Vengeance at Midway

Today in History, June 4, 1942:

The Battle of Midway.

The war had been going badly for the Americans in the Pacific. The Japanese had begun the war 7 months earlier by bombing Pearl Harbor, destroying most of the American fleet, but missing the US carriers, which had all been at sea. In the interim came sweeping victories across the Pacific for the IJN, raids by US carrier task forces on Japanese strongholds, the Doolittle Raid and the Battle of the Coral Sea. The US lost the Lexington at Coral Sea, and the Yorktown had been badly damaged.

Then code breakers at Pearl figured out that the next target of the IJN was Midway Island, the westernmost island of the Hawaiian chain. Admiral Yamamoto’s plan was to draw the American carriers out and destroy them, leaving the Pacific unprotected. The code breakers changed the entire game.

The Enterprise and Hornet rushed back to Pearl for rearming, as did the Yorktown. The repair crew told Admiral Nimitz they needed 3 months to repair the Yorktown; he gave them 3 days.

When the IJN attacked Midway, they expected the American carriers to be responding to the scene, giving them plenty of time to lay a trap; instead, Nimitz had positioned his carriers northeast of Midway to lay in wait. When a PBY seaplane (Strawberry 5) spotted the Japanese carriers, it was all Admirals Spruance and Fletcher needed.

The three American carriers launched their aircraft. The obsolete TBD Devastator torpedo bombers were the first to find the IJN carriers. The versatile Japanese Zero fighters dove to the wave tops and tore them apart, leaving almost no survivors. The sacrifice, while not intentional, served a purpose.

Next to arrive on the scene were SBD Dauntless dive bombers, which dove to attack from altitude. With all of the Japanese fighters drawn to the “deck”, they had no fighters to oppose them. Diving at 70 degrees, the pilots hanging from their seat belts, the rear gunners pressed against their seats with no view of what was to come, the bombers dropped their bombs with deadly accuracy.

Admiral Nagumo, informed of the American fleet by a scout plane, had ordered his aircraft, just back from Midway, rearmed. So when the American bombs fell, the Japanese carrier decks were filled with aircraft, bombs, torpedoes and fuel. Three of the four IJN carriers were destroyed in minutes. The fourth would be picked off in a later raid.

Within minutes, thanks to the sacrifice and courage of a few brave airmen, the tide of the war in the Pacific had changed. There was still a long road ahead; but the seemingly unstoppable onslaught of the IJN had been stopped. Worse than the loss of 4 carriers was the loss of hundreds of Japans finest aviators.

The Americans would lose the Yorktown, but the Japanese were devastated. Admiral Yamamoto had told his contemporaries that they had a year before the tide of the war turned against them due to American industries. The American sailors and airmen at Midway cut that time in half.

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