The Battle of Midway (ミッドウェー海戦, Middowē Kaisen?) in the Pacific Theater of Operations was one of the most important naval battles of World War II. Between 4 and 7 June 1942, only six months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, and one month after the Battle of the Coral Sea, the United States Navy decisively defeated an Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) attack against Midway Atoll, inflicting irreparable damage on the Japanese fleet Military historian John Keegan called it “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.” It was Japan’s worst naval defeat in 350 years.
The Japanese operation, like the earlier attack on Pearl Harbor, sought to eliminate the United States as a strategic power in the Pacific, thereby giving Japan a free hand in establishing its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The Japanese hoped that another demoralizing defeat would force the U.S. to capitulate in the Pacific War and thus ensure Japanese dominance in the Pacific.
The Japanese plan was to lure the United States’ aircraft carriers into a trap. The Japanese also intended to occupy Midway as part of an overall plan to extend their defensive perimeter in response to the Doolittle Raid. This operation was also considered preparatory for further attacks against Fiji, Samoa, and Hawaii itself.
The plan was handicapped by faulty Japanese assumptions of the American reaction and poor initial dispositions. Most significantly, American codebreakers were able to determine the date and location of the attack, enabling the forewarned U.S. Navy to set up an ambush of its own. Four Japanese aircraft carriers – Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu, all part of the six carrier force to launch the attack on Pearl Harbor six months earlier – and a heavy cruiser were sunk at a cost of one American aircraft carrier and a destroyer. After Midway, and the exhausting attrition of the Solomon Islands campaign, Japan’s shipbuilding and pilot training programs were unable to keep pace in replacing their losses while the U.S. steadily increased its output in both areas.
Japan had attained its initial strategic goals quickly, taking the Philippines, Malaya, Singapore, and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia); the latter, with its vital oil resources, was particularly important to Japan. Because of this, preliminary planning for a second phase of operations commenced as early as January 1942. However, there were strategic disagreements between the Imperial Army and Imperial Navy, and infighting between the Navy’s GHQ and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s Combined Fleet, such that a follow-up strategy was not formed until April 1942. Admiral Yamamoto finally succeeded in winning the bureaucratic struggle with a thinly veiled threat to resign, after which his plan for the Central Pacific was adopted.
Yamamoto’s primary strategic goal was the elimination of America’s carrier forces, which he perceived as the principal threat to the overall Pacific campaign. This concern was acutely heightened by the Doolittle Raid (18 April 1942) in which 16 USAAF B-25 Mitchells launched from USS Hornet bombed targets in Tokyo and several other Japanese cities. The raid, while militarily insignificant, was a severe psychological shock to the Japanese and showed the existence of a gap in the defenses around the Japanese home islands as well as the accessibility of Japanese territory by American bombers. This and other successful hit-and-run raids by American carriers showed that they were still a threat, although seemingly reluctant to be drawn into an all-out battle. Yamamoto reasoned that another attack on the main US. Naval base at Pearl Harbor would induce all of the American fleet to sail out to fight, including the carriers; however, given the strength of American land-based air power on Hawaii, he judged that it was too risky to attack Pearl Harbor directly. Instead, he selected Midway, a tiny atoll at the extreme northwest end of the Hawaiian Island chain, approximately 1,300 miles (1,100 nautical miles; 2,100 kilometers) from Oahu. Midway was not especially important in the larger scheme of Japan’s intentions, but the Japanese felt the Americans would consider Midway a vital outpost of Pearl Harbor and would therefore be compelled to defend it vigorously. The U.S. did consider Midway vital; after the battle, establishment of a U.S. submarine base on Midway allowed submarines operating from Pearl Harbor to refuel and provision, extending their radius of operations by 1,200 miles (1,900 kilometres). In addition to serving as a seaplane base, Midway’s airstrips also served as a forward staging point for bomber attacks on Wake Island.
