Midway. The Empire Strikes Back.

by Daniel Russ on June 4, 2012

Chester Nimitz Commander US Fleet Pacific

Chester Nimitz

Early June, 1942. Still smarting from an unprovoked attack on the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, the United States is planning some revenge.


Chester Nimitz Commander US Fleet Pacific

Chester Nimitz



The American empire has always been driven on pride. It is an ineluctable amino acid in American DNA to do what we decide to do, not what others decide to do. When the Imperial Japanese Navy struck at Pearly Harbor, they flew in radio silence. Thousands of sailors were asleep or planning a laconic day off, the weather was stupendous. The Navy band was playing during morning rituals when the planes hit. They were in the middle of the National Anthem when the first Bettys and Nettys hit the fleet nestled inside the pristine littoral paradise. .30 caliber machine gun rounds ripped and splintered the deck where the band was playing and where it played until the end of the song before scrambling for safety. In that tony gesture lie the schematic for the rest of the war in the Pacific. The United States was going to map out a plan to defeat Japan, and we were going to execute it in excruciatingly meticulous detail. We would finish every note of the National Anthem first. Then we would hunt down the Japanese fleet and trap it and scorch it until it burned effulgent in the Pacific.



The attack on Pearl Harbor could not have gone better. Over two hundred Navy planes were put out of commission. We suffered two thousand four hundred casualties, all eight battleships were out of commission, and 21 total warships lay at the bottom of the sound.



The embarrassment to the United States was not just that it looked defenseless to the rest of the world; it was the fact that we did not have the ability to execute force projection like this tiny rival island nation. The desire just to strike back burned in full. There was little pettifogging over this point either.  We had to hit Japan. It was more than a matter of national pride. Now engaged in a world war, we had to flex our strength for all to see.



One of the first attempts was Doolittle’s Raid on April 18th, 1942. Sixteen Mitchell B-25 medium bombers were launched off of the USS Hornet. A B-25 weighed in at 24,000 pounds. It was definitely not designed to launch off of a carrier. It most certainly would not be able to return to the carrier either. Instead, the Hornet would launch these planes 700 miles away from the Japanese coast. The medium bombers would bomb Tokyo and land on secret partisan-constructed airstrips in coastal China.



The strike was important as combat theatre than actual combat. All the aircraft were lost. Most of the aircrews were returned to the United States. The bomb damage was negligible. Inside Japan, it caused a stir. They felt they were invulnerable. Now they when their ultranationalist leaders spruiked about Japan’s natural superiority, the comments were taken with some degree of cynicism. Inside every insane organization there are sane people. Many in Japan realized that the Doolittle Raid was a taste of much worse to come.



Yamamoto knew he had to hit the US Pacific Fleet again. There, halfway between the Pacific Coast of the United States and the Eastern edge of the expanding Japanese empire were two atolls that comprised Midway Island. And there was a natural flat terrain where the Marines had cut airstrips. This is where Yamamoto wanted to strike next.



Admiral Chester Nimitz was given the assignment to hit back at Japan. Nimitz was extremely experienced. Born in Fredericksburg Texas, he was raised by a grandfather who served in the German merchant marine. Nimitz studied hard and received a last seat available appointment to the United States Naval Academy due to the work of a Texas Congressman. Nimitz deployed on battleships, destroyers, frigates and refuelers. He was court martialed after he ran a ship aground on the shores of the Philippines. Later he became a submariner and received a series of commands in the United States submarine force in World War I. He went on doggedly determined to make it in the Navy.



From Wikipedia:

“In April 1935, he returned home for three years as Assistant Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, before becoming Commander, Cruiser Division 2, Battle Force. In September 1938 he took command of Battleship Division 1, Battle Force. On 15 June 1939 he was appointed Chief of the Bureau of Navigation.”


Ten days after Pearl Harbor Nimitz was appointed CinCPAC, or Commander in Chief US Pacific Fleet. Ordinarily he would have been put in office in ceremonies on a battleship. But there was no US Battleship in the fleet above the water line. So he had his ceremony on the submarine USS Grayling.



Nimitz was a great organizer and managed to cobble together a force big enough to stop the IJN’s ambitions in the US backyard. Nimitz’s appointment was a good portend for the United States. There was another major burp in the plans for attacing America that no one foresaw. All four big US aircraft carriers, the Hornet, the Enterprise, the Yorktown and the Lexington were not at Pearl Harbor on December 7th. So while they sank most of the Pacific fleet, we still had carriers and their aircraft.



 Another good portend was the disambiguation of the Japan encrypted codes. So not only did Nimitz have a plan. He had a plan that was informed by Yamamoto’s plan. A plan they didn’t know we had.



The next battle was actually in the Coral Sea. Here was the first time ever carriers attacked other carriers. It was the first ever BVR engagement. Both sides were hit hard, the Japanese definitely taking it worse than we did. It’s salient to know that the Japanese thought they sank the Yorktown, but in fact it was saved. The returning Yorktown would haunt the Japanese at Midway.



IJN Admiral Nagumo organized this massive flotilla into three groups. To the west, Nagumo, the Admiral in command placed three large battleships. To the South there were tens of thousands of  Japanese in troop ships ready to disembark, fight and occupy Midway. And to the East were four massive Japanese carriers: the Horyu, the Siryu, the Kaga, and the flagship Akagi.


