Chapter 5: Battle of the Carrier Planes, 4 June 1942

While the land-based fliers had their morning go at the Japanese Striking Force,   and while Nagumo juggled his planes and decisions, Spruance steamed southeast to lead off the attack against the enemy. The American admiral intended to hold his planes until he drew within about 100 miles of the Japanese. But when he heard of the strike on Midway, Spruance launched two hours before this intended range would have been reached. By this calculated risk he hoped to catch the Japanese planes back on their carriers rearming for a second attack on the atoll. And about twenty minutes later Nagumo made the decision which set up himself and his planes as exactly the target Spruance hoped his pilots would find.1

Enterprise and Hornet began launching at about 0700, sending off every operational plane they carried, except a few to cover the task force. The strike was led by 29 Devastator (TBD-1) torpedo bombers, and these were followed by 67 Dauntless dive bombers and 20 Wildcat fighters. Eighteen other Wildcats, plus a like number withheld to relieve them later, patrolled overhead. Yorktown held back its planes for about two hours; Fletcher considered that the aircraft from his carrier might be needed against other enemy carriers not yet located, but by 0838 there had been no enemy sightings, and he decided to launch half his dive bombers and all his torpedo planes, along with escorting fighters. By shortly after 0900 the Yorktown had 17 SBDs, 12 TBDs, and six F4F-3s in the air, and other planes ready for takeoff.

As Spruance had hoped, Nagumo continued for more than an hour to steam toward Midway, and the first U.S. planes found the Japanese Carrier Striking Force with its flattops in the center of a larger formation consisting of two battleships, three cruisers, and 11 destroyers. By 0917, Nagumo had recovered his Midway attack planes, and at that time he made a 90-degree change of course to east-northeast. This course change caused 35 of the Hornet's SBDs and escorting fighters to miss the battle, but Hornet's torpedo planes found the enemy and went in low without fighter cover.

The 15 obsolete Devastators met heavy antiaircraft fire from the Japanese Striking Force,


and pulled down upon themselves the bulk of the Zeros patrolling overhead. Against this combined fire, few of the planes got close enough to Japanese ships to launch torpedoes, and again, as in the Coral Sea battle, any hits scored by the slow unreliable torpedoes of that period proved duds. This antiaircraft and fighter opposition started while the planes had yet eight miles to go to reach the Japanese ships, and only one Devastator pilot lived to pull up from this attack.2

The 14 TBDs from the Enterprise fared only a little better. Four of these planes, likewise striking without fighter escort, survived their torpedo runs against the Japanese ships, although they scored no hits. But these two Devastator attacks, costly as they were, served to pull down the Zero canopy to such a low altitude that the following SBDs from Enterprise and Yorktown had an easier time of it.

These Dauntless dive bombers came in at about 1020 while Nagumo's ships still were dodging the Devastators. The Akagi took two hits which set her afire, and Admiral Nagumo transferred his flag to the light cruiser Nagara.3 The Kaga sustained four hits, and at 1925 she blew up and sank. The Soryu was hit three times by the planes and also struck by three torpedoes from the submarine Nautilus which arrived on the scene between 1359 and 1495.4 Finally the Soryu's gasoline stowage exploded and broke the ship in half.

By 1030, Nagumo had lost the services of three carriers, and in all three cases, as Spruance had hoped, the American attack had caught the ships in process of refueling and rearming the planes of their Midway strike. But even with these ships and their planes gone, Nagumo still was determined to fight back with his surviving carrier, the Hiryu, which had escaped damage by getting far out of position in some of the earlier evasive actions to escape the torpedo planes. "Although defeat now stared the Japanese starkly in the face, they felt that the battle had to be continued as long as we retained even a small part of our striking power."5

When the Akagi was shot from under Nagumo, the Japanese Striking Force commander temporarily passed his command to Rear Admiral Hiroaki Abe on board the heavy cruiser Tone, and command of air operations simultaneously passed to Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi in the Hiryu. At about 1050 two float planes from the cruiser Chikuma sighted the Yorktown task group and guided to it a strike of 18 dive bombers and six fighters up from the Hiryu. The U.S. air patrol and antiaircraft fire knocked down or turned back most of these enemy planes which arrived


at about noon, but those that got through scored three hits which started fires. Within 20 minutes the big carrier was dead in the water.

