Admiral Halsey’s Task Force 16 – carriers Hornet and Enterprise plus escorting cruisers and destroyers – which missed the Coral Sea battle thanks to a grand Presidential PR operation called the Tokyo Raid, flys off its aircraft and returns to Pearl Harbor on May 26th. Clayton Fisher, a dive-bomber pilot with Hornet‘s VS-8, gets ashore and finds
all our pilots and aircrew restricted to station. Why?….It’s hard to describe the mental pressure we are under….We know we are going into a battle…How many of us will survive? And now we are deprived of a chance for a little mental relaxation. It just doesn’t seem fair as I watch air station personnel going off base on liberty. That evening bottles of whiskey are given to the pilots to pacify us. After a few become inebriated, they end up wrestling on the lava cinders and having a couple fist fights. No one seriously hurt, but next morning there are faces with skin abrasions and some black eyes.(1)
Led by Commander Hornet Air Group (CHAG) Stanhope Ring, a martinet with frayed nerves and not the best of pilots, the men of VS-8 and VB-8 are unhappy warriors. Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher’s Task Force 17, meanwhile, returns from a real fight in Australian waters to Pearl Harbor on May 27th, with carrier Yorktown badly damaged and leaking oil. In ordinary circumstances, a couple of months’ repair in drydock might make her combat-ready. With most of Japan’s navy now heading east, the Americans have 72 hours to get the job done. Bernard Petersen, an aviation machinist and torpedo-plane gunner with Saratoga‘s Air Group 3, now coming aboard to replace Yorktown‘s chewed-up squadrons (only the superb Bombing Five retained as a unit) helps
rush all of our support equipment from Kaneohe to Ford Island and begin hauling supplies, tools, and personal equipment aboard on our backs. This goes on around the clock…making our way a real obstacle course. Yard workers by the hundred swarm everywhere, performing miracles in battle-damage repair. Hoses, cables, ladders, acetylene torches…sparks light up the night and add to the tense eeriness of the moment. I talk to members of the Yorktown crew and they are really bent out of shape…promised liberty as soon as they hit Pearl. One hundred days plus at sea is a long stretch, but they accept it and pitch in when told they will be going stateside after this one.(2)
Yorktown crewman Bill Surgi finds himself
drilling wooden pegs of different shapes and sizes for all the shrapnel holes in the hull and fuel and water tanks, then we drive them in with sledgehammers to make her watertight. In the spaces below decks where bombs went off, we put in big timbers and weld cross-beams to shore up decks and bulkheads. Nobody gets shore leave….We have shipyard workers on board and our working parties are going around the clock. Nobody sleeps. To fix bomb-holes in the flight deck, they hoist aboard huge metal plates and we fasten them down with metal spikes. The ship isn’t what I’d call seaworthy, but the flight deck is operational.(3)
With some of Nimitz’s staff officers (Adm. King’s men) agitating for his removal, Fletcher is called into a quick face-to-face with the C-in-C. After stopping along the way to fortify himself with a stiff drink, Frank Jack makes a strong case for his conduct of the Coral Sea battle – though losing carrier Lexington, he won a major strategic victory with an inferior force – and Nimitz decides to retain him in overall command of the upcoming confrontation. Adm. Halsey, who now suffers combat fatigue and associated illness, hands over command of TF 16 to his cruiser commander, Adm. Raymond Spruance. Though he brings Fletcher and Spruance together in conference to coordinate plans, Nimitz does not directly subordinate Spruance – who has no experience handling carriers in combat – to the battle-tested Fletcher; probably a mistake. And considerable time and energy is expended fending off Washington, where Adm. King still suspects the real Japanese target may be the American west coast. Meanwhile far to the east, on Midway Island, a B-17 squadron takes up residence and the dive-bomber squadron of Marine Air Group 22 receives a
draft of nine new pilots….Upon May 27 arrival we are greeted by remarks indicating that we are “just in time” for something. Doesn’t bother us….Next morning Major Henderson at squadron briefing lets us know the Japs are due, and we do a little more thinking on the matter. The greenest group ever assembled for combat includes 2nd Lieutenants George Lumpkin, E.P. Thompson, George Koutdas, D.L. Cummins, myself, Jack Cosley, Ken Campion, Orvin Ramlo, and James Marmande. None of us has ever flown a Vindicator, so we immediately check it out…
…with no more trouble than a couple of ground loops (and) we all make two or three dives with practice bombs…mighty little preparation for the job at hand. (4)
While military politics plays itself out and repairs on the Yorktown continue, Spruance’s force – carriers Enterprise and Hornet with six cruisers and nine destroyers – quickly provisions and sorties from Pearl Harbor. Press correspondant Bob Casey, witness to Halsey’s Marshall Islands and Tokyo raids from cruiser Salt Lake City, now finds himself aboard Northampton:
28 May, Thursday….out of harbor at 8:30 AM, at 9 heading out through the slot. The day turning out well, cool enough. Calm, sleepy atmosphere broken only by black bursts from Fort Weaver ack-ack ominously thumping off our port bow. Apparent now that we’re going northwest and best thought on the subject suggests that we are headed for a slugging match.
