Midway: Japan's Sacrifice
By David H. Lippman
As the second phase of the Battle of Midway ends, three of Japan’s largest and most powerful aircraft carriers — Kaga, Soryu and Akagi — lie as blasted wrecks. While Rear Adm. Tamon Yamaguchi boosts morale, Cdr. Susumi Kawaguchi works out the attack plan.
There is no time to wait to finish re-arming the torpedo bombers, but the dive-bombers are ready. They will go in right away, and the torpedo bombers will follow. Lt. Michio Kobayashi will lead the dive-bombers.
Yamaguchi and Hiryu Capt. Tomeo Kaku shake hands with each pilot, and Kaku tells them, “I am not going to let you die alone.” Yamaguchi tells the pilots the situation is critical and everything depends on them, so don’t be foolhardy or reckless. Japan’s hopes depend on their coolness and skill. Kobayashi is shaking so hard, his teeth rattle. He’s not scared, just determined. Kobayashi has been flying strikes since Pearl Harbor.
Hiryu turns into the wind just before 10:50 and 18 Vals and six Zeros are spotted on the flight deck for attack. As the pilots swarm onto the flight deck, Kawaguchi impulsively shakes hands with Lt. Takenori Kondo, an Eta Jima classmate and leader of a bomber section. Kawaguchi urges Kondo on. Kondo says, “I’ll do my best.”
At 10:50, Yamato’s communications officer climbs up ladders onto the flag bridge, and hands a message to Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto’s signal officer, Cdr. Wada. He stares at it and hands the message silently to Rear Adm. Matome Ugaki, who passes it on without comment to Yamamoto, who stands immaculate in dress whites.
The message is from Rear Adm. Hiroaki Abe. “Fires are raging aboard the Kaga, Soryu and Akagi resulting from attacks carried out by land-based and carrier-based attack planes. We plan to have the Hiryu engage the enemy carriers. In the meantime, we are temporarily retiring to the north, and assembling our forces.”
Yamamoto hands the message back without saying a word. His face is frozen. He and his staff “looked at one another, their mouths tight shut,” writes Yeoman Noda. “There was indescribable emptiness, cheerlessness, and chagrin.”
With Adm. Chuichi Nagumo temporarily out of the picture, and Abe not a carrier man, Yamaguchi takes command of the battle, watching his strike roar down Hiryu’s flight deck. At 10:54 Hiryu starts launching her Zeros, by 10:58 the strike is airborne in two equal groups of dive-bombers, one of fighters. Kobayashi leads the first bomber section, Lt. Michiji Yamashita the second, and Lt. Yasuhiro Shigematsu the fighters. They head northwest, toward Yorktown’s reported position.
Meanwhile, Yamamoto reacts to the shocking news. He orders his battleships to rush straight to Nagumo, cranking up speed to 20 knots, course 120, through thickening fog.
On the American task forces, tension is high as all hands await developments. Communications are sketchy due to static and interference. But at 11 a.m., the planes start returning, Fighting 6 the first. They have nothing to report but frustration.
Another frustrated group, Bombing 8, gives up the ghost and heads for Midway. Three run out of gas and fall into the drink, but the rest roar in, jettisoning their bombs on Midway’s reef. The defenders assume this is the Japanese attack and open fire, nicking the SBDs with bullets before someone realizes the “invaders” are American. Fighting 8 has a worse time. By 11 a.m., all of their planes splash into the drink, out of fuel.
Another pilot who ran out of gas is Tony Schneider, who is close enough to see the smoke of the Japanese carriers burning. Also floating around is Ensign George Gay, who watches the whole bombardment, cheering and yelling at every hit. In later years, his report of having witnessed the entire attack will generate a sea of controversy, over whether or not he is actually close enough to see the actual bombings or simply the columns of smoke in the distance.