Her crew got her underway again in about an hour, but a second strike from the Hiryu appeared early in the afternoon. Although the Japanese lost half of the 10 Kate torpedo bombers and six Zero fighters of this attack, four of the Kates came in to attack the Yorktown at masthead level. Launching at a range of about 500 yards, two of the torpedo planes scored hits which left the carrier not only dead in the water but listing so badly that she was abandoned a few minutes later.6

Meanwhile, one of Yorktown's search planes (one of 10 scout bombers sent out before the first attack on the ship) spotted the Hiryu, two battleships, three cruisers, and four destroyers at 1445, and reported the position of these enemy ships. At 1530 Spruance had 24 SBDs7 up from the Enterprise, and they found the Hiryu and her screening ships at 1700. Using the same tactics which had paid off in their morning attacks, the dive bombers scored four hits which finished operations for Nagumo's fourth and last flattop.8 The bombing cost three SBDs and their crews.

During all this action Admiral Yamamoto, still miles to the rear, considered himself fortunate to have drawn out the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Shortly after noon, when he heard of the Hiryu's first strike against the Yorktown, the Japanese commander order the Aleutian Screening Group and Admiral Kondo's Second Fleet to join his Main Body by noon the next day to finish off the U.S. ships and complete the occupation of Midway. And a full hour and twenty minutes after he heard of the fate of Nagumo's final carrier, Admiral Yamamoto sent out a message in which he reported the U.S. fleet "practically destroyed and ... retiring eastward," and he called on Nagumo, the Invasion Force (less Cruiser Division 7 ) and the Submarine Force to "immediately contact and attack the enemy." A stimulating message, but "In the light of the whole situation ... so strangely optimistic as to suggest that Commander in Chief was deliberately trying to prevent the morale of our forces from collapsing."9

Nagumo's morale obviously needed to be stimulated by stronger stuff; at 2130 he reported: "Total enemy strength is 5 carriers, 6 heavy cruisers, and 15 destroyers. They are steaming westward. We are retiring to the northwest escorting Hiryu. Speed, 18 knots."10 Yamamoto's answer


relieved Nagumo of command in favor of Rear Admiral Kondo: but later messages told the commander in chief that there was little chance of finding the U.S. Fleet until after dawn next day. At 0255 on 5 June the admiral changed his mind, abandoned the Midway venture, and ordered a general withdrawal.

Admiral Spruance, now more on his own than ever, following Fletcher's move from the damaged Yorktown to the Astoria,11 of course did not know of Yamamoto's decision; but he did know that vastly more powerful enemy surface forces could well be nearby, quite possibly with additional carriers that had come in with the Main Body or with another enemy force. His problem, as he saw it, was to avoid combat in which he could be hopelessly outclassed, especially at night, and yet at the same time keep within air support distance of Midway in case the Japanese should persist in their assault plans. This he succeeded in doing, but in the process lost contact with the enemy fleet. He did not regain contact until 6 June.

In the early morning hours of 5 June, however, a retiring Japanese column of four cruisers and two destroyers was sighted by U.S. submarine Tambor; and when the Japanese sighted the Tambor, evasive action resulted in a collision of their cruisers, Mogami and Mikuma. While the other Japanese cruisers retired at full speed, these two lagged behind with the destroyers to screen them, the Mogami with a damaged bow and the Mikuma trailing oil. The submarine continued to stalk these four ships, did not manage to gain a firing position, but at break of day reported their position.

Captain Simard sent 12 B-17s out from Midway to attack these ships, but the Flying Fortresses had trouble locating their targets, and Simard then ordered a Marine bombing squadron off on this mission. Captain M.A. Tyler with six SBD-2s and Captain Richard E. Fleming with six SB2U-3s took off at about 0700 to attack the ships which were then reported to be 170 miles west of the atoll. They located the ships at about 0800, and Tyler led his division out of the sun toward the stern of the Mogami while Fleming and the other Vindicator pilots went down at the Mikuma.

