Enemy in Sight
By David H. Lippman
On the flag bridge of the Japanese carrier
Akagi it’s a struggle to think,
let alone make oneself heard, amid the roar
of aircraft, the blast
of bombs from American SBDs, the banging
of anti-aircraft guns, and the blare of the
public address system.
At 7:58, Tone’s No. 4 plane
reports that the Americans are on course 80 degrees,
their speed 20 knots. Nobody on Akagi seems
to notice that the American course change
means that they have just turned into the
wind, a clue that their force includes carriers.
But the message isn’t good enough for
Nagumo. At 8 a.m., he radios the scout, “Advise
ship types.” For nine minutes, Nagumo
and his officers pace the flag bridge, awaiting
an answer. At 8:09, it finally comes. Plane
No. 4 signals: “Enemy is composed of
five cruisers and five destroyers.”
“Just as I thought,” Ono blurts
out as he hands the message to Kusaka. “There
are no carriers.” General relief all
Kusaka reads the message. If there are no
American carriers at hand, then the Japanese
can continue pounding Midway. But Kusaka isn’t
sure. The Americans are not stupid enough
to send cruisers and destroyers all the way
to Midway without air cover. On the other
hand, the Americans have yet to display any
tactical competence in this battle. American
pilots have shown ample valor and determination,
but their tactics are uncoordinated and amateurish,
their technology inferior to that of the Japanese.
Why shouldn’t the Americans continue
With this in mind, Nagumo’s staff returns
to the Midway problem. But first, the combat
air patrol, short of ammunition and fuel,
has to be recovered and refueled. Next, the
fleet, scattered by its evasive maneuver,
has to be tightened up. Then the fleet has
to launch the second attack on Midway, and
recover the first wave.
At 8:09, the submarine USS Nautilus adds
to Nagumo’s tension when it is spotted
by Japanese destroyers, and they hurl 11 depth
charges at the submarine. The destroyer Arashi is assigned to watch over the Nautilus,
a mission that takes it further and further
away from the task force.
While Nagumo and his staff work out their
orders, they are interrupted at 8:14 a.m.
by a barrage of AA fire from Tone.
Beneath the depth-charging, Nautilus,
on its first war cruise, endures the pounding.
The skipper, Cdr. Bill Brockman, sweats out
the banging and rumbling of depth charges.
A mess attendant promises Brockman that if
the submarine survives, he’ll write
a sermon every day. Nautilus gets out
unscathed, and the mess attendant keeps his
Up above, at 20,000 feet, Lt. Col. Walter
Sweeney is leading 15 B-17s in on Nagumo.
Their original duty was to attack the transports,
but with the appearance of Nagumo’s
carriers, they have been re-assigned.
Sweeney flies a B-17 named Knucklehead.
He is a West Pointer and son of a retired
major general. Sweeney’s crew is somewhat
less military — co-pilot Everett Wessman
is a truck driver and navigator Bill Adams
a lumber salesman. Adams tells Sweeney, “We
should be sighting them now,” and there
they are. Capt. Don Kundinger recalls seeing
“a panoramic view of the greatest array
of surface vessels any of us had ever seen.
They seemed to stretch endlessly from horizon
Sweeney peers through the broken clouds,
trying to figure out which of the immense
wakes and squirming hulls is an aircraft carrier.
Then Capt. Cecil Faulkner sees a flat yellow
deck, shaped like an oblong, with a huge Rising
Sun painted in the middle. Faulkner signals
the other two bombers in his unit of three
and they swing out to attack. Capt. Carl Wuerterle
in Hel-En-Wings spots them, as does
Capt. Paul Payne in the Yankee Doodle, who
radios Sweeney. He orders the pilots on scene
to attack, and the rest of the force hustles
in at about 8:14.
In three-plane V’s, the B-17s attack
pretty much at random, lacking experience
and finesse. Wuerterle’s crew hollers
in triumph when they drop their bombs. Bombs
and flak fill the air with impressive explosions.
Lt. Robert B. Andrews makes three runs on
an enemy carrier before dropping his bombs.
Then he pulls out before Zeros can chase him.
Faulkner drops his bombs and encounters three
Zeros, whose cannon disable his No. 4 engine
and wound his tail gunner’s index finger
– the only American casualty. The Japanese
always respect the B-17 and its bristling
armament, to Fuchida’s sharp annoyance.
He would prefer to see the Zeros attack the
The Japanese reluctance to attack the B-17
has an impact in Pearl Harbor, too, where
Admiral Nimitz later comments that the Navy
should get some to use for scouting, tracking,
Sweeney’s pilots make grandiose damage
claims — two hits for Faulkner, Wuerterle
and Lt. Col. Brooke Allen one each, and Sweeney
eight hits. But Sweeney isn’t so sure.
In his report, he only claims one carrier
damaged for the whole squadron.
Down below, the bombs all splash around
Soryu and Hiryu, covering the
carriers in spray and smoke. However, no damage
is done. Incredibly, as the B-17s attack,
the first of Tomonaga’s planes return
from Midway. Landing signal officers wave
off the aviators, and they circle overhead,
watching their fuel gauges trickle down to
At 8:17, the B-17s are gone, with no hits.
