Military history

14

The Tipping Point

(7:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.)

While Japanese and American pilots had a frenetic morning on June 4, the submarine forces of both sides were considerably less active. The Japanese had committed nineteen submarines to the campaign, and the Americans twelve. Yet so far those subs had played no role in the engagement. As noted previously, the Japanese submarines got a late start leaving Japan, and a layover in Kwajalein put them hopelessly behind schedule; some were further delayed by the failed effort to reprise Operation K. The consequence was that the submarine cordons that Yamamoto counted on to give the Kidō Butai advance warning of the approach of the American carriers were not fully established until June 4, by which time the carriers of both sides were already engaged.

For their part, the Americans committed a dozen submarines to the operation, yet to this point they had played no active role, or indeed any role, in the battle. The American subs were simply too slow to catch up to the swift Japanese carriers. Most American submarines could make 17—20 knots on the surface but only about eight knots submerged. Since the Japanese surface ships operated routinely at 20—25 knots, they could simply outrun the American subs. Nimitz hoped that his submarines could be vectored toward enemy vessels that had been crippled by air attack, and after several of the planes operating from Midway reported that they had left Japanese warships burning, he ordered several submarines toward the coordinates. None of those reports proved accurate, however, and so far there had been no cripples for the American subs to attack. An old submarine hand himself, Nimitz lamented in his battle report that “all submarines were ordered to close on the enemy Striking Force but the only submarine attack of the day was by Nautilus” That one exception, however, proved to be very important indeed.1

At 7:00 a.m., as Hornet and Enterprise were preparing to launch their air groups, the USS Nautilus (SS-168), was running on the surface 150 miles north of Midway in the middle of a fan-shaped semicircle of ten submarines that Nimitz had placed north and west of the atoll. Launched back in 1930, the Nautilus had just completed an overhaul on the West Coast. She had arrived in Pearl Harbor on April 27 and put to sea on her first war patrol a month later, on May 24, four days before the Hornet and Enterprise left for Point Luck. If the Nautilus was not a new boat, she was a big boat. At 350 feet long and displacing more than 2,700 tons, she was as big as many destroyers. When commissioned in 1931, she had been the largest submarine in the world. She was also heavily armed. Her two big 6-inch guns (one on the foredeck and another aft of the conning tower) were more powerful than most of the guns on a destroyer. Her principal weapons, however, were the three dozen torpedoes that could be fired from her ten torpedo tubes. These torpedoes were the Mark 14 variety with the flawed detonators, though that fact was still unacknowledged by the Bureau of Ordnance.

The commanding officer of the Nautilus was 37-year-old Lieutenant Commander William H. Brockman, Jr., yet another member of the Naval Academy class of 1927. Brockman was a big man—at the Academy he had played both football and lacrosse. He no longer competed in athletics and had begun to put on weight. He had a round face, a genial manner, and a ready smile. He was also a determined warrior.2

 Lieutenant Commander William H. Brockman, Jr., was the skipper of the American submarine Nautilus (SS-168) at Midway. His prolonged duel with Commander Watanabe’s destroyer Arashi proved crucial. (U.S. Naval Institute)

At exactly 6:58, the topside lookout on the Nautilus reported a northbound flight of six aircraft. They were flying low, he reported, but aside from determining that they were friendlies, the lookout could not identify the airplane type. They were, in fact, the six new Avenger torpedo planes of VT-8 under “Fieb” Fieberling, en route to make the first of five attacks on the Kidō Butai by Midway-based aircraft. Minutes later, the lookout reported black puffs of antiaircraft gunfire bursts in the sky to the north, and what looked like smoke from falling bombs. Clearly the American planes had found a worthwhile target. Brockman ordered his crew to general quarters and altered course to approach what could only be a Japanese surface force.3

At the time, the Kidō Butai was still steaming southward toward Midway and was therefore on a converging course with the northbound Nautilus. At five minutes to eight, with the Nautilus now at periscope depth, Brockman spotted the masts of big ships “dead ahead.” He had little time to study them, for at almost the same moment, a Japanese Zero, spotting the shadow of his sub just below the surface, began a strafing run, and Brockman had to dive. As he maneuvered underwater, he could hear the ominous pinging sound of echo ranging—what the Americans called sonar—which meant that enemy surface ships were searching for him. Nevertheless, he crept back up to periscope depth to have a look. Through his viewfinder, he saw “a formation of four ships.” He was pretty sure that one of them was a battleship and that the other three were cruisers. They were, in fact, the battleship Kirishima, the cruiser Nagara, and two destroyers—the advance screen of the Kidō Butai. Deciding to attack the battleship, which was on his starboard bow, Brockman maneuvered to obtain an angle on the bow. As he did so, however, the wake created by his periscope breaking the surface—called a feather—was spotted by one of the circling Zeros and he was again forced to dive. After that, a ship that Brockman identified as a cruiser of the Jintsu class closed on his position and began to drop depth charges. That attacking surface ship was actually the destroyer Arashi, skippered by Commander Watanabe Yasumasa, and at that moment Brockman and Watanabe began a duel that would last almost two hours and have a profound effect on the outcome of the Battle of Midway.4

