Military history


The Japanese Counterstrike

(11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.)

It was evident very quickly that the Kaga and the Sōryū were doomed. Though the Kaga’s heavy armored battleship hull allowed her to continue to limp along at two to three knots, she was obviously dying. Flames raged unchecked all along her hangar deck and black smoke poured out of her from stem to stern. As for the Sōryū, Lieutenant Harold Bottomley’s 1,000-pound bomb had penetrated deep into the ship and destroyed her engineering spaces. Dead in the water and without power, the Sōryū was helpless. To save his men, Captain Yanagimoto Ryūsaku ordered abandon ship at 10:45, barely twenty minutes after the first bomb struck. He chose to stay on board. On Akagi, which had been hit only by Dick Best’s single bomb, damage-control teams struggled to fight the fires while other men labored to get her engines working again. It was a losing fight, however, since exploding ordnance and especially the aviation fuel on the hangar deck continued to feed the inferno. Consistent with a preference for attack over defense, Japanese damage-control doctrine and equipment were less robust than on American ships, with little built-in redundancy. With the ship’s main engines out, the water pumps didn’t work, and there were no portable gasoline-powered pumps or generators. Desperate crewmen manned a hand pump on the anchor deck that produced a thin stream of sea water, but it was like spitting into a forest fire. Though efforts to save the flagship would continue until that evening, at 1:30 in the afternoon, Captain Aoki, in silent acknowledgement that the situation was hopeless, ordered the emperor’s portrait removed and sent over to the destroyer Nowaki.1

 Rear Admiral Yamaguchi Tamon, the aggressive and well-liked commander of Carrier Division 2, flew his flag on the carrier Hiryū at Midway. (U.S. Naval Institute)

Catastrophic as the situation was, Nagumo thought less about his losses than about how to strike back. Once he had reestablished himself aboard the cruiser Nagara, he reported to Yamamoto that three of his carriers were burning—a message that, when it arrived, produced only a low groan from the commander in chief. Reflecting a culture that valued heroic effort nearly as much as ultimate success, Nagumo’s understanding of his duty compelled him to continue the fight even if it did not produce a victory. Though Hiryū was the only functioning carrier he had left, he was determined to find the American carriers and attack them. During his transfer to the Nagara, operational command fell temporarily onto Rear Admiral Abe Hiroaki, commander of Cruiser Division 8. At 10:50, Abe signaled Yamaguchi Tamon in the Hiryū to “attack the enemy carriers.”2

Yamaguchi hardly needed such an order. Very likely he felt vindicated by the horrific turn of events. At 8:30 that morning he had argued for an immediate strike—even a partial strike—against the enemy, and his advice had been rejected. Nagumo had been reluctant to send only thirty-six dive-bombers without a significant fighter escort to attack the Americans; now he would have to do so with only half that number. In response to Abe’s order, Yamaguchi had replied, “All our planes are taking off now,” but that did not mean a full deck load. The Hiryū launched only eighteen Val dive-bombers—all there were—accompanied by six Zero fighters. Yamaguchi also had nine Kate torpedo bombers on board (one more, a refugee from Akagi, would land a half hour later). They were not ready to go, however, and rather than wait for them, he sent off what he had. It was far short of the “armored gauntlet” that Nagumo had expected to hurl at the Americans.*

These circumstances emboldened Yamaguchi to offer more unsolicited advice to his commander. By blinker signal to the new flagship, he insisted that only a single destroyer should be left behind to watch the three crippled carriers; everything else should be sent at once to attack the Americans. It was not the first time Yamaguchi had offered his views, but this time the syntax of his message was that of an order: “Leave one destroyer with the damaged carriers and have the others proceed on the course of attack.” This was more than presumption, it was insolence. Either Nagumo ignored the “order” or his staff never showed it to him, for there was no acknowledgment from the flagship, only the order from Abe to “attack the enemy carriers.”3

The Hiryūs eighteen Val dive-bombers were in the air by 11:00 a.m., merely thirty-five minutes after the first American bomb had landed on the Kaga. Lieutenant Kobayashi Michio commanded the mission, which included six Zeros under Lieutenant Shigematsu Yasuhiro. All of the pilots were experienced veterans. They headed east toward the most recent contact location sent in by a scout pilot from the cruiser Chikuma. Though the initial contact that morning had identified Spruance’s Task Force 16, this newest sighting was of Fletcher’s Yorktown group.

As Kobayashi’s strike force flew eastward, Nagumo reorganized what was left of the Kidō Butai into two groups: a battleship-cruiser group in the lead, followed by Yamaguchi’s lone carrier, which was surrounded by a circular screen. Despite Yamaguchi’s “advice” to leave only one destroyer behind, Nagumo delegated six of them (two each) to try to save the stricken carriers, or, at worst, to rescue their crews. Meanwhile he directed his much-reduced and reorganized Kidō Butai to steam to the northeast (course 060), toward the Americans, who, according to an 11:10 scouting report, were now only ninety miles away. That report inspired Nagumo to think about the possibility of getting close enough for a surface attack by his battleships and heavy cruisers. He was encouraged in this line of thought by a noon message from Admiral Kondō, who reported that he was bringing his two battleships and four cruisers north to join the Kidō Butai. If air strikes from the Hiryū crippled one or more of the American carriers, it might allow Kondō’s battleships to get close enough to finish them off with their 14-inch guns, or so Nagumo imagined. Much, therefore, depended on the success of the air strike by Kobayashi’s eighteen Vals.4

En route to the target, Kobayashi saw what he thought were four American torpedo bombers below him. They were, in fact, dive-bombers: a section of Earl Gallaher’s VS-6 under Lieutenant Charles Ware, returning to the Enterprise from the successful strike on the Kaga. Eager for a fight, Kobayashi’s escorting Zeros dove on them, expecting to make quick work of it. But the American pilots were flying low, which restricted the Zeros’ maneuvering room, and they were flying in formation, which meant the backseat gunners were able to put up a heavy curtain of .30-caliber machine gun fire. In the ensuing fight, the Zeros not only failed to shoot down any of the American dive-bombers, two of the Zeros were badly mauled.* The two crippled Zeros turned back toward the Hiryū, and only one of them made it, the other crashing into the sea nearby. Moreover, the remaining four Zeros spent so much time vainly assailing Ware’s bombers that the eighteen Vals they were supposed to be escorting had to begin their attack on the Yorktown without fighter cover.5