Typical of Japanese naval planning during World War II, Yamamoto’s battle plan was exceedingly complex. Additionally, his design was predicated on optimistic intelligence suggesting that USS Enterprise and USS Hornet, forming Task Force 16, were the only carriers available to the U.S. Pacific Fleet. In May 1942, during the Battle of the Coral Sea, USS Lexington had been sunk and USS Yorktown was so badly damaged that the Japanese believed she had been sunk. The Japanese were also aware that USS Saratoga was undergoing repairs on the West Coast after suffering torpedo damage from a submarine. Although the Japanese did not know for certain the locations of USS Wasp and USS Ranger, they concluded (correctly) that both were operating in the Atlantic.
However, more important was Yamamoto’s belief the Americans had been demoralized by their frequent defeats during the preceding six months. Yamamoto felt deception would be required to lure the U.S. fleet into a fatally compromised situation To this end, he dispersed his forces so that their full extent (particularly his battleships) would be unlikely to be discovered by the Americans prior to battle. Critically, Yamamoto’s supporting battleships and cruisers would trail Vice-Admiral Chūichi Nagumo’s carrier striking force by several hundred miles. Japan’s heavy surface forces were intended to destroy whatever part of the U.S. fleet might come to Midway’s relief, once Nagumo’s carriers had weakened them sufficiently for a daylight gun duel; this was typical of the battle doctrine of most major navies.
Yamamoto did not know that the U.S. had broken the main Japanese naval code (dubbed JN-25 by the Americans). Yamamoto’s emphasis on dispersal also meant that none of his formations could support each other. For instance, the only warships larger than the 12 destroyers that screened Nagumo’s fleet were two battleships, two heavy cruisers, and one light cruiser, despite his carriers being expected to carry out the strikes and bear the brunt of American counterattacks. By contrast, the flotillas of Yamamoto and Kondo had between them two light carriers, five battleships, and six cruisers, none of which would see any action at Midway. Their distance from Nagumo’s carriers would also have grave implications during the battle, because the larger warships in Yamamoto and Kondo’s forces carried scout planes, an invaluable reconnaissance capability denied to Nagumo.
Likewise, the Japanese operations in the Aleutian Islands (Operation AL) removed yet more ships that could otherwise have augmented the force striking Midway. Whereas prior historical accounts have often characterized the Aleutians operation as a feint to draw American forces away, recent scholarship on the battle has suggested that AL was supposed to be launched simultaneously with the attack on Midway. However, a one-day delay in the sailing of Nagumo’s task force meant that Operation AL began a day before the Midway attack.
Prelude to battle
To do battle with an enemy expected to muster four or five carriers, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas, needed every available U.S. flight deck. He already had Vice Admiral William Halsey’s two-carrier (Enterprise and Hornet) task force at hand, though Halsey was stricken with psoriasis and had to be replaced by Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, Halsey’s escort commander. Nimitz also hurriedly recalled Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher’s task force, including the carrier Yorktown (which had suffered considerable damage at Coral Sea), from the South West Pacific Area. It reached Pearl Harbor just in time to provision and sail.
Despite estimates that Yorktown would require several months of repairs at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, her elevators were intact, and her flight deck largely so. The Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard worked around the clock and in 72 hours, she was restored to a battle-ready state, judged good enough for two or three weeks of operations, as Nimitz required. Her flight deck was patched, whole sections of internal frames had been cut out and replaced, and several squadrons were drawn from Saratoga; they did not, however, get time to train. Nimitz disregarded established procedure in getting his third and last available carrier ready for battle. Just three days after putting into dry dock at Pearl Harbor, Yorktown was again under way. Repairs continued even as she sortied, with work crews from the repair ship USS Vestal, herself damaged in the attack on Pearl Harbor six months earlier, still aboard.
On Midway, by 4 June the USN had stationed four squadrons of Consolidated PBY Catalinas — 31 aircraft in total — for long-range reconnaissance duties, and six brand-new Grumman TBF-1 Avengers, the latter a detachment from Hornet‘s squadron VT-8. The Marine Corps had 19 SBD Dauntless’s, seven F4F-3 Wildcats, 17 Vought SB2U-3 Vindicators, and 21 Brewster F2A-3s. The USAAF contributed a squadron of 17 B-17 Flying Fortresses, along with eight B-26 Marauders equipped with torpedoes: in total 126 aircraft.
