If you read enough history, you eventually realize that history, especially the history of warfare, is less a matter of “who makes the best plan”, and more “who comes reacts best to and endless series of unplanned errors, mistakes and unforeseeable twists of fate?”
It was seventy years ago today and tomorrow that one of the most important battles in Western civilization was being decided. At about this time (after allowing for time zones), two days of furtive maneuvering about tens of thousands of square miles of ocean led to 90 minutes of frantic back-and-forth air strikes on the morning of June 5, a series of battles that began at dawn and were substantially over by 2PM. And the results were largely the confluence of a long series of strokes of luck, caprice and erroneous decisions – good and bad.
Today is the seventieth anniversary of the pivotal moment in the Battle of Midway. The battle has been seen as the turning point in the war in the Pacific – and it’s an accurate perception. Since the beginning of the war, the Japanese had been running the table; after wiping out the US battleship fleet at Pearl Harbor, they’d taken Hong Kong, Malaysia, Wake Island, Guam, and finally the huge US colony in the Philippines and the equally important British base in Singapore; they sank a pair of British battleships (HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse) on their way to assist Singapore, and followed up by destroying virtually the entire Dutch fleet, along with most of the supporting British, Australian and American units, in the Battle of The Java Sea, while conquering Indonesia and its immense oil and rubber reserves. They’d raided as far afield as Sri Lanka and Darwin, Australia.
Then, a month ago, at the Battle of the Coral Sea, they’d won a tactical victory over the US and Australians – sinking the carrier Lexington, and damaging the USS Yorktown badly enough to keep it in dry dock for three months, leaving the US with only two functional carriers, Hornet and Enterprise, in the whole Pacific (and five in the whole world – Wasp and Ranger, both of whom were regarded even then as failed design experiments, were still in the Atlanticm and Saratoga was undergoing maintenance in San Francisco).
Hornet and Enterprise had just returned from the “Doolittle Raid“, launching 16 Army bombers on a pinprick raid on Tokyo and Kyoto, which had no military effect but immense, intense moral impact on Japan, especially its leadership. If American bombers could reach Tokyo – even via extraordinary means like the Doolittle Raid – then drastic action was needed to shore up the home islands’ defenses.
WIth this in mind – as well as to deny the Americans a key base for patrolling the Central Pacific – the Japanese planned to seize Midway Island, so named because it was halfway between Hawaii and Tokyo. It would secure much of the vast ocean waste from American reconnaissance, making it easy to conquer Fiji and Samoa and close up the last remaining gap in the Home Islands’ outer ring of defenses. Most importantly to Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the planner of the Pearl Harbor raid and many of the other successes of the previous six months, it would lure the surviving American aircraft carriers – two, he thought, Hornet and Enterprise – out for a fight at 2:1 odds.
IJN Kaga, Japan's first large aircraft carrier. Like the USS Lexington and Saratoga, Kaga was a converted battleship, and in its day was the most powerful aircraft carrier afloat. A veteran of Pearl Harbor and the battles afterward.
The US Navy had, of course, broken the Japanese Navy’s codes, and knew of the operation long enough in advance to order the three months of work on Yorktown to be completed in there days (we covered that here) and to move the three carriers out to a place in the Pacific from where they could try to ambush the Japanese.
Less well-known? The Japanese, worried about security, had actually ordered a change in code-books, which would take the US Navy some time to re-break. But the change didn’t go into effect until the beginning of June – enough time for the USN to get all the information it needed.
The Japanese were hampered by their own bureaucracy and doctrine. They’d had two of their newest carriers – Shokaku and Zuikaku – badly damaged at Coral Sea. Shokaku was out for three months – and unlike Yorktown, out for three months it stayed. And Zuikaku‘s air group had been so badly mauled at Coral Sea that it would take a few months to bring in and train up replacements…
…which was also a problem for Yorktown - but its air group was brought up to strength by borrowing squadrons from the USS Saratoga, which was refitting in San Francisco. Zuikaku could have done much the same – but Japanese doctrine at the time was to keep ships and their air groups together. It’d cost them.
