The Battle of Midway: Japan’s Undoing

30 Jan

Image As the ominous clouds of war gathered at the climactic finale of the 1930s, Japan and the United States had gone from uneasy allies to entering the path to war. As the flames of war engulfed China, Japan’s mortal nemesis in the Far East, the United States had been driven from a state of regretful complacency into action, spurred by the horrendous Japanese assault on Nanjing, the capital of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang Chinese state, as well as an invasion of French Indochina with insufficient justification. After looting the metropolis of Nanjing, raping and murdering their way through the streets, and finally burning it to the ground, the United States had been given its opportunity to act, not in an overt act of war, but in a legislative assault on Japanese foreign trade, inevitably spiraling the two into combat with one another. The embargo set the two nations on a collision course, forcing Japan to hasten her plans for the annexation of all of Southeast Asia to form the forthcoming “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere”, and in doing so, prompting a Japanese attack on not only the United States Pacific Fleet’s anchorage at Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii, yet also simultaneous assaults on Guam, Wake Island, British fortifications in Burma, and future attacks on the American Philippines, reaching its climax in April 1942 with General Jonathan Wainwright’s surrender on Bataan, British Malaya, culminating in the collapse of General Arthur Percival’s defense of Singapore, the jewel of the British Far East Empire, in February 1942, and the Japanese invasion of the Dutch East Indies. By July 1942, roughly one third of the world was within the gauntlet grasp of the Japanese Empire. Stretching from the Home Islands and recently annexed Soviet Komandorski Archipelago, south to Guadalcanal and Rennell Islands, the southernmost of the Solomon Archipelago off the northeastern coast of Australia in the Coral Sea. The United States was also engaging in almost overt acts of war against Japan, including dispatching ships loaded with Lend-Lease supplies to China, as well as allowing American pilots, resigning from positions held in the United States Army Air Force, to join the fledgling Kuomintang Chinese Air Force. Japan’s assault on the United States was not without justification. The American embargo, enforced by the Pacific Fleet moored at Pearl Harbor, was adopted in the summer of 1942, and shortly thereafter was closely adhered to by Queen Wilhelmina, the sovereign of the Netherlands, and once she declared her support, Japan no longer legally imported crude petroleum, the lifeblood of Japan’s Kwantung Army combating Chinese guerrillas along the coast of China, from Manchuria to Fujian and Guangai. Java, the fifth-largest island of the Dutch East Indies, doubled not only hosting the Indies’ capital, Jakarta, yet also the premier oil-producing state in Southeast Asia, and supplied Japan with the majority, if not all, of her foreign oil. Considering Japan imported the whole of her oil necessary in waging war, the embargo severely damaged Japan’s ability to wage war. With Japan firmly entrenched in brutal combat in China, and with designs placed before Hirohito for the invasion, occupation, and annexation of the whole of Southeast Asia under the sphere of influence of the Japanese Empire, one thing stood in Japan’s way: the United States. With the United States in control of the Philippines, as well as possessing the only fleet capable of rivaling the strength of that of the Imperial Japanese Navy, the United States also controlled the doorway to the whole of Asia. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff George C. Marshall were fully aware that war with Japan had become inevitable, an opinion shared by Emperor Hirohito and Japanese Prime Minister and primary architect of the plight of China General Hideki Tojo. The Japanese foreign ambassador in Washington, Kichisaburo Nomura, spending the majority of his tenure as ambassador in Washington with Secretary of State Cordell Hull, attempting to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the rapidly deteriorating state between the two potentially belligerent nations. For this reason, the United States viewed the attack on Pearl Harbor on doubly contemptible, feeling as if Japan had been keeping the United States’ attention from the coming assault with promises of peace. Nomura, in reality, possessed no foresight of the attack itself, as though he was aware of the coming storm of war. The government in Tokyo had authored a fourteen-part declaration of war, and had encoded the message to frustrate potential American code breakers before dispatching it to Nomura’s office. Unbeknownst to the Japanese, American cryptanalysts were already on the path to deciphering the Japanese code, and with the arrival of the thirteenth piece of the Japanese declaration of war, the American military intelligence community was fully aware of Japanese intentions. The fourteenth piece had been withheld, with the Japanese