During the Battle of the Coral Sea one month earlier, the Japanese light carrier Shōhō had been sunk and the fleet carrier Shōkaku had suffered three bomb hits, and was in drydock undergoing repairs. Although the carrier Zuikaku escaped the battle undamaged, she had lost almost half her air group, and was in port in Kure awaiting replacement planes and pilots. That there were none immediately available was a failure of the IJN crew training program, which already showed signs of being unable to replace losses. Instructors from the Yokosuka Air Corps were employed in an effort to make up the shortfall.
Historians Parshall and Tully believe that by combining the surviving aircraft and pilots from Shōkaku and Zuikaku, it is likely that Zuikaku could have been equipped with almost a full composite air group. However, they also note that doing so would have violated Japanese carrier doctrine, which stressed that carriers and their pilots must train as a single unit (in contrast, American training was only conducted at the squadron level). In any event, the Japanese apparently made no serious attempt to get Zuikaku ready for the forthcoming battle. Thus, Carrier Division 5, consisting of the two most advanced aircraft carriers of the Kido Butai would not be available and Admiral Nagumo would therefore have to rely on four fleet carriers: Kaga and Akagi forming Carrier Division 1; Hiryū and Sōryū as Carrier Division 2. At least part of this was due to fatigue; Japanese carriers had been constantly on operations since 7 December 1941, including raids on Darwin and Colombo.
The main Japanese carrier-borne strike aircraft were the Aichi D3A1 dive bomber and the Nakajima B5N2, which was used either as a torpedo bomber or as a level attack bomber. However, production of the D3A had been drastically reduced, while that of the B5N had been stopped completely and, as a consequence, there were none available to replace losses. In addition many of the aircraft being used during the June 1942 operations had been operational since late November 1941; although well maintained, many were almost worn out and had become increasingly unreliable. These factors meant that all carriers of the Kido Butai had fewer aircraft than their normal complement, and there were not enough spare aircraft or parts stored in the carriers’ hangars. One positive aspect for the Japanese was that their main carrier fighter was the fast and highly maneuverable Mitsubishi A6M2 “Zero”.
Japanese strategic scouting arrangements prior to the battle were also in disarray. A picket line of Japanese submarines was late getting into position (partly because of Yamamoto’s haste), which let the American carriers reach their assembly point northeast of Midway (known as “Point Luck”) without being detected. A second attempt at reconnaissance, using four-engine Kawanishi H8K flying boats to scout Pearl Harbor prior to the battle (and thereby detect the absence or presence of the American carriers), part of Operation K, was also thwarted when Japanese submarines assigned to refuel the search aircraft discovered that the intended refueling point — a hitherto deserted bay off French Frigate Shoals — was occupied by American warships (because the Japanese had carried out an identical mission in March). Thus, Japan was deprived of any knowledge concerning the movements of the American carriers immediately before the battle.
Japanese radio intercepts did notice an increase in both American submarine activity and message traffic. This information was in Yamamoto’s hands prior to the battle. However, Japanese plans were not changed; Yamamoto, at sea on Yamato, did not dare inform Nagumo for fear of exposing his position and assumed that Nagumo had received the same signal from Tokyo. Nagumo’s radio antennas, however, were unable to receive such long-wave transmissions, and he was left unaware of any American ship movements.
Admiral Nimitz had one priceless advantage: cryptanalysts had broken the Japanese Navy’s JN-25b code. Since the early spring of 1942, the US had been decoding messages stating that there would soon be an operation at objective “AF”. Commander Joseph J. Rochefort and his team at Station HYPO were able to confirm Midway as the target of the impending Japanese strike by having the base at Midway send a false message stating that its water distillation plant had been damaged and that the base needed fresh water. The Japanese intercepted this and soon started sending messages that “AF was short on water.” HYPO was also able to determine the date of the attack as either 4 or 5 June, and to provide Nimitz with a complete IJN order of battle. Japan’s efforts to introduce a new codebook had been delayed, giving HYPO several crucial days; while it was blacked out shortly before the attack began, the important breaks had already been made.
