This is the second part of a two-part summary of the Battle of Midway, which occurred 80 years ago this month. Part 1 can be found here.
By midmorning on June 4, 1942, the Japanese naval command must have felt pretty satisfied. Their plan to entrap and ambush American naval aircraft carriers near the island of Midway in the middle of the Pacific Ocean seemed to be working. The attacks from American aircraft had been fended off without much damage to their own ships.
The tide was about to turn, however, and it would turn quickly and dramatically.
What the Japanese did not realize is that an American fleet of attack airplanes was hovering high above the Japanese carriers, awaiting an opportunity to strike. While the American air and torpedo attacks had appeared to be a failure, they had occupied the Japanese aircraft carriers and kept them off-balance. The commanders on these carriers were unable to prepare and launch counterstrikes. The American attacks had also disrupted the positioning and sequence of additional Japanese aircraft attacks.
Squadrons of American dive bombers spent the morning searching for Japanese carriers. By chance the commander of one of these squadrons happened to see the wake of the Japanese destroyer Arashi, which was steaming at full speed to rejoin the Japanese carriers. That commander, Wade McClusky, decided to follow the destroyer, a decision that Admiral Chester Nimitz later said “decided the fate of our carrier task force.”
As it happened and with good luck shifting to the American side, three American bomber squadrons arrived above the carriers almost simultaneously. They were perfectly positioned to mount simultaneous attacks. Most of the air defenses for the Japanese carriers were off chasing another American squadron.
At about 10:22 in the morning, an American air dive bombing squadron attacked the Kaga and another attacked the Akagi. Within minutes, the Japanese carriers were engulfed in flames. The Japanese carrier Akagi took only one direct hit, but it was a fatal blow because the bomb struck the edge of the midship deck elevator and penetrated to the upper hangar deck. There it exploded, setting off multiple explosions and fires because of the armed and fueled aircraft that were nearby. Japanese naval fire crews were not especially well-trained or in place to deal with such damage. A third American squadron attacked Sōryū, scoring at least three hits and causing extensive damage.
All of this happened within the space of about 10 minutes. The Japanese eventually mounted a counterattack, and so did the Americans. There was a great deal of fighting left to be done that day, with many casualties being taken on both sides. But those few minutes determined the ultimate fate of the battle.
At the end of the day, the United States had lost one of its aircraft carriers, the Yorktown, and a destroyer, the Hammann. About 300 Americans had been killed in all the actions.
The Japanese navy fared far worse. They lost four of their fleet carriers, one heavy cruiser, and suffered significant damage to a second heavy cruiser. Some 248 aircraft were lost. More than 3,000 sailors and aviators were killed.
The results of the Battle of Midway were clear and decisive. There was no doubt that it was an American victory and a significant one at that. It was an important first step in halting the Japanese hegemony in the Pacific Ocean. But it was only a first step. There was much more fighting and many more casualties on both sides before the war would finally end three years later.
Illustration: USS Hammann
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