The Battle of Midway 75th Anniversary: Turning Point in the Pacific [Part Three]

June 5, 2017 by oriskany

Good afternoon, Beasts of War. Welcome back to our continuing article series marking the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Midway. Using the “Naval War” rules system presented at www.naval-war.com (Hendrik Jan Seijmonsbergen – BoW: @ecclesiates), we’re taking a wargamer’s view of this pivotal naval battle.

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If you’re just joining us, in Part One we summarised the importance of Midway and its place in the Pacific Theatre of World War II, as well as Japanese planning for what they hoped would be a war-winning strike. In Part Two, we tracked the opening moves of the Japanese and American fleets, and recreated some of the opening blows.

Now we can kick off the next stage of the battle. Although heavily outnumbered, the Americans have found the approaching Japanese task force before being discovered themselves, and launched the first airstrikes on the enemy carriers. So far these strikes have been gruesome failures, but history is about to take a heart-stopping turn…

Day Of The Dauntless

At the end of our last article, the Americans were in very bad shape. Although they’d been amply warned of the Japanese attack against Midway by radio intercepts and broken naval codes, found the Japanese carriers before being discovered themselves, and launched the first strike…so far the battle was proving an American disaster.

US Army and Marine Corps bombers launched from the Midway Islands had hit nothing. Navy torpedo bombers had been launched at such extreme range that none of the planes would make it back. Such courage had yielded nothing, not a single torpedo hit a Japanese carrier and every single American torpedo plane had been shot down.

For the Americans, a successful first strike was absolutely critical because they were so badly outnumbered by the Japanese fleets converging on Midway. Only by scoring first, and scoring big, could the Americans hope to even the odds. Now, as if all these failures weren’t bad enough, Japanese scout planes had just found the American carriers.

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The situation was about to take a heart-stopping turn, however.

The American airstrike launched from the carriers USS Yorktown, Enterprise, and Hornet on the morning of June 4, 1942 was a very badly organized affair. In an effort to land that vital first strike, squadrons had raced toward the Japanese fleet as soon as they were launched, instead of consolidating into a united task air group.

This meant that different squadrons would arrive at the Japanese fleet at different times, at different altitudes, and from different directions. At first this led to heartbreak, as the luckless “Devastator” torpedo bombers were positively massacred by Japanese AA fire and Zero fighters, all without scoring a single hit.

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But torpedo bombers have to attack from low altitude in order to drop their “fish” toward enemy ships. So while the Japanese gunners and fighters were focused on them, no one noticed three squadrons of American SBD “Dauntless” dive-bombers (launched from USS Enterprise and Yorktown) arrive high overhead.

This fortuitous turn of events had nothing to do with American planning. In fact, the Dauntlesses had been lost just a short time previously. Only the decision of Enterprise’s CAG (Commander Air Group) Lt. Commander C. Wade McClusky, Jr., to push his luck with fuel and continue the search, resulted in this decisive moment.

McClusky’s dive-bombers (two squadrons from USS Enterprise) just happened to find the Japanese destroyer Arashi, which had trailed behind the Japanese fleet after trying to sink an American submarine threatening the carriers. From here, the Americans followed the Arashi to the Japanese fleet.

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Arriving over the Japanese carriers, the Dauntlesses gradually realized no one had seen them. And with the Zeroes all down at wave-top level slaughtering the Devastators, there was no one to stop them. Immediately they rolled into steep attack dives plummeting straight down on the murderously-exposed Japanese carriers.

The time was 10:20 AM, June 4, 1942. The course of naval history was about to change forever.

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No one on the Japanese carriers saw the new threat until it was far, far too late. Having just destroyed the American torpedo bomber attack, they were just about to finally launch their own combined, all-out air strike against the American carriers. But now the Dauntless ships were releasing 500 and 1000pound bombs, nearly perfectly-aimed.

The American Miracle

The Japanese carrier Kaga (“Increased Joy”) was the first to be hit. A 500-poind bomb landed in the aft section of her flight deck, smack in the middle of dozens of fully-fuelled, fully-armed strike aircraft waiting to launch. A second 500-pounder hit further forward, instantly killing almost everyone on her bridge.

McClusky himself then scored with a 1,000-pounder. The bomb penetrated Kaga’s flight deck and exploded in the hangar deck below, amidst tons of ordinance the Japanese hangar crews had left stacked beside the planes as their commanders had vacillated between loading for a strike against American ground targets or warships.

