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Recommended Reading


The Unknown Battle of Midway


Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway

The Battle of Midway
The Battle of Midway – Prelude and Aftermath
By Nitin K. Shankar

During the last 65 years, the United States was attacked twice – on December 7, 1941 and September 11, 2001 – and, in both cases, eventually relied on aircraft carrier power to attack the source of the aggression.

When the 9/11 attack took place, the carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65) had just been relieved from service in the Indian Ocean and was heading back to her homeport in Norfolk, Va. On hearing about the attack, the Enterprise, without an order from the chain of command, turned around and headed back to Southwest Asian waters. For the next three weeks, aircraft from Enterprise flew nearly 700 missions launching air attacks against al Qaeda and Taliban military camps in Afghanistan. It was a quick response that showed the reach of American aircraft carrier power.

The American response to the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor was less quick. It was a time when the Navy still considered aircraft carriers to be auxiliary fleet vessels rather then primary naval attack weapons. Within six months of the Pearl Harbor attack, the US Pacific Fleet's bold initiatives would establish a new strategic role for carriers.

The Carriers were Away from Pearl Harbor

The US fleet still had a "battleship" mindset when the Japanese mounted history's first aircraft carrier strike on December 7, 1941 and, in 110 minutes over Oahu, forever altered the rules of naval warfare.

The strike was launched from Admiral Chuichi Nagumo's task force of six carriers - Shokaku, Zuikaku, Kaga, Akagi, Hiryu, and Soryu – carrying 432 planes and accompanied by two battleships, which had left the Kuriles on November 26 and steamed unseen through the northern Pacific towards Hawaii.

Eleven days later, just before 6:00 a.m. (Hawaiian time), the carriers launched the first wave of 183 planes. The Americans were totally unprepared; all Army planes were jammed together, drained of fuel, with ammunition removed for protection against sabotage. Despite a November 27 war warning, the fleet, under Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, had granted normal peacetime liberty. The Army, under Lt. General Walter C. Short, ran its six radar stations on training basis only and did not have ready ammunition at its antiaircraft batteries.

Kimmel and Short were playing golf when the first of two air strikes took place. The first wave, escorted by 43 Zero fighters, consisted of 51 dive-bombers, 40 torpedo planes and 49 high-level bombers, which attacked naval targets. The second wave, escorted by 36 Zeroes, consisted of 78 dive bombers, which attacked ships, while 54 level bombers attacked the army airbases.

When the Japanese left, 2,403 persons were dead, 1,178 wounded. Five battleships (Arizona, Oklahoma, West Virginia, California, and' Nevada) were sunk while three battleships, three cruisers and a destroyer were damaged. Out of 394 planes, 165 were completely destroyed. The Japanese had lost 29 planes, a large submarine, and five midget submarines.

The only immediate comfort for the Americans was that the three aircraft carriers of the Pacific Fleet were not present. USS Saratoga (CV 3), just out of overhaul, was moored at San Diego while USS Lexington (CV 2) and USS Enterprise (CV 6) were at sea.

The Antagonists

The seemingly easy victory made the Japanese complacent and they did not seek out and sink the two American aircraft carriers.

Part of the problem lay with Nagumo, who was cautious by nature. Earlier, although urged by his staff, he had failed to follow up his initial victory by wiping out the Pearl Harbor base. Thus, the fuel-oil tanks – the destruction of which would have forced the Pacific Fleet back to the West Coast – were left intact. Had Nagumo now forced an engagement, the two American carriers would have stood little chance against his six. Instead he took the greatest risk by doing nothing.

The Japanese Combined Fleet also did little to engage the US Pacific Fleet while the commander, Admiral of the Fleet Isoroku Yamamoto, debated various attack options with the Naval General Staff.

Yamamoto's own staff preferred to either take Hawaii or destroy the British fleet in the Indian Ocean. However, he was stymied by the Army, reluctant to overextend Japan's defense perimeter. After Pearl Harbor, while the Japanese Army moved into Southeast Asia, the Combined Fleet carriers accomplished little in the Pacific, just supporting various landings. Many officers complained that the carrier force was a sledge hammer being used to crack walnuts instead of being given a worthwhile task-such as breaking the American-Australian lifeline.

