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Midway to Defeat

A model of a Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive bomber hanging from Chicago's Midway Airport Midway display.
The hero of the Battle of Midway — the Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive bomber hanging from the ceiling at Chicago’s Midway Airport. Dauntless aircraft sank four Japanese fleet carriers during the battle.

Warhistorybuffs — even the Civil War enthusiasts — know about the Battle of Midway June 3-6, 1942, about the turning point of the WW II Pacific War, about the codebreakers, about the incredible lucky timing that resulted in the destruction of four Japanese Imperial Navy fleet carriers.

What I didn’t know was how implausible the victory was by the vastly outnumbered American Navy. On Prime Video I happened across an ancient documentary about the battle. I chuckled when the documentary made sure to credit “Navpers 91067”, an official government description of the clash. I didn’t read it, but the film explained the complex Japanese plans for the conquest of the tiny Midway atoll, on the extreme western end of the Hawaiian Island chain 1,300 miles from Oahu.

Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi - Wikipedia
Sunken Akagi found in 18,000 feet of water in 2019.
The Japanese carrier Akagi in 1942, and as it rests on the bottom after being rediscovered late last year under 18,000 feet of water. The Akagi was the flagship of Admiral Nagumo at Pearl Harbor and Midway.

Japanese plans

Japanese Navy Commander-in-Chief Isoroku Yamamoto loved complicated plans and naval strategy, probably because he had plenty of ships to move around on his map board on his flagship, Yamato, the world’s biggest battleship. The fantastic American victory obscures the fact Japan with over 80 ships outnumbered the U.S. Navy 4 to 1 during the Midway operation.

Yamamoto (I know, very confusing with the ship) brought to bear six task forces for the Midway invasion, including the Aleutians invasion, which may or may not have been a diversion. Besides the “mobile force” containing the four Japanese fleet carriers, there was also the “main force” with Yamamoto’s seven battleships, an escort carrier, and several cruisers and destroyers, and the “Midway occupation force,” with the troop transports and two more battleships (Japan ran sophisticated air operations but they loved their battleships. America’s battleships were on the bottom of Pearl Harbor so the U.S. had to rely on the aircraft carriers.)

Yamamoto outsmarted himself. He used a similar system of diverse task forces at the Battle of Coral Sea in early May and was checkmated by a smaller combined American/Australian fleet. Yamamoto should have learned his lesson, but he tried the same strategy at Midway. The result was all his task forces became separated and couldn’t support each other. Yamamoto’s battleships couldn’t keep up with the carriers commanded by Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo so the carriers lost valuable anti-aircraft firepower. I was surprised to learn no surface guns were engaged during the entire battle by either side.  

Dive bombers to the rescue

American aircraft used at the Battle of Midway in a talking display at Chicago's Midway Airport.
The Midway display at Chicago’s Midway Airport (named after the battle) features these talking exhibits of the American aircraft used at Midway. On the left is the outdated F2A fighter known as the Buffalo flown by Marine pilots. They were all shot down by the Japanese. The more modern F4F Wildcat fighter is next. They didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory either. The SB2U Vindicator was an earlier version dive bomber. Then the star of the show, the SBD Dauntless dive bomber and finally, the star-crossed TBD Devastator torpedo bomber, which may have helped win the battle by getting shot down in droves.

American commanders working with most of the Pacific fleet lying crippled or sunk at Pearl Harbor couldn’t worry about all the Japanese task forces. They didn’t have to. Their codebreakers were reading 85 percent of the Japanese communications. U.S. Naval Commander Chester Nimitz zeroed in on one objective — get the Japanese carriers. He didn’t care about the battleships or the Yamato, which would be sunk in 1945, and he expended none of his carrier airpower to defend Midway.

Not only did the Americans generally know the makeup of the Japanese task forces, but they also knew where they were. Interestingly, the Americans on Midway were very aware of a persistent pocket of bad weather and fog lying 300-400 miles northwest of the atoll. That’s where the Japanese carriers emerged early on the morning of June 4. The American commander calculated the Japanese would wait out the fog until dawn at 0600 to launch an airstrike against Midway, and he was off by only 30 minutes.

There were to be no more Pearl Harbors. When the Japanese planes arrived they found American fighters waiting for them, and the island bristling with anti-aircraft guns.

Meanwhile, the three American carriers, the Enterprise, the Hornet, and the Yorktown launched their planes. They weren’t coordinated very well, but that was partially intentional because Admirals Fletcher and Spruance decided it was more important to find and attack the Japanese carriers rather than expend valuable time forming up strike groups.

That led to the semi-tragedy of the American torpedo bombers, which found the carriers first. Without fighter escort, all 15 TBD Devastators from the Hornet were shot down without a hit. Ensign George H. Gay, Jr. was the only survivor of the 30 aircrew and experienced a ringside seat of the battle while floating in the ocean. Then, 19 of 26 Devastators from the Yorktown were shot down with no recorded hits. This performance was so horrific that Midway was the last time Devastators were used in combat.

The torpedo attack was not in vain. Here’s where the American luck, or providence, entered the war in a big way. The torpedo attack forced the Japanese fighters to fly at wavetop level, and they were running low on fuel just as three squadrons of SBD dive bombers arrived overhead.

