Aerial shot of Midway on November 24, 1941, shortly before the start of the war with Japan. Source: US Navy
Text: Miro Barič
To describe the Battle of Midway would be beating of the dead horse. The details about the air combat can be found in Tom Cleaver’s article in the Info No. 152 (issue 10/2022). Therefore, in the following text we will focus on some key moments and also look into the search for the ships sunken during this battle.
Battle of the Corral Sea, described in the previous part of this series, marked the very first aircraft carriers encounter in the history. It was a Japanese tactical victory since they lost only one small aircraft carrier, Shōhō and one destroyer while they sank a large American aircraft carrier Lexington, a tanker and a destroyer. Strategically the battle meant an Allied success since they prevented the Japanese landing at Port Moresby.
In comparison Midway represented the very first American victory which not only hampered the Japanese offensive plans but also struck a devastative blow against their Navy from which they have never fully recovered. The ground for this was laid exactly by the Battle of the Corral Sea during which the aircraft carrier Shōkaku was severely damaged by three bombs and required the dry dock repairs. The second aircraft carrier, Zuikaku avoided the damage however lost a half of her aircraft crews and waited for the replacements. Therefore, both ships were missing at the attack on Midway.
On the other side the American aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, seriously damaged in the Corral Sea, was repaired with the enormous effort and barely withing a month could join another battle. It was an unpleasant surprise for Japanese.
Midway became the target of the first attack as early as December 7, 1941. Pictured here is the wreck of PBY-3 Catalina (BuNo 0824), destroyed in a night bombardment by the destroyers Ushio and Sazanami. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command
Ace in the sleeve
The greatest American advantage though was the intelligence acquired by decoding the Japanese messages. It helped to uncover the Japanese plan to land at Port Moresby – and thanks to it the Commader of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz started to trust the judgment of the HYPO station on Hawaiian Islands much more while evaluating the intercepted Japanese messages. And precisely their information played the critical role in the case of the Battle of Midway. It is the proof that even the nerds can help win the wars!
HYPO station was one of two main cryptographic intelligence unit of the USN in the Pacific. The other one was in Melbourne. The third station in Philippines had to be evacuated before the Japanese onslaught and the personnel was incorporated into the Australian unit. HYPO station was commanded by Cpt. Joseph Roschefort, a very colorful individual in the otherwise dull uniformed world. Rochefort was born in 1900 in Dayton, Ohio. In 1917 he enlisted in the US Navy. During the enlistment process he lied he had been born in 1898 and this age difference accompanied him throughout his whole career which started by graduating from the Navy Mechanic School and starting the service on the tanker USS Cuyama. There, another officer noticed his passion in solving the rebus and cross words and recommended him for the Navy crypto-analytical studies. During 1929-1932 the Navy ensured he could master the Japanese language (including the studies in Tokyo) a when he was in the beginning of 1941 commissioned to lead HYPO station, he had already had nine years of service in the intelligence units under his belt. He was allowed to personally choose the majority of his team members, so he molded his team according to his needs. Their main task was to break the Japanese Navy code called JN-25 by the Americans.
In cooperation with British, Australian and Dutch colleagues the American analytics gradually achieved the capability to read 10 to 15% of each Japanese message. To estimate the rest of the contents was a problem. That the large-scale Japanese offensive was being prepared was clear even before the first shot were fired in the Corral Sea. Those in Washington though supposed that the attack will be directed to the south, then towards Johnston Island. And finally estimated the date of the attack no sooner than middle of June 1942. On the contrary Rochefort was convinced that the Japanese operation is headed towards the central Pacific and its target is Midway and it will commence in the beginning of June. And that he was right in all aspects made him a lot of enemies in Washington. Luckily, Admiral Nimitz fully agreed with his conclusions and made the corresponding arrangements. Had he relied on the instructions from Washington he would have reached Midway after its capture by the Japanese. Instead, he could wait for Japanese and set the trap for them while they had no idea about the main American forces movement.
