BATTLE OF MIDWAY - EVENTS OF 4 JUNE 1942 (afternoon)

The Japanese strike back at USS Yorktown

Hiryu's commander, Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi, was not a man to be deterred by the disaster that had befallen the other three Japanese carriers of the First Carrier Striking Force. He was enraged by the loss of Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu, and bent upon vengeance. At 1054 hours*, about thirty minutes after he had evaded the last torpedo aimed at his carrier by Yorktown's torpedo squadron VT-3, Yamaguchi began launching a retaliatory strike to search for the American carriers. Hiryu's first strike comprised eighteen Val dive-bombers and six escorting Zero fighters, and was led by Lieutenant Michio Kobayashi, a veteran of every Nagumo Force campaign. Kobayashi's aircraft overtook American aircraft returning to Yorktown, and stealthily shadowed them to their carrier which was still separated from Enterprise and Hornet.


* As recorded by screen cruiser Chikuma in the Japanese Midway action report also called the Nagumo Report at page 21. Viewers may recall from an earlier section "The Search for Nagumo's Carriers" that reference was made to the fact that the speed with which Rear Admiral Yamaguchi was able to launch his strike at the American carrier force appeared to challenge the opinion of Jon Parshall, an internationally recognised expert on Imperial Japanese Navy operational doctrine, that Vice Admiral Nagumo would have "needed to find an unbroken forty-five minute window of opportunity on all four flight decks during which to spot and then launch his strike." Jon Parshall addresses this issue in a separate NOTE to this section.

The USS Yorktown battles for her life as the gallant ship takes the full brunt of the Japanese counter-attack at Midway.


This painting of the USS Yorktown at the Battle of Midway was painted by the internationally respected artist John Hamilton (1919-1993). The original painting is displayed in The Pentagon in Washington, DC, and is one of a series by John Hamilton entitled "War in the Pacifc".


The first Japanese Attack leaves USS Yorktown dead in the Water

Just before noon on 4 June, Admiral Fletcher launched ten Dauntless dive bombers from Yorktown to search for Hiryu. These aircraft had only just been launched when the approaching Japanese strike force from Hiryu was detected on Yorktown's radar. Wildcat fighters of Yorktown's combat air patrol were launched to defend their carrier. Although the defending American fighters were able to shoot down ten of the incoming Japanese dive bombers, eight breached the American fighter screen. Heavy anti-aircraft fire from Yorktown and her escorting warships downed another two Japanese bombers, but six penetrated the lethal fire-storm to launch their attack and Yorktown was struck by three bombs. One bomb exploded on impact with the flight deck, producing a large hole and killing or wounding many crewmen. Another bomb hit and penetrated the forward elevator, but caused no serious damage. However, the third bomb penetrated the flight deck and exploded deep within the carrier, putting most of the boilers out of action, and leaving the ship dead in the water. Only five Japanese dive bombers and three Zeros returned to Hiryu. Lieutenant Kobayashi was among those who failed to return.

Yorktown was now highly vulnerable to attack. The holes in her flight deck prevented launching and recovery of aircraft. Yorktown's aircraft returning from the attack on Soryu were either diverted to Enterprise or forced to ditch in the sea if they were running out of fuel. With his ship immobilised, Rear Admiral Fletcher was forced to move his flag to one of his escort cruisers USS Astoria. In a selfless and patriotic act, he also passed overall command of both American task forces to Rear Admiral Spruance, thereby ensuring that Spruance would get the major credit for a great victory that had largely been won by Fletcher.

With the threat of further Japanese air attacks a real possibility, the crew of Yorktown worked frantically to repair the damage to the flight deck and get their ship fully operational. By about 1400, Yorktown was under way again, but could only manage about 20 knots speed.

