THE MIDWAY COUNTER-ATTACK ON THE NAGUMO CARRIER FORCE

Upon hearing the location of the Japanese carrier strike force approaching Midway, Rear Admiral Fletcher ordered his carriers to close with Vice Admiral Nagumo's carriers and prepare to attack. While the American carriers were steaming on a south-westerly course towards the enemy, four waves of US Navy, Army Air Corps, and Marine Corps torpedo and dive-bombers were launched from Midway at the Japanese carriers. US Army Air Corps B-17 bombers that took off before dawn to attack Japanese invasion transports approaching Midway from the south-west were redirected to attack Nagumo's carriers.

"THE MIDWAY MARAUDERS" by John Greaves
Four US Army Air Corps Martin B-26 Marauder medium bombers had been quickly jury-rigged in Hawaii to carry torpedoes in defence of Midway Atoll. No Army bomber had ever been equipped to carry a torpedo before, and none of the pilots had any experience in dropping torpedoes. This image by artist John Greaves captures the moment when "The Midway Marauders" are approaching the Japanese carrier strike force and are under attack by the deadly Zeros fighters. The lead B-26 is being piloted by Captain James F. Collins, Jnr. First Lieutenant James P. "Jim" Muri's "Susie-Q" brings up the rear at bottom right.


To understand how close to defeat the United States came at Midway in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds, and how important to the outcome of this momentous battle were American code-breaking expertise, astute planning, good luck, and the heroism of American aircrews, it is necessary to give some details of the initial disasters experienced by the Americans on this day.

Midway had only twenty-six operational fighter aircraft, and none could be spared to escort and protect four separate waves of Midway-launched bombers from the deadly swarms of Zero fighters that were guarding the Japanese carriers. It was not even possible to coordinate the Midway bombing attacks because of the mixed nature of the aircraft involved

Author's Note

Between 0705 hours and 0837 hours on 4 June 1942, Midway-based US Navy, Army, and Marine bomber squadrons pressed home five separate and resolute attacks on Japan's First Carrier Striking Force as it approached Midway. None of these attacks inflicted significant physical damage on the Japanese carriers, and lacking their own fighter protection, the dive-bomber and torpedo bomber squadrons from Midway were savaged by Zero fighters and many planes failed to return.

The question is sometimes asked, "Did those lost aircrews make any significant contribution to the American victory at Midway?" The answer is: "Yes. Their sacrifices were not in vain". The question only appears to persist because some historians have failed to appreciate the significance of these initial attacks in laying the foundation for the American victory. The five separate bombing attacks from Midway Atoll formed part of a continuing sequence of American attacks that combined to throw Japan's First Carrier Striking Force off balance, and keep it off balance and vulnerable from 0705 to 1022 when the SBD dive-bombers from Enterprise and Yorktown were able to exploit that vulnerability.

One major purpose of this account of the Battle of Midway is to acknowledge the historical significance of the five attacks from Midway Atoll and three US Navy carrier-launched torpedo squadron attacks between 0705 and 1022 that laid the foundation for the American victory.

and wide variations in speed and pilot training.

The first wave of American bombers from Midway comprised the six orphaned Navy Grumman TBF* torpedo bombers that should have been aboard the carrier USS Hornet. These bombers carried a crew of three and were part of a detachment of nineteen of these new dive-bombers that had arrived in Hawaii on 29 May 1942 to join Hornet's Torpedo Squadron Eight (VT-8). They found that Hornet had sailed for an unspecified destination on the previous day. When informed that six of of the new dive-bombers were required at Midway Atoll, there was no shortage of volunteers from the VT-8 aircrews left behind in Hawaii. None of them had experienced combat, and Ensign Albert K. Earnest had never before flown out of sight of land. None of them had known why they were going to Midway.

*Later to be designated "Avenger" in memory of Pearl Harbor.

Lieutenant Langdon K. Fieberling was commander of the six US Navy TBFs on Midway. At 0545 hours, he was receiving a last minute briefing from the commander of Marine Air Group 22, Lieutenant Colonel Ira E. Kimes, when the message came from Lieutenant Chase's patrolling PBY: "Many planes heading Midway bearing 320 degrees, distance 150". Fieberling gathered together his six aircrews and they climbed aboard their TBFs and started engines. A Marine orderly climbed onto Fieberling's wing to deliver the order to attack the Japanese carriers and provide details of bearing, distance, and speed of the carriers. The last Marine fighter of VMF-221 had barely cleared the airstrip when the first TBF followed it.

