Seventy-five years ago today, Sunday, June 4, 1942, exactly six months from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, American Naval Aviators changed history and saved the world.
The US had broken the Japanese code. Admiral Nimitz, who at the direction of Roosevelt had taken over from Admiral Husband Kimmel at Pearl, found himself commanding a Pacific fleet with most of it at the bottom of Pearl Harbour. Except for the aircraft carriers, Yorktown, Enterprise, Hornet, Saratoga, and Lexington although On June 4, the Lex had been sunk a month before at the Battle of the Coral Sea. The Yorktown was severely damaged in the same battle, trailing a ten mile oil slick as she limped into Pearl. Needing three months for repair, Nimitz ordered all hands on deck and 1400 welders descended on the Yorktown and had her back out steaming for Midway three days later.
The Japanese sent six carriers to Midway, led by Admiral Yamamoto on his flagship, the largest battleship in the world. Yamamoto wanted to lure the American carriers into a trap, finish them off, and then the entire Pacific and west coast of the United States would be vulnerable to the mighty Japanese Navy.
But Nimitz put all his eggs in the basket of Cmdr. Joe Rochefort, a cranky, brilliant analyst who after working weeks non-stop, was sure he was reading Yamamoto's mail. He knew the order of battle, and so did Nimitz and that gave the Americans an opening.
Nimitz's best fighting Admiral- Bull Halsey was out -sick with shingles- and he was replaced by Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, who had never commanded carriers in Battle. Spruance sailed with the Hornet and Enterprise and Rear Admiral Jack Fletcher was on the damaged Yorktown. But Nimitz had a plan- he would use the landing strip at Midway as a fourth carrier. Loaded with bombers waiting to attack Yamamoto.
The issue was who could find who first? Nimitz had some advantages, knowing from the Japanese code that Yamamoto had split his force into four task forces, and knowing where the Japanese would be searching, Nimitz got his carriers into place before the Japanese went searching for them. The Japanese planned to lure the carriers AFTER attacking Midway, but Spruance and Fletcher were already in place.
And then it came down to the men in the planes. Wave after wave of American Torpedo bombers found the Japanese carriers, and almost all of them were shot down. A terrible loss of young, brave men. But Nimitz had more planes than Yamamoto was expecting, and the waves of American Torpedo Bomber Aviators took their toll on the Japanese carriers in terms of fighting them off. Men like Cmdr Duffy Waldron and Ensign George Gay are little remembered today, but they flew into battle without fighter escort, desperate to inflict damage on the Japanese carriers. All were shot down and only Ensign Gay survived. But the tide was about to turn.
As Admiral Nagumo scrambled his fighters to fight off wave after wave of American Torpedo bombers - none of whom scored a hit, Nagumo was in a constant dance of landing fighters, refueling them, and also coordinating the arming of his bombers all while trying to get the fighters in the air with the bombers to launch a coordinated strike.
Then Nagumo's luck ran out.
Enter Cmdr. Wade McClusky, and his two squadrons of dive bombers from the Enterprise. McClusky's bombers were almost out of fuel for the return trip. But he knew the Japanese were nearby. And again luck or fate intervened. McClusky spotted the destroyer Arashi racing for the fleet. It had just spent an hour depth charging the US Submarine Nautilus that had attacked the Japanese Battleship Kirishima. If the Nautilus doesn't attack Kirishima, the Arashi doesn't get delayed, and Cmdr. McClusky doesn't see it returning to the fleet. But all of that happened. And, placing his men and planes at risk of running out of fuel, McClusky follows the Arashi and comes upon four Japanese carriers, all without air cover, their decks full of planes being refueled and re-armed after fighting off waves of fruitless American Torpedo bomber attacks.
As McClusky approached with his squadrons from the Enterprise from the Southwest, one squadron from the repaired led by Cmdr Max Leslie off the Yorktown - the carrier the Japanese were never expecting to be in service after Coral Sea- approached from the Northeast. All three squadrons arrived over the unprotected Japanese carriers at the same time.
In the space of an hour- 10:20 am local time to 11:20 am, one could argue the War in the Pacific was won by brave American Naval Aviators whose names have faded into history.
The Japanese carrier Kaga sustained five direct hits, the carrier Akagi was hit once by a bomb dropped by Lt. Cmdr Best, and it was a fatal blow, landing in the blow deck flight deck among the fuel and ammunition.
Now Cmdr. Max Leslie and his group from the Yorktown arrived and found the Japanese carrier Soryu. Leslie and some of his men didn't have bombs as they dove. A faulty switch dropped them several minutes before battle. But Leslie and some of his other pilots dove on the Soryu anyway, taking anti-aircraft away from other planes that had bombs, and strafing the carrier and setting in on fire.
Now three carriers were ablaze and sinking. The sole functioning Japanese carrier Hiryu launched its planes against the Yorktown, striking it several times. But the old girl had one last trick up her sleeve. Late in the afternoon, a Yorktown scout plane found the Hiryu, and bomber squadrons from the Enterprise, comprising planes that had been recovered from all US Carriers launched one last time upon the orders of Admiral Spruance. Spruance was no Halsey, but he had his blood up and he knew he had the Japanese on the ropes. A more cautious admiral may have retreated with three Japanese Carriers sunk, but Spruance went for the kill shot. His planes found the Hiryu, and fought through fighter cover and hit her four or five times and she was done.
As the sun began to set in the Pacific on June 4, 1942, the world had changed because of men like Nimitz and Spruance and Fletcher and the bravery of Aviators like McClusky, Gay, and Duffy Waldron.
Never again would the empire of Japan be on the offensive in the Pacific. Now Japan would fight a defensive battle as Nimitz from the sea and MacArthur from the land tightened the noose around the Empire's neck.
We owe these men- all since passed on either in battle or after a well earned retirement- our freedom. Our country exists today because Nimitz trusted Cmdr. Rochefort; because Spruance and Fletcher trusted their Aviators; because the Captain of a US Sub attacked a Japanese Battleship, and Cmdr. McClusky trusted his gut and followed a ship to the entire Japanese carrier fleet. We are free because Cmdr. Max Leslie attacked and dove on a carrier into enemy fire without a bomb, drawing fire allowing his men to drop their bombs and sink the Soryu.
One day- June 4, 1942- and a few brave men- changed a war and altered the course of history.
May the good lord continue to bless our country- As General Patton once remarked- "I don't mourn their death, but I thank God that such men lived."
From Occupied America, where the current occupant of the White House has no idea what today means, Fight the Power! Fight it for Nimitz, and Wade McClusky and Max Leslie and all those brave men who died so that we may live.
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