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Midway: Enemy in Sight
By David H. Lippman
March 2013

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 around.

Soryu under attack at Midway.

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 to blunder?

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 promise.

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 to 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 massive planes.

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, and bombing.

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 empty.

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 communicating.

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, and dive-bombers.

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 victory.

Akagi, summer 1941.

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 the sea.

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?” Fuchida asks.

“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.

Next: Torpedo Eight

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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.