The attack by six detached US Navy Grumman TBF torpedo bombers of USS Hornet's Torpedo Squadron VT-8

Lieutenant Fieberling's six TBFs had reached their cruising height of 4,000 feet when they passed close to the incoming Japanese carrier-launched strike force. Ensign Earnest's turret gunner, Aviation Machinist Mate Third Class (AMM3) J. D. Manning, spotted the Japanese formation and alerted Earnest to the enemy presence. The TBFs passed the Japanese formation very quickly and only one Zero fighter showed tentative and quickly stifled interest in the small group of American torpedo bombers.

The Navy TBFs were closely followed from Midway by a second wave comprising the four Army Air Corps B-26 Marauder medium bombers that had been hastily modified by the Navy at Pearl Harbor to carry an aerial torpedo. The Army Marauder bombers were led by Captain James F. Collins, Jr. It was an historic mission for the US Army Air Corps. No Army bomber had previously been fitted with torpedoes. None of the Army pilots had been trained to launch torpedoes aimed at an enemy warship.

The Midway TBFs and Marauders came upon Vice Admiral Nagumo's carrier fleet almost simultaneously. The two groups of American torpedo bombers were spotted first aboard Akagi. Nagumo's official Midway action report places this sighting at 0705. The Japanese flagship immediately assumed battle speed and turned directly towards the unwelcome arrivals to minimise its target profile. The TBFs and Marauders caused some confusion to observers aboard the Japanese ships who identified them variously as heavy bombers and PBY Catalinas.

It appeared to the Japanese, and it is recorded in Nagumo's action report, that the American torpedo planes divided into two groups at 0710. What was actually happening was that Collins and Fieberling were making independent attacks on the carriers. Fieberling led his TBFs in first. The swarming Zeros struck viciously before the TBFs and Marauders came within torpedo range of the Japanese carriers. The TBFs had opened their torpedo bay doors early to ensure damage to hydraulic systems did not prevent them being opened. Unfortunately, the open bay doors slowed their speed and made them easier victims for the deadly Zeros.

Ensign Earnest had never before seen a massive warship fleet from the air. The vast expanse of Japanese warships stretching from horizon to horizon presented an amazing sight. After taking in this unforgettable image, Earnest concentrated all of his attention on finding a target carrier. He saw Lieutenant Fieberling signalling for an attack on two carriers at the centre of the vast array of Japanese warships. Then his turret gunner, AMM3 James D. Manning, called a warning that the Zeros were upon them. As the Japanese fighters made their firing passes, Earnest could hear the sharp clunk of their bullets striking his plane and the clatter of return fire from his turret gunner. Fieberling led his small formation of TBFs down close to the surface of the ocean with the Zeros continually snapping at their heels. Earnest could no longer hear his turret gun firing, and upon checking, the radioman and tunnel gunner, Radioman 3rd Class Harry H. Ferrier, found the apparently lifeless turret gunner slumped over his gun. Earnest's TBF was hammered again as another Zero made its firing pass. This time Harry Ferrier was hit in the wrist by a bullet. In the next firing pass a Zero bullet creased Harry Ferrier's head and he lapsed into unconsciousness. The Zero's bullets severed the elevator control cables, and Earnest found himself not only effectively alone, but trying to control a plane fast losing all hydraulic power and with elevators not functioning. Describing the loss of control of his TBF bomber, Earnest later said: "The elevator controls went limp in my hands".

Ensign Earnest had also been hit in the last firing pass and was bleeding from a wound in his neck. He still had rudder control and looked around desperately for a target. Seeing a light cruiser, he kicked hard on the rudder control and managed to turn his TBF towards it. He was able to launch his torpedo in its direction from an altitude of about 200 feet, but was too busy wrestling with the controls of his crippled bomber to see whether the torpedo made contact. Earnest was now down to about 30 feet above the water and bracing himself for impact when he discovered that his elevator trim tab control was still functioning and was sufficient to lift or lower the nose of the badly damaged bomber. The Zeros pursued him and continued to fire at his plane until he was well clear of the Japanese fleet. Then they disappeared. They had either been recalled to meet another threat or had run out of ammunition.

