The Battle of Midway 1942: US Navy Flying Legends

On December 7th, 1941 the Imperial Japanese Navy conducted a surprise attack on Pearl Harbour in Hawaii which was intended to cripple the US Navy Pacific Fleet and ultimately started the Pacific War. The stunning and brazen attack saw the entry of the United States into World War Two and very quickly Japanese forces had overrun or attacked US, British Commonwealth and Dutch forces across the South West Pacific region (the Philippines, Guam, Wake Islands, Hong Kong, British Malaya, Singapore, New Guinea etc.).

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (Image Source: Reuters)
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (Image Source: Reuters)
The Japanese advance of 1941-1942 World War Two
The Japanese advance of 1941-1942 (Image Source: Australian War Memorial)

As we know, the attack on Pearl Harbour did not truly cripple the US Pacific Fleet. The Japanese had not taken out the US Navy aircraft carriers stationed at Pearl Harbour, as the carrier fleet were safely out at sea on routine maneuvers and many of the ships that were hit in the attacks were able to be repaired and returned to active duty including most of the battleships (with the major exception of the USS Arizona).

Japanese Imperial Navy Admiral Yamamoto wanted to draw out the US Pacific Fleet and its aircraft carriers in a massive battle in the Pacific Ocean to cripple them once and for all. A Japanese victory would enable them to establish a perimeter across the Pacific to protect their territorial gains (plus planned gains) and hopefully bring a quick peace settlement in the war before the industrial might of the United States could replace the ships lost.

In 1942 the American base on the Midway Islands seemed the perfect place to draw out and defeat the US Navy and also provide a perfect forward base to attack and capture Hawaii just 2,092 kilometres / 1,300 miles further southwest. The US Navy had other plans though

Aerial view of the Midway Islands and Naval Air Station - June 1942 (Photo Source: US Navy)
Aerial view of the Midway Islands and Naval Air Station – June 1942 (Photo Source: US Navy)

Order of Battle at Midway

Just 6 months after Pearl Harbour the Japanese launched their attack on Midway in June 1942. The intention was to invade the Midway Islands with a complement of 5,000 troops and thus force the hand of the US Navy to send out a fleet including the prized aircraft carriers to retake the islands. They also would invade the western islands of the Aleutian chain off Alaska.

The Imperial Japanese Navy would be waiting for them with a huge combined battle fleet under the overall command of Admiral Yamamoto. This fleet included all their heavy aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu which had participated in the attack on Pearl Harbour (the carrier strike force was under the command of Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo), 1 light carrier Hosho (with the battleships), 2 seaplane carriers, over 300 aircraft (97 Aichi D3A “Val” dive bombers, 101 Nakajima B5N “Kate” bombers/torpedo bombers and 105 Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighters), 2 battleships, 6 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, 17 destroyers and submarines.

The Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi underway in the Summer of 1941
The Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi underway in the Summer of 1941 (Photo Source: Japanese military – U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation)

The combined Midway fleet was divided into an advanced expeditionary force of submarines, the Carrier Striking Force (with the 4 carriers under Nagumo plus escorts) and the occupation force (the light carrier, seaplane carriers, battleships, cruisers and transports with the Midway occupation force). There was also an Aleutian screening force and finally an Aleutian occupying force to the north.

Akagi, the flagship of the Japanese carrier striking force which attacked Pearl Harbor in April 1942
Akagi, the flagship of the Japanese carrier striking force which attacked Pearl Harbor in April 1942
IJN Soryu Aircraft Carrier
IJN Soryu Aircraft Carrier
IJN Kaga aircraft carrier Midway
IJN Kaga aircraft carrier

In theory the Japanese plan was a good one but there was one major problem that was soon about to arise. It was unknown to the Japanese but US Navy code breakers in the Hawaii had deciphered at least 90% of Japanese navy coded transmissions on their plans for the attack on Midway. The US Navy knew the Japanese were coming (the target, date and balance of forces were all known by the end of May 1942) and they were ready for a fight!

US Navy Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Chester W. Nimitz was able to place the available aircraft carriers USS Enterprise CV-6, USS Hornet CV-8 and USS Yorktown CV-5 (the latter was hastily repaired in 3 days and put back into service as best as possible following damage during the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942) protected by 6 cruisers and 12 destroyers in a position on June 2nd, 1942 where they could surprise the Japanese whilst they were moving into position to attack the islands rather than after the islands had been attacked and invaded. The US Fleet were backed by 233 carrier aircraft, 127 land-based aircraft including USAAF Boeing B-17 bombers and 16 submarines. The US plan was to send out scouts to target the Japanese ships, which were superior in numbers and send aircraft to attack them before they could engage the US fleet.

