Ruined: Why the Battle of Midway Was Such a Terrible Loss for Imperial Japan

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Key point: Pearl Harbor was terrible, but America had the industrial strength to recover. However, Tokyo was unable to rebuild from Midway.
Rarely in the history of warfare has a nation suffered such staggering losses in as short a time as the United States in the first five months of the Pacific War. The surprising Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which drew the United States into World War II, astonished the American military and political leaders. In a few hours, Japanese dive bombers had turned America's leading Pacific bastion into a blazing cauldron and once turned mighty battleships into twisted metal coffins.
Japanese collection of unanswered victories after Pearl Harbor
Before the smoke cleared over Hawaii, Japanese forces hit a number of American and British military facilities and swept away like a devastating tidal wave with ease - Bataan, Corregidor, Wake Island, Guam, and Singapore successively fell into the U.S. clutches of the victorious Japanese. Not a single American triumph interrupted the series of defeats and made the civilian population at home wonder what had happened to the nation's army and navy.
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander-in-Chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy, was delighted with the victory of his armed forces in Pearl Harbor and knew that there was still pending business ahead of him. His dive bombers and torpedo planes had seriously damaged the US fleet, but they had missed one of their most important targets, the American aircraft carrier. As long as these floating airfields roamed the Pacific, Yamamoto could never count on real superiority. To correct this, he hoped to take out the remains of the American fleet and destroy them in a gigantic sea battle, the "crucial encounter" for which Japanese strategists had long planned.
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Yamamoto's plan for superiority in the Pacific
If Yamamoto could achieve this goal, the entire Pacific would be open to its ingestion since there was nothing left to stop him. He could take Hawaii at will or even advance against California and the American west coast. However, his greatest hope was that another American defeat would cause his enemy to sign an armistice that would give Japan a free hand in the western Pacific. At the beginning of his career, Yamamoto had visited the United States and seen her powerful industrial skills. He understood that if the war lasted longer than six months to a year, American factories would have the opportunity to launch an unstoppable stream of ships, planes, and weapons, which would mean a definitive defeat for Japan.
Yamamoto developed an operation to kick his opponent out of the war. He chose the American base on Midway Island as the destination. Midway, resting just over a thousand miles northwest of Hawaii, Midway was the perfect bait to get out the American porters and whatever was left of the U.S. Navy, because in Japanese hands the island would provide a base from which to launch Attack could be launched Hawaii itself.
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Another surprise attack in progress
After an air attack on Midway in early June by four Japanese aircraft carriers led by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, an invasion convoy of 5,000 men, protected by two battleships, six heavy cruisers and numerous destroyers, would conquer Midway, which actually consists of two atolls, islets, Sand and east. Yamamoto lay 300 miles west with a strong battleship flotilla, waiting for the American Navy to evaporate to protect Midway, and then defeating them in a classic sea confrontation. Yamamoto based his plan on three assumptions: the US fleet would only evaporate after the Midway attack. that the Americans had no more than two carriers at their disposal; and that the Japanese would achieve complete surprise.
The Japanese, who had already put together an impressive series of victories, were confident that the Midway operation would lead to another. Their intelligence agencies predicted that the Americans had lost the will to fight, and Japanese sailors boasted of "knocking down enemy hands."
The Japanese victory expectations turned out to be premature. While Yamamoto's military superiority, the Americans had a weapon that wiped out the Japanese advantage. Code breakers had decoded the Japanese naval code and could read up to 90 percent of Yamamoto's orders. At the end of May, Commander Joseph J. Rochefort and his team of cryptanalysts knew the date, intended destination, and composition of the Japanese armed forces used for the Midway operation.
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This in no way guaranteed victory because the United States Navy had been severely weakened in Pearl Harbor. The code breakers had given the enormous benefit of knowing roughly where Yamamoto's forces would be, but the outnumbered Americans still had to fight a determined enemy. Ultimately, a win or a loss would depend on individual courage, instinct, and decision-making.
The plan to take advantage of the brazen American admiral
The officer in charge of the United States Navy, Admiral William F. Halsey, had commanded American aircraft carriers on their early expeditions against the Japanese, including the famous Doolittle bombing raid on Tokyo in April 1942. The brazen Halsey was loved by both men and men a good fight, but his impulsive nature sometimes made him react before a thorough analysis could be done. This tendency played into Yamamoto's hands. He planned to get the Americans to act with his Midway invasion flotilla and then plunge into the unsuspecting American ships with the powerful reserve forces he had brought up from behind.
