THE TIDE OF BATTLE TURNS AT MIDWAY
Enterprise and Yorktown SBD dive-bombers destroy Akagi, Kaga and Soryu
At 1020 hours on 4 June 1942, the flight decks of Akagi, Kaga, Soryu,and Hiryu were still wholly devoted to recovering, rearming, refuelling, and relaunching more than forty Zero fighters that were protecting Japan's First Carrier Striking Force (Kido Butai) against successive attacks by American Navy torpedo squadrons that had begun with Lieutenant Commander Waldron's VT-8 attack at 0920. Below the flight decks, the hangar decks of the four Japanese carriers were crowded with bombers loaded with anti-ship bombs and torpedoes, and fuelled for an impending strike at an American carrier force. Fragmentation bombs that had been intended for a second attack on Midway had been carelessly stacked about the hangars instead of having been returned to the magazines. All four Japanese carriers could fairly be described as floating powder kegs.
This superb painting by famous American artist R. G. Smith depicts one of the defining moments of the Pacific War when the tide finally turned against the Japanese aggressors at America's Midway Atoll. Lieutenant Richard Best and his wingmen in their Douglas Dauntless SBD dive-bombers have just launched a successful attack on the Japanese flagship aircraft carrier Akagi. The crushing defeat inflicted on the Japanese Navy by the smaller and much less powerful United States Pacific Fleet at Midway put an end to Japan's ambition to dominate the central Pacific region, and removed the Japanese threat to Hawaii.
At this critical stage of the battle, when America appeared to be losing, thirty Dauntless SBD dive-bombers from the carrier USS Enterprise suddenly appeared high in the sky above the scattered Japanese carrier fleet. These Dauntless SBDs were led by Lieutenant Commander C. Wade McClusky, and had been the first aircraft launched from Enterprise by Rear Admiral Spruance at 0706 that morning.
Wade McCluskey found Vice Admiral Nagumo's carriers by an extraordinary stroke of luck. He had been engaged in a fruitless search for the Japanese carriers when he observed the Japanese destroyer Arashi speeding in a north-easterly direction. McCluskey suspected that the destroyer was one of Nagumo's carrier force screening warships and decided to follow it in the hope that the destroyer would lead him to the Japanese carriers. His SBD dive-bombers had already been in the air for almost three hours and their fuel situation was reaching critical. The prospect of all of McClusky's SBDs failing to return to Enterprise was a very real one. Despite this grave risk, McClusky was determined to find and attack the Japanese carriers if he could.
At 1005, McClusky's hunch was rewarded by the sight of the multiple wakes of the Japanese carrier fleet about 35 miles ahead of him. As his SBDs closed with the carrier fleet, McClusky could see that two of the carriers were in fairly close proximity to each other. These would prove to be Akagi and Kaga. Another carrier (Soryu) was further to the east. A fourth carrier (Hiryu) was a long way off on the northern horizon. The critical fuel situation facing his aircrews became apparent to McClusky when the engine of Ensign Tony Schneider's SBD suddenly coughed and died. The unfortunate pilot was forced to veer sharply away and glide as far as he could from the Japanese fleet before ditching in the sea.
Through his binoculars, McClusky could see that the three closest Japanese carriers were manoeuvring frantically to avoid an attack by American Navy torpedo bombers. The attacking aircraft were in fact Yorktown's Torpedo Squadron Three (VT-3). McClusky was amazed to find no Zeros barring their path to the Japanese carriers. There was not a moment to lose, and McClusky broke radio silence to assign targets. He assigned one carrier (Kaga) as his target and another (Akagi) to Lieutenant Richard H. "Dick" Best's Bombing Six. At 1022, McClusky pushed over his SBD and plunged like a vengeful thunderbolt on Kaga. Twenty-six of his SBDs followed him in the dive on Kaga.
In this powerful recreation of the most critical stage of the Battle of Midway for the United States, the distinguished aviation artist David Gray has captured the moment when Lieutenant (j.g.) N.J."Dusty" Kleiss has planted his bombs squarely on the flight deck of the Japanese carrier Kaga. As the Dauntless SBD dive-bomber from Enterprise VS-6 clears the huge carrier, gunner ARM3c John Snowden keeps the Japanese Zeros at bay.
