“Those five minutes were to constitute one of the few truly crucial ‘moments of decision’ which can be isolated in the whole course of warfare. At 10:25 Nagumo stood poised on the brink of perhaps the greatest naval victory ever offered an admiral, certain to be spectacular in itself and destined to alter the balance of power between the Western and the Asian world for decades to come. At 10:30 he confronted not victory, but disaster.”
– John Keegan, “The Price of Admiralty”
Admiral Yamamoto Plans to Finish off the American Carriers
In the spring of 1942, Japanese morale was riding high. The American Pacific fleet had seemingly been knocked out by a highly successful raid on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The Japanese had been able to move south and consolidate most of their holdings in the Pacific- Guam, Wake Island and the Philippines, But their naval commander, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (left) was worried. An intelligent officer who had spent time in the United States, and who understood America’s vast industrial potential, Yamamoto knew that Japan had only a limited amount of time before America’s industries began to produce enough to put the U.S. back in the war. He had designed the Pearl Harbor raid to knock the US Pacific Fleet out of action. But his main target on Dec. 7 had been the U.S. aircraft carriers, which happened not to be present at Pearl Harbor during the attack. Yamamoto was also smart enough to realize that naval air power from aircraft carriers was going to decide the fate of the war in the huge Pacific Ocean. The Doolittle raid on Japan on April 18, 1942 made by American bombers launched from aircraft carriers had done little real damage, but had made it clear that Yamamoto’s concerns about Japanese vulnerability to attack by American carrier-borne naval aircraft had been well founded.
But the U.S. Carriers Are Waiting For Him…
So he conceived a plan to draw the American carriers into battle, and finish the job which Pearl Harbor had left undone: to destroy them. Only then would Japan be free from American interference in the Pacific long enough to really consolidate its holdings. He planned to send a huge fleet of over two hundred ships built around the carriers “Akagi”, “Kaga”, “Soryu” and “Hiryu” towards the US island of Midway, under the command of Pearl Harbor veteran Admiral Chuichi Nagumo. He would also send a diversionary attack towards the Aleutian Islands. He believed that the U.S. would have her carriers protecting her main base in Hawaii. When the attack on the Aleutians took their attention away from Hawaii, the Japanese would take Midway. The Americans would then have to respond by sending their carriers into an ambush by Japanese forces well entrenched on Midway. It was a complex plan that pivoted on the US carriers being at Hawaii, going for the bait at the Aleutians and then moving to Midway exactly when the Japanese had planned for them to. But the U.S. had broken the Japanese naval code before the Battle of the Coral Sea, and had been ready for them then. US Commander Chester W. Nimitz had
decided to follow the recommendations from his intelligence that the Japanese were now going to attack Midway. He dispatched the US carriers “Hornet” and “Enterprise” to a spot northeast of Midway to wait for the Japanese. The commander was Admiral Raymond Spruance. The command would have gone to Admiral “Bull” Halsey, but he was in the hospital with a case of shingles. Halsey had recommended Spruance as an excellent carrier tactician. And there was one more surprise: the US carrier “Yorktown”, badly damaged at Coral Sea had been quickly repaired and was ready to join the US force along with Admiral Frank Fletcher. Thus, instead of facing two American carriers two days sailing away from Midway, the Japanese would be shocked to find three American carriers within a couple of hour’s striking distance.
Nagumo’s Carriers Attack Midway on June 4….
The attack on the Aleutian Island post of Dutch Harbor went forward on June 3, but the Americans didn’t take the bait. Nagumo sent his carrier bombers against Midway at 4:30 am on today’s date, June 4. They did much damage to Midway. But the US had already sent an attack force against the Japanese from Midway. This found the Japanese fleet at 7:15 am. It did little real damage, but caused Nagumo to over compensate in a dangerous way. The attack from Midway convinced him that he needed to launch a second strike against the island. So he ordered his planes to switch from the torpedoes they already carried in case the US carriers were sighted to bombs for a land attack. His readiness to strike at the US force should it be sighted was therefore fatally compromised. The first word of a US force northeast of Midway came at 7:28 — thirteen minutes after his re-arming order — when a scout plane from the cruiser “Tone” reported “10 ships”. At 7:45, he ordered a halt to the re-arming. At 8:20, the scout added the presence of a carrier to his report; he had sighted the “Yorktown’s” attack group – where according to Japanese plans it had no business being. At this moment another strike from Midway arrived. As before, it caused little damage. But it further confused Nagumo at a time when he needed to think clearly. Between 8:40 and 9:00 a.m., Nagumo had recovered his Midway strike force, and hastened to rearm his planes back to torpedoes and other anti-ship weapons. Admiral Yamaguchi argued in favor of launching the attack immediately regardless of the weapons. But Nagumo refused. He sensed that after an interval of operational confusion, he was regaining his footing, and would soon be able to strike with his full force of bombers properly armed.
And Find the American Carriers On the Spot!!
(Pictured above: the U.S.S. “Hornet“)
Unfortunately for Nagumo and the Japanese Fleet, the commander of the “Enterprise” and “Hornet” attack group, Admiral Spruance, had been looking at the situation clearly and without confusion. During those precious moments when Nagumo had been vacillating between ship and shore armaments for his planes, Spruance had been hearing of the Japanese attack on Midway, and changing his plans accordingly. Instead of launching his planes at 9:00 as he had originally planned, Spruance took advantage of the opportunity offered by the Japanese attack on Midway. He saw that the Midway attack offered him the window of possibility to catch the Japanese recovering and refueling their planes if he got the US planes to the Japanese carriers at the right moment. This would give his bombers targets loaded with flammable material at the moment of their arrival. He decided to go ahead and send his planes against their targets right then. It was a risky choice, as the earlier launch gave them that much more time in the air, using up fuel which they would need on their return trip. But he sent them all — every dive bomber and torpedo bomber he had – between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m. And instead of circling overhead until all the squadrons were launched, he ordered them to go as soon as they were airborne.
