Admiral Fletcher searches for Nagumo's Carriers

At about 0700 hours on 4 June 1942, Rear Admiral Fletcher had reduced the distance between his carrier task forces and the Japanese carriers to about 155 miles (248 km). Fletcher and Spruance intended to operate their task forces separately, but never far apart.

USS Enterprise steams at high speed at about 0730 hours on 4 June 42. Bomber squadrons VS-6 and VB-6 have just been launched, and three hours later these squadrons will destroy Akagi and Kaga.

Rear Admiral Spruance knew that the first wave of Japanese carrier aircraft had struck Midway about 0630, and he believed that these aircraft would be likely to return to their carriers about 0830. Although he would have preferred to reduce the range still further, he ordered the Enterprise and Hornet air groups to launch at 0700. The Hornet began launching its strike group at 0700, with the torpedo bomber squadron (VT-8) last to leave the carrier. Enterprise began launching thirty-three Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive-bombers at 0706. The SBDs circled above Enterprise and wasted precious fuel for half an hour while waiting for the fighters and torpedo bombers to join them.

A number of factors caused the lengthy delay in the launch of the Enterprise torpedo bombers and fighters. Spruance had decided to hit the Japanese hard with his full air groups, but only half of a carrier air group could be on the flight deck at the same time. After the SBDs were launched, the torpedo bombers and fighters had to be brought up from the hangar and prepared for launching. A torpedo plane broke down. Ordnance had to be switched on some planes. Spruance was so eager to catch the Japanese by surprise, while their flight decks were congested with aircraft landing, and being refuelled and rearmed, that he finally ordered his airborne dive-bombers to head for the expected position of the Japanese carriers at 0745 without waiting for their Wildcat fighter escorts to take off from the carrier. If the American aircrews had been as experienced and as battle-toughened as their Japanese opponents, it would not have been a risky decision. The American torpedo and dive-bombers aboard the carriers at Midway were underpowered and slow and, in theory at least, the Wildcat fighters should have been able to overtake and escort their bombers to the Japanese carriers.

The attack groups from Hornet and Enterprise set course for the anticipated position of Nagumo's carriers on the assumption that he was unaware of the presence of American carriers so close to him, and was continuing on his south-easterly course for Midway. However, after recovering all of his Midway strike aircraft at 0917, Nagumo had made a 70-degree change in course to the north-east, and was making preparations to attack the American carrier sighted by the Tone scout seaplane.

The commander of the Hornet Air Group failed to rendezvous with his own Torpedo Squadron Eight (VT-8). He also failed to locate the Japanese carriers, and his dive-bombers and fighters either flew on to Midway or returned to their carrier.

Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive bombers aboard USS Yorktown are being prepared for their devastating counter-attack on Admiral Nagumo's carriers at Midway.

While it was clearly imperative for the Americans to strike, if possible, before Vice Admiral Nagumo was able to launch his own air strike at their carriers, the American Navy had a history of problems in coordinating torpedo, dive-bomber and fighter strikes, even when those aircraft were all launched from the same carrier. This flaw in American naval aviation training, when combined with obsolete aircraft, defective torpedoes, lack of combat experience, and rushed aircraft launches on this particular day, would all combine to produce tragic consequences for American Navy torpedo bomber aircrews and bring the United States very close to a major defeat on this morning of 4 June 1942.

The courage of American pilots proves a match for Japan's overwhelming naval power

Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron, leading his squadron of fifteen obsolete Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bombers from USS Hornet (Torpedo Squadron VT-8), responded to the failure of the fighters and dive-bombers of the Hornet Air Group to rendezvous with his squadron by leading his bombers away from their original course in a north-westerly direction. He was troubled by the fact that his torpedo squadron had not been joined by its Wildcat fighter escorts from Hornet. He knew that the Devastator was slow and very vulnerable to attack by the fast and nimble Japanese Zero fighter. However, he saw his duty as being to find the Japanese carriers and sink them if he could, and he pressed on. Waldron found Nagumo's carriers at 0920, and ordered his aircraft to attack even though they had no fighter escorts.

