Yamamoto attempts to save face by Night Attacks on the American Carriers and Midway

With the loss of Vice Admiral Nagumo's four fleet carriers, Admiral Yamamoto realised that his Midway offensive had turned into a disaster for the Japanese Navy. He believed that he could still save face by concentrating his battleships and cruisers and launching night attacks on the Midway military installations and the two surviving American carriers and their warship escorts. The advantage in night actions would lie with the Japanese who had developed a high degree of technical skill in night fighting at sea, and Yamamoto was aware that the American carriers would be hampered by the difficulty of launching and recovering aircraft at night.

However, Rear Admiral Spruance had foreseen the possibility of a night attack on his carriers by Japanese warships, and had temporarily withdrawn his ships to the east. Shortly after midnight, on 5 June, when there was no longer a question of a night action, Spruance turned back in the hope of closing with the Japanese warships in time for a daylight air strike.

Fleeing from the Japanese defeat at Midway, the Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma was hit by Dauntless SBD dive bombers from American carriers on 6 June 1942.

At 0300 hours on 5 June, Yamamoto realised that his face-saving gamble had failed, and cancelled the Midway operation. His decision came too late to prevent another disaster for the Japanese. The heavy cruisers Mogami and Mikuma had been approaching Midway to shell the installations and airfield runways when the Midway operation was cancelled. As the cruisers were withdrawing at high speed, an American submarine was sighted. While taking evasive action in the darkness, the two heavy cruisers collided and suffered serious damage. Leaving two destroyers as escorts for the slower-moving damaged cruisers, the rest of the Japanese Midway invasion force withdrew rapidly to the west. The two Japanese cruisers were bombed and further damaged by aircraft from Midway on 5 June. On 6 June, the two crippled Japanese cruisers were attacked on three occasions by Dauntless dive bombers from Enterprise and Hornet. Mikuma was turned into a shattered wreck, but Mogami, despite major damage, managed to reach safety in Japanese waters. Later that same day, an aircraft from Enterprise took the photograph of the sinking Mikuma which introduces this section. The Japanese Navy left the crew of Mikuma to die in the sea. Only two survivors were found alive when an American Navy ship reached the area three days later.

Rather than risk damage to his carriers from bombers based on Japanese-occupied Wake Island, Rear Admiral Spruance called off the chase on 6 June 1942 and set course for Pearl Harbor.

The Death of USS Yorktown

Despite her very severe battle damage, USS Yorktown refused to die. When the Americans found their carrier still afloat on the morning of 5 June, they hoped to tow her back to Pearl Harbor for repairs. The tug Vireo took Yorktown under tow. Despite efforts to lighten the carrier, the old tug could barely make headway. At daybreak on 6 June more destroyers arrived with Yorktown's crew members, who set to work jettisoning heavy moveable objects and taking counter-flooding measures to reduce the list. The destroyer USS Hammann tied up alongside Yorktown to provide the crippled carrier with power and other assistance.

Crippled by Japanese torpedoes, the USS Yorktown has been abandoned, but refuses to sink.

However, the angry Japanese had other ideas. On the morning of 5 June, a seaplane from the Japanese cruiser Chikuma had spotted the derelict carrier and reported that Yorktown was still afloat. When the Japanese discovered that Yorktown was still afloat, they were determined to exact revenge for the loss of four of their best fleet carriers. The Japanese submarine I-168 was ordered to sink the crippled aircraft carrier. Yorktown was being towed slowly back to Pearl Harbor on the afternoon of 6 June when torpedoes from the Japanese submarine hit the carrier and the USS Hammann. Both American ships received fatal damage in this attack, and many of the crew of Hammann were killed or severely injured.

American destroyers kept a respectful vigil over the stricken USS Yorktown during the night of 6-7 June. At 0458 on 7 June, as day was breaking, Yorktown finally succumbed to her massive battle injuries. Those members of her crew, who had remained to assist with the salvage operation, manned the rails of the carrier's guardian destroyers and many wept as their proud ship rolled over and slipped beneath the grey waters of the Pacific with her battle flag still flying.

There are few sights that are sadder than the death of a proud ship. USS Yorktown is about to slip beneath the grey waters of the Pacific. Young Australians and Americans should know that this ship and her gallant crew helped to save Australia, Hawaii and the chain of islands between them from Japanese occupation in 1942.

The Cost of Japan's Midway Offensive

The Japanese lost four of their best aircraft carriers, one heavy cruiser, and 322 aircraft. Another heavy cruiser was severely damaged. The Japanese lost at least one hundred highly skilled airmen, and hundreds of skilled air group support staff. Exact numbers are not known because the Japanese Navy went to extraordinary lengths to conceal the magnitude of its defeat at Midway, even to the extent of isolating survivors from their families.

The Americans lost Yorktown and its escort destroyer Hammann in the same torpedo attack by a Japanese submarine. The Americans lost 307 servicemen. The American dead included airmen who were recovered from the sea by the Japanese. After interrogating these American survivors of the battle, the angry Japanese promptly and brutally executed them. The damage to Midway installations was quickly repaired.

The Japanese remained in occupation of the islands of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutians until May 1943. On 11 May 1943, American troops finally landed on Attu to oust the Japanese invaders. In the bloody Aleutians campaign, Japanese troops again exhibited the brutality towards non-combatants that characterised their military aggression. On 29 May, the Japanese launched a suicide attack on the American beachhead at Massacre Bay. The screaming Japanese troops, with fixed bayonets, overran the American defences and reached a field hospital where they murdered unarmed patients, medical staff and a chaplain.