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70 Years: Celebrating the Miracle at Midway

It is hard to imagine now but in June of 1942 it seemed a good possibility that the Americans and British could be on the losing side of the Second World War.

In June 1942 the Japanese onslaught in the Pacific appeared nearly unstoppable. The Imperial Navy stormed across the Pacific and Indian Oceans in the months after Pearl Harbor decimating Allied Naval forces that stood in their way.  The British Battleships HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse were sunk by land based aircraft off of Singapore. A force of Royal Navy cruisers and the Aircraft Carrier HMS Hermes were sunk by the same carriers that struck Pearl Harbor in the Indian Ocean.  Darwin Australia was struck with a devastating blow on February 19th and on February 27th the Japanese annihilated the bulk of the American, British, Dutch and Australian naval forces opposing them at the Battle of the Java Sea. American forces in the Philippines surrendered on May 8th while the British in Singapore surrendered on February 15th.

In only one place had a Japanese Naval task force been prevented from its goal and that was at the Battle of the Coral Sea.  Between 4-8 May the US Navy’s Task Force 11 and Task Force 17 centered on the Carriers USS Lexington and USS Yorktown prevented a Japanese invasion force from taking Port Moresby. Their aircraft sank the light carrier Shoho, damaged the modern carrier Shokaku and decimated the air groups of the Japanese task force. But it was the unexpected raid by US Army Air Corps B-25 Bombers launched from the USS Hornet under command of Colonel Jimmy Doolittle on April 18th 1942 which embarrassed Yamamoto so badly that he ordered the attack to take Midway and destroy the remaining US Naval power in the Pacific.

In May US Navy code breakers discovered the next move of the Imperial Navy an attack on Midway Island and the Aleutian islands.   Since the occupation of Midway by Japanese forces would give them an operational base less than 1000 miles from Pearl Harbor Admiral Chester Nimitz committed the bulk of his naval power, the carriers USS Enterprise CV-6, USS Yorktown CV-5 and USS Hornet CV-8 and their 8 escorting cruisers and 15 destroyers.  His force of 26 ships with 233 aircraft embarked to defend Midway while a force of 5 cruisers and 4 destroyers was dispatched to cover the Aleutians.  Midway itself had a mixed Marine, Navy and Army air group of 115 aircraft which included many obsolete aircraft, 32 PBY Catalina Flying Boats and 83 fighters, dive bombers, torpedo planes and Army Air Force bombers piloted by a host of inexperienced but resolute airmen.

The Japanese Fleet was led by Admiral Isoroku Yamamato and was built around the elite First Carrier Striking Group composed of the Pearl Harbor attackers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu. Led by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo its highly trained and combat experienced air groups composed of 273 aircraft. This force was escorted by 2 Battleships, 3 Cruisers 12 Destroyers. Yamamoto commanded a force of  2 light carriers, 5 Battleships, 11 cruisers and 27 destroyers.  Meanwhile a  force of 4 battleships, 12 destroyers assigned screen to the Aleutian invasion force which was accompanied by 2 carriers 6 cruisers and 10 destroyers. The other carriers embarked a further 114 aircraft.  The Japanese plan was ambitious but it was so ambitious that the Japanese Task forces were scattered over thousands of square miles of the Northern Pacific Ocean from which they could not rapidly come to the support of each other.

With the foreknowledge provided by the code breakers the US forces hurried to an intercept position northeast of Midway. They eluded the Japanese submarine scout line which the Japanese Commander Admiral Yamamoto presumed would find them when they sailed to respond to the Japanese attack on Midway.  Task Force 16 with the Enterprise and Hornet sailed first under the command of Rear Admiral Raymond A Spruance in place of the ailing William “Bull” Halsey. Task Force 17 under Rear Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher was built around the Yorktown which had been miraculously brought into fighting condition after suffering heavy damage at Coral Sea. Fletcher assumed overall command by virtue of seniority and Admiral Nimitz instructed his commanders to apply the principle of “calculated risk” when engaging the Japanese as the loss of the US carriers would place the entire Pacific at the mercy of the Japanese Navy.

On June 3rd a PBY Catalina from Midway discovered the Japanese invasion force and US long range bombers launched attacks against but inflicted no damage. On the morning of the 4th the Americans adjusted their search patterns in and the Japanese came into range of Midway and commenced their first strike against the island.  In response land based aircraft from Midway attacked the Japanese carrier force taking heavy casualties and failing to damage the Japanese task force.

