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Battle of Midway - Attacks on the Japanese fleet

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Battle of Midway
Yamamoto's plan
Prelude to battle
Attacks on the Japanese fleet
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Attacks on the Japanese fleet

Ensign George Gay (right), sole survivor of VT-8's TBD Devastator squadron, in front of his aircraft, 4 June 1942.
Meanwhile, the Americans had already launched their carrier aircraft against the Japanese. Admiral Fletcher, in overall command aboard Yorktown, and benefiting from PBY patrol bomber sighting reports from the early morning, ordered Spruance to launch against the Japanese as soon as was practical. Spruance gave the order "Launch the attack" at around 06:00 and left Halsey's Chief of Staff, Captain Miles Browning, to work out the details and oversee the launch. It took until a few minutes after 07:00 before the first plane was able to depart from Spruance's carriers, Enterprise and Hornet. Fletcher, upon completing his own scouting flights, followed suit at 08:00 from Yorktown. It was at this point Spruance gave his second crucial command, to run toward the target, having judged that the need to throw something at the enemy as soon as possible was greater than the need for a coordinated attack among the different types of aircraft (fighters, bombers, torpedo planes). Accordingly, American squadrons were launched piecemeal and proceeded to the target in several different groups. This diminished the overall impact of the American attacks and greatly increased their casualties; coincidentally, it reduced the Japanese ability to counterstrike and found Nagumo with his decks at their most vulnerable.

Devastators of VT-6 aboard USS Enterprise being prepared for take off during the battle.
American carrier aircraft had difficulty locating the target, despite the positions they had been given. Nevertheless, they did finally sight enemy carriers and began attacking at 09:20, led by Torpedo Squadron 8 (VT-8, from Hornet), followed by VT-6 (from Enterprise) at 09:40. Without fighter escort, every TBD Devastator of VT-8 was shot down without being able to inflict any damage, with Ensign George H. Gay, Jr. the only survivor. VT-6 met nearly the same fate, with no hits to show for its effort, thanks in part to the abysmal performance of their aircraft torpedoes. The Japanese combat air patrol (CAP), flying the much faster Mitsubishi A6M2 "Zeros", made short work of the unescorted, slow, under-armed TBDs. However, despite their losses, the American torpedo attacks indirectly achieved three important results. First, they kept the Japanese carriers off balance, with no ability to prepare and launch their own counterstrike. Second, their attacks pulled the Japanese combat air patrol out of position. Third, many of the Zeros ran low on ammunition and fuel. The appearance of a third torpedo plane attack from the southeast by VT-3 at 10:00 very quickly drew the majority of the Japanese CAP to the southeast quadrant of the fleet. Better discipline, and employment of all the Zeroes aboard, might have enabled Nagumo to succeed.

By chance, at the same time VT-3 was sighted by the Japanese, two separate formations (a total of three squadrons) of American SBD Dauntless dive bombers were approaching the Japanese fleet from the northeast and southwest. They were running low on fuel due to the time spent looking for the enemy. However, squadron commanders C. Wade McClusky, Jr. and Max Leslie decided to continue the search and luckily spotted the wake of the Japanese destroyer Arashi. The destroyer was steaming at full speed to rejoin Nagumo's carrier force after having unsuccessfully depth-charged the U.S. submarine Nautilus, which had earlier unsuccessfully attacked the battleship Kirishima.

McClusky's decision to continue the search was credited by Admiral Chester Nimitz, and his judgment "decided the fate of our carrier task force and our forces at Midway..." The American dive-bombers arrived at the perfect time to attack. Armed Japanese strike aircraft filled the hangar decks, fuel hoses snaked across the decks as refueling operations were hastily completed, and the constant change of ordnance meant bombs and torpedoes were stacked around the hangars, rather than stowed safely in the magazines, making the Japanese carriers extraordinarily vulnerable.

Beginning at 10:22, Enterprise’s aircraft attacked Kaga, while to the south, Yorktown’s aircraft went for Sōryū, with Akagi being struck by several of Enterprise's bombers four minutes later. Simultaneously, VT-3 was targeting Hiryū, although the American torpedo aircraft again scored no hits. The dive-bombers, however, had better fortune. Within six minutes, the SBD dive bombers made their attack runs and left all three of their targets heavily ablaze. Akagi was hit by just one bomb, which penetrated to the upper hangar deck and exploded among the armed and fueled aircraft there. One extremely near miss also slanted in and exploded underwater, bending the flight deck upward with the resulting geyser and causing crucial rudder damage. Sōryū took three bomb hits in the hangar decks; Kaga took at least four, possibly more. All three carriers were out of action and were eventually abandoned and scuttled.

Last Updated ( Thursday, 16 April 2009 20:56 )