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

May 29, 2017 by oriskany

Welcome back, one and all, to our commemorative article series marking the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Midway. We’re not only looking at this epic naval battle from a historical perspective, but also through the “gaming eyes” of Hendrik Jan Seijmonsbergen’s (@ecclesiastes) “Naval War” miniatures system.

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The Battle of Midway was a decisive naval battle fought between the United States and the Japanese Empire in early June, 1942. In Part One, we introduced the Naval War system, sketched out the background of the Pacific War, and looked at both sides’ planning as the Battle of Midway began to take shape.

But now, it’s time to “weigh anchor and raise steam” … and set a course into the maelstrom of this historic battle.

Initial Approaches

As discussed in Part One, the Japanese plan was to launch invasions at the Midway Atoll in the central Pacific and the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska. When the Americans responded, perhaps dividing their all-important aircraft carriers between the two threats, the more numerous Japanese would ambush and destroy them forever.

In overall command was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, naval mastermind behind the attack on Pearl Harbor. Commanding the main Japanese carrier strike force would be Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo. This was the heart of the Japanese Navy’s offensive power, built around the huge aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga, Sōryu, and Hiryū.

Outgunning the American Pacific Fleet perhaps three-to-one, the Japanese were supremely confident. In fact, the only flaw most Japanese admirals saw in their plan was that the possibility that the Americans might not come out and fight at all, faced with such an obviously superior force.

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Although badly outnumbered, the Americans had broken Japanese naval codes and knew every move the Japanese were making. Under the overall command of Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Americans thus knew to ignore the bait of the Aleutians landings, and instead concentrate everything on counter-ambushing the Japanese at Midway.

The Americans thus divided their aircraft carriers into two main groups. First of these was Task Force 16, built around the carriers Enterprise and Hornet, under the command of Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance. The hastily-repaired carrier Yorktown formed the heart of Task Force 17, under Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher.

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Task Force 16 left the base at Pearl Harbor first, while Yorktown left two days later. Repair crews were still on-board, welding together damage suffered in the Battle of the Coral Sea in May. The two task forces would meet up at “Point Luck,” a spot in the Pacific about 325 nautical miles northeast of Midway.

Despite their vast numerical superiority, important parts of the Japanese plan were already coming apart. First off, the screen of submarines they stationed west of Pearl Harbor to report the departure of the American carriers arrived too late. Forewarned of Japanese plans, the American carriers had already left.

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The Japanese carriers sailed on May 27th. On the next day, the Aleutian and Midway invasion forces also put to sea. Finally, on May 29th Yamamoto’s main force of battleships and heavy cruisers sortied. Hundreds of warships were now in motion, sailing from different bases far across the Pacific. The complex Japanese plan had been launched.

First Strikes

The Aleutian invasion force reached their targets in the far north of the Pacific, landing Japanese marines on the islands of Attu and Kiska, starting on June 3rd, 1942. Although these landings were successful and the islands captured, they failed to lure the American carrier fleet away from Midway, some 1,600 miles to the south.

Meanwhile, Nagumo’s powerful carrier strike force was closing on Midway from the northwest. Although the Americans knew the approximate direction and date of the attack, they still had to actually FIND the Japanese. Thus, both sides began launching scout planes, each task force attempting to find the other.

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In this search effort, the Americans had a distinct advantage. Based on Midway, big PBY “Catalina” seaplanes could sweep much larger tracks of ocean than small Japanese float planes usually launched from cruisers or battleships. The Japanese search pattern was also very thin, thanks in part to mechanical failures in some of the search planes.

The end result was that the Americans found the Japanese first, with the main body sighted around 09:30 on June 3rd. B-17 “Flying Fortress” bombers were launched from Midway to bomb the Japanese (still 700 miles away), but the big four-engine bombers were unable to hit any Japanese ships in their high-altitude runs.

Nagumo knew he’d been spotted (and now attacked), but by LAND-based planes. He still had no idea American carriers were about, and so started preparations for a massive air strike on the Island of Midway itself.

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The next morning (June 4th), the four Japanese carriers struck Midway with over a hundred aircraft. US Marine Corps fighter pilots stationed on the island did they best they could, but they were heavily outnumbered and flying mostly outdated F2F “Buffalo” type fighter planes.

Yet despite heavy damage to Midway’s airfields, Midway had already launched more Navy, Marine Corps, and Army Air Force bombers for another attack on the Japanese carrier force. The result was a slaughter, with terrible losses sustained by the American planes without a single Japanese ship being hit by bombs or torpedoes.

