A tremendous Japanese naval power was spread across the western Pacific in the early hours of 4 June 1942.
The diversionary Aleutian operation comprised three elements: an invasion force of three escorted transports protected by two heavy cruisers; a carrier force formed of two light carriers; and a covering force of four older battleships.
The main Midway operation involved several distinct elements. An advanced submarine force, patrolling in three groups, formed a screen between Hawaii and Midway, its mission to intercept the US carriers. The latter, however, had sailed beyond, to their station north-east of Midway Atoll, before the submarines were in position.
The actual invasion force under Admiral Kondo comprised 12 escorted transports carrying 5,000 soldiers, supported by four heavy cruisers in close support, and one light carrier, two battleships, and four heavier cruisers in distant support.
Nagumo’s First Air Fleet included – in addition to the four big carriers with their 270 aircraft – two battleships, two heavy cruisers, and a screen of destroyers.
The main battle fleet, headed by Yamamoto in the giant battleship Yamato, comprised three battleships, a light carrier, and destroyers.
A problem with the Japanese plan – apart from the Aleutian ‘diversion’, which failed to distract the American admirals – was that it forfeited strategic flexibility in favour of an attack on a fixed objective.
The plan was a carefully calibrated distribution of force to achieve the capture of Midway: the naval strike-force, the escorted transports, the strategic reserve. It was not, first and foremost, a plan designed to draw the US carriers into a battle of annihilation against an overwhelming force.
The battle is best understood as a succession of separate air strikes. Though the opposing fleets were separated by 175 miles of ocean and never saw each other, the action, involving a succession of strikes by aircraft travelling at 250mph, unfolded at tremendous speed.
Phase 1 – 6.20, 4 June
Japanese air strike against Midway Atoll
In the early hours, Nagumo launched a total of 108 aircraft in a strike against US installations on Midway Atoll, holding a similar number in readiness for an attack on the US carrier fleet once it had been located.
Involved in the attack were nine squadrons of bombers, loaded with fragmentation bombs, escorted by four squadrons of Zeros.
Though American radar gave warning of the approaching enemy planes, there was little that could be done to meet them: the island was defended by obsolete fighters, two-thirds of which were destroyed. Heavy damage was inflicted on Midway’s military infrastructure. The Japanese squadrons returned to their carriers with only moderate losses.
Phase 2 – 7.10, 4 June
Second US air strike by land-based aircraft on Japanese fleet
Admiral Chester Nimitz responded to the Japanese attack on the US base by ordering Midway’s bombers to launch a second attack on Nagumo’s fleet.
This was as ineffective as the first strike the day before, but it had a similar effect, keeping Nagumo focused on the atoll rather than the US carrier fleet: the Japanese admiral ordered his aircraft loaded with fragmentation bombs for a second strike against Midway.
This would take time, however, for the decks were cluttered with torpedoes brought up from below for an intended strike on the US fleet.
Shortly afterwards came news that the US fleet had finally been located. The first report was delivered by reconnaissance aircraft at 7.28, and then a further report confirmed the presence of a carrier at 8.20. Finally, at 8.55, the Japanese scouts reported that US torpedo-bombers were in the air and bearing down on Nagumo’s ships.
The plan changed again, as fragmentation bombs were unloaded and replaced with torpedoes, the Japanese carrier decks a chaos of refuelling hoses, ordnance trolleys, aircraft, and frantic crew.
Phase 3 – 9.25, 4 June
First US air strike by carrier-borne aircraft on Japanese fleet
Enterprise and Hornet had launched their bombers at around 7 o’clock. Yorktown followed suit about an hour later. Just before 9.30, the first of around 150 American aircraft came into view of the Japanese carriers.
Two waves of US torpedo-bombers attacked the Japanese fleet in the succeeding minutes. The result was a massacre: all of Hornet’s and all but a handful of Enterprise’s torpedo-bombers were shot down by the Zero fighters buzzing over the Japanese fleet or by ship-based anti-aircraft guns.
The dive-bombers, confused by a Japanese change of course, failed to locate the enemy at all; some of these made it back to the carriers, but many ran out of fuel and ditched, as did many of the fighter escorts.
Some two-thirds of the US carrier fleet’s bombers had either been destroyed or repelled, whereas Nagumo’s airpower was substantially intact. At this moment, the Americans had lost the battle, and a massive Japanese air strike threatened all three of the US carriers.
Phase 4 – 10.00, 4 June
Second US air strike by carrier-borne aircraft on Japanese fleet
Yorktown’s bombers had taken off about an hour later than Enterprise’s and Hornet’s. They had struggled to find the Japanese fleet, navigating largely by guesswork, but they had then been drawn towards the smoke of battle as the first American air strikes went in.