29 May, Friday….At sea, calm, cooler. This morning an announcement to officers on watch that we will shortly contact an enemy who is traveling in great strength. According to the best information the Japs have mustered many carriers and battleships, a large number of cruisers and countless destroyers. As usual we seem to be holding the short end of the stick – this time shorter than usual. We muster two carriers, a few cruisers, and a handful of destroyers to face an armada, meeting it with a fly swatter and a prayer. Today heading almost due west, tomorrow we will be in waters north of Midway…already in their patrol zone. A B-17 passed over us today. Well, we might sit here and fret but, while our assets may be slim, they are good. We have our carriers and inasmuch as the Japs are going to run into it we may look upon Midway Island as another carrier – and unsinkable at that. So Let us think in a grand fashion….This is our great opportunity.(5)
The American Admirals think so too, and at noon on the 29th Spruance chairs a conference attended by his staff, Air Group Commander, and the Enterprise fighter, torpedo, and dive-bomber squadron c/o’s. Among them Richard Best of VB-6:
He lays out the whole plan of the Jap attack, including that they will hit the Aleutians on June 3rd….not only gives us the names of their carriers – Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, Hiryu – but also mentions a battleship force coming up from the southwest and a transport unit with troops that will land on Midway….the carriers will strike from the northwest, at daybreak on June 4th. This is all hard believe. Our submarines cannot possibly have observed all Spruance tells us, because he gives their battleship and cruiser division numbers, even the names of ships. When the briefing is complete, he asks for questions. I speak up boldly, “Admiral, suppose they don’t hit Midway but keep going east and hit Honolulu or Pearl again?” I have a wife and four-year-old daughter there. Spruance regards me silently…then says, “Well, we just hope they won’t.”(6)
Next day is largely uneventful for TF-16….
30 May, Saturday….at sea, northeast of Midway. Cold and a little gray. Finagle about all day to no apparent purpose and it gets colder and grayer.
…..while TF-17, as recorded by Ralph Wilhelm – a floatplane pilot aboard heavy cruiser Portland - gets
underway at 0845….The Yorktown, Astoria, 5 destroyers and our ship leaving Pearl but we don’t know what for. Fired our 5″ battery this morning, afternoon the 8″ turrets. Bob, Al, and I fly during the firing. Thought we might return to port this evening but at about 1500 Yorktown’s planes come aboard (so) I know we are not going in. Now heading NW on course 320 at 19 knots but no one seems to know where to.(7)
First to land are 18 SBD-3 Dauntless dive-bombers VB-3 led in by Lt. Cdr. Max Leslie; then Lt. Cdr. Wallace Short’s 19 Dauntles’s of Scouting (VS)-5; and then VT-3, 13 Devastator torpedo-planes led by Lt. Cdr. Lem Massey. All these aircraft come aboard without incident but, amidst all this lethal technology, death is omnipresent even before battle. When Cdr. John Thach’s 25 Wildcat fighters begin their landings, radioman Ray Daves is watching from the bridge. VF-3s exec, Lt. Cdr. Don Lovelace, gets down first and he’s
still in the cockpit when the next plane approaches the stern. Coming in hot, too fast….I can tell by the sound of the engine. The LSO tries to wave him off. I’m laughing when he drops his paddles and scrambles out of the way….Why doesn’t this pilot pull up and try again? He comes in so fast that the tail hook bounces over all the arresting cables and then plows through the last barrier, a rope net below the island. I brace for the impact…this plane crashes into the plane that just landed, propeller blades cutting through the canopy and I watch them chop the pilot’s body into pieces as blood spatters across the flight deck….”.(8)
Thach and the other Fighting Three pilots have little time to mourn the loss of the experienced and popular Lovelace.
