0700 Enterprise and Hornet begin launching. 0838 Yorktown begins launching. 0920 Hornet's torpedo squadron attacks. 1020 Enterprise and Yorktown torpedo squadrons attack. 1022 Enterprise dive bombers attack. 1025 Yorktown dive bombers attack. 1359 Nautilus torpedoes Soryu.
The situation as the last of the Midway planes withdrew is summed up in the report of Admiral Nimitz: "The Midway forces had struck with full strength, but the Japanese were not as yet checked. About 10 ships had been damaged, of which 1 or 2 AP or AK may have been sunk. But this was hardly an impression on the great force of about 80 ships converging on Midway. Most of Midway's fighters, torpedo planes, and dive bombers - the only types capable of making a high percentage of hits on ships - were gone, and 3 of the Japanese carriers were still either undamaged or insufficiently so to hamper operations. This was the situation when our carrier attack began."
The two task forces under Admiral Fletcher had made contact at 1530 on June 2d at latitude 32°04' N., longitude 172°45' W., about 350 miles northeast of Midway. That night both moved westward, Task Force SUGAR operating about 10 miles to the south. On the 3d, while our carriers moved northward, messages were received both from Midway and from the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, with information of the enemy force sighted to the west of Midway. It was evident, however, that this was not the enemy's striking force, which was expected from the northwest. While the Enterprise and Hornet held their planes in readiness as an attack force, the Yorktown's planes conducted a search through the sector from 240° to 060°. Rain squalls and low visibility made the search difficult and there were no results.
During the night of June 3d-4th our task forces moved south-southwest to a position about 200 miles north of Midway. It was hoped that they would be able to catch the enemy striking force on the flank when it launched its anticipated attack on the islands. At 0420 on June 4th the Yorktown launched a security search of the sector to the north and put a fighter patrol into the air. The Enterprise, 5 or 10 miles to the southwest with Task Force SUGAR, took over direction of fighters.
At 0545 the task forces intercepted the Midway patrol plane's report of enemy planes approaching the island and shortly afterwards the report of two enemy carriers and supporting vessels, including battleships, on bearing 320°, 180 miles from Midway. Task Force SUGAR was at once directed to move westward and to launch attacks when it came within range of this force. Because it had planes in the air, and because only two enemy carriers had been reported, the Yorktown's planes were temporarily held in reserve.
Task Force SUGAR headed toward the enemy force at 25 knots. By 0700 it was estimated that the Japanese carriers were about 155 miles distant on bearing 239° from the task force, and launching was begun. Unfortunately the wind was light from the southeast, so that our carriers had to turn away from the enemy for launching and for relieving combat patrols. The order of launching was (1) fighters for patrol; (2) dive bombers; (3) torpedo planes; and (4) fighters to accompany the torpedo planes. Deferred departure was used, and the launching required about an hour. The Hornet put into the air 35 scout bombers armed with 500-pound bombs, 15 torpedo planes with torpedoes and 10 fighters. The Enterprise launched 33 scout bombers, 14 torpedo planes and 10 fighters.
Of the scout bombers, 15 carried one 1,000-pound bomb each, 12 carried one 500- and two 100-pound bombs, and 6 carried one 500-pound bomb each.
Meanwhile, no more enemy carriers had been reported and the danger arose that the Yorktown might be caught with her planes on deck. Therefore at about 0840 all the torpedo squadron (12 VTB), half the bomber squadron (17 VSB), and 6 fighters were launched. The 17 remaining scout bombers were held in reserve in the hope that 2 more enemy carriers might be found. Each torpedo plane carried one MK13 torpedo and each bomber one 1,000-pound bomb. The torpedo planes headed for the target at once. The scout bombers were ordered to circle for 12 minutes before proceeding to overtake the torpedo planes. To conserve fuel, the fighters were not launched till 0905. The three squadrons effected rendezvous at 0945 as they proceeded toward the target, which they found at the same time as did the Enterprise group.
Before our carriers had completed launching their planes they were probably sighted by an enemy seaplane. Thus it was essential that our planes reach the enemy carriers before their planes could return from Midway and refuel for a second attack, which would almost certainly be directed at our carriers. It was possibly because of our carriers having been sighted that the Japanese carriers turned northward instead of continuing their course toward Midway.
This reversal of the course of the enemy carriers occurred about an hour after our planes had left the Hornet and the Enterprise. Our carriers did not break radio silence to inform our pilots of this fact. Consequently, the planes failed to find the enemy. The Hornet group commander with his 35 scout bombers and 10 fighters turned to search toward the south and made no contact. All the fighters exhausted their gasoline and landed in the sea before reaching Midway, but 8 pilots were rescued. All but 2 of the dive bombers eventually returned to the Hornet. Thirteen reached Midway, where 2 landed in the lagoon. The remaining 11 refueled and returned to the Hornet.