Yorktown’s torpedo-bombers, however, fared no better than their predecessors. Forming what was, in effect, a third wave, they suffered a similar fate, with seven out of 12 aircraft shot down, bringing the carnage among the US torpedo-bombers to a total of 35 aircraft lost.
If the Japanese had retained any doubts about the outcome of the battle, there was little left now: their defensive screen of fighters and AA guns had proved impenetrable, and most of the attackers had been destroyed in the shooting gallery around the Japanese ships. Nagumo’s ships were somewhat scattered – having taken evasive action – but he had lost virtually no fighters at all and very few of his torpedo- or dive-bombers.
Phase 5 – 10.25, 4 June
The fatal five minutes
Nagumo’s Zeros had been operating close to sea-level, defending the Japanese ships against Yorktown’s torpedo-bombers. Suddenly, out of the sky, came 17 Douglas Dauntless dive-bombers from the USS Enterprise.
Led by Lieutenant-Commander Clarence W McClusky, they had lost contact with the rest of the US squadrons during their flight over some 175 miles of ocean and had taken the wrong course. By a combination of guesswork and luck, however, they had finally found their way to the Japanese fleet.
McClusky ordered his squadron, flying at about 14,500 feet, to dive and attack the Japanese ships. They were concealed in cloud until they reached to within just 3,000 feet of the enemy vessels: too late for an effective defensive response.
The decks of the aircraft carriers were cluttered with hoses, trolleys, high-octane fuel, high-explosive bombs, and aircraft with engines running.
Before the Zeros could climb to counter-attack this new threat, bombs were falling on the carrier decks, to be followed by terrific explosions and infernos of blast and flame sweeping across the stricken ships.
Fuchida Mitsuo, the naval air commander on the Japanese carrier Akagi, bore witness to what happened:
At 10.20, Admiral Nagumo gave the order to launch when ready. On Akagi’s flight deck, all planes were in position with engines warming up. The big ship began turning into the wind. Within five minutes, all her planes would be launched …
At 10.24, the order to start launching came from the bridge by voice-tube. The air officer flapped a white flag and the first Zero fighter gathered speed and whizzed off the deck.
At that instant, a lookout screamed, ‘Hell-divers!’ I looked up to see three black enemy planes plummeting towards our ship. Some of our machine-guns managed to fire a few frantic bursts at them, but it was too late. The plump silhouettes of the American Dauntless dive-bombers quickly grew larger, and then a number of black objects suddenly floated eerily from their wings.
Akagi was Nagumo’s flagship. One bomb blew a gigantic hole in the flight deck. Another smashed the elevator that brought planes up from the lower decks. A third set off a torpedo store. These strikes triggered a fire-cracker of explosions as bombs, torpedoes, engines, and petrol detonated across the carrier’s flight deck. Within 20 minutes, Akagi was a blazing wreck.
By now, two other Japanese carriers had been struck. Kaga had been hit by four bombs, and these had set alight the carrier’s store of aviation fuel. This vessel, too, was quickly reduced to a blazing wreck, and also had to be abandoned.
Soryu was the other carrier casualty. Hit by three bombs, a raging petrol fire ignited, bombs and ammunition exploded, and suddenly a tremendous blast hurled the deck crew overboard.
‘As soon as the fires broke out aboard ship,’ reported Admiral Nagumo after the battle,
the captain, Yanagimoto Ryusaku, appeared on the signal tower to the starboard of the bridge. He took command from this post and pleaded that his men seek shelter and safety. He would allow no man to approach him. Flames surrounded him, but he refused to give up his post. He was shouting ‘Banzai!’ over and over again when heroic death overtook him.
Soryu’s engines packed up and left her a sitting duck, aflame from bow to stern. She was torpedoed by an American submarine and sank at noon.
It had taken five minutes and involved just 34 American airmen – but Japan had now lost the battle, and also the war.
Phase 6 – 12.05, 4 June
Japanese air strikes on the USS Yorktown
The only remaining intact Japanese carrier was Hiryu, which now attempted a counter-attack, launching 18 bombers with an escort of Zeros. These found and attacked the US carrier Yorktown just after midday, inflicting heavy damage, and commencing a long-range duel between these two opposing carriers that would continue through the afternoon.
Hiryu launched a second strike against Yorktown at 13.30, the bombers arriving on target an hour later, on this occasion inflicting terminal damage. The ship was abandoned at 3 o’clock that afternoon, its returning planes being diverted to one of the two remaining US carriers.