At that moment, the second half of VMSB-241
(called the “Sons of Satan”) arrives,
12 Marine SB2U Vindicator dive-bombers, under
Maj. Benjamin W. Norris. The slow machines
are called “Vibrators” and “Wind
Indicators” by their crewmen. Their
fabric tears off when they dive, and some
planes are held together with adhesive tape
from Midway’s hospital.
Most of the pilots, including 2nd Lt. Allan
Ringblom, are fresh out of flight school.
One pilot, Lt. Sumner H. Whitten, of Massachusetts,
has more problems than his plane’s tendency
to “dive like a rock” —
his gunner, Sgt. Frank E. Zelnis, is the first
generation son of Latvian immigrants, and
the Boston pilot and Latvian gunner have difficulty
As the Vindicators lumber in, they are greeted
by Nagumo’s combat air patrol. The admiral
has been forced to launch his second-wave
fighters to reinforce his umbrella. The Japanese
defense team is a little tired from fending
off repeated attacks, but get to work. One
Zero stitches up Lt. Daniel Cummings’
plane, the last one in line, killing the gunner,
Pvt. Henry I. Starks, of Springfield, Illinois.
Starks is a mechanic by trade, who has only
been in an airplane three times. He has never
fired a machine-gun in the air, and now he
never will. His presence in Cummings’
plane is a sign of the desperation of the
American war effort at this time.
Major Norris leads his group into a long,
fast, shallow dive, through overcast skies.
He pops out of the clouds at 2,000 feet, and
sees that the Japanese carriers are too far
away. However, the battleship Haruna is
maneuvering beneath him, and that will do
as a target. American propaganda reported
this battleship sunk at Lingayen Gulf by Colin
Kelly – and again at numerous other
battles since then. Contrary to propaganda,
Haruna is alive and well, filling the skies
with AA fire.
Second Lt. George Koutelas swoops down on
the bow to attack, while Ringblom thunders
through balls of black smoke and orange gun
flashes. AA guns pop two holes in his ailerons.
Cummings pulls out of his glide without releasing,
figuring his angle is bad, and instead attacks
a destroyer, to no avail.
Whitten comes under heavy fire, but his
gunner, Zelnis, is extremely capable, and
shoots down an enemy Zero. Whitten dives on
Haruna from 4,000 feet, and admits
that he makes a poor attack, not being able
to get a good approach. His bomb misses. Whitten
pulls out, the only Vindicator not damaged
during the battle.
Haruna sails through the bombs, and only logs
two near-misses, at 8:29. On Akagi’s
bridge, everyone is relieved. Yet another
American attack, and yet another American
disaster. The Japanese officers are amazed
by the variety and tenacity of the American
assault — torpedo bombers, B-26s, B-17s,
The Vindicators drop their bombs at 500 feet
and roar away, on the deck, trying to avoid
flak. Sgt. Frank Zelnis tells his pilot, Lt.
Sumner Whitten, “You dropped your bomb,
let’s get the hell out of here before
we get hit.”
Cummings finds five Zeros on his tail and
streaks home. “In the hit and run, and
dog fighting, which was my initiation to real
war, my old, obsolete SB2U-3 was almost shot
out from under me.” His gas gives out
five miles from Midway, and Cummings crash
lands in the water. PT 20, having a busy day
picking up Merrill and Schlendering, also
scoops up Cummings. Ringblom, at 50 feet,
flees the scene, crashing a mile-and-a-half
from Midway, out of gas. PT 26 pulls Ringblom
out of the water.
Amazingly, the decrepit force loses only
two Vindicators to enemy action, and two more
to fuel shortages. Nonetheless, the combined
attacks by all the Midway-based aircraft have
been complete failures. As Nimitz reports
later, “The Midway forces had struck
with full strength, but the Japanese were
not as yet checked. About 10 ships had been
damaged, of which 1 or 2 AP (transports) or
AK (tankers) may have been sunk. But this
was hardly an impression on the great force
of about 80 ships converging on Midway. Most
of Midway’s fighters, torpedo planes
and dive-bombers — the only types capable
of making a high percentage of hits on ships
— were gone. . . .”
In short, Midway is now fairly defenseless
against the second attack, and hardly capable
of returning a punch. At 8:29 a.m., Nagumo
is closing in on the edge of his greatest
At 8:30, Tone relays to Akagi
a message it has received from No. 4 Scout at
8:20, “The enemy is accompanied by what
appears to be a carrier in a position to the
rear of the others.” This is followed
by more bad news, two American cruisers to the
west of the sighted ships, clearly a large and
possibly multi-carrier task force.
Nagumo and his staff are stunned. “Gosh!”
Kusaka exclaims to himself. Nagumo and his
staff have realized their greatest fear —
ambush by the enemy. Now Nagumo is in the
reverse position, caught with his pants down.
His first wave, short on fuel, is orbiting
overhead. Half of his second wave is loaded
with contact bombs. Time is slipping away.