The American Carrier task forces launched their strike groups at the Japanese fleet leaving enough aircraft behind of the Combat Air Patrol and Anti-submarine patrol.  As the Americans winged toward the Japanese fleet the Japanese were in confused.  A scouting report by an aircraft that had been delayed at launch discovered US ships but did not identify a carrier until later into the patrol.  This was the Yorktown and TF 17. The Japanese attempted to recover their strike aircraft and prepare for a second strike on the island and then on discovery of the carrier embarked on the task of unloading ground attack ordnance in favor of aerial torpedoes and armor piercing bombs.  The hard working Japanese aircrew did not have time to stow the ordnance removed from the aircraft but by 1020 they had the Japanese strike group ready to launch against the US carriers.

As the Japanese crews worked the Japanese carriers were engaged in fending off attacks by the US torpedo bomber squadrons, VT-6 from Enterprise, VT-8 from Hornet and VT-3 from Yorktown.  The Japanese Combat Air Patrol ripped into the slow, cumbersome and under armed TBD Devastators as they came in low to launch their torpedoes.  Torpedo Eight from Hornet under the command of LCDR John C Waldron pressed the attack hard but all 15 of the Devastators were shot down.  Only Ensign George Gay’s aircraft was able to launch its torpedo before being shot down and Gay would be the sole survivor of the squadron.

Torpedo 6 under the command of LCDR Eugene Lindsey suffered heavy casualties losing 10 of 14 aircraft with Lindsey being one of the casualties.  The last group of Devastators to attack was Torpedo 3 under the command of LCDR Lem Massey from the Yorktown.  These aircraft were also decimated and Massey killed but they had drawn the Japanese Combat Air Patrol down to the deck leaving the task force exposed to the Dive Bombers of the Enterprise and Yorktown.

There had been confusion among the Americans as to the exact location of the Japanese Carriers, the Bombing 8 and Scouting 8 of Hornet did not find the carriers and had to return for lack of fuel with a number of bombers and their fighter escort having to ditch inn the ocean and wait for rescue.  The Enterprise group under LCDR Wade McClusky was perilously low on fuel when the wake of a Japanese destroyer was spotted.  McClusky followed it to the Japanese Task Force.  The Yorktown’s group under LCDR Max Leslie arrived about the same time.  The found the skies empty of Japanese aircraft. Aboard the Japanese ships there was a sense of exhilaration as each succeeding group of attackers was brought down and with their own aircraft ready to launch and deal a fatal blow to the American carrier wondered how big their victory would be.

At 1020 the first Zero of the Japanese attack group began rolling down the flight deck of the flagship Akagi, aboard Kaga aircraft were warming up as they were on the Soryu.  The unsuspecting Japanese were finally alerted when lookouts screamed “helldivers.” Wade McClusky’s aircraft lined up over the Akagi and Kaga pushing into their dives at 1022. There was a bit of confusion when the bulk of Scouting 6 joined the attack of Bombing 6 on the Kaga.  The unprepared carrier was struck by four 1000 pound bombs which exploded on her flight deck and hangar deck igniting the fully fueled and armed aircraft of her strike group and the ordnance littered about the hangar deck.  Massive fires and explosions wracked the ship and in minutes the proud ship was reduced to an infernal hell with fires burning uncontrollably. She was abandoned and would sink at 1925 taking 800 of her crew with her.

LT Dick Best of Scouting 6 peeled off from the attack on Kaga and shifted to the Japanese flagship Akagi. On board Akagi were two of Japans legendary pilots CDR Mitsuo Fuchida leader of and CDR Minoru Genda the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack and subsequent string of Japanese victories.  Both officers were on the sick list and had come up from sick bay to watch as the fleet was attacked.  Seeing Kaga burst into flames they stood mesmerized until Akagi’s lookouts screamed out the warning “helldivers” at 1026.  Best’s aircraft hit with deadly precision landing tow of their bombs on Akagi’s flight deck creating havoc among the loaded aircraft and starting fires and igniting secondary explosions which turned the ship into a witch’s cauldron.  By 1046 Admiral Nagumo and his staff were forced to transfer the flag to the cruiser Nagara as Akagi’s crew tried to bring the flames under control. They would do so into the night until nothing more could be done and abandoned ship at 2000.  Admiral Yamamoto ordered her scuttled and at 0500 on June 5th the pride of the Japanese carrier force was scuttled.

