This is not intended to be a history lesson. For those who are interested, several recommended books are listed at the end of this article. Instead, this is a remembrance, a recognition of unsurpassed bravery and incredible achievements by men serving in the United States Navy on these dates 75 years ago.
This is the anniversary of the Battle of Midway that took place from June 4th to June 7th, six months to the day following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The battle was fought between four Japanese air craft carriers (the Kaga, Akagi, Hiryu, and Soryu) against three U.S. aircraft carriers (the Enterprise, Yorktown, and Hornet).
The U.S.S. Yorktown had suffered extensive damage just one month earlier during the Battle of the Coral Sea and had limped back into Pearl Harbor for much needed repairs. She was so badly damaged that the Japanese thought she had been sunk alongside her sister ship the U.S.S. Lexington.
When Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander of the Pacific Ocean Area, asked how long it would take to make the Yorktown fit for battle, the answer was at least three months. He told them they had just three days. Seventy-two hours later, the Yorktown was underway. This was just one of the amazing accomplishments that the crew of the Yorktown would achieve over the next few days.
Unbeknownst to the Japanese, U.S. intelligence at Pearl Harbor had managed to break the Japanese naval code. They were not able to read everything, just bits and pieces, but enough to let them know that the Japanese were planning a naval assault against target AF. They didn’t know what AF meant, but they suspected it was the tiny atoll of Midway located, appropriately enough, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. If the Japanese captured Midway, they would be able to launch further attacks against Pearl Harbor and the western coast of the United States.
To confirm their suspicions, the Navy had the Marines stationed at Midway send out an open, unencrypted message saying that their water purification system had been damaged. Sure enough, the Japanese then relayed a coded message that there was no clean water available at target AF. The Americans now knew where the Japanese intended to strike and made their battle plans accordingly. They were now able to lie in wait for the Japanese navy to come to them.
On June 4, the Japanese began their assault against the Midway atoll, unaware of the presence of the three U.S. aircraft carriers within striking distance. Part of Admiral Yamamoto’s battle plan was to send a diversionary force against some of the outlying islands of Alaska. He had hoped that this force would draw the Americans out of Pearl Harbor and leave him a clear field of operations. It didn’t work.
Torpedo bomber squadrons from all three U.S. carriers were launched early that morning. They were followed by their respective dive bomber squadrons, flying the SBD (nicknamed Slow But Deadly) Dauntless Dive Bombers. Sadly, the torpedo bombers were unable to score a single hit against the Japanese. They were either shot down by the Mitsubishi Zero fighter planes, or their torpedoes failed to either hit the target or explode when they did make contact. The U.S. losses were catastrophic.
But by diverting the attention of the Zeros away from the Japanese fleet, they did accomplish one significant mission. They left the way open for the dive bombers to attack. And beginning at 10:25 the attacks began. Simultaneously, 30 dive bombers from the Enterprise attacked the Akagi and the Kaga, while 17 dive bombers from the Yorktown hit the Soryu. Within six minutes, their bombs had been dropped and all three ships were out of commission. The dive bombers from the Hornet had followed incorrect course settings and did not see action that day.
The Japanese launched a counterattack from their one remaining carrier the Hiryu at 11:00 and at 12:05 attacked the Yorktown. The Japanese pilots, upon their return, reported that the Yorktown had been severely damaged, probably sunk. So now Yamamoto thought he only faced two remaining U.S. aircraft carriers. However, the crew of the Yorktown was able to pull off another miracle and by 13:40 hours the Yorktown was underway again making 18 knots. Mistaking the Yorktown for one of the two remaining aircraft carriers, Japanese pilots attacked her again at 14:30 hours. This time, even the remarkable crew of the Yorktown could not repair the damage and she had to be abandoned. But her story is not over yet.
Now Yamamoto thought (because of reports of sinking the Yorktown twice) that he had reduced U.S. strength to one carrier and even odds with his one remaining carrier. He did not realize that there were two fully functional carriers awaiting the Hiryu.
At 16:10 the Soryu sank. Then at 17:00 dive bombers attacked the one remaining Japanese carrier, the Hiryu. By 19:25 hours on June 4, the Kaga sank. One the morning of June 5, the Akagi sank at 05:00, with the Hiryu following her into the watery depths at 09:00.
Many historians consider the Battle of Midway to be the turning point in the War in the Pacific. Admiral Yamamoto had warned his superiors prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor that he would be able to run “wild” in the Pacific for six months, possible a year. After that he could not say. His prediction was uncannily accurate.
Japan lost far more that four aircraft carriers that day. Those could be replaced. What could not be so easily replaced were the trained pilots and maintenance crews, who nearly to a man chose to go down with their ships. This battle also proved that the day of the massive battleships was over. New naval warfare would be ruled by the aircraft carriers and the men who flew from them.
While Japan remained a formidable presence in the Pacific, never again would she have the unfettered run of the ocean she had enjoyed before the Battle of Midway.
The men and pilots of the U.S.S. Enterprise, the U.S.S. Hornet, and the U.S.S. Yorktown deserve the never-ending praise and honor from all Americans to this day for their bravery and sacrifice.
But the Yorktown was not yet finished. On June 7th, salvage efforts had begun to restore her back to duty. However, late that afternoon a Japanese submarine was able to slip by the destroyers guarding her and fired a salvo of torpedoes. The Yorktown was now mortally wounded, along with the destroyer U.S.S. Hammann which was docked beside her to assist in the salvage efforts. After four attempts, the Japanese were finally able to sink this gallant ship.
For those interested in reading more about the Battle of Midway, the following books are recommended:
“The Battle of Midway (Pivotal Moments in American History”
by Craig L. Symonds
“Pacific Payback: The Carrier Aviators Who Avenged Pearl Harbor”
by Stephen L. Moore
“Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway”
by Jonathan Parshall, Anthony Tully