USS Yorktown in dock at Pearl Harbor on May 29, 1942. Damage from the Battle of the Coral Sea was repaired in record time. Source: US Navy
Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi at sea in the summer of 1941. Three A6M Zero fighters are parked forward. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command
Trick on Japanese and their own command
In order to confirm its judgement HYPO station came up with the deceit Admiral Nimitz also agreed with. One intercepted message contained the words “koryaku butai” which had been confirmed as “invasion fleet” combined with the designation AF. As a target of the attack AF was mentioned in further Japanese messages. Rochefort was convinced that AF is Midway. But people in Washington believed it to be Johnston Island. Then one of Rochefort’s team members, Wilfred “Jasper” Holmes proposed that Midway faked the water supply problems. Nimitz gave the plan green light and the instructions were sent to Midway by underwater cable. Consequently, the island reported in the plain language that the sea water processing equipment suffered from the explosion and the drinking water supplies will last for two weeks only. The message was intercepted by the Japanese station on Kwajalein and sent it to the higher command. A couple of hours later commander of the air group scheduled to occupy AF sent the request to the headquarters for the emergency water supplies. This confirmed the identity of the target.
All these analytical successes were not for free. During the month of May 1942, when any piece of informational was invaluable, for days Rochefort did not leave his bunker and worked for more than 12 hous a day. He did not follow the military rules and regulations but applied his own methods which were successful. While at work he wore the bathing robe and flippers. One can easily picture the image of Captain Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce from MASH series played by Alan Alda. Rochefort was lucky as well. In the very end of May 1942, the Japanese ceased to use JN-25 code and replaced it with another. That would have been broken from the scratch – however all that was important for the battle of Midway the American cryptanalytics had already found out. Nimitz wanted to reward Rochefort’s efforts and proposed his decoration with Navy Distinguished Service Medal. Nimitz’s superior, Admiral Ernest King refused it. He considered Rochefort the officer with the least military look he has ever met. After some other officers from Washington complained about him, he was transferred to San Francisco and put in charge of a dry dock and was no longer involved in crypto analytics until the end of war. Despite King’s objections he was awarded Legion of Merit at the end of war. He passed away in 1976 and received a real award for his work only after his death. In 1985 he was awarded long denied Navy Distinguished Service Medal and in 1986 Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Japanese aircraft carrier Kaga after modernization in the mid-1930s. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command
The stern of the Kaga circa 1941. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command
Japanese aircraft carrier Soryu during training cruises in January 1938. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command
The result of the Battle of Midway is well known. Japan deployed four large aircraft carriers (Akagi, Kaga, Hiryū and Soryū) and lost all four of them. In addition, Japan lost a heavy cruiser. US Navy sent three aircraft carriers to a battle (Enterprise, Hornet, Yorktown) and lost one of them including a destroyer. What contributed to the catastrophic Japanese defeat was the fact that the Americans knew their plan and that this plan was extremely complicated. Japanese fleet was divided into several independent groups with different tasks and moving far from each other. Therefore, in case it was necessary, they could not help each other and their coordination was very demanding. The battle started on June 3, 1942, by the unsuccessful B-17 attack against the transportation ships from the invasion fleet. At night the PBY Catalina flying boat’s torpedo hit and damaged the tanker Akebono Maru. It was the only American successful torpedo attack during the whole battle. In the morning of June 4 Admiral Chūichi Nagumo dispatched the Japanese carrier-borne aircraft to attack Midway Island. They were opposed by 26 F2A Buffalo and F4F Wildcat fighters of the US Marines led by Major Floyd Parks. Fifteen of them were shot down and most of the returning aircraft were seriously damaged. Among them a Wildcat flown by Marion Carl for who this mission was a baptism of fire. Several months later he became famous during the battles of Guadalcanal where he was credited with the majority of his 18.5 victories.
In the meantime, bombers from the island were sent on the counterattack against the Japanese aircraft carriers. Without the fighter escort however, they did not score any hits and suffered heavy losses. Five out of six Avengers were shot down, out of fours B-26 Marauders two did not return, out of eleven SB2U Vindicator two were lost and out of 16 SBD Dauntless eight were destroyed. Their pilots had not been trained sufficiently yet and attacked from gliding flight instead of diving. Their commander, Major Lofton Henderson was killed and in August 1942 an airport at Guadalcanal was named after him. Only 15 B-17 bombers attacking from the high altitude returned without a loss. It was clear to Nagumo that the aircraft arrived from Midway where Japanese failed to catch them on the ground. The first attacking wave also reported that they did not manage to destroy all installations and suggested to launch another wave. Therefore, its aircraft were being prepared in hangars to attack the ground targets. Nagumo however had no idea that at that time the aircraft from the American carriers were already airborne. One of the ships was discovered by a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft and Nagumo ordered to stop the aircraft re-arming and armed them with torpedoes and armor piercing bombs.