Between 8:00 and 8:10, while Nagumo was contemplating his response to the news that there was at least one American carrier to the north of him, and while his Zeros fought off the attack by Joe Henderson’s dive-bombers, Watanabe and the Arashi dropped five depth charges on the Nautilus. Japanese depth charges were smaller than the American version, with a 220-pound charge (American depth charges had a 290-pound charge), but they were deadly enough to the fragile hull of a submarine. The real weakness of Japanese depth charges, however, was that they had only two depth settings: forty feet and two hundred feet. Since Watanabe knew that the American boat had not had time to go deep, he almost certainly set the charges for forty feet. Brockman went to ninety feet and stayed there, but while that protected him from the worst effects of the depth charges, it also meant that the valuable targets above him had a chance to speed past him at 25 knots or more. Even if Watanabe did not destroy this pesky American sub, he would be doing his job if he simply kept it underwater, where its top speed was only eight knots, and where it could not fire any torpedoes, until after the Kidō Butai had moved on.5

This was the first time that anyone on board the Nautilus had experienced a depth-charge attack, and it was a particularly unpleasant experience. First of all, it was impossible to fight back. “Once you have to go down,” one sub skipper recalled, “you don’t have any offensive weapon. You just feel like you’re a sitting duck.” Second, the aural and physical sensations were terrifying. When a depth charge exploded, the concussion hit the boat twice. First came the shock wave, which made a sharp metallic clang, “like a hammer hitting the hull.” Then, a second or two later, came the sound wave. That was much louder—a giant wham—but if you heard it, you could breathe out, because it meant the shock wave had not opened the hull of the boat. Indeed, as long as there were two distinct sounds for each detonation—the metallic bang of the shock wave, followed by the much louder boom of the sound wave—the charge had exploded at a relatively safe distance. It was when the two sounds came close together that there was cause for worry. And if they occurred simultaneously, it was probably the last thing anyone on board ever heard. In this case, the two sounds were separate and distinct, and Brockman estimated that the Japanese were dropping their charges about 1,000 yards away.6

After the explosions stopped, Brockman again heard the pinging sound of underwater echo ranging as Watanabe continued to search for him. The Japanese skipper waited seven minutes to see if any debris floated to the surface or if his echo ranging could locate the American sub, and then he dropped six more depth charges. During this second attack, the concussion from one explosion sheared off the retaining pin on one of the torpedoes on the Nautilus. The torpedo’s propeller began spinning, generating a loud, high-pitched whine that Brockman feared would be picked up by Japanese sensors. At the same time, bubbles of escaping exhaust gas left a telltale mark on the surface. There was also a chance that the spinning propeller would arm the warhead, which had a magnetic exploder. No one on board the Nautilus knew for sure whether the sub’s own metal hull would trigger the detonator. There was nothing to do but wait it out. As it happened, the warhead did not explode, though Brockman continued to worry that the whine of the spinning propeller would betray their position.7

Brockman kept the Nautilus at ninety feet, at which depth he hoped its shadow would not be seen by circling enemy planes. Guided, perhaps, by the noise of the torpedo running hot inside the Nautilus, Watanabe closed in and dropped nine more depth charges. The first was fairly close, though each successive one exploded further away. When the pinging faded and the torpedo’s propeller finally stopped running, Brockman eased back up to periscope depth to have another look. When he put his face to the rubber gasket around the viewfinder, what he saw shocked him. While he had played possum at ninety feet, the Kidō Butai, still moving southward, had closed with his position. He now found himself in the middle of the Japanese fleet. As he peered through the lens, he saw an image that he had “never experienced in peacetime practices.” As one of his officers put it, “There were ships all over the place.” They were moving at high speed and signaling to one another by flag hoist and blinker signal; searchlights from several of them were aimed directly at his periscope. The battleship Kirishima fired her broadside at the feather of his periscope, and the Arashi charged in again, this time from astern. Despite all that, Brockman made a quick estimate of the course and speed of the battleship before dropping the periscope. He estimated the range at 4,500 yards, which was the maximum range for the Mark 14 torpedo at the high-speed setting. He reported the angle on the bow at 80 degrees and her speed at 25 knots. He fed that information into the boat’s torpedo data computer,* and when it generated a solution, he ordered “Fire one!” and then almost immediately, “Fire two!” with a one-degree offset on the second torpedo. Then he dove. The torpedo room reported that the number 1 tube did not fire, and only one torpedo was running. He did not know that as soon as he had fired, the battleship changed course away from him; in accordance with doctrine, the Japanese battleship skipper was presenting his ship’s stern to the threat to narrow the target and extend the range. And, once again, here came the Arashi.8