On the American carriers, the long wait continues. At 11:50, the remains of Bombing 6 and Scouting 6 come back, in twos and threes. Wade McClusky enters Yorktown’s landing circle before realizing he’s heading for the wrong carrier. He is down to 5 gallons of gas as he comes in to land on Enterprise. Lt. Robin Lindsey, the landing signal officer, waves McClusky off, but he thumbs his nose at Lindsey and lands anyway. McClusky trots up to Flag Plot and reports to Adm. Raymond Spruance. Three carriers burning, one unhurt. While McClusky gives account, Enterprise’s XO, Cdr. W.F. Boone gasps, “My God, Mac! You’ve been shot!” McClusky has been so busy with his story, he quite forgets that he is also bleeding all over the deck from five wounds. McClusky is now out of the battle. So are 18 of Enterprise’s 32 dive-bombers. Most of them run out of gas on the way back, including Lt. Clarence Dickinson, who splashes 10 miles from Enterprise.
Two damaged Bombing 6 SBDs land on Yorktown. Lt. j.g. Wilbur Roberts and his gunner, AMM1 William Steinman, being one crew, and Ens. George Goldsmith and ARM3 James Patterson Jr. the other. Both planes are struck below to the hangar deck for repairs and stay there.
The luckless Stan Ring and Scouting 8 also make it in, but only three SBDs return from Bombing 8. Torpedo 8, of course, is a complete write-off with 39 planes gone from Hornet. Lt. George Flinn, Torpedo 8’s personnel officer, orders the galley to keep the squadron’s chicken dinners ready for them all.
Yorktown’s vigil is shorter. By 11:15, Max Leslie’s dive-bombers return, but have to wait until Fighting 3 can land. However, Fighting 3 hasn’t turned up yet. One of Leslie’s bombers signals by lamp that they had punched out an enemy carrier, and scuttlebutt improves that to the Japanese, having lost their carrier, are landing on Midway to surrender. At 11:20, Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher shoots off 10 of the 17 dive-bombers he has been holding back to find the fourth carrier. At 11:45, Jimmy Thach returns, and everyone is recovered. Yorktown loses only two planes from Fighting 3. Ensign R.A.M. Dibb finds his plane riddled with bullets, including one that zipped through the cockpit cover, missing Dibb, and smacking into the instrument panel. Meanwhile, Leslie continues to orbit upstairs, awaiting a chance to land.
Thach explains things to Fletcher. With three carriers sunk, Fletcher says the battle is “going our way.” But as the officers talk, Yorktown’s radar picks up bogeys coming in from the west, and Task Force 17 has to go to air defense battle stations. Yorktown orders its escorts to assume Victor formation against air attack — cruisers Astoria and Portland cranking up to 30 knots and off the carrier’s port and starboard bow. The destroyers make up the outer screen. Task Force 17 turns southeast.
While Fletcher awaits the blow, three Japanese carriers struggle to survive. Akagi’s Capt. Tajiro Aoki abandons his blazing bridge at 11:20, climbing down onto the flight deck. Once there, Aoki and his colleagues find they have little to do, so they pass their only two cigarettes around to relieve the tension, an act that would leave modern Navy damage control experts stunned. At 11:35, the torpedo and bomb storage magazines explode, and the fire races forward, savaging the boat deck. Aoki and his staff flee to the anchor deck, where a band of survivors is gathered.
Aoki is determined to save his ship, but the situation is bleak. Electrical power is out, which means there’s no interior light or pressure pumps. Crewmen force seawater through hoses on the fire, but it isn’t enough. Just to make things worse, the chemical fire extinguishers don’t work, either. Damage control parties attack the flames with hand pumps, and are mowed down by flame and smoke.
Lt. Raita Ogawa circles the wrecked Akagi in his Zero, with two cronies, gulping fuel. Down to 5 gallons, he can’t land anywhere. He signals the cruiser Chikuma, racing after Hiryu, to ask for a pick-up. Chikuma is too busy, racing to keep up with Hiryu. But she hoists her wind-sock and turns into the wind to give Ogawa a smooth wake. All three Zero pilots splash into the water, Ogawa making the best landing. As a former seaplane pilot, landing on the water is natural to him. The three pilots climb out of their sinking planes to find scores of swimmers in the water around them. Many have been blown off their carriers, like the 200 from Akagi. Others have jumped into the sea, with nowhere else to go.
Many have come from Soryu, obeying orders to abandon ship. Capt. Ryusaku Yanagimoto limps onto the bridge’s semaphore platform, and shouts encouragement to the swimmers, and “Long live the Emperor!” Thirty men swimming below cheer back as Yanagimoto vanishes back into the smoke.