Halsey would not be involved in the upcoming action. A severe rash forced the tired officer to bed. When he returned to Pearl Harbor from the South Pacific in late May 1942, his superior, Admiral Chester A. Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, exhausted from lack of sleep and 20 pounds thinner, was the ragged officer and ordered him to the hospital. To command Halsey's ships, Nimitz turned to counter administrator Raymond A. Spruance, Halsey's cruiser commander. The substitution would have serious consequences for the upcoming battle.
"You are guided by the principle of calculated risk ..."
Nimitz gave Spruance specific orders. He was supposed to defeat the Japanese, but under no circumstances should he lose most of his ships, which were a valuable commodity at that early point in the war. Nimitz wrote Spruance: "You are subject to the principle of calculated risk, which you must interpret to avoid exposing your armed forces without the prospect of causing greater harm to the enemy as a result of such exposure." In other words, turn the enemy back, especially by sinking their aircraft carriers without the enemy sinking too many of your ships, which were now the first line of defense for Hawaii and the West Coast.
Spruance wanted to wait northeast of Midway. When his scouts spotted the Japanese, hopefully before Yamamoto tracked down the Americans, he would launch any available plane to sink the Japanese carriers. In order to be successful, he had to play cat and mouse with his opponent and hope that he could blow up his pilots in front of his Japanese counterpart. If the Japanese found Spruance first, the U.S. Navy could suffer a disaster from which it may never recover.
Overpowered Spruance Pins hope for code breakers
Spruance led its unit called Task Force 16 to sea in late May. Consisting of the aircraft carriers Enterprise and Hornet, which were steaming behind a screen of six cruisers and twelve destroyers, his armed forces were no match for the enemy. All Spruance could do was rely on the edge American code breakers had given him and hope that he would locate the enemy first. Task Force 17 under counter-administrator Frank Jack Fletcher would join Spruance as soon as its sole carrier, the damaged Yorktown, could be hastily repaired in Hawaii. When the midway engagement ended, Fletcher was the senior American commander. However, Spruance commanded the stronger US force and was forced to tactically fight the lion's share of the battle. Robert J. Casey, an American news reporter who accompanied Spruance, wrote the night before the battle that the admiral wanted to meet the stronger Japanese "with a fly swatter and a prayer."
Few observers believed that the Yorktown, which was badly damaged during the Coral Sea battle in May, could be repaired in time for the battle. When the ship entered the dry dock, the workers estimated that it would take at least 90 days to adequately repair the carrier, but Admiral Nimitz said he would need the ship back in three days. 1,400 mechanics worked tirelessly around the clock so far that Yorktown was back at sea by May 30th. Though impaired, the Yorktown gave the Americans three aircraft carriers to stop the powerful Japanese fleet advancing towards Midway.
Yamamoto counts hatched chickens
Spruance faced a daunting challenge as Yamamoto had assembled 11 battleships, 8 aircraft carriers, 22 cruisers, 65 destroyers and 21 submarines for the operation. The Japanese admiral hoped to quickly destroy his opponent and then, with his tremendous reputation, persuade the leaders to make some concessions to the United States to remove them from the war before their industry may produce quantities of warfare material that Japan never does could achieve.
Unfortunately for the Japanese, a series of random events affected the outcome of the fight before the first shots were fired. Yamamoto learned from increasing US radio activity that a strong enemy force could be in Hawaiian waters instead of still being outside Australia, but he decided not to alert Admiral Nagumo, who led the vanguard of four airlines, to the radio maintain silence. Nagumo steamed toward Midway and thought he had put up minimal resistance.
Nagumo doesn't make it to the middle
Japanese submarines reached their observation posts around the Hawaiian island of Oahu, but failed to discover the American fleet by a day. The planned aerial reconnaissance at Pearl Harbor had to be canceled when Japanese submarines at French Frigate Shoals discovered an American seaplane tender from which they hoped to position their own observation aircraft. After hearing nothing to the contrary, Nagumo confidently continued toward Midway.
On the morning of June 3, Ensign Jack Reid piloted his scout plane from Midway on a search patrol across the vast blue expanse of the Pacific. Suddenly a number of ships appeared on the horizon. "Do you see what I see?" he asked his co-pilot. Reid had spotted the Midway Invasion Force's transports and destroyers. Although a group of Midway army bombers attacked these ships, they did little damage. Spruance was after a bigger game anyway. The Japanese transport companies had to be somewhere in the area.