Midway Naval Air Station was an important refueling stop in the South pacific. The Pacific ocean, as large an areas it covered presented fueling challenged to all the world’s sea going powers. Nimitoz moved the three carriers, the Yorktown, the Enterprise and the Hornet off the northeast coast of the islands, about 300 miles away. Nimitz immediately sent out Catalina patrol aircraft and began searching for the Japanese fleet. Ay 5:40 AM on June 4th, he found them.


The US sent up 65 aircraft, including Wildcats and Brewster Dive bombers. Al the US aircraft were either shot down or damaged and forced to return. While the US was striking the Japanese fleet, the Japanese were hitting Midway airfield. They hit it hard and realized on the way out. That the bombers they wanted to hit on the ground were not there. The bombers were over the Akagi, but unfortunately, the green pilots hit nothing. Or they were shot down.


Late morning and the strike package that hit Midway was returning to the Akagi and the other carriers. Crews loaded more gravity bombs for a second wave of strikes on Midway, but Nagumo had not heard from his last of four spotter pilots who were out looking for the US fleet. The commanders urged Nagumo to send the reserve bombers out for a second wave.


In the meantime, the fourth spotter pilot was in the air trying to find his way out of a cloud bank. Out he comes, and there below him, is the US fleet. The Hornet, the Enterprise and a dozen more destroyers. Nagumo immediately orders hss crews to take the bombs off and reattach torpedoes. This would take an hour, and the planes that  struck Midway were getting low on fuel. The pilot reported back to Nagumo the sighting, but he put his own location as 200 miles farther out than he really was. A navigational error like this is not insignificant. The fact was the US fleet as several hundred miles closer than he reported. Nagumo thought the fleet was just outside of reach of an airstrike. His pilots had been fighting since four in the morning and he assume he had time to take a short respite. He now needed to decide between launching the  reserve planes on his deck, or landing the incoming strike package. He decided to land all the planes, rest the pilots and in an hour a half, he would send up all his crews for a coup de grace on the US fleet.




Spruance decided to go ahead and send up all his aircrews, torpedo bombers and dive bombers at the same time and hit the IJN carriers. In fact, they were minutes from the Akagi when Nagumo ordered his pilots to eat and rest while crews rearmed all the planes. Even though the Americans showed up as a surprise, the Zeros downed 35 of 41 torpedo bombers. The Zeroes were occupied with the torpedo bombers over the fleet, and they did not see the dive-bombers from 5000 feet up.


The Kaga On Fire

IJN Kaga

This time, the green pilots flying Wildcats were deadly accurate. They peeled off in their verticlal dives, airbrakes up and released 100 pound bombs that whistled down at 32 feet/sec 2. They put a bomb through the wooden deck of the Akagi. Four ripped into the Kaga and three hit the Soryu. Within minutes the carriers, the squadrons they carried, the crews, the exploding weapons caches became one of the worst naval defeats on history.



USS Yorktown Listing To Port

USS Yorktown


Nagumo had to be evacuated from the sinking Akagi and was transferred to the bridge of the Hiryu. He took command and launched an attack on the Yorktown.  Three Japanese torpedoes ripped into the Yorktown and started a fire that shut the boilers down. While crews battled the fire, a second wave of bombers from the Hiryu arrived on scene and hit the Fighting Lady again. The second wave, however, believed they were hitting the Enterprise. So Nagumo thought, “OK, they had three carriers and we had four, now I have hit the Enterprise and the Yorktown, now it’s their one remining carrier versus my one carrier.” That said he launched an attack on the US fleet. The remaining US AAA crews stopped the Hiryu’s attack cold. And another wave of Dive Bombers from the USS Enterprise struck hard. The Hiryu was hit by 4 bombs that set her ablaze.


Wildcat Fighter/Bombers

Wildcat Fighter/Bombers


Eighteen bombs changed the course of the war. The Japanese were decisively defeated even though their air crews outclassed ours.


Source: History Channel, Wikipedia, The US Navy Historical Foundation, The History of Modern Warfare, Paul Brewer



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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Louis September 13, 2017 at 6:29 am

The story about the ordinance still lying around on the decks of the Japanese carriers, and so helping them sink faster has been proven to be inaccurate, and, for some carriers, even not true.
Here is a passage from an article on the Naval Aviation News Website (http://navalaviationnews.navylive.dodlive.mil/2012/05/03/explaining-the-miracle-at-midway/) which refutes that same story:
“In Shattered Sword, Parshall and Tully provide an alternate time sequence and explanation of the events on the morning of 4 June, claiming that because of the nearly constant attacks by American aircraft and the necessity of retrieving combat air patrol (CAP) aircraft, it was the maneuvering of the Japanese carriers that hindered rearming operations and the spotting of the strike force aircraft.15 The two books’ tactical explanations for Nagumo’s inability to launch a strike against the American carriers that morning differ, but the overall conclusion of both books is that Nagumo was nowhere near being ready for such a strike—and hence the miraculous coincidence of Fuchida’s “fatal five minutes” is greatly diminished. Photographic evidence taken of the carriers maneuvering to avoid early morning air attacks clearly shows empty flight decks, except for a handful of CAP fighters.”.

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