The sound of enemy echo ranging was now “continuous and accurate” as Brockman dove to 150 feet, and as the boat angled downward, depth charges began exploding all around him. The explosions, he reported later, “sounded like a severe hammer blow on the hull.” Nonetheless, the sub’s hull remained intact, and after waiting several minutes Brockman began once again to ease back up to periscope depth. The battleship and the other large ships were still in sight, but out of range. Only the Arashi remained nearby, still echo sounding; she had clearly been left behind to hunt him down. Brockman remained submerged for ten more minutes, then took another look. The battleship was now out of sight, but almost due north and only about eight miles away he spotted the unmistakable profile of an aircraft carrier. He noted that it “was changing course continually,” and that it “was overhung by anti-aircraft bursts.” Though Brockman could not know it, the Zeros from the Kidō Butai were chasing off the last of the American attackers from Midway, and the carriers were maneuvering to avoid them.9

Brockman could not surface to chase the carrier because the Arashi was still lurking above him. He decided to take care of his tormentor first, maneuvering to fire a torpedo at the Arashi. Watanabe was expecting it and easily avoided it. Moreover, the wake of that torpedo gave Watanabe a guide to the Nautilus’s likely position, and the Arashi closed in to drop six more depth charges. Brockman noted laconically that “these were more accurately placed than previous charges.” Brockman ordered the Nautilus back down to 150 feet (her maximum depth was 300). He then changed course and ordered silence about the boat while it crept away. Watanabe guessed that Brockman had gone deep and adjusted the settings on his depth charges. Two more exploded quite near the Nautilus; gauges jumped, lights flickered, and deck plates rattled—but the hull remained intact.10

This time Brockman stayed down for forty minutes. He did not know that at almost the very moment that he dove—around 9:17—Nagumo and the Kidō Butai had changed course and turned north. While Brockman was submerged, the Zeros flying CAP were busy tearing apart the American torpedo planes. At five minutes to ten, Brockman could no longer hear the noise of echo ranging. He eased back up to periscope depth. As he turned the view finder around 360 degrees, he saw that “the entire formation first seen, including the attacking cruiser [Arashi] had departed.” “The carrier previously seen was no longer in sight.” Brockman no doubt feared that he had lost his chance to fire a torpedo at an enemy carrier, though later that day he would have a second chance. In fact, however, without knowing it he had already made his greatest contribution to American victory.11

Watanabe and the Arashi had persecuted the Nautilus for nearly two hours—from 8:00 to almost 10:00. When the Kidō Butai turned north, Watanabe had stayed behind, determined to keep his foe submerged and therefore impotent. Just before 10:00, not having seen or heard anything of the American sub for forty minutes, and with the Kidō Butai well away over the northern horizon, Watanabe concluded that he had done his job. He may also have run out of depth charges. The Arashi carried thirty-six depth charges, and Brockman reported twenty-eight explosions, plus another attack by an unspecified number. None of those depth charges had proved fatal, but this hardly mattered, for even if the American sub was still down there, by now it would never be able to catch up to the Kidō Butai. Watanabe ordered the helm over and turned the Arashi northward. To catch up with the main body, now steaming to the northeast at 25 knots, he would have to go at nearly full speed, which for the Arashi was 35 knots. At that speed, his ship generated a broad white V-shaped wake.

While Brockman dueled with Watanabe, Wade McClusky’s thirty-three dive-bombers from the Enterprise were winging their way southwestward toward a presumed intercept of the Kidō Butai. McClusky had been a naval aviator his entire career, most of it as a fighter pilot. Based on his looks alone, few would have picked him out as one. Short and stout, he had neatly parted dark hair, a generous nose, full lips, and just a hint of a double chin. McClusky had been an effective commander of Fighting 6 during the several raids on the Marshall Islands, Wake, and Marcus Islands. Then in April he had fleeted up to become the commander, Enterprise air group, or CEAG. He was the oldest active pilot on board, having turned forty just three days before on June 1.