As a result, the Americans entered the battle with a very good picture of where, when, and in what strength the Japanese would appear. Nimitz knew that the Japanese had negated their numerical advantage by dividing their ships into four separate task groups, all too widely separated to be able to support each other. Nimitz calculated that the aircraft on his three carriers, plus those on Midway Island, gave the U.S. rough parity with Yamamoto’s four carriers, mainly because American carrier air groups were larger than Japanese ones. The Japanese, by contrast, remained almost totally unaware of their opponent’s true strength and dispositions even after the battle began.
Midway order of battle
Initial air attacks
At about 09:00 on 3 June, Ensign Jack Reid, piloting a Catalina from US Navy patrol squadron VP-44, spotted the Japanese Occupation Force some 500 nautical miles (580 miles; 930 kilometers) to the west-southwest of Midway. He mistakenly reported this group as the Main Force. The first air attack took off at 12:30, consisting of nine B-17s operating from Midway. Three hours later, they found the Japanese Tanaka’s transport group 570 nautical miles (660 miles; 1,060 kilometers) to the west. Under heavy anti-aircraft fire, they dropped their bombs. Though hits were reported, none of the bombs actually hit and no significant damage was inflicted. Early the following morning, Japanese oil tanker Akebono Maru sustained the first hit when a torpedo from an attacking Catalina struck her around 01:00. This would be the only successful air-launched torpedo attack by the U.S. during the entire battle.
At 04:30 on 4 June, Nagumo launched his initial attack on Midway itself, consisting of 36 Aichi D3A dive bombers and 36 Nakajima B5N torpedo bombers, escorted by 36 Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters. At the same time, he launched combat air patrol (CAP), as well as his eight search aircraft (one from the heavy cruiser Tone launched 30 minutes late due to technical difficulties).
Japanese reconnaissance arrangements were flimsy, with too few aircraft to adequately cover the assigned search areas, laboring under poor weather conditions to the northeast and east of the task force. Yamamoto’s faulty dispositions had now become a serious liability.
As Nagumo’s bombers and fighters were taking off, 11 Catalinas were leaving Midway to run their search patterns. At 05:30, one Catalina reported sighting two Japanese carriers with empty decks, indicating an air strike en route. American radar picked up the enemy at a distance of several miles and interceptors were soon scrambled. Unescorted bombers headed off to attack the Japanese carrier fleet, their fighter escorts remaining behind to defend Midway. At 06:20, Japanese carrier aircraft bombed and heavily damaged the U.S. base. Midway-based Marine fighter pilots, flying F4Fs and obsolescent F2As, intercepted the Japanese and suffered heavy losses, though they managed to destroy four B5Ns and at least three A6Ms. Most of the U.S. planes were downed in the first few minutes; several were damaged, and only two remained flyable. In all, 3 F4Fs and 13 F2As were shot down. American anti-aircraft fire was accurate and intense, damaging many Japanese aircraft and destroying four additional Japanese planes.
Of the 108 Japanese aircraft involved in this attack, 11 were destroyed, 14 were heavily damaged, and 29 were damaged to some degree. The initial Japanese attack did not succeed in neutralizing Midway. American bombers could still use the airbase to refuel and attack the Japanese invasion force and most of Midway’s land-based defenses were intact; another aerial attack to soften Midway’s defenses would be necessary if troops were to go ashore by 7 June.
