The battle started after the Catalinas on Midway spotted the first elements of the Japanese fleet. American B-17s from Midway attacked (june 3). The Americans bombed from high altitude and had no impact on the Japanese force. Midway was in effect a fourth carrier for the Americans, but it was not equipped with effective air craft for the battle. The Marines had obsolete fighters and the Army Air Corps B-17s were unlikely to hit the Japanese carriers from high altitudes. Even so, they provided a major distraction from the American carrier force lying in ambush to the northeast. Nagumo still unaware of the presence of American carriers launched a strike on Midway, prudently holding a sizable force back in case the the American carriers appeared (June 4). Adm. Nagumo launched 108 aircraft at Midway from a range of 180 miles. The strike force was led by Lt. Joichi Tomonaga. Nagumo still had no idea that American carriers were present northeast of Midway, although he should have been cautious for several reasons. The attacking force created havoc on the Marines on Midway and inflicted extensive damage. Often unmoted is the damage the Marines did to Japanese attack force. The planes actually shot down were not cripling, but large numbers of the returning force was damaged, including many damaged beyond repair. Nagumo began the battle with only four of his six carriers. After the Midway strike his potential effective force was further reduced. There were 11 planes shot down, 14 heavily damaged, and 29 other aircraft damaged to some extent. [Parshall and Tully, p. 204.] Also 20 aviators were killed. Totaled up the 54 lost or damaged aircraft were almost equal to a carrier flight group. So Nagumo would now fight the battle with three carrier groups opposed to three American carrier air groups and the unsikable Midway air group with long range air craft. And note that American carriers had larger air groups than the Japanese carriers. Unlike the Pearl Hrbor attack, however, the Japanse pilots did not find American aircraft on the ground, in fact they found American fifgters already launchd to oppose them. This alone should have alerted Tomonaga and Nagumo to the fact that the Americans were forewarned. Among the Japnese pilots with badly damged planes was Tomonaga himself. It does not seem to have alerted either Nagumo at sea or the Japanese postmortem assessment of the battle. Spruance launched his attack, timed so as to catch Nagumo preparing for a second strike on Midway. The Japanese strike on Midway was effective, but because only a part of the Japanese force was used and two of the six crriers of the First Air Fleet were presenrt, they did not put the air base out of action. As a result, a second strike was needed. This was not a surprise. Nagumo had anticipated a second strike. Nagumo at this stage was concerned primarily about the air strikes that had been launched from Midway which took his and his staff's mind off of what they thought was the unlikely presence of the American carriers. Yamaoto's and Nagumo' mind set was that the Americns were cowering at Pearl and would have to be lured out. Nagumo thus ordered preparations for the second strike.
Japanese carrier aircraft had a greater range than the American aircraft, expecially the Japanese A6M Zero. The Midway air group had the long-range Castalina PBYs who could cover fistances far out into the Pacific. (It was a Catalina that had spollted Bismarck for the Btitish.)
The battle started after the Catalinas spotted the Japanese invasion force commanded by Adm. Kondo (June 3). Ensign Jack Reid, piloting a Catalina from U.S. Navy patrol squadron VP-44 spotted the Japanese Occupation Force 500 nautical miles west-southwest of Midway. Midway launched B-17s to attack, but with little damage. Kondo following orders to maintain radio silence did not signal Ngumo that he had been spotted. This was a poor decision, because onece spotted, maintaining raduo silence is absurd. As a result, Adm. Nagumo continued to believe that a surprise attack like Pearl Hsrbor was possible. Reid mistakenly reported Adm. Kondo's group as the 'Main Force'. While the B-17s from Midway launched, the American carriers did not change theur position northeast of Midway. Adm. Nimitz correctly deduced it was not the Main Body meaning the Kido Butai carriers. Midway also had radar, but it was only short range. Fir distances, the PBY were needed. .
