Victory at Sea

Recent movies like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line have vividly depicted the face of land battle in the Second World War, but the story of the American war is incomplete without the sweep and strategic stakes of the war at sea, in which 104,985 American sailors and Marines were wounded, 56,683 were killed, and more than 500 U.S. naval vessels were sunk. Lest we forget
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Station Hypo's nemesis and obsession was the Japanese naval code, JN-25. It was an immensely complex cipher, and Rochefort and his colleagues could make sense of only 10 to 15 percent of most intercepts. But in the welter of communications traffic that Hypo was monitoring in the spring of 1942, one term recurred with unsettling frequency: "AF," obviously the name of the next major Japanese target. Where or what was "AF"?

Rochefort had a hunch, and he played it shrewdly. Guessing that AF was Midway, in early May he baited a snare by arranging for the small Marine and Army Air Force garrison at Midway to radio in clear that their distillation plant had malfunctioned and they were running short of fresh water. The ruse worked. Within two days Station Hypo received confirmation of a coded Japanese message that "AF" was low on fresh water. Jackpot! Midway it was, then, and Hypo had proved it. The U.S. Navy would be there, ready and waiting.

ADMIRAL Chester W. Nimitz wasted no time in using Rochefort's information, which proved to be the single most valuable intelligence contribution to the entire Pacific war. A descendant of German colonists who had settled the west-Texas Pedernales River country early in the nineteenth century, Nimitz was a quiet, scholarly man, fluent in his ancestral tongue. He sought relaxation by firing his pistol on a target range. He had arrived in Hawaii to take up the position of commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet on Christmas morning, 1941. The whaleboat ferrying him from his seaplane to shore had passed the devastated hulks along Battleship Row and threaded through small craft that were still retrieving surfacing bodies from the sunken ships. As much as any man in the Navy, Nimitz burned to retaliate for December 7. But in what his naval-academy class book described as his "calm and steady Dutch way," he was determined to do it methodically, with a minimum of risk and more than a fair chance of success. Rochefort's cryptanalysts had now handed this careful, deliberate man a priceless opportunity.

nimitz picture
     Chester W. Nimitz
(Photo courtesy of
     The Naval Historical Center)

Nimitz reinforced Midway with planes, troops, and anti-aircraft batteries. He ordered Task Force 16, comprising the carriers Enterprise and Hornet, back to Pearl Harbor from the South Pacific. He issued similar orders to Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher's Task Force 17, left with only the wounded Yorktown after the inconclusive Battle of the Coral Sea. The Yorktown limped into Pearl Harbor on May 27, trailing a long, glistening oil slick as she nosed into a giant dry dock. A hip-booted Nimitz was sloshing about at her keel inspecting the damage even before the dry dock had fully drained. Told that repairs would take weeks, a reasonable estimate, Nimitz curtly announced that he must have the ship made seaworthy in three days. The dry dock instantly became a human anthill. Hundreds of workers swarmed over the Yorktown, amid showers of sparks and clouds of smoke from the acetylene torches cutting away and replacing her damaged hull plates. The Yorktown refloated on May 29. The next day, accompanied by her support ships in Task Force 17, as the ship's band incongruously played "California, Here I Come," she headed toward the rendezvous point—hopefully dubbed "Point Luck"—with Task Force 16, commanded by Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance. Fletcher, aboard the Yorktown, was in overall command of the task forces.