Yorktown’s radar picked up Kobayashi’s inbound Vals forty-six miles out. At 11:59, Radio Electrician V. M. Bennett reported “thirty to forty” bogeys approaching. Buckmaster ordered preparations to receive them: the crew purged the fuel lines, locked down the watertight doors, and pushed an 800-gallon auxiliary gas tank over the side. Jimmy Thach’s six Wildcats had just been recovered on the Yorktown, but the last of them, flown by Machinist Tom Cheek, had failed to catch a wire and crashed into the barrier. That delayed the landing of the bombers of Max Leslie’s squadron, returning from their strike on the Sōryū. Pete Pederson, the Yorktown‘s air group commander, ordered them to stay aloft and join the Wildcats that were flying CAP, vectoring all of them out toward the inbound bogeys. Leslie himself could do little since his guns had jammed while he was diving on the Sōryū, but other planes of his squadron, though already low on gas, joined the attack on the inbound bombers. Once again, radar had played a crucial role, for without it the Yorktown might easily have been caught recovering airplanes when the Japanese arrived. Instead, the attacking Vals came under a furious air attack while they were still twenty to thirty miles out from their target.6

The onslaught of the American fighters broke up Kobayashi’s attack formation and the air battle turned into a free-for-all. From the deck of the Yorktown, the fight looked like a swirling, chaotic mass. Buckmaster reported that “planes were seen flying in every direction, and many were falling in flames.” Once the four Zeros that had survived the skirmish with Ware’s dive-bombers joined the fray, a total of some fifty airplanes swirled and looped in the crowded sky.7

Pederson sought to bring order out of the chaos. Though he would have preferred to lead his air group in person, his role as onboard fighter director foreshadowed future Navy doctrine in which commanders managed air battles from a shipboard Combat Information Center. Pederson did not have a Combat Information Center, but he anticipated its function by using a search plot to keep track of inbound bogeys and a fighter director board to keep track of his own air assets. Using the Yorktown‘s call sign “Scarlet,” he addressed the pilots collectively and individually over the radio as he sought to turn a chaotic free-for-all into a coordinated attack. The transcript of the radio transmissions suggests something of the nature of the fight:

“All Scarlet planes keep a sharp look-out, a group of planes is coming in at 255 unidentified.”

“All Scarlet planes, bandits eight miles, 255.”

“This is Scarlet 19. Formation seems to be breaking up.”

“O.K. Break ‘em up.”


The radar allowed Pederson to vector specific planes to particular contacts.

“Scarlet 19, investigate plane bearing 235. … Distance ten to twelve miles, altitude low.

   Go get ‘em.”

“O.K. got him. Have bogey in sight.”8

Thus directed, the Wildcats were able to splash eleven of the inbound bombers. Lieutenant Junior Grade Arthur J. Brassfield (who was “Scarlet 19”) shot down the lead bomber, then pulled left into a wingover and found another Val at close range. “I watched my tracers going into the engine and lacing on back into the cockpit,” he remembered; then, “suddenly it blew up.” A third bomber headed for cloud cover. Brassfield chased it, fired off two short bursts, and it, too, fell in flames.

Occasionally Pederson forgot to use the call sign and lapsed into the familiar: “Art,” he radioed to Brassfield, “go out and investigate a bogey down low, 3,000 feet.” It turned out to be the plane that was closing in on downed pilot Bill Esders and his badly wounded gunner in their raft. If the Japanese pilot had been planning to strafe the downed flyers, he changed his mind when Brassfield came charging at him, and he instead fled for home at high speed. Pederson warned Brassfield not to chase him too far, but Brassfield’s blood was up and he took off in pursuit. Because of the extreme range, he tried lifting the nose of his plane and arcing his tracers in toward the target. He remembered that the tracers “looked like a swarm of bees looping high through the sky.” Soon the Val began smoking, and Brassfield had his fourth kill of the day.9

In addition to the attacking bombers, the Americans also shot down three of the four Zeros—only Shigematsu himself survived. Indeed, so many Japanese planes were falling from the sky that one witness on the Yorktown thought “it looked like a curtain coming down.” The Dash-4 Wildcats had only about twenty seconds of firepower and quickly began to run out of bullets. To indicate they needed to land and reload, the pilots flew past the Yorktown f bridge and communicated using hand signals: they shook their fists if they needed ammo, or raked their hands along the outside of the fuselage where the gas tank was to show that they were low on fuel. Landing planes in the midst of an air attack was impossible, however, because the Yorktown was maneuvering radically to throw off the attacking bombers. Pederson directed the planes that were low on ammo or fuel to head for Task Force 16, some forty miles to the southeast, and he called on Enterprise (call sign Red) for help.10

“Red from Scarlet. We need some VFs.”

“Scarlet from Red. Repeat.”

