Direct hit on the Yorktown by Japanese dive bombers
0415 Search planes take off. 0545 Patrol plane reports "many planes heading Midway." 0552 Two enemy carriers sighted. 0600 All Midway planes in air. 0616 Fighter group intercepts enemy bombers. 0630 First bomb falls on Midway. 0715 Our fighter planes called in.
Our long-range aircraft had struck without appreciably diminishing the enemy's strength. The Japanese carrier force had not yet been located
and was probably approaching from the northwest under cover of the bad weather area. It was expected that it would be in a position to launch an attack on Midway at dawn on June 4th.
Early in the morning of the 4th the search group of PBY's took off as usual, covered by a Marine fighter patrol. They were ordered to search to 425 miles unless four enemy carriers were discovered earlier, and to report all contacts fully. They were ordered to return to Laysan and Lisianski, as keeping them on the scene of action would be to expose them unnecessarily. In carrying out these orders several were attacked and at least one was shot down in flames.
As soon as the PBY's were clear, the B-17's were put into the air. Inasmuch as they would have to remain in the air for at least 4 hours under any circumstances, they were ordered to attack the enemy force to the west, which, it was estimated, were to be found at a distance of about 480 miles. They were warned, however, to expect a change of orders if the enemy carriers should be discovered in the meantime. Finally the four B-26's, the six TBF's and the planes of the Marine air group were manned and the engines warmed.
The plan for employment of the Marine air group11 was as follows: The field was to be cleared of all aircraft as soon as radar reported the approach of enemy planes. The fighting squadron was to be directed by radio to intercept the enemy bombers before they reached Midway. The scout-bombing squadron was to rendezvous 20 miles east of Eastern Island and await instructions, either to attack the enemy carriers if they were located, or to track the enemy aircraft on their return. This plan functioned perfectly.
At 0545 "the most important contact of the battle" was made. A patrol plane reported in plain English (the first use of it in the battle): "Many planes heading Midway, bearing 320, distance 150." Five minutes later the Midway radar picked up the planes at a distance of 93 miles, altitude about 10,000 feet.
At 0552 came the news which our attack forces had impatiently awaited. A PBY reported two carriers and the main body of ships, carriers in front, course 135°, speed 25, on bearing from Midway 320°, distance 180 miles. Shortly afterwards the B-17's, already on their way to attack the enemy forces to the west, were ordered to change their course and make the carriers their targets. Orders were also sent to Capt. James
F. Collins, Jr., U.S.A., commander of the B-26's, and to Lt. Langdon K. Fieberling, commander of the TBF's, before their taking off to attack the carriers. The Marine scout bombing squadron, already in the air, was directed to the same target at 0605, and these orders were sent repeatedly during the next hour, as no acknowledgement was received. Events proved, however, that they were received and acted upon at the first transmission.
At 0555 the air-raid alarm was sounded, and by 0600 or shortly after, every plane able to leave the ground, except for one J2F, was in the air. Weather was good and visibility excellent.
Of the Marine fighter group, three sections, consisting of eight F2A's and six F4F's, were vectored out directly toward the approaching enemy bombers. They were soon joined by two planes which had remained in the air since the morning covering patrol. Two sections were vectored out at 310° and told to orbit at 10 miles in order to be ready to meet any enemy planes which might appear from a different quarter. As none appeared, they were soon ordered to join in the interception of the enemy planes already located.
At 0616 the first three fighter sections encountered the enemy planes 30 miles out at 12,000 feet. According to later estimates by our surviving pilots, there were more than 100 enemy planes at this original contact, including 60 to 80 Aichi type 99 Navy bombers and about 50 Zero fighters. The bombers were in a rigid "V" formation, with three divisional "V's" of 9 planes in each formation. The Zero fighters were probably escorting from a lower altitude, as they were not at first seen by our fighters, which attacked from 17,000 feet; but "after the first pass at a bomber there were from 1 to 5 Zero fighters on the tail of each of our fighters. . . . Each pilot made only one or two passes at the bombers and then spent the remainder of the time trying to shake from 1 to 5 Jap fighters off his tail. Most succeeded by using cloud cover, or, in two cases, by leading the Japs into fire from light antiaircraft guns ashore and on PT boats."12
Despite the odds against them, our fighters gave an excellent account of themselves. At 0619 a Midway outpost reported "two planes falling in flames" and others followed. Within a few minutes the enemy bombers were near Midway, their formations ragged from losses in-
flicted by our fighters. As the first formation approached from the northwest, it could be seen that there were only seven planes in each of the two leading V's and six in the trailing V. "D" battery picked up the target at 50,000 yards range at 0622, and others picked it up immediately afterwards. The leader or No. 2 man of the first formation was seen to fall in flames as our gunners found the range.
The first bomb fell on Midway at 0630. In spite of heavy antiaircraft fire, the enemy formations continued their run, dropping their bombs along the north side of Eastern Island, and on Sand Island in the hangar and barracks area and near "D" battery. Scarcely had the high-altitude attack passed when Aichi type 99 dive bombers appeared. The powerhouse on Eastern Island and the oil tanks near the Marine dock on Sand Island were primary targets and were hit. Smoke from the burning oil tanks interfered somewhat with antiaircraft fire. As the dive bombers pulled out over the lagoon, the PT boats opened fire on them with all their guns, and at least one plane crashed some distance beyond. The bombing was over in a few minutes, but a few Zeros remained strafing the field and the batteries.