"We went into echelon formation. McClusky and his two wing men dived first, then Gallaher and two wing men, then me, and then the rest of Scouting Six, all heading for the Kaga. Dick Best and Bombing Six dived for the Akagi. The Yorktown dive-bombers dived for the Soryu. The situation was a carrier pilot's dream. No anti-aircraft; all three carriers heading straight into the wind. McClusky and his two wing men missed. Earl Gallaher's 500-pound bomb hit squarely on a plane starting its take-off. His two 100-pound incendiaries hit just beside it. Immediately the whole pack of planes at the stern were in flames fifty feet high. I couldn't see the bombs landing from the next two planes, but flames had spread to the middle of the ship. My bombs landed exactly on the big red circle forward of the bridge. Seconds later, the flames were 100 feet high. Walter Lord * later learned from the Japanese that my bomb splashed a gasoline cart, throwing its flaming contents into the Kaga's bridge. A fighter attacked us as I pulled out of my dive. John Snowden, my gunner, disposed of him in five seconds. A second fighter came at us. John disposed of him. Then it was a survival to escape anti-aircraft fire while passing near a dozen ships until I'd reached ten miles toward Midway. Ten minutes after the attack, I saw a large explosion amidship on the Kaga. Rockets of flame, pieces of steel bolted upward to about three or four thousand feet high. Dick Best's squadron had bombed the Akagi and the Yorktown bombers hit the Soryu. Both were burning fiercely."
* Note: Walter Lord is the author of "Midway: The Incredible Victory", 1967.
Lieutenant Commander McClusky had breached dive-bombing doctrine by diving on Kaga instead of the more distant Akagi. As the trailing squadron, Lieutenant Dick Best's Bombing Six should have dived on Kaga. McClusky's Scouting Six, which was the leading squadron, should have flown further on and dived on Akagi. Dick Best did not receive McClusky's assignment of targets by radio, and followed doctrine by preparing to dive on Kaga. He was startled when McClusky and Scouting Six flashed past him in their own dive on Kaga. With commendable presence of mind, Best retrieved the potentially dangerous situation by closing his dive-flaps and signalling Bombing Six to follow him towards Akagi. It was too late! McClusky's error caused all of Bombing Six except Best's two wing men to follow McClusky and Scouting Six in their dive on Kaga. The seriousness of McClusky's error can only be fully appreciated when it is realised that it could have led all of the Enterprise SBDs to attack Kaga and leave the Japanese flagship Akagi untouched!
Lieutenant Best then led his two wing men in an independent attack on Akagi at 1026. Best was equally amazed to find no Zeros barring his dive on the Japanese flagship.
Many years later, Lieutenant Commander Richard H. "Dick" Best, USN (Ret.) described the attack that he led on the Japanese flagship Akagi during the " famous five minutes" that turned the tide of the Pacific War against the Japanese invaders:
"....when we sighted the Japanese carriers I was 5,000 feet under (Wade McClusky). He assigned targets by radio, which I didn't receive. When abreast of the nearest carrier, I called him to say that I was attacking according to doctrine (i.e., leading aircraft take the far target and trailing planes take the nearer targets) and thus share the surprise. I turned toward the nearest carrier (Kaga), split to either side of my second and third divisions. When nearly over the target with my division in column, I started to open my dive flaps when right in front of me, and from above, the AGC (McClusky) and Scouting Six came pouring in. Furious at the foul-up, I tried to cause my squadron to rejoin, but without success, and I took my first section of three planes toward the next carrier (Akagi).
I was at full throttle nose down so that when I approached the push over point, I was going too fast to open my dive flaps. Horsed up on the stick, I was at 14,000 feet before I slowed down sufficiently to open my flaps. With all of the violent manoeuvring, we were not detected and there was no AA fire or any other sign of awareness. We came in at a 70-degree dive angle, released at 2,000 feet, and were cocked back at a steep climb angle to observe the bombing results. The first bomb hit forward of the bridge and tore up the deck. The second bomb hit the lead fighter on the fan tail of a group of six or seven Zeros, which were in the process of launching (the first Zero ran through my bomb sight as I put my eye to the telescope at 3,500 feet). The third bomb hit among the Zeros, and probably was the bomb that jammed the rudder and had the Akagi mindlessly circling as long as she stayed afloat.