intention of placing the fourteenth piece in Nomura’s hands to send to Roosevelt prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, yet due to overwhelming radio traffic on the morning of the attack, the fourteenth piece arrived some four hours late, manipulating the American mind into believing the attack nefarious and subversive, when a surprise attack in Japan was viewed as honorable. Concurrently, American naval base at Pearl Harbor, commanded by Rear Admiral Husband Kimmel, as well as Major General Walter Short, remained suspended in a sense of overconfident complacency. The feeling of the fortress’s impregnability, due to four surrounding naval air stations at Ford Island, Hickam and Wheeler air fields, as well as Kaneohe near Honolulu, combined with the imposing view of Battleship Row moored off Ford Island, gave the harbor an air of immunity, yet these blue, cloudless skies and placid waters were just the calm before the storm. A Japanese carrier task force had already departed from Hokkaido, six aircraft carriers strong and placed under the ample command of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, a veteran of the 1905 Battle of Tsushima Strait, one in which he lost two fingers on his left hand, as well as an ingenious strategist. As war loomed over the horizon, and with American forces bolstered by the 1940 Selective Service and Training Act, Chief of Staff Marshall issued a radiogram that, effectively summarized, ordered American naval and military institutions along the West Coast, from the Panama Canal Zone to the Puget Sound, to prepare for war, but not to instigate it. If war was to come, the first assault would not be orchestrated by the United States. Marshall had effectively ordered American commanders to allow themselves to be attacked. As war grew imminent, the American intelligence stations known as CAST, in Manila, and HYPO, in Pearl Harbor, began transmitting and attempting to decipher massive volumes of the enigmatic Japanese naval code known as JN-25, which would not be broken until after the June 1942 Battle of Midway. Shortly before the battle, in an upsetting stroke of providence for the United States, the Japanese alternated their code books and cipher tables. Lieutenant Commander Edwin Layton, a pioneer of the utilization of deciphered in order to orchestrate plans, and leading intelligence officer at Pearl Harbor, reported to Admiral Richmond K. Turner, head of the War Plans Division of the Navy Department, and reported directly to Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Harold Stark. Layton continuously offered intelligence reports and deciphered Japanese transmissions, which Turner repeatedly neglected, and in doing so, left Kimmel in an impossible position. The feeling of Pearl Harbor virtual impregnability, ultimately proving erroneous primarily because of Pearl Harbor’s proximity to Japan, would assist in propelling the naval station toward its demise. The only real precautions taken were the placing of a radar station, technology borrowed from the British, at Diamond Head bluff overlooking the harbor, manned by two men and distrusted due to the lack of faith in the new machine, and General Short’s ordering of the Curtiss P-36 Mohawk and P-40 Warhawk fighter aircraft to be positioned near the center of the runways at Hickam and Wheeler Fields, apparently to prevent sabotage by the massive amount of Nisei (second generation American-born Japanese) living on Oahu, composing roughly forty percent of the archipelago’s overall population of just over 400,000. Ironically, when Executive Order 9066, ordering for the internment of Issei and Nisei living along the West Coast, was issued in February 1942, Hawaii was left relatively untouched, and Nisei living on the islands actually composed the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a Japanese-American unit that eventually earned more battle accommodations than any other American unit to see combat. As the Japanese assault loomed, more and more telltale signs of impending combat surfaced, right up to the morning of Sunday, December 7th. The morning of the attack that President Roosevelt deemed ” a day which will live in infamy”. The Diamond Head radar installation detected numerous contacts, bearing southwest to northeast. The men manning the station were ordered to ignore it, their commander stating that they were just B-17s coming in from Naval Air Station North Island at San Diego. If that had been the case, the hypothetical B-17s would have been approaching from the completely opposite direction. Around 0400 Hours on the morning of December 7th, the American Wickes-class destroyer, USS Ward, fired upon and subsequently rammed a Japanese two-man midget submarine reconnoitering the harbor prior to the arrival of the air armada that would lead to the fleet’s ultimate demise. The Ward‘s skipper, Lieutenant Commander William Outerbridge, radioed his commanding officer, stating that a possible enemy combatant had breached the antisubmarine net lining the forty-foot-deep harbor, and that the craft had been sunk. By day’s end, four of the other five midget submarines