The Japanese launch a second Strike at USS Yorktown

Meanwhile back aboard Hiryu, Rear Admiral Yamaguchi had received startling news from the pilot of a Japanese reconnaissance plane. Hiryu was facing not two American aircraft carriers, but three. Yamaguchi was stunned to learn that Yorktown had survived the Battle of the Coral Sea and was one of the three American carriers pitted against him. Although taken aback by this news, the commander of Hiryu was determined to continue attacking the American carriers regardless of the cost to his own ship and aircrews. Shortly after 1245, Yamaguchi launched ten Nakajima Type 97 torpedo bombers (Allied code name "Kate") and six Zero fighter escorts towards the American carriers. The second strike was led by Lieutenant Joichi Tomonaga who had earlier that day led the strike against the Midway islands. Tomonaga's torpedo bomber had returned from Midway with a damaged fuel tank and he knew that the attack on the American carriers would be a one-way trip for him. Despite this knowledge, he insisted on leading the second strike in his damaged aircraft. At 1426, Hiryu's second attack group sighted an American carrier moving with its escorting warships. The survivors of the first attack on Yorktown had reported that the carrier had been left badly damaged and dead in the water. When he ordered his torpedo bomber crews to disperse and attack this operational carrier from different directions at 1432, it did not occur to Tomonaga that they were attacking Yorktown again.

Yorktown was indeed operational, and with advance radar warning, had managed to launch several fighters to meet the Japanese torpedo bombers. Despite heavy anti-aircraft fire, and the best efforts of American combat air patrol fighters, some Japanese torpedo bombers were able to penetrate the carrier's protective screen and deliver a skilfully coordinated attack from both sides of the carrier simultaneously. Yorktown's commander skilfully evaded two air-launched torpedoes, but the damaged carrier was eventually struck by two torpedoes at 1442. The torpedoes ripped open the hull of the carrier, and as seawater flooded in, the ship developed an alarming 24 degree list. The Commanding Officer , Captain Elliot Buckmaster, became concerned that Yorktown would capsize, and ordered his crew to abandon their ship.

Lieutenant Tomonaga was seen to fly his damaged bomber directly into a storm of anti-aircraft fire, and drop his torpedo. A moment later, his aircraft exploded. Only five Japanese torpedo bombers and three Zero fighters returned to Hiryu. When the last aircraft returned to the Japanese carrier at 1630, Rear Admiral Yamaguchi found that his air group was reduced to six Zero fighters, five dive-bombers and five torpedo bombers. Despite having so few aircraft left, Yamaguchi was determined to launch a third attack on the American carriers at dusk when the prospect of breaching the American carrier defences with such a small attack group would be greater.

The Americans find and attack Hiryu

Rear Admiral Spruance was determined to ensure that Hiryu did not escape unscathed, and launched forty Dauntless dive bombers from Enterprise and Hornet at Hiryu . The American dive bombers found Hiryu at 1703 on the afternoon of 4 June. The American aircraft had approached from the south-west with the sun behind them. Without the benefit of radar, the Japanese failed to detect the American bombers until they were overhead. Thirteen of the American dive bombers singled out Hiryu for attention. The rest attacked the escorting warships. Four bombs struck Hiryu and inflicted very heavy damage on the Japanese carrier. The deck surface of the forward elevator was blasted upwards. Fuelled and armed aircraft on the flight deck exploded, and the resulting fires cut off all access to and from the carrier's engine rooms where crew members were trapped. By 2123, the fires were raging out of control and Hiryu was dead in the water. When it became apparent that the carrier could not be saved, Rear Admiral Yamaguchi ordered his crew to abandon their ship at 0230 on 5 June. Admiral Yamaguchi and Captain Kaku both elected to remain on Hiryu and die with their ship. At 0510, Japanese destroyers fired torpedoes at their crippled carrier. Believing that Hiryu would quickly sink, the commander of the Japanese destroyers then ordered his ships to withdraw.

Crippled and burning, after an attack by American SBD Dauntless dive bombers, the Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu would finally be sunk by Japanese destroyers.

The derelict Hiryu was still afloat shortly after sunrise on the following morning when a Japanese scout aircraft from the light carrier Hosho, which was attached to Admiral Yamamoto's Main Force, photographed the sinking carrier, and provided the dramatic photograph above. Hiryu finally sank a few hours later.

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