On the American side, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, a submariner, took over from Kimmel as Commander-in-Chief, Pacific (CinCPac) but his interim replacement had ordered two US carriers (Lexington and Saratoga) to abandon their relief effort in delivering reinforcements to Wake Island, where a marine garrison was overrun by the Japanese on December 22.

The decision to withdraw was right, as the risk of losing carriers to a superior Japanese force was great but the Navy's reputation suffered for failing to rescue the marines. On January 11, a Japanese submarine damaged the carrier Saratoga and it had to go to Bremerton for repairs.

Although he had only three carriers (Enterprise, Lexington and Yorktown) against the Japanese six, Nimitz went into the offensive. He set up three carrier task forces naming Rear Admirals William F. "Bull" Halsey, Aubrey W. Fitch and John Frank Fletcher as commanders of Task Force 8 (Enterprise), Task Force 11 (Lexington) and Task Force 17 (Yorktown) respectively. Halsey, whose style could be paraphrased as "full speed ahead, commence firing" became a symbol of the new spirit.

On February 1, Fletcher's and Halsey's task forces made the first American carrier raid, hitting the Marshalls and Gilberts. The attacks, small and primitive by later standards, did no great damage, while 12 planes were lost. Even though the opposition was light, the Americans were lucky rather than skilful.

One lesson learned was that it would have been better to have struck the Marshalls only with at least two task forces. In future, the U.S. Pacific Fleet would operate carrier task forces in pairs.

The Warplanes

The Navy also found its warplanes needed improvement.

With a top speed of 115 mph, the TBD (Torpedo, Bomber, Douglas) was vulnerable without a fighter escort. Its 455 mile range, two machine guns, and a 1,300-pound torpedo compared poorly to the Japanese Kate, which had a range of 1,220 miles, top speed of 220 mph, four machine guns, and a 1,764-pound torpedo. The Japanese Long Lance torpedo was more effective than its American counterpart, which was slow and lacking in punch.

The TBD's escort, the stubby Grumman Wildcat F4F fighter, was inferior to the Japanese Mitsubishi Zero, which could outperform the F4F in speed, rate of climb and turning ability and was virtually unbeatable in one-on-one dogfight.

Only the SBD (Scout, Bomber, Douglas) dive bomber could withstand the Zero threat. Only slightly faster than the TBD, it was known as "Slow But Deadly". Yet, the SBD was remarkably lead-resistant, requiring an extensive working over by outnumbering Zeros to bring it down. To reduce the Zero fighter threat, the Navy learned to operate SBDs in formations, as a six-plane formation with its rear facing cannons spewing lead in space was a formidable object to approach.

The confrontation taught the Americans that their needed IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) devices so radars could distinguish between them and enemy aircraft.

First Carrier Raids and Carrier-to-Carrier Clash

Nimitz next ordered the Yorktown and Lexington task forces to make their first multi-carrier force raid on Rabaul, a port taken by the Japanese in January.

On March 10, the carriers launched 104 planes and hit ships off Lae and Salamaua, where the Japanese had earlier landed. Shaken, the Japanese postponed a planned attack on Port Moresby, deciding that the move must be supported by Nagumo's carriers.

The Americans got an inkling of this plan, as Lt. Commander Joseph Rochefort's Combat Intelligence Unit at Pearl Harbor had broken IN-25, the Japanese Navy's operational code in April. Although they were unable to read complete messages, the pattern of radio traffic enabled the Americans to understand that the Japanese planned to take Port Moresby. Nimitz sent a force built around the carriers Yorktown and Lexington, under the command of Admiral Fletcher and the stage was set for the battle of the Coral Sea.

The Japanese landed at Tulagi on May 3; Yorktown struck the invasion force the next day with mediocre results. Thereafter, for three days, the two carrier forces searched for each other.

On May 8, the carrier forces finally located each other and launched strikes. The Americans reached their targets first and damaged Shokaku, leaving her unable to fly off planes. A little later Japanese planes damaged Yorktown and Lexington. Fires broke out on the Lexington forcing the crew to abandon ship. Both sides broke off action and Yorktown headed for Hawaii.