VB-3 under LCDR Max Leslie from the Yorktown stuck the Soryu with 17 aircraft, only 13 of which had bombs due to an electronic arming device malfunction on 4 of the aircraft including the squadron leader Leslie.  Despite this they dove on the Soryu at 1025 hitting that ship with 3 and maybe as many as 5 bombs. Soryu like her companions burst into flames as the ready aircraft and ordnance exploded about her deck. She was ordered abandoned at 1055 and would sink at 1915 taking 718 of her crew with her.

The remaining Japanese flattop the Hiryu attained the same fate later in the day after engaging in an epic duel with the Yorktown which her aircraft heavily damaged. Yorktown was abandoned after a second strike but when she did not sink her her returned to attempt to save her. However despite their efforts she and the destroyer USS Hamman DD-412 were torpedoed by the Japanese Submarine I-168. Hamman sank almost immediately with heavy loss of life while Yorktown sank on the morning of the 7th.

It was quite miraculous what happened at Midway in those five pivotal minutes.  Authors have entitled books about Midway Incredible Victory and Miracle at Midway and the titles reflect the essence of the battle.  A distinctly smaller force defeated a vastly superior fleet in terms of experience, training and equipment and when it appeared that the Japanese Fleet would advance to victory in a span of less than 5 minutes turn what looked like certain defeat into one of the most incredible and even miraculous victories in the history of Naval warfare.  In those 5 minutes history was changed in a breathtaking way.  While the war would drag on and the Japanese still inflict painful losses and defeats on the US Navy in the waters around Guadalcanal the tide had turned and the Japanese lost the initiative in the Pacific never to regain it.   The Japanese government hid the defeat from the Japanese people instead proclaiming a great victory while the American government could not fully publicize the information that led to the ability of the US Navy to be at the right place at the right time and defeat the Imperial Navy.

When one looks at implications of the victory it did a number of things. First it changed the course of the war in the Pacific probably shortening it by a great deal.  Secondly it established the aircraft carrier and the fast carrier task force as the dominant force in naval warfare which some would argue it still remains.  Finally those five minutes ushered in an era of US Navy dominance of the high seas which at least as of yet has not ended as the successors to the Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown ply the oceans of the world and the descendants of those valiant carrier air groups ensure air superiority over battlefields around the world.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, US Navy, world war two in the pacific

Wings of Gold: U. S. Navy Carrier Aircraft 1935-1941

Curtiss BF2C Goshawks (US Navy Photo)

As the United States Navy built up its Carrier Force in the mid to late 1930s it continued to develop aircraft specifically designed to operate from aircraft carriers.  It continued its development of fighter, dive bomber and torpedo bomber aircraft.  In 1935 the Navy was operating the Grumman FF-1 biplane fighter which it had began using in 1933 and the Curtiss F11C and BF2C Goshawk. The Curtiss aircraft were built in fighter and bomber variants and while initial aircraft had an open cockpit and fixed landing gear later aircraft had an enclosed cockpit and retractable landing gear. They had top speed of 157 miles an hour and due to limited success and were retired from service by 1939.  The Goshawk was operated against the Japanese by Nationalist China and also served in a number of air forces including Thailand where they were used against the French and Japanese.

Grumman FF-1 (US Navy Photo)

The Grumman FF-1 was a two-seater that had a enclosed cockpit with retractable landing gear and a top speed of 201 miles an hour.  The FF-1 was faster than any naval aircraft of its era, a follow-on variant designated the SF-1 followed and 120 aircraft were built. Most of the operational aircraft served aboard the USS Lexington CV-2 in a fighter and scouting role. The FF-1 and SF-1 were withdrawn from first line service and placed with the reserve as well as being used in aviation training commands. The aircraft was manufactured under license by the Canadian Car and Foundry Company and served in the Canadian Air Force until 1942 as the Goblin and 40 of the Canadian aircraft were used by the Spanish Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War.