As CEAG, McClusky traded his Wildcat for a Dauntless, and his airplane was in the lead as the two squadrons of dive-bombers flew toward the presumed coordinates of the Japanese carrier force. McClusky flew with the seventeen planes of Earl Gallaher’s Scouting Six, with two of those planes acting as his wingmen. Each plane was armed with one 500-pound bomb and two 100-pound bombs under the wings. Behind and above this formation were the fifteen planes of Dick Best’s Bombing Six—each of his planes armed with one 1,000-pound bomb. Early on, one of the planes in Gallaher’s squadron developed mechanical problems and had to return to the ship, so in the end, a total of thirty-two bombers, including McClusky’s, flew to the target.12

 Lieutenant Commander Clarence Wade McClusky was the air group commander on the USS Enterprise and led the strike of VS-6 and VB-6 against Kaga and Akagi on June 4. (U.S. Naval Institute)

Visibility was good, with light winds and only light scattered clouds between 1,500 and 2,500 feet. For more than an hour, this two-tier formation flew toward the southwest. Best recalled that he could see the ocean “getting a lighter and lighter blue then turning to a light green” as the water shoaled toward Midway. He could see the plume of black smoke from the Midway airfield and wondered if they had gone too far to the south. At around 9:20 McClusky arrived in the general area where he had calculated that the Kidō Butai would be. Nothing was below him but empty ocean. At that moment, seventy or so miles to the north, John Waldron was ordering his torpedo bombers to attack the Kidō Butai, but neither McClusky nor anyone else in his bomber group picked up his transmissions. Moreover, because of the circling and waiting above the Enterprisebefore Spruance had turned them loose, as well as the long climb to altitude, the fuel gauges on some of the bombers already showed less than half full. Ensign Lew Hopkins, in Best’s squadron, looked at his fuel gauge and concluded that it was going to be a one-way flight. “I knew, and most everybody else knew,” he recalled later, “that we didn’t have enough fuel to get back.” Despite that, McClusky decided to continue the search until the fuel situation became hopeless. Had Spruance not decided to send him off without waiting for the Devastators, he would not have been able to do even that.13

McClusky turned the formation slightly to the right and flew due west for thirty-five miles; then he turned right again to the northwest, intending to conduct a standard box search. He scanned the horizon eagerly for a sign of any surface ships, his binoculars “practically glued” to his eyes. After fifteen more minutes, he turned right again to the northeast. By now, fuel had become a serious problem, especially for the pilots in Best’s squadron, who were lugging the big 1,000-pound bombs. Two of them, Ensign Eugene Greene and Ensign Troy Schneider, fell out of the formation, out of fuel, and landed in the water. Schneider and his radioman/gunner were rescued three days later, but Greene and his backseat gunner were never found.14

Nor was fuel the only problem. Best’s wing man, Lieutenant Junior Grade Ed Kroeger, used hand signals to indicate to Best that his cylinder had run out of oxygen. Best could simply have signaled Kroeger to drop down to a lower level where he could breathe the air without an oxygen mask, but he did not want to break up what was left of his squadron. Instead he removed his own mask, holding it up to show Kroeger that he had done so and then began a gradual descent, leading his thirteen remaining planes down to 15,000 feet where the air was still thin, but breathable. That downward glide put him well below McClusky and Gallaher, and about a quarter mile behind them.15

Then, at about 9:55, well north of the plotted intercept position, McClusky noticed a ship, all by itself, proceeding northward at great speed, its bow wave making a broad wake that looked for all the world like a white arrow painted on the surface of the blue sea. It was, of course, Commander Watanabe in the Arashi, racing northward at 35 knots to catch up to the main body. Mc-Clusky guessed at once that it was a laggard from the Kidō Butai, and using that V-shaped bow wave as a guide, he altered course and followed the arrow just east of due north. Ten minutes later, at 10:05, he saw dark specks on the horizon ahead of him. As he flew closer, the specks resolved themselves into surface ships. Thanks to Brockman’s persistence, Watanabe had provided the crucial signpost that enabled McClusky’s air group to find the Kidō Butai.16