Although the attack was pressed home with great courage, the Japanese Zero fighters guarding the carriers overwhelmed the low-flying American torpedo bombers and shot them all down before torpedoes could be launched. Only one American airman survived this attack. The attack by Hornet's VT-8 was over by 0936, and no damage was caused to any of the Japanese ships.

Two further waves of American Navy TBD Devastator torpedo bombers followed Waldron in low-altitude attacks on the Japanese carriers, and although these attacks were also pressed home with great courage, most of the American bombers were shot down by the swarming Zeros or by intense anti-aircraft fire.

Torpedo Squadron VT-6 from USS Enterprise, led by Lieutenant Commander Eugene E. Lindsey, attacked the carrier Kaga with fourteen TBDs at 0940. At twenty miles out from the big carrier, Lindsey split his squadron into two groups with the intention of attacking Kaga from both sides. It took almost twenty minutes for the lumbering TBDs to catch up with the fast moving Japanese carrier, and during that time, the deadly Zeros took their toll. Lindsey was himself an early casualty. Owing to a failure of radio communications, calls for help from VT-6 failed to reach the Enterprise Wildcats which were flying high above the deadly action at sea level. Ten TBDs were shot down during their approach to the carrier, and the remaining four TBDs launched their torpedoes at about 0958. No hits on Kaga were registered. The four surviving TBDs cleared the Japanese carrier force shortly after 1000.

Yorktown's Air Group attacks Hiryu and Soryu

The performance of USS Yorktown's Air Group on this morning was exceptional. Assisted by highly professional staff work on Yorktown, the three squadrons of the Air Group were guided by their commanders almost directly to the Japanese carrier force. Led by Lieutenant Commander Lance E. Massey, the twelve torpedo bombers of Torpedo Squadron Three (VT-3) took off from Yorktown at 0845. The Yorktown TBDs were escorted by six Wildcat fighters of Fighter Squadron Three (VF-3) led by the renowned Lieutenant Commander John S. "Jimmy" Thach. Massey sighted the Japanese carriers at about 1005. At 1010, the Yorktown torpedo bombers were sighted by the Japanese screen warship Chikuma, and at 1015, Massey's torpedo squadron came under heavy attack from the swarming Zeros.

Thach's Wildcat fighter escort was attacked by Zeros at the same time, and the Wildcats were so heavily outnumbered that they could do nothing but defend themselves. Lieutenant Commander Thach described the Zero attack on his fighters:

"Several Zeros came in on a head-on attack on the (Yorktown) torpedo planes....a number of Zeros were coming down in a string on our fighters. The air was just like a beehive. I was utterly convinced that we weren't any of us coming back because there were so many Zeros."

Commander Tom Cheek (then a Warrant Machinist) was flying in Lieutenant Commander Thach's Fighter Squadron VF-3 and following the progress of VT-3 closely. He provides a gripping story of his encounter with the agile Zero fighters protecting the Japanese carrier fleet:

"We were approaching an area of tall cumulus clouds, rising from fifteen-hundred feet bases in towering, grayish-white columns across our course, when Yorktown's torpedo formation made an abrupt change of course to the right. I followed, penciling the time and new compass heading on the left sleeve of my flight jacket.  Adrenaline began to flow. Something was about to happen! I also had a decision to make.  My TBD formation was now on course between two of the large cumulus build-ups that were joined at their bases by a shelf of cloud.  The shelf extended from the cloud base to at least five hundred feet above my altitude.  Should I climb over the shelf or drop down to the formation’s level and go under the cloud deck as it appeared they would do.

Moments later the question was of no consequence as black puffs of anti-aircraft fire blossomed below and ahead. Then an object I thought to be a belly tank whirled down in the path of the TBD formation.  Looking up, I saw my first enemy aircraft, a Zero fighter.  Silhouetted against the cloud shelf, the Zero was in a shallow dive and making a head-on run at the lead TBD. Puffs of white spouted from the Zero’s engine cowling as, at extreme range, the pilot tripped off a short burst from his 7.7mm guns.  Without hesitating, the Zero rolled into a steep climbing left turn, then leveled off in a wide, sweeping flat turn to the right.