Coral Sea was the first carrier-versus-carrier engagement in naval history, fought entirely by aircraft launched from carriers. The Americans would learn to use radar for improved fighter direction. It would define how carriers would be used in the future.

Due to the loss of the Lexington, the battle was an American tactical defeat. Yet, it was a strategic victory for the United States, as the Moresby invasion had been temporarily foiled.

Appointment at Midway

There was, however, a new invasion threat against the US-held island of Midway.

Yamamoto had long wanted to take Midway Island but the Naval General Staff did not think that it was the best place for a decisive engagement, being far from Japan and too close to Hawaii for comfort. They changed their mind after the Hornet launched modified B-25 Army bombers for an air raid on Tokyo on April 18. The raid did little damage but embarrassed Japan's military establishment. Soon after Japanese planners approved Yamamoto's Midway attack plan.

Yamamoto came up with a complex plan to seize Midway as well as destroy the US Pacific Fleet. He would draw the American fleet north through a diversionary invasion of the Aleutian Islands, thus allowing Nagumo's carrier force to capture Midway. Afterwards, in a final sea battle, the American fleet would be crushed between the Nagumo and Aleutian forces. Yamamoto counted on surprise and expected the Americans to react according to his expectations.

Nimitz knew his plans since Rochefort in Pearl Harbor had been piecing together messages that revealed units and ships being made ready for the Japanese attack. By mid-May Nimitz started reinforcing Midway. When the damaged Yorktown arrived on May 27, the first estimate for repairs was 90 days. Nimitz gave 72 hours and 1,400 workers swarmed all over the Yorktown, which left on May 29 with workers still on board.

The Yorktown, as part of Fletcher's Task Force 17, steamed towards Midway to join up with Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance's Task Force 16. Replacing the ailing Halsey, Spruance, a cruiser officer, commanded two carriers: the Enterprise and the Hornet. The combined task forces consisted of 3 fleet carriers, 8 cruisers and 15 destroyers.

Against this force, Yamamoto had 11 battleships, 5 fleet and 3 light carriers, 12 cruisers and 43 destroyers at his disposal. Although having 8 carriers with 700 aircraft, Yamamoto dispersed his forces so that Nagumo's "Mobile Force" was left with 4 carriers. Thus, at Midway, Nagumo's carrier air groups had only 225 combat planes against 233 American carrier planes and 115 planes based on Midway.

A PBY Catalina Flying Boat from Midway spotted the Japanese Mobile Force on June 3 and planes from Midway it attacked all day without much effect.

On June 4, Nagumo launched torpedo, horizontal and dive bombers against targets in Midway but another PBY spotted his carriers. Midway then launched its own strikes, while the American carriers, still undetected, came closer. Nagumo's aircraft easily wiped out many Midway-based fighters but heavy anti-aircraft fire destroyed 38 of his own planes, and put 30 more out of action. Nagumo now had fewer warplanes than the advancing American carriers.

Not satisfied, the Japanese air strike leader urged launching another attack. Wary of the American carriers, Nagumo had kept a second wave of bombers on his carrier decks armed with torpedoes. He now ordered them rearmed with bombs to hit Midway. While this was taking place, torpedo, dive and horizontal bombers from Midway repeatedly attacked Nagumo's carriers. No hits were scored and there were heavy American losses due to intense Japanese fire.

The American carriers were now within striking distance of the Japanese force and Spruance decided to hit the Japanese in hopes of catching them with their decks full of planes being serviced after bombing Midway.

At maximum range, Spruance launched 68 dive bombers, 30 torpedo planes, and 20 fighters although it meant that some limited range TBDs might not make it back. A slow start obliged Spruance to order his squadrons to attack singly instead of in air groups but his planes were off by 8:00 a.m. Thirty minutes later, Fletcher began launching a much smaller force.

A Japanese seaplane belatedly reported sighting the American carriers after they had launched their planes. On receiving this news, Nagumo again ordered the planes rearmed; the bombs to be replaced with torpedoes. Although wanting to attack the American carriers, he waited so that planes returning from Midway could land and fighters, to escort the attacking force, be refueled. Despite a poorly conducted American attack, Nagumo's textbook approach proved to be fatal.

