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The Battle of Midway

If the Battle of Midway was the turning point of the war in the Pacific, there were half a dozen points on which the battle itself turned, or could have. Had any one of several factors including strategy, timing, weather, judgment, intelligence and luck played out differently, the outcome might have been different, and the war longer and even more costly than it was.


Mitchell B25 bombers that were to fly in the Jimmy Doolittle ‘Twenty Seconds Over Tokyo’ raid on the deck of the USS Hornet en route to their launch point, April 1942. The light cruiser USS Nashville appears in the background.

The battle probably would have happened in any case, but it might not have happened when it did but for the Doolittle raid of April 18, 1942. That morning, Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle, a University of California graduate, pioneering aeronautical engineer and former race and stunt pilot, led eighty men in sixteen B-25B Mitchell medium bombers that took off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet and bombed Japan. The bombs they dropped were the first to hit the Japanese mainland in the war and the last for another 26 months or so. They had hoped to take off about 400 miles from Japan, but when the American fleet was spotted by a Japanese fishing boat serving picket duty about 700 miles out to sea, the decision was made to launch the planes at once to give the Japanese as little time as possible to muster their defenses. The planes had been modified to carry extra fuel — the rear gun turrets had been given over to fuel storage tanks and the barrels of  their machine guns replaced, to maintain appearances, with black broomsticks — but not enough to make the round trip back to the ship. The bombers had barely enough deck to take off from; landing them on a carrier was considered impractable.


Jimmy Doolittle taking off from the USS Hornet, April 18, 1942. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia and the Naval Historical Center.)

The plan was to head southwest from Japan and land at friendly airfields in Zhejiang province in China, but what with taking off earlier and flying hundreds of miles farther than expected, fuel ran low or ran out. None of the planes could have reached China without the aid of a brisk tailwind. One crew thought better of trying and took a shorter route — to Vladivostock in the Soviet Union, where they were interned for more than a year. All of the other fifteen crews either crash landed or bailed out. Three ditched at sea. One man, Corp. Leland D. Faktor, a flight engineer and gunner, died attempting to bail out over China. Eight men were captured by the Japanese in China. Of those eight, three were put on trial and shot by firing squad about four months later. Another died of beri-beri. The other four survived the war as POWs. All the planes were lost, but thirteen entire crews and all but one man of another eventually made it back to Allied lines. In view of the loss of the planes, Doolittle thought he would be court-martialed. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor.


Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle (center) with members of his flight crew and Chinese officials in China after the April 1942 attack on Japan; from left: Staff Sgt. Fred A. Braemer, bombardier; Staff Sgt. Paul J. Leonard, flight engineer/gunner; General Ho, provincial official; Lt. Richard E. Cole, copilot; Lt. Col. Doolittle, pilot and mission commander; Henry H. Shen, bank manager; Lt. Henry A. Potter, navigator; and Chao Foo Ki, provincial official. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia and the Naval Historical Center.)

Prior to the Doolittle raid, the Japanese high command, having achieved pretty much every objective it had pursued to that point in the war, was debating where to strike next. Some argued for pushing Japan’s sphere of conquest south and southeast through New Guinea and the Solomon Islands to isolate Australia and prevent the Americans from basing forces there. One faction advocated invading India to link up with the Germans in the Middle East. Another wanted to seize Midway to secure the empire’s eastern perimeter. At the least, this last option would extend Japanese land-based air power to the very center of the Pacific and deprive the Americans of an important refueling base for their submarines. At best, it would serve to lure the Americans into a decisive battle in which their will to continue fighting would be destroyed along with what remained of their Pacific fleet. The US would sue for terms, and the Japanese would have a free hand to pursue their conquests in the Pacific basin and mainland Asia.

The Doolittle raid settled the matter. It did little physical damage but had an enormous impact on American morale,  Japanese strategy and Chinese civilians, a quarter of a million of whom the Japanese are said to have massacred in retaliation for assisting the raiders. To the American public, it was the first good news of the war (the raid itself was, not the ensuing massacre). To the Japanese high command, it was embarrassing and alarming. If American planes could bomb Tokyo, the emperor’s life was at risk, not to mention the nation’s industrial facilities and military installations. The main threat to Japan was coming from the east — Japan would go east to meet it. By taking Midway, an atoll whose only two significant islands comprise a grand total of about 2.4 square miles, they would expand their zone of dominance by hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean and fortify the approaches to it with long-range land-based aircraft.


(Map courtesy of Wikipedia and the US Military Academy Department of History)

To accomplish that task, they proceeded to assemble a fleet of more than a hundred ships, including four heavy aircraft carriers with 248 planes, eleven battleships, 46 destroyers and sixteen submarines. A second fleet of about sixty ships was dispatched to attack the Aleutians in what has traditionally been regarded as a diversionary move. (Some historians dispute that, saying the Alaska invasion was simply the other part of a two-pronged offensive.)


USS Yorktown undergoing repairs in Drydock No. 1 at Pearl Harbor, May 29, 1942. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia and the US National Archives.)

As powerful as it was, the fleet the Japanese sent to Midway wasn’t quite as powerful as it might have been, nor was the US fleet that engaged it quite as weak. In the Battle of the Coral Sea, May 6-8, 1942, both sides lost one carrier — the Japanese lost the Shoho, the Americans the Lexington — and sustained severe damage to another.  Two Japanese carriers, the Zuikaku and the Shokaku, survived the battle, but the Shokaku, hit by three bombs, required months of repair in drydock, and the Japanese were slow in replacing the pilots the Zuikaku lost in the battle; neither ship was available for the Midway operation. The crippled American carrier, the Yorktown, was made available through a herculean effort by repair crews at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard. Her presence at Midway came as a rude surprise to the Japanese, who thought she had gone to the bottom of the Coral Sea along with the Lexington. If the battle there hadn’t happened, the Japanese advantage in carriers at Midway might have been six or seven to four instead of four to three.


Joseph J. Rochefort (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

But perhaps the most decisive factor at Midway involved intelligence. By early 1942 US naval cryptanalysts, aided by their Dutch and British counterparts in Pacific basin outposts, had cracked JN-25, the main Japanese naval code. Japanese radio messages intercepted after the Battle of the Coral Sea pointed toward an impending attack on an objective the designation of which translated as AF. Joseph Rochefort, a crossword puzzle and auction bridge aficionado who headed up Station Hypo, the Navy’s cryptanalysis office at Pearl Harbor, suspected that AF was Midway. To confirm that hunch, one of his assistants, Lt. Cmdr. Jasper Holmes, suggested a ruse. Having participated before the war, while on the engineering faculty at the University of Hawaii, in a study of the effects of using coral and salt water in mixing concrete on Midway, Holmes knew that the inhabitants there relied for their fresh water on a desalinization plant. On May 19 he suggested having the base at Midway send an uncoded message to Pearl Harbor reporting that the desal plant was broken. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz of Fredericksburg, Texas, commander in chief of US naval forces in the Pacific, approved the plan, the message was sent, and two days later, the Japanese duly forwarded the news via JN-25 that AF was facing a water emergency. AF, clearly, was Midway. Some US officials still had their doubts, thinking the Japanese may have been deliberately feeding the Americans misleading clues in their messages. But by late May, Nimitz had decided to take the Japanese at their intercepted word and was planning accordingly.

The Midway invasion fleet consisted of three sections. On May 27, the day the lead section, comprising the four heavy carriers and their escorts, sortied from an anchorage off the island of Hashirajima, south of Hiroshima, the Japanese changed their codebook. The Americans could no longer read their messages. But by then, they knew the Japanese were coming, or had good reason to believe they were, and about when they would arrive.

As the Japanese fleet approached Midway, among the most pressing concerns weighing on Admiral Nimitz was that of having the three carriers at his disposal, Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown, clear Pearl Harbor undetected. The Enterprise and Hornet arrived from operations in the Southwest Pacific on May 26 and sortied two days later. The Yorktown struggled in from the Coral Sea on May 27 in need of repairs which, under less pressing circumstances, would have been done at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington, and taken months. Nimitz gave the managers of the naval shipyard at Pearl Harbor three days. On May 30, with workmen from the repair ship USS Vestal still toiling aboard her, the Yorktown set out. Three days later the three carriers rendezvoused at a spot dubbed Point Luck about 325 miles northeast of Midway, and there they lay in wait.

The Japanese, meanwhile, keen to know the whereabouts of the American carriers, deployed a picket line of submarines between Pearl Harbor and Midway, but were late in setting it up. By the time the last of the subs took its place in the line, the US fleet had already crossed or skirted it. They had also planned to conduct reconnaissance flights over Pearl Harbor by seaplanes from the Marshall Islands, which were to be refueled by submarine at French Frigate Shoals, an atoll about 500 miles west of Oahu. They had used that spot for the same purpose prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 and as recently as that March. But when the submarine I-125 arrived there in late May, it found an American warship standing by. Rochefort’s office had figured out what the Japanese were doing there. The seaplane reconnaissance operation was scrapped.


As the Midway invasion fleet proceeded eastward, Tokyo notified its commander in chief, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, aboard the battleship Yamato, of an increase in US message traffic and submarine activity, both of which suggested that something was afoot with the US fleet. But in the interest of maintaining radio silence, a decision was made not to relay this news to the carrier strike force commander, Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, aboard the carrier Akagi. As far as Nagumo knew, whatever carriers the Americans still had after the Battle of the Coral Sea were at Pearl Harbor or still in the South Pacific. Neither he nor Yamamoto nor anyone back in Tokyo knew where they were. Admiral Nimitz had succeeded in deploying them essentially in secret. The Japanese — planning to lure the American carriers into rushing to Midway’s defense, then to pounce on and annihilate them —  were themselves cruising into an ambush.


The battle could still have gone badly for the Americans. Between their three carriers and the base at Midway, they brought about a hundred more planes to the battle than the Japanese; but in general the Japanese planes were faster and more maneuverable, their pilots more experienced and their torpedoes more effective than their American counterparts. But the Americans made better decisions. Luck played a significant role in the battle, but the Americans made their own luck. Much of the good fortune they enjoyed at Midway stemmed more or less directly from aggressive decision-making. Nagumo hesitated. Being decisive proved to be the better strategy.


There had already been some minor skirmishing, but the Battle of Midway began in earnest at 0430 in the predawn darkness of June 4 when the Japanese carrier group began launching a force of three dozen dive bombers and equal numbers of torpedo bombers and Zero fighter escorts to attack the US base at Midway. Seven scout planes, which proceeded to fan out to the north and northeast to detect any enemy ships in the area, took off about the same time from escort vessels. An eighth scout, one of two launched that day by the heavy cruiser Tone, was to have departed with them, but something went wrong with the Tone’s catapult. Her second scout plane, Tone No. 4, took off thirty minutes late.


The Japanese hit Midway about 0620. They bombed the airstrip and shot down sixteen of the 23 Marine-piloted fighters — three brand-new Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats and twenty obsolete Brewster F2A-3 Buffaloes, a.k.a. “Flying Coffins” — trying to defend it, but failed to achieve their primary objective, that of rendering the airstrip unusable. At 0700 flight leader Lt. Joichi Tomonaga radioed this unwelcome news back to Admiral Nagumo on the Akagi and recommended a second strike. Nagumo faced a critical decision. He had held about half his aircraft in reserve and armed about half of those with torpedoes in anticipation of a possible encounter with American ships. A second strike on the airstrip would require rearming those planes with conventional bombs for land targets. About 0710, as he weighed his options, four B-26 Marauder medium bombers and six Grumman TBF-1 Avenger torpedo bombers  from Midway — the first of nine waves of American planes to attack the Japanese carriers that morning — closed on the enemy fleet, and as they did, a swarm of twenty-nine Mitsubishi A6M Zeros closed on them. Two Marauders and five Avengers were shot down. The attack left the Japanese carriers unscathed, but it may have served to impress upon Nagumo the urgency of finishing the task of taking out the Midway airstrip.


At 0715 Nagumo gave the order to rearm. At 0728 he received a report from Tone No. 4, the scout plane that had taken off late. It had spotted ten enemy ships. It did not specify what kinds. Their reported position put them about 200 miles away. Nagumo ordered the rearming suspended. At 0809 Tone No. 4 elaborated: the enemy ships included five cruisers and five destroyers. There was no mention of aircraft carriers. Their absence came as welcome news to some of Nagumo’s officers; others doubted it. Meanwhile, more American planes arrived from Midway — sixteen Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers just before 0800, fourteen (or, as some sources have it, fifteen) B-17 Flying Fortresses just after 0800, eleven obsolete, fabric-skinned Vought SB2U-3 Vindicator dive bombers about 0820. Half of the Dauntlesses and three Vindicators were destroyed. The high-altitude B-17s suffered no losses, but neither did the Japanese ships.


At 0820, about the time of the Vindicator attack, Tone No. 4 reported alarming news: among the American ships was a carrier. Nagumo ordered another about-face on armaments — bombs out, torpedoes in. In their haste, the Japanese ordnance handlers left much of the offloaded ammunition in piles on the hangar deck instead of storing it in the magazines below. There just wasn’t time for that.


The American carrier planes had yet to enter the fray by that point. When they did, as badly as things had already gone for the Americans, they would get worse.


The American fleet that day consisted of two sections: Task Force 16, comprising the Enterprise and Hornet and their escorts, and Task Force 17, the Yorktown and her escorts. Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance commanded Task Force 16. Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher was in charge of Task Force 17 and the fleet as a whole, while Admiral Nimitz oversaw the entire operation from Pearl Harbor.


An American scout plane had spotted two Japanese carriers about 0530. At 0607 Fletcher had ordered Spruance: “Proceed southwesterly and attack enemy carriers when definitely located.” Fletcher would hold the Yorktown’s planes temporarily in reserve in case other enemy carriers appeared. Spruance, aboard the Enterprise, continued steaming southwest in company with the Hornet for about another 45 minutes, holding off that long on launching his planes to put his air crews more securely within the round-trip range of their gas tanks. The Enterprise and Hornet had turned east into a 5-mph breeze at 0656, built up to speed and begun launching just after 0700. Aboard the Enterprise the launch did not go entirely smoothly. A group of fighters took off first to provide a defensive umbrella, then the dive bombers. Ordinarily, the dive bombers would launch from the forward stretch of the flight deck while the escort fighters and torpedo planes were “spotted” or positioned for takeoff behind them. But that day eighteen of the Enterprise dive bombers carried 1,000-pound bombs and had to run the full length of the deck to get aloft, so until they had done so the fighters and torpedo planes had had to bide their time below. Five planes malfunctioned, further gumming things up. To Lt. Cmdr. C. Wade McClusky, circling overhead with the two squadrons of dive bombers he commanded, once the last of his planes had taken off, things “seemed to come to a standstill.” At 0740 Spruance was notified of an intercepted contact report from a Japanese scout plane. The Americans had been spotted. They were in danger of losing the element of surprise.


Spruance had been assigned to Task Force 16 only days before as a replacement for Admiral William “Bill” Halsey, who had been hospitalized with a case of shingles (one source has it as psoriasis). Spruance  and Fletcher had been instructed by Nimitz just before the battle to apply in it the principle of calculated risk. Spruance applied that principle that morning about 0745 when he ordered McClusky and his dive bombers, burning precious fuel in their holding pattern while still awaiting their torpedo plane and fighter partners: “Proceed on mission assigned.” Given the constraints of timing and fuel, and anxious to strike a blow before sustaining one, Spruance gambled that it would be better to attack piecemeal than to wait for his strike force to assemble in full.


Things did not go entirely smoothly that morning aboard the Hornet either. Despite the scout plane reports that put two Japanese carriers to the southwest, the Hornet’s commander, Capt. Marc Mitscher, and the commander of her air group, Cmdr. Stanhope C. Ring, concurred on a plan to fly more or less due west in hopes of intercepting other carriers they suspected were trailing the first two. Their hunch was not unfounded. The Japanese force was known to include four carriers. Only two had been spotted. If the other two had been closer to Midway or the US fleet, they could not very well have escaped detection, so it stood to reason they were farther away, trailing their sister ships. The Enterprise strike group was going after the carriers whose whereabouts were more or less known. Even if it sank them, if the other two carriers were left unmolested, they might carry the day. They would have to be eliminated too. So why not leave the first two carriers to the Enterprise planes and seal the deal by locating and destroying the other two?


But as rational as that theory might have seemed, it did not sit well with Lt. Cmdr. John Waldron, in charge of VT-8, the Hornet’s torpedo plane squadron. Waldron was a 41-year-old Naval Academy graduate, originally from Pierre, South Dakota, part Oglala Sioux on his mother’s side, of New Hampshire Puritan stock on his father’s, a nonpracticing member of the California state bar and a perfectionist taskmaster whose men, most of them about half his age, looked up to him as a father figure. When he learned that morning of the flight plan Mitscher and Ring had settled on, he was furious. He preferred a confirmed target to one that might not exist. Waldron argued bitterly with Ring before they took off, tried to wrest control of the whole air group over the radio once they were airborne, and failing in that objective, told Ring “the hell with you” (or something to that effect), broke formation and led his planes off to the southwest. He mutinied, and, in the words of the squadron’s sole survivor, as the rest of the Hornet’s air group streaked off on what came to be known as “The Flight to Nowhere,” Waldron led his thirty men, two each in fifteen planes, toward the enemy carriers on a course as straight “as if he’d had a string tied to them.”


Meanwhile, shortly after the last of the bombs from the Midway-based B-17s plunged, apparently harmlessly, into the sea beside him, Nagumo faced another decision. The surviving eighty or so planes of the 108 he had sent against Midway got back, many of them badly damaged, about 0830 and urgently requested permission to land. Nagumo at that point knew he was confronting at least one American carrier. Despite the confusion and extra toil his two rearming orders had caused, he had enough appropriately armed dive bombers on hand to mount a formidable attack. What he lacked was fighters to escort them. His fighters were busy defending his ships or refueling. He could launch the dive bombers in hopes of striking the first blow and taking the American ship unawares, then recover his planes back from Midway, or recover the Midway planes first and take the time to assemble the full complement of aircraft, including fighter escorts, that Japanese naval aviation doctrine called for in a carrier attack. He chose the latter path.


About the time he was making that decision, Fletcher made one too, to launch the Yorktown planes rather than hold them any longer against the possible appearance of more carriers. It was also about that point that McClusky and his dive bombers from the Enterprise arrived at the spot their scouting reports indicated the Japanese ought to be and found nothing. McClusky did some quick calculations. He was flying southwest. Midway was southeast of him, on his left. The Japanese carriers had been spotted to the northwest, to his right, bearing southeast toward Midway. As he crossed the track they had been reported on, the Japanese had to be on his left or his right, and allowing them a maximum speed of 25 knots, and given their position at the time they were spotted, he ruled out his left. So he decided on a box search that would take him southwest another 35 miles, then northwest, ninety degrees to the right, on a track parallel to and opposite the one the enemy carriers had been reported on. If by 1000 that itinerary bore no fruit, he would turn right again, northeast, tracing the third side of the box. By that point his planes would be dangerously low on fuel. He would decide then whether to call off his search.


The Japanese were not where McClusky figured to find them because they had changed course. Shortly after 0900 they had turned northeast to evade further attacks from Midway and to close with the Yorktown, the one American carrier they had spotted by then. About the time McClusky began to trace his box, ten squadrons of planes from three American carriers — more than 140 planes in all — were seeking the Japanese carriers. By and large the effort was not well organized. Only the Yorktown’s strike group proceeded intact. The Enterprise torpedo planes, delayed in taking off, trailed well behind McClusky’s dive bombers. Neither group enjoyed fighter escort, the Enterprise fighters having mistakenly flown off with the Hornet strike group, which had in turn fractured when Waldron split off with his torpedo planes. Weather conditions were generally clear that day, but many of the American planes were very much groping about in the fog of war.


Torpedo Squadron 8 aviators circa May 1942. Standing (left to right): Lieut. James C. Owens, Jr., Ens. Fayle, Lieut. Cmdr. John C. Waldron, Lieut. Raymond A. Moore, Ens. Ulvert M. Moore, Ens. William R. Evans, Ens. Grant W. Teats, Lieut. (jg) George M. Campbell. Kneeling: Ens. Harold J. Ellison, Ens. Henry R. Kenyon, Lieut. (jg) John P. Gray, Ens. George Gay, Lieut. (jg) Jeff T. Woodson, Ens. William W. Creamer, Aviation Pilot 1/c Robert B. Miles.    (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Of the Task Force 16 squadron commanders, only Waldron seems to have known right where to go from the outset. His was the first of the carrier-based squadrons to find the Kido Butai, the Japanese carrier force. About 0915 his fifteen planes swept in from the northeast without benefit of fighter cover. They were greeted by forty Mitsubishi Zeros. The slow American planes were easy prey. Only one of them, piloted by Ensign George Gay of Waco, Texas, got close enough to its target to release its torpedo, and it missed. The squadron was wiped out. Gay was the sole survivor. Shot down after a near miss, he managed to extricate himself from the wreckage of his plane and spent the rest of the day bobbing in the water, clinging to a seat cushion. He had a life raft but thought better of inflating it until nightfall for fear of attracting the attention of the Japanese. He had good reason to fear it. Three American fliers were captured during the battle, interrogated, and then dumped overboard, two of them tied to weighted fuel drums, the other hacked to death with an ax after he managed to stay his fall by grabbing onto a chain railing.


About the time Gay crashed, VT-6, the Enterprise torpedo plane squadron, got to the expected intercept point. They found no more Japanese ships in the immediate vicinity than McClusky had, but by some accounts they did spot smoke on the northern horizon and headed that way, figuring, rightly, that it came from the Japanese fleet. Apparently what they saw was a smoke screen laid down by Japanese escort vessels to conceal the carriers from Waldron’s torpedo planes. (Some students of the battle doubt that there was a smoke screen. If there was one, it seems to have backfired.)


VT-6 and VT-3 from the Yorktown came in next, from the south and southeast respectively, at intervals of about twenty minutes and fared almost as badly. Of the fourteen planes in VT-6, four or five survived; of the twelve or thirteen in VT-3, only one or two. (Sources vary on these numbers.) The Americans in short order had lost three dozen torpedo planes, on top of the eighteen Midway-based planes they had already lost, and the Japanese carriers were still unscathed. But the torpedo plane attacks had kept the Japanese busy making defensive maneuvers, kept them from launching a second strike of their own and drawn their CAP (combat air patrol) fighters down low, most of them in the southeast quadrant of the grid they were defending.

Meanwhile, at 0955, as McClusky was nearing the end of the time he had allotted to the second leg of his box search, he spotted a wake and guessed that it was made by a Japanese liaison vessel heading from the Midway occupation force to the carrier fleet. He was wrong about the nature of the ship but right about her destination — she was the destroyer Arashi returning to her escort station alongside the carriers from a depth charge attack on the submarine Nautilus, which had just tried to torpedo the battleship Kirishima. Neither attack — by the Nautilus on the Kirishima or by the Arashi on the Nautilus — had done any immediate harm, but the Nautilus, in provoking the Arashi‘s response, contributed materially to the destruction of the entire Japanese empire. The Arashi’s wake pointed McClusky and his two squadrons of dive bombers, VB-6 and VS-6, straight toward the Kido Butai like an arrow.


By chance, they arrived above it from the southwest just as the Yorktown’s dive bombers approached it from the northeast. The Zeros having just feasted on the lumbering, low-flying American torpedo planes, the sky about McClusky’s planes as they began their steep fifteen-thousand-foot dives was clear of enemy fighters. McClusky wrote later that he was halfway through his before he encountered Zeros. Amid some confusion over who was to go where, most of the Enterprise planes concentrated on the Kaga, leaving only three planes to attack the Akagi, but one of them, piloted by Lt. Richard H. Best, originally of Bayonne, New Jersey, hit it dead center. The Yorktown planes attacked the Soryu. Within about six minutes all three ships were in flames; by the next day all three would be scuttled.



Dive bombers from the USS Hornet attacking the smoking Japanese cruiser Mikuma, 6 June 1944. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

The lone remaining functional Japanese carrier, the Hiryu, exacted a measure of revenge with two attacks that crippled the Yorktown, but by that afternoon, the Hiryu too had been bombed and wrecked, and the next day she too was scuttled. On June 6 American planes sank the cruiser Mikuma and a Japanese submarine torpedoed the Yorktown; she capsized and sank on the morning of June 7. The Americans, reluctant to engage Japan’s huge battleships, did not offer aggressive pursuit, so the toll could have been even worse for the Japanese. But as it was, they left in their wake four carriers, a cruiser, 248 planes and 3,057 men, including hundreds of crews and mechanics whose expertise they were never able to replace. The Americans lost one carrier, a destroyer, 150 planes and 307 men.


George Gay, the sole survivor of John Waldron’s torpedo plane squadron, was picked up by a PBY float plane more than thirty hours after he crashed. He served at Guadalcanal and later as a flight instructor. After the war he worked thirty years as a pilot for Trans World Airlines and wrote a book, Sole Survivor, about his experiences at Midway. He died of a heart attack in 1994, and his ashes were strewn at sea at the site of the battle.


The seaplane tender USS Ballard (AVD-10) plucked 35 Hiryu crewmen from the water on June 19, two weeks after the Hiryu sank. VT-6 pilot A. Walter Winchell and his gunner, Douglas M. Cossitt, having run out of fuel en route back to the Enterprise June 4, ditched their torpedo plane and survived seventeen days afloat in a rubber raft, were picked up by a float plane on June 21. They were the last of the survivors of the battle to be rescued.


The Hornet strike group’s “Flight to Nowhere” ended up as a flight of one plane. The group’s ten fighter escorts turned back about an hour after the departure of John Waldron’s torpedo planes, but too late. All ten ran out of fuel and ditched. Two of their pilots died. The dive bombers of VB-8 staged their own mutiny of sorts another half an hour or so after the fighters turned back, peeling off against squadron commander Stanhope Ring’s orders just as Waldron had done. Some of them landed at Midway. Two ditched just outside the atoll, one crashed out of fuel in the lagoon. A few of them made it back to the Hornet. Ring pressed on alone, finally turning back  after about 225 miles of empty ocean. The two carriers he thought he would find behind the two that had been spotted were with those two all along. The American scout planes had simply failed to notice them. After the war, Ring was promoted to rear admiral.


About a week after the battle, Marc Mitscher, the Hornet commander, submitted what is widely regarded as a falsified report of his ship’s strike group’s role in it — it has the whole group following the heading John Waldron’s torpedo planes took after they split off and omits any mention of his mutiny. He went on to achieve fame in the war as a highly successful carrier commander. (He had already earned a place in aviation history by piloting one of three seaplanes that together made the first transoceanic flight, from Newfoundland to the Azores, in May 1919. His plane touched down at sea amid heavy fog just short of the Azores.) He died of a heart attack at age 60 in 1947.


Joseph Rochefort, the Station Hypo chief whose cryptanalysis gave the Americans such an advantage at Midway, was assigned after the battle to command a floating drydock on San Francisco Bay. In his work at Pearl Harbor, he had run afoul of more powerful and less accurate communications analysts in the naval bureaucracy in Washington, DC. They had foreseen an attack, but not at Midway. His accuracy was apparently his undoing as a wartime cryptanalyst. After the war he headed the Pacific Strategic Intelligence Group in Washington. He died in Torrance, California, in 1976.


The commander of the Hiryu, Tamon Yamaguchi, chose to go down with his ship.


Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of the Japanese fleets that attacked both Pearl Harbor and Midway, died April 18, 1943, during an inspection tour of Japanese fortifications in the Solomon Islands when American fighter planes ambushed and shot down his plane. Chuichi Nagumo, commander of the Japanese carriers at Pearl Harbor and Midway, committed suicide on July 6, 1944, during the Battle of Saipan.


All four of the Japanese aircraft carriers destroyed at Midway had participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor. There were two others at Pearl Harbor, the Shokaku and the Zuikaku. The Shokaku was sunk by the submarine USS Cavalla (SS-244) on June 19, 1944, during the Battle of the Philippine Sea; the Zuikaku, by planes on October 25, 1944, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.


A destroyer, the USS Waldron (DD-699), commissioned June 7, 1944, was named in honor of John Waldron. The Waldron saw action at Okinawa and Iwo Jima, and in the Vietnam War. She was decommissioned and sold to Colombia in 1973 and scrapped in 1986.




• Joe Rochefort’s War: The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto, p. 334-5.


• (re Marine Fighting Squadron 221, ie VMF-221)




• (Midway timeline)


•    “War Crimes Committed by the Imperial Japanese Navy”


• “Miracle Men of Midway” by Craig L. Symonds (, originally published by World War II magazine

[excellent source]




• The Pacific Theatre

Century of Flight










•Battle of Midway: 4-7 June 1942, Online Action Reports: Commanding Oficer, USS Hornet, Serial 0018 of 13 June 1942


• ibid, USS Yorktown


• ibid, USS Enterprise


• USS Yorktown Operating on 4 June 1942

Naval History & Heritage Command


• USS Enterprise CV-6, the Most Decorated Ship of the Second World War


• Oral History — Battle of Midway

Navy Department Library







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