Adm Nagumo launched his initial attack on Midway itself (0430). This was before dawn. The Japanese could launch in the dark, but not land. It would be daylight by the time they reached Midway. The strike force consisted of 108 aircraft (36 Aichi D3A dive bombers and 36 Nakajima B5N torpedo bombers, escorted by 36 Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters). The Japanese also launched a minimalist search pattern to the east --the most obvious position for any lurkinbg American casrriers. Minimalist searches was standard Japanese naval carrier doctrine.
Nagumo still unaware of the presence of American carriers prepared the planned strike on Midway, prudently holding a sizable force back in case the the American carriers appeared. Nagumo launched 108 aircraft at Midway from a range of 180 miles. The strike force was led by Lt. Joichi Tomonaga. Nagumo still had no idea that American carriers were present northeast of Midway, although he should have been cautious for several reasons. The Midway radar picks up the incoming Japanese and the sireens go (0556). Midway launched its fighter cover. Midway's Marine Corps Fighting Squadron 221 (VMF-221) intercepted the enemy formation (0615). The Marine squadrons were immediately engaged by the large force of Japanese Zero fighters and only shot down a few Japanese olanes before being destroyed. The Brewster Buffalos in particular were shown to be totally obsolete. The Wildcats also fared badky as the polots had not yet developed the tactuics needed to take on thenimble, but vulnersble Zerios. The Japanese attack comenced (0620) and went on for about 25 minutes as they worked over the Marines. The attacking force created havoc on Midway and inflicted extensive damage. The facilities on Eastern Island were destroyed or badly damnaged. Sand Island's oil tanks, seaplane hangar, electrical generator, hoispital, and other buildings were set afire or severely danaged.
Most World War II bsttles were heavily filmed. An exception is the sirprise Japanese carrier strike on Pearl Harbor. There is extensive footage of the aftermath, but very little of the sctual attack. Those few frames are shown over and over again in documentaries. Thos is not the case for the strike on Midway. In fact we have much more footage on the Muidway strike. And why we hve was shot by or under the supervision of famed Holywood dircror John Ford. Ford shot footage on one of the carriers befotre the battle. As far as we know, Midway is the only Woirld War II battle filmed by a a major Hollywood director. Of course the result, is not a crisp Holly wood production. Fird and his assistant only had basic 16 mm hand-held camera and they were being shot at and bombed. Now we are not sure who sent Ford to Midway. We suspect that it was Adm. Nimitz. Suirely he at least approved of the idea. Ford was not told of what was heppening when sent to Midway. He was under the impression that the Navy wanted him to make a documentary qbout life on a small, remotr Pacific Islasnd base. He was to film candid footage of the sailors and marines, both working and having fun. He had no idea he was going to film a battle. Even the Marines were not aware that the Navy knew a huge Japanese battle fleet was bearing down on them. Ford reportedly learned 2 days befire the battle. He awoke from his bunk as the Japanese began attacking and immediately grabbed his camera began filming. Ford was slightly wounded during the filming.
Often not noted is the damage the Marines did to Japanese attack attack force. The largely obsolete fighter force was virtually destroyed. The Marine defense, however, included many anti-aircraft position. They were not modern AA-guns. But to attack the Marine positions, the Japanese aircraft had to come down low over a small area, exposing them to to the AA gunners. The American anti-aircraft fire was both intense and accurate. The planes actually shot down were not a crippling loss, but large numbers of the attack force was damaged, including many damaged beyond repair. Among the Japanese pilots with badly damaged planes was Tomonaga himself. Nagumo began the battle with only four of Kido Butai's six carriers. After the Midway strike his potential effective force was further reduced. There were 11 planes shot down, 14 heavily damaged, and 29 other aircraft damaged to some extent. [Parshall and Tully, p. 204.] The lightly damaged aircraft could be repaired, but not for any further combat on June 4. Also 20 aviators were killed. Totaled up the 54 lost or damaged aircraft were almost equal to a carrier flight group. So Nagumo would now fight the battle with three effective carrier air groups opposed to three American carrier air groups and the unsinkable Midway air group with long range air craft. And note that American carriers had larger air groups than the Japanese carriers.