Pilots on both sides get up early and enjoy a hearty breakfast
Expecting June 4 to bring both sides together in a life-and-death struggle, American and Japanese airmen woke up early in the morning to prepare for the fight. The U.S. Navy aviators enjoyed a hearty breakfast of steak and eggs, while their Japanese counterparts ate rice, soybean soup, and chestnuts. At 4:30 a.m., Nagumo launched 72 bombers and 36 fighters to attack Midway, and kept 126 planes in case American ships appeared. He ordered that these planes be loaded with armor-piercing bombs and torpedoes, the normal armament for steel-loaded ships.
At the same time, Nagumo launched search airplanes to search for American navy ships. Every search plane took off immediately, except for one from the Tone cruiser, which was 30 minutes late due to catapult problems. This slight delay would have a significant impact on the upcoming battle.
Japanese planes hit Midway, but were unable to eliminate many important targets. When the planes returned to Nagumo's aircraft carriers, the strike commander announced by radio that a second strike against Midway would be required.
Japanese carrier group sighted
Shortly after Nagumo fired his first airstrike, Lieutenant Howard Ady emerged from a cloud bank in his Midway search plane Consolidated PBY Catalina. He could hardly believe what he saw down on the sea. In front of his astonished eyes, Nagumo's aircraft carriers and auxiliary ships spread, which he said "opened like a curtain on the world's largest show." He immediately shared the information with Spruance on board the Enterprise.
The controlled admiral calmly rolled out a large sheet of paper called the maneuvering board and marked the range and bearing of the enemy aircraft on it. Spruance then used his thumb and forefinger to estimate that the two forces were 175 miles apart and were barely within range of his torpedo planes. As other officers scurried from post to post for more information, Spruance looked up and quietly ordered, "Start the attack."
Though the distance would expand the capabilities of his planes and limit the time they could search for Nagumo's porters, Spruance decided that the element of surprise outweighed the risk. He also hoped that his planes would catch his opponent in the midst of the Midway Assault's recovery.
Enclosed in a deadly race
With half of its forces in the air and in the circle waiting for the rest to start, Spruance learned that a Japanese scout plane had spotted the American carrier. In a deadly race for the enemy before being hit, Spruance ordered the planes at 7:45 a.m. to immediately approach the Japanese without waiting for the rest of the American attack force. This decision meant that Spruance's plane would not hit the enemy in a coordinated attack, but he hoped that beating first was more important than gaining strength.
Admiral Fletcher steamed aboard Yorktown 25 miles beyond and launched his dive bombers and torpedo planes 30 minutes after Spruance. As a result, four different American forces flew towards the Japanese, two from Spruance, one from Fletcher and land-based aircraft from Midway. At 8:30 am, 157 American carrier planes raced towards the unsuspecting Nagumo, while not a single Japanese plane headed for the American carrier.
Nagumo was faced with an important decision. He had been told that a second blow to Midway was necessary, but the planes on his decks were armed with bombs and torpedoes to be used against ships. If he wanted to send them against Midway Island, he would have to upgrade the planes with the high-explosive bombs against land targets. This change would take at least an hour and would put him in a precarious position if American carrier planes appeared. So far, none of his search aircraft had spotted enemy carriers.
Stunned by unaccompanied American bombers
As Nagumo considered this thought, six American torpedo planes and four Midway bombers attacked. When the planes departed, Japanese commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who had previously led the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was fascinated by the Akagi aircraft carrier. He noted that, contrary to normal practice, the American plane attacked without the fighter plane, a suicide maneuver in Fuchida's opinion. He later wrote: “Nevertheless, they kept coming in and flying low over the water. Black anti-aircraft fire bloomed around them, but none of the attackers perished. When Akagis started firing weapons, three Zeros braved our own fire and plunged into the Americans. In a moment, three of the enemies were on fire and splashed into the water, causing three tall columns of smoke to rise. The three remaining planes remained brave and finally released their torpedoes. "
One by one, the heroic American pilots and their planes plunged into the sea or exploded to pieces. A plane crashed into Akagi's deck with little damage, and only three planes returned from that first encounter. Although the aircraft did little damage, Nagumo decided that he would have to hit Midway a second time to remove it as a threat to its wearers. The admiral ordered that his waiting plane, sent below, be upgraded.
