The Battle Of Midway 75th Anniversary: Turning Point In The Pacific [Part Four]

June 12, 2017 by oriskany

Good afternoon, Beasts of War, and welcome back to our article series commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Midway. Fought between the navies of the United States and Japan in 1942, few naval battles in the history of warfare have altered the course of a war so radically and so quickly.

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In taking this “wargamer’s tour” of Midway, I’ve had the great pleasure of working with Hendrik Jan Seijmonsbergen (BoW: @ecclesiastes), who’s provided dozens of fantastic photos of warship miniatures need to do Midway justice, and battle reports from Midway wargames, as played in his “Naval War” system available here: www.naval-war.com.

If you’re just joining us, so far we’ve reviewed Midway’s significance and Japanese planning in Part One. Part Two reviewed initial approaches and first strikes, and Part Three saw the tide of the battle (and the Pacific War) turn with a devastating American dive-bomber attack that crippled most of the Japanese carriers.

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But even having suffered such a devastating blow (the loss of their carriers Akagi, Kaga, and Sōryu, along with hundreds of priceless naval pilots), the Japanese weren’t giving up. They still had one carrier left, the Hiryū (“Flying Dragon”), and were hell-bent on payback for what the Americans had done to them.

Vengeance

With the other three Japanese carriers still burning, the Hiryū was immediately given orders to launch every plane she had at the Americans. This was done quickly enough, as the Japanese fleet had been preparing to launch a strike anyway when those dive-bombers had arrived to wreak some unimaginable damage.

The Japanese air strike, naturally, was much smaller than originally planned. Still, the carrier Hiryū sent up a force of Aichi D3A dive-bombers (code-named “Val” by the Americans) and an escort force of Zero fighters. But here is where we run into the first big difference between American and Japanese carrier task forces …

The Americans had radar. The Japanese did not.

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Bear in mind, “radar” in the early 1940s was hardly what it is today. Nevertheless, the American carrier Yorktown was able to detect the incoming Japanese strike about seventy-five miles out (roughly eighteen minutes’ warning).

Thus, the dozen or so F4F Wildcat fighters already flying CAP (“Combat Air Patrol”) were able to intercept the Japanese well before they reached the Yorktown. This interception gave the Yorktown time to launch fifteen more Wildcats, ensuring the Japanese “Val” dive-bombers would have a hell of a time making the bombing run.

Nevertheless, the escorting Zero fighters managed to tangle up the Wildcats enough for fourteen Vals to get through. Nine more were lost to AA fire, but five survived to drop bombs, three of them hitting the USS Yorktown. But here is where we see another difference between Japanese and American warships: Damage control.

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Where three hits, two, or even one bomb hit had blown up Japanese carriers like 38,000-ton boxes of gasoline-soaked fireworks, Yorktown was able to survive similar bomb hits with remarkable resilience. Mostly the reasons boil down to better training in damage control and that crucial few minutes’ warning afforded by radar.

One, there was no ordinance left stacked on Yorktown’s flight or hangar decks. American carrier crews were also trained to flood their aircraft fuelling lines with carbon-dioxide during an attack, ensuring that high-octane aviation fuel would not blow up if these fuel lines took a hit. Fire fighting training and equipment was also much better.

Nevertheless, Yorktown was badly damaged, losing almost all her boilers, two of her three aircraft lifts (enormous elevators in the flight deck that bring up aircraft from the hangar deck below) and her radar room. But fires were quickly brought under control, and no fuel or magazines exploded within Yorktown’s hull.

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So complete and so fast was Yorktown’s recovery, in fact, that less than two hours after being hit, she was making twenty knots under her own power and even launching and recovering her own fighters.

It was a good thing Yorktown had those fighters in the air because the defiant Hiryū (again, the last Japanese carrier at Midway) had already launched her last aircraft, a cobbled-together group of Zero fighters and Nakajima B5N “Kate” torpedo bombers. Their target, again, was the Yorktown.

This second Japanese attack wave was mostly drawn from the squadrons of the dying carriers Akagi, Kaga, and Sōryu, planes that had been fortunate enough to be in the air when the Dauntless dive-bombers had gutted the three Japanese carriers. Such was the state of the once-proud Japanese carrier air force at Midway.