By now, the box formation of the four Japanese carriers had completely disintegrated. Each ship had maneuvered independently to avoid the persistent torpedo attacks of the Americans, and any resemblance to the original formation had long since disappeared. The southernmost of the four carriers, and therefore the first one spotted by McClusky’s bombers, was the giant Kaga. Two miles ahead of it and “five to seven miles” off to the right was Nagumo’s flagship, Akagi. Another fourteen miles beyond them, the Hiryūwas under attack from Lem Massey’s torpedo planes, and another six miles beyond her and all but out of sight was the Sōryū. Cruisers, battleships, and destroyers maneuvered between and around these four behemoths apparently at random.17

Unbeknownst to McClusky, Max Leslie’s dive-bomber squadron from Yorktown was nearing the Kidō Butai at the same moment. Though the Yorktown planes had launched almost two hours after McClusky’s, the more efficient launch sequence and the more accurate course of her air group put her bombers over the target at the same moment. (It is noteworthy that while the Hornet’s air group flew some eighty miles north of the Kidō Butai, and the Enterprise bomber group flew eighty miles south of it, the Yorktown’s air group flew almost directly to it.) Despite the near simultaneous arrival of McClusky and Leslie over the Kidō Butai, the Americans did not conduct a coordinated attack. McClusky approached from the south and Leslie from the east, each of them unaware that the other was there. Had they targeted the same ships, there might have been great confusion when they intruded into one another’s air space. Instead, each targeted the first carrier he saw: Leslie the Sōryū, and McClusky the Kaga and Akagi, and because those carriers were widely dispersed, the Americans did not interfere with each other.18

There was considerable confusion, however, between the two squadrons of McClusky’s air group. According to doctrine, each squadron was to attack a different capital ship. To do that, the lead squadron, which was Gallaher’s, should fly past the first carrier and attack the more distant one, while the trailing squadron (Best’s) attacked the near target. That would ensure that the attacks occurred nearly at the same time, so that the attack on the first ship did not alert the second. Another element of American divebombing doctrine was that the planes carrying the heavier 1,000-pound bombs should attack the nearest target simply because of their heavier ordnance load. On both counts, Dick Best, whose planes trailed Gallaher’s by a quarter mile and carried the heavy 1,000-pound bombs, assumed that McClusky and Gallaher would fly past the first carrier and attack the more distant one.

But McClusky, the former fighter pilot, had not internalized bombing doctrine in the same way Best had. He approached the situation with typical American straightforwardness. He saw the two carriers not as near and far but as left and right. To be sure, the Akagi was a few miles ahead of the plodding Kaga, but it was also five or six miles off to the right. McClusky could not give hand signals to Best, who was down at 15,000 feet, so he got on the radio and ordered Gallaher to take the carrier “on the left” (Kaga) and Best to take the carrier “on the right” (Akagi). Gallaher heard him loud and clear. He remembered McClusky telling him to follow him to the carrier on the left and that he told Best “to take the carrier on the right.” That is certainly what McClusky intended. But for such a simple order, it produced profound confusion. Best either never heard it, or, because he was so deeply steeped in standard doctrine, he processed it differently. In either case, he continued to assume that he would take the near carrier and that Gallaher would take the more distant one. In his subsequent report, Lieutenant Joe Penland, who led Best’s second division, wrote that “Commander Bombing Squadron Six understood his target to be the ‘left hand’ CV.”19

For his part, Best radioed McClusky to tell him that he was attacking “according to doctrine.” It was a curious way to indicate his intentions, certainly less specific than McClusky’s left-right distinction. Such a declaration assumed that McClusky was sufficiently familiar with “doctrine” to know what that meant, and Best knew that McClusky “was not well informed on bomber doctrine.” That being the case, Best would have been better advised simply to say that he was planning to attack the “closest carrier,” or “the carrier on the left.” It hardly mattered, however, because McClusky never heard it. Best later speculated, “My radio didn’t work,” which is possible, but another explanation is that Best and McClusky sent their reports to each other simultaneously. Had both men pressed the transmit buttons on their radios at the same time, neither would have heard the other. In any event, this confusion meant that both squadrons under McClusky’s command prepared to dive on the Kaga. Though the Americans had gained a great advantage by arriving over the Kidō Butai at a critical moment, the confusion in assigning targets threatened to throw that advantage away.20