In minutes, the 38,000 ton, 800-foot carrier was a single mass of metal-melting fire. Hundreds were trapped in the engine and boiler rooms, never to escape. Survivors would be taken off by two Japanese destroyers, but by early afternoon the Kaga was put out of her misery by a Japanese torpedo. 811 of her crew had died with her.

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At almost the exact same moment, Vice-Admiral Nagumo’s flagship, the carrier Akagi (“Red Castle”) was just launching her first Zero fighter for the strike on the American carriers. Three American Dauntlesses attacked her just then (led by Lt. Commander Richard Best, USS Enterprise), with results grimly similar to those seen aboard the Kaga.

Now here there is some real confusion. Most sources claim the Akagi was hit only once, near the back of the flight deck, squarely amidst all the crowded planes waiting to take off. Most of the best pilots in the Japanese Navy, their “Top Gun class”, died right then and there (as flagship, the Akagi was the most prestigious carrier in the fleet).

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Yet Akagi’s captain (Taijiro Aoki – the last man to leave her) distinctly remembered her being hit again, the second bomb landing right near the bridge. This is probably not something he would have forgotten, but it’s possible this second blast was an internal explosion coming from inside the hangar deck, triggered by the first bomb.

Whatever the case, the Akagi was a lost cause. It bears noting that carriers aren’t usually “killed” by one or two bomb hits. But between the Japanese aircraft waiting to take off, the piles of ordinance left stacked in the chaotic hangar decks, the pressurized fuel lines, poor training and equipment for damage control … the Akagi was doomed.

Vice-Admiral Nagumo had to transfer his flag to a cruiser. Like the Kaga, Agaki would have to be torpedoed later that night after the crew survivors were taken off. As she went down, survivors aboard the rescuing destroyers cheered “Banzai! Akagi banzai!” – trying to give their prestigious flagship a worthy send off.

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Last to be struck was the Sōryu (“Green Dragon”). Whereas Kaga and Akagi had been hit by Dauntless dive-bombers from USS Enterprise, Sōryu was attacked by Dauntlesses of Squadron VB-2, based on USS Yorktown. The luckless Sōryu was probably hit the worst of all three … sustaining three 1,000 pound bomb hits.

The story was much the same. Fuelled and armed aircraft, unsecured ordinance, insufficient damage control training … the Sōryu never stood a chance. She lost all power within 15 minutes, and what remained of the crew was ordered to abandon the charred, corpse-strewn wreck five minutes after that

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In all, 711 men died aboard, including her captain, who chose to remain aboard as she was torpedoed by Japanese destroyers and sank. This was almost 70% of her crew, giving the Sōryu the highest fatality percentage of any ship sunk at Midway.

The War Is Changed

This entire attack happened in about five minutes. In those five minutes, the most powerful navy afloat (and the whole Japanese Empire) took a catastrophic blow from which it would never recover. Never again with they launch a Pacific invasion, all subsequent sorties would be in response to American invasions of Japanese-held islands.

As for the Battle of Midway, the Japanese had gone from a four to three advantage in carriers to a one to three disadvantage. The Battle of Midway, and the Pacific War, had realistically been lost then and there.

All that said, the Japanese weren’t giving up. They knew where the American carriers were, and the Japanese had one fully-loaded carrier left: Hiryū, or “Flying Dragon.” They also had the immense firepower of the old-school Japanese battleships, which could easily blow the American carriers into scrap … if they could just get close enough.

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Once again I’d like to thank Hendrik Jan Seijmonsbergen for the immense amount of painting, gameplay, and photographs he’s been putting into this project. If your interest in naval wargaming has been piqued at all, please take a moment to check out his excellent World War II naval wargame system at www.naval-war.com.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this latest chapter of our wargaming review of the Battle of Midway. All of this happened 75 years ago almost exactly to the day, easily one of the most decisive moments in naval history since the Battle of Trafalgar. If there was ever a time to present such an article series (or post a comment on one), it’s now.

So please take a moment to post your comments or questions below. And join us next week as the Japanese, abruptly the underdogs in this fight, remind us that when an enemy is wounded and cornered … is precisely when he is the most dangerous. Indeed, history isn’t quite done with the waters of Midway just yet.

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

"The American airstrike launched from the carriers USS Yorktown, Enterprise, and Hornet on the morning of June 4, 1942 was a very badly organized affair..."

"All of this happened 75 years ago almost exactly to the day, easily one of the most decisive moments in naval history since the Battle of Trafalgar..."