dispatched to reconnoiter would be accounted for. The fifth submarine is still astray. Outerbridge was ordered to ignore it, and proceed with his patrol of the net. Around eight that morning, the first wave of Japanese torpedo bombers, led by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, appeared in the skies over the sleepy island of Oahu. The Japanese had planned for the assault to take place on the morning of a Sunday, a day in which all Christian naval personnel were assumed to be at a church service and away from their posts, primarily by information gathered by Takeo Yoshikawa, a spy deployed in Pearl Harbor to gather intelligence and dispatch it back to Japan. Yoshikawa was unaware as to when the attack would fall, yet he knew where. The Japanese had also utilized Yoshikawa’s analyses to construct models of Pearl Harbor, which pilots utilized in training in order to have an accurate model of the harbor prior to the attack. And with Yoshikawa’s intelligence, the Japanese were also made aware of the depth of the harbor, forty feet, far too shallow for the use of conventional torpedoes. Yet the Japanese had uncovered a way to circumvent this glaring issue. Conventional torpedoes would not have enough time to arm in such shallow depths, yet with the addition of a wooden rudder, adding supplementary buoyancy, the torpedoes would have enough room to arm effectively and strike home with deadly force and surprise. The American naval personnel were completely caught off guard by the stunning, wraith-like surprise of the assault. Although the Japanese could only successfully execute two of their planned three waves, and although they failed to strike the oil containment facility, combined with the absence of the United States Navy’s three premier aircraft carriers, with the USS Saratoga undergoing renovations in San Diego, the USS Lexington delivering aircraft to Midway Island, and the USS Enterprise was delivering Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters to Wake Island, attacked December 8th (December 7th on the other side of the International Date Line), the Japanese still managed to destroy many of the American ships moored in harbor, including all battleships anchored alongside Ford Island, the most tragic of which being the destruction of the USS Arizona, which was lost following a bone-shattering explosion in her forward magazine that ruptured the bow, jettisoning it away from the ship, and killing 1,177 of her crew in the blast. American revenge for the attack on Pearl Harbor would be a gradual and painstaking process, and the early months of the Pacific War were to be determined by the nation possessing the largest fleet, as well as the staple of aircraft carriers, yet America would avenge Pearl Harbor, culminating in the August 1945 final retribution, coming in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after several American overtures by President Harry Truman for a Japanese surrender. The early years of the Pacific War closely mirrored those of the war in Europe. Early Allied setbacks allowed massive tracts of land to be smashed beneath the oppressive heel of the Japanese boot, subjecting lands previously controlled by European colonial empires to the merciless iron-like grip of Japan. With the fall of Singapore in February 1942, the Japanese quickly spread south into the Netherlands East Indies. With the American navy severely crippled by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and with the British Far East Fleet waning in strategic offensive capabilities due to the loss of the HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales in the South China Sea on December 10th, 1941, the Australian, Dutch, British, and Americans attempted to pool their strength in an effort to halt, more probably stall, the Japanese onslaught. With the majority of the ships brought together being of little or no worth in a pitched battle, the ABDA Command, a short-lived endeavor to counteract the Japanese in the Dutch East Indies, was created, yet following two failed counterattacks at the Java Sea, and one at the Makassar Strait, the experiment was abandoned. Within months, the Dutch East Indies capitulated, and after Marshall and Roosevelt pressured General Douglas MacArthur to flee the doomed fortress of Corregidor in Manila Bay that same month, the hope of ending that spring with any shred of hope was lost. By April, the last Allied bastion in the Pacific, the Philippines, were lost. Simultaneously, in the United States, Admiral Kimmel and General Short were sacked for dereliction of duty, culminating in Short’s court martial and the complete destruction of Kimmel’s reputation as an ample commander. His replacement, Rear Admiral Chester Nimitz, arrived in Pearl Harbor in time to see his predecessor off. Following a short briefing, Nimitz began immediately setting about reconstructing the tattered remnants of the Pearl Harbor command. With the bodies of sailors, airmen, and marines continuously being hauled from the oil-slicked waters of the harbor, and with the oil-stained hull of the capsized Oklahoma and shattered bridge of the Arizona standing