That night, after we get everything buttoned up and are headed toward Midway, all pilots of the air group are brought into the wordroom. There the carrier Air Officer gives us a complete briefing on everything known about the oncoming Japanese forces and their intentions. We are all mighty impressed….If we can win this one, we may be able to stop the Jap advance. So we spend the time at hand getting our ammunition ready, checking and re-checking each aircraft. Then I get word that the dive-bomber c/o and the commanding officer of VT-3 want to have a talk….Massey says I ought to stay up with the dive-bombers, “because that’s where the Zeros are going to be, where they were during the Coral Sea battle.” That’s the issue, whether my fighters should go with the dive-bombers or the torpedo-planes. I don’t have enough fighters to split up and send a few with each….I reason that, since the Devastators at Coral Sea went in pretty much unpposed and got hits, the Japs will be more concerned about them now….So it’s finally decided that I will go with VT-3. But then next morning Captain Buckmaster, the carrier’s c/o, decides that only 6 fighters can go. He wants to hold back as many as possible to defend the Yorktown.(9)
Aboard Northampton, correspondant Casey greets
31 May, Sunday….at sea, northeast of Midway. Cool. Calm. Took on fuel this morning, including lots of aviation gasoline, all of which is right under my bed. HQ – may its tribe increase – sent out a request today for somebody to take pictures of Jap battleships, etc., so that profiles in the spotting books can be corrected. Except for this odd communication, nothing to suggest that there is a war going on in the neighborhood.
For Yorktown radioman Daves, the morrow is
a good day because I spend my free time with Mike Brazier…one of the new aviation radiomen that hangs out with us. Not sure how we got to be such good buddies in such a short time. Maybe that’s just the way it is when you’re stuck together on a ship during a war, but I think Brazier and I would have been friends anywhere. Ashore, we’d go for beer and play some pool….He’s got a girlfriend back home and shows me her picture, going to get married the next time he gets leave. I’m more afraid for him than for myself, because he is a rear-seat gunner on a torpedo plane. By this time everyone knows that the Devastators aren’t devestating at all…too slow. Carrying a 1,000-pound torpedo, they can barely do 100 miles per hour. But Brazier never indicates any fear. We don’t talk about it. But this day I know he isn’t concentrating very well when we play acey-deucey; I beat him two times out of three.(10)
1 June, Monday….at sea, northeast of Midway. Cool and a bit foggy. Now really in Jap territory. We can tell by the condition watches and our daylight zig-zag. Odd that it seems so much like any other part of the Pacific. We continue to contact whales large and small, as if there weren’t plenty of Hirohito’s subs in the vicinity.
In fact, due to the Americans’ code-breaking intelligence coup and quick exit, most of these Japanese submarines are now many miles east of the U.S. fleet, forming a useless patrol line near Oahu which Yamamoto thinks will give him advance warning of anything hostile coming out of Pearl Harbor.
At noon, raining, a thick gray rain. Boots and saddles for launching planes. Then un-boots and saddles. Too wet…too thick. About 2 PM an alarm…planes sighted to starboard. Our cruiser’s scout planes go out to look at them….Midway-based PBY’s. The aviators come in, red-faced from the wind and wet, their yellow rubber jackets dripping and shiny. “I was always a delicate kid”, says pilot Tom O’Connell. “They used to wonder if I’d ever grow up, Now I wonder if I’ll live to see my twenty-second birthday.” ….”When is it?”….”Thursday”.
2 June, Tuesday….at sea, northeast of Midway. At 1 PM the Yorktown arrives with two cruisers and an assortment of destroyers. This new force stays aloofly over toward the horizon on our starboard side, but they make a very inspiriting sight…(11)
On June 3rd, as the Americans maneuver their now-concentrated three-carrier force into a hoped-for ambush position northeast of Midway – aka “Point Luck” – the Japanese carrier force, Main Body, Aleutian strike and invasion forces, and Midway invasion and bombardment flotillas churn confidently eastward – each hundreds of miles apart and in no position to support the others should things go wrong:
Midway-based patrol planes spot the invasion force first, at about 3 AM on June 3rd, and shadow it for some hours. Though at first mis-identifying it as the Main Body, they get off good contact reports as to course and distance, now about 700 miles west of Midway Island and closing fast. A few Midway-based Army Air Force B-17 heavy bombers find and attack the Japanese transports and their escorts shortly after 4 PM. Tameichi Hara, Captain of destroyer Amatsukaze and who a few days earlier felt that “something is wrong with this operation”, now watches
American planes coming head-on at us, identify as 9 B-17s….Our destroyers open fire, throwing the enemy’s timing off. Bombs arc down and fall 1,000 meters away.