Flight leader Lieutenant Joichi Tomonaga surveying the damnage to the Midway instalatiions was not pleased. As the Japanese flew back toward their carriers, Tomonaga, radioed Adm. Nagumo that another air strike was required on Midway for an invasion (0700). We do not know what Tomoanaga saw that made him think that a second strike was needed, but that message would determine the outcome of the battle. It would not affect the American carrier attack. The Americans lunched art about the same time that Tomomaga requested a secind strile, but it ensured that the Japnese would be unasble to lqunch a major response. We suspect it was the heavy anti-aircraft fire rather thsn any facility still standing. What was not damnaged was the runways. Now in attacking an air base, the most obvious target is parked aircraft. The next is to disable the runway. Now runways can be easily repaired, but damage would mean that planes could not land or takeoff during the battle. The Japanese strike force did not bomb the runway, but that is a target they could not miss. If they had bombed it, a second strike would not have been needed. We do not know just what orders Tomonaga's strike group hadd, but we suspect it was to avoid disabling the runways. After all, with damnaged runways, the Japanese cold not immeduately fly in an air group. This was probably because they wanted the runways inract so they could land aitcraft and use Midway as an airbase almost immediately.
The Japanese were under the ilusionn that they were launching a surprise attack on Midway and would catch the base's air group on the ground. And if the American planes were destroyed on the ground, there would be no need to destroy the runways. A reader writes, "Probably it came down to the Japanese smugness of feeling superior. That is of course that the American fleet would be destroyed when they came out from Pearl Harbor. So Yes, absolutely he must have been saving the runways for for immediate use after they occupied Midway." We tend to agree, but it would be nice to know what Tomonaga's orders and plans were. In the various Midway books, we have notice this mentioned.
The Americans planned to launch their attack so as to catch Nagumo recoveringn his strike force after attacking on Midway. Actually because of the limited range of their aircraft, they had to close with the Japanese carriers, meaning that they were a little late. The basic set up, however, could not have been more perfect for the American carriers. Catching the Japanese while they were recovering the Midway strike force or preparing for another strike would be the perfect time to inflict maximum damage. The carriers would be full of some fully fuled and heavily armed aircraft that when hit would magnify the damage caused by the actual bombs dropped. And the commanders would be occupied with the recovery and possible launch. Actually they caught the Japanese a little later, but at the most perfect time--while the Japanese were still in the rearming process for a massive, coordinated attack. The American carrier assault begans with TF 16 (Enterprise and Hornet) (7:05). At the time, the Japanese were much faster in launching aircraft. Thus after beginning the launch it took time before the squadrons were in the air and orgaznized to move toward the targets. Enterprise's air group moved toward the Japanese in a piecemeal fashion as soon as each squadron was airborn which is why they did not attack in a coordinated fashion. Hornet held back until the entire group was air born. It would take an hour before all the TF 16 squadrons were launched. TF 17 (Yorktown's aircraft) were held back pending more details on the Japanese carriers.
Just as Nagumo's bombers and fighters were taking off, Midway launched 11 PBYs on searech missions. The search missions required daylight. A PBY reported sighting two Japanese carriers (05:34). Another PBY spotted the inbound Japane airstrike group (5:44). Radar on Midway gave further advanced notice of the approach of the Japsnese strike force. This enabled the Marine fighters to scrable and gain sime altiitude.. The U.S. Air Corps bombers also launched against the Japanese carriers. Thes Midway aur group also included an assortment of attack sircraft. There were six Grumman Avengers, detached to Midway from Hornet's VT-8. Marine Scout-Bombing Squadron 241 (VMSB-241), consisting of 11 SB2U-3s and 16 SBDs, plus four USAAF B-26s of the 18th Reconnaissance and 69th Bomb Squadrons armed with torpedoes, and 15 B-17s of the 31st, 72nd, and 431st Bomb Squadrons. Some of the aircraft were brand new and the air crews inexperienced. The attacks began (0710). They were uncoordinated and conducted without fighter escorts. They scored no hits and there were heavy losses. Midway was in effect a fourth carrier for the Americans, but it was not equipped with effective air craft and well trained crews for the battle. The Marines had obsolete fighters and the Army Air Corps B-17s were unlikely to hit the Japanese carriers from high altitudes. Even so, they provided a major distraction from the American carrier force lying in ambush to the northeast. And the highspeed manuevering made it difficult to prepare the secoind strike on Midway and then the strike on the American carriers that had been spotted.