as solemn reminders of a horrific day in American history, morale seemed impossibly low, yet Nimitz vowed never to repeat it. Lieutenant Commander Layton, who believed Nimitz would sack him and order for his resignation due to his seeming complacency in regards to the attack, instead found himself standing before Nimitz, who, in his laconic manner, told him to remain part of Station HYPO, and even going as far to, later in the war, deny his request for a transfer to the fleet in saying, ” You’ll kill more enemy here than if you commanded an entire fleet of cruisers”. Alongside Layton stood Lieutenant Commander Joseph Rochefort, a fellow cryptanalyst, fluent in Japanese, who had accompanied Layton on a prewar pilgrimage to Japan. The job of Layton and Rochefort in Station HYPO would be, in summarized form, to read the minds of the Japanese, telling when and where their next hand would be played before the United States found itself in another untenable position. In the meantime, to maintain the tempo of the war, and also to maintain Americans’ confidence in her ability to fight it, Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, the audacious, brazen commander of the USS Enterprise, one of only four carriers now available to the United States Navy alongside the newly recommissioned SaratogaLexington, and the newly arrived Yorktown, having been transferred from the Atlantic Fleet to bolster the carrier strength in the Pacific. By summer 1942, two of these flattops, the new capital ships of the United States Navy and, alongside their Japanese adversaries, revolutionizing naval warfare, would be lost. Halsey and his task force dared not to assault the Japanese in a pitched battle, and chose, rather, to engage at a distance, culminating in relatively trivial raids on Japanese bases in the Marshall Archipelago. On April 18th, 1942, while fighting still raged on the Philippines, the newly commissioned carrier, the fifth of the fleet, the USS Hornet, ferried sixteen B-25B “Mitchell”, named for Billy Mitchell, legendary ace and advocate of the utilization of bomber aircraft, medium bombers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle into the sea south of the Japanese Home Islands. Their target: Tokyo. While their payload was small and many of the additional staples of the aircraft had been removed to bolster the aircraft’s range,the bombers were to bomb Tokyo, and escape over the Sea of Japan into China, landing in territory controlled by Chiang Kai-shek, territory friendly to the United States. While the raid was relatively small and ineffective strategically, the Japanese nicknaming it the “Do-Little” or “Do-Nothing” raid, it still had the effect of stunning the Japanese, similar to the October 1940 British bombing of Berlin, spurring the Battle of Britain, which had no real strategic value, yet the psychological toll was astounding. All but one of the bombers arrived in China, one diverting to Vladivostok, the easternmost port of the Soviet Union, where it made an emergency landing and the crew were imprisoned by Soviet troops for over a year until their escape, while one crew made it to China and was captured by the Japanese and imprisoned at Shanghai, where three of the crewmen were executed. As these events unfurled, Rochefort, Layton, and their team at Station HYPO had been busily attempting to unwind JN-25, the elusive Japanese code. Fortunately, by some stroke of divine providence, the Japanese had not been capable of exchange their old code books and cipher tables for new copies in order to frustrate American code breakers, who were busy at work. The JN-25 code was incredibly complex in its construction. It relied on five-digit numbers to substitute in place of words, and the code book these numbers were pulled from consisted of 30,000 possible combinations. Words that repeated, or were commonly utilized, for example “attack”, were replaced with different five-digit codes from the cipher table, which consisted of an additional 100,000 combinations of numbers, and everything was encoded via Morse code. By May 1942, Rochefort and his team had been working around the clock with the assistance of hired mathematicians and International Business Machines punch-card tabulators, along with the band from the USS California, because their ear for music allowed them to be incredibly useful in code-breaking. Through painstaking work, where Rochefort averaged only around three to four hours sleep a night on a cot in his office and often worked in a red smoking jacket, it was soon discovered where Yamamoto planned to play his next hand. He would attack the Australian garrison at Port Moresby, on the island of New Guinea. The Japanese had been combating the Australians there since the capitulation of the Dutch East Indies, and if Port Moresby were to fall, New Guinea, and the last bastion of Australian resistance, would fall with it, as well as the severing of American and Australian lines of communication and trade. Australia also housed a newly reinvigorated Marine Corps, under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, and if this considerable force were to be cut