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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
The third carrier was the victim of Yorktown ’s dive-bombers, under Lieutenant Commander Maxwell F. Leslie, who by cutting corners managed to make up for a late start. His seventeen SBD’s jumped Soryu just as she was turning into the wind to launch planes, and planted three half-ton bombs in the midst of the spot. Within twenty minutes she had to be abandoned. U.S. submarine Nautilus , prowling about looking for targets, pumped three torpedoes into her, the gasoline storage exploded, whipsawing the carrier, and down she went in two sections.
At 1024 Japan had been on top; six minutes later on that bright June morning, three of her big carriers were on their flaming way to death. But Nagumo did not give up. He ordered Hiryu , the one undamaged carrier, to strike Yorktown. Hiryu ’s two attack groups comprised eighteen dive-bombers, ten torpedo-bombers, and twelve fighters. Most of them were shot down by air patrols and antiaircraft fire, but three Vals of the first strike made as many bomb hits, and four Kates, breaking low through a heavy curtain of fire, got two torpedoes into Yorktown at 1445. These severed all power connections and caused her to list twenty-six degrees. Fifteen minutes later Captain Elliott Buckmaster, thinking that his big carrier was about to capsize, ordered Abandon Ship. Yorktown ’s watertight integrity had been impaired in the Coral Sea battle, and her repairs were so hasty that he feared she would turn turtle.
Admiral Fletcher, who shifted his flag to cruiser Astoria after the first attack, had already sent out a search mission to find the fourth Japanese carrier. Almost at the same moment that Yorktown was torpedoed, these planes found Hiryu . As a result of their contact, “Waltzing Matilda” was revenged just as her dancing career ended. Enterprise , at Spruance’s command, turned into the wind at 1530 and launched an attack group of twenty-four SBD’s, including ten refugees from Yorktown , and veterans of the morning’s battle. Led by the redoubtable Gallaher, they jumped Hiryu and her screen at 1700. The carrier received four hits which did her in, and she took down with her Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi, an outstanding flag officer who, it is said, would have been Yamamoto’s successor had he lived.
Yamamoto, who according to plan was keeping well to the rear in his Main Body, built around the mastodonic battleship Yamato , reacted to these events aggressively. He pulled Kakuta’s three light carriers down from the Aleutians, and ordered Vice Admiral Kondo’s heavy cruiser Covering Group to join Main Body next day, intending to renew the battle. He still had overwhelming gunfire and torpedo superiority over anything that Spruance and Fletcher could offer. But, after news arrived that his four splendid carriers were either sunk or burning derelicts, he bowed to the logic of events and at 0255 June 5 ordered a general retirement. He had lost his entire fast carrier group, with their complement of some 250 planes, most of their pilots, and about 2,200 officers and men. In all its long history, the Japanese Navy had never known defeat; no wonder that Yamamoto fell ill and kept close to his cabin during the homeward passage. Never has there been a sharper turn in the fortunes of war than on that June day when McClusky’s and Leslie’s dive-bombers snatched the palm of victory from Nagumo’s masthead, where he had nailed it on 7 December.
The fourth of June—a day that should live forever glorious in our history—decided the Battle of Midway. By destroying the four Japanese carriers and their air groups, the American aviators had extracted the sting from Combined Fleet. Everything that followed now appears to be anticlimax; but the situation during the night of 4–5 June was far from clear to the people at Midway, to Fletcher and Spruance, or, for that matter, to Nimitz and Yamamoto. Spruance knew that the Japanese supporting naval forces, which nobody had yet located, included carriers. With Yorktown disabled, the air groups of his own carriers decimated, and no support in sight, he had to balance the possible damage he could inflict by pressing westward that night, against the risks involved. Consequently he retired Enterprise and Hornet to the eastward, and did not reverse course until midnight. It was fortunate that he refused to tempt fate further; for, had he steered westward that evening, he would have run smack into a heavy concentration of Yamamoto’s battleships and cruisers around midnight and have been forced to fight a night gunfire battle—just what the Japanese wanted.
Prior to ordering a general retirement at 0255 June 5, Yamamoto cancelled a scheduled bombardment of Midway by Admiral Kurita’s four heavy cruisers. Two of these, Mikuma and Mogami , which had sunk Houston and Perth in the Java Sea, were attacked by the bombers Captain Simard had left on Midway—six SBD’s and six old Marine Corps Vindicators. Both cruisers were damaged and Mikuma next day was sunk by dive-bombers from Hornet .