USS Yorktown CV-5 underway at Midway 1942
USS Yorktown CV-5 underway at Midway 1942 (Photo Source: US Navy)
USS Enterprise CV-6 1942
USS Enterprise CV-6 1942 (Photo Source: US Navy)
USS Hornet CV-8 underway on May 15 1942
USS Hornet CV-8 underway on May 15th, 1942 (Photo Source: US Navy via MaritimeQuest)

The Battle of Midway

The Battle of Midway erupted June 3rd to 7th, 1942. Initial sightings of the Japanese fleet occurred on June 3rd, 1942 and by first light on June 4th Japanese aircraft started to bomb American targets on Midway but did not hit anything critical and a number of aircraft were shot down during the attack (72 bombers and 36 fighters were launched to attack Midway, the remaining aircraft on the carriers were armed with bombs and torpedoes ready to attack US ships).

Battle of Midway 1942
Battle of Midway 1942

The US immediately launched morning counter attacks on June 4th, 1942 with US Navy and USMC torpedo bombers and dive bombers (some of the early attackers lacked fighter protection). 6 of the then new US Navy Grumman TBF-1 Avenger torpedo bombers (introduced in 1942 and blooded at Midway) of Torpedo Squadron 8 (VT-8) were part of these initial counter attacks but were pounced on by around 30 Japanese Mitsubishi Zero fighters and 5 of the 6 Avengers were shot down. The surviving Avenger was badly damaged but pilot Ensign Albert K. Earnest made it back to Midway. His radioman survived but the turret gunner sadly died in action during the battle.

Surviving Grumman TBF Avenger Midway 1942 US Navy
Grumman TBF-1 (Bureau # 00380) Avenger of Torpedo Squadron Eight (VT-8), photographed at Midway, 25 June 1942, prior to shipment back to the United States for post-battle evaluation. Badly shot-up, this plane was the only survivor of six Midway-based VT-8 TBFs that had attacked the Japanese carrier force in the morning of 4 June. The plane’s pilot was Ensign Albert K. Earnest. Crew were Radioman 3rd Class Harrier H. Ferrier and Seaman 1st Class Jay D. Manning. Manning, who was operating the .50 caliber machinegun turret, was killed in action with Japanese fighters during the attack (Photo Source: US Navy)

USAAF Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress and Martin B-26 Marauder bombers flying from Midway were also involved in the initial attacks on the Japanese fleet. The B-26 bombers were hastily fitted with a torpedo and with little crew training (this was the first time an Army aircraft had carried a torpedo), 4 brave USAAF B-26 crews set out to attack the Japanese carriers under heavy air attack from Japanese Zero’s and anti-aircraft fire from the Japanese ships. Sadly only 2 B-26 crews made it back to Midway and both aircraft were riddled with hundreds of bullet holes and had rough landings which caused further damage resulting in both being written off!

USAAF Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress bombers were used to attack the Japanese fleet during the Battle of Midway in 1942
USAAF Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress bombers were used to attack the Japanese fleet during the Battle of Midway in 1942 (Photo Source: USAF)
Similar USAAF Martin B-26 Marauder bombers armed with a torpedo took part in the Battle of Midway USAAF
Similar USAAF Martin B-26 Marauder bombers armed with a torpedo took part in the Battle of Midway but suffered heavy casualties

Initial US counter attacks either missed completely (torpedos missed or the Japanese carriers sharply moved out of the torpedoes path and the B-17 bomb loads were dropped from too high an altitude, giving the Japanese carriers time to maneuver out-of-the-way) or only caused minor damage to the Japanese fleet. This initial lack of success was soon to change in a very dramatic way though.

The main strike force aircraft of the US Navy at Midway were a mix of old and new combat aircraft. The main force included the obsolete Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bomber (introduced into service in 1937), the highly effective Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber (introduced into service in 1940) and the Grumman F4F Wildcat fighter (introduced into service in 1940 – outclassed in performance but a rugged and highly effective fighter in the hands of the right pilot).

