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WORLD WAR IIThe Allied Counteroffensive, 1942-1945
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2003 The New York Times Company and Agincourt Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Battle of Midway
Japanese naval commander in chief Yamamoto Isoroku was convinced that his country's only chance to win the war in the Pacific lay in the quick elimination of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Otherwise, the United States would have time to mobilize its vast productive capacities, thereafter dwarfing the output of Japan's own modest industrial base. The December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor had begun the admiral's task well, but the job wouldn't be completed, he knew, until the American aircraft carriers were also smashed.
Yamamoto's new plan called for a showdown battle off Midway, the westernmost of the Hawaiian Islands. The admiral correctly perceived that the Americans would have to commit all their resources to defend Midway because of its strategic importance as a potential staging area for an invasion of Oahu. What Yamamoto didn't realize was that U.S. naval cryptanalysts had broken the Japanese fleet code and knew in advance of his complex plan to entrap the American carriers.
Even so, the Japanese still had a considerably stronger fleet. The main Japanese task force, commanded by Pearl Harbor hero Nagumo Chuichi, featured four heavy carriers whose planes would begin the battle by attacking the air bases on Midway, thereby forcing the American carriers to intervene. Later, Yamamoto's own task force, lurking in the rear, would come up to join the fight and finish off the Americans. There were obvious flaws in the plan, which Nagumo and others pointed out, but the Japanese were so confident in their ability to overcome all obstacles that they went ahead with the plan regardless.
In addition to the heavy carriers, the Japanese also had two light carriers, seven battleships, fifteen cruisers, and forty-four destroyers. To oppose them, the Americans had three carriers, eight cruisers, and fifteen destroyers. Rear Adm. Raymond A. Spruance was given operational control of Task Force 16, built around the Enterprise and the Hornet, while Rear Adm. Frank J. Fletcher led Task Force 17 and exercised overall command from his patched-up flagship Yorktown.
The three American carriers hid over the eastern horizon while Nagumo's task force approached Midway from the northwest. According to Japanese intelligence, only the Enterprise and the Hornet remained afloat, both last seen in the South Pacific. Therefore, Nagumo was surprised when one of his scout planes discovered early on June 4 a nearby American carrier. About 9 A.M., a still-confident Nagumo ordered his ships to close on the single enemy carrier. Within twenty-four hours, however, all four of Nagumo's own carriers would be gone.
2, PERHAPS 3, JAPANESE CARRIERS SUNK WITH ALL THEIR PLANES, NIMITZ REPORTS
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Sea Fight Goes On; Momentous U. S. Victory in Midway Battle Is in View, Admiral Says
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By ROBERT TRUMBULL
PEARL HARBOR, June 6-Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the United States Pacific Fleet, announced today that two or three Japanese aircraft carriers had been destroyed and that "a momentous victory is in the making" in the great battle on the Midway Island sea front.
The admiral, who said in a communiqué that "Pearl Harbor has now been partially avenged," also announced that the United States forces had damaged one or two other carriers, as well as three battleships, four cruisers and three transports of the enemy invasion fleet that failed in its assault on Midway, which never got beyond the stage of aerial preparation.
Admiral Nimitz's communiqué, the third he has issued since the battle got under way on Thursday, follows:
Through the skill and devotion to duty of their armed forces of all branches in the Midway area, our citizens can now rejoice that a momentous victory is in the making.
It was on a Sunday just six months ago that the Japanese made their peacetime attack on our fleet and Army activities in Oahu. At that time they created heavy damage, it is true, but their act aroused the grim determination of our citizenry to avenge such treachery, and it raised, not lowered, the morale of our fighting men.
Pearl Harbor has now been partially avenged. Vengeance will not be complete until Japanese sea power has been reduced to impotence. We have made substantial progress in that direction. Perhaps we will be forgiven if we claim we are about midway to our objective.
The battle is not over. All returns have not yet been received. It is with full confidence, however, that for this phase of the action the following enemy losses are claimed:
Two or three carriers and all their aircraft destroyed, in addition to one or two carriers badly damaged and most of their aircraft lost.