Ensign Earnest found himself alone over the ocean in a crippled bomber with the vast expanse of the Japanese carrier fleet between him and Midway. The engine was still working, but his electrical and hydraulic systems had been knocked out. How to find Midway without compass, instruments, and radio was exercising the mind of this inexperienced teenage pilot. Reckoning that Midway lay somewhere to the south-east, Earnest worked his way around the Japanese fleet and pointed his plane in the direction of the morning sun. He was eventually rewarded by the sight of a towering column of smoke from the burning oil tanks on Midway. He was further cheered by Harry Ferrier regaining consciousness and crawling up to keep him company.

The landing on Midway at 0940 on one wheel fell well short of elegant, but those who examined the badly damaged TBF were amazed that the young pilot had been able to land the plane in one piece. Harry Ferrier was helped out of the crashed TBF by First Lieutenant Jim Muri (see below) who had shortly before piloted a badly damaged B-26 Marauder bomber back to Midway after making his own attack on the Japanese carriers. The TBF detachment had been savaged by the Zeros and only Albert Earnest and Harry Ferrier survived to return to Midway. There is no record of any damage to the Japanese carrier fleet from the TBF attacks.

The attack by four US Army Air Corps B-26 Marauder torpedo bombers

Captain James Collins could see the Navy TBFs carrying out their low level torpedo attacks ahead of him as he led his four B-26 Marauder bombers in a diamond formation directly towards the carriers that he could see at the centre of the Japanese fleet. The carriers were already scattering to evade the TBF torpedoes. Swerving his bomber, first left and then right, to avoid intense anti-aircraft fire, and diving close to sea level in an attempt to frustrate the swarming Zeros, Collins focussed on a large carrier that turned out to be Vice Admiral Nagumo's flagship Akagi. Under intense fire from both Zeros and warships, the Marauders piloted by Captain Collins and First Lieutenant Jim Muri broke through the protective cordon of Zeros at about 200 feet above sea level and launched their torpedoes at Akagi. To evade the B-26 torpedoes, Akagi swung sharply, first to starboard and then to port. Neither torpedo struck home, but Jim Muri left a US Army calling card by strafing the flight deck of the admiral's flagship at 0712. Nagumo's action report notes that the Number 3 anti-aircraft gun was damaged and two sailors were injured in Muri's daring attack on Akagi. With every gun on Akagi pouring fire on it, one crippled B-26 passed very close to the flagship's island structure before dipping and plunging into the ocean. At this point, the only damage inflicted on the Japanese carrier fleet was that produced by Jim Muri's strafing of Akagi's flight deck.

First Lieutenant Jim Muri's remarkable attack on Vice Admiral Nagumo's flagship is described in the next chapter.

Captain Collins and First Lieutenant Muri were both able to nurse their badly damaged bombers back to Midway. Jim Muri's B-26 was found to have more than 500 bullet holes in it. Although commending his bomber's leakproof fuel tanks and protective armour, Captain Collins reported bitterly that his rear and waist (dorsal) turret guns had jammed repeatedly during the heat of the action over the Japanese fleet. The guns in the tail turret had to be fed by hand when the motors proved incapable of pulling the ammunition belts. Once again, the lives of young Americans had been put at risk, and sacrificed, by neglect of defence spending during peacetime.

The attack by sixteen Dauntless SBD-2 dive-bombers of US Marine Scout-Bombing Squadron 241 (VMSB-241)

The two waves of torpedo bombers from Midway were followed by a third wave of sixteen Douglas SBD-2 Dauntless dive-bombers from Marine Scout-Bombing Squadron 241 (VMSB-241). The dive-bombers were led by the squadron commander, Major Lofton R. Henderson. Because most of his young pilots lacked experience with the SBD-2 dive-bomber and in the highly skilled technique of dive-bombing, Major Henderson decided to resort to a gliding approach to the Japanese carriers rather than the normal steep dive associated with dive-bombing. Unfortunately, a glide approach would render the SBD-2s more vulnerable to attack by defending fighters and to anti-aircraft fire from warships. The plan was to maintain tight squadron formation in a fast glide from 8,000 to 4,000 feet and then allow each pilot to separate and attack the most accessible carrier target. After the attack, each of the SBDs would retire by seeking cloud cover or hugging the water until clear of the Japanese fleet. The eleven Vindicator dive-bombers would be led as a separate group by Major Benjamin W. Norris. The heavily patched Vindicators were too slow to fly in formation with the newer and faster SBDs.