US Navy Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bombers in formation - Obsolete but thrown into the fray out of necessity at the Battle of Midway June 4th, 1942 (Photo Source: US Navy)
US Navy Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bombers in formation – Obsolete but thrown into the fray out of necessity at the Battle of Midway June 4th, 1942 (Photo Source: US Navy)
Douglas TBD Devastator drops a torpedo US Navy
Douglas TBD Devastator drops a torpedo (Photo Source: US Navy)
VT-6 TBDs on USS Enterprise, during the Battle of Midway 1942
U.S. Navy Torpedo Squadron Six (VT-6) TBD-1 aircraft are prepared for launching on USS Enterprise (CV-6) at about 0730-0740 hrs, 4 June 1942. Eleven of the fourteen TBDs launched from Enterprise are visible. Three more TBDs and ten F4F fighters must still be pushed into position before launching can begin. The TBD in the left front is Number Two (Bureau # 1512), flown by Ensign Severin L. Rombach and Aviation Radioman 2nd Class W.F. Glenn. Along with eight other VT-6 aircraft, this plane and its crew were lost attacking Japanese aircraft carriers somewhat more than two hours later. USS Pensacola (CA-24) is in the right distance and a destroyer is in plane guard position at left (Photo Source: US Navy / US National Archives)
June 4th, 1942: All 15 Douglas TBD Devastators of Torpedo Squadron 8 (VT-8 ) head out to participate in the Battle of Midway - sadly all were destroyed and only squadron member Ens. George H. Gay was rescued from this tragedy
June 4th, 1942: All 15 Douglas TBD Devastators of Torpedo Squadron 8 (VT-8 ) head out to participate in the Battle of Midway – sadly all were destroyed and only squadron member Ens. George H. Gay was rescued from this tragedy (Photo taken by USS Hornet photographer Bill Gibson – Photo Source US Navy via MaritimeQuest)
June 4th, 1942: A Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber from VB-8 aboard USS Hornet CV-8 during the Battle of Midway (Photo Source: US Navy via MaritimeQuest)
June 4th, 1942: A Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber from VB-8 aboard USS Hornet CV-8 during the Battle of Midway (Photo Source: US Navy via MaritimeQuest)
U.S. Navy Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive bombers from the carrier USS Hornet prepare to attack the burning Japanese Navy cruiser Mikuma for the third time during the Battle of Midway on June 6th, 1942 (Photo Source: US Navy)
U.S. Navy Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive bombers from the carrier USS Hornet prepare to attack the burning Japanese Navy cruiser Mikuma for the third time during the Battle of Midway on June 6th, 1942 (Photo Source: US Navy)
VF-8 crew members aboard USS Hornet CV-8 prior to the Battle of Midway in June 1942
VF-8 crew members aboard USS Hornet CV-8 prior to the Battle of Midway in June 1942 (Photo Source: US Navy via MaritimeQuest)
On June 4th, 1942: Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters prepare for take-off from USS Hornet CV-8 during the Battle of Midway
On June 4th, 1942: Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters of VF-8 prepare for take-off from USS Hornet CV-8 during the Battle of Midway (Photo Source: US Navy via MaritimeQuest)
Grumman F4F Wildcat LIFE
Grumman F4F Wildcat

Following the initial raids, a wave of US Navy torpedo bombers became separated and were decimated by Japanese fighters (only 6 of the 41 Devastator’s launched survived and none hit a target with their torpedoes – the aircraft was slow and an easy target) but this created a diversion that allowed the US Navy dive bombers to hit their targets. Despite Japanese Zero fighters being on combat air patrol the US Navy had caught the Japanese in a vulnerable moment as they were in the process of refueling and rearming most of their aircraft on the carriers (they needed to switch over from torpedoes and anti-shipping fused bombs to bombs for land based targets in preparation for a second attack on Midway). In a matter of just 6 minutes on June 4th, 1942,  3 of the 4 Japanese heavy aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and a heavy cruiser Mikuma were sunk, thousands of crew were lost along with all the aircraft that were aboard.  This was the fatal blow to the Japanese that the US Navy could only have dreamed of!