Grumman F2F-1 (US Navy Photo)

The FF-1/SF-1 was followed by the Grumman F2F a single-seat model with improved speed and maneuverability over is predecessors.  54 F2F’s were ordered in 1934 with the production models being delivered between April and August 1935.  The aircraft were armed with 2 .30 machine guns mounted above the cowl and had a top speed of 231 miles an hour and maximum range of 985 miles.  The aircraft would remain in service until they were replaced in 1939 with the Grumman F3F. However they remained in service as utility and training aircraft until retired from service toward the end of 1940.

Grumman F3F (US Navy Photo)

The Grumman F3F followed the F2F with 157 production models. It was more aerodynamic and had a more powerful engine that the F2F which enabled it to achieve a top speed of 264 miles an hour.  It was operated by seven Navy and Marine Corps Squadrons and entered service in 1936 and would serve aboard carriers until replaced in late 1941. It continued with 117 aircraft being stationed at naval air stations and used for training until 1943.

F2A Brewster Buffalo (U.S. Navy Photo)

The first monoplane fighter developed and placed in service by the Navy was the F2A Brewster Buffalo. The Buffalo served with Navy and Marine Corps squadrons and was purchased by Great Britain for service in the Royal Australian and Royal New Zealand Air Forces which received 202 Buffalos. They would also serve with the Royal Navy. The Royal Netherlands Air Force received 144 most of which served in the East Indies. The final nation to receive the Buffalo was Finland which received 44 aircraft.  Buffalo was underpowered and the addition of armor and added fuel capacity further diminished the speed and performance of the aircraft.  The Navy placed its Buffalo’s in advanced training squadrons in early 1942 and one of the two Marine Corps squadrons (VMF-221) operated it at the Battle of Midway where they endured fearful losses at the hands of Japanese Zero fighters.

Brewster Buffalo 239s of the Finnish Air Force

Despite the lack of success in U. S. service the Buffalo performed in a heroic manner for the Finns destroying over 500 Soviet and German aircraft and producing 36 Buffalo Aces.  The highest scorer was Captain Hans W. Wind with 39 of 75 victories flying a Buffalo.  British Commonwealth and Dutch aircraft did not fare as well as the Finns as the tropical climate degraded the aircraft considerably.

Martin T4M over Lexington or Saratoga (US Navy Photo)

The Navy also developed aircraft for bombing missions as well as that could launch aerial torpedoes. The first aircraft built were dual purpose in that they could be used in level bombing and torpedo missions. In 1935 the primary aircraft of this type was the Martin T4M which had entered service in 1928 and replaced the Douglas DT and Martin T4M aircraft.  The T4M was a biplane with a crew of three that had a maximum speed of 114 miles an hour (I have driven much fast than this on the German Autobahn but I digress) and it could carry a torpedo or bombs.  155 were purchased by the Navy and the Marine Corps between 1928 and 1931.  They were operated from the Lexington and Saratoga until 1938 as no replacement aircraft offered enough improvements for the Navy to purchase and were instrumental in the development and demonstration of the capabilities of naval air power.  They were finally replaced by the Douglas TBD Devastator.

TBD Devastator (US Navy Photo)

The TBD which first flew in 1935 entered service in 1937 and at the time was possibly the most modern naval aircraft in the world and was a revolutionary aircraft. It was the first monoplane widely used on carriers and was first all-metal naval aircraft.  It was the first naval aircraft with a totally enclosed cockpit, the first with hydraulic powered folding wings.  The TBD had crew of three and had a maximum speed of 206 miles an hour and carried a torpedo or up to 1500 pounds of bombs (3 x 500) or a 1000 pound bomb.  129 were built and served in all pre-war torpedo bombing squadrons based aboard the Lexington, Saratoga, Ranger, Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet with a limited number embarked aboard Wasp.  The Devastator saw extensive service prior to the war which pushed many airframes to the end of their useful service life and by 1940 only about 100 were operational.  They were still in service in 1942 as their replacement the TBF Avenger was not ready for service.  They performed adequately against minor opposition at Coral Sea and in strikes against the Marshalls but the squadrons embarked on Yorktown (VT3), Enterprise (VT-6) and Hornet (VT-8) were annihilated at Midway with only 6 of 41 surviving their uncoordinated attacks against the Japanese Carrier Strike Force.  They were too slow, had poor maneuverability, insufficient armor and defensive armament.  Only a few were able to launch their torpedoes as the Japanese Combat Air Patrol tore through them. Their sacrifice was not in vain as the Dive Bombers arrived facing no opposition and sank three of the four Japanese carriers getting the fourth later in the day. After Midway the remaining aircraft were withdrawn from active service in the Pacific. The Ranger’s VT-4 operated them until September 1942and Wasp’s VT-7 operated them in the Atlantic until she was transferred to the Pacific in July 1942.   By 1944 all remaining aircraft had been scrapped.