Phase 7 – 17.00, 4 June
US air strikes on the Japanese carrier Hiryu
The remaining Japanese carrier had been located by a Yorktown reconnaissance plane as early as 13.30. Attacking planes, from Yorktown and the other US carriers, had been launched almost immediately, but it was not before late afternoon that Hiryu came under attack. The damage she then suffered was fatal.
Admiral Nagumo’s report described the end thus:
At 23.50, Captain Kaki Tomeo and Squadron Commander Rear-Admiral Yamaguchi Tamon delivered messages to the crew. This was followed by expressions of reverence and respect for the Emperor, the shouting of Banzais, the lowering of the battle and command flag.
At 00.15, all hands were ordered to abandon ship, His Imperial Highness’s portrait was removed, and the transfer of personnel to the destroyers Kazagumo and Makigumo put underway. The transfer of portrait and men was completed at 01.30.
After completion of the transfer operations, the Division Commander and Captain remained aboard ship. They waved their caps to their men and with complete composure joined their fate with that of their ship.
By this time, Soryu had already sunk (at 16.10), followed by Kaga (19.25). Akagi then sank the following morning, at 5.00, the Hiryu at 9.00. In sum, just over 12 hours after the battle began, all four Japanese carriers had suffered terminal damage, and less than 30 hours after it began, all four had sunk.
Attempts to salvage the crippled Yorktown were defeated when the US carrier was hit and sunk by submarine-launched torpedoes on 6 June 1942.
Yamamoto did not immediately abandon the struggle. His initial instinct was to bring up his battleships and seek a conventional naval battle, while ordering the other Japanese carriers to join him in support.
The Japanese admiral commanded a massive fleet of ten battleships, including his flagship, the Yamato, the most powerful warship afloat, with nine 18-inch guns. These were supported by a host of lesser vessels, and he could also call upon the services of four light carriers, two of them close at hand, two more in the Aleutians.
Fletcher and Spruance were, in fact, in great danger, their fleet comprising only two capital ships, the surviving carriers Enterprise and Hornet. A second phase to the battle was a real possibility, and had it been played out, the result might well have been a decisive Japanese victory. The US carriers were duly ordered back to Midway, seeking protection from Yamamoto’s fleet under an umbrella of land-based aircraft.
But when the Japanese commander-in-chief became aware of the disaster that had befallen Nagumo’s fleet, he changed his mind and sailed away. There can be little doubt about his reasoning: to continue the battle was to risk further losses of capital ships, and Yamamoto was aware that Japan would face a far harder struggle to make good any such losses than would the United States. Now facing the prospect of a long war of attrition against a far superior industrial power, Yamamoto opted for safety.
Long before, Yamamoto, who had always opposed all-out war with the United States, convinced that it was unwinnable, had prophesied that Imperial Japan might ‘run wild’ in the Pacific for six months, but that the balance of military power would then begin to shift decisively against her.
The reason was simple. Japan had the advantage of military preparedness and surprise in her opening blitzkrieg. The mood in the US was anti-war and isolationist. Military expenditure was at a relatively low ebb.
But the massive industrial and manpower potential of the US, once unleashed in a war backed by the people, would very soon begin to tell. So it turned out. Nagumo had lost four large carriers at Midway, and the Japanese would succeed in launching only six more between 1942 and 1944. The United States would launch 14 aircraft carriers in this period.
In all other respects also, US production exceeded not only that of Japan, but that of all the Axis powers combined, throughout the remaining three years of the Second World War. The struggle would be agonisingly slow and bloody – against an opponent fighting a relentless defensive war with unsurpassed determination – but the final outcome was certain after 4 June 1942.
Midway was the decisive battle in the Pacific War. And it is quite literally true that the turning-point in this epic three-and-a-half-year struggle to dominate the greatest battle-space on Earth was the ‘fatal five minutes’ of Lieutenant-Commander McClusky’s 17-plane attack on Admiral Nagumo’s carrier fleet.
Midway on film
Midway (1976) A 130-minute epic with spectacular combat footage directed by Jack Smight and starring a host of leading American actors, including Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Glenn Ford, James Coburn, and Robert Wagner.
It appealed to military buffs more than film critics. Sight and Sound, the authoritative film magazine, described it thus: ‘We are over-informed about the movements of every ship and plane, under-informed about how the battle was finally won, and positively swamped with tedious human interest.’
Midway (2019) The new film, by leading director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Patriot, White House Down), will be released on 8 November. Trailers can easily be found online. The CGI special effects look stunning.