But beyond doctrinal differences and top-secret technological prowess and the foibles of leaders and nations, the Battle of Midway was decided as much by three ill-timed bits of fortune – good or bad, depending on your point of view – that had relatively little to do with the battle itself.
Oceanfront Real Estate – Now, in those days before satellites and drones and over-the-horizon radar, the biggest problem was finding the enemy. And that meant hundreds, thousands of hours spent crisscrossing the Pacific in search planes – long-ranged land-based bombers and, especially, “Seaplanes” or “Flying Boats”. Almost unknown today, flying boats – which could land on water – were the key to patrolling most of the Pacific at the time.
An American PBY "Catalina" flying boat. This clumsy-looking plane was among the most important of all in World War II; it, more than any other, was the "eyes of the fleet" for the US and British navies. A Catalina caught the first whiff of the Japanese fleet at Midway - and many other battles.
One of the reasons the Japanese were able to so precisely pinpoint the US fleet at Pearl Harbor was that they had set up a “flying boat” base at a bare, uninhabited coral atoll and rock called “French Frigate Shoals”, from which their “flying boats” could reconnoiter Pearl Harbor. Refueled from Japanese submarines who waited in the lagoon, the flying boats gave the Japanese a very up-to-date picture of what was at the base before the attack.
Aerial view of the main island ("Tern Island") of French Frigate Shoals. The airfield happened later in the war. The island is inhabited by birds and researchers.
They then frittered that advantage away by launching a series of pinprick bombing raids from the Shoals, causing the US Navy to send a small squadron of destroyers and a few “Seaplane Tenders” – squat little ships with none of the glamor of the aircraft carrier or dash of the destroyers or cruisers – whose job was to serve as a floating base for US flying boats.
And so when the Japanese submarines returned to the Shoals to set up the base again, they found the harbor full of US ships and aircraft. They aborted the mission – leaving Yamamoto blind, with no idea what US units were in or near Pearl Harbor and – due to the radio silence he’d ordered – no idea that that part of the plan had gone awry – and worst of all, no scout planes crisscrossing the Central Pacific looking for the American carriers.
The Right And Wrong Places At The Right And Wrong Time - The Japanese had attacked Midway the previous day, and had shredded the defending Army and Marine aircraft. There had been several rounds of counterattacks – US Army and Marine planes from Midway finding and trying to attack the Japanese carriers, without effect, but more or less fixing the Japanese position for airstrikes launched from the American carriers, which, unknown to the Japanese, were lurking within range.
It’s here that timing intersected with doctrine – or as people in business or politics call it, “policy”.
It was American practice to launch airstrikes as soon as possible and send them on their way; minutes were precious and irrecoverable when a strike or counterstrike ending in a ten-minute air raid was all that separated your fleet from disaster. The American carriers launched as soon as they could, each carrier’s air groups proceeding toward the best guess they had of where the Japanese fleet lay – with the torpedo bombers flying low, and the dive bombers up high…
…and, due to a math error, flying on the wrong course, getting separated from the torpedo planes below.
A Douglas TBD "Devastator" torpedo bomber. Obsolete, underpowered and almost unarmed, it was further hampered by the fact that US torpedoes, early in the war, had a habit of not blowing up when they hit targets. Of 41 Devastators to attempt attacks at Midway, only four returned to their ships - a 90% casualty rate in ninety minutes.
And so the torpedo bombers went in to attack, unescorted, flying low and slow (so the torpedoes would work), and they got mowed down; every single plane in Hornet’s “Torpedo Squadron Eight” was shot down by the defending Japanese fighters; only one man, Ensign George Gay, survived, floating under a seat cushion.
Ensign George Gay (right), the sole survivor of the 45 pilots, bombardiers and gunners of Torpedo Squadron Eight, from Hornet. Shot down by a Japanese fighter, he floated under a seat cushion, watching the first three carriers get hit and set ablaze. He was picked up by a Catalina the next day. He spent 30 years as a pilot for TWA He passed away in 1994, and had his ashes scattered over the same piece of water where he'd floated, and his squadronmates had died.