On Soryu’s anchor deck, the XO, Cdr. Ohara, lies on deck, faint from his burns. Other crewmen toss lines in the water to help swimmers come back aboard.
Meanwhile, Soryu’s orphaned scout plane finally spots the American task force. The pilot reports three carriers in sight, but his radio is busted. He heads back to Soryu, unaware that the ship is ablaze.
Things are not much better on Akagi. Aoki sends an optimistic blinker message to Akagi, but the fires rage on. The engines start up at 12:03 and the big carrier turns to starboard. Aoki sends Ensign Akayama to find out, but he can’t get through the flames. The carrier continues to circle to starboard.
Akagi’s odd move saves Lt. Iyozo Fujita’s life. He is drifting in the water, reading his palm to keep his mind off of his troubles. He notices the smoking bulk of Akagi heading toward him and starts swimming toward her and an escorting destroyer. The destroyer Nowake races up, a machine-gun aimed at Fujita, but the aviator hand-signals, “I am a flying officer from Soryu.” Two of Fujita’s Eta Jima classmates on Nowake — Koichi Aoki and Toshio Kanai (the Nowake’s XO and navigation officers) — recognize Fujita and haul him aboard.
Exhausted and drenched, Fujita pulls on one of Kanai’s uniforms and finally has some lunch. Then he climbs up to the weather decks and watches Akagi burn, her sailors jumping into Nowake boats. Fujita has a worm’s-eye view of the battle, but he is sure of one thing: Japan has lost the battle. He shuffles down below and falls asleep.
Facing attack, Yorktown buttons up. Machinist Oscar W. Myers clears the gasoline fuel lines of 100 octane and replaces it with CO2. It's a technique of his own devising. When the Japanese arrive, the fuel lines will be harmless, the gas back in the storage tanks and the lines full of harmless CO2. Nagumo's task force could have benefited from this measure, which will become standard. Yorktown crews also kick a portable gasoline tank over the side, and deploy repair and medical parties. Lt. Cdr. Leonard Davis, the gunnery officer, has placed .50-caliber machine-guns around the flight deck. The carrier enjoys this extra defense because Davis somehow failed to turn in these weapons to higher authorities when Yorktown received replacement 20mm guns for close-in protection.
Lt. Cdr. Oscar Pederson, the fighter director, launches 12 F4Fs and asks Spruance for reinforcements. Spruance sends over six of his own CAP aircraft, which means Yorktown is defended by 18 fighters.
The Americans hit the Japanese from 15 miles out. The Americans enjoy the numerical advantage, the Japanese have the better plane in the Zero. But as Kobayashi’s bombers form up to attack, the Americans smash into the Japanese formation, guns blazing. The Japanese break into sections.
Lt. Arthur J. Brassfield, a peacetime Missouri high school teacher, already has four kills from the Coral Sea. Now he faces three Japanese bombers. He blasts one at 300 yards, flips to the left, and explodes another at 150 yards. The third flees, but Brassfield chases after him and shoots him down. The high school teacher is now a fighter ace. His buddies shoot down seven more planes. The remaining Japanese planes close the range.
On Task Force 17, everyone is at his battle station. Seaman Donat Houle on Hughes wonders why he’s so far from his home in New Hampshire. Royal Navy Cdr. Michael B. Laing, on Yorktown to report to London on the battle, pulls out his notebook. Yorktown Capt. Elliott Buckmaster walks out onto the navigation bridge to watch the action, keeping his XO in the armored conning tower. Leslie himself is about to land, when he is waved off. Leslie is annoyed — he’s a good pilot, he usually makes it. Leslie flies off. Lt. Lefty Holmberg is next, and he can’t land, either. Then all the carrier’s AA guns open fire, and the radio blares, “Get clear — we are being attacked.”
The least perturbed person is apparently Fletcher, who stands in the chart room, studying his maps. A staff officer enters and says, “The attack is coming in, sir.”
“Well,” Fletcher answers cheerily, “I’ve got on my tin hat. I can’t do anything else now.”
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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.