Three battleships damaged, at least one badly.
Four cruisers damaged, two heavily.
Three transports damaged.
It is possible that some of these wounded ships will not be able to reach their bases.
One of our carriers was hit and some planes were lost. Our personnel casualties were light.
This is the balance sheet that the Army, Navy and Marine forces in this area offer their country this morning.
In a communiqué issued yesterday Admiral Nimitz said that the brunt of the action against the enemy's invasion force was being borne by airmen of the Navy, Marine Corps and Army. Today's communiqué disclosed that an American carrier had been in action, but nothing has been said about any other American surface ships.
"The terrifying scream of the dive-bombers reached me first."
An excerpt from Fuchida Mitsuo's account of the battle of Midway
Fuchida Mitsuo, the author of this account, was, like Nagumo, a hero of Pearl Harbor, having planned and led the air attack. He would have fulfilled a similar role at Midway had he not been recovering from appendicitis. Fuchida later called the June 1942 engagement "the battle that doomed Japan," and it is generally agreed that Midway was the turning point of the Pacific war. Before the battle, the Japanese had six heavy carriers operating in the Pacific, while the Americans had only three (not including the Saratoga, which was in port for repairs). Afterward, taking into account both sides' losses at Midway, the Japanese had only two carriers left, while the Americans (losing the Yorktown but regaining the Saratoga) still had three. More important, during the next two years, while Japan's shipyards splashed six new heavy carriers, America's turned out seventeen.
As the Nagumo Force proceeded northward, our four carriers feverishly prepared to attack the enemy ships. The attack force was to include 36 dive-bombers (18 "Vals" each from Hiryu and Soryu) and 54 torpedo bombers (18 "Kates" each from Akagi and Kaga, and nine each from Hiryu and Soryu). It proved impossible, however, to provide an adequate fighter escort because enemy air attacks began again shortly, and most of our Zeros had to be used to defend the Striking Force itself. As a result, only 12 Zeros (three from each carrier) could be assigned to protect the bomber groups. The 102-plane attack force was to be ready for take-off at 1030.
After Tone's search plane reported the presence of a carrier in the enemy task force, we expected an attack momentarily and were puzzled that it took so long in coming. As we found out after the war, the enemy had long been awaiting our approach, was continuously informed of our movements by the flying boats from Midway, and was choosing the most advantageous time to pounce. Admiral Spruance, commanding the American force, planned to strike his first blow as our carriers were recovering and refueling their planes returned from Midway. His wait for the golden opportunity was rewarded at last. The quarry was at hand, and the patient hunter held every advantage.
Between 0702 and 0902 the enemy launched 131 dive-bombers and torpedo planes. At about 0920 our screening ships began reporting enemy carrier planes approaching. We were in for a concentrated attack, and the Nagumo Force faced the gravest crisis of its experience. Was there any escape? An electric thrill ran throughout the fleet as our interceptors took off amid the cheers of all who had time and opportunity to see them.
Reports of approaching enemy planes increased until it was quite evident that they were not from a single carrier. When the Admiral and his staff realized this, their optimism abruptly vanished. The only way to stave off disaster was to launch planes at once. The order went out: "Speed preparations for immediate take-off!" This command was almost superfluous. Aviation officers, maintenance crews, and pilots were all working frantically to complete launching preparations.
The first enemy carrier planes to attack were 15 torpedo bombers. When first spotted by our screening ships and combat air patrol, they were still not visible from the carriers, but they soon appeared as tiny dark specks in the blue sky, a little above the horizon, on Akagi's starboard bow. The distant wings flashed in the sun. Occasionally one of the specks burst into a spark of flame and trailed black smoke as it fell into the water. Our fighters were on the job, and the enemy again seemed to be without fighter protection.
Presently a report came in from a Zero group leader: "All 15 enemy torpedo bombers shot down." Nearly 50 Zeros had gone to intercept the unprotected enemy formation! Small wonder that it did not get through.
