Skip to comments.The Battle of Midway
Posted on 06/04/2013 11:18:48 AM PDT by Retain Mike
A Near-Run Victory at Midway
Walter Lord and Gordon Prange considered Midway an incredible, miraculous victory. For Mitsuo Fuchida and Masatake Okumiya, the battle doomed Japan. The calculated risks Chester Nimitz took required assembling all possible resources, and still left him with a three to one disadvantage in ships. To appreciate further this tenuous condition note the fate of four Army B-26 medium bombers rushed to Midway.
Captain James Collins led the aircraft in torpedo attacks. The pilots had never seen or practiced with aerial torpedoes. They would now only practice takeoffs and landings.
Those early B-26s earned a reputation as Widowmakers. To avoid fatal landings, pilots flew final at 150 mph, and landed at speeds of 120-135 mph; excessive compared to contemporary aircraft.
The Mark 13 aerial torpedo was equally unforgiving in 1942. The pilots were attempting to hit a 30 knot aircraft carrier with a 33 knot torpedo. To do so required flying straight, low, and slow through lethal fighter attacks and intense anti-aircraft fire. Only one in three torpedoes would run hot and true when launched at heights over 50 feet and at speeds exceeding 126 mph. For the B-26s that meant flying close to the speed where they would auger into the ocean.
The B-26s attacked the carriers but obtained no hits. Two of four aircraft with their five man crews perished. Captain Collins with another crippled bomber returned and crash landed on Midway. Such courage and sacrifice by Army, Navy, and Marines wrought this astonishing victory.
Midway: Extraordinary Leadership and Brave Men
In late December 1941, Navy Secretary Frank Knox and FDR met and selected Chester Nimitz to command the Pacific Fleet, which at the time the public perceived as residing at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt said, Tell Nimitz to get the hell out to Pearl and stay there until the war is won. Knox informed Nimitz by saying, Youre going to take command of the Pacific Fleet, and I think you will be gone a long time.
On Christmas Day 1941 Admiral Chester Nimitz arrived by Catalina flying boat to take command. When the door opened he was assailed by a poisonous atmosphere from black oil, charred wood, burned wiring, insulation and paint, and rotting flesh. The boat ride to shore engulfed the party in the panorama of sunken hulls and floating wreckage punctuated by the bodies of dead sailors still surfacing from the blasted ships.
He spent the first days learning everything he could about his new assignment and confirmed the publics perception was incorrect. The dry-dock, the repair shops, and the tank farm were intact. The carriers, their escorts, and the submarines stood ready to take the offensive. Admiral Raymond Spruance said of Nimitz, The one big thing about him was that he was always ready to fight .And he wanted officers who would push the fight to the Japanese.
Nimitz decided some very good men had taken a terrible beating and were now suffering terrible reminders and apprehensions. When he officially took command December 31, he told the assembled staffs he had complete and unlimited confidence in every one of them. As head of officer personnel in the Pentagon, he knew they had been selected for their competence. But if any wanted to leave, he would individually discuss their futures and do all he could to get them the assignment they wanted. However, there were a few key staff members he wanted to stay with him. They included Commander Joe Rochefort, Jr. and Lieutenant Commander Edwin T. Layton. These men did not provide warning of the Pearl Harbor attack, but later provided the key intelligence allowing Nimitz to take the calculated risks for the Midway battle.
Midway began with the gracious, quiet, determined leadership of Nimitz bringing the fight to the enemy at long odds. It finished with the fearful sacrifice of a few brave men on that day. To understand Nimitzs and the flyers tenuous position consider that gathering nearly every U.S. Navy ship left in the Pacific achieved the following order of battle for Midway.
Japan United States Heavy aircraft carriers 4 3 Light aircraft carriers 2 0 Battleships 11 0 Heavy cruisers 10 6 Light cruisers 6 1 Destroyers 53 17 --- --- Total 86 27
This abbreviated narrative now leaves out the contribution of thousands, whose efforts provided the vital margin needed for victory. Preparing Midway for invasion and assembling the task forces at point Luck to attack the Japanese required prodigious achievements in logistics, ship repair, and naval intelligence. The narrative also does not describe how making more and/or paying the more bitter price for mistakes contributed heavily to the Japanese defeat.
The Japanese transport group was discovered on June 3, but on June 4, 1942 the curtain rises for the carrier battle when PBY patrols by Lieutenant Howard Ady discover the Japanese task force, and by Lieutenant William Chase report Japanese planes heading towards Midway. The warnings enabled the 120 aircraft crammed onto Midway to get into the air and Admirals Raymond Spruance and Frank Fletcher to launch carrier attacks. All Midway aircraft made attacks against the carriers except for 25 Marine Brewster Buffalos and Wildcat fighters dedicated to repel the attackers. In the ensuing Japanese attack on Midway at 6:16AM, 14 of the 25 pilots died prompting Captain Philip R. White to say, It is my belief that any commander that orders pilots out for combat in a F2A-3 should consider the pilot lost before leaving the ground.