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The first Marine pilot to go down was Major Lofton Henderson, leading Squadron VMSB-241 in an attack on the aircraft carrier Hiryū. He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, and “Henderson Field” was named after him on Guadalcanal. One badly-damaged Army B-26 bomber also tried to crash into Nagumo’s bridge, barely missing.

Fatal Decisions

It was clear to Nagumo that despite the mauling they had received, the Americans on Midway still posed a lethal threat. Accordingly, he ordered his carriers to prepare the remainder of his planes for another strike. Meanwhile, his first strike wave was just returning, and urgently needed to land before they ran out of fuel.

At this precise moment, however, a scout plane from the cruiser Tone reported that it had sighted a collection of American ships, but didn’t say what kind. The flight and hangar decks of Nagumo’s carriers became more crowded as preparations for the second strike continued. Perhaps forty minutes later, another message came in…

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“American force is accompanied by what appears to be an aircraft carrier.”

Nagumo now had one hell of a problem. His orders were to sink American aircraft carriers (the whole point of the Midway operation), which posed an even bigger threat than Midway. But his flight decks were crammed with planes loaded for a LAND strike, armed with contact bombs instead of armour-piercing bombs and torpedoes.

The flight and hangar decks were in chaos as the carriers tried to recover the planes of the first Midway strike, then prepare a second full-strength strike at Midway, only to have these orders changed for a naval strike against American warships. Each of these tasks takes a carrier hangar crew (hundreds of men) about an hour to prepare.

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In a frantic attempt to do execute these three tasks almost at once, the Japanese carrier crews slaved at top speed. As orders were passed down to arm the planes for shipping strikes, then land strikes, then shipping strikes again, ordinance was left stacked up on the hangar and flight decks instead of being safely stored in the ships’ magazines.

Nagumo, meanwhile, wasn’t the only one facing deadly choices during the fateful morning hours of June 4th. Since the Japanese carriers were first spotted about twenty-four hours ago, the carriers Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown had been making top speed to close the distance in a desperate effort to get in that all important first strike.

Being outnumbered, the Americans HAD to hit the Japanese first. A first strike, with a little luck, just MIGHT cripple one or two Japanese carriers and even the odds. Thus we see the desperate, unescorted, and tragically doomed bomber strikes from Midway Island on the morning of June 4th.

As grim reports of these missions came in, the American carriers now launched their own strikes. They still weren’t quite close enough for some of their older TBD “Devastator” torpedo bombers to make it back before their fuel ran out. They were launched anyway…on a one-way mission.

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Everything went wrong for the Americans. In their haste to launch a first strike against the Japanese carriers, the fighters, torpedo bombers, and dive bombers were not massed into a single strike that headed toward the Japanese all at once. Remember it takes at least half an hour to get all these planes in the air, that’s thirty minutes of fuel.

Thus, the American strike force flew out in patches, along different vectors. Many got lost. They did not arrive over the target together. When the TBD “Devastators” arrived, they had no fighter cover. Already past the point of no return on fuel and flying tragically obsolete aircraft, they more or less knew they were doomed…

They attacked the Japanese fleet anyway.

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The hail of anti-aircraft fire from dozens of huge Japanese warships was incredible. Meanwhile, nimble “Zero” fighter planes also ravaged the lumbering torpedo bombers as they struggled to come in on shallow, flat attack runs to drop torpedoes in the water toward the Japanese ships.

The results were as horrific as they were predictable. Every single Devastator torpedo bomber was shot down. Each plane had two men aboard, and only one man survived from the entire force (rescued later from the water). Not a single hit was scored on a Japanese warship.

Miracle In The Making?

However, the grisly massacre of the Devastators had, in an ironic twist, left the Japanese carrier fleet completely exposed to a new threat. A force of SBD “Dauntless” dive-bombers from the carriers Enterprise and Yorktown, previously lost, just happened to re-find their bearings and arrive over the Japanese fleet at just that very moment.

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These dive-bombers arrived at high altitude, mostly from the northeast. The Zero fighters were all at low level, tearing apart the luckless torpedo bombers to the southwest. Below the American dive-bombers was the entire Japanese fleet, exposed and unaware, their hangars packed with extra ordinance and fuelled warplanes.

What would follow would be five of the most decisive minutes in the history of naval warfare.

We hope you’ll join us next week for Part Three of our look at the Battle of Midway. As you can see, things are about to kick off in a really big way. Meanwhile, we hope you enjoyed the article, and will post your comments and questions below!

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"But now, it’s time to “weigh anchor and raise steam" and set a course into the maelstrom of this historic battle..."

"Already past the point of no return on fuel and flying tragically obsolete aircraft, they more or less knew they were doomed [...] they attacked the Japanese fleet anyway..."