Flying at 15,000 feet, Best turned his squadron toward the Kaga and “put the planes in echelon so that they were no more than 150 feet apart.” His pilots prepared to dive by shifting to low blower and low prop pitch, cracking open the hatches of their cockpits to reduce the likelihood of the windscreen fogging up, and opening their split flaps. Best did not know that a mile above him, Gallaher’s pilots were doing the same thing until, just as he was about to push over, the sixteen bombers of VS-6, plus McClusky’s, all came flashing down past him, avoiding a catastrophic collision only by a matter of yards. In Best’s words: “God! Here came McClusky and Gallaher from Scouting Six pouring right in front of me.” Best’s first thought was: “They had jumped my target!” Thinking fast, he closed his flaps and waggled his ailerons as a signal to the rest of his squadron to hold back. Too late. Already committed to the dive, ten of the pilots of VB-6 joined the onslaught on the Kaga. They almost certainly never saw Best’s last-minute effort to recall them. Only Best’s two wingmen, Kroeger and Ensign Frederick Weber, were close enough to see his frantic signals and hold up. As a result, no fewer than twenty-seven Dauntless dive-bombers plunged out of the sky to target the Kaga.21

Until that moment, the Japanese on Kaga had been entirely unaware of this new threat. Lacking radar, they were fully dependent on the sharp eyes of their lookouts. This time, however, the lookouts on the screening vessels had let them down. At 10:22, with the first of the bombers already screaming down toward them at 250 knots, first one, and then many observers on the Kaga pointed skyward and shouted “Kyukoka!” (“Dive-bombers!”) Jimmy Thach, who was still trying to fend off the Zeros from Lem Massey’s few remaining torpedo bombers, looked up and saw the sun glinting off silver wings. To him “it looked like a beautiful silver waterfall, those dive-bombers coming down.”22

Because the Zeros were still focused on Massey’s torpedo bombers, they were unable to interfere even minimally with the attack. Moreover, the guns of Kaga’s antiair battery were all still at low angle. With the shouted warnings, the gun crews furiously began to crank the ship’s sixteen five-inch guns up to the vertical position, but it took only about forty seconds for the first of the plunging American bombers to reach the release point. The skipper of the Kaga, Captain Okada Jisaku, ordered the ship hard to port in order to throw them off. However, the 42,000-ton Kaga was slow to respond and had barely begun her turn when the first bombs came hurtling down.23

The first three bombs all missed, but the fourth plane, piloted by Earl Gallaher himself, placed its 500-pound bomb squarely on the flight deck of the big flattop. It was the first time all morning that American ordnance had found a target. The 500-pound bombs had a fuse with a 0.01-second delay, so that it pierced the flight deck before exploding in the crew’s berthing compartments, starting the first of many fires that would eventually consume the big ship. That hit was followed by two more misses, and then by several hits in succession. One bomb struck on or near the forward elevator and penetrated to the hangar deck; another smashed into the flight deck amidships, and yet another hit squarely on the Kaga’s small island structure, killing Captain Okada and most of his senior officers, rendering the Kaga leaderless.24

As with the attack on the Shōhō a month before, the bombers simply overwhelmed the Kaga. Following these four hits by 500-pound bombs from Gallaher’s squadron, the ten bombers of Best’s VB-6 added several 1,000-pound bombs to the smoking wreck. Thach claimed later, “I’d never seen such superb dive bombing. It looked to me like almost every bomb hit.” Watching from 12,000 feet, Best tried to count the number of hits. “They were hitting from stem to stern,” he recalled later. At “four or five second intervals there would be a fresh blast and fire would come up and smoke would pour out.” At least one 1,000-pound bomb exploded on the packed hangar deck crowded with fully fueled planes armed with torpedoes. The historians Jon Parshall and Anthony Tully estimate that a total of 80,000 pounds of ordnance “lay scattered” there. Some of it was on the big Kate torpedo bombers, some was still on the bomb carts, and some was “simply shoved against the hangar bulkheads.” One of the first bomb hits had wrecked both of the Kaga’s fire mains, and the damage-control parties were helpless against the raging fires. The leaderless ship became an inferno fed by explosives and aviation fuel. A series of secondary explosions rocked the big carrier—one of them so powerful it sent the Kaga’s forward elevator platform spiraling up hundreds of feet into the air.25