Again at 0930 a lookout atop the bridge yelled: "Enemy torpedo bombers, 30 degrees to starboard, coming in low!" This was followed by another cry from a port lookout forward: "Enemy torpedo planes approaching 40 degrees to port!"
The raiders closed in from both sides, barely skimming over the water. Flying in single columns, they were within five miles and seemed to be aiming straight for Akagi. I watched in breathless suspense, thinking how impossible it would be to dodge all their torpedoes. But these raiders, too, without protective escorts, were already being engaged by our fighters. On Akagi's flight deck all attention was fixed on the dramatic scene unfolding before us, and there was wild cheering and whistling as the raiders went down one after another.
Of the 14 enemy torpedo bombers which came in from starboard, half were shot down, and only 5 remained of the original 12 planes to port. The survivors kept charging in as Akagi opened fire with antiaircraft machine guns.
Both enemy groups reached their release points, and we watched for the splash of torpedoes aimed at Akagi. But, to our surprise, no drops were made. At the last moment the planes appeared to forsake Akagi, zoomed overhead, and made for Hiryu to port and astern of us. As the enemy planes passed Akagi, her gunners regained their composure and opened a sweeping fire, in which Hiryu joined. Through all this deadly gunfire the Zeros kept after the Americans, continually reducing their number.
Seven enemy planes finally succeeded in launching their torpedoes at Hiryu, five from her starboard side and two from port. Our Zeros tenaciously pursued the retiring attackers as far as they could. Hiryu turned sharply to starboard to evade the torpedoes, and we watched anxiously to see if any would find their mark. A deep sigh of relief went up when no explosion occurred, and Hiryu soon turned her head to port and resumed her original course. A total of more than 40 enemy torpedo planes had been thrown against us in these attacks, but only seven American planes had survived long enough to release their missiles, and not a single hit had been scored. Nearly all of the raiding enemy planes were brought down.
Most of the credit for this success belonged to the brilliant interception of our fighters, whose swift and daring action was watched closely from the flagship. No less impressive was the dauntless courage shown by the American fliers, who carried out the attack despite heavy losses. Shipboard spectators of this thrilling drama watched spellbound, blissfully unaware that the worst was yet to come.
As our fighters ran out of ammunition during the fierce battle, they returned to the carriers for replenishment, but few ran low on fuel. Service crews cheered the returning pilots, patted them on the shoulder, and shouted words of encouragement. As soon as a plane was ready again, the pilot nodded, pushed forward the throttle, and roared back into the sky. This scene was repeated time and again as the desperate air struggle continued.
Preparations for a counter-strike against the enemy had continued on board our four carriers throughout the enemy torpedo attacks. One after another, planes were hoisted from the hangar and quickly arranged on the flight deck. There was no time to lose. At 1020 Admiral Nagumo gave the order to launch when ready. On Akagi's flight deck all planes were in position with engines warming up. The big ship began turning into the wind. Within five minutes all her planes would be launched.
Five minutes! Who would have dreamed that the tide of battle would shift completely in that brief interval of time?
Visibility was good. Clouds were gathering at about 3,000 meters, however, and though there were occasional breaks, they afforded good concealment for approaching enemy planes. At 1024 the order to start launching came from the bridge by voice-tube. The Air Officer flapped a white flag, and 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 enemy planes plummeting toward 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 toward me! I fell intuitively to the deck and crawled behind a command post mantelet.
The terrifying scream of the dive-bombers reached me first, followed by the crashing explosion of a direct hit. There was a blinding flash and then a second explosion, much louder than the first. I was shaken by a weird blast of warm air. There was still another shock, but less severe, apparently a near-miss. Then followed a startling quiet as the barking of guns suddenly ceased. I got up and looked at the sky. The enemy planes were already gone from sight.
Excerpted from WORLD WAR II Copyright © 2003 by The New York Times Company and Agincourt Press. Excerpted by permission.
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