Monday, June 04, 2012

The Battle of Midway, June 4-7, 1942: 70 Years Later

Originally, my intent was to write a blow-by-blow recount of the Battle of Midway (as I did for the Battle of the Coral Sea), today being the 70th anniversary of one of the most decisive and amazing victories in the history of both the United States Navy and the United States as a whole. After several fits and starts, I realized that there's no reason for me to reinvent the wheel.

If you need a recap of the history, the Battle of Midway article at Wikipedia is good, plus check out some of the official United States Navy resources commemorating the battle. If you're looking for the best, most comprehensive, history of the action there is no better work than Miracle At Midway by Gordon W. Prange with Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon. In fact, any topic I cover in this post that isn't covered by a link to a source can be credited to that work.

What I'm going to do by way of commemoration is my own commentary and analysis of the battle and the events that led up to this incredible victory. The battle certainly changed the course of World War II in the Pacific and may even have determined the ultimate outcome of the war, even though there were over three years of fighting left to do. I'll also relate some of the lesser known stories surrounding the battle.

The story of Midway goes all the way back seven months to the Day of Infamy.

December 7, 1941 - Midway victory made materially possible

Wait, what did I say? The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made the Midway victory possible? It sure did. As I penned back on December 14, 2011, the US Pacific Fleet escaped the Japanese attack with several critical resources undamaged. Key for the outcome of Midway were both the USS Enterprise (CV-6) being at sea that day and the Japanese failing to launch a second strike that could well have caused severe damage to the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard. The shipyard, we will see, played a decisive role. Enterprise, of course, was one of the three USN carriers at Midway.

The Japanese failure to damage or sink any of the Pacific Fleet carriers at Pearl Harbor caused the Commander in Chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, to plot another decisive battle at which he'd have the opportunity to destroy the fighting power of the US Pacific Fleet. The Japanese success of obtaining surprise at Pearl Harbor gave them a false sense of security that they'd be able to catch the United States sleeping again.

Spring 1942 - the JN25 code is broken

Naval intelligence and cryptography specialists broke the code used by the Japanese to communicate with their deployed naval forces. They couldn't break every message, but for both the Coral Sea and Midway, the foreknowledge of enemy dispositions, intent, and attack plans was invaluable to Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Commander in Chief of the US Pacific Fleet. In the lead up to the Battle of Midway, Nimitz knew not only where and when the Japanese would attack, but also what forces they'd have to do the job so he could best counter the enemy.

Learning the information and plans for the attack on Midway was the lion's share, but two other pieces of information insured that the Japanese wouldn't learn that Midway was going to be a trap for them. First, the Japanese had planned to station a submarine at the French Frigate Shoals in the Hawaiian island chain to refuel reconnaissance seaplanes that would overfly Pearl Harbor and determine the disposition of the American combatants. When the submarine got to the shoals, American ships were anchored there and the seaplane mission was cancelled. Second, Nimitz learned when the Japanese would have a screening force of submarines placed between Hawaii and Midway, their role being to spot US navy warships as they deployed for battle. By the time the Japanese submarines arrived on station on June 3, 1942 (two days late to boot), the American battle forces for Midway were already to the northeast of the atoll and away from Japanese prying eyes.

Spreading the Japanese Out - Effects of the Doolittle Raid, April 18, 1942

April 1942's Doolittle Raid by Army Air Force B-25 Mitchell bombers on Tokyo and other Japanese cities stunned the Japanese high command. They had no inkling they were vulnerable at home for air attack, and the fact that the raid was carried out by twin-engine medium bombers put them at a loss as to where the attack came from. As we know now, the Army bombers flew off the USS Hornet (CV-8). The Japanese never gave any thought to the bombers having come from an aircraft carrier and assumed they must have come from a US base ashore. It was clear to the Japanese leadership that they had to push back the areas from which an attack could be launched against their home islands.

One of the two possible shore locations was Midway. The other was Alaska's Aleutian Islands. Part of the larger Midway operation included an attack on the Aleutians! The Japanese invaded and occupied the islands of Attu and Kiska contemporaneous to the attack on Midway and bombed the naval station at Dutch Harbor using carrier aircraft. The Japanese dispatched the light carriers Jun'yō and Ryūjō - along with around 90 aircraft - to the Aleutians operation. What if Yamamoto hadn't distributed his forces between two objectives? What if those two ships had been at Midway?

Thankfully, we'll never know.

Japanese Carriers: one sunk, one damaged, air groups decimated - May 7-8, 1942

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor used six large aircraft carriers: Akagi, Hiryū, Kaga, Shōkaku, Sōryū, and Zuikaku. As the United States gained its strength and began challenging the Japanese in early 1942, American carrier raids and strikes against Japanese operations without air cover - such as that on Lae-Salamaua - taught Yamamoto and his staff that they'd have to send carriers along almost everywhere.

