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Six Minutes That Changed The World
At 10:24 on the morning of June 4, 1942, the Japanese seemed to have won the Battle of Midway—and with it the Pacific war. By 10:30 things were different
February 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 2
On 7 June undefended Attu and Kiska in the Western Aleutians were occupied by the Japanese according to plan, but Adak was not taken, because it seemed to be too near Unmak. Army P-40’s based on the new Army Air Force field at Unmak had given Kakuta’s carrier planes quite a run for their money.
Turning now to the main show, Old Man Weather seemed determined to help the Japanese. Admiral Nagumo’s Striking Force, built around carriers Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu , and Soryu , veterans of Pearl Harbor, advanced toward Midway under heavy cloud cover; they could even hear the island-based search planes buzzing overhead, but themselves were not seen. The force allotted to occupy Midway was, however, sighted by a Catalina on 3 June. Captain Cyril T. Simard’s island-based air force reacted quickly, though ineffectively. It made but one hit, on an oiler, at 0143 June 4. That was the first blow in this battle south of the Aleutians.
All night 3–4 June the two opposing carrier forces were approaching each other on courses which, if maintained, would have crossed a few miles north of Midway Island. Day began to break around 0400. ft was still overcast over the Japanese, clear over the Americans. A light wind blew from the southeast, another break for the Japanese, since wind is almost as important for aircraft carriers as for the old frigates. Contrary to what was desirable in the sailing navy—to get the weather gauge of your enemy—the lee gauge was now wanted, because a carrier has to steam into the wind to launch or recover planes. Thus, Fletcher and Spruance, having the weather gauge, had to lose mileage during flight operations. Yorktown , having to recover a search mission, had to lag behind when the big news arrived, shortly after 0600 June 4.
This news was a Midway-based PBY’s contact report of two Japanese carriers, headed southeast. For four hours this was all the information that Fletcher and Spruance had of Nagumo’s location and course; but it was enough. Fletcher promptly ordered Spruance, with Enterprise and Hornet , to “proceed southwesterly and attack enemy carriers when definitely located,” promising to follow as soon as his search planes were recovered. Both admirals knew very well that Nagumo’s Striking Force was Yamamoto’s jugular vein, and that their only hope was to cut it.
Ten minutes after Fletcher issued that pregnant order, the next phase of the Battle of Midway opened, over the island itself. One hundred and eight Japanese planes, divided evenly between fighters, dive-bombers, and torpedo-bombers, took off from the four carriers before sunrise. Midway search radar picked them up ninety-three miles away, and every fighter on the island was scrambled to intercept; but they were too few, and the Marine Corps “Buffaloes” too weak and slow, to stop the Japanese. The bombing of Midway began at 0630 and continued for twenty minutes. It did considerable ground damage, without breaking up the runways; and Midway antiaircraft fire was very good. Between that and the Marine fighters, fifteen of which were lost, about one third of the Japanese attack group was shot down or badly damaged. In the meantime, four waves of American Midway-based bombers had flown oil to counterattack Nagumo’s carriers. They, too, lost heavily; but, as we shall see, their sacrifice was not in vain.
Now came the most decisive moment in a battle filled with drama. Admiral Nagumo, when sending oft that 108-plane strike on Midway, reserved ninety-three aircraft armed with bombs and torpedoes to deal with enemy ships, it” he could find any. Usually the Japanese were smarter than we in air search, but this time they failed, largely because, according to the Japanese plan, no American carriers should have been around for a couple of days. So Nagumo sent only a few cruiser float planes on routine search, and by 0700 they had found nothing. At that moment Lieutenant Tomonaga, commander of what was left of the 108-plane strike then returning to their carriers, signaled to Nagumo that Midway needed another pounding. Immediately after, there came in on the Japanese carriers the first Midway-based bombing attack, which seemed to second Tomonaga’s motion—obviously Midway had plenty of bite left. So the Admiral “broke the spot,” ∗Prior to take-off, carrier planes would normally be parked or “spotted” on the flight jerk aft. The spot would have to be broken—that is, the planes moved out of the way—when other planes came in over the stern to land.— Ed. and ordered the ninety-three planes struck below to be rearmed with incendiary and fragmentation bombs for use against the island. Fifteen minutes elapsed, and the Admiral was dumfounded to receive a search plane’s report of “ten enemy ships” to the northeast, where no American ships were supposed to be. What to do? Nagumo mulled it over for another quarter-hour, cancelled the former change-bomb plan, and ordered the ninety-three planes again rearmed and readied to attack ships. That took time, and it was already too late to fly those planes off to attack enemy ships, because flight decks had to be kept clear to receive the rest of the Japanese aircraft which had been bombing Midway.