As we exited, we flew through a covey of Zeros on the reverse course and apparently attempting to get in position ahead of a torpedo squadron still in tight formation. (note: this was Yorktown's VT-3 attacking Hiryu). Our exit course was taking us directly to the carrier Soryu further to the east, which was under attack from Bombing Three (VB-3) from the Yorktown. The Japanese only credit four or five hits, though I think it was nine or ten. It was completely engulfed in smoke and flames and erupting explosions as the bombs hit."
The full account by Lieutenant Commander Best of his dive-bombing attacks on the Japanese carrier fleet at Midway can be viewed on this web-site.
At 1028, Lieutenant Commander Maxwell F. Leslie arrived over the carrier Soryu leading the sixteen dive-bombers of Bombing Squadron Three (VB-3) from Yorktown. Leslie was surprised to find no Zeros barring the path of his dive-bombers to the Japanese carrier far below. Seizing the extraordinary opportunity, Leslie pushed his SBD over into a steep dive on the carrier and was followed by his squadron.
MIDWAY: THE TURNING POINT
A powerful Japanese aircraft carrier strike force has just attacked America's Midway Islands on the morning of 4 June 1942. This dramatic image depicts the Japanese carrier Soryu under attack by SBD Dauntless dive-bombers from the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5). USS Yorktown played a vital role in stemming Japanese military aggression at Coral Sea and Lae in early 1942, and turning the tide of the Pacific War at Midway. However, the infuriated Japanese struck back during the afternoon of 4 June, and eventually were able to sink this gallant ship.
The American bombs struck the flight decks of Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu, and penetrated to the hangars below that were crammed with fuelled and armed bombers. The exploding bombs triggered massive chain reaction explosions fuelled by the Japanese bombers and fighters waiting to be launched at the American carriers. Within minutes all three carriers were reduced to fiercely burning hulks.
The unforgetable sight of the attack by Yorktown's Bombing Squadron Three (VB-3) on Soryu was witnessed by Lieutenant Commander John S "Jimmy" Thach of Yorktown's Fighting Squadron Three (VF-3):
"....then I saw a glint in the sun that looked like a beautiful silver waterfall. It was the (Yorktown) dive-bombers coming in. I could see them very well because they came from the same direction as the Zeros. I'd never seen such superb dive-bombing. After the dive-bomber attack was over, I stayed there. I could only see three carriers, and one of them was burning with bright pink flames and sometimes blue flames. I remember gauging the height of those flames by the length of the ship, the distance was about the same. It was just solid flame going skyward and there was a lot of smoke on top of that. Before I left the scene, I saw three carriers burning pretty furiously."
An equally dramatic picture of the destruction of the Japanese carriers is provided by Commander Tom Cheek in his own Yorktown Wildcat:
"As I broke free of the cloud base, I searched to the right and ahead for my torpedo planes. There were no aircraft in sight. As two puffballs of AA blossomed in the direction I was searching, I looked closer - still nothing in sight. Then one, two, three more puffs of black popped up, each successively closer to me. Realizing I was the target, I glanced down to the left and found a large cruiser of a design I had never before seen. With its bow splitting the water in a foamy white wave ("a bone in its teeth"), whatever its destination, the ship was wasting no time getting there.
I pushed over and rolling right, dove for the ocean, leveling off at a hundred feet above the water. Swinging back to the left, I found what the clouds had kept hidden from me. There before me was the target, the First Carrier Striking Force. Ahead, and on a course to my left, were three large carriers, all with bow waves and stern wakes that indicated a high rate of speed. These were later identified as Kaga, Akagi, and Soryu. The fact that there should have been a fourth carrier, Hiryu, failed to register in my memory.
Kaga was in the lead, with Akagi not more than three miles broadside to and directly ahead of me. Soryu, which I compared to Enterprise in size, was a mile beyond and to the right of Akagi, and appeared to be just starting a hard turn to starboard. Flashes of gunfire spotted the decks of nearby escorts, but I saw no shell burst or possible targets. It appeared I had the sky to myself.