Vought SBU Corsair

In the mid 1930s the Navy began to develop Scout and Dive Bombers for use in carrier scouting (VS) and bombing (VT) squadrons.  The first of these aircraft types were biplanes.  The Grumman SF-1 was used in a scouting and bombing role and was joined by the Vought SBU Corsair in 1935 and by 1937 both were being replaced by the Curtiss SBC Helldiver, a biplane with a 234 mile an hour maximum speed, retractable landing gear, enclosed cockpit which could carry a 1000 bomb.

Curtis SBC Helldiver

However the era of the biplane was drawing to a close and the Helldiver would be relegated to training squadrons based in Florida.  Although they had a brief service career they were instrumental in develop dive bombing tactics at which the U.S. Navy excelled and which were copied by the German Luftwaffe with the Junkers JU-87 Stuka and the Japanese with the Aichi 99 Val naval dive bomber.  50 aircraft were transferred to the French and served aboard the carrier Bearn but due to the French surrender in June of 1940 saw no action and spent the war rotting in Martinique.

Vought SB2U Vindicator

The Helldiver’s were joined by the first monoplane dive bomber in U.S. service the Vought SBU2 Vindicator in 1937. The Vindicator was used by the Navy and the Marine Corps serving aboard the Lexington, Saratoga, Ranger and Wasp. They would remain in service until September 1942. The Marine aircraft equipped two squadrons VMSB 131 and VMSB-241, VMSB 241 suffered heavy casualties at Midway as the aircraft were underpowered and were limited to glide bombing missions.  After they were taken out of the operational squadrons the Vindicator served as a training aircraft until retired in 1945.   A French Naval Air Squadron was equipped with the Vindicator but they served ashore against the German invasion.  Most were lost to enemy action.  The Douglas SBD Dauntless was introduced in 1940 and 1941 but I will cover that aircraft in the World War II aircraft article that will follow this in a week or two.

These aircraft helped pave the way to aircraft that would be the mainstays of the Navy in the Second World War, aircraft with names such as Dauntless, Helldiver, Avenger, Hellcat and Corsair.  Naval aviation earned its “wings of gold” in these early years wings that continue to shine in the 21st Century.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under aircraft, Military, US Navy, world war two in the pacific

Five Minutes that Changed History: The Battle of Midway 1022-1027 hours June 4th 1942

Instruments of Death SBD Dauntless Dive Bombers at Midway

Six months after Pearl Harbor the United States Navy met the Imperial Japanese Navy in battle on the seas and in the airspace around Midway Island. It was a battle between a fleet that had known nothing but victory in the months after Pearl Harbor, sweeping across the Pacific and the Indian Oceans and decimating Allied Naval forces that stood in their way, the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse off of Singapore, a force of Royal Navy cruisers and the Aircraft Carrier HMS Hermes in the Indian Ocean, the bulk of the US Asiatic Fleet in the waters around the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies culminating in the Battle of the Java Sea where the bulk of the American, British, Dutch and Australian naval forces engaged were annihilated.  In only one place had a Japanese Naval task force been prevented from its goal and that was at the Battle of the Coral Sea where Task Force 11 and Task Force 17 centered on the Carriers USS Lexington and USS Yorktown prevented a Japanese invasion force from taking Port Moresby sinking the light carrier Shoho, damaging the modern carrier Shokaku and decimating the air groups of the Japanese task force.

In May US Navy code breakers discovered the next move of the Imperial Navy an attack on Midway Island and the Aleutian islands.   Since the occupation of Midway by Japanese forces would give them an operational base less than 1000 miles from Pearl Harbor Admiral Chester Nimitz committed the bulk of his naval power, the carriers USS Enterprise CV-6, USS Yorktown CV-5 and USS Hornet CV-8 and their 8 escorting cruisers and 15 destroyers, a total of 26 ships with 233 aircraft embarked to defend Midway along with a force of 5 cruisers and 4 destroyers to cover the Aleutians.  Midway had a mixed Marine, Navy and Army air group of 115 aircraft which included many obsolete aircraft, 32 PBY Catalina Flying Boats, of which the 83 fighters, dive bombers, torpedo planes and Army Air Force bombers piloted by a host of inexperienced pilots.