I was momentarily spellbound watching the fighter's clean, seemingly effortless maneuvers.  Within seconds, the Zero was in position to make a firing run on the last plane on the TBD formation's right flank.  Nosing down slightly, the pilot continued his curving approach, five hundred feet above and slightly to my right, as though I had not yet been seen.  I moved my engine controls into combat power range, and pushed the throttle to the forward stop. Easing back on the control stick until the F4F was hanging on the prop, I brought the gunsight pip to an almost full deflection lead on the Zero's nose. The index finger of my right hand squeezed down on the gun trigger set in the molded grip of the control stick.  The six .50 caliber wing guns rumbled. I held the trigger down just long enough to see the red stream of tracers converge into the Zero's engine and start to drift back into the fuselage. The thought flashed through my mind, right down the target sleeve's throat. But this was no target sleeve!

The Zero's nose bucked up momentarily, dropped back, then the plane came diving down in my direction.  At the moment, my guns were firing and the tracers were curving up and into their target. I was literally hanging in air.  The muzzle blast and recoil of the six fifties was all that was needed to push my overloaded, underpowered F4F over the edge into a control sloppy stall.  As I let my fighter's nose drop, and started a recovery rolling to the left, the Zero swept past on my right with black smoke and flames spewing from the engine, and a river of fire trailing back along its belly. Clearly visible, the pilot sat rigidly facing straight ahead.  "He is dead!" flashed across my mind.  Alive, he would have been watching me, looking for any movement of my control surfaces, anticipating my next move. Teruo Kawamata, PO3c, Imperial Japanese Navy, would be listed as missing in action that night."

This short extract is drawn from Commander Cheek's story of the action of Yorktown's Fighting Squadron Three at Midway on 4 June 1942 called "A Ring of Coral". The full story of Commander Cheek's battle with the Zeros at Midway can be viewed on this web-site.

Although deprived of support from their fighter escort, Massey's TBDs courageously pressed home their attack on the Japanese carrier force. Massey was one of the first casualties. He was observed standing on the wing of his burning plane as it plunged towards the sea. The remaining TBDs focussed their attacks on the carrier Hiryu, and dropped several torpedoes between 1020 and 1030. The captain of Hiryu skilfully evaded all of the American torpedoes. VT-3 lost all but two TBDs in this gallant but hopeless attack. The two surviving planes of VT-3 cleared the Japanese carriers and their screening warships at about 1035.

The few torpedoes that were launched from American torpedo bombers at the Battle of Midway were either evaded by skilful handling of the Japanese ships or failed to explode on impact. Despite these failures, the Japanese were deeply impressed by the bravery, discipline and self-sacrifice of the American airmen.

Can we explain the disarray produced in the Japanese carrier force by the American torpedo and B-17 attacks?

Japan's First Carrier Striking Force (Kido Butai) had built up a reputation for invincibility during the first six months of the Pacific War, and yet this powerful carrier force was repeatedly scattered and reduced to a disorganised shambles by successsive attacks launched by American torpedo planes and one high-level B-17 bomber attack. None of those eight attacks caused significant physical damage to a Japanese carrier. Perhaps it is time to consider how this could have happened before passing on to the next phase of the Battle at Midway.

The serious flaws in the Japanese planning of their Midway offensive have already been mentioned under Preparations. The operation was too complex; the huge Japanese fleet was dispersed too widely. The Japanese Navy planners believed that Japan was invincible in war, and made the fatal mistake of underrating American military capabilities and response. They believed that Americans lacked courage, fighting skills, and discipline. They compounded this mistake with an over-confident belief that the Japanese strategy would take the United States completely by surprise, and that Japan would retain the initiative throughout the complex Midway offensive. The assumption that the Japanese attack would take the Americans by surprise led to Japan's First Carrier Striking Force (Kido Butai ) being assigned two major missions at Midway. The first was to neutralise the defences of the two small Midway islands by aerial bombardment. When the first mission had been completed, the second, and more vital mission, was to lie in wait off Midway for the expected arrival of aircraft carriers of the United States Pacific Fleet on or soon after 6 June, and destroy the American fleet. The Japanese appear to have failed to appreciate that both missions could be compromised if unforeseen circumstances forced them to be undertaken simultaneously.

