Four Carriers Lost: How America Turned the Tide Against Imperial Japan

By Unknown author - U.S. Navy photo 80-G-13065, Public Domain,
April 3, 2020 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IITechnologyJapanAmericaMidwayHistory

Four Carriers Lost: How America Turned the Tide Against Imperial Japan

It all happened at Midway.

Yamamoto Counts Unhatched Chickens

Spruance faced an imposing challenge, for Yamamoto had assembled 11 battleships, 8 aircraft carriers, 22 cruisers, 65 destroyers, and 21 submarines for the operation. The Japanese admiral hoped to quickly destroy his adversary, then use his enormous reputation to convince government leaders to offer the United States some concessions to remove them from the war before her industrial might started churning out war materiel in quantities Japan could never match.

Unfortunately for the Japanese, a series of chance occurrences combined to influence the battle’s outcome even before the first shots were fired. Yamamoto learned from increased American radio activity that a strong enemy force might be in Hawaiian waters rather than still out of the way near Australia, but he chose not to alert Admiral Nagumo, who guided the advance force of four carriers, in order to maintain radio silence. Nagumo steamed toward Midway thinking he faced minimal opposition.

Unaware Nagumo Heads Towards Midway

Japanese submarines arrived at their observation posts surrounding the Hawaiian island of Oahu, but missed spotting the American fleet by one day. Planned aerial reconnaissance of Pearl Harbor had to be canceled when Japanese submarines discovered an American seaplane tender at French Frigate Shoals, from which they hoped to position their own observation planes. Consequently, having heard nothing to the contrary, Nagumo continued confidently toward Midway.

On the morning of June 3, Ensign Jack Reid piloted his scout plane from Midway on search patrol over the huge blue expanse of the Pacific. Suddenly, a string of ships appeared on the horizon. “Do you see what I see?” he asked his copilot. Reid had sighted the transports and destroyers of the Midway Invasion Force. Although a group of Army bombers from Midway attacked these ships, they inflicted little damage. Spruance was after bigger game, anyway. The Japanese carriers had to be somewhere in the area.

Pilots On Both Sides Rise Early and Enjoy Hearty a Breakfast

Anticipating that June 4 would bring together both sides in a life-or-death struggle, American and Japanese aviators awakened early in the morning to prepare for battle. U.S. Navy aviators enjoyed a hearty breakfast of steak and eggs, while their Japanese counterparts munched on rice, soybean soup, and chestnuts. At 4:30 am Nagumo launched 72 bombers and 36 fighters to attack Midway, while retaining 126 aircraft in case any American ships appeared. He ordered these planes to be loaded with armor-piercing bombs and torpedoes, the normal armament for use against steel-laden ships.

At the same time, Nagumo sent search planes aloft to look for any American naval vessels. Every search plane launched immediately except one from the cruiser Tone, which finally soared into the air 30 minutes late due to catapult problems. That slight delay would have major repercussions on the coming battle.

Japanese aircraft hit Midway but failed to knock out many vital targets. As the planes headed back to Nagumo’s carriers, the strike commander radioed that a second strike against Midway would be needed.

Japanese Carrier Group Sighted

Shortly after Nagumo dispatched his first air attack, Lieutenant Howard Ady emerged from a cloud bank in his Consolidated PBY Catalina search plane from Midway. He could hardly believe what he saw on the ocean below. Spread out before his astonished eyes were Nagumo’s aircraft carriers and supporting ships, which he said was “like watching a curtain rising on the Biggest Show on Earth.” He immediately relayed the information to Spruance aboard the Enterprise.

The controlled admiral calmly unrolled a large sheet of paper called a maneuvering board and plotted on it the range and bearing of the enemy aircraft. Spruance then used his thumb and index finger to estimate that the two forces stood 175 miles apart, barely inside the range of his torpedo planes. As other officers scampered from post to post in an effort to gain more information, Spruance looked up and quietly ordered, “Launch the attack.”

Although the distance would stretch the capabilities of his aircraft and would limit the time they could search for Nagumo’s carriers, Spruance decided the element of surprise far outweighed any risk. Besides, he hoped his planes would catch his adversary in the midst of recovering the Midway attack force.