“Red from Scarlet, we need relief for our combat patrols, getting low on ammunition”

“Scarlet from Red, we are sending the Blue patrol to assist. … Blue patrol being launched   now.”11

Before the Wildcats from Task Force 16 could arrive, seven of the Val bombers that had survived the air battle entered the envelope of the antiaircraft fire from the circle of surface ships screening the Yorktown. As the American pilots veered off to avoid being hit by friendly fire, Buckmaster ordered the Yorktown sharply to port to throw off the attackers. The two cruisers and five destroyers of her protecting screen opened up with scores of 5-inch guns, 1.1-inch “pom pom” guns, 20 mm guns, and .50-caliber machine guns. Leslie thought it looked like “a fire works display at a Fourth of July celebration.”12

Through this virtual cloud of antiair fire, the seven surviving Val dive-bombers of Kobayashi’s command pressed home their attack. Two more fell into the sea, victims of the heavy antiair fire, but not before one of them released its bomb, which hit the Yorktown“just abaft No. 2 elevator on the starboard side.” That bomb exploded near a 1.1-inch antiaircraft gun, slaughtering its crew and starting several fires. Only seconds later, a second bomb hit the Yorktown squarely amidships, passing through both the Yorktown f flight deck and hangar deck and exploding on level three among the engine uptakes, extinguishing the fires in five of the ship’s boilers. A third bomb hit near the Yorktown’s forward elevator, starting a fire in a rag-storage area. That one forced Buckmaster to flood the ship’s forward magazine.13

Like Sōryū, Yorktown had been hit by three bombs—one forward, one amidships, and one astern. One important difference was that the bombs that had hit the Sōryū had been 1,000-pound bombs; those that hit the Yorktown were 250-kilogram (551-pound) bombs. More importantly, unlike Sōryū, Yorktown’s hangar deck was not packed with volatile ordnance because of the advance warning provided by the Yorktown’s radar. Though a fully fueled Dauntless armed with a 1,000-pound bomb sat on the hangar deck near where the first bomb exploded, the hangar-deck officer, Lieutenant Alberto Emerson, quickly activated the sprinkler system, and the better-equipped American damage control parties successfully contained the fire before any ordnance cooked off.14

Nevertheless, it was a dire moment. With main propulsion out, the big Yorktown began to lose speed, and by 12:40 she was dead in the water. Black smoke from the mutiple fires roiled up so high into the air that it was visible from Task Force 16 forty miles away. Immobile, and with three gaping holes in her flight deck, Yorktown could not conduct air operations. Her radar had been knocked out, meaning that any future attack would find her a sitting duck. Driven from his battle station in flag plot by thick smoke, Fletcher assessed the situation. “I can’t fight a war from a dead ship,” he told Buckmaster, and soon afterward, just past one o’clock, he left the Yorktown in Buckmaster’s care and prepared to transfer to the heavy cruiser Astoria. The only way off the ship was to climb down a knotted rope. Fletcher was not sure he could do it. “I’m too damn old for this sort of thing,” he muttered. In the end, two sailors had to lower him down to the Astoria’s motor whaleboat.15

The damage to the Yorktown compelled all of her planes still aloft to seek sanctuary on Hornet and Enterprise. Aboard the Hornet, most of the planes from the “flight to nowhere” had landed by now except for Ruff Johnson’s bombers, which would return from Midway that afternoon. Unfortunately, the Hornet’s run of bad luck was not over. One of the Yorktown‘s refugee pilots was Ensign Daniel C. Sheedy, whose Wildcat had been badly shot up during the strike on the Kidō Butai, wounding him in the leg. As a result, he had trouble bringing his fighter in for a landing. Though Sheedy did not know it, one of the two Japanese bullets that had punched through his instrument panel had disabled the switch that put his own machine guns on “safe.” When his damaged Wildcat hit the deck, his left landing gear collapsed and his plane swerved toward the Hornet’sisland. The impact also set off his machine guns. A burst of .50-caliber bullets sprayed both the island and a group of men standing nearby. Three Marines and a sailor were killed, as was Lieutenant Royal R. Ingersoll, son of the commander of the U. S. Atlantic Fleet, Admiral Royal E. Ingersoll.16

Meanwhile, back on board the wounded Yorktown, damage-control parties worked feverishly. Some fought the fires, others worked on the engines, and still others labored to repair the holes in the flight deck. To sustain them, the executive officer, Dixie Keefer, ordered the ship’s store opened and distributed candy (“gedunk”) to all hands, both to boost morale and to keep up their energy level. In place of the small national flag that normally flew from the bridge, Buckmaster ordered the crew to raise the fifteen-foot-long “holiday” flag, which provoked cheers from the crew. On the flight deck, men constructed a frame made of 4 by 6 wooden timbers across the gaping holes in the deck, then nailed quarter-inch steel plates over the framework. It was a makeshift patch, but it was good enough. Technicians managed to get the radar working again.

 Damage-control parties repair a hole in the flight deck of the Yorktown after the attack by Lieutenant Kobayashi’s dive-bombers from Hiryū. (U.S. Naval Institute)

The biggest problem was in the engine spaces, where the second Japanese bomb had taken out five of the ship’s nine boilers. Water Tenderman First Class Charles Kleinsmith and a crew of volunteers donned gasmasks so they could stay in the engine room and maintain pressure in boiler number 1, which provided the power the damage-control parties needed to run their equipment. By 1:30, other crewmen of the “black gang” had boilers 4, 5, and 6 back on line, and ten minutes after that, the chief engineer reported that he could generate steam for twenty knots. As the crew cheered, the Yorktown began to move, slowly at first, then faster, and soon she was a warship again. With the fires under control, Buckmaster ordered the crew to resume fueling the Wildcats of Jimmy Thach’s squadron.17

The refueling had barely started, however, when the radar on the cruiser Pensacola picked up another group of inbound planes. The Yorktown‘s 1MC public address system blared out: “Stand by for air attack.” Once again, radar prevented the Yorktown from being caught unready. The fueling was halted immediately and the lines purged with CO2 gas. The Yorktown had only six Wildcats aloft, including several from Task Force 16. Pederson was eager to get Thach’s squadron back into the air as well. But there were two problems. The first was that although the Yorktownhad by now worked its way up to about sixteen knots, the light winds that day meant that the fighters would have to get airborne with relatively low wind speed across the deck. The second problem was that since the refueling had been halted, most of the Wildcats had only about 23 gallons of gas in their tanks. They took off nonetheless.18