10:25 to 10:30: The Tide is Turned in the Pacific.
The first to leave the “Enterprise” and the “Hornet”, the torpedo squadrons, began arriving at their Japanese targets at about 9:30 a.m. These attacks by the torpedo plane squadrons did very little damage; almost all of them were shot down by the Japanese fighters which were flying protection over their carriers. Meanwhile, the American dive bomber squadrons were having trouble finding the Japanese carriers. This brought sheer dumb luck for the Americans into play: a US submarine, the “Nautilus” had strayed into the path of the Japanese fleet earlier, and the Japanese had dispatched the destroyer “Araski” to deal with it. The “Araski” was hurrying back to the main body of the fleet, when the US dive bombers happened to be looking for that same fleet. They saw the “Araski” and decided to follow her; maybe, just MAYBE she might lead them to their targets… and she did! As mentioned, the torpedo squadrons had failed to do any serious damage, but their attack had been important for two reasons: it kept the Japanese from launching their own attacks against the US fleet, and it brought their fighter cover down to sea level, instead of at their patrol altitudes. Thus when the US dive bombers found the Japanese fleet at about 10:25 their carriers were unprotected by their fighters, and their decks were loaded with planes that were heavily armed, as well as gas lines and discarded land bombs all over the place from Nagumo’s earlier change of orders. Nagumo had in fact finally lined up his planes, gotten them re-fueled and re-armed and given the order to launch when ready at about 10:20. But at 10:25, the US dive bombers arrived and finding no Japanese fighters to oppose them, came roaring down on the Japanese from 14,000 feet up.
In the next five minutes, they changed the course of the war, and brought upon Nagumo and his fleet that (Pictured: The “Hiryu” dodges U.S. bombs) very disaster which was described by John Keegan in the quotation which began this posting. The US Dive bombers rained all hell down upon the Japanese carriers. Not only were they hitting them, but with their decks covered with fuel, bombs, and heavily armed planes, the hits had twice the damaging effect. Japanese Commander Mitsuo Fuchida witnessed the destruction from the “Akagi”:
“At 10:24, the order to start launching came from the bridge by voice tube. At that moment a lookout screamed, ‘Hellcat divers!!’ I looked up to see three black enemy planes plummeting towards our ship. Some of our machine guns managed to fire a few bursts but it was too late. The plump silhouettes of the American Duantless dive-bombers quickly grew larger and then a number of black objects suddenly floated eerily from their wings. Bombs! Down they came straight towards me. I fell intuitively to the deck and crawled behind a command post mantlet.”
Also on board “Akagi” was Nagumo’s Chief of Staff, Ryunosoke Kusaka:
“When I got down (from the bridge), the deck was on fire and anti-aircraft and machine guns were firing automatically having been set off by the fire aboard ship. I had my hands and feet burned… Bodies were all over the place…. That is the way we eventually abandoned “Akagi” – helter-skelter, no order of any sort.”
The U.S.S. Yorktown is Sunk
Three of the four Japanese aircraft carriers, the “Akagi” the “Kaga” and the “Soryu” were utterly smashed in five minutes by the timely arrival of the American dive-bombers. But the Japanese fleet, though fatally crippled, still had fight left. The one Japanese carrier to escape the initial conflagration, the “Hiryu” managed to launch an air strike which located and attacked the American carrier “Yorktown”. (Pictured below: the “Yorktown” under attack.)
She was badly damaged and had to be abandoned before being sunk by four torpedoes from a Japanese submarine, the “I-168” on June 6. But Admiral Fletcher aboard “Yorktown” before the Japanese attack had suspected that one of their carriers had escaped the attack at 10:25, and had sent off ten bombers to seek her out. At 2:45, they found “Hiryu”, and then dive bombers attacked and destroyed her at 5:00. She went down early on the morning of June 5.
The Japanese Never Recover From Their Defeat at Midway.
It would be difficult to overstate the caliber of disaster suffered by the Japanese at the Battle of Midway. Yamamoto was able to return from Midway with most of his surface vessels – the Battleships and Cruisers which had made up the bulk of his force intact. But as the Japanese themselves had so ably demonstrated, not only at Pearl Harbor, but also in their sinking of the British Battleship “Prince of Wales” the big Battleships, however impressive and powerful they may have been, were at the mercy of carrier-borne naval aircraft. The Japanese carrier striking power had been dealt a blow – four big fleet carriers had been destroyed – from which it would never fully recover. Nearly three years of bloody, and terrible fighting remained, but the tide had been turned. The Japanese Navy would never again go on the offensive. And the road which would lead ultimately to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had begun.
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“The Price of Admiralty” by John Keegan, Penguin Books, New York, 1988.
THE AMERICAN HERITAGE PICTURE HISTORY OF WORLD WAR II by C.L. Sulzberger, American Heritage Publ. Co. Inc., 1966.
“Nimitz” by E.B. Potter, Naval Inst. Press, Annapolis, MD.,1976.
“Decision at Sea: Five Naval battles That Shaped American History” by Craig L. Symonds, Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, New York, 2005.
“Midway” Directed by Jack Smight, 1976