Perhaps one of the most vivid accounts of the attack is to be found in the chronological record kept by Lt. Col. Harold D. Shannon, commanding officer of the Marine Sixth Defense Battalion, from which the following excerpts are taken:
0622 Dog Btry to Bn:13 "Dog Btry on target, 50,000 yards, 320°".
0625 OP14 to Bn: "40 or 50 planes on bearing 320°".
0629 Radar to Bn: "Many unidentified planes 8 miles, 330° and 29 miles, 265°".
0630 Bn to Groups: "Open fire when targets are within range".
0630 Radar to Bn: "Many unidentified planes 27 miles, 250°".
0631 OP to Bn: "All AA gun batteries have opened fire".
0632 OP to Bn: "One plane in formation of 20 is on fire".
0632 OP to Bn: "Hangar and runways have been hit several times".
0633 OP to Bn: "Eastern Island has been hit several times".
0635 OP to Bn: "One enemy plane down at north reef. Laundry hit. Hospital and Contractor's Canteen on fire".
0636 OP to Bn: "Navy J2F is on fire".
0637 Radar to Bn: "Few unidentified planes 20 miles, 245° and 21 miles, 235°. Also 9 miles, 330°".
0638 OP to Bn: "Enemy planes are dive-bombing Eastern Island. All our AA guns are firing".
0640 OP to Bn: "About 30 enemy planes are bombing Eastern Island".
0641 OP to Bn: "Hangar is on fire. One enemy plane has crashed on ramp
0644 OP to Bn: "Tanks on fire at southwest part of island".
0647 OP to Bn: "Planes coming in toward the island flying low from 200°. Appear to be enemy planes. 2 enemy planes have crashed in water to north".
0648 OP to Bn: "Many enemy planes leaving on bearing 300°".
0648 OP to Bn: "1 enemy plane has crashed on Eastern Island. 1 enemy plane has crashed near C battery."
0650 Dog Btry to Bn: "One casualty in Dog Btry".
0653 Radar to Bn: "Many planes 9 miles, 235° and 27 miles, 315°. Many planes 33 miles, 310°".
0655 OP to Bn: "All enemy planes have left the area".
0656 OP to Bn: "2 friendly planes, fighters, have landed".
At 0701 two batteries opened fire again for a few seconds on a single plane appearing to the south. By 0715 all enemy planes had left and a message was broadcast: "Fighters land, refuel by division, Fifth division first." "A pitifully few fighters returned in answer to this message, and it was strongly suspected that there were not more to land."15
Of the 27 fighter planes of the Marine air group which intercepted the enemy bombers, 15 were missing and 7 severely damaged.16 They had, however, inflicted greater damage on the enemy. Known Japanese losses amounted to 43 planes by fighter action alone, exclusive of an unknown number shot down by our missing fliers. Pilots believed that there were at least three 27-plane formations at the beginning of the battle. In view of the relatively small number of bombs which fell on Midway, it is evident that these formations suffered large losses. Our antiaircraft batteries were credited with shooting down 10 planes, and many more were probably damaged so severely as to be unable to return to their carrier, for our flyers returning from their attack on the carriers reported many enemy planes down in the water.
In spite of their success, our pilots felt very strongly that their planes were inferior in performance to the Zeros. "All VMF pilots of various degrees of experience and capability were awed by the performance of
the Zero I Sento K1 fighter, claiming that it has 20 percent more speed, climb, and maneuverability than does the F2A-3 or F4F-3."17 "No local pilot has yet observed a fighter type aircraft with such versatility.... The only way our pilots could shake them off was to dive at speeds better than 400 knots, or to use cloud cover."18 Many pilots, however, remarked upon the extreme vulnerability of the Zero.
Damage to Midway had been severe. Almost all structures above the ground had been destroyed or badly damaged. The powerhouse had been hit, the hangar destroyed, and perhaps most serious, the gasoline system had been damaged, so that subsequent refueling of planes had to be done by hand. This involved a tremendous amount of labor, and for a while badly handicapped air operation. The Japanese fortunately spared the runways, apparently for their own anticipated use.
In the face of this devastation, however, the defenders of Midway could take comfort in the thought that they were striking back. The last Japanese plane had scarcely left Midway when our flyers opened their attack on the enemy carriers.
11 Group 22, Second Marine Aircraft wing, Fleet Marine Force.
12 From report of Maj. Verne J. McCaul, U.S.M.C. Group Executive Officer, Aircraft Group 22, Second Marine Aircraft Wing.
14 Observation post.
15 From the report of Lt. Col. Ira L. Kimes, U.S.M.C., Commanding Marine Aircraft Group TWENTY-TWO.
16 Missing in action: 13 F2A-3's and 2 F4F-3's. Severely damaged: 5 F2A-3's, and 2 F4F-3's.
17 From the report of Mai. Verne J. McCaul, U.S.M.C. Group Executive Officer, Marine Aircraft Group TWENTY-TWO.
18 From the report of Lt. Col. Ira L. Kimes, U.S.M.C., Commanding Marine Aircraft Group TWENTY-TWO.
Last updated: March 1, 2003Transcribed and formatted by Jerry Holden for the HyperWar Foundation