The inbound bogeys were ten Kate torpedo bombers protected by six more Zeros. The Kate was the best weapon in the Japanese air arsenal, but Yamaguchi now had only these ten. As a measure of just how much and how quickly the fortunes of war had turned, early that morning Lieutenant Tomonaga had led 108 bombers and fighters in the attack on Midway Island, leaving 140 more behind as a reserve. Now the ten Kate torpedo bombers that Tomonaga led against the Yorktown represented almost the last available striking force of the Kidō Butai, nearly the final arrow in the quiver.19

Nagumo had agreed to hurl them against the enemy because at this point he was still clinging to the hope that he could turn the battle around by forcing a surface engagement. Only five of the eighteen dive-bombers that Yamaguchi had sent against the Yorktownhad returned, but they reported that they had left a mortally wounded American carrier dead in the water and burning. If Tomonaga’s ten Kates could inflict similar damage on a second American carrier, a surface attack by Nagumo’s battleships and cruisers might be able to finish them off. Failing that, Nagumo would still have the opportunity to launch a night attack with his destroyers, armed with the deadly Type 93 “Long Lance” torpedoes that had a twenty-mile range. He knew that the Kidō Butai would be exposed to renewed American air attack in the interim, but he also knew, having witnessed it himself, that the Americans had suffered extremely heavy air losses that morning, including the near-annihilation of their torpedo squadrons, which significantly minimized the air threat. Attempting a surface battle was risky. Nonetheless, so long as there was even the least chance of success, Nagumo was determined to grasp it.

Even before Tomonaga took off, however, two key pieces of information ought to have brought Nagumo back to earth. At 12:40, a message from Chikuma’s number 5 scout plane reported an undamaged American carrier task force 130 miles away, much too far for any surface attack to be realistic. And twenty minutes after that, Nagumo received another piece of information from Commander Watanabe on the destroyer Arashi. Watanabe’s crew had plucked one of the pilots from Lem Massey’s VT-3 from the water. It was Ensign Wesley Frank Osmus, a 24-year-old product of the AVCAD program from Illinois. Osmus had apparently failed to retrieve the life raft from his Devastator, for the Japanese found him, weak and dehydrated, swimming all alone in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Hauled aboard the Arashi, the Japanese interrogated him aggressively, threatening him with a sword. Osmus revealed that there were three American carriers in the area, the Hornet, Enterprise, and Yorktown, and that the Yorktown was operating separately from the other two. Once they completed the interrogation, the Japanese carried Osmus to the stern to throw him back over the side. Realizing their intent, Osmus grabbed on to the ship’s stern railing, and to break his grip the Japanese smashed his head with a fire ax. Osmus’ body tumbled into the ship’s wake.20

Consequently, Nagumo now knew that there were two undamaged American carriers out there somewhere, and thus that there was no realistic hope of forcing a surface engagement. With only the Hiryū and its ten Kates, plus perhaps a score of Zeros, it was evident that it was now time—indeed past time—for the Kidō Butai to cut its losses and run for i.t Nevertheless, Nagumo approved Yamaguchi’s decision to send Tomonaga and the ten Kates out to do what they could.

One factor in that decision may have been that Admiral Yamamoto had at last put his oar in. He had considered breaking radio silence at 7:45 a.m. that morning, when the Yamato had picked up the report by Petty Officer Amari that there were ten American ships to the northeast. At the time, Yamamoto had turned to his chief of staff and said, “I think we had better order Nagumo to attack at once.” But in the end he had decided not to interfere, and now he very likely regretted it. At 12:20 Yamamoto broke radio silence to send a series of orders directing Kondō’s battleships and heavy cruisers to close on the Kidō Butai from the south and Kakuta’s two carriers off the Aleutians to abort their mission, send the transports back to Japan, and steam south. Rather than cut his losses, Yamamoto was prepared to double down in the hope of winning the pot. As for Nagumo, by dispatching Tomonaga’s handful of torpedo bombers against the Americans at 1:30, he had staked everything on their success.21

When Tomonaga took off from the Hiryū, he knew that he would not be coming back. During the attack on Midway that morning, his left-wing fuel tank had been punctured and was no longer serviceable. Consequently, though he had enough gas to find the enemy, he would not have enough to return. He joked with his fellow pilots that with the Americans only ninety miles away, he would have enough fuel to make it, but everyone recognized it as bravado. Yamaguchi himself came down to the flight deck to shake Tomonaga’s hand and tell him goodbye, and to remind him that it was essential to find and cripple a second American carrier. One had been badly wounded, perhaps sunk, but there were two more out there.22

After leading his small squadron eastward for not quite an hour, Tomonaga saw the wakes of an American task force on the surface. At the center of that task force was an apparently undamaged carrier making an estimated twenty knots and launching aircraft. Clearly this could not be the cripple that Kobayashi’s dive-bombers had left dead in the water and burning only two hours ago. He used hand signals to indicate the target and split his ten planes into two divisions to conduct a classic anvil attack. Despite outward appearances, his target was indeed the Yorktown, returned to operational status by her efficient damage-control teams. Consequently, instead of hitting a second carrier, Tomonaga’s Kates were about to expend their fury on the same carrier that Kobayashi had hit, while the two carriers of Task Force 16 remained undiscovered and unharmed.

Tomonaga led one division of five planes against the Yorktown’s starboard side, while Lieutenant Hashimoto Toshio took the other five planes out to the left to attack its port side. As the Kates bore down on the Yorktown, Thach’s eight Wildcats were struggling to get airborne. The Yorktown’s own 5-inch guns had already started firing when the first of the Wildcats rolled down the deck, and the pilots could feel their jolting recoil as they took off. On the one hand this launch at the last possible moment was fortuitous because, with only twenty-three gallons of gas, the Wildcats were spared having to burn fuel flying out to the contact. On the other hand, it also meant that the air battle took place inside the envelope of the antiair fire from the escorts of the task force. That escort was even more powerful now than it had been two hours before, for Spruance had sent two cruisers (Pensacola and Vincennes) and two destroyers (Benham and Balch) to reinforce Yorktown’s screen. Consequently, Wildcats, Zeros, and Kates maneuvered and shot at each other from close range as thousands of rounds of ordnance flew past them from the screening cruisers and destroyers. It was like fighting an air battle in the middle of a target range.23

