By David H. Lippman
At 8:38 a.m., a few
minutes after No. 4 Scout alerted Nagumo to
the approaching American carriers, Yorktown’s
air officer, Murray Arnold, finally orders
his planes to launch. VF-3 bombers will go
in first to strafe, then VB-3, VS-5, and finally
VT-3. The idea is that the dive-bombers will
cripple the carriers, leaving them immobile
against torpedo attacks. With 175 miles between
Yorktown and Nagumo, there is virtually
no safety margin. Oscar Pederson, Yorktown’s
Air Group Commander, suggests the squadrons
rendezvous en route. He and Yorktown
air officer Cdr. Murray Arnold agree that
the Japanese are still advancing on Midway.
Yorktown’s group will fly to
the interception point, then head northwest,
reversing the Japanese course.
Yorktown, having the experience of
Coral Sea behind her, uses the "running
rendezvous" technique to launch their
strike. The TBDs are launched first. As the
Devastators streak into the air, the SBDs
of VB-3 are spotted for launch and sent up.
After that, six F4Fs take off. The squadrons
rendezvous in the air, while heading towards
the Japanese — a more efficient system.
But Fletcher is unsure. At Coral Sea, he
flung his entire strike force at the first
contact report, which turned out to be the
light carrier Shoho, not the Japanese
main body. He decides to launch Bombing 3,
Torpedo 3, and six planes from Fighting 3.
Scouting 3 and the rest of VF-3 will be the
At 8:40, Yorktown’s 1MC blares
“Pilots, man your planes.” The
aviators climb into their cockpits, led by
Cdr. Max Leslie, boss of Bombing 3. At 8:45,
VT-3’s 12 torpedo planes are airborne,
led by Cdr. Lem Massey. Leslie leads his 17
SBDs next, the bombers hauling 1,000-lb. bombs
into the sky. Finally, Jimmy Thach’s
six F4F fighters claw airborne, as Astoria blinkers, “Good hunting, and a safe
Five minutes out, Jimmy Thach is stunned
to hear an explosion in the water ahead of
him. One of Leslie’s SBDs has dropped
its bomb by mistake. Thach looks up to see
the culprit is Leslie himself. But it’s
not Leslie’s fault. He has ordered his
pilots to activate the new electric arming
switches, and the connection is faulty, the
releases cross-wired. Two more planes suffer
the same fate. Annoyed at the failure, Leslie
wonders aloud if he should turn back and get
another bomb. ARM1 William Gallagher, Leslie’s
radioman, has the enlisted man’s usual
view of the brass. He says if they turn back,
they’ll be kept on the ship. Leslie
flies on. He tells his pilots to use the manual
arming switches. By then, two more planes
have lost their bombs. Only 13 of Yorktown’s
17 planes are now carrying ordnance.
Leslie has time to reflect on the absurdity
of the situation. A 20-year veteran, he has
been preparing for this moment — the
attack on an enemy carrier — all his
professional life. Now he can’t do any
damage. But what he lacks in ordnance, he
makes up in determination, to lead his young
reservists into action.
Meanwhile Thach roars on, hooking up with
Lem Massey’s TBDs. Thach is a tactical
innovator, who is aware of the Zero’s
superiority and the Wildcat’s deficiencies.
He has assigned to of his F4F-4s to fly at
2,500 feet, just under the clouds, pretty
much as lookouts. Thach’s other four
flights are at 5,000 feet, and are to dive
in when needed.
For Jimmy Thach, today’s battle will
be a test for a tactic that he has developed
on his kitchen table using matchsticks. Thach,
like Luftwaffe ace Werner Molders during the
Spanish Civil War, has realized that the World
War I-era tactic of three-plane V-formations
is unwieldy for the fast pace of 1940s air
warfare. In his Coronado home, Thach used
matches to develop four-man units with two-plane
sections. They will fly in the same direction,
separated by a standard distance equal to
the diameter of the tightest circle the two
aircraft can make.
The planes on the right watch the tails of
the planes on the left and vice versa.
In action, the section not being attacked
will make a sharp turn toward the one being
attacked, throwing the enemy’s lead
off. The enemy will not be able to make an
attack without seeing an American nose —
and guns — pointed at him. The key to
the Thach Weave is that it needs no communication.
If one section sees the other make a turn,
it knows it’s coming under attack. Thach’s
technique has proven successful in maneuvers,
but is not yet Navy-wide policy. Now Thach
has an opportunity to prove his technique
On Akagi, Nagumo frets about the need for
accurate information. He orders Soryu
to launch one of its experimental “Jill”
scout planes to hook up with the Tone
plane, which is nearly ready to come home.