The attacks by land based planes on the Japanese carriers began at 7:48AM. First six TBF Avenger torpedo bombers lead by Lieutenant Langdon K. Fieberling obtained no hits, but five of six aircraft were destroyed including Fieberlings and only two of 18 men survived. Next Army Captain James Collins lead four Army Air Corps B-26 medium bombers rigged to carry torpedoes in the first ever attempt to attack enemy ships. Two of four planes and their five man crews perished, and no hits were obtained. Lieutenant Colonel Walter C. Sweeney lead 15 long range B-17s over Nagumos position in a level bombing attack from 20,000 feet and obtained no hits on the carriers or escorts. Major Benjamin Norris lead eleven Vindicator dive bombers considered so ancient pilots called them wind indicators. They never reached the carriers and unsuccessfully attacked a battleship. Amazingly only two fell to enemy attacks and two more were lost at sea because of low fuel.
Next into the battle came Torpedo 3, Torpedo 6, and Torpedo 8 from the USS Yorktown, USS Enterprise, and USS Hornet respectively. In all Lt. Commander Lance E. Massey, Lt. Commander Gene Lindsey, and Lt. Commander John Waldron lead 41 Devastator torpedo bombers. The squadrons became separated (Waldron deliberately so) from their dive bombers and fighters that were intended to accompany them for coordinated attacks. These 100 mph torpedo bombers had to evade 300 mph Zero fighters, and withstand concentrated task force anti-aircraft fire long enough to launch effectively 33 knot torpedoes against 30 knot aircraft carriers.
In pressing home their attacks, 35 aircraft with their three man crews were lost, except for Lieutenant George H. Gay who crashed in the midst of the Japanese carriers and was rescued by a PBY the next day. The only fighters about were six from Fighting 3 lead by Lt. Commander Jimmy Thach that tangled with a horde of Zero fighters and lost one aircraft. Those from Fighting 6 lead by Lieutenant Jim Gray lost track of the torpedo bombers and kept circling at 20,000 feet to protect the dive bombers they never found. Eventually these fighters returned to the Enterprise in total frustration.
The USS Hornet fighters and dive bombers spent a fruitless morning. Commander Stan Ring lead Bombing 8, Scouting 8, and Fighting 8 exactly as directed and then searched to the south until fuel was critical and each squadron proceeded independently. Lt. Commander Russ Johnson leading Bombing 8 was unable to find the Hornet and landed on Midway, but 3 of the 14 aircraft had to ditch on the way for lack of fuel. Lieutenant Stan Ruehlow leading Fighting 8 remained determined to find the Hornet, but all ten aircraft had to ditch, and Ens. Mark Kelly and Ens. George R. Hill were never found. That morning there were 29 empty seats in the Hornet ready room. Fifteen seats belonged to Torpedo 8 pilots slaughtered that morning by the Japanese. The 11 were for Bombing 8 that refueled at Midway and later returned to the Hornet.
The Japanese carrier task forces had withstood seven separate attacks over nearly three hours without a single hit. Not counting the B-17s that stayed at 20,000 feet, Navy and Army flyers pressed home attacks with 62 aircraft. Of those 44 were destroyed, 134 of 183 men were lost, and no hits were obtained.
Next Bombing 3 and Bombing 6 from the USS Yorktown and USS Enterprise respectively found the carriers. They arrived over the carriers while the Zero fighters were still at low altitude finishing off the last of the American torpedo bombers. The 17 planes of Commander Max Leslies Bombing 3 delivered three fatal hits to one carrier, probably the Soryu. For Bombing 6, Lieutenants Wade McClusky and Richard Best lead sections that obtained three hits on the Akagi and at least four hits on the Kaga. The Japanese task forces that had been impervious to harm from 7:48 to 10:23AM saw three of their heavy carriers turned into burning wreckage in six minutes. However, a price had to be paid. Max Leslies planes returned safely, but Bombing 6 lost 8 of 18 two man crews.
There was still one heavy carrier unaccounted for, and at 3PM Lieutenant Sam Adams of Scouting 5 radioed Admiral Spruance its location. The Admiral had no fighters or torpedo bombers, but ordered Lieutenant Earl Gallaher aloft at 3:30PM to lead 24 planes from three dive bombers squadrons. A half hour later the Hornet launched 16 dive bombers lead by reserve Lieutenant Edgar Stebbins. These 40 aircraft encountered anti-aircraft fire, lighting attacks from Zeros, and superb evasive ship handling, but there were too many planes and bombs. At least four hits and many near misses transformed the Hiryu into the fourth blazing funeral pyre of the day. All three dive bombing squadrons got hits and two aircraft were lost.