A brief thought flashed across my mind: should I make a strafing run on the nearest carrier? Then as I looked back to Akagi, hell literally broke loose. First, the orange-colored flash of a bomb burst appeared on the flight deck, midway between the island structure and the stern. Then in rapid succession, followed a bomb burst midship, and the water founts of near misses plumed up near the stern. Almost in unison, on my left, Kaga's flight deck erupted with bomb bursts and flames. My gaze remained on Akagi as an explosion at the midship waterline seemed to open the bowels of the ship in a rolling, greenish-yellow ball of flame. A black cloud of smoke drew my attention to Soryu, still in a turn to starboard. She too was being heavily hit. Dense black smoke billowed from the entire length of her hull. All three ships had lost their foaming white bow waves and appeared to be losing way.
I circled slowly to the right; awe-struck; my mind trying desperately to grasp the full impact of what I had just witnessed, and the scene still in motion. In reading the script, the briefing team had voiced this destructive happening as only a hoped-for possibility. The infernos I now watched in creation were not being viewed from a comfortable seat in a movie, but from atop a parachute pack in a Grumman fighter."
This extract is also drawn from "Ring of Coral" and can be viewed on this web-site.
Kaga and Soryu sank late that afternoon. Akagi sank before dawn on 5 June.
If McCluskey's dive-bombers had not arrived over the Japanese carriers at the same time as the single dive-bomber squadron from Yorktown, and joined the Yorktown squadron in almost simultaneous attacks on Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu, there is a very real possibility that the Battle of Midway could have ended quite differently. In battles, luck can often be as important as sound planning and judgment. If Lieutenant Best had not had the presence of mind to switch target quickly from Kaga to Akagi, the Japanese flagship Akagi would almost certainly have survived the attack at 1022. Again, the Battle of Midway could have ended differently.
Unfortunately for the Americans, Admiral Nagumo's fourth fleet carrier Hiryu was steaming far ahead of the other three Japanese carriers and escaped the American dive-bomber attack. Aboard Hiryu at this time was the commander of Carrier Division 2 of the First Carrier Striking Force, Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi. Yamaguchi was one of Japan's most able and daring commanders of carrier air operations. Undeterred by the fate of Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu, Yamaguchi held course for the expected location of the American carriers, and prepared to launch his own air strike against them. At this stage, he only believed that he was facing Enterprise and Hornet. The Japanese would not have expected that Yorktown could have been repaired in time to participate in the battle at Midway.
In their book "Midway: The Battle that doomed Japan" (published 1955, USNI, Annapolis, Maryland) Mitsuo Fuchida and Masatake Okumiya described the flight decks of all four Japanese carriers at Midway as being crowded with fully armed and fuelled bombers at 1022 on 4 June. The impression was given to readers that the sudden arrival of American dive-bombers overhead from USS Enterprise and USS Yorktown frustrated a Japanese strike at the American carriers that was in the process of being launched. Histories of the Battle of Midway that were published between 1957 and 2004 all appeared to accept that the account given by Fuchida and Okumiya was true. However, their account of the disaster that befell the Japanese carriers was contradicted in 1971 by the official Japanese war history Senshi Sosho. That history confirms that the successive American torpedo and bombing attacks between 0705 and 1022 prevented the Japanese "spotting" a bomber strike on the decks of any of their carriers. Senshi Sosho also confirms that, at the time of the first American dive-bombing attack led by Lieutenant Commander C. Wade McClusky at 1022, all Japanese carriers still had their armed and fuelled strike bombers in the hangars below the flight decks. The only aircraft on the flight decks of all four Japanese carriers at 1022 were Zero fighters of the combat air patrol that were being recovered, refuelled, rearmed, or re-launched.
It appears to the author that the Japanese war history Senshi Sosho provides confirmation that the heroic sacrifices by US Navy, Army, and Marine torpedo and bombing squadrons between 0705 and 10.22 made a vital contribution to the American victory at Midway. The author is indebted to Jon Parshall, an internationally recognised expert on Imperial Japanese Navy operational doctrine for bringing this new material on Midway to his attention. See : "Doctrine Matters: Why the Japanese lost at at Midway", published in Naval War College Review 2001.