The dive bombers, who had started their flight on the wrong course, found nothing…
…but the wake of a Japanese destroyer, three miles below, that had diverted to try to attack an American submarine, and was returning to the fleet at top speed. The dive bombers followed the destroyer’s course, and arrived over the Japanese fleet…
IJN Arashio. The destroyer had spent the morning trying to depth-charge the submarine USS Nautilus. It failed, and was returning to rejoin the fleet when Lt. Commander McClusky's dive bombers saw its wake from three miles up. Lost and out of ideas and, nearly, fuel, they turned to match Arashio's course - and found the carriers.
…as the torpedo bombers were being slaughtered. Which, as it happened, had drawn all of the defending Japanese fighters down to nearly ocean level, unable to respond as the dive bombers tipped over and began their attacks almost completely unmolested.
Indecision - The Japanese, on the other hand, had a policy of only sending complete strikes. The Japanese admiral – Chuichi Nagumo, who commanded the carrier fleet as Yamamoto’s subordinate – had two missions on his plate; bombard Midway (the scheduled invasion was two days away), and sink the carriers (without which the invasion was a moot point). Each mission required his planes to carry different weapons; his torpedo bombers would carry bombs to attack land targets; his dive bombers would carry armor-piercing bombs to attack ships.
And Nagumo had just changed his mind, switching from attacking Midway to going after the carriers, and ordered his planes to begin the one-hour re-arming process as the American air raid closed in – a Japanese search plane found the American carriers just about the time they were launching their air strikes.
And so the decks of the Japanese carriers were piled high with bombs and torpedoes as the Americans closed in.
The Japanese carriers, all veterans of Pearl Harbor, were a mixed bag; Kaga and Nagumo’s flagship Akagi were old converted battleships (like the American Lexington and Saratoga), big ships with some serious design weaknesses. But Hiryu and Soryu were newer ships, designed largely according to British design practices, including armored hangars capable of withstanding some damage (unlike the American carriers, whose flight decks were wood and whose hangar decks were largely open). In theory, the Japanese carriers were tougher propositions for a bomber than were the US ships.
But the Japanese Navy had never really emphasized damage control, or damage prevention – which would plague them for the entire war. And in any case, having decks piled high with bombs, torpedoes and criss-crossed with hoses full of aviation fuel, and with flight and hangar decks lined with airplanes full of fuel and carrying explosives, would make any damage a dicey proposition.
Artist' rendition of a Douglass "Dauntless" dive bomber pulling out of its dive by a blazing IJN "AkagI".
And so instead of attacking ships buttoned up for action, with explosives stowed under armor and gas lines drained, the US dive bombers attacked ships that were practically rigged to explode.
And when the bombs hit – four on Kaga, three each on Soryu and Akagi. The hits set off chain-reaction explosions on the fueled and armed planes, which also detonated the stacks of bombs and torpedoes, dooming the three ships.
A Douglass SBD3 "Dauntless" Dive Bomber - the hero of the battle - after landing on Yorktown after bombing Kaga. Note the damage to the rear "elevator" fins.
The battle went on for two more days, officially – but it was all decided seventy years ago today. Two waves of Japanese counterattacks from Hiryu, the lone surviving carrier, crippled Yorktown, which was sunk the next day by a Japanese submarine. Follow-ups from Enterprise and Hornet finished off Hiryu that afternoon.
IJN Hiryu, the last carrier afloat, ablaze after being set afire later in the afternoon on June 5. It would be sunk later by a Japanese destoyer.
Four of the six Pearl Harbor carriers, and the elite of the Japanese carrier air force, was wiped out in a matter of hours. The Japanese Navy would never again carry out an offensive action during the war. The full weight of America’s industrial might would come to bear in the next year and a half, as the US would commission 24 aircraft carriers to replace the two they’d lost (and the two more they’d lose in the coming year – of which more later).
In war, as in so many areas of life, it’s not so much who has the best plan, the best process or the best equipment so much as the one that can react fastest, and best, to a fluid, confusing and changing situation.