While most of McClusky’s dive-bombers assailed the doomed Kaga, Best led his three-plane section toward the carrier “on the right,” which was Nagumo’s flagship, Akagi. The three Dauntless bombers had dropped down to 12,000 feet before Best had been able to recall them, so now they had to climb back up to 14,000 feet for the attack run. As Best climbed, he was astonished that “there was no gunfire, no fighters aloft” Thanks to the sacrifice of the torpedo squadrons, the circling Zeros were all at low altitude and the ships’ antiaircraft guns all at low angle. As a result, Best’s three planes were entirely unmolested. Nonetheless, it was uncertain what his three airplanes might accomplish against the flagship. Despite his experience attacking targets in the Marshalls, and on Wake and Marcus Islands, this was the first time Best had ever attacked a carrier. Having only three planes meant that he could not order a conventional echelon attack or divide his command into sections to attack from different angles. Moreover, the fuel situation dictated that there was no time to maneuver for a bows-on attack. Best and his two wingmen therefore approached the Akagi from abeam, which meant they would have only the carrier’s relatively narrow 100-foot width rather than its 850-foot length as a target. Even a slight misjudgment would result in a near miss rather than a hit.26

 Lieutenant Richard Best commanded Bombing Six (VB-6) in the Battle of Midway. He and Norman “Dusty” Kleiss of VS-6 were the only pilots to land bombs on two Japanese carriers in the same day. (U.S. Navy)

His two wingmen tucked in behind their commanding officer, one on each side, and flew toward the Akagi in a shallow V formation. Best signaled, and they opened their flaps and nosed over into “a long easy dive.” It was “a calm placid morning,” he recalled, and he remembered thinking that it felt just like “regular individual battle practice drill.” He put his bombsight in the middle of the Akagi’s flight deck, just forward of her small island. Like Kaga, Akagi had only a few Zero fighters on her flight deck because she was still actively rotating CAP for the air battle. As he dove, Best saw a Zero taking off to rejoin the CAP. He remembered thinking, “Best, if you’re a real hero, when you’ve dropped your bomb, you’ll aileron around and shoot that son-of-a-bitch” But he knew that his job was to bomb carriers, not shoot at fighters. There were other Japanese flattops out there, and he decided that after he hit this one he would head back to the Enterprise to get another bomb.27

Best released his bomb at about 1,500 feet. His wingmen dropped at almost the same moment. Though doctrine called for them to retire at once at low level, Best could not resist turning to look back and see the results. He watched his 1,000-pound bomb land squarely in the middle of the Akagi’s flight deck. Other explosions erupted at her bow and stern as well, and he subsequently reported “three 1000 lb bomb hits.” In fact, however, the bombs from Kroeger and Weber had both hit close alongside. While they probably opened up holes in the skin of the Akagi’s hull below the water line, Best’s was the only direct hit. But it was enough.28

Best’s 1,000-pound bomb penetrated the flight deck and exploded on the Akagi’s crowded hangar deck. The immediate damage was extensive. The secondary damage was catastrophic. As on the Kaga, Akagi’s hangar deck was crowded with big Kate torpedo bombers, eighteen of them, every one with fuel tanks filled to the top and armed with the big Type 91 torpedoes. Other ordnance lay on the carts and on the racks along the bulkhead. Within minutes, that ordnance began to cook off. Once the explosions started, the aviation fuel from the wrecked planes fed the fires. Under most circumstances, a big carrier like Akagi could be expected to absorb four or five bomb hits and still function, but Best’s one bomb had hit at just the right moment and in just the right place to do the most damage. By 10:25, both Kaga and Akagi were burning out of control. Ensign Weber’s near miss astern had jammed the Akagi’s rudder hard over, so that she continued to turn in a tight circle out of control, burning furiously.29

Best did not try to shoot down the enemy Zero after dropping his bomb. Having descended to low altitude, however, there were now plenty of them around. Several flashed by just below him as they continued to target the hapless Devastators of Lem Massey’s VT-3 from Yorktown. Instead of lingering to join the fray, Best led his three planes eastward back toward the Enterprise. His last view of the Kidō Butai left him with the impression that “everything was blowing up.”30

The death throes of the Kaga and Akagi were terrifying and spectacular, but there were two more Japanese carriers a dozen miles away with enough striking power to turn the battle around.

While Best was diving on the Akagi, twenty miles to the north Max Leslie was preparing to dive on the Sōryū. There was some initial confusion there, too. When Leslie led the seventeen bombers of VB-3 away from the Yorktown at 9:00 that morning, he had assumed that Wally Short’s VS-5 was right behind him, unaware that Fletcher had decided to keep Short’s squadron on board as a reserve. Consequently, when the Kidō Butai came into view at about 10:00, Leslie called Short on the radio and ordered him to attack the carrier to the west (Hiryū) while he took the other (Sōryū). He got no reply. Next he called Massey to ask if he was ready to begin a coordinated attack. Massey replied that he was. Then, almost immediately, Massey reported that he was under furious attack from Japanese Zeros. Massey’s radio went dead. Leslie concluded that the planned coordinated strike was not going to happen and decided he “had better get going before our presence was discovered.” While Massey’s surviving torpedo bombers attempted to fight their way through the intercept to attack the Hiryū, and Jimmy Thach tried out his “beam defense maneuver” in their support, Leslie took his bombers off to the right, to approach the Sōryū from out of the sun. He gave the signal and pushed over from 14,500 feet at 10:25.31

