Six Minutes That Changed The World

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At 0835, when the returning bombers began landing on the Japanese carriers, American birds carrying death and destruction were already winging their way from Enterprise and Hornet . Spruance had taken over from Halsey, as chief of staff, Captain Miles Browning, one of the most irascible and unstable officers ever to earn a fourth stripe, but a man with a slide-rule brain. Browning figured out that Nagumo would order a second strike on Midway, that he would continue steaming toward the island, and that the golden opportunity to hit his carriers would arrive when they were refueling planes for this second strike. Spruance accepted these estimates and made the tough decision to launch at 0700, when about 175 miles from the enemy’s calculated position, instead of continuing for another two hours in order to diminish the distance. Spruance also decided to make this an all-out attack—a full deckload of twenty Wildcat fighters, sixty-seven Dauntless dive-bombers, and twenty-nine Devastator torpedo-bombers—and it took an hour to get all these airborne. Fletcher properly decided to delay launching from Yorktown , in case more targets were discovered; but by 0906 his six fighters, seventeen SBD’s, and twelve TBD’s were also in the air.

Imagine, if you will, the tense, crisp briefing in the ready-room; the warming-up of planes which the devoted ground crews have been checking, arming, fueling, and servicing; the ritual of the take-off, as precise and ordered as a ballet; planes swooping in graceful curves over the ships while the group assembles. This Fourth of June was a cool, beautiful day; pilots at 19,000 feet could see all around a circle of fifty miles’ radius. Only a few fluffy cumulus clouds were between them and an ocean that looked like a dish of wrinkled blue Persian porcelain. It was a long flight (and, alas, for so many brave young men, a last flight) over the superb ocean. Try to imagine how they felt at first sight of enemy flattops and their wriggling screen, with wakes like the tails of white horses; the sudden catch at their hearts when the black puffs of antiaircraft bursts came nearer and nearer, then the dreaded Zekes of Japanese combat air patrol swooping down out of the central blue; and finally, the tight, incredibly swift attack, when a pilot forgets everything but the target so rapidly enlarging, and the desperate necessity of choosing the exact tenth of a second to release and pull out.

While these bright ministers of death were on their way, Nagumo’s Striking Force continued to steam toward Midway for over an hour, as Miles Browning had calculated. The four carriers were grouped in a box-like formation in the center of a screen of two battleships, three cruisers, and eleven destroyers. Every few minutes messages arrived from reconnaissance planes that the enemy was approaching. At 0905, just before the last of the planes returning from Midway were recovered, Nagumo ordered Striking Force to turn ninety degrees left, to course east-northeast, “to contact and destroy the enemy Task Force.” His carriers were in exactly the condition that Spruance and Browning hoped to find them—planes being refueled and rearmed in feverish haste.

Now came a break for Nagumo. His change of course caused the dive-bombers and fighters from Hornet to miss him altogether. Hornet ’s torpedo-bombers, under Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron, sighted his smoke and attacked without fighter cover. The result was a massacre of all fifteen TBD’s. Every single one was shot down by Zekes or antiaircraft fire; only one pilot survived. The torpedo squadron from Enterprise came in next and lost ten out of fourteen; then Yorktown ’s, which lost all but four; and not a single hit for all this sacrifice. No wonder that these torpedo-bombers, misnamed Devastators, were struck off the Navy’s list of combat planes.

The third torpedo attack was over by 1024, and for about too seconds the Japanese were certain they had won the Battle of Midway, and the war. This was their high tide of victory. Then, a few seconds before 1026, with dramatic suddenness, there came a complete reversal of fortune, wrought by the Dauntless dive-bombers, the SBD’s, the most successful and beloved by aviators of all our carrier types during the war. Lieutenant Commander Clarence W. McClusky, air group commander of Enterprise , had two squadrons of SBD’s under him: thirty-seven units. He ordered one to follow him in attacking carrier Kaga , while the other, under Lieutenant W. E. Gallaher, pounced on Akagi , Nagumo’s flagship. Their coming in so soon after the last torpedo-bombing attack meant that the Zekes were still close to the water after shooting down TBD’s, and had no time to climb. At 14,000 feet the American dive-bombers tipped over and swooped screaming down for the kill. Akagi took a bomb which exploded in the hangar, detonating torpedo storage, then another which exploded amid planes changing their armament on the flight deck—just as Browning had calculated. Fires swept the flagship, Admiral Nagumo and staff transferred to cruiser Nagara , and the carrier was abandoned and sunk by a destroyer’s torpedo. Four bomb hits on Kaga killed everyone on the bridge and set her burning from stem to stern. Abandoned by all but a small damage-control crew, she was racked by an internal explosion that evening, and sank hissing into a 2,600-fathom deep.