off, it could spell disaster for the remainder of the war, which many believed, primarily in Tokyo, would last only a matter of months. The fledgling American force had never been effectively tested against the Japanese, yet considering the force on Wake Island had held out for nearly a month, only surrendering following a Bunker Hill-style battle, and the Philippine garrison had held out for nearly six months, the Americans could hold their own in a pitched battle, but they knew better than anyone that they could not afford to risk it. The Japanese still had seven fleet carriers, compared to the American four (the Hornet was too small to be classified as such), and the Japanese could field a considerable additional force of destroyers, cruisers, and more importantly, battleships, the two largest in the history of mankind, the Yamato, and her sister ship, the Musashi, compared to the United States, which could bring to bear none. On May 4th, Task Force 17, under the command of Admiral Frank Fletcher, a desk-jockey now in his first field command, commanding a fleet who had never witnessed a victory in close to eight months of naval combat, came in contact with Yamamoto’s 4th Fleet, placed under the command of Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue. While the Americans could field two carriers, Lexington and Yorktown, each manned by inexperienced crews, yet possessing the fire of believe in place of battlefield wisdom, the Japanese fielded three carriers, the ZuikakuShokaku, and Shoho, which American press mistakenly christened the Ryukaku after the battle. Raging for four days, the battle, ending in a relative stalemate, with both sides claiming victory although each suffered almost identical casualties, the battle revolutionized naval warfare and would define combat for the subsequent years of combat. Neither side’s fleet actually made visual contact of one another, the fighting was executed solely by aircraft. By the end of May 8th, the fourth and final day of combat, the American carrier Lexington had capsized and perished after being struck by two torpedoes and two bombs, which ruptured her gas lines and hastened her demise, while the Yorktown burned after a single 250-pound bomb breached her flight deck, penetrated four decks down, and exploded, causing severe structural damage, yet not serious enough to prompt an “abandon ship” order. Meanwhile, the carrier Shoho was sunk by an assault led by William Burch, commanding the Yorktown‘s aerial assault, and was celebrated by his issuing an exultant radio communique, ” Scratch one flattop!” The message caused the men of the task force, including Admiral Fletcher, to be in a jubilant mood, and as more news reached them of the damage done to the Shokaku and Zuikaku, the morale only rose. America began to venture on a long road of victories. With the loss of one of his carriers, and two severely damaged that would be forced in for repairs in the Caroline Islands and out of action for several months, Yamamoto began preparing offensive operations for a new target, known by American code breakers colloquially as “AF”. Yamamoto placed offensive operations in the South Pacific on hold, and chose to focus his attention primarily on “AF”. By now, early June 1942, American commanders were exuberant, but not complacent. They still knew they were outnumbered and outgunned, but the tides were shifting, even if the shift was diminutive at best. Rochefort and his team had succeeded in deciphering now over two thirds of the JN-25 naval code, yet much remained encoded and unknown to American cryptanalysts. With the Yorktown returning battered and bruised, and the Lexington resting on the bottom of the Coral Sea, Fletcher was sacked for losing an American carrier, at this stage of the war, irreplaceable. Nimitz was infuriated, yet not without hope. When the damaged Yorktown arrived at San Diego to undergo repairs, Nimitz approached the repair team and stated that he wanted the carrier patched up and prepared for combat in seventy two hours. The request was incredible, the repairs would take weeks, if not months, and the crews were incredulous, yet his tone of voice conveyed that something major was underway. They had no choice but to comply, and so they Jerry-rigged what they could. In Pearl Harbor, Rochefort and his team had made a monumental discovery. Along their path to uncover the location of the elusive target of “AF”, Nimitz began to believe, without question, the target to be Midway Island, an American naval base almost halfway between Hawaii and the Japanese Home Islands. In order to verify his suspicions, one Rochefort agreed with, Nimitz ordered the Midway garrison on Sand and Eastern Islands to dispatch an un-coded radio communique to Pearl Harbor, stating that they were low on fresh water. Within hours, a Japanese message arrived stating that “AF” was low on fresh water. “AF” was Midway. The Japanese had grown confident, overconfident, and with it came arrogance and complacency, bitter enemies to a soldier in combat, and would lead to Japan’s undoing. Admiral Yamamoto prepared a carrier force from what aircraft carriers