One of the Wildcats was piloted by a 22-year-old ensign with the unlikely name of Milton Tootle IV, the son of a prominent St. Louis banker. Tootle’s plane had barely cleared the deck in his takeoff when he made a hard right turn and saw a Kate making its torpedo run on the Yorktown. Tootle did not even have time to crank up his landing gear before he fired a long burst at the Kate and shot it down. When he pulled up, however, he entered the free-fire zone of the Yorktown’s own antiaircraft battery, and his plane was hit by friendly fire. As his cockpit filled with smoke, he knew he was too low to bail out, so he climbed to 1,500 feet before jumping. His whole flight had lasted less than five minutes.24

Jimmy Thach almost didn’t get airborne at all. He flew the only Wildcat that had been fully fueled, which made it heavier, and in the light winds, it virtually fell off the end of the flight deck; Thach had to nurse it up into the air. As he began to gain altitude, he too saw an enemy torpedo plane streaking in toward the Yorktown, and he turned to go after it. As he closed in, he saw that its tail bore “a bright red colored insignia shaped like feathers … that no other Japanese aircraft had.” It was Tomonaga’s command plane, flying very low, barely fifty feet off the water, and heading straight for Yorktown’s starboard side. Thach made a side approach and triggered a long burst of .50-caliber bullets. The Kate began to smoke, and flames issued from the engine, but Tomonaga somehow held his course. Thach recalled that “the whole left wing was burning, and I could see the ribs [of the plane] showing through the flames,” but still Tomonaga flew on. Thach was impressed in spite of himself. “That devil still stayed in the air until he got close enough and dropped his torpedo.” Only after that did Tomonaga’s plane smash into the sea and disintegrate. No doubt Tomonaga died satisfied that he had done his full duty. But despite his sacrifice, his torpedo missed, as did those of the other planes in his section.25

Hashimoto’s second division had better luck. Threading their way through the heavy antiair fire, four of the Kates in his section managed to get close enough to launch their torpedoes. That morning, Petty Officer Hamada Giichi had watched the destruction of Kaga, Akagi, and Sōryū from the deck of the Hiryū and had resolved to make the Americans pay. Now, after his pilot dropped his torpedo and pulled out over the Yorktown’s flight deck, Hamada leaned out of the cockpit and shook his fist at it. The Americans who saw him yelled and gestured back. It was an intensely personal moment in a battle dominated by impersonal weapons. Within seconds, at 2:43 p.m., the first torpedo struck the Yorktown flush on the port side at about frame 90.26

“It was a real WHACK,” Ensign John “Jack” Crawford remembered. “You could feel it all through the ship. … I had the impression that the ship’s hull buckled slightly.” The blast knocked out six of the ship’s nine boilers and opened a large hole in the hull fifteen feet below the water line. Fires spread into the other boiler rooms and knocked out all propulsion. The Yorktown began to slow and take on a slight list. Then, just moments later, a second torpedo struck near frame 75. The two strikes were so close together that combined they created a single giant sixty-by-thirty-foot hole in the Yorktown’s port side. The inrushing sea flooded the generator room and knocked out power throughout the ship; the emergency generators failed too, and the ship went dark. The Yorktown continued to lose way and the list became more pronounced. Soon she was again dead in the water. Eventually the ship heeled over at a 26-degree angle—so steep that it was difficult to walk on the flight deck. Commander Clarence Aldrich, the damage-control officer, reported to Buckmaster that without power none of the pumps feeding the fire hoses were working, nor could he effect counterflooding to prevent the Yorktown from listing further. Charles Kleinsmith, whose crew had kept boiler number one in operation after the first attack, had been killed. Lacking power, unable to fight the fires, and fearing that the big flattop “would capsize in a few minutes,” trapping the whole crew underwater, at 2:55, Buckmaster ordered abandon ship.27

There was no panic. Men came up from the darkened spaces below, some carrying the wounded. The kapok-filled life vests were stowed in giant canvas bags suspended from the overhead on the hangar deck, and they spilled onto the deck in a heap. As they had on the Lexington in the Coral Sea, men stripped off their shoes for swimming and lined them up on the deck. Because Buckmaster feared the ship might roll over at any moment, he directed the men to evacuate from the starboard (high) side. From there, it was some sixty feet from the flight deck to the sea, and the men had to lower themselves down knotted ropes thrown over the side. One recent graduate of the Naval Academy began to lower himself with his legs splayed out at a 45-degree angle as he had been taught to do in gym class. Then, appreciating that this was not gym class, he wrapped his legs tightly around the rope as he continued his descent. Seaman E. R. “Bud” Quam successfully lowered himself down into the sea, then found that the water soaking into his heavy anti-flash overalls made them heavy and threatened to drag him down. He was floundering badly when a pair of strong arms pulled him out of the water and into a rubber raft. He looked up at his rescuer and was astonished to see that it was Peter Newberg, a high school classmate from Willmar, Minnesota.28

Morale remained high, even in the water. Those bobbing in life vests put out their thumbs to those in the rafts, as if hitching a ride. A few called out “Taxi! Taxi!” and there was a lot of joshing and joking—one group began singing “The Beer Barrel Polka.” The escorting destroyers closed in to pick up the survivors, and eventually some 2,280 men were recovered; USS Balch alone picked up 725. Buckmaster wanted to ensure that he was the last one off the Yorktown. All alone, he conducted a tour of the spaces that were still above water to make sure that no one had been overlooked. With the Yorktown listing near 30 degrees and the decks and ladders slippery with oil, he had to move “hand-over-hand” to stay vertical. By now the water was lapping at the hangar deck. Buckmaster made his way to the stern, stepped off into the sea, and swam away from the ship. He was soon picked up and taken on board Fletcher’s new flagship, Astoria.29

 The USS Balch (DD-363), at right, picking up survivors from the badly listing Yorktown on the afternoon of June 4. (U.S. Naval Institute)