The management of the Japanese carrier force at Midway by Vice Admiral Nagumo left a lot to be desired. The Japanese created a major operational problem for themselves by drawing aircraft from all four carriers for the first strike at Midway. This meant that the operational status of all four Japanese carriers was going to be compromised by recovery operations when the first attack wave returned from Midway. During that recovery operation, it would be almost impossible to launch strike aircraft quickly from any of the Japanese carriers if danger suddenly threatened from an American carrier force. If the Japanese had assembled and launched their first attack wave from only two carriers instead of four, that would have left the remaining two Japanese carriers fully operational to repel an American carrier attack and strike back at the American carriers.

Organisational chaos in the management of his carriers almost certainly contributed to the pressure on Nagumo, but other factors probably contributed to the shambles that occurred. The Japanese feared torpedo attack more than dive-bombing, or any other form of bombing. This fear was almost certainly attributable to their own possession of the deadliest torpedo in the Pacific in 1942. Their Type 93 "Long Lance" torpedoes were fast, reliable, and deadly over very long distances.The Americans had no similar torpedo, and this was largely owing to "penny-pinching" by Congress during the 1930s. The American Mark XV torpedo lacked all of the features of the Japanese torpedo mentioned above. Perhaps the most alarming feature of the American torpedo was its unreliablity. It freqently failed to explode on contact with a target. However, the Japanese were unlikely to know at Midway how little they had to fear from American torpedoes.

It is also likely that fear of American torpedoes was compounded by the resolute manner in which the American airmen pressed home their torpedo attacks without protection from fighter escorts. It would normally be unthinkable for Japanese carrier bombers to attack without fighter escorts. The Japanese had been taught that Americans were poor fighters who lacked courage and discipline. It must have been very disquieting for the Japanese to see American airmen sacrificing themselves in a manner that they would equate with the selfless courage of samurai. The Japanese could not have known that most of the young American airmen had no combat experience and that many were under-trained in torpedo attacks.

All of these factors probably combined at Midway to place the First Carrier Striking Force under pressure of a kind that it had never experienced before. The Japanese carriers had experienced their first combat training off the coast of China. Since 1937, Japanese carrier pilots and aircrews had been honing their combat skills by slaughtering civilians in poorly defended Chinese cities and shooting down poorly trained Chinese pilots in mostly obsolescent aircraft. This was made easier by their possession of the Zero which was the finest fighter in the Pacific during 1941 and 1942.

The sneak attack by Nagumo's carriers on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, in peacetime and on a Sunday morning, can be compared with stabbing a sleeping man in the back. The massive air attack on the lightly defended port of Darwin by Nagumo's carriers on 19 February 1942 was also equivalent to stabbing a sleeping man in the back. Finally, we have the foray into the Indian Ocean by Nagumo's carriers in April 1942. Faced with this threat, the British Eastern Fleet chose to withdraw to the west, and Nagumo had to be satisfied with sinking the elderly British light aircraft carrier Hermes and two heavy cruisers. These three warships had each been operating independently when attacked by the Japanese carrier fleet. Coral Sea was real carrier combat at last, and that fierce action deprived Admiral Yamamoto of the services at Midway of two of his six best fleet carriers, Shokaku and Zuikaku, and one light carrier Shoho.

The Japanese believed themselves to be invincible, but that belief was not based on really tough combat experience. When faced with determined American opposition of the kind that they experienced at Midway, the Zero fighter could not save the Japanese. They appear to have lacked the toughness required to meet the American challenge and fell into disarray.