By this decision, Nagumo doomed his force to destruction,” wrote prominent World War II historian Ronald H. Spector, for Nagumo lost his race against time. Unlike Spruance, who immediately launched his aircraft, Nagumo hesitated and invited defeat.
America’s Fate In Hands Of 240 Pilots
“If I do not come back—well, you and the little girls can know that this squadron struck for the highest objective in naval warfare—To Sink the Enemy.’” So wrote Commander John C. Waldron to his wife mere hours before climbing into his torpedo plane to lead the Hornet’s Torpedo Squadron Eight into battle with the Japanese. He had no idea what fate awaited him, but understood that he and his men had to do whatever they could to stop the enemy’s advance.
Aboard Yorktown, Lieutenant Dick Crowell voiced the message in even simpler terms when he bluntly told that carrier’s aviators, “The fate of the United States now rests in the hands of two hundred and forty pilots.”
Newspaper reporter Robert J. Casey, accompanying the American carriers to write an account for the people back home, asked one officer for his opinion of the aviators who piloted the old, slow-moving torpedo planes. “They don’t stand any watches,” he replied. “They don’t have to go out and do patrol jobs. They don’t have any dogfights to worry about. They may sit around playing poker for a month before they have to go out…. Then they go out and they don’t come back.”
These men, and others who braved enemy antiaircraft fire and fighters to swoop down on Nagumo’s carriers, altered the fortunes of war. Few returned, but the legacy they left behind remains to this day, for without their valor and sacrifice the Pacific War would have taken an ominous turn for the United States.
Eager to strike first, Spruance had again abandoned hopes of a coordinated assault. Instead, similar to the earlier American strikes, aircraft from the three American carriers arrived over Nagumo’s force at varying times and different altitudes. Rather than one powerful thrust, the pilots descended in a series of individual charges.
Waldron had instructed the men in his unit’s 15 obsolescent Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo planes, “If there is only one plane left to make a final run in, I want that man to go in and get a hit.” When he spotted three of the enemy carriers, he wiggled his wings as the sign to descend closer to the water so they could deliver their torpedoes.
The Heroism Of Torpedo Squadron Eight
Thirty Japanese fighters immediately challenged Torpedo Squadron Eight as the cumbersome torpedo planes started their slow approach from eight miles distant. Enemy aircraft zipped by on all sides, with angry guns spitting bullets toward the Americans, while thick antiaircraft fire churned the ocean surface.
“He went straight for the Japanese fleet as if he had a string tied to them,” recalled Torpedo Squadron Eight pilot Ensign George Gay. Below, Fuchida watched from Akagi as the 15 American aircraft bravely attacked. “Their distant wings flashed in the sun,” he later wrote. “Occasionally one of the specks burst into a spark of flame and trailed black smoke as it fell into the water.”
With Commander Waldron in the vanguard, the 15 planes droned toward their target. From his cockpit, Ensign Gay saw enemy shells rip into Waldron’s left gas tank and ignite the fuel. Moments before the commander’s aircraft spun into the ocean, Gay noticed Waldron and his radioman madly trying to free themselves from the blazing plane.
The Survivors Continued To Fight On
Other American aircraft quickly disintegrated under a hail of Japanese fire or plummeted into the ocean, but the survivors continued on. Soon, Gay piloted the only torpedo plane remaining. He ignored the bullets, shells, and Japanese fighters in hopes of delivering a torpedo.
They got me,” cried his radioman, Bob Huntington. When Gay turned around to check on his companion, a sharp stab burned his left arm. Although wounded, he held the plane steady long enough to launch his torpedo from what seemed yards from a carrier, jerked the craft upward with all his might, cleared the enemy ship by 10 feet, and sped away on the other side. Unfortunately, four Japanese fighters jumped on his tail and peppered his aircraft with fire. Gay spun into the sea a quarter-mile from the carrier.
Bleeding from his wounds but alive, Gay managed to free himself from the cockpit and float away from the sinking airplane. He grabbed a seat cushion that floated nearby to use as a shield. Gay, the lone survivor of Torpedo Squadron Eight, had landed right in the middle of the enemy fleet.
