Washington. -- Rising and falling on the bumpy air currents, a lone PBY patrol plane droned over the empty Pacific, some 700 miles to the west of Midway Island on June 3, 1942, on the look-out for an advancing Japanese fleet. Suddenly, the clouds parted momentarily and Ensign Jewell H. Reid, the pilot of the craft, spotted a large formation of ships on the horizon.
"Do you see what I see?" he asked his co-pilot.
"You're damn right I do!" was the vigorous response.
Rapidly ducking back into the cloud cover, they radioed the report of the sighting to Pearl Harbor, where Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the U.S. fleet, was anxiously awaiting it. Nimitz greeted the news with "a bright, white smile," according to one of his aides. The curtain had gone up on the Battle of Midway, the turning point of the war in the Pacific.
In the six months since a devastating Japanese surprise attack had left the most of the battleships of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet a smoking ruin, the Japanese had fanned out over East Asia and the Pacific with a rapidity that astounded even themselves. Within a few months, they had captured the Philippines, Guam and Wake Island, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Dutch East Indies. In May, the Japanese had been bloodied in the Battle of the Coral Sea -- the first sea battle fought entirely between aircraft carriers -- but the enemy juggernaut still seemed unstoppable.
Nevertheless, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who had planned the Pearl Harbor raid, was under no illusions. While serving as a naval attache in Washington, he had seen America's industrial might at first hand and knew Japan had to win a decisive victory before this power could be brought to bear. "I shall run wild for the first six months or a year," he had declared, "but I have utterly no confidence for the second and third years of the fighting."
Obsessed with the need to complete the work begun at Pearl Harbor by smashing the remnants of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Yamamoto chose Midway, a bleak atoll about 1,100 miles west of Hawaii, as the site of this climactic battle. The Midway operation, like most Japanese naval planning, was a complex blend of stealth, ruse and division of forces designed to keep an enemy off balance.
Yamamoto divided his fleet into three major divisions: A striking force of four aircraft carriers and a dozen transports carrying 5,000 troops to occupy the island that were escorted by two battleships and a light carrier, and the main body consisting of seven battleships.
This armada was preceded to sea by by a diversionary force of two carriers assigned to raid Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians and to seize the bleak islands of Adak, Attu and Kiska. The Aleutian raid was was intended to lure the Pacific Fleet to the north while Midway was being occupied. When the Americans learned of the ruse and hastened south, they would be destroyed by Yamamoto's carriers and battleships.
The Japanese had a overwhelming preponderance of force, but Admiral Nimitz had the advantage of being aware of much of their plan. The Combat Intelligence Unit at Pearl Harbor, commonly called Station Hypo, had broken JN25b, the Japanese naval code used for communicating between ship and shore. Hidden away behind locked steel doors in the basement of a headquarters building, Hypo was under the command of Lieut. Commander Joseph J. Rochefort. Rochefort drove himself and his staff of cryptanalysts, translators and clerks unmercifully.
By the spring of 1942, Hypo was reading about 30 per cent of Japanese traffic. As the isolated fragments of information grew denser, enlarged, and touched each other, the cryptanalysts began to make educated guesses about Japanese fleet operations. Not every message could be read -- as in baseball, it was the batting average that counted -- but the code-breakers made giant strides in creating their own versions of the Japanese code books.
Toward the end of April, Washington requested Station Hypo to provide a long-range assessment of Japanese intentions. Rochefort predicted a massive Japanese naval operation in the Central Pacific that summer and pinpointed Midway as the target.
Few naval commanders have been confronted by a sharper strategic dilemma than the one confronting Nimitz. The Japanese movements could be a ruse to cover a new attack on Pearl Harbor, or even on the West Coast.
Responding to skeptics in Washington, Rochefort and his staff, noting that Japanese radio traffic made numerous references to "AF," which they believed to be Midway, suggested that the island's commander to transmit a message in plain language that his fresh-water distilling plant was out of order.
The Japanese took the bait like a hungry shark. Two days later, Hypo intercepted a Japanese message reporting that "AF" was short of fresh water.
Forewarned of the Japanese attack, Nimitz redoubled his efforts to strengthen the defenses of Midway. By June 1, he had a fleet of three carriers, eight cruisers, 14 destroyers and about 20 submarines deployed to the northwest of Midway. This fleet was divided into two task forces, one commanded by Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher and the other by Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance.
The Battle of Midway began in the fog-shrouded Aleutians, where on June 3, the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor, severely damaging the installations there. Ignoring these moves, Nimitz single-mindedly concentrated on events unfolding in the Central Pacific. But where was the main Japanese force? Ensign Reid's report was greeted with immense relief at Pearl Harbor.