still remained, the Akagi, Soryu, Hiryu, and Kaga, all of which participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor alongside the two surviving carriers of the battle of the Coral Sea. The carrier task force would be placed under the command of Chuichi Nagumo, the commander of the very same task force that attacked Pearl Harbor. The Japanese believed that the Americans had no knowledge of the attack, and that the Japanese could bomb the islands into submission prior to an amphibious landing. Simultaneously, a small Japanese fleet would assault the Aleutian Archipelago off the southwestern coast of Alaska, which would culminate in amphibious landings on Kiska and Attu Islands, as well as the bombing of Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island. Yet Nimitz  knew the assault on Alaska to be a diversion, and knew also Yamamoto was making a severe error in judgment in splitting his forces, which would be much more effective in a cohesion strike force. Yet Nimitz did not complain at this sudden change in Japanese strategy. The Japanese were planning on striking Midway from northeast, and they judged that if an American task force were there, they would draw them out with the bombing and walk them into an ambush. They assumed wrong. Nimitz had the upper hand in breaching Japanese intelligence, and chose rather to place his carrier task forces, Task Force 16 under Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance (as Admiral William Halsey, the task force’s original commander, was crippled with psoriasis at the onset of the battle), consisting of the Enterprise and Hornet, and Task Force 17, under Fletcher, consisting of the Yorktown, still reeling from damage done during the battle of the Coral Sea. Many were still displeased with Fletcher, and blamed him for the loss of the Lexington, and Nimitz’s choice was sound in his mind. He would yield Fletcher overall tactical command of both task forces, over Spruance. He could trust Fletcher, and he knew it. The American task forces would be laid out in a U-pattern around Midway, with the two islands forming the U’s center. The fleet would be kept out of range of Japanese reconnaissance planes, which would no doubt be searching incessantly for a marauding American fleet attempting to jeopardize the Japanese invasion. The American plan was simple: allow the Japanese to bomb Midway, and then chase the Japanese bombers back to the carriers, and attack the ships while the aircraft rearm and refuel. The Americans would literally be using the Japanese aircraft to hunt the carriers. The estimates stated that it would take roughly forty five minutes to an hour to rearm and refuel the Japanese aircraft, giving the American torpedo bomber pilots more than an ample time to find the carriers and destroy them. Yamamoto’s plan was for the battle between his fleet and the American fleet that he thought would inevitably arrive to counter his assault would fall on June 7th, 1942, exactly seven months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He planned to assault the American air base, eliminating the possibility of the slightest chance of American air superiority, and draw out the American fleet with his bombing. Yet the battle would not end in his favor. On June 3rd, the Japanese bombing began, and on the 4th, the American task forces were in a position to begin shadowing Japanese aircraft back to their carriers. The American aircraft on Midway, consisting mostly of superannuated Brewster F2A Buffalo interceptor aircraft, were ordered off the airfields and into the skies. The antiquated fighters were met with the agile and ferocious Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero “Zeke”, a fierce fighter aircraft that remained unchallenged by American air power for the early stages of the war. The fight was short and brutal, and the majority of the American aircraft were shot down, most losing their crew in the process, but nevertheless, the airfield on Midway had been thoroughly evacuated, and when the Japanese bombers from Nagumo’s carriers arrived, the found the airfields deserted. This sudden change in fortune was incredibly dismaying, and so the Japanese bombed an oil containment facility and local power station before turning back, disappointed. The American fleet, simultaneously, slid into position. As the Japanese bombers and their fighter escorts returned, Nagumo had ordered flights of Zeros from the carriers to fly a high altitude combat air patrol to protect the carriers from a potential enemy aerial assault while the returning bombers were rearmed and refueled, and while the second wave was prepared to launch, armed with torpedoes to attack the American fleet. Yet Lieutenant Joichi Tomonaga, commanding the raiding party in place of Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, the leader of the first wave of the Pearl Harbor strike force who had become ill at the battle’s onset, radioed Nagumo around 7 a.m and informed him that a second wave against Midway would be necessary. Nagumo was characteristically dismayed at this sudden shift in fortunes, and accordingly began contemplating what