And then all hell broke loose for the Japanese Admiral. Arming the aircraft and dispatch of the second attack wave from the carriers ideally took Japanese 45 minutes but experiencing the complications it could have easily been an hour and even more. He did not have that time. The first wave from the attack on Midway was returning and if he did not want to lose them ditching in the ocean having exhausted all their fuel, he had to receive those first. At the same time first aircraft from the American carriers showed up. They however did not wait to form a large group but dispatched their units individually. Consequently, TBD Devastator torpedo bombers reached the Japanese formation first. Attacking one after another it was first 15 aircraft from Hornet’s VT-8, then 14 from VT-6 from Enterprise and 12 from Yorktown’s VT-3. All 15 Devastators from the first group were shot down and 29 out of 30 aviators were killed including the commander, John Waldron. The commander of the second group, Eugene Lindsay was also killed. VT-6 lost nine aircraft and only two Devastators from the last group survived.
Therefore 34 out of 41 deployed torpedo bombers were lost without achieving a single successful hit. It was the Devastator’s very last combat mission. Their sacrifice though was not futile. They caused another delay in re-arming of the Japanese aircraft. And above all they lured A6M fighters protecting the formation down to low altitudes at the time when the SBD Dauntless dive bombers from VB-6, VS-6 and VB-3 were approaching at the high altitude. Then they could choose the targets at will and undisturbed. Kaga received five direct hits, Akagi only one but another near miss disabled the steering and Soryu was hit directly at least three times. Under the normal circumstances the bomb hits would not have been fatal. On all three ships however, the explosions occurred in the hangars among the aircraft full of fuel. They were surrounded by bombs and torpedoes which the servicemen did not have time to store in the protected ammunition storages. All of it caught fire and started to explode. Within couple of minutes the Japanese ships were in flames from the bow to the stern.
Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryū dodges bombs from American B-17s on the morning of June 4, 1942. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command
A Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat (BuNo 5244) takes off from Yorktown on the morning of June 4, 1942. This is aircraft No. 13 of the VF-3 unit flown by Lt. (JG) William Leonard. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command
Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless No. 17 of unit VS-5 prepares to board Yorktown on the morning of June 4, 1942. Seated in the cockpit is Ens. Leif Larsen. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command
This F4F-3 Wildcat from VMF-221 was flown by Capt. John Carey on June 4, 1942. He was wounded in combat and made an emergency landing. His partially disassembled BuNo 4006 is photographed in late June 1942. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command
Hiryū versus Yorktown
The only undamaged Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryū wasted no time and launched 18 D3A Val dive bombers escorted by six fighters which followed the returning American aircraft and attacked the first ship they discovered. It was USS Yorktown which sustained three bomb hits. Those tore a huge hole in the deck and disabled most of her boilers. Within an hour the ship’s crew managed to temporarily cover the deck and restore the propulsion. When another wave from Hiryū arrived in the form of ten B5N Kate torpedo bombers escorted by six fighters the ship appeared to them undamaged, and they concluded it was another ship. This time they hit Yorktown with two torpedoes. The vessel without the power started to list to the port side. The Japanese were convinced that they sank two American carriers and balanced the powers. They were preparing to strike the remaining enemy ships when 24 American dive bombers arrived and hit Hiryū with four to five bombs. The morning scenario repeated itself with large scale fires and the ammunition explosions which sealed the ship’s fate. While Soryu and Kaga sank on June 4 evening, Akagi followed then only next day early morning and Hiryū sank last on June 5 at 9 am.
The main forces consequently avoided the further confrontation, and the Japanese withdrew. The cruisers Mogami and Mikuma however were left behind due to their earlier collision and damage. In the following two days they were the target the air raids which ultimately sank Mikuma on June 6.