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.
Did the sacrifice of US Navy, Army and Marine squadrons between 0705 hours and 1022 hours make a significant contribution to the American victory at Midway?
Between 0705 hours and 1022 hours on 4 June 1942, five Midway-based US Navy, Army, and Marine bomber squadrons and three US Navy carrier-launched torpedo bomber squadrons made eight separate attacks on Japan's First Carrier Striking Force at the Battle of Midway. None of these attacks inflicted significant physical damage on the Japanese carriers, and lacking fighter escorts, the dive-bomber and torpedo-bomber squadrons from Midway and all carrier-launched torpedo squadrons were savaged by Zero fighters and few returned. The question is sometimes asked, "Did those lost aircrews make any significant contribution to the American victory at Midway?" It is an important question that deserves a considered response because some military historians have failed to appreciate the significance of these attacks in laying the foundation for the American victory.
The correct answer to the question is "yes". I believe that it is a mistake to separate and compartmentalise the five successive bombing attacks from Midway and the three US Navy carrier-launched torpedo attacks. Those eight separate attacks formed a sequence of events that combined to throw the First Carrier Striking Force off balance, and keep it off balance between 0705 and 1022. The unaccustomed pressure appears to have produced serious command decision errors. The attacks prevented the Japanese launching their own air strikes and, by scattering their carriers and diffusing the protective Zero screen over those carriers, rendered the First Carrier Striking Force highly vulnerable to attack by the high-flying US Navy SBD dive-bombers that accompanied the Navy torpedo planes from Enterprise and Yorktown.
The resolute American counter-attacks from Midway, 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 and scattered the Japanese warships and their protective fighter patrols. 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 dispersed carriers, there were none left to escort an anti-ship strike when the proximity of an American carrier force was reported to Vice Admiral Nagumo at 0820. Having been deprived by the Midway-based attacks of a capacity to launch a strike at the American carrier force, Vice Admiral Nagumo elected instead to recover his first attack wave between 0837 and 0917.
The determined attacks by the three US Navy carrier torpedo squadrons between 0920 and 1022 also forced the Japanese carriers to take frantic evasive action that scattered the fleet and turned its battle formation into a shambles. By 1022, Hiryu was out of sight of the flagship Akagi and well to the north of the main formation. Kaga and Soryu were still within sight of Akagi, but the distance between the carriers had widened from the prescribed 1,500 yards to a distance ranging from 4,500 to 6,000 yards. The wide scattering of the Japanese carrier fleet also increased the dispersal of the protective Zero fighter cover that normally patrolled at varying heights above the carriers in their normal compact battle formation.
The successive attacks by these three US Navy torpedo squadrons, pressed home resolutely and with appalling losses, kept the Japanese carrier flight decks fully occupied with activities related to recovering, rearming, refuelling, and relaunching about fifty Zero fighters that were protecting the carriers. This point has been made by Jon Parshall, an internationally recognised expert on Imperial Japanese Navy operational doctrine:
"Taken together, it is apparent that spotting a twenty-one plane strike for launch would take around forty minutes total, and another five to ten minutes would be required for the launch....Thus if Nagumo was to attack the American strike force, he 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".
See: "Doctrine Matters: Why the Japanese lost at Midway", Naval War College Review, 2001.
A close examination of the sequence of eight separate torpedo and bombing attacks between 0705 and 1022 does not indicate the existence of that "unbroken forty-five minute window of opportunity on all four flight decks". During that time, the successive American torpedo and bombing attacks made it impossible for the Japanese to move bombers from the hangars to the flight decks and prepare them for launching either at Midway or the American carrier fleet detected by the Tone scout at 0820.
The Yorktown's torpedo squadron VT-3 focussed its attack on the far distant Hiryu. VT-3 drew the protective Zero screen down to sea level and away from their stations above Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu. By doing so, VT-3 opened the door for the devastating attacks on Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu by the dive-bomber squadrons from Enterprise and Yorktown. In my opinion, it is no exaggeration to assert that the heroism and sacrifices of the US Navy, Army and Marine torpedo and bombing squadrons between 0705 and 1022 made a vital contribution to the American victory that was ultimately secured by the dive-bomber squadrons.