There were attacks before and after June 4 at Midway costing the Japanese Combined Fleet other ships. However, the loss of these four heavy carriers achieved by the incomparable skill, fortitude, and valor of these few men proved lethal.
One could easily paraphrase Winston Churchill to say never have so many who fought in the Pacific owed so much to so few. Not counting the B-17s, about 370 flyers attacked the Japanese in around 180 aircraft of which nearly 90 were lost resulting in about 190 deaths. Walter Lord and Gordon W. Prange considered this an incredible, miraculous victory. For Mitsuo Fuchida and Masatake Okumiya, it was the battle that doomed Japan.
USNI Blog: http://blog.usni.org/?s=Midway
USNI Search: http://www.usni.org/search_google.asp Composition U.S. forces
Action Report: USS Hornet (CV-8) Midway http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USN/ships/logs/CV/cv8-Midway.html
Battle of Midway, Commanding Officer, USS Yorktown, report of 18 June 1942 http://www.patriotfiles.com/index.php?name=Sections&req=viewarticle&artid=1096&page=1
Battle of Midway: 4-7 June 1942, Online Action Reports: Commanding Officer, USS Enterprise, Serial 0133 of 8 June 1942 http://www.history.navy.mil/docs/wwii/mid6.htm
MK XIII AERIAL TORPEDO http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=1035 http://www.navweaps.com/Weapons/WTUS_WWII.htm
Martin B-26 Marauder http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B-26_Marauder
Midway Film by John ford http://video.staged.com/localshops/ww_iirare_film__midway__directed_by_john_ford
Valor: Marauders at Midway http://www.airforce-magazine.com/MagazineArchive/Pages/1986/April%201986/0486valor.aspx
A miracle helped along by the fact that we could read all their coded messages.
Yep, and some TBF pilots with more guts than I’ll ever know.
I read the Japanese were amazed at their bravery.
WW II in the Pacific was decided w/in the space of 1/2 hour @ the Battle of Midway.
That's two of us.
Reality contradicted the propaganda they had been feed about Americans.
Good article! Thanks. We owe those guys a LOT.
Have you read “Shattered Sword”? I highly recommend it for insight into the battle from the Japanese angle.
What did Ayn Rand say? Paraphrasing: You can avoid reality, but you can't avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.
Kinda like democRATs/socialists/marxists/progressives (sorry for the redundancy) today.
Yep, anyone that hasn’t read “Shattered Sword” doesn’t really know anything about Midway.
In sum, Midway was no miracle. We won Midway because we were better across the board. Better ships, better aircraft, better damage control, etc.
And we weren’t really outnumbered in the key things that matter (total aircraft,etc.) They had one more CV but we had three CVs and an additional unsinkable CV (Midway.)
The really interesting thing is that even if we’d lost the Naval battle, it’s overwhelmingly likely the huge numbers of well-trained, heavily-armed, and dug-in Marines on Midway would have annihilated the Japanese invasion force and they could not have captured the island.
Midway and Battle of the Bulge are probably the two greatest American victories under trying circumstances in both World Wars. Both Germany and Japan made the mistake of thinking our troops were weak and couldn’t handle adversity.
Walter Lord’s book is probably the best account of Midway I have read. Battle: The Story of the Bulge is the best on that battle. Both are amazing accounts of bravery, skill and luck (both good and bad) that were part of these amazing victories.
I get your point, but had the US lost its entire Pacific fleet at Midway, we would still have won the war.
Would have taken longer, but would have made no difference in the outcome.
On December 8, 1941 Churchill celebrated the defeat of the Axis. On that day it was all over but the shouting.
Which is not to say that the eventual victory was not due to the valor and sacrifice of a great many good men. Only that Allied victory was certain unless the US were to abandon the war.
Who wrote that, would be interested to read.
Written by Parshall and Tully.
Relies heavily on a lot of recently-translated Japanese material.
Other thing of note is that there were no aircraft on the decks of any of the Japanese carriers when they were bombed and sunk.
NO If we had lost our ENTIRE Fleet @ Midway then Pearl Harbor would have been UNTENABLE and we would have been FORCED to conduct ALL of WW II in the Pacific from either San Diego or San Pedro and WW II in the Pacific would have taken WELL into 1946, 1947 or Early 1948.
“but would have made no difference in the outcome” OK JUST HOW MANY more US and Allied(UK, NZ, Aust) Troops, Sailors Airman and Marines would have died because of the extension of the War?
I did not know B-17s were involved at Midway.
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