Japanese carrier Soryu under attack by USAAF B-17 Flying Fortress bombers at Midway 1942
Japanese carrier Soryu under attack by USAAF B-17 Flying Fortress bombers at Midway (Photo Source: US Navy)
The attack on Soryu by US Navy Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers at Midway by Anthony Saunders
The attack on Soryu by US Navy Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers at Midway by Anthony Saunders
The Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu maneuvers to avoid bombs dropped by USAAF Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress bombers during the Battle of Midway, shortly after 0800 hrs, on 4 June 1942. Note the big hinomaru identification mark on the bow, the Katakana identification character
The Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu maneuvers to avoid bombs dropped by USAAF Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress bombers during the Battle of Midway, shortly after 0800 hrs, on June 4th, 1942(Photo Source: USAAF)
Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma,was sunk by US Navy dive bombers of TF-16 in the Battle of Midway (Photo Source: US Navy)
Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma,was sunk by US Navy dive bombers of TF-16 in the Battle of Midway (Photo Source: US Navy)

Only the Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu survived the morning attack and soon launched 18 dive bombers and 6 fighters to counter attack the US Navy carriers. USS Yorktown CV-5 was the most exposed and despite the protective air cover of F4F Wildcat fighters taking down many of the dive bombers, 7 broke through and struck the USS Yorktown with 3 bombs. She was on fire and stopped dead in the water. The crew then worked frantically to get the fires out and the carrier moving again.

Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carrier Hiryu
Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carrier Hiryu
A Japanese Aichi D3A2 Val dive bomber from the Hiryu homes in on USS Yorktown (this image is a still from a 35mm movie captured by US Navy Photographer's Mate Second Class William G. Roy during the battle)
A Japanese Aichi D3A2 Val dive bomber from the Hiryu homes in on USS Yorktown (this image is a still from a 35mm movie captured by US Navy Photographer’s Mate Second Class William G. Roy during the battle)

The Hiryu launched a second attack wave of 10 torpedo bombers and 6 fighters to strike the now moving USS Yorktown. Again they penetrated the US Navy air cover and hit the carrier with 2 torpedoes which ripped a gaping hole in her port side and cut all electrical power. Dead in the water once again the USS Yorktown was in trouble and began to list. The crew abandoned ship and on June 6th, 1942 the USS Yorktown was struck again by 2 torpedoes from Japanese submarines, she sank on June 7th.

Despite the evident heavy anti-aircraft fire, USS Yorktown CV-5 is hit on the port side by a Japanese Type 91 aerial torpedo during the mid-afternoon attack by planes from the carrier Hiryu, in the Battle of Midway, on June 4th, 1942 (Photo Source: US Navy)
Despite the evident heavy anti-aircraft fire, USS Yorktown CV-5 is hit on the port side by a Japanese Type 91 aerial torpedo during the mid-afternoon attack by planes from the carrier Hiryu, in the Battle of Midway, on June 4th, 1942 (Photo Source: US Navy)
USS Yorktown CV-5 listing following a Japanese torpedo attack on June 4th, 1942 during the Battle of Midway (Photo Source: US Navy)
USS Yorktown CV-5 listing following a Japanese torpedo attack on June 4th, 1942 during the Battle of Midway (Photo Source: US Navy)

The Japanese had struck back but with the loss of most of their carriers and with most of the remaining aircraft badly damaged from the USS Yorktown raids (the Hiryu had only 4 air-worthy dive bombers and 5 torpedo planes left plus 32 Zero fighters – 19 of her own and 13 survivors from the other carriers that had been airborne when they were sunk), the Japanese Striking Force was in tatters and was ordered to head away from Midway. Prior to this withdrawal the US carriers had launched more aircraft to attack the Japanese and the Hiryu was in their sights.

Dauntless dive bombers were soon overhead and despite some being shot down by Japanese fighters, the Hiryu was struck by 4 bombs and soon ablaze with flames engulfing much of the ship. The carrier was still able to move but the fire could not be fully contained. Later that night the ships engines stopped and the Hiryu was rocked by a large explosion. The ship was abandoned and torpedoed by other Japanese ships, eventually sinking the following day. Despite rescue attempts, not all men had abandoned the ship though and 389 went down with her.

Japanese Carrier Hiryu Burning at Midway 1942
Japanese Carrier Hiryu Burning at Midway 1942 (Photo Source: US Navy)
The burning Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu, photographed by a plane from the carrier Hosho shortly after sunrise on 5 June 1942. Hiryu sank a few hours later. Note collapsed flight deck over the forward hangar Midway 1942
The burning Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu, photographed by a plane from the carrier Hosho shortly after sunrise on 5 June 1942. Hiryu sank a few hours later. Note collapsed flight deck over the forward hangar (Photo Source: US Navy – donation by Kazutoshi Hando, 1970)

Despite the loss of the carriers, Admiral Yamamoto hoped the US Fleet would pursue his ships where they could be engaged in a night battle with Japanese battleships and be knocked out of action (the Japanese were highly effective at night sea combat). This did not occur though and he officially cancelled the Midway attack.