As the Yorktown was fighting for her life, Bill Brockman on the Nautilus was getting his second good look that day at an enemy aircraft carrier. After finding himself alone on the surface at 10:00 that morning, he had continued northward for half an hour when he spotted a tall cloud of smoke on the horizon. Because of enemy airplanes in the vicinity, he went to periscope depth, where he had to rely on the boat’s electric power. He was concerned about how long his batteries would last. However, deciding that they had enough juice to last until nightfall he continued submerged until, at 11:45, he “identified the source of the smoke as a burning carrier” guarded by what he thought were two cruisers, but which were the destroyers Hagikaze and Maikaze. Closing this formation proved difficult since the burning carrier was still making headway at one or two knots, and with her depleted batteries, the submerged Nautilus herself was only marginally faster. As Brockman watched through his periscope, it seemed to him that the two “cruisers” were making preparations to take the carrier under tow. He thought about attacking the escorts, but in the end he decided it was more important to finish off the carrier.30

At two o’clock, about the time that Tomonaga was beginning his attack run on the Yorktown, Brockman calculated the range and the angle on the bow. He and the other officers carefully studied the ship identification books—”to make sure this couldn’t possibly be one of ours.” Satisfied that it was not, he fired a spread of four torpedoes at what he thought was a Sōryū-class carrier but was instead the mortally wounded Kaga. One of the torpedoes misfired, and two missed. The fourth ran straight and true and struck the Kaga flush on her starboard side. At the time, Brockman’s enthusiasm led him to imagine that he saw it explode and reignite fires on the big carrier. In fact, however, when the torpedo hit the Kaga’s armored battleship hull, it did not explode, and instead broke in half. The heavy nose containing the unexploded warhead sank from sight, and the after section floated harmlessly nearby. Ironically, several Japanese crewmen who had evacuated the Kaga used it as a flotation device until they were picked up by one of the destroyers.31

Brockman had no time for a lengthy assessment, since the Kaga’s two escorts immediately charged toward him and he had to dive. He went down to three hundred feet—as deep as the boat would go. The Japanese destroyers dropped eleven depth charges, but their deepest setting was two hundred feet, and all of them exploded well above him. Despite that, the multiple concussions at such an extreme depth started several leaks in the boat’s hull, and the dripping water led to some tense moments on board the Nautilus.Brockman stayed deep for almost two hours, then crept back up to periscope depth just past 4:00 p.m. The carrier was still there, smoke pouring out of her. The duty officer on the Nautilus watched the towering column of smoke climbing up “to the height of a thousand feet” and told Brockman with evident satisfaction that it reminded him of the smoke that rose up from the USS Arizona on December 7.32

By then, Nagumo had finally, and reluctantly, given up on the idea of forcing a surface action. At 3:40 he ordered what was left of the Kidō Butai to change course from northeast to northwest. It was the right decision, if somewhat tardy. By now Hiryū had only nine attack planes left (four Vals and five Kates), plus perhaps a dozen Zeros. Though Yamaguchi reported (incorrectly) that his two air strikes had “accounted for 2 carriers damaged,” another report from a scout plane informed Nagumo that there were still two more undamaged American carriers east of him. For his part, Yamaguchi was planning one more desperate attack at dusk. He hoped to launch his last nine attack planes, plus six Zeros, at about 6:00 p.m. and hit the Americans at twilight when they would not be expecting it. Though the pilots were woozy with exhaustion, the planes were ready and waiting on the hangar deck. Meanwhile, Yamaguchi kept an active CAP flying over what was left of the Kidō Butai.33

The Americans, too, were planning a strike that afternoon, and they had many more tools to hand. Without question, their morning losses had been heavy and sobering. All three of the torpedo squadrons had been virtually annihilated, and whatever happened from now on would depend entirely on the rugged and dependable Dauntless dive-bombers. Of the thirty-two dive-bombers that Wade McClusky had led away from the Enterprise that morning, however, only eleven had returned, and two of those were so badly damaged as to be of no further use. These losses were due less to enemy fire than to the long flight and lengthy search; most of the planes had simply run out of gas on the way back and ditched in the water. The vast majority of their pilots would eventually be recovered, but for now Enterprise had only about as many attack planes left as Hiryū did: seven from Earl Gallaher’s Scouting Six and four from Dick Best’s Bombing Six. There was, however, Max Leslie’s Bombing Three from Yorktown, When Leslie’s bombers had returned from their strike on the Sōryū to find the Yorktown under attack, Pederson had ordered them to help defend the task force and then sent them off to find refuge on the Enterprise. Leslie himself and two others ran out of gas en route and ditched in the water, but fourteen of them had made it, and those fourteen were on board Enterprise now. Adding them to the remnants of Gallaher’s and Best’s squadrons gave the Enterprise a strike force of twenty-five dive-bombers.34

As for the Hornet, thanks to the “flight to nowhere,” her air group had not been in action at all that day save for Waldron’s martyred Torpedo Eight. Despite that, ten Wildcats had been lost, and only three of Ruff Johnson’s planes from Bombing Eight had returned. Hornet still had all eighteen dive-bombers of Walt Rodee’s squadron, plus the three planes of Johnson’s squadron, so that altogether Spruance had more than forty bombers that he could commit to a second strike.