Lt. Genjirou Inui, an anti-tank gun platoon commander and member of Col. Ichiki’s detachment aboard troop transport Zenyu Maru, sees things from another angle:
….our destroyers sending up black smoke into the blue sky. Air-raid warning! The convoy spreads out into battle formation while anti-aircraft crews man their guns. 9 enemy planes to starboard, attacking in 3 formations….AA opens fire, bombs falling….Huge columns of water rise up on both sides of Argentina Maru, but my transport unscathed. 3 minutes later…only the calm sound of our ship’s engines.(12)
While the high-altitude bomber attack goes in, another threadbare American improvisation begins. Four VP-51 PBYs depart from Pearl and arrive Midway around 3 PM. The already-tired crews, among them Ensign Allan Rothenberg, are directed
to an underground bunker where we eat and are allowed two hours sleep before reporting for briefing. I ask myself, “Briefing for what?”, but don’t let it sink in right away as I am bone-weary from the long flight in. When I arrive at the hanger there is an ordnance crew hanging a submarine torpedo under the wing of my seaplane; why, I have no idea. At the 5 PM briefing, Captain Logan Ramsey announces that a Jap fleet is 750 miles west of Midway and expected to hit the island tomorrow morning. Our 4 PBYs are to attack the enemy with torpedoes….Ramsey then advises it will be a “volunteer mission: Richards, Davis, Propst, and the little Ensign standing in the back of the room.” In the shortest briefing of my Navy career, he concludes, “depart at 2000 hours and you should intercept, flying a westerly course, about 550 miles from Midway….Find and attack!”
Mine is the last plane off, delayed by a ladder that refuses to release, causing an additional time-lag….As a result the other 3 PBYs drop their torpedoes and are on their way out, leaving a hornet’s nest for me to wade through. But we drop, don’t wait to see results, and get out of there.(13)
Remarkably, one of these torpedoes
pierces the bow of oiler Akebono Maru, killing and injuring two-dozen men. But watertight compartments hold and the tanker keeps pace with the slower troop transports….I am no longer uneasy. So far the attempts against our convoy have been feeble. Nagumo’s carriers will smash this enemy with sledge-hammer blows.(14)
Also on June 3rd and 1,000 miles to the northeast, Adm. Kakuta’s task force moves into position for its Alaskan strike; an attack which will succeed only in diverting two Japanese aircraft carriers from the Main Event. Due to the usual, ferocious weather conditions – almost perpetual cloudcover, fog, and frequent, nearly instantaneous killer storms – that make this part of the world unsuitable for large-scale military operations, U.S. patrol planes cannot locate it. Shortly before 3AM, from a point 165 miles south of target, Kakuta gets off two deckloads of fighters, bomb-carrying torpedo-planes, and dive-bombers. But all of Junyo‘s planes get lost in thick, drifting mists and have to turn back, as do some of Ryujo‘s. Fourteen torpedo-bombers and three fighters do win through to Dutch Harbor and, considering the limited number, inflict substantial damage: strafing and flaming moored PBY seaplanes, blasting army barracks, killing and wounding dozens of soldiers and sailors, while losing two zeros to AA fire.
A second strike flys off around mid-morning on 4 June, this time directed at American naval units in Makushin Bay. Through worsening weather these aviators fail to find the primary target, and instead administer another useless trashing to Dutch Harbor. On the way back to their carrier they overfly an American airbase on forlorn Umnak Island, where eager pilots get quickly airborne. Zenji Abe’s plane is
suddenly attacked by P-40s from both sides. I throw my dive-bomber into a tight turn, and soon my group and the American planes are going after each other in circles….the low ceiling won’t allow the quick P-40s to zoom down on our bombers, so I think I have a chance. Fight back against one of them, but another fires at me. My comrade, Warrant-Officer Harano, chases after it. I notice another friend, Pilot Officer Numata, egaged in a dogfight with a P-40 about 300 meters above the sea in some low clouds, circling vertically, each trying to get on the other’s tail. A confusing melee, I’m sweating buckets and time seems to stand still though it’s over in seconds….Our aircraft put up a good fight, but I see three trails of smoke going down and later find out that both Harano and Numata were shot into the sea.(15)
In this brief, bloody encounter the Japanese lose 4 dive-bombers with their two-man crews; a zero is also shot down, as are two U.S. fighters, though one pilot manages to parachute and survive in the freezing water. Next day, Kakuta will back off to cover Japanese amphibious landings at Kiska and Attu islands. Hours earlier on June 4th and 1,000 miles to the south, aboard American carrier Enterprise, Lt. Clarence Dickinson and his VB-6 squadronmates are
in the readyroom by 0400, plotting our carrier’s position, recording wind and other data. All we want is the word that the enemy carriers have been spotted; that and the final order. I sit beside Earl Gallaher and Lt. Ware, the squadron’s flight officer. Any message the ship picks up from distant patrols or Midway will be relayed to us from air plot….The waiting is…trying. Five AM….such long intervals of silence it seems as if the teletype mavhine will never clatter again, and I begin to resent the talker’s silent telephone. Never as during these hours have the men when together in these rows of chairs been so quiet. 7 members of our squadron are combat experienced, but 11 of our pilots have never been under fire. Yet the confidence is something one can feel….(16)
For a Scouting 6 pilot in the same readyroom,
the air is so tense you can cut it with a knife….Now we wait, listening to the whine of the elevator lifting planes to the flight deck, a continuous high-pitched drone that tightens hands into hard knots of bone and muscle….clock-watching….we were here when it read 0330. Two false alarms haven’t helped….Silence…so quiet we can hear ourselves breathing.(17)
Now, off to the west, events and time itself begin to accelerate. Lt. Howard Ady, at the controls of a Midway-based PBY, spots at 5:20 AM an “unidentified aircraft” heading east – Jap cruiser-launched recon floatplane – and reports it in code. Then he sees a phosphorescent wake and goes in low to investigate….