Unlike the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanse pilots did not find American aircraft on the ground, in fact they found American fighters already launchd to oppose them. This alone should have alerted Tomonaga and Nagumo to the fact that the Americans were forewarned. And as Adm Kondo failed to alert Nagumo that his invasion force had been spotted, Nagumo was surprised and had little time to fully contemplate the situation. And the air attacks from Midway should have further tild him that the Amnericans were ready. But his attentiion was diverted by the American suit griouops from Midway sttacking his carriers. If the Americans were forewarned, it should have been obvious that the American carriers may be lurking in the area. It does not seem to have alerted either Nagumo at sea or the Japanese postmortem assessment of the battle. The Japanese remained sure that JN-25 was still secure.
Nagumo at this stage of the battle had a powerful air group ready to launch if American carriers were spotted. Many of those planes wsere armed with torpedoes and armor piercing bombs. The Japanese strike on Midway was effective, but because only a part of the Japanese force was used and two of the six fleet carriers of the First Air Fleet were not present, they did not put the Midway air base out of action. As a result, a second strike was needed. This was not a suprise. Nagumo had anticipated a second strike. Nagumo at this stage was diverted by the air strikes that had been launched from Midway. They began reaching the Japanese carruiers (about 0710) which took his and his staff's mind off of what they thought was the unlikely presence of the American carriers. The American airceaft from Midway continue in an uncoordinated series of attacks fpr about an hour. Yamaoto's and Nagumo' mind set was that the Americans were cowering at Pearl and would have to be lured out. Nagumo thus ordered preparations for the second strike which mean rearming the aircraft kept in reservre for a possible American carrier attack from torpedoes to bombs. So he oirdered the reserve groop tobe rearmed with contact-fused general-purpose bombs for a second strike on midway(0715). If this had not been done, Nagumo would have had an air group immediately ready to be immediately nlaunched at American carriers. This rearming would take time, especially as Nagumo had yet to recover Tomonaga's Midway strike force first. The American attacks from Midway, required steep turns as the carriers evaded the bonbs and torpedoe, saving the ships, but adversely affected the rearming process.
About a half an hour into the rearming process, Tone's No. 4 Scout plane signaled the first report of American ships (0745). He does not mention carriers, but given the dispositiin of American Task forces with carriers at the center of a protective screen of destroyers and crusiets, it is difficult to understand hiow he could have missed at keast one. Some evidence suggests that Nagumo did not receiuve this siufgnal (until 0800). Nagumo recognizing the danger, immeduately reversed his order to re-arm the bombers with general-purpose bombs and ordered that the scout plane ascertain the composition of the American force. Only later does the Tone Scout mnention a carrier (0820).
As soon as Tone's scout reported the poresence od American ships, Rear Admiral Tamon , leading Carrier Division 2 (Hiryū and Sōryū), pressed Nagumo to nstrike immediately with the forces at hand however they were armed. We do not know when this occurred as we do notbkjnoiw precuisely when the report from the Tone scout reached the two admirals. The force ready to go was 16 Aichi D3A1 dive bombers on Sōryū and 18 on Hiryū, and half the ready cover patrol aircraft. [Bicheno, p. 1340] That was, however, not Japanese carrier doctrine which was massiuve, coordunated attacks. At about this time, more ASmerican groups from Midway began attacking, complicating any launching of attack grouos. Nagumo's opportunity to laubch was futher complicated by the imminent return of Tomonaga' Midway strike force. The returning strike force. Carriers at the time befire angled decks couild not launch and reciver aircraft at the same time. Nagumo decided to nwaut until a massive coordinated strike could be organized. When it is noted what a smaller groupo from just Hiru later did, this can be seen as a huge mistake. It would noit have save the Kido Butai, but it suely wioukd have sxeverly damages thre Amnericans.