The American squadrons were to time their flights so that dive bombers went in ahead of the vulnerable torpedo planes, which would attack under fighter protection. Many pilots lacked the experience needed to bring three different types of aircraft with different flying speeds and launching times to the target in formation, and some squadrons lost sight of each other. As a result, American carrier planes, flying in separate groups, with little or no escorts, found it difficult to find Nagumo.

The Hornet's dive bombers and their fighter escort missed the Japanese entirely. After a series of blunders, all ten of its fighters and several bombers ran out of fuel and ditched.

The 41 torpedo bombers of all three carriers, flying ahead of the dive bombers, did find the Japanese. They attacked and 35 were shot down, not one scoring a hit. Only the Yorktown's torpedo bombers, and 6 Wildcat fighter escort engaged the Japanese combat air patrol at low altitude.

While the Japanese combat air patrol had been drawn to sea level by the torpedo plane attacks, the Enterprise's 32 dive bombers finally found all four Japanese carriers at 10:25 a.m., now unprotected, steaming in an elongated diamond. It had been a desperate search with the dive bombers using up most of their fuel. Nagumo was caught off guard, with fuelled aircraft and bombs lying on the carrier flight decks. The Enterprise pilots struck and delivered lethal blows to Akagi and Kaga, while planes from Yorktown left Soryu a flaming hulk. All three carriers went down. When they pulled up three minutes later, the United States had won the Pacific War.

Only Hiryu survived to launch two waves against Yorktown, her veteran pilots putting three bombs and two torpedoes into the carrier. That evening, 34 dive bombers from the Enterprise and Yorktown found that last Japanese carrier and sent her to the bottom.

The shocked Japanese commanders tried to force a night surface engagement with the US naval forces and sent ships to shell Midway. Spruance knew his carriers would be helpless in such a battle and carefully turned east to avoid it. On June 5, Yamamoto ordered a withdrawal from the Midway area while Spruance left for Pearl Harbor on June 6 after planes from the Enterprise sunk a Japanese cruiser.

On the same day, a Japanese submarine sank the Yorktown and an accompanying destroyer.

Aftermath

In the final analysis, the Americans inflicted much more damage than they suffered, losing one carrier to the enemy's four, less than a thousand men to the enemy's 3,000, and 150 aircraft, including those based on Midway, to Japan's 322.

The four Japanese aircraft carriers sent to the bottom of the sea carried with them 258 planes along with a high percentage of Japan's best trained carrier pilots. Over 100 veteran pilots who were killed at a time when it had only 1,000 carrier pilots and was producing perhaps only 100 a year. The blame for the Japanese loss should be shared between Yamamoto who dispersed his forces and Nagumo who wavered in a moment of crisis.

It is ironic that Nimitz, a submariner, and Spruance, a cruiser captain, prevailed over the more experienced Japanese commanders. Nimitz attributed the American success to both intelligence and the Japanese dispersal of their forces; without either, he would have lost. Another factor was the American willingness to seek confrontations with a superior enemy and learn by doing.

Midway marked the beginning of the end for Japanese sea power in the Pacific and the mantle now passed to the Americans. There would be more battles but the Japanese would now be on the defensive. The lessons learned in Coral Sea and Midway would enable the Americans to focus on developing aircraft carriers as naval strike weapons.

America's defense strategy is now based on rapid response carrier battle groups. Such carrier battle groups, operating in international waters, do not need the permission of host countries for landing or over-flight rights. Nor does the US need to maintain bases in countries where its presence may cause political strains. In effect, aircraft carriers are sovereign U.S. territory that steam anywhere in international waters. The lessons learned in the Pacific war were put to use in the intervening years.

Today's nuclear-powered Enterprise (CVN 65) with its Hornet fighters bears little resemblance to the Enterprise (CV 6), which launched the SBD dive bombers that downed Akagi and Kaga at Midway. Yet, it was that decisive victory that set the course for US supremacy in aircraft carrier technology.

- - -

Copyright © 2005 Nitin K. Shankar

Written by Nitin K. Shankar. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Nitin K. Shankar at: nitin@vtx.ch.

About the Author:

Nitin Shankar is a retired engineer, living in Switzerland, and a student of military history. As a freelance writer, he has written articles on military encounters published in Coastguard Magazine and other publications.

Published online: 12/04/2005.
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