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Again forewarned, the Yorktown’s fighters were able to make the Japanese pay dearly for this second strike. Since the Yorktown was not burning and making good speed, the Japanese, in fact, thought they were attacking either the Enterprise or Hornet (remember these ships were all of the Yorktown class, and thus look almost exactly alike).

Despite horrific losses, five Kates managed to launch torpedoes into the water against Yorktown, two of which hit her on the port (left) side. One of the Kates also deliberately crashed directly into the Yorktown, setting off a titanic explosion.

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This time Admiral Fletcher had to give the order to abandon ship. Still, the Yorktown wouldn’t sink, and throughout the afternoon and evening, firefighting efforts continued, as well as counterflooding to correct the ship’s dangerous list to port. For a while it looked like the Yorktown might yet be towed back to Pearl Harbor and saved …

Hiryu’s Last Stand

Even as the Yorktown fought for her life, her scout planes had re-located the last Japanese carrier, the Hiryū. The two carriers from Task Force 17 (USS Enterprise and Hornet) launched a combined strike at the Hiryū, including some aircraft “orphaned” from the crippled Yorktown.

By 1700 hours on June 4th, this massed force of SBD “Dauntless” dive-bombers and Wildcat fighters had reached the Hiryū and were screaming down out of the sky. Hiryū twisted and turned, every gun ablaze, her remaining Zero fighters fighting back frantically.

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None of it helped. Despite valiant Japanese efforts, the Hiryū was struck by no less than four bombs. The first two hit near the bow, blowing the massive forward elevator completely from its housing. The other two struck aft, again catching a waiting strike wing as it was poised for take-off. Ammunition and fuel exploded, and Hiryū was doomed.

It’s genuinely difficult to overstate the dramatic cataclysm that had befallen the Japanese through the course of June 4th, 1942. In just one day, the dominant power of their “Kidō Butai” carrier strike force had been broken forever. Even worse than the loss of the carriers were the aircraft, and the priceless experience of hundreds of elite pilots.

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Yet even now, the Battle of Midway was not over. As the sun finally set on June 4th, 1942, and the smouldering hulks of the Akagi, Kaga, Sōryu, and Hiryū entered their final death throes, the American carrier USS Yorktown was still fighting for her life. Fires and flooding were again under control … could the ship still be saved?

Also, hundreds of miles to the west, huge fleets of powerful Japanese battleships and cruisers had yet to engage. Among these was the flagship of the Japanese Navy, the battleship Yamato, the largest battleship the world would ever see. There was also the Midway Invasion Force, with yet more battleships, cruisers, and 5000 Japanese marines.

Even now, was it remotely possible that these dreadnaughts could catch the American carriers in a gunnery duel? Could the slaughter of the Japanese carrier strike group be revisited upon the Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown (assuming she was still afloat when the sun came up), using the “big battlewagon guns” instead of aircraft?

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We hope you’ve enjoyed this wargamer’s look at the Battle of Midway. The battle is just about over at this point, but a few last strikes remain. In next week’s finale, we’ll look why Midway turned out this way, review the battle’s effects (both in the Pacific War and naval warfare in general), and perhaps some “what-if” alternative outcomes.

Most importantly, we’ll look at how battles like Midway can best be adopted into a wargame setting. Miniatures rules can be a little problematic, after all, when your battle area is 500 miles across, some of your combat units move at 300 miles per hour, and other units are 800+ feet long.

Meanwhile, we hope you’ll check out Hendrik Jan Seijmonsbergen’s “Naval War” system at www.naval-war.com, quite honestly one of the best-rounded, most applicable systems (not too detailed, not too simple) I’ve seen for WWII naval combat. And of course, comment below, and come back next week for the grand finale!

If you would like to write an article for Beasts of War then please contact us at ben@beastsofwar.com for more information!

"They still had one carrier left, the Hiryū (“Flying Dragon”), and were hell-bent on payback for what the Americans had done to them..."

"...we hope you’ll check out Hendrik Jan Seijmonsbergen’s “Naval War” system at www.naval-war.com"