should be done. As he weighed his options, the first American planes arrived ahead of the aircraft of the first wave returning from Midway. The air assault was brisk and no serious damage was done unto Nagumo’s carriers, yet he was fully aware that the Americans now knew his location. Altering course, Nagumo ordered the second wave aircraft to be refitted with unguided bombs for a further assault on Midway. By 8:30 a.m, this daunting task had been completed by the carriers’ deck crews, and the second wave were prepared the launch. As the first wave began to return, and the second stood on the decks with engines revolving, preparing to launch, Nagumo received a report that Japanese aerial reconnaissance had spotted an enemy aircraft carrier in the distance. Nagumo was now forced to make a tormenting decision: send the second wave out fitted with bombs to attack the carriers, or refit them with torpedoes again and allow the first wave aircraft to land. Nagumo chose the latter, which was far more time consuming, yet in his convoluted logic, defended apathetically by Fuchida after the battle, he believed the American carrier force would allow him the necessary time to allow these recent developments and Nagumo’s responses to be well underway. He was wrong. Nagumo allowed the second wave aircraft to be lowered onto the hangar deck, where they were refitted with torpedoes yet again, and allowed the first wave fighters to land. Nagumo realized that his second wave bomber aircraft would be forced to approach the enemy carrier fleet without ample air support, as his Zeros had been circling aimlessly above for hours now. By the time the second wave was ready to launch, American TBM Devastator torpedoes bombers had appeared, from the USS Hornet and Enterprise mainly, and fell upon the Japanese carriers. The battle began here. Raging for just two days, the battle ended in total victory for the United States, with them claiming the destruction of all four Japanese carriers, along with several Japanese surface ships (the invasion fleet carrying the Marines had been ordered to withdraw as soon as the bombs began to fall on the fleet). In return, the Japanese sunk the badly mauled Yorktown, although it did not actually sink during the battle. It had been attacked as a last hurrah by the IJN Soryu, the last surviving Japanese carrier by the end of the 4th. It suffered severe structural damage, and only sunk on the way back to Pearl Harbor, listing slowly until gradually shifting into a full capsize. Following the Japanese assaults on the Yorktown, Fletcher’s flagship, he abandoned the crippled carrier in place of the shadowing cruiser USS Astoria, where he yielded tactical command to Spruance. By now, both Spruance and Fletcher’s aircraft had become engaged in the aerial melee. Fletcher had initially held his fighters back to cover the carriers, because at first his fleet only knew of the location of two of the four Japanese carriers, and Fletcher was reluctant to take any form of gamble, yet the tide had turned. By the afternoon of the 4th, the carriers Akagi, Nagumo’s flagship, and Hiryu had been sent to the bottom, while the Kaga burned incessantly after being struck with four bombs, which exploded in her magazine, setting off 80,000 pounds of assorted ordinance, and finally three torpedoes by the roving submarine USS Nautilus, although she was finally finished off by scuttling charges of her own crew. In the attack on the Hiryu, the sixteen assaulting American SBD Dauntless torpedo bombers returned devoid of leadership, after their commander, Major Lofton R. Henderson, had been killed in combat by the four remaining Zeros from Kaga that had been dispatched in support. Henderson’s name would be given to the captured airfield at Guadalcanal, taken some three months later by men of the 1st Marine Division.  The Japanese assault on Midway was designed to be the most glorious battle in the Pacific to that point, yet instead showed Japan that the United States had more bite to its bark, and would not take this war lightly. The Japanese would never recover, while the United States, by 1945, had over 400 cruisers in commission in the Pacific Fleet, and every battleship at Pearl Harbor would be salvaged, safe for the Arizona and Oklahoma, and all would be present during the signing of Japan’s surrender aboard the USS Missouri. By war’s end, the Japanese would lose almost their entire surface fleet, primarily at the Battle of the Philippine Sea during their attempt to counteract the American landings at Saipan in June 1944, in what was known as the “Marianas Turkey Shoot” due to the sheer number of Japanese planes destroyed by the volume of American antiaircraft fire, and later in the October 1944 Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle in history and also noteworthy for the first use of kamikaze suicide pilots. Midway sealed Japan’s ultimate defeat, and gave the United States naval superiority and utmost control of the seas, dominating the Pacific War, a war that would be determined not by tanks or men, but by aircraft and warships.

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