The Battle of Midway, Part Two

(Editor’s note: I apologize for the delay in posting. The UWC Online (University of Wisconsin Colleges Online) has been keeping me on my toes with work. I love it! The third and final part of this post will be up tonight or tomorrow!)

The Battle

The Battle of Midway opened inauspiciously with an attack on June 3rd by B-17 bombers from Midway on the Japanese fleet without any result.   One his carrier aircraft were in range, early on the morning of June 4th, Admiral Nagumo, in command of the Japanese carriers, launched an air attack against the air base at Midway Island.

From here on out, this article will only cover highlights.  For the sake of brevity, it will leave out much of the technical detail, and many minor incidents which were important cumulatively but not in and of themselves.   Hundreds of aircraft crossed the sky and confusion abounded which took years for historians to sort out.  Hopefully this can generate enough interest to show why those who love military history love it so, and maybe encourage others to read one of the books referenced at the end.

At the same time Nagumo launched his attack, he sent a fan of reconnaissance aircraft towards the North and East to find the American carriers which were the primary target.   For minor technical reasons, one of these left 30 minutes later than the rest.

While the reconnaissance aircraft were searching their respective zones, Japanese aircraft attacked Midway, damaging it but not destroying it.   Some aircraft and the runways were still intact.  Nagumo had launched approximately half of his aircraft to strike Midway, keeping the other half ready to strike the American carriers when they were found.  His reconnaissance aircraft were reporting that they had found nothing, except the one who had launched late and had not completed his sweep of his zone, so Nagumo decided to rearm his aircraft to strike Midway again to ensure no aircraft from there could threaten him.

Here some technical discussion is warranted.   Carrier aircraft of the day were basically of two types; fighters and bombers.  The main job of the fighter, for example the Japanese Zero, was to gain air dominance by shooting down enemy aircraft. Fighters protected bombers from enemy fighters during attacks on enemy ships, and when defending ships, attempted to shoot down enemy bombers.  Bombers of course were meant to attack and sink enemy ships.  To do so, they could carry one of two different types of weapons; bombs or torpedoes.   Bombs were dropped by the bomber diving toward the target, releasing the bomb which would follow that trajectory while the aircraft pulled up away to safety.   It was difficult to sink a ship with bombs unless you hit a really good spot, but fire damage from bombs could destroy the ship.  Dive bombing was difficult to do.  Most bombs, particularly on the more inexperienced US side, missed.  The advantage to this was survivability.  It was difficult to hit a maneuvering ship when starting a dive from 15,000 feet, but it was much more difficult for a moving ship’s anti-aircraft guns to hit the pinpoint target of a dive-bombing aircraft.  Particularly since the attacking aircraft has some ability to maneuver until it had to aim the bomb.  This is why in pictures and in films you see so many explosions in the sky; the ship is trying to throw up so much ordnance in order to hit the plane, going for quantity over the quality of aimed shots.

The second type of weapon is the torpedo.   Normally thought of as being shot out of submarine, they can be dropped from aircraft.  This requires the aircraft to fly low above the ocean, perpendicular to the ship’s direction of travel, drop the torpedo, which then runs through the water as normal, toward the broadside of the ship which is the biggest possible target profile.  The disadvantage to this is that this puts the aircraft completely in view of the bulk of the ships firepower, and the aircraft cannot maneuver.  Very dangerous for the attacking aircraft.  Here again the Japanese had an advantage with torpedoes that could be dropped at longer ranges.  The advantage to a torpedo attack is that hitting the side of a ship below the waterline was almost always sure to blow a hole big enough to ensure it sunk.

Nagumo’s decision to rearm for an attack on Midway was significant.  Torpedoes were useless for attacking an island, so the returning aircraft and aircraft armed with torpedoes being held in reserve for the US carriers had to be rearmed with bombs.

Meanwhile, US reconnaissance aircraft from their carriers had spotted the Japanese fleet and had launched their attack aircraft.   Before they got there, the belated Japanese reconnaissance aircraft radioed that it had spotted the US carrier fleet.  In fact, it had spotted 2 of the 3 carriers.  Nagumo reversed his decision, deciding to arm his planes with torpedoes to attack the carriers.