Before Nagumo can process this news, Rear
Adm. Tamon Yamaguchi, commanding the Second
Carrier Division of Hiryu and Soryu,
breaks Japan’s traditions of deference
by signaling Nagumo, “Consider it advisable
to launch attack force immediately.”
Yamaguchi, a Princeton graduate, and therefore
more than casually aware of American toughness,
wants to hurl that all-important first punch.
However, Nagumo is not impressed by his
subordinate’s aggressive demeanor. Yes,
it would be fitting to attack immediately.
But Nagumo has only 36 dive-bombers spotted
on Hiryu’s and Soryu’s
decks, while Akagi’s and Kaga’s
torpedo planes are armed with 800-kg contact
bombs. Torpedo bombing is the Imperial Japanese
Navy’s aviation specialty — as
demonstrated at Pearl Harbor, Singora, and
Coral Sea — and to send in an attack
without torpedo bombers is like fighting a
boxing match with only one arm gloved.
Second, Nagumo has no fighters to escort the
bombers. They’re either on CAP overhead,
or waiting to be recovered. Kusaka is firm:
It would be futile and dangerous to send in
attack with no torpedo bombers and no fighters.
Without fighters, the attack force would be
slaughtered by American air defense.
Third, an immediate attack by the planes on
deck will leave Tomonaga’s planes still
circling. They’ve been airborne four
hours, and most are out of gas. If they aren’t
recovered, Nagumo will lose half of his planes
and many pilots. Genda doesn’t want
to let 200 of his skilled fliers ditch into
Both officers urge Nagumo to recover Tomonaga’s
strike first. While those planes land and
refuel, mechanics can swap out the contact
bombs with torpedoes again. The whole evolution
should take only 30 minutes.
Nagumo makes his decision swiftly. At 8:32,
he orders his ships: “Carrier-based
bombers will prepare for second attack. Equip
yourselves with 250 kilogram bombs (torpedoes).”
Mechanics start clearing the flight decks,
sending the bombers down to the hangar decks
to swap out armament. On Akagi, Cdr.
Shogo Masuda, the air officer, laughs, “Here
we go again! This is getting to be like a
quick-change contest!” as the crewmen
resume the tiring task.
This time, however, the crewmen, in t-shirts
and shorts, are in a hurry. They roll up the
torpedoes on dollies and roll the bombs out
of the way, leaving them on the hangar decks,
instead of taking them down to the magazines.
The enlisted men, weary of the endless officer
indecision, keep the bombs handy in case the
admiral flips his figurative coins again.
They leave lockers and magazine hatches open
(Condition X-ray to American sailors) instead
of dogged (Condition Zebra).
However, the Japanese carrier crews are
professionals, and it only takes them five
minutes to clear four flight decks and turn
the carriers into the wind. At 8:37, the four
carriers hoist the flag signals “Commence
landing,” and the orbiting planes break
their circles and wobble in for landings.
On Hiryu, a bomber thunders down to
a one-wheel landing. The pilot, Lt. Hiroharu
Kadano, passes out when the plane stops, shot
through a leg by an American fighter. A Kaga
pilot, Air Petty Officer Tanaka, gets
waved off twice because his landing gear is
still up. On the third try, Tanaka lowers
his wheels and lands. When Tanaka cuts his
engines, the crewmen rush up, and find the
pilot slumped in the cockpit, shot through
the head, barely alive.
While 11 planes never make it back, most
of the others enjoy routine landings. CPO
Juzo Mori joins his pals on Soryu’s
flight deck to swap stories. Lt. Tomonaga
tells Lt. Toshio Hashimoto, “When we
were attacked by enemy fighters near the island,
I thought I was finally doomed. As I had escaped
from death several times since the China Incident,
I thought there was nothing to be regretted
even if I was killed. But I thought that such
a young man as you should not be killed.”
Hashimoto is touched by his boss’s concern.
Lt. Masataka Chihaya, however, lands on
Akagi in a rage. Japanese guns fired
on him as he came in. “A gunnery officer
who mistakes friendly planes for the enemy
should be fired!” he shouts. Then he
stomps up to Air Ops to yell at the intelligence
officers. They reported one airfield on Midway.
There were three. Instead, Chihaya and Lt.
Yamada find Fuchida, who wants to hear every
detail of the attack.
“Did enemy fighters come out?”
“About 10 minutes before we reached
the island, Grummans came out to give us a
hell of a time,” Yamada answers.
Meanwhile, Tomonaga and Hashimoto climb
up to Hiryu’s bridge, to find
the ship’s Captain Tomeo Kaku and Yamaguchi
working out the new attack. Yamaguchi, unfazed
by Nagumo’s rejection of his advice,
tells the two aviators to get Hiryu’s
planes ready to attack by 11 a.m.
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David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist
and graduate of the New School for Social Research,
has written many magazine articles about World
War II. He maintains the World
War II + 55 website and currently works
as a public information officer for the city
of Newark, N.J. We're pleased to add his work
to our Daily Content.