This week, the RedState Department of History examines a true red-letter date in history: the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway. On this date 75 years ago, the Japanese Navy’s carrier force was shattered by American fliers.
Prior to the battle, the Americans utilized a priceless advantage: they had partially broken the Japanese Navy’s JN-25b code. They knew the Japanese were planning an offensive but didn’t know where the blow would fall.
The Americans believed that the Japanese code for Midway was “AF”, but couldn’t prove it. So, Navy Captain Wilfried Holmes devised a ruse. He instructed Midway’s radio operators to broadcast, in the clear, that the island was short of water. When the Japanese repeated the message that “AF” was having difficulty, the larger trap was set.
108 Japanese carrier-based airplanes attacked Midway Island to begin the day, after American forces had sighted portions of the Japanese Combined Fleet headed toward the island. The defenders bagged 11 Japanese craft and damaged 43 others.
Meanwhile, 15 American TBD Devastator torpedo planes from the USS Hornet attacked the Japanese fleet — and every one was shot down. Ensign George Gay was the only survivor of the 30 aircrew who took off from the Hornet – but VT-8‘s sacrifice was not in vain.
The presence of American torpedo planes definitely meant that the American fleet was nearby. Japanese commander Admiral Chuchi Nagumo had ordered that his planes be loaded with general purpose bombs for another attack on Midway — but now countermanded the order. While his planes were being rearmed, the planes who had attacked Midway were due to return.
It all came to head when VT-3, a torpedo squadron from the USS Yorktown, arrived. The Japanese Combat Air Patrol (CAP) was scattered dealing with the torpedo planes, when three dive bomber squadrons — VB-6 and VC-6 (USS Enterprise) and VB-3 (Yorktown) appeared in perfect position to attack. Historians Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully described the scene:
“Most of the Japanese CAP was focusing on the torpedo planes of VT-3 and were out of position, armed Japanese strike aircraft filled the hangar decks, fuel hoses snaked across the decks as refueling operations were hastily being completed, and the repeated change of ordnance meant that bombs and torpedoes were stacked around the hangars, rather than stowed safely in the magazines, making the Japanese carriers extraordinarily vulnerable.”
That was an understatement. Squadron commander C. Wade McClusky ordered his planes to attack despite being low on fuel, and this decision resulted in the crippling of three Japanese carriers — Akagi, Kaga and Soryu. The Akagi was hit only once, but the bomb penetrated through to the hangar deck where it exploded right in the middle of the armed and fueled aircraft waiting to be raised to the flight deck.
Despite the destruction, all three of the Japanese carriers were still afloat as none had been hit below the waterline; however, their damage was too great to repair and they were eventually scuttled.
But there was more: the sole surviving Japanese carrier, the Hiryu, launched an attack on the Yorktown, which scored three hits, punched a hole in the flight deck and snuffed out the ship’s boilers. However, the ship, which had been repaired in just 48 hours after the Battle of the Coral Sea one month prior had persuaded the Japanese to consider her sunk, was again quickly repaired and made 19 knots soon afterward. But a second attack caused extensive damage to the Yorktown, which led to her scuttling on June 7.
Yet Hiryu herself was doomed. Dive bombers from Enterprise, which included planes from the stricken Yorktown, found the last Japanese carrier and reduced her to a blazing hulk at 1700 hours that afternoon.
The Battle of Midway changed the course of the war in the Pacific. The Japanese had lost four carriers and the heavy cruiser Mikuma, and over 3,000 sailors, while the Americans had lost Yorktown, the destroyer Hammann and 307 sailors. The Japanese public was not told about the Battle of Midway and the heavy losses their fleet had endured — only Emperor Hirohito and senior naval officers knew the truth.
But most importantly, the victory at Midway allowed the Americans to claim the strategic initiative in the Pacific. The successful invasion of Guadalcanal soon followed, with the Solomon Islands campaign the next step on the road to victory.
June 4 is a very big day in our history. Enjoy today’s open thread!