The Hornet's torpedo squadron, led by Lt. Comdr. John C. Waldron, had proceeded at a lower altitude and became separated from the rest of the group, although there were only scattered clouds. This squadron turned north, found the enemy carriers, and launched an attack without support of any kind. When this attack was made, at about 0920, there were four carriers in the group. The Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu were not far apart, the last damaged and smoking. The fourth, the
Hiryu, was standing off a distance to the north. Another ship, probably the battleship hit by the Marine SBU's an hour earlier, was also damaged and smoking. In the formation were two more battleships, four cruisers, and six destroyers.
As Torpedo EIGHT drove in toward the target it encountered overwhelming fighter opposition. A moment later it ran into a heavy screen of antiaircraft fire thrown up by the destroyers and cruisers. One by one our planes fell, but those that were left pressed home the attack. It is known20 that they shot down some Japanese fighters and scored some hits. Of the 15 planes, not one returned from the attack. Only one pilot, Ensign George H. Gay, survived. After attacking and probably scoring a hit on the Kaga, he crashed near the Akagi. By hiding under a floating seat cushion and refraining from inflating his life raft till after dark, he saved his own life and witnessed the succeeding attacks by our carrier forces.
Ensign Gay had been in the water less than an hour when the Enterprise and Yorktown groups arrived. The Enterprise torpedo squadron had been launched at about 0749 and proceeded independently to the target. On the way it lost its fighter escort of 10 F4F-4's, which later joined the Yorktown's torpedo squadron, so that the Enterprise's Torpedo SIX also launched its attack without protection. At about 1000 it sighted the Japanese force, but the fourth carrier was not visible from the low altitude at which they were flying. At the time of contact, the enemy ships were on a course of 270°, but as our planes appeared they turned to starboard, shifting their course to 000° and, before our planes dropped, to 180°. This maneuver kept our planes on their quarter, forcing them to make a wide circle in their attempt to approach on the beam of the carriers. This prolonged the time of their exposure to antiaircraft and fighter fire. Choosing the carrier to the west as their target, our planes attacked under fire from about 25 fighters and passing through an extremely heavy antiaircraft barrage. Probably the majority of them never had a chance to drop their torpedoes, but the attack is thought to have produced one hit.
At the same time that this was taking place, the Yorktown's torpedo squadron was making its attack. The squadron, led by Lt. Comdr. Lance E. Massey, had been launched about 0845. En route to the target it had been overtaken, as planned, by the rest of the Yorktown
group, and had proceeded at about 1,500 feet, with two fighters 1,000 feet above and four at 5,000-6,000 feet as a further covering force. At about 1000 (approximately the same moment as the Enterprise squadron) this squadron sighted enemy ships. While still about 14 miles from their target they were engaged by Zero fighters and dropped to 150 feet to avoid antiaircraft fire.
Our own fighters were able to give them some protection in the early stages of the approach, but were soon engaged by superior numbers and became separated from the torpedo squadron. From a point about a mile east of an enemy carrier the squadron commander turned in for the attack. As he turned he was shot down in flames by an enemy fighter, but the remainder of the squadron pressed on. Six more fell on the way and only five remained to launch their torpedoes. Three more fell a moment later. The attack was, however, effective. The commander of the fighter squadron saw three torpedo hits on the large carrier to the east and one on the smaller carrier near the center of the formation.
Three enemy carriers had been under torpedo attack, and probably all had been hit. The fourth, a few miles to the north, had escaped for the time being. But our torpedo squadrons had paid heavily. The Hornet's VT-8 had been wiped out. Of the 14 planes in the Enterprise squadron (VT-6) only 4 returned, and of the Yorktown's 12 planes constituting VT-3 only 2 survived the attack.
This sacrifice had, however, two beneficial results. First, the attacks forced the Japanese carriers to maneuver so that they could not launch their own bombers. Secondly, the Japanese, recognizing the greater menace of the torpedo planes, concentrated their fighters on the low-flying VT's so that few were in position to interfere when our dive bombers arrived.
The dive bomber attack was intended to coincide with the torpedo attack, and very nearly did so. Whether the torpedo squadrons would have been spared such severe losses if the dive bombers had come 2 or 3 minutes sooner is an unanswerable question. At any rate, the few surviving torpedo planes were scarcely clear when the dive bombing squadrons from both the Enterprise and the Yorktown began their attack.