Shōkaku and Zuikaku were sent to the New Guinea/Port Moresby operation that led to the Battle of the Coral Sea, along with the light carrier Shōhō. Planes from both the USS Lexington (CV-2) and USS Yorktown (CV-5) battered Shōhō with repeated bomb and torpedo hits and sent her to the bottom. Shōkaku was severely damaged by bombs, and both she and Zuikaku suffered heavy losses to their air groups.

Both Shōkaku and Zuikaku originally would have been part of the Japanese force at Midway were it not for battle damage and the loss of aircraft and air crews. Again, thankfully we'll never know what the outcome of Midway would have been if the Japanese carrier force hadn't been cut by a third.

Was Midway won by a fire hose? - May 8, 1942

Yorktown was struck by a single Japanese armor-piercing bomb during the Battle of the Coral Sea. That one bomb caused enormous damage to the ship by the blast, secondary explosions, and resulting fires. It didn't help that it exploded right amidst a 50-man damage control team, killing or wounding most of them.

Dazed, concussed, and bleeding from wounds that were ultimately fatal, a 28-year old Lieutenant from Baltimore named Milton E. Ricketts still grabbed a fire hose and laid water on the fires in his compartment until he fell dead next to the nozzle. Ricketts posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his ship-saving heroism on May 8, 1942. Yorktown struggled to make it back to Pearl Harbor in her damaged state by May 27, 1942. Without the gallant damage control efforts of her crew, personified by Ricketts, Yorktown may actually have sunk - as the Japanese thought - or even if she had survived been so damaged that there never would have been a chance to have her reengage the Japanese at Midway.

The dangers of over-confident intelligence reports

On January 11, 1942, the Japanese submarine I-6 reported that she had torpedoed and sunk the Lexington. It was actually the USS Saratoga (CV-3) that I-6 struck, and while she sustained heavy damage, she was back at Pearl Harbor within days for a temporary fix, and then sailed for the west coast for permanent repairs. The Japanese sunk Lexington at the Coral Sea, but credited it as Saratoga, as they thought Lexington was already gone. They also thought that Yorktown had been sunk as well.

Japanese estimates were that there would be just one, two at most, carriers opposing them at Midway.

Getting the Japanese to spill the beans - May 10, 1942

As mentioned above, Naval Intelligence had largely broken the Japanese's JN25 communications code and was snooping in on much of the IJN's communications. Nimitz and his staff had a pretty good idea that Midway was Japan's target based on circumstantial evidence, but the ultimate target was only referred to by a code designator - "AF" - by the Japanese in their messages. Could there be a way to confirm that AF was definitely Midway?

The intelligence officers thought up a simple ruse. They had Midway radio Hawaii in the clear (no coding or encryption) that Midway's water purification system was out of order and that water would have to be shipped in.

A few days later, they intercepted Japanese communications to the effect of, "AF is short of water", and orders telling the Midway occupation force that they wouldn't have use of captured equipment for water purification!

Halsey to the hospital - May 26, 1942

Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, commander of Task Force 16 with the Enterprise and Hornet, would have been the overall commander of the US battle forces for Midway had he not been hospitalized with "general dermatitis" when Enterprise docked at Pearl Harbor on May 26. His cruisers commander, Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, took over Task Force 16 while the overall command went to the more senior Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, commander of Task Force 17 with Yorktown.

With the benefit of hindsight, it might have been advantageous to have the more cautious Fletcher (Fletcher, as a Medal of Honor recipient was hardly timid!) in command over the hard-charging Halsey given the course of the battle. Would Halsey have kept Task Force 16 separate from 17 as Fletcher did or would he have operated all three carriers as one group? Placing all three carriers together could have been a disaster.

Would Halsey have relinquished command if and when he was forced to abandon ship as Fletcher was when Yorktown went down? Would Halsey have made the same situational decisions as Spruance - who seemed to make the right decision at each and every juncture?

If Spruance hadn't commanded at Midway, how would that have affected his prospects for command and the battles he led later in the war?

Montgomery Scott has nothing on the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard - May 27-30, 1942

Montgomery Scott is, of course, the full name of the miracle-working "Scotty" from Star Trek. Captain Kirk once asked him if he always reduced his repair estimates by a factor of four. Well, when Yorktown limped back into Pearl Harbor at 1420 hours on May 27, the most optimistic projections were that the badly damaged carrier would need up to three months of heavy repairs, 90 days or more.

Admiral Nimitz needed a third carrier deck to have any chance of repelling the Japanese attack on Midway. Saratoga was being rushed back into service in California, but wouldn't sail from San Diego until June 1 and would miss the engagement. Even Admiral Fletcher thought it would take at least two or three weeks to complete enough repairs to make Yorktown ready to fight again. They didn't have weeks. A miracle was needed. Yorktown must be made ready for battle.

