircraft carriers and another 80-some ships, although only a fraction would participate in the coming battle. The Americans had two task forces with three carriers, including Yorktown, which had been rapidly repaired after Coral Sea, and around 20 cruisers and destroyers. Forces on Midway included about 130 Marine and Army Air Corps planes.
Search pilots spent hours looking for the enemy, finally sighting cargo ships some 470 miles from the atoll the morning of June 3, just as news of a Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands was breaking. (Many historians believe the Alaskan attack was a feint.) Ensign Jack Reid, at the controls of a Midway-based PBY Catalina seaplane, soon reported six large ships about 700 miles away, later revising his estimate.
“There was 11 enemy ships coming right toward us and of course they had scouts out all around and we were sure we were going to be shot down immediately,” remembered Ensign Robert Swan, Reid’s copilot/navigator, in 2006. “He dropped right down on the ocean and we went 90 degrees ... to get around behind them. We turned to go in and we ran into seven more ships. We went again at 90 degrees and we ran into 17 more. That’s when I started to smoke. I never smoked until that time. ... I was scared to death.”
Torpedo Squadron 8
After a few opening blows on June 3, the battle began in earnest the next morning with an air attack on Midway. Marine pilots suffered heavy losses while defending the islands, but shot down a number of Japanese planes in the process. Meanwhile, other Midway-based Navy, Marine Corps and Army Air Corps planes attacked the Japanese carrier force, disrupting its cohesion and paving the way for additional assaults.
The torpedo pilots were up next, a squadron from each carrier. They were greeted by swarms of enemy fighter planes, and what followed was a complicated dance of altitude changes, advance, retreat, dodge, torpedo release, crash. It quickly became a massacre.
The pilots were, Norberg said, “the greatest heroes of that battle,” going on a “forced suicide march” to “almost certain death.”
Most of the Americans flew obsolete Devastators, and the torpedoes themselves had a reputation for malfunctioning. Many of the pilots were also woefully inexperienced. Ensign George Gay from USS Hornet (CV 8) later said neither he nor the other ensigns in Torpedo Squadron 8 (VT-8) had ever even trained using real torpedoes. As a result, the bombs so many died to fire were off the mark.
“The bullets were hitting us pretty hard,” Ensign Albert Earnest remembered in a 2007 documentary. Although he was a member of VT-8, he attacked directly from Midway itself in a Grumman Avenger. “We dove down to the water. ... I tried to fire my forward gun. A [Japanese] plane seemed to be flying straight across in front of me. ... I tried to get into position where I could have a decent drop. The two fighters that were sticking with us that had been doing the most shooting at us stayed with me.
They were firing, but I got into position where I thought I had a decent lead ... and I dropped the torpedo. ... One of the two fighters ... was trying to shoot me down. I was trying to avoid him. ... There were two of them. They kept making runs at me.”
Ensign Albert Earnest
Then, all of a sudden, the enemy pilots veered off, leaving Earnest to limp back to Midway in a shot up plane with no compass, with a dead turret gunner and a wounded radioman. He received two Navy Crosses for the battle, with a third to come months later.
“The Zeros that day just caught us off balance,” said Gay in a 1943 oral history. He explained that the torpedo planes couldn’t fly at the same altitude as fighters and dive bombers, and the pilots had expected to be on their own from the beginning. “We were at a disadvantage all the way around.”
Gay crashed into the sea with burns and bullet wounds while attempting to shake five Zeros and avoid a hail of antiaircraft fire. He received a Navy Cross for his actions. He, Earnest and Earnest’s radioman would be the only men in VT-8 to survive the ‘Air Battle of Midway,’ as the award citations called it. Some 35 men were killed. The squadron also received a Presidential Unit Citation. At least, Gay said, they were able to open the skies for the bomb squadrons.
“It turned out to be beautiful bombing, because ... there weren’t nearly as many [fighters] as there would have been if they hadn’t come down to get us,” Gay explained. “That was one thing that helped save the day as far as the battle was concerned. It was pretty rugged on the torpedo squadrons. There were two other ones out there that day, Three and Six, and they were shot up too, one of them almost as bad as Torpedo 8.”
Photo collage of photos during the Battle of Midway.
Thousands of feet above, Ensign Lewis Hopkins of the Enterprise’s Bombing Squadron 6, who would also receive the Navy Cross and retired as a rear admiral upper half, prepared to go into a dive in his Douglas Dauntless, aiming for three “water bugs,” as he called the pride of Japan’s navy, the carriers Kaga, Akagi and Soryu.
“It takes about 22 seconds, I guess, to go from that altitude down to your release point,” he remembered in a 2006 interview. “There’s three or four planes in front of you. You can see them all as they’re diving. You can see some of the bombs dropping and everything. Throughout that process, you’re simply doing what you were trained to do. ... You get into the dive and you get as close to 60 degrees or so as you can. ... You keep your sight - and we used the old gun sight with the cross hatch - and you’d go down. My rear seat gunner was a - one of his responsibilities was to call out the altitude. He was saying, ‘4,000; 3,500; 2,500; 2,000.’ You order your release at that point, so I went a little bit lower like everybody else did that day to improve your chance of hits.