Having taken off prior to the Japanese attack, American bombers based on Midway made several attacks on the Japanese carrier fleet. These included six Grumman Avengers, detached to Midway from the Hornet‘s VT-8 (Midway was the first combat mission for the VT-8 airmen, and it was the debut of the TBF into combat), Marine Scout-Bombing Squadron 241 (VMSB-241), consisting of eleven SB2U-3s and sixteen SBDs, plus four USAAF B-26s, armed with torpedoes, and fifteen B-17s. The Japanese shrugged off these attacks with two fighters lost, while destroying five TBFs, two SB2Us, eight SBDs and two B-26s. The first Marine aviator to perish during the battle, Major Lofton R. Henderson of VMSB-241, was killed while leading his inexperienced Dauntless squadron into action and was later honored by having the main airfield at Guadalcanal named after him in August 1942.
One B-26, after being seriously damaged by anti-aircraft fire, veered into a steep dive straight toward the Akagi. Making no attempt to pull out of its run, the aircraft narrowly missed crashing directly into the carrier’s bridge, which could have potentially killed Nagumo and his command staff. This experience may well have contributed to Nagumo’s determination to launch another attack on Midway, in direct violation of Yamamoto’s order to keep the reserve strike force armed for anti-ship operations.
Admiral Nagumo, in accordance with Japanese carrier doctrine at the time, had kept half of his aircraft in reserve. These comprised two squadrons each of dive bombers and torpedo bombers, the latter armed with torpedoes should any American warships be located. The dive bombers were as yet unarmed. As a result of the attacks from Midway, as well as the morning flight leader’s recommendation of a second strike, at 07:15 Nagumo ordered his reserve planes to be re-armed with contact-fused general purpose bombs for use against land targets. Some sources maintain that this had been underway for about 30 minutes when at 07:40 the delayed scout plane from Tone signaled that it had sighted a sizable American naval force to the east, although it neglected to describe the composition of this force. New evidence, however, suggests Nagumo did not receive the sighting report until 08:00, so the rearming operation actually proceeded for 45 minutes. Nagumo quickly reversed his order and demanded that the scout plane ascertain the composition of the American force, but another 40 minutes elapsed before Tone’s scout finally radioed the presence of a single carrier in the American force. This was one of the carriers from TF 16; the other carrier was not sighted.
Nagumo was now in a quandary. Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi, leading Carrier Division 2 (Hiryū and Sōryū), recommended that Nagumo strike immediately with the forces at hand: 18 Aichi D3A1 dive bombers each on Sōryū and Hiryū, and half the ready cover patrol aircraft. Nagumo’s opportunity to hit the American ships, however, was now limited by the fact that his Midway strike force would be returning shortly and needed to land promptly or ditch into the sea. Because of the constant flight deck activity associated with combat air patrol operations during the preceding hour, the Japanese never had an opportunity to “spot” (i.e., position on the flight deck) their reserve planes for launch. The few aircraft on the Japanese flight decks at the time of the attack were either defensive fighters or, in the case of Sōryū, fighters being spotted to augment the task force defenses. Spotting his flight decks and launching aircraft would have required at least 30 to 45 minutes. Furthermore, by spotting and launching immediately, Nagumo would be committing some of his reserve to battle without proper anti-ship armament; he had just witnessed how easily unescorted American bombers had been shot down. Poor discipline caused many of the Japanese bombers to ditch their bombs and attempt to dogfight intercepting F4Fs. Japanese carrier doctrine preferred fully constituted strikes, and without confirmation of whether the American force included carriers (not received until 08:20), Nagumo’s reaction was doctrinaire. In addition, the arrival of another American air strike at 07:53 gave weight to the need to attack the island again. In the end, Nagumo chose to wait for his first strike force to land, then launch the reserve, which would by then be properly armed and ready.
In the final analysis, it made no difference; Fletcher’s carriers had launched their planes beginning at 07:00, so the aircraft that would deliver the crushing blow were already on their way. There was nothing Nagumo could do about it. This was the fatal flaw of Yamamoto’s dispositions: They followed strictly traditional battleship doctrine.