An aircraft carrier is a huge ship, but very cramped and crowded once loaded with all its sailors, weapons, and aircraft.  Bombs and torpedoes were usually stowed as deep and as centered as possible in order to be safest from attack, but this took time to lift and handle through the ship to aircraft waiting on the flight deck.   These decisions by Nagumo resulted in much time being consumed in moving around all of this ordnance.

While this was going on, the first US aircraft arrived and began to attack.

The problems with these attacks were that they were uncoordinated.  The Yorktown was far from the Hornet and Enterprise, having left Pearl Harbor later due to being repaired, so they were trying to coordinate their attacks via spotty and incomplete radio transmissions.   The key to any attack was the proper mix and placement of the aircraft mentioned above.  Ideally, one would want to attack ships with both dive bombing and torpedoes, so that one attack or the other would succeed, all the while the fighters providing protection.   This mix was difficult to do under best of circumstances, especially for the more inexperienced US forces.   Additionally, there was a huge lapse in time between when US reconnaissance aircraft spotted the Japanese fleet and attacking aircraft arrived there.   Some squadrons could not find the Japanese fleet because it changed direction and moved.  Others found it by starting a search pattern.  Difficulty of radio communications between these squadrons meant that, for example, the protecting fighters arrived where the fleet was supposed to be and found no one, while the torpedo bombers they were meant to protect found the Japanese fleet and attacked without cover.

The result was that the first few attacks by US aircraft were costly and completely ineffective.   The Japanese of course had significant fighter forces protecting their ships.  Of the several attacks, the worst was by Torpedo Squadron 8, which scored not a single hit but lost every single in the squadron.  Only one member of the squadron survived.  Overall, of 41 torpedo bombers in these attacks, only 6 returned to their carriers.

Despite the horrendous US losses, the Japanese were frustrated at their inability to launch attacks of their own and surprise at the number of aircraft attacking.  They began to surmise there were more than 2 American carriers.  As yet another technical tactical detail that was crucial, aircraft carriers, because they provide very little runway for their aircraft, have to launch “into the wind.”  That is, the ship must sail against the wind so the wind blowing across the decks provides lift for the aircraft to make up for the lack of runway.   Carriers cannot launch large strikes while maneuvering against bombs and torpedoes.  On top of this, the flight decks were still crowded with aircraft and crews trying to arm them with the right mix of torpedoes and bombs.

At this moment, against the odds, at approximately 1020 of that morning of June 4th, two US dive-bomber squadrons arrived over the Japanese carriers having conducted a search that would put them at the end of their fuel tether.  The Japanese fighters were at sea level having shot down the torpedo bombers, so the dive bombers were unmolested during their attack.  They drove in their attack, and in the space of less than five minutes scored mortal hits on 3 of the 4 Japanese carriers.   The Kaga, Soryu, and Akagi were left adrift and burning, thousands of sailors dead or dying (many suffering needlessly in short sleeve uniforms) and all their aircraft and pilots destroyed and killed.   The attackers escaped almost unscathed.

Despite this setback, the Japanese launched an attacked on the last reported position of the US carriers.   Despite a spirited defense, the more experienced Japanese scored 4 crucial hits on the Yorktown, already so badly damaged from Coral Sea.

But, the other US carriers recovered their aircraft, rearmed, and launched another attack.  Against much diminished defenses, they scored hits on the last remaining Japanese carrier, which would be abandoned and scuttled by midnight on June 4th

The next day, the Japanese conceded defeat and began to withdraw.  The US forces, having destroyed the enemy offensive power, did not seek combat with Yamamoto’s large fleet of battleships.  Amazingly, a superb battle of damage control was fought aboard the Yorktown, and it was stabilized enough to be put under tow for repairs (again) at Pearl Harbor.   Unfortunately, she was spotted by a Japanese submarine on June 7th, torpedoed, and sunk.  A tragic loss, but one the US could afford.

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