Nagumo passes that news on to Scout No. 4
at 8:54 a.m. Shortly after 9 a.m., the last
of Tomonaga’s planes lands, and Nagumo
flashes his ships to make a 70-degree course
change, turning port to head northeast. To
save time, the ships swing in their tracks
at 9:17, creating a box of carriers with Hiryu
leading Akagi on the right, and Soryu
leading Kaga on the left.
Next, Nagumo blinkers and signals a stream
of orders. “After completing homing
operations, we plan to contact and destroy
the enemy task force.” The attack on
the American carriers will conform to Organization
No. 4: 18 torpedo planes from Akagi,
27 from Kaga, 36 Vals from Hiryu
and Soryu, and 12 fighters from all
four carriers. Launching will start promptly
at 10:30 a.m. Battle flags snapping in the
breeze, Nagumo’s ships crank up to full
Nagumo also radios Yamamoto the situation
and his intentions, which causes consternation
on Yamato’s flag bridge, 450 miles behind
Nagumo. Yamamoto breakfasts on boiled rice,
miso soup, eggs, and dried fish, then stands
on his flag bridge in starched whites, reading
messages. The meal exacerbates Yamamoto’s
stomach ache, which is lately attributed to
roundworms. The U.S. Navy has appeared too
early for Kuroshima’s complicated plan.
Yamamoto asks Kuroshima, “Do you think
we ought to order Nagumo to attack the United
States carrier force at once? I think we had
better do so.”
Kuroshima replies, “Nagumo has prepared
half his air force to attack the United States
carrier force, and maybe Nagumo is already
preparing his attack.” Yamamoto drops
the point. Kuroshima spends the rest of his
life kicking himself. If Kuroshima merely
said, “Yes, sir,” and sent off
a message over Yamamoto’s signature,
Nagumo might attack right away. Yamamoto resumes
watching his ships.
While Nagumo’s fleet advances, the latest
report comes in from Tone’s scout plane,
an acknowledgement of the 8:54 message. It
adds, as an afterthought, “10 enemy
torpedo planes are heading toward you.”
At 9:18, Chikuma’s AA guns open up on
the incoming Americans.
At about 9 a.m., Waldron deploys Torpedo
8 into a scouting line, having seen no sign
of the Japanese ships. The last TBD in line
is flown by Ensign George Gay, 25, fresh out
of flight school. Torpedo 8 is the Hollywood
image of the American war effort. It includes
a former college track star from Sheridan,
Oregon; Harold Ellison, a New York insurance
man; a Los Angeles lumber dealer’s son;
lumberjack Grant Teats; Wesleyan intellectual
Bill Evans; a Navy enlisted man who gained
a direct appointment to Annapolis; and a few
Academy men. Gay himself went from Texas A&M
to Pensacola flight school, and his take-off
from Hornet this morning is the very first
time he has ever taken off a carrier deck
with a torpedo — or even seen it done.
Waldron believes the Japanese will head north
after recovering their aircraft. He’s
right, but the Japanese have not reached the
point Waldron has estimated they will be at.
That’s because of time spent in evasive
maneuvers from the earlier attacks.
Around 9:18, Waldron spots three carriers
below, and Torpedo 8 swings into attack, nine
miles away from the enemy. When Torpedo 8
swoops down, so do Japanese Zeros from above,
as in all the other attacks, demonstrating
the Zero’s speed, maneuverability and
height. Lt. Iyozo Fujita leads his Soryu
fighters against the Americans, with predictable
results. The TBDs are slow, unmaneuverable,
and poorly armed. The American planes explode
or drop like stones. Debris and balls of fire
hurl through the air.
Gay sees Waldron’s plane catch fire.
Waldron stands up and struggles to bail out,
but the plane explodes. In a matter of minutes,
Gay’s plane is the only one left. Even
his gunner, Bob Huntington is hit. Gay feels
a pain in his left elbow — a spent bullet
has landed in his torn sleeve. Gay pulls it
out and stuffs it in his mouth, and heads
on in for Soryu’s starboard side.
Gay can see planes being fueled on Soryu’s
flight deck, and avgas hoses “scattered
all over the place,” along with AA guns
roaring at him. Gay also sees “the little
Jap captain up there jumping up and down raising
Hell.” At 800 yards out, Gay hits his
release button. Nothing happens. He pulls
the manual release, and the torpedo races
Too close to turn away, Gay flies “right
down the gun barrel” of a big AA gun,
across the flight deck, does a little turn,
and flies right over the flight deck again.
Fujita, nearby, watches this entire scene,
and races over to attract the carrier’s
attention to Gay’s torpedo. Soryu
turns and avoids it. Short of fuel, Fujita
lands on his carrier’s deck. He learns
that nobody on Soryu saw his gyrations.
The turn was pure luck. An irritated Fujita
stomps off for breakfast, while technicians
refuel his Zero.