….flying through rain squalls. As we come out of one we see the Japanese coming out of another. A long front of ships, two big carriers, some other big ones which I believe are battleships, some cruisers, and a lot of destroyers. From their course, running into the wind, they have either launched planes or are about to.(18)
Indeed. At this moment, aboard carrier Kaga, communications officer Sesu Mitoya hears
a bellowing, shattering uproar on the flight deck and livid streaks of engine exhaust flame through the darkness. “Commence launch!” sounds from the bridge. I watch the Air Officer swing his green lamp in a circle. One by one Zero fighters roar forward and leap skyward, the cheers of deck crew echoing over screaming engines…the dive-bombers follow. Soon over 100 planes, from all the carriers, are airborne.(19)
At 5:30, again in code, Ady signals
<carriers….bearing 320….distance 180>
15 minutes later, a PBY piloted by Lt. William Chase spots something equally electrifying. Excited, he does not bother to encode – a vastly fortunate error, as Fletcher and Spruance pick up this transmission – and signals in plain language
<many planes heading Midway….bearing 315….distance 150>
On Midway, a patchwork group of American pilots, air- and groundcrew have been up and about since 3 AM. Marine pilot Tom Moore, who will fly one of 16 clapped-out, Navy-reject SBD-2 dive-bombers handed down to his squadron – VMSB-241 – walks
through pitch-black darkness to the mess hall. There I find others of the dive-bombing and fighter squadrons….It seems as though everyone has something to say. We are like people who keep talking all through an operation in order to keep their minds off what the doctor is doing. We chew on thick slices of bread with marmalade and drink burning hot swallows of coffee and talk and talk….Who listens, I don’t know….
….still not yet dawn when we make our way in threes and fours to the revetments where our planes are waiting. Pvt. Huber, my rearseat gunner, is already there checking his twin-.50s and ammunition. I don’t know him very well, but in the next few hours will find out a great deal. 500-pound bomb in place under the fuselage. looks deadly. I climb into my cockpit, start the engine, check radio and intercom phones. All in order. Danny Iverson, in the next plane over, waves and I wave back.
Nothing to do now but wait…perhaps I should write a note to Janet; write by the light of the instrument panel. Something meaningful and everlasting in case I don’t come back. No. Too late now. And I can’t think of any words. We have an unborn child, a son, I hope….God let me live long enough to see him.