The Japanese Flagship Akagi

The Japanese sent a force of 7 battleships, 7 carriers including the elite First Carrier Striking Group composed of the Pearl Harbor attackers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu and their highly trained and combat experienced air groups composed of 273 aircraft along with 14 cruisers and 39 destroyers assigned to take Midway and destroy the US Navy when it came out to fight as well as a force of 4 battleships, 12 destroyers assigned screen to the Aleutian invasion force which was accompanied by 2 carriers 6 cruisers and 10 destroyers.   The other carriers embarked a further 114 aircraft.  A factor which aided the Americans was the distance between the Japanese Task forces which were scattered over thousands of square miles of the Northern Pacific Ocean from which they could not rapidly come to the assistance of any other group.

With the foreknowledge provided by the code breakers the US forces hurried to an intercept position northeast of Midway eluding the Japanese submarine scout line which the Japanese Commander Admiral Yamamoto presumed would find them when they sailed to respond to the Japanese attack on Midway.  Task Force 16 with the Enterprise and Hornet sailed first under the command of Rear Admiral Raymond A Spruance and Task Force 17 under Rear Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher with the Yorktown which had been miraculously brought into fighting condition after suffering heavy damage at Coral Sea. Fletcher assumed overall command by virtue of seniority and Admiral Nimitz instructed his commanders to apply the principle of calculated risk when engaging the Japanese as the loss of the US carriers would place the entire Pacific at the mercy of the Japanese Navy.

On June 3rd a PBY Catalina discovered the Japanese invasion force and US long range bombers launched attacks against it causing no damage.  The morning of the 4th the Americans adjusted their search patterns in and the Japanese came into range of Midway and commenced their first strike against the island.  In response land based aircraft from Midway attacked the Japanese carrier force taking heavy casualties and failing to damage the Japanese task force.  The American Carrier task forces launched their strike groups at the Japanese fleet leaving enough aircraft behind of the Combat Air Patrol and Anti-submarine patrol.  As the Americans winged toward the Japanese fleet the Japanese were in confused.  A scouting report by an aircraft that had been delayed at launch discovered US ships but did not identify a carrier until later into the patrol.  This was the Yorktown and TF 17. The Japanese attempted to recover their strike aircraft and prepare for a second strike on the island and then on discovery of the carrier embarked on the task of unloading ground attack ordnance in favor of aerial torpedoes and armor piercing bombs.  The hard working Japanese aircrew did not have time to stow the ordnance removed from the aircraft but by 1020 they had the Japanese strike group ready to launch against the US carriers.

AM6-2 Zeros Mauled the US Torpedo Bombers

As the Japanese crews worked the Japanese carriers were engaged in fending off attacks by the US torpedo bomber squadrons, VT-6 from Enterprise, VT-8 from Hornet and VT-3 from Yorktown.  The Japanese Combat Air Patrol ripped into the slow, cumbersome and under armed TBD Devastators as they came in low to launch their torpedoes.  Torpedo Eight from Hornet under the command of LCDR John C Waldron pressed the attack hard but all 15 of the Devastators were shot down.  Only Ensign George Gay’s aircraft was able to launch its torpedo before being shot down and Gay would be the sole survivor of the squadron.

Hopelessly obsolete 40 of 44  TBD Devastators were lost in action

Torpedo 6 under the command of LCDR Eugene Lindsey suffered heavy casualties losing 10 of 14 aircraft with Lindsey being one of the casualties.  The last group of Devastators to attack was Torpedo 3 under the command of LCDR Lem Massey from the Yorktown.  These aircraft were also decimated and Massey killed but they had drawn the Japanese Combat Air Patrol down to the deck leaving the task force exposed to the Dive Bombers of the Enterprise and Yorktown.

TBD Devastator attacking Akagi

There had been confusion among the Americans as to the exact location of the Japanese Carriers, the Bombing 8 and Scouting 8 of Hornet did not find the carriers and had to return for lack of fuel with a number of bombers and their fighter escort having to ditch inn the ocean and wait for rescue.  The Enterprise group under LCDR Wade McClusky was perilously low on fuel when the wake of a Japanese destroyer was spotted.  McClusky followed it to the Japanese Task Force.  The Yorktown’s group under LCDR Max Leslie arrived about the same time.  The found the skies empty of Japanese aircraft. Aboard the Japanese ships there was a sense of exhilaration as each succeeding group of attackers was brought down and with their own aircraft ready to launch and deal a fatal blow to the American carrier wondered how big their victory would be.

