Down but Not Out

Against all odds, as Japan marched to one overwhelming triumph after another, the U.S. scored a memorable victory

  • Share
  • Read Later

(10 of 11)

Keeping his enormous "main fleet" in reserve for the future battle that would never materialize, Yamamoto sent Nagumo ahead with four of the six carriers from the task force that had devastated Pearl Harbor. Before dawn on June 4, Nagumo launched 108 planes, half his force, to pulverize Midway's defenses. But his scout planes failed to spot two U.S. carriers, the $ Enterprise and the Hornet, lying in wait less than 200 miles to the northeast under the command of Halsey's replacement, Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance. Taking an immense risk, the normally prudent Spruance committed virtually all his planes -- 67 Dauntless dive bombers, 29 Devastator torpedo bombers and 20 Wildcat fighters -- to a desperate counterattack.

By some combination of inspired calculations and pure luck, Spruance's planes reached Nagumo's fleet just as the carriers were taking in their returning bombers and reloading for a second strike at Midway. To exploit that moment of supreme vulnerability, the Devastator torpedo bombers roared in. Despite the Americans' advantage of surprise, they too encountered a shock: the overwhelming superiority of the Zero fighters defending the Japanese carriers. As each torpedo bomber lumbered toward a carrier, it was shot to pieces. Fifteen torpedo bombers left the Hornet; the only survivor was Ensign George Gay, who was shot down and wounded in the arm and leg but managed to float until rescuers found him the next day.

Eight times the American planes attacked Nagumo's carriers, and eight times they were beaten off. When the last torpedo bomber was shot down at about 10:25 a.m., it looked as though Nagumo had won the Battle of Midway. But the Zeros embroiled in low-level combat against the torpedo bombers didn't see what was happening high overhead. At 15,000 ft. above the carrier Kaga, Lieut. Commander Clarence Wade McClusky, nearly out of gas from searching for his quarry, nosed his Dauntless dive bomber into a screaming plunge. Behind him, 25 of his pilots did the same. At 1,800 ft., McClusky pulled the bomb release. He later remembered the image of the Kaga's clean, empty hardwood deck, then the tremendous explosion. Bleeding from five bullet wounds, McClusky barely got back to the Enterprise, with less than 5 gal. of gas in his tank.

Lieut. Richard Best took on the next carrier, which he didn't realize was the Akagi, Nagumo's flagship. "Don't let this carrier escape," he shouted over his radio to the four remaining bombers as he started his dive. His bomb landed next to Nagumo's bridge, starting a huge fire. At almost that very moment, the dive bombers received reinforcements from a third carrier, the patched-up Yorktown. Lieut. Commander Maxwell Leslie led 17 more bombers from the Yorktown in a dive that smashed and crippled a third carrier, the Soryu.

In less than 10 minutes, Nagumo had seen three of his four carriers transformed into blazing hulks. And he had been transformed from the commander of all he surveyed into a desperate survivor who had to clamber out a window to escape from his burning flagship to a nearby cruiser.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8
  9. 9
  10. 10
  11. 11