Note: The 24 hour clock is used in this account of the Battle of Midway. For example: 1450 hours = 2.50 p.m. The time is Midway Time.

Vice Admiral Nagumo launches his first attack wave at the Midway Islands, 4 June 1942

At 0430 hours (4.30 a.m.) on 4 June 1942, Vice Admiral Chuichu Nagumo's First Carrier Striking Force reached its launching point about 220 miles (354 km) north-west of America's Midway Atoll. The thick fog had cleared during the night, and the first attack wave of 108 Japanese warplanes was launched towards Midway in the pre-dawn darkness. Thirty-six Aichi D3A dive-bombers (Allied code-name "Val") were provided by carriers Akagi and Kaga. Thirty-six Nakajima B5N level bombers (Allied code-name "Kate") were provided by carriers Hiryu and Soryu. Nine Mitsubishi A6M2 fighters (Allied code-name "Zero") from each carrier provided an escort of thirty-six fighters. The commander of the first attack wave was Lieutenant Joichi Tomonaga


It is 0552 hours (5.52 a.m.) on 4 June 1942, and Lieutenant Howard P. Ady, piloting PBY Catalina flying boat Number 4V58 is about to report the sighting that Rear Admiral Frank J. Fletcher is anxiously waiting to hear aboard his flagship USS Yorktown: "Two carriers and main body ships, carriers in front, course 135, speed 35." Admiral Nagumo's powerful carrier force has been discovered as it approaches under cover of darkness to strike America's Midway Atoll.

This is a detail from the painting by internationally respected artist John Hamilton (1919-93). The original painting is part of a collection displayed in The Pentagon in Washington, DC, and is one of a series by John Hamilton entitled "War in the Pacific".

from carrier Hiryu. The ever-cautious Nagumo held back twenty-seven Kate level bombers in the hangars of both Akagi and Kaga, eighteen Val dive-bombers in the hangars of both Hiryu and Soryu, and twelve Zero fighters on each carrier. The Kates would be armed with torpedoes instead of fragmentation bombs to protect his warships in case danger should threaten from American carriers.

Scout seaplanes had also been launched from the Japanese carrier force from 0430 to provide advance warning of any approach by an American carrier force. Scout seaplane Number 4, launched from the cruiser Tone, was destined to play a significant role in the events of that morning.

It does not appear to have occurred to Vice Admiral Nagumo that his carrier force would be better placed to resist a possible American carrier attack if all aircraft of the first Midway attack wave had been drawn from two rather than all four carriers. The course taken by Nagumo meant that all four Japanese carriers would have to keep their flight decks clear to recover returning aircraft from the first attack wave, and would delay strike bombers and fighters being brought up from the hangars to respond quickly if an American carrier threat materialised. This error would cost Nagumo dearly.

While Nagumo's first attack wave flew towards Midway, the First Carrier Striking Force was steaming to a point about 140 miles (224 km) north-west of Midway where the Japanese commander expected to recover the returning aircraft of his first attack wave shortly after 0800. The four fleet carriers were steaming at battle speed and in battle disposition that approximated a square box. The flagship Akagi led the formation on the right side of the box with Kaga following. Hiryu led on the left side followed by Soryu. The screen of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers was deployed around the carrier formation in a rough circle.

"Many planes heading Midway bearing 320 degrees, distance 150"

The first report of Vice Admiral Nagumo's approaching carrier strike force was received on Midway from a patrolling Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat piloted by Lieutenant Howard P. Ady. At 0530, he spotted the Japanese carrier fleet through a break in heavy cloud cover, and immediately sent the following radio message to Midway: "carrier bearing 320, distance 180". This sighting appeared to place a Japanese carrier force 180 miles (288 km) north-west of Midway Atoll. The siren on Midway's Eastern Island airbase sounded its warning, and all Navy, Marine and Army aircraft on the island were ordered to start their engines. Captain Simard was not going to repeat the mistakes of Pearl Harbor where so many American aircraft were destroyed by the Japanese on the ground.

The minutes ticked by without any radar contact being made. Lieutenant (j.g.) William A. Chase had been patrolling in his PBY Catalina the sector adjacent to and south of Lieutenant Ady. At 0545, his observer sighted two large groups of aircraft headed for Midway. Time was of the essence, and without waiting to encode, Chase transmitted in plain English the famous warning:

"Many planes heading Midway bearing 320 degrees, distance 150".

After his initial sighting of the Japanese carrier fleet, Lieutenant Ady had sought cover in the clouds and circled the area. At 0552, another break in the clouds provided him with the sighting that Rear Admiral Frank J. Fletcher was waiting to hear aboard his flagship USS Yorktown.:

"Two carriers and main body ships, carriers in front, course 135, speed 25."

At 0553, Navy radar on Midway reported: "Many bogey aircraft, bearing 310 degrees, distance 93, altitude 11,000 feet". The Japanese first attack wave had closed the distance to 93 miles (149 km). The US Army Air Corps B-17 heavy bombers had left Midway earlier to attack the Japanese invasion troop transports approaching the atoll from the south-west. Captain Simard radioed the heavy bombers and redirected them to attack the Japanese carriers approaching Midway from the north-west. The patrolling PBY Catalinas were ordered to avoid Midway on completion of their missions and land at French Frigate Shoals or any other part of the ocean that offered a comparatively safe landing. That left sixty-six operational fighters and bombers on Midway, and Captain Simard ordered all of them into the air. At 0555, 6th Defense Battalion radar on Sand Island reported: "Many planes, 89 miles, 320 degrees". Despite the slight difference in bearings reported by US Navy and Marine radar on Midway, it was clearly the same incoming Japanese carrier-launched air strike force.

At 0600, the twenty-four operational fighters of US Marine Fighting Squadron 221 (VMF-221) were scrambled from Midway to challenge Admiral Nagumo's incoming first attack wave. The fighters were immediately followed by an odd assortment of old and new aircraft. First came a detachment of six new US Navy Grumman TBF* torpedo bombers that had been destined to join USS Hornet's Torpedo Squadron VT-8. The orphaned TBFs had failed to reach Hawaii in time to fly aboard Hornet before it left Pearl Harbor for Midway. The TBFs were followed in quick succession by four US Army Air Corps B-26 Marauder medium bombers that had been hastily jury-rigged in Hawaii to carry US Navy aerial torpedoes, twelve lumbering obsolete Vought SB2U Vindicator dive-bombers of Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 241 (VMSB-241), and bringing up the rear, sixteen Douglas SBD-2 Dauntless dive-bombers from VMSB-241 led by the squadron commander, Major Lofton R. Henderson. One of the elderly Vindicator soon returned with an engine cowling missing.
*Later to be designated "Avenger" in memory of Pearl Harbor.

Midway's eleven Navy torpedo boats cast off their moorings, and began to circle the lagoon to deny the Japanese fixed targets. The torpedo boats would supplement Midway's air defences with their machine guns, and stand by to rescue downed fliers.