In the east, the sun…and Major Henderson’s plane starts to taxi slowly down the runway, heading into the wind, and now I push the throttle forward. We move faster, faster, my plane straining to lift off when the engine starts coughing…cut throttle then ram it forward again…airborne. Our squadron is up, 16 green pilots flying worn-out SBDs accompanied by 11 obsolete Vindicators. For a minute or two there’s nothing but the steady drone of our engines and a few idle remarks passing over the ‘phones. Sky very blue and clean of clouds, wind whipping around my face and goggles.(20)
Good men, these 54 Marines. But all green indeed. Not one has ever flung a bomb or fired his guns in combat. At 5:53, Midway’s radar picks up the incoming Japanese strike – an overwhelming and battle-tested force of 35 bomb-carrying “Kate” torpedo planes, 36 “Val” dive-bombers, and 36 Zero fighters – some 90 miles away and coming in fast at 11,000 feet. Aside from a few batteries of anti-aircraft guns, the island’s main defense is VMF-221, a Marine fighter squadron led by Major Floyd Parks and which, like VMSB-241, finds itself equipped with a clutch of cast-off Navy planes. Originally, the Marines have 21 F2A Brewster Buffaloes – an aptly-named, years-obsolete, slow, clumsy, undergunned deathtrap – and 7 better, though service-worn F4F-3 fighters; but various mishaps reduce the available aircraft to 20 and 4. The pilots too are a mixed bag. Some, like Lt. Marion Carl, an instructor with prior service in a Wildcat squadron and 1,400 hours of flying time, are primed and ready for lethal combat. Others, with much less air experience, are not yet up to it and, reasonably enough, do not like their planes. Right after the dive-bombers get off, Carl hears
the air raid alarm, and just for good measure the command post pickup is scurrying around, siren wailing. We immediately start engines, already warm since we strapped on our aircraft almost an hour ago. No briefing, no coordination – just a mad scramble to get out from under whatever is inbound. Using two of Eastern Island’s three runways, the Buffalos and Wildcats narrowly miss one another at the intersection….Wildcats wobbling in their climbs as each pilot cranks rapidly with his right hand – 28 turns – to raise the wheels, and our tactical organization breaks down before the atoll is even a few miles astern. I look for John Carey’s number two man but can’t see him. My own wingman, Lt. Clayton Canfield, is im position with me but I wave him forward to support Carey, continuing my climb alone, outbound to 14,000 feet….24 aircraft straggling into a beautiful blue morning sky with almost unlimited visibility. A low-lying deck of puffy clouds partially obscures the ocean, but otherwise the weather affords excellent prospects for interception. Minutes after takeoff I hear Carey’s radion call – “Hawks at angels 12…”
Glancing down I spot them. Immaculate ranks of Jap carrier-based bombers approaching Midway, barely 40 miles out…a beautiful set-up. With a 2,000 foot altitude advantage our three Wildcats are well positioned for an overhead attack on the bombers. I roll into a 180-degree left turn, completing a half-roll to inverted. At that moment…Zero fighters diving on me but I am committed to my attack, jockying stick and rudder to line up one of the Nakijimas in my gunsight…trigger finger tense on the stick grip as the target grows larger during my 300-knot verticle plunge. Press the trigger and feel four .50 caliber guns recoiling….(21)
Lt. Carl’s intended victim escapes, but Carey and Canfield destroy two Japanese bombers. Then the Zeros arrive, and it becomes a savage, swirling dogfight, rolling toward Midway as one American pilot after another, unable to manuver with a nimble and skillful enemy, is blown out of the sky. Major Parks gets as far as the island and parachutes out of his riddled plane, but a Jap with a taste for blood kills him before he hits the water. Of VMF-221’s 24 pilots, 14 are swiftly dead, while others crash-land damaged aircraft and run for cover as low-flying Zeros work over the island’s defenses with cannon and machine-gun fire. Hollywood director John Ford, filming the battle, watches a too-confident Zero pilot
dive down about 100 feet from the ground, turn over and fly upside-down over the seaplane ramp while thumbing his nose…suddenly a Marine gunner says, “What the hell…” and lets go at him….and the Jap slides off into the sea.(22)
Then bomb-carrying Kates dump their loads, in a single high-altitude pass over the island. Ensign Taisuke Maruyama finds the AA fire
accurate and intense. Anti-aircraft shells tear through our formation, and I can feel the wind-blast from the explosions. Pilot Officer Sakamoto’s plane blows up in the air, and I see another of our planes force-landing in the water. (23)
Against continuing and “furious anti-aircraft fire” which destroys several of their number, Japanese dive-bombers now slant downward and join the attack. Lt. Moore is just at the horizon and
wondering if we will see the enemy at all when someone shouts over the radio, “Island under attack island under heavy attack”….I glance backward…and see bombs bursting all over Midway. All at once a sheet of flame streaks toward heaven and falls back. Thick palls of smoke billow upward….(24)
While Lt. Carl hears
Midway ordering VMF-221 to return and land by divisions. Nobody responds….Guided to my revetment, I shut down and unstrap. Climbing from the cockpit, I count the bullet holes….Every returning fighter has evidence of combat except one. My Wildcat and the undamaged Buffalo are quickly re-fueled and armed, but Midway still reels from the attack. Gasoline fires rage out of control, hangers flattened, debris strewn everywhere. A dive-bomber hit -221’s arming area, detonating several bombs and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Four men killed there. Most of the returning pilots are stunned by their experience….C/O and the exec both missing…our squadron is a shattered command. The surviving officer walks out of the command post to a bomb shelter, and proceeds to get drunk. He has plenty of company.(25)
Col. Walter Sweeney, commanding Midway-based 431 Squadron of 11th Bomb Group, is long since at altitude with 14 B-17s and
proceeding to attack the same Jap fleet we bombed the previous afternoon. En route to target we get word that another enemy force, complete with carriers, is approaching Midway from 325 degrees and at a distance of only about 1455 miles….Climbing to 20,000 feet, we turn to intercept. Cloud conditions lower broken, bottoms at 1,000 feet, tops at 6,000 with high thin-scattered at 18,000….Jap carriers under the clouds, and we have to search for them.