Locked In a Deadly Race

With half his force airborne and circling, waiting for the rest to launch, Spruance learned that a Japanese scout plane had spotted the American carriers. Now in a deadly race to hit the enemy before he was hit, at 7:45 Spruance ordered the planes aloft to immediately head toward the Japanese without waiting for the rest of the American attack force. This decision meant that Spruance’s aircraft would not hit the enemy in a coordinated assault, but he hoped that striking first was more important than hitting in strength.

Steaming aboard the Yorktown 25 miles behind, Admiral Fletcher launched his dive- bombers and torpedo planes 30 minutes after Spruance. As a result, four different American forces flew at the Japanese, two from Spruance, one from Fletcher, and land-based aircraft from Midway. By 8:30, 157 American carrier aircraft sped toward the unsuspecting Nagumo, while not one Japanese plane headed toward the American carriers.

Nagumo faced an important decision. He had been told that a second strike against Midway was necessary, but the aircraft sitting on his decks were armed with bombs and torpedoes meant for use against ships. If he decided to send them against Midway Island, he would have to rearm the planes with the high-explosive bombs employed against land targets. This switch would require at least one hour and would leave him in a precarious position should American carrier aircraft appear. So far, none of his search planes had spotted enemy carriers.

Stunned By Unescorted American Bombers

While Nagumo pondered these thoughts, six American torpedo planes and four bombers from Midway attacked. As the planes descended, Japanese Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who had earlier led the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, watched in fascination from the aircraft carrier Akagi. He noticed that, contrary to normal procedure, the American aircraft attacked without benefit of fighter protection, a suicidal maneuver in Fuchida’s opinion. He later wrote, “Still they kept coming in, flying low over the water. Black bursts of antiaircraft fire blossomed all around them, but none of the raiders went down. As Akagi’s guns commenced firing, three Zeros braved our own fire and dove on the Americans. In a moment’s time, three of the enemy were aflame and splashed into the water, raising three tall columns of smoke. The three remaining planes kept bravely on and finally released their torpedoes.”

One by one the heroic American pilots and their aircraft swooned into the sea or exploded in pieces. One plane crashed into Akagi’s deck without doing much damage, and only three aircraft returned from this initial encounter. Although the planes did little damage, Nagumo decided that he must hit Midway a second time to remove it as a threat to his carriers. The admiral ordered his waiting aircraft sent below to be rearmed.

A Difficult Decision

The switch was already under way when potentially disastrous news reached Nagumo. The tardy Tone scout plane radioed the presence of 10 enemy ships. According to Fuchida, the unexpected news hit Nagumo “like a bolt out of the blue.” The Midway attack planes were expected back within 10 minutes. Nagumo could order those planes, low on fuel, to circle the carriers while the rearming for a second strike against Midway was completed, but this would doom many to splash into the ocean. Or he could halt the rearming and land the aircraft from Midway, which would not only delay launching an attack against the American naval forces, but also place him in danger of being caught by enemy aircraft while landing his planes.

Nagumo sent a message to the Tone pilot asking if the 10 ships included any carriers. Before he received a response, three waves of American aircraft descended upon Nagumo’s ships. First, Major Lofton Henderson led 16 Marine Corps dive-bombers from Midway in an attack. Nagumo’s fighter cover and antiaircraft fire shot down eight of the 16, and the other eight departed without inflicting any damage to the Japanese.

American Bombs Scatter Japanese Carriers

Henderson’s dive-bombers had barely finished when 15 Army Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers from Midway, commanded by Lt. Col. Walter C. Sweeney, flew overhead at 8:10 am and released their load of bombs. Every missile smacked harmlessly into the ocean, but the attack forced Nagumo’s ships to swerve out of order to avoid being hit and caused more consternation for the already worried commander. Ten minutes later, 11 additional American aircraft under Major Benjamin Norris assaulted Nagumo’s fleet without doing any damage.

As Norris’s planes struck at the enemy, Nagumo received a response from the Tone scout plane stating, “Enemy force accompanied by what appears to be an aircraft carrier bringing up the rear.” The presence of an American carrier posed serious difficulties for Nagumo. When subordinates promised Nagumo that the entire Midway strike force could be recovered in 30 minutes, Nagumo gambled on landing the planes returning from Midway, then rearming every aircraft for a strike against the enemy ships. All he had to do was get through the next half hour, and he thought victory would be his.