While the three American carriers stealthily moved to their stations northeast of Midway, Nagumo approached from the northwest. The Japanese commander had good reason to assume that only the Enterprise and the Hornet remained afloat in the U.S. Pacific fleet, and he believed them to be in the South Pacific, where they had been spotted on May 15. As dawn approached on June 4, Nagumo had no inkling that Fletcher and Spruance awaited him beyond Midway, over the eastern horizon. All his attention focused on Midway Island, from which B-17s and Catalina flying boats had ineffectually bombed his troop transports during the preceding afternoon and night.

fletcher picture
     Frank Jack Fletcher
(Photo courtesy of
     The Naval Historical Center)

At 4:30 A.M. on June 4 Nagumo flew off several squadrons of bombers to attack Midway, preparatory to the troop landings. They dropped their ordnance—high-explosive fragmentation bombs designed for ground targets—according to plan. But the commander asked for a second strike to finish the reduction of Midway's defenses. His message arrived just as Nagumo's carriers were coming under attack from Midway-based aircraft. Not a single American bomb touched his ships, but the very appearance of the American planes was enough to persuade Nagumo to accede to the request for a second strike on Midway. On the Akagi and the Kaga, Nagumo had been holding some ninety-three aircraft loaded with armor-piercing anti-ship ordnance, against the possibility that he might engage elements of the U.S. fleet. But at 7:15, increasingly confident that he had little to fear from American ships, he gave the order to rearm those aircraft with fragmentation bombs for a second assault against Midway. The refitting operation would take about an hour.

Even as Nagumo's perspiring sailors set about their task, Spruance, still to the northeast of Midway, was ordering full deckloads of bombers and torpedo planes on the Enterprise and the Hornet to lift off and strike the Japanese carriers. Nagumo's seamen toiled about the decks of his giant carriers, shuffling bomb-racks and hurriedly stacking torpedoes. Then, in the midst of the complicated rearmament operation, the Japanese cruiser Tone's scout plane reported at 7:28 that ten enemy ships were in sight. Their position was within range of carrier-based aircraft, but the initial report did not identify the types of ships. Nagumo nevertheless decided as a precaution to halt the rearmament process. Meanwhile, he implored the reconnaissance plane to ascertain the ship types.

Nagumo's skull must have throbbed with the agonies of decision and command. He was still under attack from Midway-based aircraft; his own returning assault planes were beginning to appear overhead; his decks were stacked with bombs of all types; and an unexpected American fleet had been spotted. Ominously, the Tone's patrol plane next radioed that the enemy flotilla was turning into the wind—the position from which carriers launch their aircraft. Apprehension gripped the surprised Japanese, only to be allayed moments later by a report that the enemy flotilla consisted of five cruisers and five destroyers—and then to be revived by a message minutes afterward that the rising dawn had revealed a carrier in the rear of the American formation.

spruance picture
     Raymond A. Spruance
(Photo courtesy of
     The Naval Historical Center)

This news was alarming but not catastrophic. Nagumo still believed that his force was far superior in numbers, technology, and skill to anything the Americans could throw against him. Indeed, even while anxiously awaiting word from the Tone scout plane, the First Air Fleet's ships and fighters had badly mauled the Midway-based attackers, not one of which had yet managed to score a hit. Mitsuo Fuchida, the Pearl Harbor veteran serving as the Akagi's flight leader, later wrote, "We had by this time undergone every kind of air attack by shore-based planes—torpedo, level bombing, dive-bombing—but were still unscathed. Frankly, it was my judgment that the enemy fliers were not displaying a very high level of ability."

Emboldened by such thoughts, the Japanese now saw the American carrier less as a threat than as an opportunity for inflicting additional punishment on the inept Americans. The battle thus far had emphatically confirmed Japanese combat superiority. Apprehension gave way to resolve—and to a fatal relaxation of the sense of urgency. Nagumo, confident that he held the upper hand, calmly waited to recover all his Midway bombers and fighters before magisterially turning to meet the American flotilla, still believing that only a single carrier confronted him. Meanwhile, he reversed his earlier rearmament order and directed his planes to be fitted with anti-ship weapons once again, adding to the confusion and the piles of explosive ordnance strewn about his flight decks.

Shortly after 9:00 A.M. Nagumo executed his change of course to close with the American fleet, perhaps even to force the decisive battle that was the stuff of the Japanese navy's dreams. What followed was decisive, all right, but for Japan and the imperial navy it was a nightmare.