Attacks on the Japanese fleet
The Americans had already launched their carrier aircraft against the Japanese. Admiral Fletcher, in overall command aboard Yorktown, and benefiting from PBY sighting reports from the early morning, ordered Spruance to launch against the Japanese as soon as was practical, while initially holding Yorktown in reserve should there be any other Japanese carriers discovered. (Fletcher’s directions to Spruance were relayed via Nimitz who, unlike Yamamoto, had remained ashore.)
Spruance judged that, though the range was extreme, a strike could succeed and gave the order “Launch the attack” at around 06:00. He then left Halsey’s Chief of Staff, Captain Miles Browning, to work out the details and oversee the launch, which did not go smoothly. It took until a few minutes after 07:00 before the first plane was able to depart Spruance’s carriers, Enterprise and Hornet. Fletcher, upon completing his own scouting flights, followed suit at 08:00 from Yorktown.
Admiral Fletcher, commanding the Yorktown task force, along with Captain Elliott Buckmaster, Yorktown‘s commanding officer, and their staffs had acquired first-hand experience in organizing and launching a full strike against an enemy force in the Coral Sea, but there was no time to pass these lessons on to Enterprise and Hornet which were tasked with launching the first strike. Spruance gave at this point his second crucial command, “Proceed to target”—not to fritter away precious minutes, waiting for the strike force to assemble fully, but to proceed to the target as quickly as possible, since neutralizing enemy carriers was the key to the survival of his own task force. Spruance judged that the need to throw something at the enemy as soon as feasible was greater than the need for a coordinated attack among the different types of aircraft (fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes). Accordingly, American squadrons were launched piecemeal and proceeded to the target in several different groups. The lack of coordination was expected to diminish the overall impact of the American attacks as well as increasing their casualties. However, Spruance calculated that this risk was worth it, since keeping the Japanese under aerial attack hampered their ability to launch a counterstrike (Japanese tactics preferred fully constituted attacks), and he gambled that he could find Nagumo with his flight decks at their most vulnerable.
American carrier aircraft had difficulty locating the target, despite the positions they had been given. The strike from Hornet, led by Commander Stanhope C. Ring, followed an incorrect heading of 263 degrees rather than the 240 degrees indicated by the contact report. As a result, Air Group Eight’s dive bombers missed the Japanese carriers. Torpedo Squadron 8 (VT-8, from Hornet), led by Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron, broke formation from Ring and followed the correct heading. However, the 10 F4Fs from Hornet had run out of fuel and had to ditch. Waldron’s squadron sighted the enemy carriers and began attacking at 09:20, followed by Torpedo Squadron 6 (VT-6, from Enterprise) whose Wildcat fighter escorts also ran low on fuel and had to turn back at 09:40.Without fighter escort, all fifteen TBD Devastators of VT-8 were shot down without being able to inflict any damage, with Ensign George Gay the only survivor. VT-6 lost 10 of their 14 Devastators, and 10 of Yorktown’s VT-3’s 12 Devastators were shot down with no hits to show for their effort, thanks in part to the abysmal performance of their Mark 13 torpedoes. Senior Navy and Bureau of Ordnance officers never questioned why half a dozen torpedoes, released so close to the Japanese carriers, produced no results. The Japanese combat air patrol, flying Mitsubishi A6M2 Zeros made short work of the unescorted, slow, under-armed TBDs. A few TBDs managed to get within a few ship-lengths range of their targets before dropping their torpedoes—close enough to be able to strafe the enemy ships and force the Japanese carriers to make sharp evasive maneuvers. Midway would be the last time that the TBD Devastator was ever used in combat.
Despite their failure to score any hits, the American torpedo attacks indirectly achieved three important results. First, they kept the Japanese carriers off balance and unable to prepare and launch their own counterstrike. Second, they pulled the Japanese combat air patrol (CAP) 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 Torpedo Squadron 3 (VT-3 from Yorktown) at 10:00 very quickly drew the majority of the Japanese CAP to the southeast quadrant of the fleet. Better discipline and employment of a greater number of Zeroes for the CAP might have enabled Nagumo to prevent, or at least mitigate the damage caused by, the coming American attacks.