Captain Payne spots the first carrier, and we go in to attack. Enemy starts firing as soon as we open our bomb bays, not effectively, but a bit disturbing. Fighters attacking, manuvering beautifully, but they fail to follow through…in no case is an attack pressed home. I divide our planes into three groups, each group instructed to take a carrier, and we bomb away. Fairly certain we hit the first carrier, but don’t claim it. The second group, under command of Capt. Cecil Faulknor, hits its carrier amidships. Lt. Col. Brooke Allen, commanding the third flight, secures hits on the third carrier. We don’t have time to wait and see them sink, but leave knowing they are badly crippled.(26)
In fact, though dropping with fair accuracy, the American B-17s hit nothing but water. Destroyers and cruisers laying smoke screens, ships venting smoke, low-lying clouds, and gunflashes are all easy to mistake for hits under the stress of combat. Too, this is an Army Air Force that is bucking hard for separate service designation (= bigger slice of military budget) – based on a “unique strategic mission” carried out by the “Big Bombers” – and not at all averse to exaggerating results. The skillful Japanese carrier captains go to battle speed, circle tightly, then whip their ships through violent S-turns and so just manage to evade the clusters of falling bombs:
And torpedoes, because 10 Midway-based torpedo-planes attack at about the same time as the B-17s. Six of these aircraft are new TBF-Avengers flown out to Midway on June 1st by off-carrier members of VT-8, led in by Lt. Langdon Feiberling. These planes are a big improvement over the Devastators just now being launched from the American carriers: better-built, much faster, and feature both a twin-barreled dorsal turret weapon and a ventral gunner. Flown in proper formation, these planes can put out a truly devastating cone of defensive fire. But their crews too lack combat experience – not to mention escorting fighters – and now find themselves intercepted by a swarm of kill-hungry Zero pilots. As Ensign Bert Earnest and his fellows
near our targets, we are jumped by about 20 Zeros. Cannon shells and machine-gun bullets immediately tear into our plane, killing my turret gunner Jay Manning….a cannon shell hit him in the chest and there’s blood everywhere. Our flight of six drops to 100 feet and makes for carriers that we can see in the distance. Just then the control cables to the elevator are shot away so I decide to go after a nearby cruiser. As I flick the plane around and turn toward it, cannon shells are dancing on my wings. Gyro compass shot out…the stick goes limp in my hands….hydraulics lost…difficult to control, losing altitude…drop my torpedo….(27)
With Feiberling’s and the other 4 TBFs already shot into the sea, Earnest alone survives to nurse his battered plane back to Midway. And this only because the Zeros are drawn away by the hard-on-the-heels arrival of 4 torpedo-lugging Army B-26 light bombers. These too are roughly handled by the Japanese. Lt. James Muri and his crew
don’t know what we are getting into….When we leave (Midway) staff tells us there’s a target and the estimated mileage. Could be a barge for all we know….didn’t tell us there’d be Zeros which hit us before we even see the Jap fleet. We are flying at 800 feet when they come over the horizon and start shooting. Makes quite an impression because none of us has ever been shot at before, and our formation breaks up. Imagine the surprise when we come over the horizon and see all these warships, all shooting at us. We can see carriers, protected by the rest of the ships, and go after the nearest big one. I see another B-26 going in, probably Captain Collins….
six fighters come at us fast, straight in, others hit us from the rear and we can’t shake them. Aniaircraft shells, nachinegun and tracer whizzing around….I slip between several destroyers and cruisers, head for a carrier. It makes a quick turn and puts on speed, trying to swing head-on to us….We can actually hear 20 mm. shells leaving the Zeros’ guns, that’s how close they are. Now about 2 miles from target, and the Zeros don’t hesitate to fly into AA fire from their own ships. Although the carrier is circling to the right, we manuver so that she’s side-on to us, and the whole side seems to be ablaze with antiaircrft guns, a curtain of fire for us to fly through. Have proer altitude and release our torpedo as close as we can, pull up sharply and shoot over the carrier’s bow at only a couple hundred feet. Then I yank the controls straight back and shoot up another thousand feet, Zeros still after me….