Both divisions met heavy antiaircraft fire, but Tyler and his fliers bracketed their target with six near misses which caused some topside damage to the Mogami.12 Fleming's plane was hit, but the pilot stayed on course at the head of his attack formation and crashed his plane into the Mikuma's after gun turret.13 This additional damage further slowed


the cruisers, and Admiral Spruance's carrier planes found the cripples the following day, the 6th. The attack of these planes sank the Mikuma and inflicted enough additional damage on the Mogami to keep her out of the war for the next two years.

The Battle of Midway--which many historians and military experts consider the decisive naval engagement of the Pacific War--was over, and all actions following those of 4 June were anti-climactic. The U.S. had lost 98 carrier planes of all types, and would lose the Yorktown, then under tow. The Japanese carriers sustained total losses of about 322 planes of all types.14 And with the four carriers had gone the cream of their experienced naval pilots. This, along with later losses in air battles over Guadalcanal, was a blow from which the Japanese never fully recovered.15

Although the carrier planes had decided the large issue, the contribution of Marines to the defense of Midway had been considerable, from the inception of base development to the end of the action. Not only had the 3d and 6th Defense Battalions contributed their share of labor, vigilance, and flak, but the aviation personnel of MAG-22, at a cost rarely surpassed in the history of U.S. naval aviation, had faced a superior enemy and exacted serious damage. At a cost of 49 Marines killed and 53 wounded, Midway had destroyed some 43 enemy aircraft (25 dive bombers and 18 Zeros) in air action, plus another 10 shot down by antiaircraft guns.16

In another air-air action, similar to that at Coral Sea, Fletcher and Spruance had sent the proud Imperial Fleet scurrying home to Japan without firing a shot from its superior naval rifles. Yamamoto could gain little consolation from the fact that the northern operation had secured two Aleutian bases: what good the bowl if the rice is gone? For "...unlike most of the Nipponese war lords, [Yamamoto] appreciated American strength and resource."17 He knew that destruction of the U.S. Fleet early in 1942 was a necessary prerequisite to the year's plans for control of the Coral Sea and the American sea lanes to Australia and New Zealand, and, in the final analysis, the necessary prerequisite to me success of Japan's entire war effort.18

But now that the Japanese clearly were defeated at Midway, they no longer could overlook the setback they had received at Coral Sea in phase one of their 1942 plans, and phase three--occupation of the Fijis, Samoa and New Caledonia--soon was scrapped. "The catastrophe of Midway definitely marked the turning of the tide in the Pacific War..."19 and from arrogant offense the Japanese soon turned to chagrined defense and ultimate defeat. U.S. plans for a first offensive already were well advanced, and the rest of 1942 was destined to be a most gloomy period for the Japanese.

In Battle That Doomed Japan, Fuchida and Okumiya devote their final chapter to a scholarly and complete analysis of this


defeat, and they end on an introspective note:

In the final analysis, the root cause of Japan's defeat, not alone in the Battle of Midway but in the entire war, lies deep in the Japanese national character. There is an irrationality and impulsiveness about our people which results in actions that are haphazard and often contradictory. A tradition of provincialism makes us narrow-minded and dogmatic, reluctant to discard prejudices and slow to adopt even necessary improvements if they require a new concept. Indecisive and vacillating, we succumb readily to deceit, which in turn makes us disdainful of others. Opportunistic but lacking a spirit of daring and independence, we are wont to place reliance on others and to truckle to superiors. Our Want of rationality often leads us to confuse desire with reality, and thus to do things without careful planning. Only when our hasty action has ended in failure do we begin to think rationally about it, usually for the purpose of finding excuses for the failure. In short, as a nation, we lack maturity of mind and the necessary conditioning to enable us to know when and what to sacrifice for the sake of our main goal.