By chance, at the same time VT-3 was sighted by the Japanese, three squadrons of American SBDs from Enterprise and Yorktown (VB-6, VS-6 and VB-3, respectively) were approaching from the southwest and northeast. The Yorktown squadron (VB-3) had flown just behind VT-3 but elected to attack from a different course. The two squadrons from Enterprise were running low on fuel because of the time spent looking for the enemy. However, squadron commander C. Wade McClusky, Jr. decided to continue the search and by good fortune spotted the wake of the Japanese destroyer Arashi. The destroyer was steaming at full speed to rejoin Nagumo’s carriers after having unsuccessfully depth-charged U.S. submarine Nautilus, which had earlier unsuccessfully attacked the battleship Kirishima. Some bombers were lost from fuel exhaustion before the attack commenced.
McClusky’s decision to continue the search and his judgment, in the opinion of Admiral Chester Nimitz, “decided the fate of our carrier task force and our forces at Midway”.All three American dive-bombers squadrons (VB-6, VS-6 and VB-3) arrived almost simultaneously at the perfect time, locations and altitudes to attack. Most of the Japanese CAP was focusing on the torpedo planes of VT-3 and were out of position, armed Japanese strike aircraft filled the hangar decks, fuel hoses snaked across the decks as refueling operations were hastily completed, and the repeated 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, the two squadrons of Enterprise‘s air group split up and attacked two targets. However, a miscommunication initially caused both of the squadrons to dive at the Kaga. Lieutenant Commander Richard Halsey Best and his two wingmen were able to pull out of their dives and headed north to attack Akagi. Coming under an onslaught from almost two full squadrons, Kaga was hit by four or five bombs, which caused heavy damage and starting fires that could not be extinguished. One of the bombs landed near the bridge, killing most of the senior officers.
Several minutes later, Best and his two wingmen dove on the Akagi. Although Akagi sustained only one direct hit (almost certainly dropped by Lieutenant Commander Best), it nonetheless proved to be a fatal blow; the bomb struck the edge of the mid-ship deck elevator and penetrated to the upper hangar deck, where it exploded among the armed and fueled aircraft there. Another bomb exploded underwater very close astern; the resulting geyser bent the flight deck upward and also caused crucial rudder damage.
Simultaneously, Yorktown‘s VB-3, commanded by Max Leslie, went for Sōryū, scoring at least three hits and causing extensive damage. Simultaneously, VT-3 targeted Hiryū, which was hemmed in among Sōryū, Kaga, and Akagi, but achieved no hits.
Within six minutes, Sōryū and Kaga were ablaze from stem to stern, as fires continued to spread through the ships. Akagi, having been struck by only one bomb, would take longer to burn, but the resulting fires quickly expanded and soon proved impossible to extinguish; she too was eventually consumed by the flames. Despite initial hopes that Akagi could be saved or at least towed back to Japan, all three carriers were eventually abandoned and scuttled.
Hiryū, the sole surviving Japanese aircraft carrier, wasted little time in counterattacking. Hiryū’s first attack wave, consisting of 18 dive bombers and six fighter escorts, followed the retreating American aircraft and attacked the Yorktown, hitting her with three bombs, which blew a hole in the deck, snuffed out her boilers, and destroyed several anti-aircraft turrets. Despite the damage, repair teams were able to plank over the flight deck and restore power to several boilers within an hour, enabling her to resume air operations. Twelve Japanese dive bombers and four escorting fighters were lost in this attack.
Approximately one hour later, Hiryū’s second attack wave, consisting of ten torpedo bombers and six escorting A6Ms, arrived overhead; however, repair efforts had been so effective, the Japanese assumed she must be a different, undamaged carrier. In the subsequent attack, Yorktown was struck by two torpedoes; she lost all power and developed a 26-degree list to port, which put her out of action and forced Admiral Fletcher to move his command staff to the heavy cruiser Astoria. Both carriers of Spruance’s Task Force 16 were undamaged.