Throwing Japanese Carriers Into Disarray
Although Gay’s unit failed to hit the Japanese carriers, they threw the enemy ships into disarray and drew the enemy fighters down near sea level. No sooner had Waldron’s squadron ended its charge when 14 Enterprise Devastators led by Commander Eugene E. Lindsey attacked. Japanese fire destroyed 10 of the 14 American aircraft, and again no hits were recorded on the carriers, but as with Waldron’s, the assault confounded the Japanese and all but halted the rearming process ordered by Nagumo. Torpedoes, bombs, and fuel hoses dangerously littered the flight decks of each carrier.
In a third successive charge, Commander Lance E. Massey arrived with 12 Yorktown Devastators and fighter protection as Lindsey delivered his attack. Fighter pilot Commander James Thach recalled, “The air was just like a beehive…” as Japanese and American aircraft sped toward each other, and he quickly realized how outnumbered he and his men were. “I was utterly convinced then that there weren’t any of us coming back because there were still so many Zeros.”
American Dive Bombers To the Rescue
His fears seemed to materialize as 10 of the 12 Yorktown torpedo planes tumbled into the ocean without scoring any hits. Wherever he turned, Thach spotted more enemy fighters, but the determined aviator thought, “We’re going to take a lot of them with us if they’re going to get us all.” At that moment a glittering image from above distracted Thach, and he looked up to see “this glint in the sun and it just looked like a beautiful silver waterfall; these dive bombers coming down.”
Nagumo’s worst fear had suddenly materialized. He had been caught by American dive- bombers with his flight decks jammed with aircraft, fuel hoses, and stacked ordnance. He could do nothing but hope his antiaircraft fire brought down the enemy planes before they hit his carriers.
Thirty-seven Douglas SBD Dauntless dive- bombers from Enterprise, led by Lt. Cmdr. Wade McClusky, and 17 Yorktown Dauntlesses, commanded by Lt. Cmdr. Maxwell F. Leslie, simultaneously arrived over the Japanese Fleet and attacked at right angles to each other. Since the torpedo planes had drawn the Japanese fighters to wavetop level, the dive-bombers could attack from on high without worrying about being intercepted. A series of fortunate events and the sheer courage of the torpedo plane pilots had resulted in a brief window of opportunity for the attackers.
Fuchida Watches In Horror
McClusky directed his men toward the carriers Akagi and Kaga. One by one, the 37 aircraft screamed down at their targets. Two bombs ripped into the Akagi’s flight deck and detonated Japanese bombs and torpedoes stacked on it. Within seconds the carrier was engulfed by flames. Other Enterprise dive- bombers planted four bombs on Kaga, including one that demolished the island superstructure and killed most of the officers on the bridge. Scorching fires quickly spread throughout the carrier and trapped numerous members of the crew in a fiery death.
Fuchida watched in horror as the Americans pounded the carriers. “The terrifying scream of the dive bombers reached me first, followed by the crashing of a direct hit. There was a blinding flash and then a second explosion much louder than the first.” Fuchida expected more to occur, but in an instant the attack ended. The noise was “followed by a startling quiet as the barking guns suddenly ceased. I got up and looked at the sky. The enemy planes were already gone from sight.”
As Fuchida gazed at the twisted flight deck, mangled bodies, and burning aircraft, tears coursed down his face. The officer later said he “was horrified at the destruction that had been wrought in a matter of seconds.” Reluctantly, Nagumo transferred to another ship while Akagi’s captain lashed himself to a bulkhead to go down with his carrier.
Carriers Methodically Destroyed
While McClusky’s aviators swarmed about the Akagi and Kaga, Leslie selected a third carrier, the Soryu, as his target and guided his 17 dive-bombers toward the quarry. Though he claimed that bombing a ship from the air was “like trying to drop a marble from eye-level on a scared mouse,” Leslie and his men quickly planted three bombs onto the carrier’s flight deck. In an instant, explosions and flames swallowed the Soryu’s surface, and within 20 minutes the crew started to abandon the sinking ship.