Certainly the pilots were eager for it. After landing on the Enterprise, Dick Best climbed out of his cockpit and hurried up to the flag bridge to convince Spruance to send out another strike at once. Miles Browning intercepted him, and Best made his case. “There are three carriers aflame and burning,” he told Browning. “But there’s a fourth one up to the north. He requested that he be “rearmed and sent out right away.” Before Browning could reply, McClusky came up to make his report. Commander Walter Boone noticed that blood was running down McClusky’s arm and dripping onto the deck: “My God, Mac, you’ve been shot!” he exclaimed. In fact, McClusky had parts of five bullets in his arm and shoulder, and he was hustled off to sick bay.35

Browning and Spruance were surprised to learn of a fourth undamaged carrier. At 2:04, Spruance had notified Nimitz, “All four CV believed badly damaged.” Yet Best’s report, and the attack on Yorktown, proved that at least one undamaged enemy carrier was still operating. Even so, Spruance did not launch at once. The losses among the American strike aircraft that morning had been “horrific,’ and he was aware that if he launched a second strike now, the planes would probably have to return in the dark. Most important, he didn’t know with any certainty where that fourth carrier was other than, in Best’s words, somewhere “up to the north.” He therefore rejected Browning’s suggestion to launch at once and decided to wait until he had more information.36

It came in at 2:45. That morning, as we’ve seen, Fletcher had kept the planes of Wally Short’s Scouting Five back from the strike in anticipation of finding the presumed second group of Japanese carriers. At 11:30, just twenty minutes before Kobayashi’s attack, he sent ten of them off on a combination search and attack mission. Short’s ten planes flew in five two-plane sections in order to cover an arc of the sea from 280 degrees (almost due west) to 020 degrees (almost due north)—see map, p. 334. They were to fly two hundred miles out, turn left for sixty miles, then fly back. At 150 miles, most of them encountered a thick fog bank. “We’d fly through thick fog for five or ten minutes,” one pilot recalled, “and then break out into the open for a few miles, then back into a fog bank again.” Nevertheless, at 2:45 p.m., just as Tomonaga was attacking the Yorktown, Lieutenant Samuel Adams called in a sighting. Adams was in a buoyant mood, for he had received word just that morning that his wife had given birth back in the States. Perhaps somewhat giddy as a result, he had flown off the Yorktown still wearing his blue pajamas under his flight jacket. Now, however, he was all business. Finding no enemy ships in his assigned sector, he took the initiative to fly further south and at 2:45 reported “One carrier, two battleships, three heavy cruisers, four destroyers. Course north, speed 20 knots.” The enemy ships bore 278 degrees from Task Force 16 and they were only 110 miles away. Adams’s radioman/gunner, Joseph Karrol, sent in the sighting report, and when Adams asked him to send it again, Karrol interrupted him: “Mr. Adams, would you mind waiting a minute. There’s a Zero on our tail.” Karrol transferred from the radio to the twin .30-caliber machine guns to fend off the Zero, then went back to the radio to send the voice message.37*

 The popular and boyish-looking Lieutenant Samuel Adams spotted the Hiryū on the afternoon of June 4 and reported her location. (U.S. Naval Institute)

After receiving that news, Spruance ordered Enterprise and Hornet to “prepare to launch attack group immediately.” For whatever reason, that order never reached the Hornet. So far the day had been an unalloyed fiasco for the Hornet. It would get no better in the afternoon. Anticipating an order to launch a second strike, Mitscher had spotted Walt Rodee’s scout bombers on the Hornet’s flight deck. Then just a few minutes before 3:00, Mitscher learned that the eleven bombers of Ruff Johnson’s VB-8 that had landed on Midway that morning were at last returning. Mitscher decided to “break the spot” (as it was called) and push the planes of Rodee’s strike force forward in order to recover Johnson’s bombers. As a result, when at 3:17 Spruance ordered both carriers to begin launching at 3:30, the Hornet was not ready. Enterprise began launching at 3:25; the Hornet did not get her first plane into the air until after 4:00.38

That first plane lifted off at 4:03, and one by one, sixteen Dauntless bombers got airborne. Almost at once, however, two of them reported engine failure and had to return. By the time they were back aboard, it was past 4:30, and, deciding it was too late now to continue launching, Mitscher turned the Hornet west to the point-option course. That decision stranded fifteen planes of the Hornet’s strike force that were still on the hangar deck. Worse, among those fifteen were the planes of Stanhope Ring, the air group commander, and Walt Rodee, the squadron commander. Mitscher’s report is silent on how he learned of this latest snafu. Did Ring and Rodee come running up to the bridge to ask why they had been left behind? Did they then consult the roster to find out who the senior officer with the strike group was? In any case, only after he was in the air did Lieutenant Edgar Stebbins learn that he was in charge of the mission. It was yet another humiliation for the hapless Hornet, her frustrated commanding officer, and her even more frustrated air group commander.39

As for the Enterprise, once she had launched her strike group, she began recovering the orphaned Wildcats from the stricken Yorktown. Jimmy Thach was the last to come aboard, and when he climbed out of his cockpit, he was told that Admiral Spruance wanted to see him. Thach rushed up to the flag bridge, where the sober-faced admiral was waiting for him. He asked Thach how he thought things were going. “Admiral, we’re winning this battle,” Thach replied. “I saw with my own eyes three big carriers burning so furiously they’ll never launch another airplane.” He told Spruance that he felt that they ought to go after the fourth one. Thach remembered that Spruance “kind of smiled” at that, which was about as demonstrative as Spruance got.40

The Enterprise strike force of twenty-four planes (one of Gallaher’s planes had to return because of engine trouble) flew toward the target at 13,000 feet in three squadrons. Each squadron was a mere shadow of what it had been that morning. Earl Gallaher’s VS-6 had only six planes; Dick Best’s VB-6 had four; and Max Leslie’s VB-3 from Yorktown had fourteen. Neither McClusky nor Leslie could take part—McClusky because of his shoulder wound and Leslie because his plane had never made it to the Enterprise. That made Earl Gallaher the senior man, with Lieutenant Dave Shumway leading the Yorktown planes. Gallaher planned to have the ten Enterprise planes (his own and Dick Best’s) attack the enemy carrier, and he wanted Shumway’s fourteen planes from Yorktown to hit the escorting battleships. This was a curious decision, since battleships—though big and impressive—were of little operational importance compared to the carrier. Very likely, Gallaher was remembering the doctrine that called for two squadrons flying together to select different targets. But with the American squadrons so reduced by battle damage, and with only one enemy carrier left, it would have been understandable in this case for all the planes to attack the primary target. Despite doctrine, that is exactly what happened.