With his own plane now well shot-up, Lt. Muri
goes in to attack, so low and fast that as soon as the torpedo drops away I have to turn sharply to get over the carrier’s deck….Climbing, I pass over the island and toward the stern, see 50 to 75 men standing around the structure and my nose gunner throws lead, scattering them in all directions. Zeros still on us as we draw away.(28)
A third B-26, Lt. William Watson at the controls, takes a fatal hit, cartwheels across the water and explodes. Lt. Herbert Mayes’ #4 plane, seen through Japanese eyes,
skims straight over Akagi, from starboard to port, nearly grazing the bridge. The white star on the fuselage of the plane, a B-26, is plainly visible. Immediately after clearing our ship, it bursts into flames and plunges into the sea….trailing pale white wakes, several torpedoes pass to port of Akagi.(29)
No hits, 7 more American crews – 24 men in all – dead. Eight thousand feet higher and closing, Marine dive-bomber pilot Tom Moore’s watch shows 7:55 AM.
(To be continued…)
Useful narratives and analyses of the Midway battle include – despite a contra-factual hatchet-job on Fletcher and other inaccuracies – Samuel Eliot Morison, History of U.S. Navel Operations in WW II (Boston, 1950), Vol. IV, pp. 69-186; Walter Lord, Incredible Victory (NY, 1967); Gordon Prange, Miracle at Midway (NY, 1982); Alvin Kernan, Unknown Battle of Midway (New Haven, 2005); John Parschall and Anthony Tully, Shattered Sword (Washington, 2005); Ronald W. Russel, No Right to Win: A Continuing Dialog With the Veterans of the Battle of Midway (NY, 2006); Dallas W. Isom, Midway Inquest (Bloomington, 2007); and – getting Fletcher as right as Fletcher got the desperate, early months of the Pacific War – John Lundstrom, Black Shoe Carrier Admiral: Frank Jack Fletcher at Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal (Annapolis, 2006). Other narratives and firsthand accounts as cited:
Clayton Fisher, Hooked – Tales and Adventures of a Tailhook Warrior (Denver, 2009), p. 73.
Peterson, Briny to the Blue (Scottsdale, 1992), pp. 53-54.
Surgi quoted in Oliver North, ed., War Stories, Vol. II, Heroism in the Pacific (Washington, 2004), pp. 116-117.
Ringblom account @ http://www.onemarinesview.com/one_marines_view/2009/06/the-…
Casey, Torpedo Junction (Indianapolis, 1943), p. 363.
Best statement in Wayman C. Mullins, ed., 1942: Issue In Doubt (Austin, 1994), pp. 191-92.
Wilhelm’s diary at Chris Hawkinson’s Battle of Midway site; @ http://www.centuryinter.net/midway/veterans/ralphwilhelm.html.
Daves interviewed by Carol Hipperson in Radioman (NY, 2008), pp. 112-113.
Thach statement in John T. Mason, Jr., The Pacific War Remembered – An Oral History Collection (Annapolis, 1986), pp. 98-100.
Daves, op. cit., pp. 114-115.
Casey, op. cit., pp. 364-369.
Inui’s diary, My Guadalcanal, @ http://www.netally.com/jrube/Genjirou/cover.htm
Rothenberg account in Mel Crocker, Black Cats and Dumbos (Blue Ridge Summit, 1987), p. 48.
Hara, Japanese Destroyer Captain (NY, 1961), pp. 99-100.
Abe interview in Ron Werneth, ed., After Pearl Harbor: Untold Stories of Japan’s Navel Airmen (Atglen, 2008), p. 51.
Dickenson, Flying Guns (NY, 1942), p. 141.
Anon. VS-6 pilot, unpublished ms.
Ady statement in Foster Hailey, Pacific Battle Line (NY, 1944), p. 164.
Mitoya, “I Fought the Americans at Midway”, in Howard Oleck, ed., Heroic Battles of WW II (NY, 1962), p. 152.
Moore, The Sky is My Witness (NY, 1943), pp. 57-59.
Carl, Pushing the Envelope (Annapolis, 1994), pp. 2-3.
Ford account in Prange, op. cit., p. 201.
Maruyama interview in Werneth, op. cit., pp. 178-179.
Moore, op. cit., pp. 59-60.
Carl, op. cit., pp. 25-26.
Col. Sweeney’s account in John Loosbrock and Richard Skinner, eds., The Wild Blue (NY, 1961), pp. 206-207.
Bert Earnest’s account @ http://harryferrier.blogspot.com/
Muri interview in Aviation History, XV/6, July 2005, p. 42, plus additional material in Gilbert Cant, America’s Navy in WW II (London, n.d.), p. 153. Collins in same, loc. cit.
Fuchida, Mitsuo and Masatake Okumiya, Midway (NY, 1955), p. 142.