don't realize just how close
the United States
was to losing the war against the Japanese
. With the exception
of the American carrier
s, the bulk
of the American fleet
in the Pacific
was destroyed at Pearl Harbor
, and even though the carriers remained intact
, the Japanese
had more of them. If the Americans had lost the Battle of Midway
, there would have been nothing blocking
the Japanese from Hawaii
, and no American force
left to stop them. What's more, the American Pacific navy
was considerably inferior
to the Japanese navy. The Americans only had three carriers available
, and Hornet
, while the Japanese had six (only four were brought to Midway however). Japanese carriers also carried
than American carriers, meaning
that at Midway the 180 American bombers
would face 272 Japanese aircraft
. The Americans did possess an advantage
in having land-based
aircraft from Midway; however, the planes
based on the atoll
were old and inferior
. By all rights, the Americans should have lost the battle
. How did they win? An incredibly lucky break
The first bit of luck came in discovering that the Japanese were planning to attack Midway, although there was more savvy than luck involved there. Although the American Magic network picked up plenty of information that the Japanese were planning to attack something, the Japanese scrupulously used the codename AF to describe Midway Island. A cryptologist stationed on Hawaii, however, was convinced that Midway was the target, and had the garrison radio an uncoded message that Midway was running low on fresh water; soon after, Magic intercepted a Japanese message signalling that "AF" was short on fresh water. The location of the attack was thus confirmed.
On June 4, 1942 the battle began as planes from Midway attempted to bomb the Japanese fleet. All of the Flying Fortresses missed completely; however, four Catalinas actually managed to sink a Japanese oiler. In response, Admiral Naguto, leader of the Japanese fleet, sent nine squadrons of bombers with fragmentation bombs to attack Midway; they destroyed two-thirds of the inferior American fighters, inflicted heavy damage on Midway installations, and returned to their carriers without a single loss.
The mission successful, the Japanese began arming their bombers with torpedoes to attack any American ships found in the area. Soon after, however, a second attack force from Midway reached the fleet, and although these bombers were all easily destroyed by the Japanese fighters, the attack convinced Naguto that he needed to inflict further damage on Midway Island before proceeding. He accordingly cancelled the order to arm his bombers with torpedoes, ordering them to instead load with fragmentation bombs for another surface attack.
Meanwhile, the American carriers were launching their own bombers; Hornet and Enterprise first, and Yorktown an hour later. By the time the Japanese bombers had returned from their second assault on Midway Island, the American planes were closing in; as the first American bombers from Enterprise and Hornet reached the Japanese fleet, the Japanese carriers were crowded with refuelling and reloading their bombers, this time with torpedoes.
Had the Americans been able to land a bomb on the carriers in this vulnerable position, it would have caused a great deal of damage; unfortunately, all of the torpedo-bombers were shot down, and the dive-bombers, confused by a recent course change by the Japanese fleet, were all lost at sea. The Japanese had now repelled two-thirds of the American aircraft with minimal losses of their own, and it was unlikely that the planes from Yorktown would even find them.
Find them they did, however. Guided by a bit of luck, and then by the smoke of the previous engagement, Yorktown's torpedo-bombers were able to launch their own attack. However, they were forced to fly low and level to deliver their torpedoes; they were thus easy targets for the Japanese fighters, and none of the few torpedoes they managed to drop found a mark. Victory now appeared to be within the grasp of the Japanese, as they prepared to launch an attack against the now defenseless American carriers.
And this is where the Americans finally got a break. As mentioned before, all the dive-bombers from all three carriers had gotten lost. One of the dive-bomber groups from Enterprise, however, flew an incorrect course and soon lost contact with the other groups. After overflying 175 miles of sea and wandering in the desperate hope of finding a place to land before running out of fuel, 37 Dauntless dive-bombers, led by Lieutenant-Commander Wade McClusky, found the Japanese fleet.
This still would not have been a problem for the Japanese, but their fighters were still all flying at the low altitude required to fight off that last wave of Yorktown's torpedo-bombers; thus, no one saw the high-flying dive-bombers coming in. From 14,500 feet, the dive-bombers assaulted the Japanese carriers. All four were covered with landed aircraft and tools for refuelling and rearming. High-octane fuel hoses ran among piles of bombs, which in turn were next to aircraft running their engines for take-off. When the Americans attacked, it was like lighting a match in a fireworks factory.
At 10:25 a.m. the dive-bombers from Enterprise attacked; by 10:30 a.m., three of the four Japanese carriers, along with all of their aircraft, were on fire and sinking. The fourth was found fleeing later in the afternoon, and was destroyed.
In the space of five minutes, the course of the war was changed completely. The American and Japanese fleets in the Pacific were now evenly matched, and with America's tremendously superior ability to produce new vessels, the Japanese now had little hope of emerging victorious in this war. On June 4, 1942, at 10:25 a.m., a vastly superior Japanese fleet was destroyed by a lone group of dive-bombers who had flown off-course; Americans should be thankful that luck was with them that day.