News of the two strikes, with the reports each had sunk an American carrier, greatly improved morale in the Kido Butai. Its few 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.
Late in the afternoon, a Yorktown scout aircraft located Hiryū, prompting Enterprise to launch a final strike of dive bombers (including 10 SBDs from Yorktown). Despite Hiryū being defended by a strong cover of more than a dozen Zero fighters, the attack by Enterprise was successful: four, possibly five bombs hit Hiryū, leaving the carrier ablaze and unable to operate aircraft. (Hornet‘s strike, launched late because of a communications error, concentrated on the remaining escort ships but failed to score any hits.) After futile attempts at controlling the blaze, most of the remaining crew on Hiryū were evacuated and the remainder of the fleet continued sailing northeast in an attempt to intercept the American carriers. Hiryū stayed afloat for several more hours, being discovered early the next morning by an aircraft from the light carrier Hōshō and prompting hopes Hiryu could be saved or at least towed back to Japan. However, soon after being spotted, Hiryū sank. Rear Admiral Yamaguchi chose to go down with his ship, costing Japan perhaps her best carrier officer.
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 he 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. Finally, fearing a possible night encounter with Japanese surface forces and believing Yamamoto still intended to invade, 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.
Spruance failed to regain contact with Yamamoto’s forces on 5 June despite extensive searches. Towards the end of the day he launched a search and destroy mission to seek out any remnants of Nagumo’s carrier force. This late 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 their lights to aid the landings.
At 02:15 on the night of June 6th , Commander John Murphy’s Tambor, lying some 90 nautical miles (100 miles; 170 kilometers) west of Midway, made the second of the submarine force’s two major contributions to the battle’s outcome. Sighting several ships, neither Murphy nor his executive officer, Ray Spruance, Jr., could identify them and, fearing they might be friendly, Murphy held fire. He did, however, report the ships to Admiral Robert English, Commander, Submarine Force, Pacific Fleet (COMSUBPAC), but neglected to confirm their course. This report was passed on by English to Nimitz, who then sent it to Spruance. Unaware of the exact location of Yamamoto’s “Main Body” (a persistent problem since PBYs had first sighted the Japanese), Spruance assumed this sighting was of the invasion force and moved to block it while staying some 100 nautical miles (120 miles; 190 kilometers) northeast of Midway.
The ships sighted by Tambor were the four cruisers and two destroyers Yamamoto had sent to bombard Midway. At 02:55 these ships received Yamamoto’s order to retire and changed course to comply.At about the same time as the course change, Tambor was sighted, and during maneuvers designed to avoid a submarine attack Mogami and Mikuma collided, inflicting serious damage to Mogami‘s bow. The less severely damaged Mikuma slowed to 12 knots (22 kilometers per hour; 14 miles per hour) to keep pace. This was the most damage any of the 18 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 hazardous, and he dived to approach for an attack. The attack was unsuccessful, and at around 06:00 he finally reported two westbound Mogami-class cruisers.
Over the following two days, first Midway and then Spruance’s carriers launched several strikes against the stragglers. Mikuma was eventually sunk by Dauntlesses,while Mogami survived further severe damage to return home for repairs. The destroyers Arashio and Asashio were also bombed and strafed during the last of these attacks. Captain Richard E. Fleming, a U.S. Marine Corps aviator, was killed while executing a glide bomb run on Mikuma and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Meanwhile, salvage efforts on Yorktown were encouraging, and she was taken in tow by USS Vireo. In the late afternoon of 6 June however, Yorktown was struck by two torpedoes from I-168. There were only a few casualties aboard Yorktown, since most of the crew had already been evacuated, but a third torpedo from this salvo struck and sank the destroyer USS Hammann, which had been providing auxiliary power to Yorktown. Hammann broke in two with the loss of 80 lives, mostly due to her own depth charges exploding. With further salvage efforts deemed hopeless, the remaining repair crews were evacuated from Yorktown, which lingered until just after 05:00 on 7 June.