Editor’s Note: The following is the end of a three-part series about the Battle of Midway: the turning point of the Pacific Theatre campaign during World War II.
USS Nimitz Public Affairs
Not a single ship was in sight. The steady rumble of the SBD Dauntless’ props churned through the calm Pacific clouds 15,000 feet above. All they could see was blue. Every break in the clouds revealed an enemy that wasn’t there – nothing, no trace of whitecaps, a ship’s trail – nothing. They had to be there, thought Squadron Commander Lt. Cmdr. Wade McClusky. Dive bombers, launched earlier from USS Enterprise (CV 6) and USS Yorktown (CV 5), evaded detection from the Japanese fleet – the chaos below consumed their complete attention.
The course headings received must be incorrect – the ocean below heaved and swayed as slowly as ever since time began. Nothing.
Fuel was running low. Something needed to be done, or the mission would have to be abandoned.
Trusting his gut, McClusky turned his squad North. Suddenly, there it was: a trail – the lonely foam wake of the Japanese destroyer Arashi as she raced to rejoin the rest of the Japanese fleet.
Within minutes, the Japanese ships Soryu, Akagi, Kaga and Hiryu were in sight. Their flight decks and hangars were packed with aircraft, fuel and ammunition – each was now a floating arsenal.
Shocked eyes turned skyward as the bombers ripped through the clouds. Lt. Dick Best released his 1,000-pound bomb and watched as it tore through Nagumo’s flagship Akagi. The blast ignited the fuel and ordnance which crowded the ship’s flight deck and hangar bays, ripping Akagi in two. Simultaneous direct hits to Soryu and Kaga turned the Pacific blue into an orange inferno. Within a matter of minutes it was over. Neither side realized it at the time, but it marked the end of the
Japanese offensive in the Pacific.
Yamamoto watched in horror as his once mighty fleet crumbled before him. Akagi, Soryu and Kaga were out of action. Hiryu, fighting in vain to remain formidable, immediately launched torpedo raids against any American carriers they could find. They had one objective: destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
Japanese torpedo bombers zeroed in on the first carrier in sight: Yorktown. Three blasts rocked the mighty carrier, knocking out her boilers. Damage control efforts proved so successful that the second wave of Japanese torpedo planes mistook her for Enterprise.
The second strike proved fatal. Yorktown, dead in the water, began to list to port. As all hands prepared to abandon ship, Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class William Roy clicked away. Sensing the historical significance of his images, he grabbed two life vests: one for himself and one for the rolls of film packed tightly in waterproof containers.
U.S. dive bombers returned later in the afternoon and delivered the knockout punch to Hiryu. By nightfall, both sides began to withdraw. Yorktown had absorbed two devastating attacks, yet remained afloat. Hiryu, little more than a smoldering shell of its former glory, was scuttled the next day.
Efforts to save Yorktown began in earnest. USS Vireo (AT-144) prepared to take Yorktown in tow as USS Hammann (DD-412) pulled alongside to provide auxiliary power. Salvage efforts showed promise. Yorktown, it seemed, would live. Optimism grew on the surface while the Japanese submarine I-168 approached undetected below. Seaman Jim Cunningham was finishing lunch on the Hammann’s mess decks when something caught his eye. A picture was hanging there that he had never noticed before. It was a small drawing of a devil holding a pitchfork riding on a torpedo. Painted on the torpedo was the word “HAMMANN.” A small chill went up his spine. Just then the alarm for General Quarters was sounded. A torpedo fired from I-168 was spotted in the water and closing in fast. Cunningham barely made it to his GQ station on the fantail when the torpedo hit. The blast rocked the ship and Hammann disappeared beneath the waves only minutes later. Cunningham was lucky. He and the other survivors were picked up quickly. Moments later, another torpedo was spotted heading directly towards Yorktown.
That final strike rendered all efforts to save her useless. She began to take on water much more quickly, and early the following morning, she slipped beneath the waves.
The battle’s injured arrived to Pearl Harbor to receive treatment. Some rejoined the war effort immediately – three more years of hard fighting lay ahead before Japan finally and formally surrendered to Nimitz aboard the battleship Missouri. For some, the rehabilitation would continue years after the war ended. For all, the memories of those June days around a tiny atoll in the Pacific would never fade.