Editor’s Note: The following is the second in 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
The intelligence had confirmed it: the Japanese were going to attack Midway. An ambush would certainly give the U.S. the tactical advantage it so desperately needed, but it in no way guaranteed a victory – let alone the military superiority needed to hold off the massive, battle-tested Japanese fleet.
Nimitz realized he had only one shot to pull this off. The Pacific Fleet’s remaining carriers and all available ships needed to be ready. Coral Sea showed just what they were up against: a much larger fleet, including four carriers, each loaded with the same deadly Japanese aircraft that had delivered the crippling blow to Pearl Harbor. The Zeros, which dominated the Pacific skies, were piloted by the fiercest warriors any American aviator had ever faced.
Suffering a heavy beating at Coral Sea, USS Yorktown (CV 5) limped into Pearl Harbor and entered dry dock. Fifteen hundred yard workers toiled around the clock to repair the damage to Yorktown’s flight deck. Repairs that would normally take weeks to acheive were completed in a miraculous three days.
Confident she was ready to fight, Nimitz ordered Yorktown to rejoin USS Hornet (CV 8) and USS Enterprise (CV 6) positioned to the northeast of Midway. There they assembled undetected.
Timing would be everything. Launch an attack too early, and the ships’ locations would be revealed to the enemy. Attack too late and it would be impossible to wrestle control of the captured island from the enemy while fighting the Japanese fleet at the same time.
The plan was to draw the Japanese fleet out to attack the island and then catch them completely off guard with coordinated attacks from the assembled carriers. With no protection from above, the Japanese carriers would be at the mercy of U.S. torpedo squadrons from Midway and the carriers Hornet and Yorktown as well as Midway-based bombers. Ensign George Gay, like the rest of Hornet’s Torpedo Squadron 8, was more than eager to deliver Pearl’s revenge. He joined the rest of his crew topside and prepared to launch.
An eerie quiet blanketed the atoll as the sun rose June 4. That silence was only broken by the sound of crashing waves. They were out there. The Marines manning the island’s small coastal artillery defenses could sense it. The gentle ocean breeze seemed to sharpen the gazes that quietly scanned the Pacific sky and horizon for any sign of the enemy’s silhouette. Seventeen-year-old Radioman 3rd Class Harry Ferrier waited with his pilot and turret gunner near their Grumman TBF-1 “Avenger” aircraft.
“Enemy forces detected – 150 miles out.” Ferrier climbed aboard his plane and took off with the five other Midway-based “Avengers” to engage the Japanese.
The approaching Zero pilots prepared to obliterate the island’s inferior air defenses when suddenly attack aircraft from the undetected American carriers burst through the clouds. The sky erupted in a hailstorm of bullets and flak. Out-maneuvered, and out-gunned, the “Avengers” fell from the sky one by one.
Riddled with bullet-holes and suffering mechanical failure, Ferrier’s “Avenger” crash-landed back on Midway. His was the only one to return. All 15 from Hornet were shot down – Gay was the squadron’s only survivor. At the end of the first wave not a single piece of U.S. ordnance reached the Japanese.
Japanese Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo faced a decision. He could launch a partial assault on Midway with his remaining aircraft. The island’s defenses, now surely weakened from the first assault, might still put up a fight. However, if his ships were to recover all the planes, refuel and re-arm them, he would easily crush any possible remaining opposition Midway could offer before defeating the Pacific Fleet once and for all.
A successful capture of the island was guaranteed. Satisfied the American threat was now neutralized, he ordered all aircraft back to the carriers. The flight decks quickly filled with fuel and ammunition. One by one the Zeros landed. Pilots and crew members cheered as the planes were prepared for the sure victory that awaited them.
It was a decision that changed everything.