Nagumo's several armament changes and his delay in seizing the initiative contributed powerfully to his undoing, but for the moment his change of course proved advantageous. Many of the American planes launched from the Hornet and the Enterprise, along with some from the Yorktown, which had put its airmen aloft at around 8:30, never found him. Flying at the limits of their operational range, they arrived at the sector where the Japanese were supposed to be, only to look out over empty seas. Many wandering American aircraft fell from the sky for want of fuel. Those who did locate the Japanese fleet tried in vain to penetrate the curtain of anti-aircraft fire and the swarming Zeros to reach the Japanese carriers. Shortly after 10:00 A.M. a clutch of Zeros almost completely annihilated a torpedo-bombing squadron from the Yorktown as it came in low to launch its weapons. By 10:24 Nagumo appeared to have beaten off the last of the attacks. His proud fleet was still unscratched and was poised to loft a counterattack against the American fleet. For a brief moment Japan seemed to have won the Battle of Midway, and perhaps the war.

mcclusky picture
     Wade McCluskey
(Photo courtesy of
     The Naval Historical Center)

One American flier scanning the scene from above was on the verge of coming to just that conclusion when suddenly he saw "a beautiful silver waterfall" of "Dauntless" dive bombers cascading down on the Japanese carriers. Navigating by guess and by God, Lieutenant Commander Wade McCluskey, from the Enterprise, and Lieutenant Commander Maxwell Leslie, from the Yorktown, had managed to arrive above the Japanese fleet at the precise moment its combat air patrol of Zeros had been drawn down to the deck to repel the Yorktown's torpedo bombers, and at the moment of the First Air Fleet's maximum vulnerability. With the dread Zeros too low to be effective, the Dauntlesses poured down through the miraculously open sky to unload their bombs on the Japanese carriers, their flight decks cluttered with confused ranks of recovered and warming-up aircraft, snaking fuel hoses, and stacks of munitions from the various rearmament operations.

In five minutes the dive bombers, no less miraculously scoring the first American hits of the day, mortally wounded three Japanese carriers. Roaring gasoline-fed fires raged through all three ships. The Kaga and the Soryu sank before sunset. The Akagi was scuttled during the night. Of the First Air Fleet's magnificent flotilla of carriers, only the Hiryu remained to strike a counterblow against Fletcher's flagship, the battered Yorktown, which the sea enveloped at last at dawn on June 7. The Hiryu itself was overtaken by American fliers in the afternoon of June 4, and sank the next morning. Nagumo had lost four of the six carriers with which he had attacked Pearl Harbor just half a year earlier. Spruance wisely refrained from pursuing the remaining Japanese vessels, which were retreating to the west, where he would have collided with Yamamoto's battleships—swift, powerful, night-trained, and thirsty for vengeance—just as darkness fell.

leslie picture
     Maxwell Leslie
(Photo courtesy of The National
     Museum of Naval Aviation)

At Midway the Americans turned the trick of surprise back upon the Japanese and at least partially avenged Pearl Harbor. When the chaos of combat had subsided, the essential truth of Midway stood revealed: in just five minutes of incredible, gratuitous favor from the gods of battle, McCluskey's and Leslie's dive bombers had done nothing less than turn the tide of the Pacific war. Before Midway the Japanese had six large fleet-class carriers afloat in the Pacific, and the Americans three (four with the Saratoga, which was returning from repairs on the West Coast at the time of the battle at Midway). With the loss of just one American and four Japanese carriers, including their complements of aircraft and many of their superbly trained fliers, Midway inverted the carrier ratio and put the Japanese navy at a disadvantage from which it never recovered. In the two years following Midway, Japanese shipyards managed to splash only six additional fleet carriers. The United States in the same period added seventeen, along with ten medium carriers and eighty-six escort carriers. Such numbers, to be repeated in myriad categories of war materiel, spelled certain doom for Japan, though it was still a long and harrowing distance in the future.

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