Mogami escaped heavily damaged. On the American side the efforts to save Yorktown continued ultimately marred by I-168 submarine. On June 6 she hit the carrier with two torpedoes, third one struck destroyer Hamman which sank with the loss of 80 crew members. On the following day, June 7 in the morning, she was followed by Yorktown to the ocean bottom. The Battle of Midway final act was capturing of several Japanese sailors. First USS Trout submarine picked up two survivors from Mikuma on June 9. Then, on June 14 a Catalina crew spotted a small boat hundreds of miles off Midway.
Five days later, on June 19, it was found by USS Ballard which picked up 35 Japanese sailors from it. There were mechanics left behind on the sinking Hiryū. They made their way up from bellow the deck, found a boat, launched it on the water just minutes before Hiryū disappeared under the surface. They tried to reach their own territory. Originally there were 39 of them but five of them did not survive the two weeks on the ocean. The rest became POWs and were transferred to Pearl Harbor. Three American aviators were also captured but their fare was much worse. Pilot Fran O’Flaherty and his gunner Bruno Peter Gaid from Enterprise were interrogated and the murdered by throwing them overboard with the weight attached. Japanese tried to kill Wesley Osmus from Yorktown in the same way but he resisted so they killed him with a hatchet and threw his dead body overboard.
The burning USS Yorktown during the Japanese attacks on June 4, 1942. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command
Attacking torpedo bomber B5N Kate (top right) seen from the deck of Yorktown. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command
This SBD-3 Dauntless (BuNo 4542) belonged to VB-6 of the USS Enterprise. However, its crew, pilot George Goldsmith and radio operator James Patterson, landed aboard Yorktown due to damage and lack of fuel. The aircraft was later lost with that ship. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command
One of a pair of SBD-3 Dauntlesses from VB-3 that were unable to land aboard Yorktown due to damage and thus ended up in the water alongside the cruiser USS Astoria. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command
The burning aircraft carrier Hiryū on the morning of June 5, 1942, shortly before sinking. Source: US Navy
The destroyer USS Hammann sinks after being hit by a torpedo from a Japanese submarine. The image was taken from the deck of the Yorktown, which was also hit. At the top right is the 127 mm caliber gun platform. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command
The aircraft carrier Yorktown tilted after being abandoned by her crew. On board are two Wildcat fighters. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command
Dauntlesses from VS-8 of Hornet attack the Japanese cruiser Mikuma on June 6, 1942. Source: US Navy
Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma on June 6, 1942 shortly before sinking. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command
After the battle. In the cockpit of an F4F-4 with seven downed symbols sits Lt. (JG) Elbert McCuskey. At left is Ensign George Gay, the only member of VT-8's Hornet squadron to survive her Devastators' attack on the Japanese ships. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command
Japanese sailors from Hiryū who were captured by the USS Ballard on June 19, 1942. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command
Kaga and Akagi found
Midway was a turning point in the Pacific war and ships sunken in this battle would have been valued exhibits in Paul Allen’s collection. He was heavily involved in searching for the shipwrecks however on October 15, 2018 he passed away after sudden illness. The company he had founded continued in his efforts for some time afterwards. Precisely a year after Allen’s death his ship RV Petrel sailed on expedition to Midway. First, on October 18, 2019, they found Kaga’s wreck. Her parts had been discovered by the US Navy in 1999 during the exercise involving mapping the ocean bottom. The had discovered 15 meters long bulkhead, two 25 mm caliber cannons posts and landing lights in 5200 meters depth. RV Petrel discovered the whole wreck in 5400 meters depth. The wreck is upright but significantly covered with sediments and most of her deck and superstructure is missing. She is surrounded by a lot of debris. Two days later, on October 20, 2019, RV Petrel crew discovered Akagi’s wreck as well with the help of high frequency sonar in the depth of 5490 meters. The ship is upright but as opposed to Kaga is fairly undamaged. The photographs could not be made since the underwater robot was damaged while researching Kaga two days ago.
Platform for one of the Kaga's anti-aircraft guns. Source: PaulAllen.com
The odo on the side of the Kaga wreck below the platform for one of the 127 mm guns. Source: PaulAllen.com
The platform of the 127 mm gun. Source: PaulAllen.com
One of the 203 mm guns on the port side of the Kaga. Source: PaulAllen.com
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