A difficult decision
The change was already underway when potentially catastrophic news reached Nagumo. The delayed Tone Scout plane radiated the presence of 10 enemy ships. According to Fuchida, the unexpected news hit Nagumo "like a bolt from the blue". The Midway attack planes were expected back within 10 minutes. Nagumo could command these low-fuel aircraft to circle the carriers while the upgrade for a second strike against Midway was complete, but this would doom many to splash into the ocean. Or he could stop the upgrade and land the plane from Midway, which would not only delay the start of an attack on the United States Naval Forces, but also put him at risk of being caught by enemy aircraft when his planes landed.
Nagumo sent a message to the Tone pilot asking if the 10 ships had carriers. Before he received an answer, three waves of American planes landed on Nagumo's ships. Major Lofton Henderson initially launched 16 Midway Marine Corps dive bombers into an attack. Nagumo's hunting cover and anti-aircraft fire shot down eight of the 16, and the other eight left without harming the Japanese.
American bombs disperse Japanese carriers
Henderson's dive bombers were barely finished when 15 Army Midway Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Walter C. Sweeney flew overhead at 8:10 a.m. and dropped their bombs. Each missile hit the ocean harmlessly, but the attack forced Nagumo's ships to get out of line so as not to be hit, causing more consternation to the already concerned commander. Ten minutes later, eleven other American aircraft under Major Benjamin Norris' Nagumos fleet attacked without causing damage.
When Norris' planes attacked the enemy, Nagumo received a response from the Tone Scout plane: "Enemy forces, accompanied by what appears to be an aircraft carrier pulling up the tail." The presence of an American airline posed serious problems for Nagumo. When the subordinates promised Nagumo that the entire Midway force could be restored in 30 minutes, Nagumo played in landing the aircraft returning from Midway and then upgraded each aircraft to strike against the enemy ships. All he had to do was survive the next half hour and he thought the win would be his.
With this decision, Nagumo condemned its forces to destruction, ”wrote the well-known World War II historian Ronald H. Spector, because Nagumo lost his race against time. In contrast to Spruance, who started his plane immediately, Nagumo hesitated and invited to the loss.
America's fate in the hands of 240 pilots
"If I don't come back - well, you and the little girls can know that this squadron has achieved the highest goal in naval warfare - sink the enemy." For example, Commander John C. Waldron wrote his wife just a few hours before climbing into his torpedo plane to lead the Hornet's Torpedo Season 8 into battle with the Japanese. He had no idea what fate awaited him, but understood that he and his men had to do everything to stop the enemy from advancing.
On board Yorktown, Lieutenant Dick Crowell spoke the message even more easily when he bluntly said to the airline's planes: "The fate of the United States is now in the hands of two hundred and forty pilots."
Newspaper reporter Robert J. Casey, who accompanied American airlines to write a report about people at home, asked an officer what he thought of the planes that piloted the old, slow-moving torpedo planes. "You have no clocks," he replied. "You don't have to go out and do patrol jobs. You don't have to worry about dogfights. You can play poker for a month before you have to go out ... Then you go out and don't come back."
America's Kamikazes
These men and others, who opposed enemy anti-aircraft fire and fighters to fall on Nagumo's vehicle, changed the luck of the war. Few have returned, but the legacy they have left has survived to this day because without their bravery and sacrifice, the Pacific War would have taken a menacing turn for the United States.
Spruance tried to strike first and had given up hope of a coordinated attack again. Instead, similar to the earlier American strikes, planes by the three American airlines arrived at Nagumo's armed forces at different times and at different heights. Instead of a strong impact, the pilots descended in a series of single attacks.
Waldron had instructed the men in his unit's 15 obsolete Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo planes: "If there is only one plane left to make a final entry, I want this man to go in and get a hit." When he saw three of the enemy carriers, he moved his wings as a sign to get closer to the water so they could hand in their torpedoes.
The heroism of the Torpedo Season Eight
Thirty Japanese fighters immediately challenged Torpedo Squadron Eight as the clumsy torpedo planes slowly approached from eight miles away. Enemy planes flew past on all sides, and angry cannons spat bullets at the Americans as dense anti-aircraft fire whirled up the surface of the sea.
"He went straight to the Japanese fleet as if he had tied a string to it," recalled Torpedo Squadron Eight pilot Ensign George Gay. Below, from Akagi, Fuchida watched the 15 American planes bravely attack. "Their distant wings flashed in the sun," he later wrote. "Occasionally, one of the spots burst into a spark of flame and diminished black smoke as it fell into the water."