Many of America’s weapons, especially early in the war, were outmoded and ineffective (don’t even think about American tanks, which didn’t catch up until 1945), but not dive bombers. Pre-war German Luftwaffe observers were so impressed with the performance of Curtis dive bombers they used many of the same features in the feared Stuka.

The Dauntless was so effective it lasted in the fleet until mid-1944 when it was replaced by the more modern  SB2C Helldiver. The SBD possessed long range (critical over the vast distances of the Midway battle; it could fly over a thousand miles), maneuverability, heavy bomb load (2,250 pounds), good defensive armament (rear seat SBD gunners shot down many thin-skinned Zeroes), and ruggedness. Many SBDs would return from missions full of bullet holes only to be patched up to fight again.

But its most important and unique feature was its diving brake. This was a perforated surface on the rear edge of the wing that could be extended to allow the plane to survive a steep dive.

Dauntless dive bomb drop showing the aircraft's dive brakes.
The dive brake can be clearly seen on this photograph from Wikipedia.

The Army Air Corps was so impressed with the SBD’s performance that it ordered its own version called the A-24 Banshee.

The Japanese lost 248 planes and 110 pilots and air crew at Midway, which wasn’t crippling, but the loss of four fleet carriers and 40 percent of the highly trained aircraft maintenance and flight deck crews did prove devastating. Japanese losses totaled 3,057 killed. Thirty-seven Japanese sailors were rescued by American search planes and ships. U.S. losses were 150 aircraft and 307 dead. Three Americans were executed by the Japanese, two by drowning. The Japanese ship captain responsible for the drownings was killed in 1943 or he would have been tried as a war criminal.

Midway at the movies

Movie art for 1976 film "Midway."
Movie art for 2019 film "Midway."
Movie posters from the 1976 film (top) and the 2019 version.

Warhistorybuffs will enjoy both Midway movies — the 1976 version, and the 2019 film. The 1976 “Midway” featured a host of Hollywood giants of the time including Henry Fonda (Admiral Nimitz), Charleston Heston (a fictional character), Glenn Ford, Hal Holbrook, and others.

Warhistorybuffs will be bothered by a nasty habit of the 1976 “Midway” producers to use footage from other war films such as “Tora! Tora! Tora!” and “30 seconds over Tokyo” and even actual combat film from non-Midway battles. I guess the movie was on a tight budget or maybe there was no money left after paying all those stars. They also inserted a sappy love story into the 1976 movie. But the film is historically accurate. It even briefly shows the Japanese battle plan of six task forces that I mentioned earlier. The movie painstakingly shows the problems with the doomed torpedo attacks and the confusion and luck of the decisive dive bombers.

The 2019 version is a triumph of CGI graphics and special effects. It looks real. That movie also features some Hollywood heavyweights including Woody Harrelson (a believable Admiral Nimitz) and Dennis Quaid as Admiral William Bull Halsey. The 2019 movie is mostly built around the story of pilot Dick Best, who was credited with single-handedly sinking the Japanese flagship Akagi and also hitting the carrier Hiryu. Best is played by English actor Ed Skrein.

But what’s really remarkable about the 2019 film is its ability to touch on many of the incidents leading up to Midway including the Doolittle raid on Tokyo, the Battle of the Coral Sea, and the carrier raids on the Japanese-held Marshall Islands. 2019’s “Midway” portrays the actions of Hollywood filmmaker John Ford who was actually on the atoll when the Japanese attacked. Instead of running to shelter, he and a cameraman stayed and filmed the attack, which became an 18-minute Oscar-winning documentary. Ford was wounded during the attack.

Both films note the miraculous 3-day repair of serious bomb damage to the carrier Yorktown from the Battle of the Coral Sea. The Yorktown was able to join Hornet and Enterprise at Midway but was sunk by the Japanese.

The 2019 movie, unlike 1976’s “Midway,” showed the Army Air Corps’ bombers trying to sink Japanese ships. Air Corps commanders bragged that their B-17s and B-26s could even sink carriers, but they managed no hits during Midway, and the concept of seaborne attacks by strategic and tactical bombers was dropped.

Again, the bombers failures may have led to ultimate victory. Admiral Nagumo was reportedly so rattled by the bomber attacks he ordered another air strike on Midway itself. But then a scout plane reported seeing the Yorktown so Nagumo changed his mind and ordered the planes rearmed for a ship attack. During the rearming the American dive bombers arrived. Dick Best’s lone bomb penetrated the flight deck of the Akagi and blew up in the hangar deck loaded with fuel and bombs.

I was interested in the portrayal of Japanese Admiral Nagumo in three war movies — “Tora! Tora! Tora!, and both Midway features. He’s generally depicted as an old, cautious, perhaps overly guarded commander, which he was. The 1976 film is the most sympathetic. It accurately portrays Nagumo’s communication problems and narrowly escaping injury when the Akagi blew up. The 2019 film shows a crippled B-26 barely missing the bridge of the Akagi and a snarky comment about American bravery from Nagumo. I was surprised to read in Wikipedia the near miss actually happened and contributed to Nagumo’s ordering a second strike on Midway. There was no mention in Wikipedia of Nagumo’s dismissive comment, but I guess movie makers are allowed literary license. In real life, the hard-luck admiral was talked out of committing suicide after he abandoned the sinking Akagi, and he was given other commands so he wasn’t punished by the Japanese high command. But things ended badly. He was cornered in a cave during the invasion of Saipan in 1944 and shot himself.

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