Nimitz gave the repair crews at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard just three days to repair her.

USS Yorktown in the PHNSY drydock, May 29
Men worked around the clock. Bulkheads needed to be reinforced. Hull damage and buckling from near-miss bombs at the Coral sea had to be patched. There was no time to draw up plans or order materials. Yorktown's 2,200-man crew plus the 1,400 or more repair experts from the PHNSY adapted, improvised, overcame. Where watertight doors couldn't be repaired, they sealed them. They scavenged supplies wherever they could find them.

Meanwhile, Saratoga wouldn't make it to the battle but her air group would. Yorktown's group, coupled with the survivors from Lexington's were too beat up from the Coral Sea fighting to go to Midway. Yorktown took aboard "Sara's" planes: squadrons Bombing THREE (VB-3), Fighting THREE (VF-3), Scouting THREE (VS-3), and Torpedo THREE (VT-3).

By the light of lamps and welding torches, the crews patched deck holes and restored the ship's vital plumbing, damage control, and electrical systems while other work gangs started loading all the supplies and ammunition Yorktown would need to fight.

Late on May 29, the drydock was flooded and Yorktown was towed out into Pearl Harbor for her final preparations to sortie. At 0900 on May 30, she left for battle - just 67 hours after she arrived in her badly damaged state.

The unsung heroes of the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard had beaten Nimitz's repair requirement by five hours and truly secured the title of "miracle workers".

Four Minutes that Won the War - June 4, 1942

The Japanese pilots had recovered on their four carriers after attacking Midway Atoll. Their strike report recommended a second attack against the islands. The carrier crews had already started rearming the planes with anti-ship ordnance (armor-piercing bombs and torpedoes) when the order came down to rearm the aircraft with conventional ground attack weapons.

The Japanese thought there might be an American carrier around, but had concluded - incorrectly - that the air attacks they had already repelled had come from Midway-based aircraft. The Japanese officers and sailors were consumed with their feelings of invulnerability and superiority. In their haste to get their planes rearmed for the second strike on Midway - all mindful of the failure to follow up the Pearl Harbor raid with an additional attack - they left bombs and ammunition lying around the flight and hangar decks rather than returning everything immediately to the magazines below decks.

Around 1000 hours, obsolescent American TBD Devastator torpedo bombers from Yorktown, Enterprise, and Hornet tried to attack the Japanese carriers. Many of them were shot down by Japanese guns or fighters. They scored no hits, but they did something more important: they turned the Japanese attention to low level when the real threat was coming in from high.

Between 1022 and 1026 hours, our Navy's SBD Dauntless dive bombers came screaming in from above three of the four Japanese carriers. They were unopposed by fighters and the Japanese antiaircraft guns were slow to react. Most of their bombs hit.

The American bombs caused chain reaction explosions amongst the planes on the carriers' decks and the weapons left carelessly lying around.

Within seconds, Akagi, Kaga, and Sōryū were flaming wrecks incapable of operating aircraft. All would sink or be scuttled by the next morning. Hiryū followed them when she was bombed and destroyed at around 1700.

Japan sinks the Yorktown...for the third time!

Recall that the Japanese Navy had assumed that they had sunk Yorktown at the Battle of the Coral Sea. Surviving planes from Hiryū found Yorktown around 1200 hours on June 4th and attacked. They scored several bomb hits and observed fires starting.

Once again, the Japanese pilots reported they had sunk an American aircraft carrier - but they hadn't!

Yorktown's valiant crew sprung into action to put out the fires and start repairing the damage. After just a few hours, the ship was back in action, albeit slowed by lingering damage.

Japanese scout planes sighted Yorktown later in the afternoon and reported a different carrier group for attack - since it was assumed that it couldn't be the same ship they had struck before! Another attack was launched against Yorktown, and the Japanese didn't keep looking for either Enterprise or Hornet.

Yorktown was damaged enough by the second attack to be abandoned, but still didn't sink. Salvage operations began on June 5th and she was started on a slow tow back towards Pearl Harbor. Yorktown finally succumbed to a Japanese attack when she was struck by torpedoes from a Japanese submarine on June 6th.

Finally, a Japanese report of her sinking was accurate.

A Final Word

Among the Midway tributes you've read today, I hope you've found this one enjoyable even though the bulk of it doesn't deal with the battle itself. On June 4-7, 1942, the Japanese certainly learned the hard way that "no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy."

Conversely, about everything that could go right for the United States at Midway did. Yorktown was lost, but she was replaced within six or seven months. The four sunk Japanese carriers were essentially never replaced. Yamamoto had been right: Japan had to have a decisive victory to eliminate the American fleet. His plans for decisive victory turned into the most crushing defeat.

307 American servicemen lost their lives during the battle that altered the course of World War II and of world history. For their sacrifice, we are forever grateful.

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