The anniversary of the Battle of Midway coming as it does on June 4, is usually overshadowed by remembrances of the Allied landings on the coast of Normandy on D-Day, the sixth of June. That will again be the case this year on the seventieth anniversary of D-Day. Nevertheless, if not for the American naval victory in the Battle of Midway on June 4, 1942, D-Day might never have happened.
Nowhere is the story of Midway told better than in Admiral Samuel Morison’s epic history of United States naval operations during the Second World War. Admiral Morison was a rare combination of sailor and historian. Before the war he had written a magisterial biography of Columbus that still ranks with anything ever written about that great sailor. As part of his research Morison even used a sailing ship to cover the route Columbus had taken.
When the war broke out Morison was asked to be the Navy’s official historian. The Navy took pains to put him on actual ships that were very likely to see action. He was not at Midway but his account reads like an eyewitness. Below are excerpts from his depiction of the pivotal two minutes of that epic battle.
First, a little introduction. After their stunning success at Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, the Japanese had rolled up one victory after another. By the spring of 1942 Japanese strategists thought that they only had to secure the tiny island of Midway in the central Pacific to completely solidify their hegemony over most of Asia.
They sent a huge naval task force including four of their best aircraft carriers and most of their best pilots to take the tiny island in the middle of nowhere. Even though the American navy had been battered at Pearl Harbor, it was able to send a carrier force to intercept the Japanese. The Japanese had already bombed the small garrison at Midway when the American carriers came into range. Admiral Raymond Spruance was in command of the American fleet and he followed the advice of Captain Miles Browning who shrewdly predicted the location of the Japanese force. Spruance launched an immediate attack and the American planes quickly found the Japanese. Unfortunately, the initial torpedo bomber attack was thwarted by Japanese fighters (Jekes). Not one torpedo reached its target and practically all the torpedo bombers were shot down. It seemed like all was lost for the Americans. Here is Morison's account of what happened next.
The third torpedo attack was over by 1024, and for about one hundred 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 SBDs, the most successful and beloved by aviators of all our carrier types during the war.
Clarence McClusky USN.
Lieutenant Commander Clarence W. McClusky, air group commander of Enterprise, had two squadrons of SDBs under him: 37 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 TBDs, and had no time to climb. At 14000 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 Bowning 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 2600 fathom deep.
Max Leslie USN.
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 17 SBDs 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.
…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....
Midway was a victory not only of courage, determination and excellent bombing technique, but of intelligence, bravely and wisely applied….it might have ended differently but for the chance which gave Spruance command over two of the three flattops. Fletcher did well, but Spruance’s performance was superb. Calm, collected, decisive, yet receptive to advice, keeping in his mind the picture of widely disparate forces, yet boldly seizing every opening, Raymond A. Spruance emerged from this battle one of the greatest admirals in American naval history.
Raymond A. Spruance USN.
###Admirals Nimitz, Fletcher, and Spruance are, as I write, very much alive; Captain Mitscher of Hornet, Captain Murray of Enterprise and Captain Miles Browning of the slide-rule mind have joined the three-score young aviators who met flaming death that day in reversing the verdict of battle. Think of them, reader, every Fourth of June. They and their comrades who survived changed the whole course of the Pacific War.
Click on this link for a five minute summary of the Battle of Midway, or see the video below.