Early the next morning, June 4, another PBY caught a fleeting glimpse of the Japanese carrier force as it emerged from the overcast about 200 miles to the northwest of Midway. Shortly before, the Japanese had launched a 108-plane strike against the atoll.
Every serviceable plane based on Midway was ordered to join in the attack on the Japanese carriers, except for 26 Marine fighters, mostly outmoded F2A Buffaloes, kept on hand to intercept the swarm of incoming bombers and fighters. Although completely outclassed by the Japanese Zeroes, the Buffaloes and intense anti-aircraft fire accounted for nearly a third of the attacking force at the cost of 15 of their own planes.
So far, most of the honors had gone to the Japanese. But the decisive moment of the battle -- and the entire war in the Pacific -- was at hand.
The Japanese were busily arming the 98 planes of the second wave of their attack on Midway with bombs when they discovered that an American carrier was approaching from the northeast. Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, the Japanese carrier commander, was surprised by the report because he had not suspected there were American flattops in the area. At the urging of his air operations officer, Commander Minoru Genda, he ordered a shift in targets from Midway to the enemy carrier.
The waiting aircraft were reloaded with torpedoes and rTC armor-piercing bombs suitable for use against warships. Before the reloaded planes could be brought up from the hangar decks and launched, however, those returning from Midway had to be recovered, refueled and rearmed. Soon, the flight decks of the Japanese carriers were crisscrossed with gas hoses, and bombs, ammunition and torpedoes were strewn about as the deck crews worked frantically to get their charges back into the air.
Realizing there would be confusion on the Japanese ships as they refueled and rearmed, Spruance had waited for this moment to launch his air groups from the Hornet and Enterprise. The striking force consisted of 67 SBD Dauntless dive bombers and 29 TBD Devastator torpedo planes and a escort of twenty F4F Wildcat fighters. The Yorktown also put 17 SBDs, a dozen TBDs and six fighters into the air.
The Japanese had changed course, however, and when the Americans arrived at the position where they expected to be, they found only empty sea. But a squadron of fifteen TBDs from the Hornet found the carriers and, without fighter cover, courageously pressed home an attack. Waiting Zeroes and a barrage of anti-aircraft fire met them and sent all splashing into the sea. Ensign George Gay, the squadron's sole survivor, recalled that the falling planes looked like bits of orange peel thrown into the water from a speedboat.
The sacrifice was not in vain. Although the torpedo planes had scored no hits, they diverted the attention of the Japanese from 54 SBDs that swooped down undetected on three carriers, the Kaga, Soryu and Akagi, whose decks were crowded with planes being serviced.
"The target was utterly satisfying" reported Lieut. Clarence E. Dickinson, who dove on the Kaga. "I saw bomb hit just behind where I was aiming. . . . I saw the deck rippling and curling back in all directions exposing a great section of the hangar below. . . ." The three carriers were destroyed.
In retaliation, the fourth Japanese carrier, the Hirvu, which had not been sighted by the Americans, launched eighteen dive bombers which attacked the Yorktown. Many were shot down, but the carrier was hit by a pair of torpedoes and several bombs. Rocked by internal explosions and listing badly, she was abandoned but refused to sink. She had already been avenged, however. An attack group from the Enterprise found the defenseless Hiryu -- she had lost most of her fighters -- and was so badly damaged she was scuttled the next day.
Within a few hours, the Japanese had lost all four of their carriers, along with 250 planes and their crack air crews. When the news reached Admiral Yamamoto, "the members of the staff, their mouths shut tight, looked at one another," reported a witness. Faced with the hard fact that the Americans still had two operational carriers while he had none, Yamamoto gave the order to withdraw. There was no pursuit, for rather than risking a night action against the big guns of the undamaged Japanese battleships, Admiral Spruance elected to turn away.
Two days later, on June 6, American planes, which had been nipping at the heels of the retreating Japanese, badly damaged one cruiser, the Mogami and sank another, the Mikuma. Earlier that day, a Japanese submarine picked off the Yorktown and one of her escorting destroyers. The next morning, with lowered colors and all hands at attention, the escorts paid their final tribute to the carrier as she sank. The Battle of Midway was over.
Midway confirmed the vital role of the aircraft carrier in modern sea warfare. With a single thrust, Fletcher and Spruance had destroyed the offensive capability of a fleet far superior than their own -- and inflicted upon the Imperial Japanese Navy its first decisive defeat since 1592. The flood tide of Japanese conquest had been halted, and Japan now faced the prolonged war that Yamamoto had warned against. It was a war Japan could not hope to win.
Nathan Miller is the author of The Naval Air War 1939-1945. This is another in a series of occasional articles on World War II.