Second series of American attacks from Midway befin (0753). This was sgottly after NBagumo got the Tone sighting reoport. The American air attach from Midway proceeded in an unorganized piecemeal fashion. No damage is inflicted, but the sharp maneuvers of the shiops at high speed, complicated the rearming process. Thgese attacks continue for more than a hal hour. Finally ending (0830). This was about shen Tomoinaga's trike groupo began reaching their carriers.
Tomonaga strike group began reaching their carriers (about 0830). Nagumo's opportunity to strike at now discovered American ships. [Parshall and Tully, pp. 165–170] was limited by the return of Tomonaga's 100-strong Midway strike force. The returning strike force needed to land quickly or the planes would begin to run out of fuel and have to ditch into the ocean. Many planes weree damaged and pilots injured. And due to the the ongoing flight deck activity associated with combat air patrol operations during the preceding hour, the Japanese had no opportunity to position (spot) their reserve planes on the flight deck for launch. Recovering Tomonaga's strike group was finally accomplished (0915).
Nagumo can be criticised for his handling of the battle, but he was for the most part faithfully following standard Japanese naval carrier doctrine to the ketter as well as Yamaoito's orderes. But then he made a major error that doomed the Kido Butai. With Tomonaga's strike group recivered and the rearming almost completed, he turned northeast toward the American carriers. This is why so many American squadrons missed the Japanese and Enterprise's dive bombers almost missed them as well. Turning itself was not a mistake on Nagumo's part, but turning mortheast toward the Americans was. The Jaoanese aircraft had a longer range than than the American aircraft, so Nagumo should have turned away fron the Americans, bit toward them. It would have been to the Japanesea advntage to widen the distance from the Americans, not close with them. Remember that the Entrerprise dive bombers were about to turn back because they were running low on fuel. Not only would he have widened the gap by turning northwest, but he would havev made it more difficult for the American strike grouos to find him.
Just as Nagumo finished revovering Tomonmaga's attack group, a third series of American attacks begins (0917). This was the beginning of the caeriier attacks. They were the antiquated Douglas TBD Devestaors. they attacked without amy fighter escors or in effectual coverahe and were torn to pieces by the Japanese Zero CAP. They inflicted no damage, but impaired the reaming process. And the Japanese carriers could not launch a counter stroke while under attack. By the time, the Japanese fight off the American torpedo attacks, the situation on the carriers is a matter of some diuspute Fuchida in his book lied about the situation saying the Japanese were preparing to launch. [Fuchida and Okumiya] This is the dramatic scene poprtrayed in the Heston film 'Midway' (1976), but it is pure Hollywood fiction. The Japanese were not any here near preparing to launch. The Japanese aircraft had not even been spotted on the flight decks. And we do not know the siutuation in the hangers below deck as to the rearming. One important American scholar belieces that the Japanese were far from completing the rearming process. [Parshall, 'Fuchida']
The Japanese were probably at least a half hour away proibably alottle more away from launching a strike against the American carruers. It is at this time two separate groups of American dive bombers (from Enetrrise and Yorktown) sighted the Kido Butai (about 1000). This was not an intentionally coordinated attack, but could not have been more perfectly timed. They Amerucan dive bombers comence their climatic attack (1020).
Bicheno, Hugh. Midway (London: Orion Publishing Group, 2001).
Fuchida, Mitsuo and Masatake Okumiya (1955). Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan: The Japanese Navy's Story (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1955). Fuchida's motivation for the jinaccurate acount abord Akagi will never be known, but portraying the Japabese to be within minutes of delivering a killer blow does seem tgo put the Japanese commanders in a better light than what actually occurred.
Parshall, Jonathan, "Fuchida and the Flight Deck Myth," Western Naval History Association (August 23, 2020.)
Parshall, Jonathan and Anthony Tully. Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Potomac Books: Washington, D.C., @007), 612p. First ublished in 2005. This book is very valuable because unlike most Midway histories it focuses on the Japanese side of the battle.
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