The Japanese Midway attack force was divided three ways. First, the aircraft carriers would approach from the northwest and knock out the islands’ defenses. Coming in from the west and southwest, the Japanese 2nd Fleet would invade and capture Midway. Admiral Yamamoto’s battleships would remain 300 miles to the west, awaiting the U. S. Pacific Fleet.
Thanks to the work of American code breakers, the United States knew Yamamoto’s plans in detail by the middle of May – his target, his order of battle and his schedule.
When the battle opened, the U.S. had three carriers waiting in ambush, 200 miles to the east of Midway. The two opposing fleets sent out search planes – the Americans to locate an enemy they knew was there and the Japanese as a matter of ordinary prudence.
Seaplanes from Midway also were looking for the expected enemy fleet. One of the planes spotted the Japanese carrier force at 5:30 a.m. on June 4. The plane also reported Japanese aircraft heading for the atoll. Marine Corps planes from Midway soon intercepted the enemy formation. However, the Marines were hopelessly outnumbered and their planes were no match for the Japanese “Zero” fighter planes. They were able to shoot down only a few of the enemy bombers, while suffering great losses themselves. The torpedo boats and anti-aircraft fire from Midway’s guns were somewhat more successful in disrupting the Japanese attack.
A force of 108 Japanese planes hit Midway’s two islands at 6:30 a.m. Twenty minutes of bombing and machine-gun fire knocked out some facilities on Eastern Island, but did not disable the airfield there. Sand Island’s oil tanks, seaplane hangar and other buildings were set afire. The commander of the Japanese attack radioed that another air strike was required to soften up Midway’s defenses for invasion.
The Japanese carriers fought off several counterstrikes from Midway’s torpedo planes and bombers. Faced with overwhelming fighter opposition, these uncoordinated efforts suffered severe losses and hit nothing but seawater.
Meanwhile, a Japanese scout plane spotted the U.S. fleet and reported the presence of a carrier. Japanese commander Nagumo had already begun loading bombs into his second group of planes for another strike on Midway. This news forced him to rethink his strategy. He decided to wait for the planes returning from Midway and re-arm all the planes with torpedoes for an attack on the U.S. ships. He almost had enough time.
Beginning about 9:30 a.m., torpedo planes from the U.S. carriers Hornet, Enterprise and Yorktown made a series of attacks that – despite nearly total losses – made no hits. Then, at 10:25, everything changed. Three squadrons of dive bombers, two from Enterprise and one from Yorktown, almost simultaneously dove on three of the four Japanese carriers – whose decks were crowded with fully armed and fueled planes. By 10:30 a.m., Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu were ablaze and out of action.
Of the once overwhelming Japanese carrier force, only Hiryu remained operational. Shortly before 11 a.m. she launched 18 of her own dive-bombers.
At about noon, as these planes approached Yorktown, they were intercepted by U.S. fighter planes, which shot down most of the bombers. Seven survived, however, hitting Yorktown with three bombs, stopping her dead in the water.
The Yorktown’s crew managed to get their ship underway, as two more groups of torpedo planes and fighters from Hiryu spotted the Yorktown, which they mistook for a second U.S. carrier. Despite losses to the defending fighters and heavy anti-aircraft fire, the Japanese planes pushed on to deliver a beautifully coordinated torpedo attack. The stricken ship again went dead in the water. Concerned that the severely listing vessel was about to capsize, her captain ordered his crew to abandon ship.
Late on June 4, U.S. carrier planes found and bombed Hiryu, which sank the next day. Two days later, a Japanese submarine located the Yorktown and the U.S. destroyer Hammann, which was helping the Yorktown return to Pearl Harbor for repairs. The submarine torpedoed both vessels. The Hammann sank immediately, and the Yorktown finally sank the following morning.
By the end of the battle, the perseverance, sacrifice and skill of American pilots – plus a great deal of good luck – cost Japan four irreplaceable aircraft carriers. Only one of the three U.S. carriers was sunk.
The Japanese lost 332 of their finest aircraft and more than 200 of their most experienced pilots. Deprived of useful air cover, and after several hours of shocked indecision, Yamamoto called off the Midway operation and retreated. The Japanese navy never fully recovered from its losses. Six months after it began, the great Japanese Pacific War offensive was over.
From June 1942 to the end of the war three years later, it was the Americans who were on the offense.