The first of Major Henderson's SBDs cleared Midway at 0610, and they assembled at a pre-arranged rendezvous about twenty miles from Midway. They could hear on their radios that Midway was under bombing attack from Lieutenant Tomonaga's level bombers. Then came the order from the commander of Marine Air Group - 22, Lieutenant Colonel Ira E. Kimes:

"Attack enemy carriers bearing 320 degrees, distance 180 miles, course 135 degrees, speed 25 knots".

They sighted the Japanese carriers at 0755, and Major Henderson's voice came over the radio:

"Attack two enemy CV on port bow."

Corporal Eugene Card was gunner to Captain Richard E. Fleming, the squadron navigator. Through a gap in the clouds he saw four Japanese carriers. Card watched fascinated as the carriers turned into the wind and began launching fighters to engage the unwelcome visitors. Captain Fleming shouted over the intercom to him: "Here they come!" A Zero flashed past in a steep climb, and now the Zeros were swarming around them like angry hornets.

Second Lieutenant Harold G. Schlendering could not help but admire the agility of the Zeros and the combat skills and teamwork demonstrated by their pilots. Particularly unsettling, was the calculation employed by Zero pilots who waited until an SBD gunner was reloading before diving in for a kill. The Zero pilots quickly identified Major Henderson as the squadron commander, and concentrated their fire on him. With one wing in flames, Henderson's SBD was observed plunging towards the sea. At least one parachute was seen to blossom, but it would make no difference. No American airman survived capture at Midway. Captain Fleming immediately assumed command of the Marine SBD squadron and led his planes into a low cloud bank.

The Marine SBDs had been sighted first aboard carrier Soryu at 0748. After launching additional Zeros to augment their combat air patrols, the four Japanese carriers scattered. Despite this rapid dispersal of the carrier fleet, Captain Fleming found himself almost directly over a carrier at a height of about 2,000 feet when he led his SBD squadron out of the cloud cover. The Marine pilots were surprised to see that no camouflage had been applied to the carrier's yellow flight deck and a large red rising sun insignia painted on the flight deck provided them with a natural aiming point. By using cloud to screen their approach, the Marine SBDs had broken through the outer cordon of Zeros and were able to bracket the carrier Hiryu which disappeared behind a cloud of smoke and spray. Several sailors were killed and wounded when Captain Fleming strafed the Japanese carrier. The Kaga was also lucky to evade three bombs that exploded close to her stern. Both carriers escaped without damage.

The Marine SBDs came under intense fire from Zeros and warships throughout their attacks on the Japanese carriers, and only ten bullet-riddled SBDs cleared the Japanese fleet and headed back to Midway. Only eight of the SBDs reached Midway, and only two of these planes were fit for further service. 1st Lieutenant Daniel Iverson, Jr. braved a storm of anti-aircraft fire to score one of the three near misses on the stern of the carrier Kaga. Inspection of his SBD back at Midway revealed 210 holes in the plane.

Captain R. L Blain was one of those whose engine failed on the return flight to Midway. He was forced to ditch in the ocean. After forty-eight hours on a tiny inflatable raft, he and his gunner were rescued by a PBY Catalina searching for downed airmen.

Lieutenant Schlendering's engine failed when he was still several miles from Midway, and he and his gunner, Private First Class Edward O. Smith, were forced to bail out over the ocean. Lieutenant Schlendering could see a reef some distance away and decided to swim for it, but when he looked around for Private Smith, he found that the unfortunate gunner was nowhere to be seen. At about 1000 on that same morning, a Midway torpedo boat found and rescued Schlenderling. A search of the area failed to locate Private Smith.

Major Henderson's name would later be immortalised when assigned to the strategically vital American airfield on the northern coast of Guadalcanal.

Midway-based air attacks force a heavy increase in the Japanese Zero fighter screen and exhaust Zero reserves

Although no direct hits on carriers were scored, Major Henderson's SBDs made their own important contribution to the ultimate American victory at Midway. The Marine SBDs succeeeded in further scattering both the carrier formation and its screening Zeros. To protect the scattered Japanese carriers adequately, the commander of the Zero combat air patrol was forced to supplement the fighter screen above the carriers by drawing on reserves intended to support a second wave attack on Midway Atoll. When he was satisfied that there were enough Zeros aloft to protect the now widely dispersed carriers, there were none left to escort immediately and protect either a second wave attack on Midway or a warship strike if an American carrier threat should materialise. This grave danger appears not to have registered with Vice Admiral Nagumo. It appears likely that the unaccustomed pressure of being under intense and sustained air attack by an enemy was now affecting the judgment of Nagumo and his senior staff officers.