Gay also splashes into the sea when five Zeros
shoot off one wing and wreck his rudder controls.
Gay tries to save Huntington, but the plane
sinks quickly, taking the gunner with it.
The pilot pulls out his rubber life raft and
black rubber seat cushion. Remembering advice
from Waldron not to throw away anything in
a ditching situation, Gay hides under the
black rubber cushion to inflate his life raft.
Amazingly, nobody notices Gay, his raft, or
But every plane of VT-8 has been shot down.
Earnest, Ferrier, and Gay are the sole survivors.
Up above, Jim Gray and Fighting 6 circle in
position over Nagumo’s carrier force,
unable to see the action through scudding
clouds. With no word from McClusky and no
signal, “Come on down, Jim,” Gray
assumes that the American attack is a complete
At 9:20, McClusky and his planes reach their
interception point to find an empty ocean.
McClusky checks his navigation — it’s
perfect. He checks the weather. Also perfect.
Have the Japs shot past him towards Midway?
No way, McClusky thinks. He suspects the Japanese
have turned around. He flies a box search,
first southwest for 35 miles. No sign of enemy
ships. He turns northwest, his 30 pilots obediently
following him, gulping fuel. McClusky decides
to keep heading northeast until 10:00 a.m.
Then he’ll head back to Enterprise.
At 9:36, Nagumo flashes his ships to cease
fire. All the American planes are sizzling
in the water. Once again, there have been
no hits. Nagumo and his officers puzzle over
the Americans’ sloppy tactics —
no fighter escort, and all the planes attacking
in a bunch. The Americans are fighting very
badly. However, the Japanese have little time
to analyze the situation. At 9:38, a new flight
of 14 incoming torpedo planes is spotted,
heading in from the north.
Torpedo 6, known as VT-6 to the record books,
is a more experienced outfit than VT-8, and
Gene Lindsey plans to divide into two equal
parts, so as to hit a different carrier. Lindsey’s
planes fly in at 1,500 feet, and spot the
Japanese wakes 30 miles away, and the last
flashes of flak from Waldron’s attack.
Lindsey’s planes swoop in at about 9:40,
doing 100 knots, 34 slower than their rated
speed. The Japanese carriers turn tail to
the Americans, which gives them even more
time to evade the attack. Once again, Nagumo’s
Zeros smash into the Americans from above.
They shoot down pilots Pablo Riley, Tom Eversole,
and then Gene Lindsey himself before he can
radio “Come on down, Jim” to his
With ample determination, Torpedo 6 maintains
its attack, getting into range at 9:58. Lt.
Ed Laub is so close, he can see the planes
on their flight deck, propellers turning.
He punches his release button at 500 to 800
yards away, then pulls out for home. Three
other TBDs also escape the slaughter. The
other 10 are shot down.
The carrier under VT-6’s attack is
Kaga, and Capt. Jisaku Okada displays
some fancy seamanship to avoid the American
torpedoes. Over the Japanese fleet black balls
of AA fire and curls of smoke illuminate the
sky. By 10 a.m. Kaga is out of danger,
and Nagumo has fended off his seventh attack
of the morning, and has yet to suffer a single
hit. “Kaga seems to be fighting
pretty well,” Genda tells Nagumo.
“She is all right,” Nagumo responds,
as the battle continues. Then Nagumo drafts
a signal for Yamamoto, and Genda shuffles
down to a ready room to chat with Akagi pilots.
Genda asks them about the enemy defenses,
and says, “How about the skill of enemy
fliers over Midway?”
“Enemy fighters are lousy indeed,”
one says. “I think they were almost
wiped out.” But Lt. Okajima, who is
designated to command 6th Air Group on Midway
after the Japanese takeover, says, “Staff
officer, today’s engagement is tough.”
“Yes, it is,” Genda says. “But
nothing to worry about.” Then he heads
back to the bridge.
On the flag bridge, Nagumo sends Yamamoto
the following signal: “Carried out air
attack on AF at 0330. Many enemy shore-based
planes attacked us subsequent to 0415. We
have suffered no damages. At 0428, enemy composed
one carrier, seven cruisers and five destroyers
sighted in position TO SHI RI 34, on course
southwest, speed 20 knots. After destroying
this, we plan to resume our AF attack. Our
position at 0700 is HE E A 00, course 30 degrees,
speed 24 knots.”
Meanwhile, Genda watches the last Devastators
getting shot down over Hiryu. “We
don’t need to be afraid of enemy planes
no matter how many they are,” Genda
thinks. “Originally I had some doubt
about the defensibility of the task force
against an enemy air raid, but now I see how
great it is. This is a winning battle! So,
we had better first destroy the enemy planes
and then destroy the enemy carriers before
we launch a devastating attack upon Midway
from this midnight to tomorrow morning.”
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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.