“Then he said, ‘1,500 feet. Zero from the right. I released and immediately turned to counter his attack and got down as low on the water as I could. We’re now in the middle of the Japanese fleet. It’s kind of comical. My rear seat gunner ... said, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here.’ I said, ‘What do you think I’m trying to do?’”
These would be the most critical moments of the battle, according to Cressman. Indeed, within five to 10 minutes, Hopkins and his fellow bombers destroyed three out of four Japanese carriers. “Up to that moment,” Cressman said, “the Japanese were pretty much having things their way.”
Now, the carriers “resembled a very large oilfield fire,” said Gay, who was hunkered down in a rubber life raft on the water’s surface. “The fire coming out of the forward and aft end of the ship looked like a blow torch, just roaring white flame and the oil burning ... and just billowing big red flames belch out of this black smoke.” The Kaga and Soryu sank quickly, while the Akagi was scuttled the next morning.
Mourning the Fallen
According to Hopkins, his plane was one of five in his squadron to make it back to the Enterprise. It was a close call, but he was alive and on the dregs of his fuel. He was one of the lucky ones. The losses among all of the pilots were “staggering” said Kernan, almost unfathomable, agreed veterans who waited in vain for most of the planes to return to their ships, to clap friends on the back, to celebrate a great moment in naval history.
“When I sat in the officer’s wardroom (dining room), I looked at two completely empty tables,” remembered then-Lt. j.g. Clayton E. Fisher on a tribute site. Fisher was a bomber on USS Hornet who scored a direct hit on the destroyer Arashio and logged 17 combat hours during the Battle of Midway, actions for which he received the Navy Cross. “I could remember some of the individual pilot’s conversations and jokes.
I visited the VT-8’s ready room. It was completely empty except for the pilots’ uniforms. ... As shipmates of the deceased pilots, some of us were assigned the job of inventorying their personal effects and then packing them for shipment to their next of kin. ... It was a very emotional and depressing experience.” - Lt. j.g. Clayton E. Fisher
But with a fourth Japanese carrier lurking somewhere near Midway, not to mention dozens of enemy cruisers and destroyers, the battle was far from over. Commanders cobbled the remaining pilots and planes together into a new task force, but it wasn’t enough to repel a devastating strike against the Yorktown by planes from the carrier Hiryu the afternoon of June 4. American bombers then wreaked fatal vengeance on Hiryu as damage repair experts got to work on the Yorktown. She survived the next two days, and commanders thought she was salvageable, but an enemy submarine delivered the death blow, June 6, to both Yorktown and the destroyer USS Hammann (DD 412), which was tethered to the injured carrier, providing water and electricity.
“All I heard was the port turbine engine on the Hammann just raising heck,” said Cmdr. William Roy, then a photographer’s mate on the Yorktown who was helping repair the ship and burying fallen Sailors at sea. “You could hear it screaming, trying to back away from Yorktown and cutting the lines. She was hit. As a consequence, the momentum kept the stern going back, and when it went back, [the Hammann] went under with people clinging on, people in the water. The 18 depth charges reached their set depth and then blew up. And again, the ship was rocked stem to stern, rocked bodily back and forth tremendously. I was knocked over, didn’t suffer severe injuries or anything, but other Sailors were blown overboard. ... The ship actually hits you. You’re bobbling around from the explosion and the concussion and the movement of the ship.”
Photo collage of Sailors and the USS Yorktown sinking.
Yorktown sank the morning of June 7, stern first, bringing the scorecard to one U.S. carrier, one destroyer and 150 aircraft lost, versus four enemy carriers, one heavy cruiser, a second, damaged cruiser and 248 aircraft. About 300 Americans were killed, versus more than 3,000 Japanese. It was an astounding victory, one compounded by the fact that America could quickly replace its lost ships. The Japanese could not.
It was a turning point in the war, many historians agree, although not everyone believes it was the turning point. If the Japanese had won, said Roy, the U.S. would have had to devote so many resources to protecting its West Coast, that D-Day would not have taken place in Europe in 1944.
In fact, said Cressman, the Pacific War featured several key moments: “Midway was probably the beginning of the tide turning, with Guadalcanal probably reckoned as more of a turning point since it was a meat grinder for the Japanese in terms of people, planes and ships.”
“Defensively, [Midway] was a turning point for us,” added Norberg. “Offensively, it was a turning point for Japan. In the next action, the Battle of Guadalcanal, we were on the offensive. After six months, we finally conquered them. ... They were on the defensive and that was the final turning point of the war. ... Midway gets lost in all the hype that’s broadcast about D-Day, so I wish people had a better understanding, knowing that the Pacific Ocean holds the bodies of many, many of our heroes as the beautifully kept cemeteries in France and Italy and Belgium.”