Up against insurmountable odds but with some luck and plenty of courage on their side, on June 4th, 1942 the US Navy tore out the heart of the Imperial Japanese Navy, who despite having vastly superior numbers of ships and aircraft carriers along with more advanced aircraft were soundly defeated at Midway. The Japanese knockout blow had totally missed and a measure of revenge had been exacted on Japan for the attack on Pearl Harbour!

The Battle of Midway in 1942 was a turning point in the Pacific war
The Battle of Midway in 1942 was a turning point in the Pacific war (Image Source: US Navy)

The Battle of Midway turned the tide in favour of the Allies in the Pacific theatre. The Japanese had lost two-thirds of their entire carrier fleet, a vast number of aircraft and many skilled crew members (aircrew, mechanics, sailors etc). From then on the Allies were on the offensive and the battle was a stepping stone to the total defeat of Imperial Japan in 1945 (the Japanese surrendered on August 15th, 1945. Formal Japanese surrender documents were signed on September 2nd, 1945 ending World War Two). Victory at the Battle of Midway did not come without loss for the victor though in terms of men, aircraft and ships (more than 300 seamen, the carrier USS Yorktown, a destroyer and 147 aircraft were all lost in the battle). It was a costly but monumental result for both nations.

USS Midway

In San Diego, California you can visit the retired USS Midway CV-41 US Navy aircraft carrier that served from 1945 to 1991 and was named in honour of the Battle of Midway. Today it is a museum (opened June 2004) and features over 60 aircraft along with The Battle of Midway Experience where you can watch the Voices of Midway movie (the Battle of Midway Theatre opened in January 2015) and view displays on the battle.

USS Midway CV-41 Museum in San Diego 2015
USS Midway CV-41 Museum in San Diego 2015
The Battle of Midway 1942 - USS Midway CV-41
The Battle of Midway 1942 – USS Midway CV-41

Two important aircraft aboard the USS Midway are a Grumman F4F Wildcat fighter and a Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber that are both suspended in mid-air for an impressive presentation. Unfortunately there are no surviving Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bombers restored in a museum today and there are only a few known wrecks (only 130 were manufactured between 1937-1939 and they were retired from active service following the Battle of Midway in 1942 and replaced by the Grumman TBF/TBM Avenger torpedo bomber. 6 Grumman TBF-1 Avengers as part of VT-8 were present during the Battle of Midway in 1942 but 5 of the 6 were shot down during an early attack on the Japanese fleet. Despite the losses it went on to be one of the most successful torpedo bombers of World War Two. A General Motors TBM example is on display on the USS Midway). These aircraft and their brave crews became the flying legends of the Battle of Midway!

US Navy Grumman F4F Wildcat and Douglas SBD Dauntless - USS Midway 2015
US Navy Grumman F4F Wildcat and Douglas SBD Dauntless – USS Midway 2015
Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber - a flying legend of the Battle of Midway 1942
Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber – a flying legend of the Battle of Midway 1942
The dive bomber proved lethal to Japanese aircraft carriers during the Battle of Midway in 1942 Douglas Dauntless USS Midway San Diego
The dive bomber proved lethal to Japanese aircraft carriers during the Battle of Midway in 1942
The Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber was introduced into US Navy service in 1940 USS Midway San Diego CA
The Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber was introduced into US Navy service in 1940
Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber USS Midway CV-41 San Diego CA
Deadly cargo
Grumman F4F Wildcat USS Midway CV-41
The Grumman F4F Wildcat was a rugged little fighter that proved more than capable in the right hands
The Grumman F4F Wildcat provided air cover for US Navy carriers and attack aircraft during the Battle of Midway in 1942
The Grumman F4F Wildcat provided air cover for US Navy carriers and attack aircraft during the Battle of Midway in 1942
General Motors TBM Avenger torpedo bomber - a few Grumman TBF Avengers as part of VT-8 (Torpedo Squadron 8) were present during the Battle of Midway 1942
General Motors TBM Avenger torpedo bomber – 6 Grumman TBF Avengers as part of VT-8 (Torpedo Squadron 8) were present during the Battle of Midway 1942

Any visit to San Diego is incomplete without a walk along the waterfront and you cannot help but not miss the mighty USS Midway. If you have the time, go aboard and visit this excellent museum, it is well worth it!

Advertisements

7 thoughts on “The Battle of Midway 1942: US Navy Flying Legends

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s