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Battle of Midway - Japanese counterattacks

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Japanese counterattacks

Hiryū, the sole surviving Japanese aircraft carrier, wasted little time in counterattacking. The first wave of Japanese dive bombers badly damaged Yorktown with two bomb hits, yet her damage control teams patched her up so effectively (in about an hour) that the second wave's torpedo bombers mistook her for an intact carrier. Despite Japanese hopes to even the odds by eliminating two carriers with two strikes, Yorktown absorbed both Japanese attacks, the second attackers mistakenly believing Yorktown had already been sunk and they were attacking Enterprise. After two torpedo hits, Yorktown lost power and was now out of action, forcing Admiral Fletcher to move his command staff to the heavy cruiser Astoria; but Task Force 16's two carriers were undamaged.

News of the two strikes, with the reports that each had sunk an American carrier, greatly improved morale in the Kido Butai. Its surviving aircraft were all recovered aboard Hiryū, where they were prepared for a strike against what was believed to be the only remaining American carrier.

When American scout aircraft located Hiryū late in the afternoon, Enterprise launched a final strike of dive bombers (including 10 bombers from Yorktown), leaving Hiryū ablaze, despite being defended by a strong defensive CAP of over a dozen Zero fighters. Rear Admiral Yamaguchi chose to go down with his ship, costing Japan perhaps her best carrier sailor. Hornet's strike, launching late because of a communications error, concentrated on the remaining surface ships but failed to score any hits.

As darkness fell, both sides took stock and made tentative plans for continuing the action. Admiral Fletcher, obliged to abandon the derelict Yorktown and feeling he could not adequately command from a cruiser, ceded operational command to Spruance. Spruance knew the United States had won a great victory, but was still unsure of what Japanese forces remained and was determined to safeguard both Midway and his carriers. To aid his aviators, who had launched at extreme range, he had continued to close with Nagumo during the day, and persisted as night fell. Fearing a possible night encounter with Japanese surface forces, Spruance changed course and withdrew to the east, turning back west towards the enemy at midnight.

For his part, Yamamoto initially decided to continue the engagement and sent his remaining surface forces searching eastward for the American carriers. Simultaneously, a cruiser raiding force was detached to bombard the island. The Japanese surface forces failed to make contact with the Americans due to Spruance's decision to briefly withdraw eastward, and Yamamoto ordered a general retirement to the west.

American search planes failed to detect the retiring Japanese task forces on 5 June. An afternoon strike narrowly missed detecting Yamamoto's main body and failed to score hits on a straggling Japanese destroyer. The strike planes returned to the carriers after nightfall, prompting Spruance to order Enterprise and Hornet to turn on searchlights in order to aid their landings. Marc Mitscher, commanding Hornet, would later issue the same order under similar circumstances during the Battle of the Philippine Sea.

At 02:15 on 5 June–6 June, Commander John Murphy's Tambor, lying some 90 nm (165 km) west of Midway, made the second of the Submarine Force's two major contributions to the battle's outcome. Sighting several ships, he (along with his exec, Ray Spruance, Jr.) could not identify them (and feared they might be friendly, so he held fire), but reported their presence, omitting their course. This went to Admiral Robert English, Commander, Submarine Force, Pacific Fleet, and from him through Nimitz to the senior Spruance. Unaware of the exact location of Yamamoto's "Main Body" (a persistent problem since PBYs had first sighted the Japanese), Spruance presumed this was the invasion force. Thus, he moved to block it, taking station some 100 nm (185 km) northeast of Midway; this frustrated Yamamoto's efforts, and the night passed without any contact between the opposing forces.

Wreck of Yorktown
Actually, this was Yamamoto's bombardment group of four cruisers and two destroyers, which at 02:55 was ordered to retire west with the rest of his force. Tambor was sighted around the same time; turning to avoid, Mogami and Mikuma collided, inflicting serious damage to Mogami's bow, the most any of the eighteen submarines deployed for the battle achieved. Only at 04:12 did the sky brighten enough for Murphy to be certain the ships were Japanese, by which time staying surfaced was a hazard, and he dived to approach for an attack. This was unsuccessful, and at around 06:00, he finally reported two Mogami-class cruisers, westbound, placing Spruance at least 100 nm (185 km) out of position. It may have been fortunate Spruance did not pursue, for had he come in contact with Yamamoto's heavy ships, including Yamato, in the dark, his cruisers would have been overwhelmed, and his carriers helpless. (At that time, only Britain's Fleet Air Arm was capable of night carrier operations.)

Over the following two days, first Midway and then Spruance's carriers launched several successive strikes against the stragglers. Mikuma was eventually sunk, while Mogami survived severe damage to return home for repairs. Captain Richard E. Fleming, a U.S. Marine Corps aviator, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his attack on Mikuma.

Yorktown was sunk during salvage efforts, by three torpedoes from Japanese submarine I-168 on 7 June. There were few casualties since most of the crew had already been evacuated. One torpedo from this salvo also sank the destroyer USS Hammann, which had been providing auxiliary power to Yorktown, splitting her in two with the loss of 80 lives. Most of the lives lost were due to an underwater explosion shortly after she sank; the assumption at the time was that this was caused by one of her torpedoes or a depth charge exploding.

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