The attack by Midway-based Army Air Corps B-17 heavy bombers

A fourth wave of fifteen US Army Air Corps B-17 heavy bombers from Midway led by Lieutenant Colonel Walter C. Sweeney, Jnr. arrived over the widely scattered Japanese carriers at about 0814. Their initial mission had been to attack Japanese troop transports approaching Midway from the south-west when Captain Simard redirected them by radio to attack Nagumo's carrier force. The menace of the B-17 heavy bombers produced more frantic evasive manoeuvres by the Japanese carriers. The B-17s dropped their bombs from 20,000 feet on Hiryu and Soryu. Although both carriers were bracketed by bombs and disappeared behind huge columns of water, they emerged unscathed. The B-17s captured some excellent high-level photographs of Japanese carriers engaged in evasive manoeuvres, but scored no hits. The Zeros showed little inclination to engage the high flying and heavily armed B-17s, and all B-17s returned safely to Midway.

The attack by the obsolete Vindicator bombers of VMSB-241

VALIANT VINDICATORS by Stan Stokes

Vought SB2U-3 Vindicator dive-bomber
In this Stan Stokes painting a Vindicator lumbers into the air from Midway's Eastern Island with its 500-pound bomb load on 4 June 1942. The SB2U-3 Vindicator dive-bomber was already obsolete when eighteen of these US Navy carrier cast-offs were assigned for front-line service with Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 241 (VMSB-241) on Midway. The Marine pilots jokingly called their elderly planes "vibrators". They were slow moving targets for the swarms of deadly Zero fighters that protected the Japanese carrier force that attacked Midway on 4 June 1942.

A fifth wave of eleven obsolete and heavily patched Vought Vindicator SB2U dive-bombers from Midway's VMSB-241 was led by Major Benjamin W. Norris. Norris had no illusions about the ability of his lumbering Vindicators to reach the Japanese carriers. He directed his squadron to attack the battleship Haruna at 0820, but scored only near misses. By this time, all of the Japanese Zeros including those reserved for the second Midway attack wave were aloft protecting Nagumo's widely dispersed carrier fleet. The Zeros attacked the slow moving Vindicators but appeared to lack the enthusiasm and sharpness displayed in repelling the earlier Midway-based attacks. This is perhaps not surprising considering how long the Zero pilots had been in the air screening the fleet, battling incoming enemy bombers, responding to false alerts from all sectors of the now widely dispersed Japanese carrier fleet, and returning to their carriers to refuel and rearm before taking to the air again. It is also possible that the Zeros were more concerned to protect the more vulnerable and widely dispersed carriers.

Seven of the elderly Vindicators somehow managed to return to their base. Midway now had nothing left to throw at the Japanese invaders.

The sacrifices made by the Midway-launched bombers had not been in vain

The sacrifices of the gallant US Navy, Army, and Marine squadrons from Midway had not been made in vain. Although failing to score any significant hits on the Japanese carriers, these attacks pressed home courageously without fighter escort by successive waves of American bombers compelled the Japanese carriers to undertake frantic evasive manoeuvres that broke up their tight battle formation, scattered the Japanese warships, and used up all of the Zero reserves as fighter patrols to protect the scattered fleet. The Japanese were now more vulnerable to an American carrier attack. Vice Admiral Nagumo was facing pressure of a kind that he was unlikely to have experienced before. The First Carrier Striking Force had been thrown off balance by the successive attacks from Midway, and Nagumo needed time to regroup.

Author's Note on further Reading

This account of the Midway counter-attack on the First Carrier Striking Force on 4 June 1942 is necessarily a brief one in the context of a web-site that covers the first fifteen months of the Pacific War. Viewers with an interest in the Battle of Midway are strongly urged to read the vivid and gripping account of this great battle provided in Walter Lord's: "Midway - The incredible Victory" (1967) . Walter Lord interviewed many of the American and Japanese participants in the Battle of Midway, and his classic work is greatly enriched by their contributions to the story as he tells it in his book. Also strongly recommended is "Miracle at Midway", by Gordon W. Prange et Al (1982).


Many of the fine aviation artworks generously provided for viewing on the Pacific War Web-site by leading artists Stan Stokes, Roy Grinnell, David Gray, and many others, can be viewed online and purchased at the Aviation Art Hangar. Searching for paintings of a particular aircraft is made easy with the "Locate by aircraft" menu.


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