In Spring 1942, the Japanese Navy was riding high, having successfully attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, sunk two British battleships, marauded through the Indian Ocean and driven Allied forces from the East Indies. The Japanese High Command had determined to seize control of the Southwest Pacific by invading and capturing Port Moresby in Papua-New Guinea. The result was the Battle of the Coral Sea off the northeast coast of Australia, May 4-8, 1942. The U. S. Navy lost USS Lexington (CV-2) and suffered damage to USS Yorktown (CV-5) but the Japanese were turned back with carrier Shokaku heavily damaged and light carrier Shoho sunk. While herself undamaged, Japanese carrier Zuikaku had lost much of her air group.
Shortly afterward, Pacific Fleet Headquarters under Admiral Chester W. Nimitz began to receive intelligence that the Japanese were preparing another major operation directed at Midway Island northwest of Hawaii. As it turned out, Admiral Yamamoto, Commander of the Combined Fleet, was very disturbed by the success of LtCol. Doolittle’s attack on Tokyo by USAAF B-25’s launched from USS Hornet (CV-8) on April 18. He decided to eliminate US power in the Pacific by seizing Midway Island and possibly Hawaii.
As communications intelligence accumulated at Pacific Fleet headquarters, the location of the Japanese carrier force, Kido Butai, became well established. That knowledge led Admiral Nimitz to order the American commanders, Rear Admiral Frank J. Fletcher, CTF15, on USS Yorktown and Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, CTF17, on USS Enterprise accompanied by USS Hornet (CV-8) to deploy to the northeast of Midway. This tactical deployment placed the American force on the left flank of Kido Butai. Meanwhile the Japanese had launched an air attack on Midway on June 4, destroying many aircraft on the ground and others in air combat. A flight of USAAF B-17 bombers was able to take off and they bombed the carriers from 20,000 feet with, according to post-war Japanese sources, no hits.
The carrier battle began later on June 4 with each opposing force searching for the other, although the Japanese did not yet know much about their American opponent, they suspected its presence. Admiral Nagumo ordered a scout plane launched from a cruiser to search the seas around his force but it was late because of launching difficulties. By the time it spotted American forces it was too late.
The American task force commanders knew roughly where to find the enemy and launched fighters and torpedo aircraft to seek him out. Torpedo Squadron 8 aircraft from the Hornet under the command of
LtCdr John Waldron disregarded orders and found the Japanese carriers. They were slaughtered by both anti-aircraft fire and Japanese fighters. However, by drawing the fighters down to nearly sea level they left the carriers exposed to dive bombers.
Both Enterprise and Yorktown had launched bombers which searched in vain for the Japanese carriers because extensive cloud cover obscured the surface below. One of the flight leaders, LtCdr Wade McClusky, saw through the clouds a Japanese destroyer steaming at high speed. An experienced pilot, he judged that it must be rejoining a larger force. Signaling to his mates to follow, he turned in the direction of the destroyer. A few minutes later the American flight spotted the carriers and went into their dives almost unopposed. The flight decks of the carriers were extremely vulnerable as the flight crews armed and fueled aircraft intended for attack on the American forces. The result was out-of-control fires in and flooding of the three carriers: Akagi, Kaga and Soryu later sank or were sunk by the Japanese to prevent capture.
Hiryu, which operated independently of the other three carriers, had launched strikes which found and attacked the Yorktown. Damage control crews with the help of the destroyer USS Hammann (DD-412) extinguished the fires, made temporary repairs and prepared to get underway. Unknown to the Americans, a Japanese submarine, I-168, was lurking nearby. Initially in an unfavorable position to attack, the Japanese skipper maneuvered his boat so that his torpedoes would run true. Of the four fired, two hit the Yorktown and a third broke Hammann nearly in half. Other destroyers bombarded I-168 with depth charges but, heavily damaged, she managed to escape. The damage to Yorktown was now so severe that she had to be abandoned and sunk.
As for Hiryu, bomb and torpedo carrying aircraft, launched by Enterprise and Hornet, found her and attacked. The fires resulting from the bombing led to her destruction. The destruction of Kido Butai was now almost complete. The final action, preceded by a collision between the cruisers Mogami and Mikuma, was the bombing by aircraft from Hornet; it resulted in the sinking of Mikuma and heavy damage to Mogami. With all action reports received, it was up to Admiral Spruance to decide whether to pursue the enemy or return to Pearl Harbor. Wisely, he chose the latter. Yamamoto’s battle line would have overwhelmed the American forces with their depleted munitions, aircraft and fuel supply.
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