At 1020 the first Zero of the Japanese attack group began rolling down the flight deck of the flagship Akagi, aboard Kaga aircraft were warming up as they were on the Soryu.  The unsuspecting Japanese were finally alerted when lookouts screamed “helldivers.” Wade McClusky’s aircraft lined up over the Akagi and Kaga pushing into their dives at 1022. There was a bit of confusion when the bulk of Scouting 6 joined the attack of Bombing 6 on the Kaga.  The unprepared carrier was struck by four 1000 pound bombs which exploded on her flight deck and hangar deck igniting the fully fueled and armed aircraft of her strike group and the ordnance littered about the hangar deck.  Massive fires and explosions wracked the ship and in minutes the proud ship was reduced to an infernal hell with fires burning uncontrollably. She was abandoned and would sink at 1925 taking 800 of her crew with her.     LT Dick Best of Scouting 6 peeled off from the attack on Kaga and shifted to the Japanese flagship Akagi. On board Akagi were two of Japans legendary pilots CDR Mitsuo Fuchida leader of and CDR Minoru Genda the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack and subsequent string of Japanese victories.  Both officers were on the sick list and had come up from sick bay to watch as the fleet was attacked.  Seeing Kaga burst into flames they stood mesmerized until Akagi’s lookouts screamed out the warning “helldivers” at 1026.  Best’s aircraft hit with deadly precision landing tow of their bombs on Akagi’s flight deck creating havoc among the loaded aircraft and starting fires and igniting secondary explosions which turned the ship into a witch’s cauldron.  By 1046 Admiral Nagumo and his staff were forced to transfer the flag to the cruiser Nagara as Akagi’s crew tried to bring the flames under control. They would do so into the night until nothing more could be done and abandoned ship at 2000.  Admiral Yamamoto ordered her scuttled and at 0500 on June 5th the pride of the Japanese carrier force was scuttled.

Scouting 6 gets the Akagi

VB-3 under LCDR Max Leslie from the Yorktown stuck the Soryu with 17 aircraft, only 13 of which had bombs due to an electronic arming device malfunction on 4 of the aircraft including the squadron leader Leslie.  Despite this they dove on the Soryu at 1025 hitting that ship with 3 and maybe as many as 5 bombs. Soryu like her companions burst into flames as the ready aircraft and ordnance exploded about her deck. She was ordered abandoned at 1055 and would sink at 1915 taking 718 of her crew with her.

The remaining Japanese flattop the Hiryu attained the same fate later in the day after engaging in an epic duel with the Yorktown which her aircraft heavily damaged.

It was quite miraculous what happened at Midway in those five pivotal minutes.  Authors have entitled books about Midway Incredible Victory and Miracle at Midway and the titles reflect the essence of the battle.  A distinctly smaller force defeated a vastly superior fleet in terms of experience, training and equipment and when it appeared that the Japanese Fleet would advance to victory in a span of less than 5 minutes turn what looked like certain defeat into one of the most incredible and even miraculous victories in the history of Naval warfare.  In those 5 minutes history was changed in a breathtaking way.  While the war would drag on and the Japanese still inflict painful losses and defeats on the US Navy in the waters around Guadalcanal the tide had turned and the Japanese lost the initiative in the Pacific never to regain it.   The Japanese government hid the defeat from the Japanese people instead proclaiming a great victory while the American government could not fully publicize the information that led to the ability of the US Navy to be at the right place at the right time and defeat the Imperial Navy.

When one looks at implications of the victory it did a number of things. First it changed the course of the war in the Pacific probably shortening it by a great deal.  Secondly it established the aircraft carrier and the fast carrier task force as the dominant force in naval warfare which some would argue it still remains.  Finally those five minutes ushered in an era of US Navy dominance of the high seas which at least as of yet has not ended as the successors to the Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown ply the oceans of the world and the descendants of those valiant carrier air groups ensure air superiority over battlefields around the world.

Peace

Padre Steve+

7 Comments

Filed under History, Military, US Navy, world war two in the pacific