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Six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7th December 1941, a Japanese invasion armada headed for the United States naval base on Midway, two small islands that form a coral atoll in the North Pacific about 1,300 miles northwest of Hawaii.

The Japanese armada was the main prong of a colossal offensive aimed at destroying American power in the Pacific. Japanese strike forces, spread across 2,000 miles of ocean, were to invade Midway and the two islands in the Aleutians, the bleak archipelago curving westward from the Alaska mainland.

Japanese strategists expected to draw the United States Pacific Fleet from Pearl Harbour into a decisive battle. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander-In-Chief of the Japanese combined fleet and architect of the Pearl Harbour attack, believed that his plan would smash the American fleet forcing them to a negotiated peace.


Spearheading the Japanese operation were four aircraft carriers: the Akagi, Kanga, Hiryu, and Soryu. Surrounding the aircraft carriers was a screen of eleven destroyers, two battleships, and three cruisers. The force also included transports for the five thousand troops who would invade Midway.

As the Japanese fleet steamed toward Midway on June 2nd, 1942, Yamamoto hoped that the advantage of surprise was till on his side.

This was not the case as the Japanese code had been broken and three United States carriers - the Yorktown, Hornet and Enterprise, along with their destroyers and cruisers were waiting to pounce on them.  Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-In-Chief of the Pacific fleet knew that he only had two seaworthy carriers - the Enterprise and the Hornet, to confront the four Japanese carriers. As well, he had the battered Yorktown which had arrived in Pearl Harbour on the 27th May 1942, a stream of leaking oil spreading for miles behind her. A bomb had struck her in the Battle of the Coral Sea on the 8th May 1942, holing her flight deck and exploding deep within the ship. It was expected that the Yorktown would be sent to the United States West Coast for repairs, however, Nimitz ordered her to be readied for battle in three days. Some 1,500 yard workers clambered aboard, patched her flight deck, welded steel plates on her hull and shored up her collapsed bulkhead with timber.

The Enterprise and the Hornet left Pearl Harbour on the 28th May 1942. Two days later came the Yorktown along with their support ships in two task forces. The carriers rendezvoused on the 2nd June 1942 at a spot about 390 miles northeast of Midway. They all knew that their chances of success would be much higher if they could find the Japanese before the Japanese found them.

As it happened, the 3rd June 1942 was a lucky day for the Americans when a Catalina flying boat flying a search fan out of Midway spotted the Japanese fleet and sent coded messages back to Midway. On the 4th June 1942 at dawn, the Japanese strike force launched 108 aircraft to bomb Midway. The planes that attached Midway ran into heavy anti-aircraft fire and fought fierce dog fights against slow United States fighters. Swarms of fast, agile Japanese zeroes massacred the Americans with fourteen of the pilots being killed and four wounded.  

Burning oil tanks blacken Midway's sky during the
raid by Japanese bombers, a prelude to a planned invasion

Fifty-one planes from Midway took off and set out to attack the Japanese fleet. Among these planes were six TBF Avenger torpedo bombers. Only one bomber returned. The fierce opposition from Midway blunted the Japanese attack, so the leader of the raid radioed his commander saying there was a need for a second attack wave. However, the Japanese ordinance men were already loading aircraft with torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs for a strike on the United States carriers. Another attack on Midway meant rearming the planes with ground-attack bombs, so the men were ordered to exchange the torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs for ground attack bombs.

At almost the same moment, the Hornet and the Enterprise began to launch their aircraft for a strike on the Japanese carriers. The planes from the Yorktown followed soon after. Twenty-three minutes after the call for a second attack on Midway, a Japanese scout plane reported seeing what appears to be ten enemy surface ships. At that moment, code breakers on the Enterprise intercepted the message and deduced that the United States carriers had been spotted.

On the Japanese carriers, officers ordered another switch - back to torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs. As this was being done, fifteen TBD Devastator bombers from the Hornet's Torpedo Squadron 8 appeared and will wipe out by an inferno of gun fire. Devastator Torpedo bombers kept coming - fourteen from the Enterprise and another twelve from the Yorktown. Japanese fighters shot them to pieces. Of the 41 Devastators that had flown unescorted by fighters against the Japanese carrier, only four survived and no torpedo hit an enemy ship. But the Devastators had not gone down in vain. Lumbering in at low level, they had kept the enemy busy while, far overhead, dive-bombers had arrived, unnoticed and unopposed.

Thirty-two SBD Dauntless dived-bombers from the Enterprise had followed a Japanese warship as it headed toward the Japanese carrier. The squadron then dived on the Kaga while another squadron aimed at the Akagi. Then seventeen SBDs from the Yorktown arrived and dived on the Soryu as she was turning into the wind to launch planes.

Four bombs hit the Kaga, setting off gasoline-fed fires among the planes on deck. Two bombs hit the Akagi, one striking the amidships elevator which crumbled into the hanger deck. Fires and explosions spread among the sixty-odd aircraft, most of them fuelled and armed. Three bombs struck the Soryu, touching off explosions and fires on the flight and hanger decks. In scarcely six minutes, the three carriers were fatally ablaze and listing.

The fourth Japanese carrier, the Hiryu had only hours to live as she would be fatally wounded by American dive-bombers later that afternoon. Before that, however, from her deck, heading for the Yorktown, flew a force of eighteen Val dive-bombers and six zero escorts. The United States fighters protecting the Yorktown accounted for most of the Vals, however, this surviving Japanese dive-bombers flew on with three coming in from astern the Yorktown while the others came in off starboard. The Yorktown was fatally wounded and the ship was abandoned. Soon after an effort to save the Yorktown began with the arrival of a tug which started towing the carrier back to Pearl Habour. The destroyer Hammann tied up alongside the Yorktown. A 170-man salvage team went aboard, jettisoning aircraft, cutting loose an anchor and trying to trim her by pumping sea water into empty fuel tanks.

The cruiser Mikuma sunk by Dauntless dive-bombers at Midway

A Japanese submarine I-168 came across the Yorktown and manoeuvring into position fired four torpedoes and then began a successful escape. One torpedo struck the Hammann breaking her in two. Two torpedoes passed under the destroyer and hit the Yorktown. Both the Hammann and the Yorktown were sunk shortly past dawn on the 7th June 1942. By this time, the United States carrier planes had sunk the cruiser Mikuma while withdrawing from the battle that would be the turning point in the Pacific war. Although the war would go on for three more years, the Japanese navy would never again launch an offensive.

Crewman of the burning Yorktown tend to their ship and their fallen comrades

The Battle of Midway had cost 362 American lives including those killed defending Midway. For the United States, Midway was a magnificent victory against greater odds and was described by Admiral Nimitz as "a glorious page in our history".  

A ghostly guardian against an invasion that never came,
a pillbox confronts a tranquil twilight on Midway.

A pair of World War II-era United States war planes recall the Battle of Midway

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 (E-mail: -- 12th February 2005)