June 4th marks the 70th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Midway – a significant victory for our Navy which ultimately marked one of the significant turning points of the war in the Pacific.
The Battle of Midway is not just a story about ships and aircraft; the real story is about the people who fought, the pilots who flew the planes and the Sailors who manned the ships. And it was our Sailors’ ability to make tough decisions in the midst of tremendous uncertainty and profound risk that would give us victory at Midway. Virtually every decision in this great battle would prove to be absolutely critical to the outcome.
The Spruance Decision
On the morning of 4 June, then LT Howard P. Ady, Jr., while flying a patrol in his PBY-5A, first spotted a single aircraft on a course to Midway. His first report on the enemy early that morning (one word: “Aircraft”) was soon followed by more detailed reports:
0534 “Enemy Carriers”
0540 “ED 180 sight 320”
0552 “Two carriers and main body of ships, carriers in front, course 135, speed 25”
ADM Spruance was closely following these reports and had begun steaming toward the Japanese Fleet to reduce the distance required for an attack. The Japanese aircraft were returning to their carriers after their strikes on Midway. Spruance initially planned to launch planes from the carriers ENTERPRISE and HORNET at 0900 from a range of less than 100 miles, but realized that if he could get his air wings airborne quickly enough, his planes would be in a position to strike the Japanese carriers while their aircraft were still exposed on deck.
Accordingly, Spruance ordered an all-out attack and started launching aircraft at 0700 – a full two hours early – and at maximum range from the enemy. The decision to go “all in” and strike early came with significant risk but would, without a doubt, prove to be the single most important decision of the entire battle (and one of the most important decisions of the war). Had the Japanese been given time to refuel and rearm their aircraft, and keep their carriers on the move, the outcome of the battle could have certainly been much different.
The “McCluskey Moment”
Our attack on the Japanese Fleet did not start off well. 15 TBD Devastators – an obsolete aircraft at this point in the war – from HORNET’s Torpedo Squadron EIGHT (VT-8) were the first to reach the Japanese Fleet. VT-8 attempted to attack the carrier SORYU (shortly after 0915), but didn’t stand a chance against the superior Japanese ZERO fighter plane; it was over before it even began. Every plane from VT-8 was quickly shot down and only one crewman survived – Ensign George Gay. Moreover, not one torpedo hit its mark and our initial attack had tragically failed.
Next to attack were 14 TBD Devastators from ENTERPRISE’s Torpedo Squadron SIX (VT-6). The aircraft set their sights on the Japanese carrier KAGA, but in the end lost ten aircraft and didn’t score a single hit on the ship.
Our next wave of attack came from Torpedo Squadron THREE (VT-3) of the YORKTOWN. VT-3 was the only torpedo squadron to attack with a fighter squadron – six F4-F Wildcats from Fighter Squadron THREE. The fighter cover wasn’t enough to protect the torpedo squadron and in the end, only two of the Devastators returned.
At this point, 41 of our TBD Devastators from three different squadrons had engaged the enemy and only six returned. Worse, we had not hit a single Japanese ship.
Before proceeding further, at this point, we have to pause and pay special tribute to the courage and heroism of the pilots and aircrew of the three torpedo squadrons making the initial attacks on the Japanese Fleet. These men flew into overwhelming opposition, low and slow on their torpedo drop runs, knowing their chance of survival was virtually nil. Every single pilot pressed home their attacks. Their example of devotion to duty, steadfastness and courage has never been surpassed.
But the tide would soon change. LCDR Clarence Wade McCluskey, Air Group Commander of ENTERPRISE, was leading the carrier’s 32 SBD Dauntless dive bombers to the location where he expected to find the Japanese Fleet. Upon reaching the position and finding nothing but empty ocean, McCluskey was at a critical decision point (the “McCluskey Moment”!). He had burned more than half of his fuel searching for the Japanese Fleet and knew that if he continued on, it would certainly be a one-way trip for his group of dive-bombers. But he also knew that there was very little time left before the Japanese scout planes would find our ships and effectively eliminate the element of surprise on which Spruance had so heavily gambled.
McCluskey made the decision to continue searching for the Japanese carriers. A few minutes later, just as two of his dive-bombers had run out of fuel and were forced to ditch in the ocean, he spotted the wake of a ship that turned out to be the destroyer ARASHII. ARASHII had engaged USS NAUTILUS with depth charges and was heading back to the Japanese carrier force. McCluskey, dangerously low on fuel, had a hunch and made the decision to follow the destroyer. A few minutes later he found the Japanese Fleet.
McCluskey quickly divided his dive-bombers into two groups and ordered VB-6 to attack the carrier AKAGI and VS-6 the carrier KAGA. The dive-bombers dove on their targets and hit after hit sealed the fate of the two flat tops. At the same time, dive-bombers from YORKTOWN’s VB-3 were wreaking complete havoc on the carrier SORYU. In just under six minutes, three of the four Japanese carriers at Midway were destroyed and the course of the war in the Pacific was dramatically altered.
There were many important decisions made during the Battle of Midway that contributed to the outcome of the battle (and ultimately the war in the Pacific). Each and every one of our Sailors – from ADM Spruance down to the crew in the bowels of YORKTOWN fighting to save their ship – had to make immediate decisions (their own “McCluskey Moment”) that carried significant consequences.
As we commemorate this significant battle and honor the memory of those who fought, we must never forget that it was our Sailors, who through great courage and tenacity, took on a much larger force – a well-trained, well-equipped and combat-experienced Japanese Battle Fleet – and won a remarkable victory against great odds.
When all is said and done, at Midway, Guadalcanal, Leyte Gulf and Okinawa and countless other desperate actions fought in World War II and wherever our Navy has fought since then, it’s always about our Sailors and how they stood tall at the moment of truth.
All the best, JCHjr