The strike force from Enterprise spotted the Kidō Butai just before 5:00. Gallaher led his group of twenty-four planes up to 19,000 feet and around to the west in order to attack out of the setting sun. The Japanese had a handful of Zeros flying CAP at altitude, but they did not discover the threat until Gallaher was nearly ready to push over, and for the second time that day the Japanese were caught by surprise when American dive-bombers came hurtling down on them. Despite that, they put up an impressive curtain of antiaircraft fire. In the growing darkness, the gunfire flashes along both sides of the carrier were clearly visible.41

Gallaher began his dive just as the Hiryū made a radical turn to port. The Hiryū was agile for a big ship, and it turned tighter than Gallaher had calculated. He was already committed to his dive, so he tried to adjust for the Hiryū’s sharp turn by pulling up abruptly when he released his bomb, hoping to “throw” the bomb at the rapidly retreating carrier. The bomb missed astern, and Gallaher succeeded only in wrenching his back so badly that after he landed back on the Enterprise he had to be lifted bodily out of his cockpit.42

The next two bombs also missed, and after witnessing that, Shumway decided to forget about the battleships and lead his squadron against the carrier. It was the right decision, though it caused some confusion, since his group and Best’s four-plane section both dove on the Hiryū at the same time. Once again, Best had to maneuver at the last moment while he was preparing to dive. That gave the Zeros flying CAP a second chance at him, and they shot down one of Best’s wingmen, Ensign Fred Weber. Then, as Shumway targeted the Hiryūs starboard bow, Best led his other three planes against her port bow.43

The first to hit the Hiryū was Ensign Richard Jaccard. His 500-pound bomb struck the forward elevator, blowing a section of it into the air and propelling it back against the Hiryūs small island. Three more hits quickly followed, one of them Dick Best’s—his second of the day. Norman “Dusty” Kleiss, who had landed a bomb on the Kaga that morning, also got a second hit on Hiryū. All four American bombs landed forward of the ship’s island and created a single, massive crater in her flight deck; the Hiryū looked as if a giant’s hand had reached down and scooped out her bow section, leaving a gaping cavern. The Hiryū suffered less secondary damage than the other Japanese carriers because there was less ordnance to cook off on the hangar deck, but the primary damage was enough. Like her sister ships, she had been wrecked beyond recovery.44

Only then did Stebbins’ fourteen planes from Hornet arrive on the scene. Seeing that the Japanese carrier was already smashed and “burning throughout its entire length,” Stebbins led his squadron against the heavy cruisers Chikuma and Tone. Based on the pilots’ assessments, Mitscher later reported three hits on a battleship and two on a heavy cruiser, though in fact none of the bombs from the Hornet’s planes hit home.45

In an epilogue to this very long day, a dozen Army B-17s—six from Midway and six from Barking Sands Airfield on Kauai Island—appeared overhead just at dusk and dropped more than thirty 500-pound bombs on what was left of the Kidō Butai. They scored no hits, though they returned to base claiming one hit on a carrier and the sinking of a destroyer.46

By the time all the Navy planes were back aboard the carriers, it was full dark.* Spruance called Fletcher on the TBS to ask if he had any orders. “Negative,” Fletcher replied; “will conform to your movements,” in effect releasing Spruance to operate his task force independently, a vote of confidence that Spruance greatly appreciated. Spruance’s first decision was to turn Task Force 16 to the east, away from the enemy. He was aware that this might allow the remnants of the Kidō Butai to escape during the night. He knew, however, that four Japanese carriers had been hit, and he was sensitive to the possibly of a Japanese night attack by their heavy battleships or by destroyers launching torpedoes. As he put it in his subsequent report to Nimitz, “I did not feel justified in risking a night encounter with possibly superior enemy forces, but on the other hand, I did not want to be too far away from Midway the next morning.” Though Spruance’s decision was subsequently controversial, it was a sound one. Nimitz had told him—and Fletcher—not to risk the fleet.47

As for Nagumo, with his last carrier in flames, and lacking any aircraft beyond the few scout planes on the heavy cruisers and battleships, he at last faced reality and directed the remnants of his command to head west into the setting sun.

* Altogether, Yamaguchi and the Hiryū could count up to sixty-four aircraft. That included twenty-seven Zero fighters from all four carriers, most of them still flying CAP. There were an additional ten Zeros on the Hiryūs hanger deck, the eighteen Val dive bombers, and nine Kate torpedo planes, plus one more orphaned Kate from the Akagi.

* Though the Zeros failed to shoot down any of Ware’s dive bombers, none of the American planes made it back to the Enterprise, presumably because they subsequently ran out of gas. The crew of one of them—Ensign Frank W. O’Flaherty and his backseat gunner, Avation Machinist’s Mate First Class Bruno Gaido—ditched in the water and were subsequently taken prisoner by the Japanese destroyer Makigumo. Gaido was the man who had won Halsey’s approbation four months earlier by attempting to fight off a Japanese Nell from the stern of the Enterprise during the raid on the Marshall Islands (see chapter 4). After the Japanese interrogated the two Americans, they tied weights to their ankles and dropped them over the side.

* Because the Yorktown was out of action by the time these scouts returned, all of them had to land on board the carriers of Task Force 16. When Adams climbed out of his Dauntless on board the Enterprise still wearing his pajamas, he provoked a laugh when he claimed to be the only one who had come prepared to spend the night.

* There was one more American air strike that night. At 5:00 p.m., a PBY from Midway reported a “burning carrier” off to the northwest—almost certainly the Kaga. Major Ben Norris lifted off with twelve planes from the Eastern Island airfield at 7:15, and Simard sent out eight PT boats, each of them carrying a 200-gallon auxiliary gas tank to enable them to make the long run out to the target. But by the time any of them arrived, the Kaga was no longer afloat. At 6:25 she suffered another massive explosion and went under at around 7:25, taking some eight hundred men out of her crew of 1,800 down with her. During the return flight, Norris got disoriented in the dark with no visual references and flew his plane into the sea.

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