Accordingly, the readiness of Fletcher’s Task Force 17 and Rear-Admiral Raymond Spruance’s Task Force 16 (Enterprise, Hornet) meant that the Americans were ready to deploy three carriers against Nagumo’s four: Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu. Had it been the Japanese rather than the Americans that had shown such adaptiveness and energy, the Japanese might have deployed six carriers against’s Nimitz’s two. Moreover, the Americans devoted extraordinary efforts to reconnaissance flights to locate the Japanese and were rewarded for their labor. The Japanese failed to locate Fletcher’s carriers positioned north-east of Midway and their efforts to search further with reconnaissance Kawanishi flying boats refueled by Japanese submarines were thwarted when American ships were found at the intended submarine rendezvous point.
For all that, the Japanese started out having matters almost entirely their way. The June 4 Japanese air-strike on Midway caused extensive damage, though Nagumo’s pilots failed to completely knock out the American air field. Their Zeros massacred the old Brewster Buffalo and Wildcat fighters sent up from Midway to meet them. A string of attacks on Nagumo’s ships by Midway-based aircraft – B-17s, B-26s, Avengers, Vindicators, Dauntless dive-bombers and other aircraft – failed to score any hits. But they rattled Nagumo, who departed from standing instructions by immediately re-arming with bombs the 93 aircraft held in reserve to attack the American carriers that might be in the area for a second strike at Midway instead. Only after these preparations were in progress did Nagumo receive word from a scout plane of the presence of one American carrier in the vicinity. Reversing plans again, Nagumo halted the rearming of his planes with bombs so they could be rearmed with the original torpedoes.
For a time Nagumo’s luck held. Commander Stanhope Ring’s 35 Dauntless dive-bombers and 10 Wildcat fighter escorts from the Hornet failed to find Nagumo. This meant that the first of Fletcher’s planes to find and attack Nagumo’s carriers were the three aging, slow Devastator torpedo bomber squadrons from each of the three carriers. It was a case of suicidal bravery. Dozens of Zeros cut the attackers to pieces. Lieutenant John C. Waldron’s 15 torpedo bombers from the Hornet were all destroyed. Ensign George H. Gay, who crashed into the sea and witnessed the subsequent battle from the water, was the only survivor. (When told of the sacrifice of Waldron’s squadron, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wept.) Lieutenant Eugene E. Lindsey’s 14 torpedo-bombers from the Enterprise were next up for slaughter, only four limping back to tell the tale, followed by Lieutenant Lance E. Massey’s 12 from the Yorktown (all but two shot down). Not a single torpedo hit was scored, but the tragic sacrifice of the American torpedo bombers gave the Americans their moment. Nagumo’s carriers were packed with refueling and rearming aircraft on their decks, devoid of fighter cover, the Zeros having all been pulled down to sea level to finish off the torpedo bombers. Now, 35 Dauntless dive-bombers from the Enterprise (Lieutenant C. Wade McCluskey) and 17 from the Yorktown (Lieutenant Maxwell F. Leslie) appeared in the skies above and swooped down for the kill.
The American pilots were not as yet up to par with their Japanese counterparts, but their hits sufficed: Nagumo’s carriers were convulsed with consecutive explosions of detonating planes and explosives. Within five minutes, McCluskey’s planes had turned the Akagi and Kaga into flaming infernos, while Leslie’s had destroyed the Soryu. That only left the Hiryu, which counter-attacked with dive-bomber and torpedo strikes that both located and hit theYorktown.
Here, too, American ingenuity misled the Japanese: the Yorktown was struck by three bombs, but filling its fuel lines with carbon dioxide ensured no conflagration consumed her and the Yorktown was under way when the Hiryu’s torpedo bombers arrived and scored two further hits. This led the Japanese to think that they had destroyed or at least crippled, not one, but two American carriers. But this reassuring conclusion was swiftly shattered when dive-bombers from the Enterprise and Yorktown struck the Hiryu that afternoon and destroyed it with four or possibly five bombs. Nagumo’s 1st Carrier Fleet, the cream of the Imperial Japanese Navy, was at an end; the Americans had lost only the Yorktown, dispatched to the bottom by torpedoes from a Japanese submarine. Yamamoto’s invasion fleet, sailing in Nagumo’s wake, turned back.
Spasmodic engagements continued over two days, but the outcome was already certain: the Imperial Japanese Navy had been struck a blow from which it never recovered. The tide of war in the Pacific had turned. Little wonder that military historian Sir John Keegan has called Midway “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.”
And yet, subtract a windfall here, a chance there, and Midway might have been the Japanese Imperial Navy’s finest hour. Had that occurred, the Pacific west of Hawaii would most likely have become a Japanese lake and the war immeasurably prolonged. In light of this, perhaps the Duke of Wellington’s verdict on Waterloo is apposite – “The nearest run thing you ever saw in your life, by God!”
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