The Enterprise air group, like that of the Hornet, had failed to find the enemy carriers in the expected position because of their reversal of course. But their group commander, Lt. Comdr. Clarence W. McClusky, Jr.,
making "the most important decision of the entire action," turned northward. After searching for 45 minutes from an altitude of 19,000 feet, he sighted the Japanese force at 1002. Four carriers were observed, and (both Enterprise and Yorktown pilots were definite on this point) no
Approximate disposition of Japanese carriers at time of dive-bombing attacks by Enterprise and Yorktown squadrons.
damage was visible at the initial contact or during their dive. At 1022 the attack was made by sections on two of these carriers on the west of the formation. The group commander's section and VS-6, each plane of which was armed with one 500-pound and two 100-pound bombs, took as
their target the carrier to the northwest. This ship (probably the Kaga) lay on the left as our planes approached from the south. At least eight direct hits were observed. The planes of the first division of VB-6, each armed with one 1,000-pound bomb, took the carrier to the right, which they believed was the Akagi, and scored at least three hits. Both carriers burst into flame. The second division, which had temporarily withheld its attack, now dove on the carrier to the left. Several hits with 1,000-pound bombs produced violent explosions. The third division attacked both carriers, scoring further hits.
Antiaircraft fire was light and there was no fighter opposition until after bombs had been dropped because of the preceding torpedo attack, which had drawn down the enemy fighters. As the dive bombers pulled out, however, they were attacked by Zero and Messerschmitt type fighters and were at the same time subjected to concentrated antiaircraft fire from the screening vessels. Of the 33 SBD's, 18 failed to return, but it is thought that most of these were forced down on the water when they ran out of fuel.
At the same moment that the Enterprise squadron was attacking the two enemy carriers to the west, the one to the east was under attack by Yorktown planes. This squadron (VB-3) consisted of 17 scout bombers, each with one 1,000-pound bomb. It had proceeded with the rest of the Yorktown attack group and had sighted the enemy at about 1000. At 1020 it had lost contact with the torpedo squadron, which was then attacking. At 1025 VB-3 was ordered to attack. From about 14,500 feet the bombers opened their dive on a carrier which pilots believed was of the Akagi class. The carrier was turning southward into the wind in an attempt to launch her planes. As the first Japanese plane started to take off our first bomb exploded in the midst of the planes assembled on deck, turning the after part of the flight deck into a mass of flames. Five direct hits and three near hits followed as our planes dove from the south on the ships' fore-and-aft line. Four planes of the squadron, seeing the carrier so badly damaged, transferred their attack to a cruiser and a battleship nearby, scoring a hit on the stern and a near hit on each. The battleship was left smoking and the cruiser stopped. There was no fighter opposition until after the dive, and our planes withdrew at high speed low over the water, dodging heavy antiaircraft fire. The entire squadron returned safely to the Yorktown.
The fighters which accompanied the Yorktown group were too heavily outnumbered to give full protection. They did, however, shoot down six Zeros and possibly a seventh. A torpedo bomber rear gunner was seen to shoot down an eighth. Of the fighters, two planes were lost, one crash-landed on the Hornet, and the rest returned to the Yorktown.
The results of Midway's and our carriers' attacks of June 4th on the enemy's striking force were as follows:
3 carriers: Akagi, Kaga, Soryu set on fire and ultimately destroyed.
2 battleships: one 1,000-lb. hit, one a mass of flames.
1 light cruiser or destroyer: one 1,000-lb. hit, believed destroyer sunk.
The fourth carrier, the Hiryu had withdrawn to the north undamaged. Badly as it had been hit, the Soryu survived the bombing to receive its coup de grace from a submarine. Our submarines had been notified that morning of the Japanese attack force northwest of Midway, and nine were ordered to close the enemy. The Grouper found the enemy force, but did not attack because of plane and depth-bomb attacks. The Nautilus,21 after doggedly trailing a force of enemy battleships and cruisers, made an unsuccessful attack and was heavily depth charged in return. Then at 1029 she sighted columns of smoke on the horizon, coming from the enemy carriers which had just been dive-bombed by our carrier forces. Upon closing, the Nautilus encountered the Soryu, now on even keel with the hull apparently undamaged. She was smoking, but there were no flames and the fires seemed under control. She was making 2-3 knots, accompanied by two cruisers when the Nautilus approached and at 1359 fired three torpedoes into her. The cruisers at once made a heavy depth-charge attack. When this passed the Nautilus rose to periscope depth and found the carrier completely aflame and abandoned. She sank at 1840.
The Yorktown's bombers had not been on board long after their return from attacking the enemy carriers when they were ordered to get clear. The Yorktown was about to be attacked. Our planes took off to the eastward and subsequently landed on the Enterprise, except for two planes which were forced by lack of fuel to land on the water.
20 From voice intercepts heard by Leroy Quillen, ARM 3c, Bombing Squadron EIGHT.
21 Commanded by Lt. Comdr. William H. Brockman, Jr.
Last updated: March 1, 2003Transcribed and formatted by Jerry Holden for the HyperWar Foundation