With Commander Waldron in the avant-garde, the 15 planes boomed towards their destination. From his cockpit, Ensign Gay saw enemy grenades rip into Waldron's left gas tank and ignite the fuel. Just before the commander's plane turned into the ocean, Gay noticed that Waldron and his radioman were trying madly to get out of the blazing plane.
The survivors continued to fight
Other American planes quickly fell apart under a hail of Japanese fire or plunged into the ocean, but the survivors continued. Gay soon piloted the only remaining torpedo plane. He ignored the bullets, grenades and Japanese fighters in hopes of delivering a torpedo.
You caught me, ”called his radio man Bob Huntington. When Gay turned to look for his companion, a sharp stab burned his left arm. Though wounded, he kept the plane steady long enough to launch his torpedo from a carrier, jerked the vehicle up with all his might, cleared the enemy ship by 10 feet, and sped off on the other side. Unfortunately, four Japanese fighters jumped on his tail and peppered his plane with fire. Gay whirled a quarter mile from the carrier into the sea.
Gay was bleeding from his wounds, but was alive and managed to get out of the cockpit and float away from the sinking plane. He snatched up a cushion that hovered nearby to use as a shield. Gay, the only survivor of Season 8 torpedo, had landed in the middle of the enemy fleet.
Disorder Japanese carriers
Although Gay's unit did not hit the Japanese porters, they threw the enemy ships into disarray and dragged the enemy fighters near sea level. Waldron's squadron had barely ended his indictment when 14 Enterprise Devastators, led by Commander Eugene E. Lindsey, attacked. Japanese fire destroyed 10 of the 14 American planes and again no hits were recorded on the carriers, but like Waldron, the attack confused the Japanese and virtually stopped the Nagumo-ordered upgrade process. Torpedoes, bombs and fuel hoses were dangerously scattered on the flight decks of the individual carriers.
In a third charge in a row, Commander Lance E. Massey arrived with 12 Yorktown devastators and fighter protection when Lindsey delivered his attack. Fighter pilot Commander James Thach remembered, "The air was like a beehive ..." when Japanese and American planes raced towards each other, and he quickly realized how many he and his men were. "I was absolutely convinced at the time that none of us came back because there were still so many zeros."
American dive bombers for rescue
His fears seemed to materialize when 10 of Yorktown's 12 torpedo planes crashed into the ocean without being hit. Wherever he turned, Thach spotted more enemy fighters, but the determined aviator thought, "We'll take many of them with us if they get us all." At that moment, a glittering image distracted Thach from above, and he looked up to “see that glitter in the sun, and it looked like a beautiful silver waterfall; These dive bombers are coming down. "
Nagumo's worst fear had suddenly materialized. He had been caught by American dive bombers, whose flight decks were clogged with airplanes, fuel hoses, and stacked weapons. All he could do was hope that his anti-aircraft fire would crash the enemy planes before they hit his porters.
Thirty-seven Douglas SBD Enterprise Dauntless dive bombers, led by Lt. Cmdr. Wade McClusky and 17 Yorktown Dauntlesses, commanded by Lt. Cmdr. Maxwell F. Leslie arrived simultaneously via the Japanese fleet and attacked at right angles to each other. Since the torpedo planes had brought the Japanese fighters to wave height, the dive bombers were able to attack from above without worrying about being intercepted. A series of happy events and the courage of the torpedo plane pilots had given the attackers a short window of time.
Fuchida looks in horror
McClusky aimed his men at the porters Akagi and Kaga. The 37 planes shouted one after the other at their targets. Two bombs ripped into the Akagi's flight deck and detonated Japanese bombs and torpedoes stacked on it. The bearer was consumed by flames within seconds. Other enterprise dive bombers dropped four bombs on Kaga, including one that destroyed the island's structure and killed most of the officers on the bridge. Burning fires spread quickly in the vehicle and caught numerous crew members in a fiery death.
Fuchida watched in horror as the Americans hit the straps. “The terrible scream of the dive bombers reached me first, followed by the crash of a direct hit. There was a blinding flash and then a second explosion that was much louder than the first. “Fuchida expected more, but the attack ended immediately. The sound followed "a terrifying silence when the barking rifles suddenly stopped. I got up and looked at the sky. "

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