Leslie led the attack even though by now his plane no longer carried a bomb. The planes of his squadron had recently been equipped with a new electrical release that was supposed to make dive-bombing more accurate. Instead of pulling back on a lever, which sometimes threw off the bomb’s trajectory, all the pilot had to do now was press a button on top of his control stick. The electrical release system was not armed during takeoffs, so after departing the Yorktown, Leslie prepared to arm it. Much to his astonishment, when he did so, his bomb dropped away. Three other pilots in the squadron did the same thing, and fifteen thousand feet below them four bombs exploded on the surface, startling the pilots of the torpedo planes and their escorting Wildcats. Leslie broke radio silence to warn the other pilots not to arm their release devices. As a result of this mishap, four of his seventeen bombers had lost their principal weapon. They flew on anyway, Leslie because it was his command, and the others because they could still use their .50-caliber machine guns to strafe the enemy.32

When Leslie pushed over at 10:25, the crew of the Sōryū was on full alert. Minutes before, a bugle had sounded over the intercom system and a voice had announced that Kaga was under air attack. Indeed, crewmen crowding the rails on the Sōryū could see smoke rising from the big carrier off to the south. Then, just as Dick Best was diving on the Akagi, an American dive-bomber emerged from out of the clouds north of the Sōryū. Then another. Captain Yanagimoto Ryūsaku ordered the Sōryū hard to port, to throw off the bombers and to unmask his own antiaircraft battery, which opened fire at once. Leslie later recalled that “the sides of the carrier turned into a veritable ring of flames as the enemy commenced firing small caliber and anti-aircraft guns.”33

Leslie planned to strafe the flattop, but at 4,000 feet his guns jammed and he pulled out. The next plane in line was piloted by his wingman, Lieutenant Junior Grade Paul “Lefty” Holmberg. His bomb landed near the Sōryūs forward elevator and exploded on the hangar deck. A second bomb, dropped by Lieutenant Harold Bottomly, penetrated deep into the carrier’s engine spaces before detonating. Leslie described the result as “the greatest inferno and holocaust I could ever imagine … with debris and material flying in all directions.” He counted a total five “direct hits” and three near misses by the planes of his squadron, though in fact only three bombs actually struck the Sōryū. Each one, however, landed in a different part of the carrier: one forward, one aft, and one amidships. In consequence, the Sōryū became, in Leslie’s words, “an inferno of flame.” She was so obviously a total loss that pilots in the trailing section of Leslie’s squadron chose to attack other nearby targets, including a cruiser and a destroyer. A sailor on the Hiryū who watched the attack thought the Sōryū “looked like [she] … had been sliced in two” and recalled that “it was possible to see right through her to the other side.” Like the Kaga and Akagi, the Sōryū had been mortally wounded. Though desperate damage-control parties on all three ships fought valiantly to contain the raging fires, it was hopeless. In little more than five minutes, three of the four carriers of the Kidō Butai had been smashed beyond recovery.34

 The Sōryū maneuvers radically in reaction to the attack by Max Leslie’s bombers. Note the rising sun painted on the forward part of the flight deck. (U.S. Navy)

Witnessing all this, Nagumo was reluctant to face reality. Though the fires on his flagship were burning out of control and her communications system had been knocked out, he did not want to leave the ship. Urged to transfer to another vessel, he replied, “It is not time yet.” But it was very nearly past time. The Akagi’s captain, Aoki Taijirō, urged Kusaka Ryūnosuke, Nagumo’s chief of staff, “to leave this vessel as soon as possible.” Kusaka pleaded with Nagumo. The Hiryū was still undamaged, and a swift counterstrike could still redeem the situation, but, he pointed out, Nagumo could not command the Kidō Butai from a ship whose radio communications had been destroyed. Reluctantly, Nagumo allowed himself to be transferred to the light cruiser Nagara.Perhaps victory could still be snatched from the jaws of defeat.35

* The Mark III Torpedo Data Computer (TDC) was an early electromagnetic analog computer used for calculating fire-control solutions on American submarines.

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