043010 All Midway planes in air. 0904 First surface contact of battle. 0925 Large group of ships sighted 261° distance 700. 1230 B-17's take off. 1623 B-17's attack ships on bearing 261°. 2115 Four PBY's take off for torpedo attack. 0130 (June 4th) PBY's attack.
On June 3d the usual search was made. By 0430 all planes fit for service were in the air. Again coverage was excellent except beyond 400 miles to the north-northwest. At 0904 the first surface contact of the battle was reported by a patrol plane: "Two Japanese cargo vessels sighted bearing 247° from Midway, distance 470 miles. Fired upon by antiaircraft." Shortly afterward, at 0925, another plane reported: "Main body bearing 261°, distance 700 miles, six large ships in column." At 1100 the same plane reported that this force consisted of 11 ships, course 090°, speed 19. Actually, as it later proved, this was not the enemy's "main body," but probably only a portion of his occupation force. Because of its shortage of fuel and the probability that it would only be shot down if it attempted to track the enemy force, the reporting plane was ordered to return to the base. A little later (at 1240) the special long-range B-17 with no bombs took off with a Navy observer on a search of the expected enemy rendezvous at 800 miles and to track the force already discovered. It was thought that a B-17 might be able to take care of itself if attacked by enemy fighters. This plane failed to locate the "main body," but at 1640 reported 2 transports and destroyers, on bearing 261°, distance 700.
Meanwhile, other units of the enemy force had been reported by our patrols. Numerous ships, it was clear, were converging on a rendezvous for an attack on Midway.
The enemy aircraft carriers had not yet been discovered, and, in fact, were not sighted on June 3d. Consequently, the commanding officer of the Midway Defense Forces hesitated to commit his striking force of B-17's until more positive information had been received. Further, the fortresses had been up 4 hours on their morning precautionary flight and had to be refueled after landing. However, with the receipt at 1100 of the amplified report of the enemy ships on bearing 261°, a force
of 9 B-17's with bomb bay gasoline tanks and half a load of bombs (four 600-pound bombs each) was ordered to attack this "main body."
This squadron, piloted by the most experienced of the B-17 pilots, was commanded by Lt. Col. Walter C. Sweeney, Jr., U.S.A. Air Corps. Taking off about 1230, our planes found the enemy at 1623 at a distance of about 570 miles. This force, consisting of 2 or 3 heavy cruisers and about 30 other ships, including destroyers, transports, and cargo vessels, had evidently been moving toward Midway since the morning contact. The attack was made in 3 flights of 3 planes each at 8,000, 10,000, and 12,000 feet respectively. Antiaircraft fire, although consistently behind our planes, was so heavy that it was considered unwise to stay to observe results. However, a heavy cruiser and a transport were reported to have been hit and a second cruiser was believed hit at the stern.
Before the B-17's returned, a flight of four PBY-5A's, each carrying one MK XIII Mod. I torpedo took off on an historic mission, "the first night torpedo attack by our patrol planes on surface ships." The pilots were volunteers, led by Lt. William L. Richards, Executive Officer of Patrol Squadron FORTY-FOUR. The flight commander's orders were to locate the enemy force sighted that morning on bearing 261° from Midway, deliver a torpedo attack and return to base. Priority of targets was aircraft carriers, battleships, transports. The exact composition of the enemy force was unknown, but it was believed to include a carrier. The B-17's had not yet returned and details of their attack were not known.
The flight left Midway at 2115 on June 3d. The weather was clear, with broken cumulus clouds at 1,000 feet. Some hours later (about 2400 and 0100) the third and fourth planes were lost from the formation in passing through cloud banks, but one of them succeeded in finding the target alone.
At about 0115 on June 4th, radar indicated a group of about 10 ships 10 or 12 miles to the port of this group. As our planes approached, the silhouettes of the enemy ships became visible in the moonlight. There were 10 or more large ones in 2 columns, escorted by 6 destroyers. It was probably the same force the B-17's had attacked several hours before, now only about 500 miles from Midway. Our planes approached without lights from down moon, engines throttled back. The target selected was the largest ship, which was leading the northern column. It had been thought that this might be a carrier, but on the approach it was
identified as a transport. The planes glided down to 100 feet and the leader dropped his torpedo at 800 yards, then climbed in a turn over the target. It was thought that an explosion followed. Lt. (j. g.) Daniel C. Davis in the second plane was not satisfied with his approach and withdrew for a second. He dropped his torpedo at 200 yards, but no results were observed. As he opened his throttle to pass over the target, he strafed the ship with .50-calibre machine-gun fire, while the leading ships opened fire on him. Subsequent information indicated that this strafing attaack caused several enemy casualties.
Ensign Gaylord D. Propst, piloting the third plane, which had become separated from the leader, found the target visually and came up the moon path to attack a large ship. He believed he saw the flash of a hit as he withdrew, running through antiaircraft fire. Immediately he was attacked by a single fighter, from which he escaped in the clouds. Ensign Allen Rothenberg, pilot of the fourth plane which had lost the flight earlier, failed to find the enemy force and after contact with an enemy plane was forced by his dwindling gasoline supply to turn back. The results of the mission were indefinite but one or two transports or cargo vessels were possibly damaged.
As the planes returned individually to Midway they were warned by radio that the islands were under attack by air. Course was set for Lisianski. Three of the PBY's landed at Laysan, and Ensign Propst landed at sea near Lisianski out of fuel. On the afternoon before their mission all pilots and crews except the flight leader had flown from Pearl Harbor to Midway, a 10-hour flight. After landing from this all-night mission three crews were delayed on the water all day and all night and flew to Pearl Harbor the following day. Ensign Propst and his crew were down at sea for 53 hours before they were picked up.
10 All times given in this narrative are zone plus 12.
Last updated: February 28, 2003Transcribed and formatted by Jerry Holden for the HyperWar Foundation