Such are the weaknesses of the Japanese national character. These weaknesses were reflected in the defeat we suffered in the Battle of Midway, which rendered fruitless all the valiant deeds and precious sacrifices of the men who fought there. In these weaknesses lies the cause of Japan's misfortunes.20


Table of Contents ** Previous Chapter (4) * Next Chapter (Part VI, 1)


[1] In his introduction to Battle That Doomed Japan, Spruance writes: "In reading the account of what happened on 4 June, I am more than ever impressed with the part that good or bad fortune sometimes plays in tactical engagements. The authors give us credit, where no credit is due, for being able to choose the exact time for our attack on the Japanese carriers when they were at the greatest disadvantage--flight decks full of aircraft fueled, armed and ready to go. All that I can claim credit for, myself, is a very keen sense of the urgent need for surprise and a strong desire to hit the enemy carriers with our full strength as early as we could reach them."

[2] Ensign George H. Gay was this sole survivor. His plane splashed shortly after he had pulled up from his run which had skimmed a carrier deck at about 10 feet. Gay's gunner had been killed, but Gay was rescued from his life raft next day by a Catalina.

[3] Although the Akagi remained afloat, she was abandoned at 1915 and later scuttled by a torpedo from one of her screening destroyers.

[4] Battle That Doomed Japan, 185, 189-191, presents strong evidence to indicate that this was not the Soryu but the Kaga, and that the one torpedo which actually hit proved a dud.

[5] Battle That Doomed Japan, 191. In Coral Sea and Midway, at page 132, Adm Morison points out that the Japanese at this time assumed from scout plane reports that the U.S. force had no more than two carriers, and possibly only one. The Japanese authors in Battle That Doomed Japan point out on page 174, however, that while the torpedo planes were yet approaching for their first strike against Nagumo, "Reports of enemy planes increased until it was quite evident that they were not from a single carrier."

[6] The speed with which her crew had put Yorktown in shape after the first attack led the Japanese to believe that this second strike was against a different carrier. They had by now spotted all three U.S. carriers, but at this point they thought they had destroyed two of them. This second strike still did not finish the battered carrier, however. She remained afloat and regianed some degree of equilibrium without human aid. Salvage parties went on board the following day, and the ship was taken under tow. But one of Nagumo's float planes spotted her early on 5 June, and a submarine was sent out to finish her off. The sub found the carrier on the 6th, put two torpedoes in her, and she finally went down early on 7 June.

[7] Ten of these were refugees from Yorktown, and the others veterans of the earlier strikes.

[8] The Hiryu floated in flames until, as in the case of the Akagi, one of the ships of her screening force put her to death with torpedoes at 0510 next morning. ONI Review, 13.

[9] Battle That Doomed Japan, 213.

[10] Ibid. To which message the authors quote a response by one of Yamamoto's staff officers, who, they say, "voiced the defection of the entire Combined Fleet staff..." Made by Rear Admiral Matome Ugaki, Yamamoto's chief of staff, thie statement must likewise be considered a classic of understatement; "The Nagumo Force has no stomach for a night engagement!"

[11] Shortly after 1300 on 4 June, Spruance radioed his disposition and course to Fletcher on board the Astoria, and asked if Fletcher had instructions for him. Fletcher replied: "None. Will conform to your movements." Coral Sea and Midway, 141n.

[12] USSBS Interrogations, Nav No 83, RAdm Akira Soji, I, 363. Adm (then Capt) Soji had command of the Mogumi during this action.

[13] Fleming's dive "...crashed into the after turret, spreading fire over the air intake of the starboard engine room. This caused an explosion of gas fumes below, killing all hands working in the engine room. This was a damaging blow to the cruiser, hitherto unscathed except for the slight hull damage received in the collision with Mogami. Both cruisers were now hurt, and they continued their westward withdrawal with darkening prospects of escaping the enemy's fury." Battle That Doomed Japan, 226.

[14] Ibid., 250. This figure may be suspect. It exceeds considerably the regular complement of the four carriers.

[15] For a discussion of the "crack-man policy" of the Japanese Navy Air Force, see Battle That Doomed Japan, 242-243.

[16] These are reported figures based on the soundest possible estimates. The Japanese account in Battle That Doomed Japan does not bear them out. The authors list only six planes lost in the Midway strike and 12 in combat air patrol.

[17] Coral Sea and Midway, 75.

[18] Ibid. See also Battle That Doomed Japan, 60.

[19] Battle That Doomed Japan, 231.

[20] Ibid., 247-248.

Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation