Battle of Midway
'Midway was the most crucial battle of the Pacific War, ... made everything else possible’ - Admiral Chester W. Nimitz
4-7 June 1942
author Paul Boșcu, January 2019
During the Battle of Midway the Americans inflicted a decisive defeat on the Imperial Japanese Navy. One month after the Battle of the Coral Sea the Americans, with the help of signals intelligence, learned that the Japanese planed to attack Midway Atoll in an effort to secure their holdings in the Pacific and South East Asia and eliminate the threat of American naval power. Having been forewarned of the attack the American Navy prepared its own ambush, inflicting devastating damage on the IJN, damage that could never be repaired.
The Battle of Midway was a decisive naval conflict between the forces of the United States and Imperial Japan during World War Two. The battle occurred in the Pacific Theater of the war. The US Navy defended against the attacking Japanese fleet, inflicting damage that could never be repaired. After Midway, Japan’s capacity to replace losses became insufficient in the context of an escalating conflict. Meanwhile, the rapid growth of the US industry meant that America was able to replenish her forces far faster. Midway, along with the subsequent Guadalcanal Campaign, is often cited as a turning point in the Pacific War.

Rear-Admiral Frank Fletcher said: ‘After a battle is over, people talk a lot about how the decisions were methodically reached, but actually there’s always a hell of a lot of groping around.’ This was vividly demonstrated by the Coral Sea engagement; despite the US intelligence’s magnificent achievement of pinpointing Midway as the next Japanese objective, uncertainty and chance also characterized the battle.

Once the Americans had figured out the correct sequence of the intended Japanese moves in the South and Central Pacific on the basis of careful and successful signals intelligence, they collected their remaining three usable carriers in the Pacific and provided them with what screening force was available. With the two modern battleships North Carolina and Washington in the Atlantic, nothing larger than cruisers could be employed. Unknown to the Japanese, the three carriers were sent out to meet them.

The Japanese carriers sent their first strike against Midway, but the Midway commander was determined not to be caught with his planes on the ground. The bombs dropped by Midway planes on the Japanese all missed; but the damage caused by the raid on the island, though considerable, was not considered sufficient by the Japanese to prepare the way for the landing assault. A second air attack on the island was ordered, but from here on things began to go wrong.

The Japanese had to change the arming on the planes kept on their carriers for the second strike. Then they received reconnaissance reports that there were American warships soon identified as carriers in the area and therefore once again altered the arming of their planes for this contingency. This made them extremely vulnerable when the Americans attacked their fleet because fuel hoses, armed planes, and ammunition were all over the hangar and flight decks: the result was a carnage that devastated the Japanese fleet, which lost all four of its carriers.

The American loss of the Yorktown was soon offset by the return of the repaired carrier Saratoga to the fleet at about the time the Japanese had refitted the Zuikaku with a new group of airplanes; but the fundamental fact was that there was no way for the Japanese to replace within a reasonable time the four carriers they had lost.

After Midway, the US Navy had a new fighter on the way, the F6F Hellcat, which it tested successfully against a captured Japanese Zero, prised intact from the Aleutian tundra where it had crashed in June 1942. Not only would new carriers soon arrive in the Pacific, but they would carry new-model fighters, scout dive-bombers, and torpedo planes that would match the best Japanese aircraft. In the meantime, pilot experience and prudent tactics would have to suffice.

The Battle of Midway represented the high mark of Japan’s geographic expansion, but not a major change in the strategy of seize-and hold. Shaken by the loss of four carriers and 100 invaluable pilots, the Japanese admirals however still controlled a balanced fleet with excellence in gunnery, night fighting, and ordnance that surpassed the US Navy. The four carriers could be replaced — as they were in 1944 — but the temporary material and psychological setback for the IJN offered the Allies an opportunity to take the strategic initiative.

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto split his invading force into three, which was an error as it caused the squadrons to be too far apart to support one another. As well as Chūichi Nagumo’s First Air Fleet, there was a Midway Occupation Force carrying 51,000 men, and his own main force comprising one carrier, four cruisers, seven battleships, twelve destroyers and eighteen submarines. As well as taking Midway, Yamamoto was hoping to lure the American Pacific Fleet into a massive engagement that, in hindsight, it could not win.

Admiral Yamamoto strove with all the urgency that characterized his strategic vision to force a big engagement. Less than a month after the bungled Coral Sea action, he launched his strike against Midway atoll, committing 145 warships to an ambitious, complex operation intended to split the US forces. A Japanese fleet would advance north against the Aleutians, while the main thrust was made at Midway. This would provide a diversion to confuse the Americans: because of its assault on American territory it might coax the American navy into battle; and in the end it would provide bases for blocking any American attacks on the Kuriles and the Japanese home islands from Alaska. It ended up doing none of these things.

Nagumo’s four fleet carriers – Zuikaku and Shokaku were left behind after their Coral Sea mauling – would approach the island from the north-west, with Yamamoto’s fast battleships three hundred miles behind; a flotilla of transports, carrying troops to execute the landing, would close from the south-west.

How Nagumo was to cope with the Midway base and the American navy if involved with both simultaneously had never been clarified, since honest answers to those officers who raised the question would have required that the whole plan were abandoned or severely modified. It was, however, precisely this contingency which arose.

The great advantage with which the Japanese had begun at Pearl Harbor was dwindling. Nevertheless, the Japanese were confident that Midway Island could be neutralized by carrier strikes and then seized, with the American fleet being destroyed soon after. All questions raised within the naval staffs were brushed aside; Japanese experience and superiority would suffice to cope with all contingencies.

Yamamoto may have been a clever man and a sympathetic personality, but the epic clumsiness of the Midway plan emphasized his shortcomings. It required him to divide his strength; worse, it reflected characteristic Japanese hubris, by discounting even the possibility of American foreknowledge.

The Japanese would enjoy a three-to-two aircraft advantage, which would have been even worse had not Pearl Harbor’s repair crews put Yorktown back into minimal working order. Japanese Navy commanders had every reason to believe they would finish the destruction of the US Pacific Fleet that they had begun at Pearl Harbor.

Intelligence was key to the American victory at Midway: both the accurate and timely information that Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the Commander-in-Chief in the Pacific, was given by his code-breakers, and the halting and inaccurate reports that Admirals Yamamoto and Nagumo got from their intelligence officers, who did not have the luxury of reading their enemy’s signals. To make matters worse, the Japanese failed to pool what little information they did have, partly because Nagumo’s radio transmitter was weaker than Yamamoto’s and partly because of the need for radio silence.

Nimitz knew that Nagumo had four aircraft carriers in service after the battle of the Coral Sea, with one damaged there and another stripped of aircraft, whereas Yamamoto did not know that Rear-Admiral Frank ‘Jack’ Fletcher had three carriers – Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown – which by late May 1942 were stationed north of Midway. It was estimated that it would take three months to repair the damage done to Yorktown in the Coral Sea; it was miraculously achieved in forty-eight hours, a testament to American engineering efficiency and professional devotion.

Admiral Nimitz knew the enemy was coming. By one of the war’s most brilliant feats of intelligence work, Commander Joseph Rochefort at Pearl Harbor used fragmentary Ultra decrypts to identify Midway as Nagumo’s objective. Before the battle, the Japanese switched their naval codebooks, which thereafter defied Rochefort’s cryptographers for weeks. By miraculous luck, however, this happened just too late to frustrate the breakthrough that betrayed Yamamoto’s Midway plan.

Nimitz made a bold call: to stake everything upon the accuracy of American intelligence information. Japanese intelligence believed that Yorktown had been sunk at the Coral Sea, and that the other two US carriers, Hornet and Enterprise, were far away in the Solomons. But Yorktown was fit for sea, albeit with a makeshift air component. Nimitz was therefore able to deploy two task groups to cover Midway; one led by Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher – in overall command – and the other by Raymond Spruance. This would be a carrier action, with Nagumo’s flat-tops its objectives. The navy’s planes were recognized as the critical weapons.

Superior American radar conferred another important advantage over the Japanese. Meanwhile, the advent of air power meant that all was no longer clear: rival fleets became vulnerable to surprise while hundreds of miles apart. But exactitude of knowledge was still lacking. In a vast ocean, it remained hard to pinpoint ships, or even fleets.

Nimitz did not fall for a strategic ruse - an invasion in the Aleutians - nor for an operational ruse - the air attacks on and potential invasion of Midway. Instead, he directed his commanders at sea, Admirals Frank Jack Fletcher and Raymond A. Spruance, to seek out Nagumo’s carriers and dodge Yamamoto’s big guns.

The engagement was fought only six months after Pearl Harbor, when the US Navy still had fewer carriers than the British, though they carried many more planes. The two American task groups were deployed too far apart to provide mutual support, or to effectively coordinate their air operations.

With the resources in the Pacific strained to the limit while two American carriers were assisting the British in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, the Commander-in-Chief of the American fleet, Admiral Ernest J. King, asked the British to provide one of the three British carriers then operating off the African coast for the Pacific. He was promptly turned down. This was a serious error in spite of the concern over the Indian Ocean which motivated the refusal. Aside from a few units of the Australian navy, the Americans faced the Imperial Japanese navy in the great crisis of the Pacific War by themselves.

King had spent much of the preceding year, at a time when the United States was still neutral, leading American warships in their operations in the Atlantic assisting Britain in its hour of peril. He never forgave the British their refusal to help in the Pacific when the situation was reversed. He accepted British fleet units in the Pacific in 1944-45 only because of the insistence of President Roosevelt.

The garrison of Midway prepared to sell their lives dearly, knowing the fate that had already befallen many other island defenders at Japanese hands. On the US carriers three hundred miles to the north-east, aircrew readied themselves to fight what they knew would be a critical action. One of them, Lt. Dick Crowell, said soberly as they broke up a late-night craps game on Yorktown: ‘The fate of the United States now rests in the hands of 240 pilots.’

Before dawn next morning, ‘a warm, damp, rather hazy day’, American and Japanese pilots breakfasted. Yorktown’s men favoured ‘one-eyed sandwiches’ – an egg fried in a hole in toast. Nagumo’s fliers enjoyed rice, soybean soup, pickles and dried chestnuts before drinking a battle toast in hot sake. At 04.30 seventy-two Japanese bombers and thirty-six fighters took off to attack Midway island.

The Japanese carriers headed for Midway followed by a landing force, both with screening warships and, at a distance, by a large naval force including the new super-battleship Yamato with Yamamoto himself aboard. He had decided not to assume command of the carrier strike force, which was headed by Admiral Nagumo Chuichi, nor to stay ashore; as a result he could hardly communicate with his various forces during the battle.

Nagumo’s First Air Fleet approached the atoll under heavy cloud cover, masking it from Midway’s reconnaissance planes, and was able to launch a dawn attack with half of its planes. This was successful, although the runway was not attacked, as the Japanese wanted to use it as soon as they had captured the atoll. The ninety-three planes in the reserve were fitted with bombs and torpedoes in case of an appearance by the fifty-vessel American fleet. Nimitz was satisfied that the scenario was unfolding exactly as he had anticipated. Yamamoto was troubled that the US Pacific fleet had not yet been located.

Midway-based Marine and army torpedo-bombers and bombers took off immediately, as did Wildcat and Buffalo fighters. The latter suffered terribly at the hands of Zeroes: all but three of twenty-seven were either shot down or so badly damaged that they never flew again. But the Japanese attackers, in their turn, lost 30 percent of their strength.

Nagumo’s bomber attack inflicted widespread damage but did not knock out Midway’s airfields. Thereafter, nothing went right for the Japanese admiral. His first mistake of the day had been to dispatch only a handful of reconnaissance aircraft to search for American warships; one seaplane, from the heavy cruiser Tone, was delayed taking off – and it was vectored to search the sector where Fletcher’s carriers were steaming. Thus, Nagumo was still ignorant of any naval air threat when he received the signal from his Midway planes.

Having finally spotted Nagumo’s fleet at 07.00 hours, Rear-Admiral Spruance, who commanded the Enterprise and Hornet battle group, sent 116 planes into an all-out attack from 175 miles away. As in the battle of the Coral Sea, neither side’s ships even came within sight of each other, in this new form of naval engagement. At exactly the same time, Nagumo, having heard reports from Midway that another wave of attacks was needed, but knowing nothing about the American fleet, which he had every reason to believe had sailed off north to deal with the diversionary attack against the Aleutian Islands, ordered his reserve planes to be refitted with incendiary and fragmentation bombs. However he countermanded the order shortly afterwards.

The change-over would take an hour to carry out, yet only fifteen minutes into the job, a reconnaissance plane reported ten American ships to the north-east. Nagumo pondered the problem, and then decided to re-arm his reserve aircraft with torpedoes. Order; counterorder; disorder. Meanwhile, his first wave of bombers and fighters were on their way back from Midway. It was a pivotal moment in the war in the Pacific.

Nagumo took the fateful decision to land his Midway first-strike planes before launching the others. While the flight crews on the carriers were struggling to reattach the torpedoes, at 09.05 Nagumo turned 90 degrees east-north-east to engage the American task force. This had the effect of allowing him to evade, for the moment, the US dive-bombers and fighters from the Hornet. Yorktown, to the east, launched half her planes at 07.30. Fifteen Devastator torpedo-bombers from the Hornet did spot Nagumo’s force, and went straight into the attack. Only 8 survived before the attack was broken off at 10.24 hours.

Much is made of the fanatical courage of the Japanese kamikaze (divine wind) airmen later on in the war, but to have flown unescorted into the anti-aircraft guns and Zero fighters of Nagumo’s fleet took tremendous bravery, and only one of the fifteen survived, with no hits scored.

Successive small waves of Midway-based US aircraft attacked Nagumo’s fleet. They had no fighter cover, and were ruthlessly destroyed by AA fire and Zeroes without achieving a single hit. The gunfire died away, the drone of the surviving attackers’ engines faded. Meanwhile, the first of Spruance’s torpedo planes and dive-bombers were already airborne, heading for the Japanese fleet from extreme range.

The only achievement of the strikes from Midway, purchased at shocking cost, was to impede flight operations aboard the Japanese carriers. Nagumo was hamstrung by the need to recover his attack force, short of fuel, before he could launch a strike against Fletcher’s fleet.

On the flight decks of Nagumo’s carriers, the Japanese experienced an hour of acute tension as the Devastators approached through a storm of anti-aircraft fire. But most of the torpedoes were dropped beyond effective range, and Mk 13s ran so slowly that the Japanese ships had ample time to comb their tracks. ‘I was not aware or did not feel the torpedo drop,’ said a Devastator gunner afterwards, adding that this was probably because his pilot was trying to jink. ‘A few days later I asked him when he dropped. He said when he realized that we seemed to be the only TBD still flying and that we didn’t have a chance of carrying the torpedo to normal drop range. I couldn’t figure out what he was trying to do and the flak was really bad, so I yelled into the intercom, “Let’s get the hell out of here!” It is possible that my yell helped him make his decision.’

Most of the survivors’ planes were shot full of holes. Many survivors, however, were enraged by the futility of their sacrifice, and embittered by the lack of protection from their own fighters. A Devastator gunner who landed back on Enterprise had to be forcibly restrained as he threw himself at a Wildcat pilot.

In hindsight, by far Nagumo’s wisest course, at this stage, would have been to turn away and open the range with the enemy, until he had reorganized his air groups and was ready to fight. As it was, however, he held course. The Japanese flight decks were still in chaos as aircraft completed refuelling, when picket destroyers signalled another warning, and began to make protective smoke. The first of Fletcher’s planes were closing fast, and Zeroes scrambled to meet them.

The torpedo-bombers of the Enterprise (nicknamed ‘the big E’) and Yorktown were badly mauled without any positive results, and the attack was broken off with only eight Devastators still in the air out of an initial attacking force of forty-one. ‘For about one hundred seconds the Japanese were certain they had won the battle of Midway and the war,’ wrote the US Navy’s official historian Rear-Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison. The chilling accounts of the pilots who flew the planes speak volumes about the hopeless situation they found themselves in.

The Devastators ploughed doggedly towards their targets at their best speed of a hundred knots, until each wave in turn was shot to pieces and plunged into the sea. A bomber gunner heard Waldron talking over the radio as he led his planes in: ‘Johnny One to Johnny Two … How’m I doing Dobbs? … Attack immediately … There’s two fighters in the water … My two wingmen are going in the water.’ Waldron himself was last seen attempting to escape from his flaming plane.

One of the few surviving American pilots, Wilhelm ‘Doc’ Esders, wrote: ‘When approximately one mile from the carrier our leader apparently expected to attack, his plane was hit and it crashed into the sea in flames … I saw only five planes drop their torpedoes.’ Esders’ own Devastator was hit, his radioman fatally wounded; the CO2 firebottle in the cockpit exploded; flak shells burst below them, while the Zeroes kept firing. The crew was extraordinarily lucky that the enemy planes turned away after following them homewards for twenty miles.

After the first wave had attacked, the Zeroes’ group leader reported laconically: ‘All fifteen enemy torpedo-bombers shot down.’ Many of the next wave were destroyed while maneuvering to achieve an attack angle as the Japanese carriers swung wildly to avoid them. A despairing American gunner whose weapon jammed fired his pistol at a pursuing Zero.

George Gay, who flew from the Hornet at the controls of a Devastator, had a reputation in his squadron as a Texas loudmouth. He proved to be its only survivor. Shot down in the sea with a bullet wound and two dead crewmen, he trod water all day, having heard many stories about the Japanese shooting downed aircrew. At nightfall, he cautiously inflated his dinghy and had the fantastic good fortune to be picked up next morning by a patrolling American amphibian vehicle.

At 10.26, before the Zeros had time to regain altitude after attacking the Devastators, thirty-seven dive-bombers from the Enterprise appeared directly above Nagumo’s four carriers. Cloud cover at 3,000 feet masked the American approach, but below that the visibility was ideal for the attackers. Soon after the Enterprise dive bombers attacked, planes from first the Hornet and then the Yorktown arrived. The Japanese crews were still changing the bombers’ armaments, and so were caught with the maximum amount of ordnance in the most exposed place possible, so when Enterprise’s dive bombers hit, the result was carnage.

Before the American fly-off, Lt. Cmdr. John Waldron, a rough, tough, much respected South Dakotan who led Torpedo Eight from Hornet, told his pilots that the coming battle ‘will be a historic and, I hope, a glorious event’. Wildcat squadron commander Jimmy Gray wrote: ‘All of us knew we were “on” in the world’s center ring.’ Lt. Cmdr. Eugene Lindsey, commanding Torpedo Six, had been badly injured only a few days earlier when he ditched his plane after making a botched landing; his face was so bruised that it was painful for him to wear goggles. But on the morning of the Midway strike he insisted on flying: ‘This is what I have been trained to do,’ he said stubbornly, before taking off to his death.

The Dauntless dive-bomber was the only effective 1942 US naval aircraft; what followed changed the course of the Pacific war in the space of minutes. Dauntlesses fell on Nagumo’s carriers, wreaking havoc. ‘I saw this glint in the sun,’ said pilot Jimmy Thach, ‘and it just looked like a beautiful silver waterfall, these dive-bombers coming down. It looked to me like almost every bomb hit.’ In reality, the first three bombs aimed at Kaga missed, but the fourth achieved a direct hit, setting off sympathetic detonations among munitions scattered across the carrier’s decks and in its hangars. Soryu and Akagi suffered similar fates.

The hero of Pearl Harbor, Mitsuo Fuchida, believed that ‘it may be said that the Americans’ dive-bombers’ success was made possible by the earlier martyrdom of their torpedo planes’, due to the fact that the Japanese fighters had no time to regain altitude while they were shooting the US torpedo planes out of the sky. Fuchida, now an impotent spectator on the deck of Akagi, was appalled at the scenes unfolding before him: ‘I was horrified at the destruction that had been wrought in a matter of seconds. There was a huge hole in the flight deck just behind the midship elevator … Deck plates buckled in grotesque configurations. Planes stood tail up belching livid flames and jet-black smoke. Reluctant tears streamed down my cheeks.’

The Americans had suffered a shocking succession of disasters, which could easily have been fatal to the battle’s outcome. Instead, however, fortune changed with startling abruptness. Nagumo paid the price for his enforced failure to strike at Spruance’s task force even when he learned it was near at hand. Moreover, his Zeroes were at low level and running out of fuel when more American aircraft appeared high overhead, a few minutes after the last torpedo-bombers attacked.

Wildcat pilot Tom Cheek was another fascinated spectator as the dive-bombers pulled out. ‘As I looked back to Akagi hell literally broke loose. First the orange colored flash of a bomb burst appeared on the flight deck midway between the island structure and the stern. Then in rapid succession followed a bomb burst amidships, and the water founts of near-misses plumed up near the stern. Almost in unison Kaga’s flight deck erupted with bomb bursts and flames. My gaze remained on Akagi as an explosion at the midship water-line seemed to open the bowels of the ship in a rolling, greenish-yellow ball of flame … Soryu … too was being heavily hit. All three ships had lost their foaming white bow waves and appeared to be losing way. I circled slowly to the right, awe-struck.’

The Japanese, who lacked radar and whose visual spotters were concentrating on the low-level action, were caught off guard, and their fighter planes were unable to gain the altitude necessary to intercept. Within a few minutes, three of the four carriers were hit by bombs which tore open their decks, ignited fires, and set off great explosions among the tanked up and armed planes on and below the flight decks. Ammunition and fuel fires and explosions quickly followed.

Nagumo’s flagship, the Akagi, took two direct hits: the first on the aft rim of the amidship lift, the second on the port side of the flight deck, the effects of which might have been controlled if the deck had not been wing-tip to wing-tip full of burning planes loaded with exploding torpedoes. By 10.46 Nagumo – who had made one of the worst decisions in military history – was persuaded to transfer his flag to the light cruiser Nagara, which he did with reluctance. The ship was abandoned at 18.00 hours.

On board, Zero fighters were just beginning to be launched. Fuchida, who could not fly at Midway because he had recently had his appendix out, and who was then wounded during the attack, recalled that: ‘[as] the first Zero fighter gathered speed and whizzed off the deck, at that instant a lookout screamed “Hell-divers!” I looked up to see three black planes plummeting towards our ship. Some of our machine-guns managed to fire a few frantic bursts at them, but it was too late. The plump silhouettes of the American Dauntless dive-bombers quickly grew larger, and then a number of black objects suddenly floated eerily from their wings. Bombs! Down they came straight at me!’

Below decks on the Akagi, survivors had to use hand-pumps, and ‘Fire-fighting parties, wearing gas masks, carried cumbersome pieces of equipment and fought the flames courageously. But every explosion overhead penetrated to the deck below, injuring men and interrupting their desperate efforts. Stepping over fallen comrades, another damage-control party would dash in to continue the struggle, only to be mown down by the next explosion.’ Not a single man from the engine room escaped from this hell.

‘We had been caught flat-footed in the most vulnerable position possible,’ wrote Fuchida, ‘decks loaded with planes armed and fuelled for an attack.’ Meanwhile, the aircraft carrier Kaga slipped beneath the waves at 19.25, with 800 of her crew dead, and another carrier, Soryu, which had suffered three hits from thirteen planes in three minutes, sank at 21.13, with her captain Ryusaku Yanagimoto singing the ‘Kimigayo’, the Japanese national anthem.

The dive-bomber attack sank two Japanese carriers immediately, and the third flaming hulk, the Akagi, was scuttled that evening. It was an extraordinary achievement, not least because two squadrons of dive-bombers and their Wildcat escort were sent on the wrong course and failed to engage. All ten pilots in Hornet’s Wildcat squadron Fighting Eight ran out of fuel and splashed into the sea without sighting an enemy; the ship’s thirty-five Dauntlesses landed on Midway, having missed the battle.

Nagumo ordered the fourth carrier, Hiryu, to sail off north-eastwards and send forty planes to attack Yorktown. Although only seven made it through the American defenses, they were able to land three bombs on her. Later on Yorktown was also hit by two torpedoes from planes returning from Midway, forcing the listing carrier to be taken in tow back to Pearl Harbor. Fletcher transferred to the cruiser Astoria, with Spruance taking over tactical command. Hiryu was not going to escape retribution: planes from Enterprise and Yorktown sank her with four hits.

At mid-morning, Nagumo’s sole surviving carrier, Hiryu, at last launched its own attack, which fell on Fletcher’s Yorktown. American radar detected the incoming dive-bombers fifty miles out, and fighters began to scramble. Eleven Aichi bombers and three Zeros were shot down by Wildcats, and two more Aichis by anti-aircraft fire. Three Japanese bombs hit Yorktown, but energetic damage control enabled the carrier to continue landing its dive-bombers, even as the crew fought huge fires. Admiral Fletcher transferred his flag to the cruiser Astoria, and surrendered overall command to Spruance.

At 14.30, a wave of Japanese torpedo-bombers from Hiryu closed on Yorktown, which again flew off fighters. Several attackers were shot down, but four launched their torpedoes, two of which struck the carrier. The ocean flooded in, and the ship took on a heavy list. Just before 15.00, the captain ordered Yorktown abandoned. Destroyers rescued the entire crew, save those who had perished during the attacks. Later, the Americans sent a repair crew to the wounded ship.

At 15.30, Spruance launched another strike of his own, by twenty-seven dive-bombers, including ten Yorktown planes which had landed on his flat-tops while their own ship was being attacked. Just before 17.00, these reached Hiryu while its crew were eating in their mess decks. The ship had sixteen aircraft left, ten of them fighters, but only a reconnaissance plane was airborne, and the Japanese now lacked radar to warn of the Americans’ coming. Four bombs struck the carrier, starting huge fires. The captain and Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi, the senior officer aboard, disappeared to their cabins to commit ritual suicide, while the remaining seamen were taken off.

Admiral Nagumo opted for withdrawal, only to have his order countermanded by Yamamoto, who demanded a night surface attack on the Americans. This was frustrated when Spruance turned away, recognizing that his fleet had accomplished everything possible. Yamamoto acknowledged failure, and ordered a Japanese retreat. Spruance again turned and followed, launching a further air strike which sank one heavy cruiser and crippled another. On the way back to Pearl Harbor, Yorktown and an escorting destroyer were sunk by the Japanese submarine I-168. They were the only American vessels lost in the entire battle.

Spruance’s disengagement was finely judged: Yamamoto’s battleships, of which the Americans knew nothing, were closing fast from the north. Spruance had achieved an overwhelming balance of advantage. His foremost priority was to maintain this, protecting his two surviving carriers.

Nimitz, with characteristic graciousness, sent his car to bring Commander Rochefort to a celebration party at Pearl Harbor. Before his assembled staff, the Commander-in-Chief said: ‘This officer deserves a major share of the credit for the victory at Midway.’ Luck, which favored the Japanese in the war’s first months, turned dramatically in favor of the Americans during the decisive naval battle of the Pacific war. But this does not diminish the achievement of Nimitz and his subordinates.

During the next days, a Japanese submarine was able to sink the badly damaged Yorktown, and an American submarine attack led to a collision between two Japanese heavy cruisers of the covering force with one subsequently sunk and the other badly damaged by air attacks; but the main action was over in one long day of battle. In all, 145 officers and crew died when the carrier sank.

Both Nimitz and Spruance had displayed consummate judgement, contrasted with Yamamoto’s and Nagumo’s errors, even though it was Fletcher, and not Spruance, who made the important decision to launch the second strike that caught Hiryu. The courage and skill of America’s dive-bomber pilots overbore every other disappointment and failure. The US Navy had achieved a triumph.

Reluctantly, Yamamoto had to call off the Midway operation — he could not pull together in time the carrier forces his own plan had scattered over the Pacific. The Americans, on the other hand, had every reason to be careful and avoid being drawn into battle with the great fleet of battleships and cruisers (as well as the other carriers) the Japanese had sent out.

The Japanese fleet remained a formidable fighting force: in the months that followed, it inflicted some severe local reverses on the Americans in the Pacific. But the US Navy had displayed the highest qualities at a critical moment. Japanese industrial weakness made it hard to replace the losses of Midway. The Americans, by contrast, soon began to deploy thousands of excellently trained aircrew, flying the superb new Hellcat fighter. Nimitz remained short of carriers until well into 1943, but thereafter America’s building program delivered an awesome array of new warships.

Marc Mitscher, captain of the Hornet, feared that his career was finished, so poorly had his ship’s air group performed at Midway. Some historians believed that he falsified the log record of his squadrons’ designated attack course, in order to conceal his own blunder, which kept them out of the battle. This argument is further bolstered by discrepancies in the log. Nimitz and Spruance, together with the aircrew of Yorktown and Enterprise, were the heroes of Midway, but Mitscher went on to become the supreme American carrier leader of the war.

Every effort was made to keep the Japanese public from learning of the defeat, but the Emperor was told the truth. An attempt was also made to mislead the Germans into thinking Japanese losses were smaller and American losses greater than the Japanese themselves knew; but the Germans eventually found out what had really happened. The project to assault New Caledonia was dropped immediately, and Yamamoto became generally more cautious hereafter.

Neither a careful analysis of the Midway battle itself, which could have raised suspicions about code security, nor a significant hint from the Germans, nor a Chicago Tribune story about the use at Midway of the breaking of Japanese codes by the American Navy, registered in Tokyo. Routine changes made in naval codes did hold up American cryptographers for a while, but the basic procedures remained in use — and vulnerable — until the end of the war.

Neither a careful analysis of the Midway battle itself, which could have raised suspicions about code security, nor a significant hint from the Germans, nor a Chicago Tribune story about the use at Midway of the breaking of Japanese codes by the American Navy, registered in Tokyo. Routine changes made in naval codes did hold up American cryptographers for a while, but the basic procedures remained in use — and vulnerable — until the end of the war.

In a sense, the Japanese High Command could simply hold the Combined Fleet, which still had four large carriers, at the central bases of Rabaul and Truk and dare the Pacific Fleet to take the offensive. The original Japanese plan, however, had been gravely wrong about the war’s duration. The short war had become a long war—the road to Japanese ritual suicide, seppuku.

The battle wrecked the three-phase Japanese plan for Asian domination midway through its second phase. It was true that the two minuscule Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska had been captured by the northern diversionary force, but because of Allied code-breaking, that attack had failed to divert American forces away from Midway. The battle of Midway deserves its attribution as one of the most decisive battles of history, because the United States could now attack the perimeters of the Southern Japanese Resources Area at will. The British also took great heart from the victory.

It was true that after Midway the Japanese still had five aircraft carriers in commission, with six being built or repaired, but by contrast the Americans had three large carriers, and no fewer than thirteen under construction. ‘Until late 1943,’ records an historian of the Pacific War, ‘the US Pacific Fleet never possessed more than four aircraft carriers. Thereafter, however, American strength soared, while that of Japan shrank.’

Against the American losses of one aircraft carrier and a destroyer, 307 men killed and 132 planes lost, the Japanese lost four aircraft carriers, a heavy cruiser, 3,500 men – including many experienced pilots – and 275 planes. ‘Midway was the most crucial battle of the Pacific War,’ Nimitz was to conclude, ‘the engagement that made everything else possible.’

With the news only just starting to come in, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill told the War Cabinet, as noted by an assistant in the secretariat: ‘Losses at sea signs of fear on part of Japs – the Navy is a political force in Japan – which will perhaps be more inclined to a restrictive and cautious policy – this policy be in harmony with sending out submarine raiders – if we think of this as having an effect on the Japanese situation – think they will go for China and Chiang Kai Shek conquest. I don’t think they’ll try India or Australia. This gives us 2 or 3 months breathing-space. We must come to rescue of China – it would be an appalling disaster if China were forced out of the war – and a new government set up. The General Staff must think of attacking lines of communication in Burma. If carrier losses confirmed – review consequences of diminution of enemy forces. If Japan adopts conservative course it is a chance for us to get teeth into her tail.’

The Japanese losses and the American victory prevented a major new Japanese offensive either in the south or in the Indian Ocean and opened the way for the Americans to stage a counterattack in the Solomon Islands, which preoccupied the Japanese for the rest of 1942 and prevented them from any return to an offensive in the Indian Ocean, an operation they had hoped for and promised to the Germans.

Closely related to these aspects and perhaps most important, a Japanese victory and an American defeat would certainly have forced a major reexamination of the Europe First strategy. The American victory on the other hand made it possible for the United States to maintain in principle and eventually in practice a strategy that placed first emphasis on victory over Germany.