1,100 miles from Oahu, forcing the under-strength U.S. Pacific Fleet into a decisive battle.
Against four veteran imperial flattops, Nimitz
dispatched the marginally repaired Yorktown of
Task Force 17 plus her sisters Enterprise and
Hornet in Task Force 16. The odds were about even
in carrier planes, though the Americans benefited
from land-based Army, Navy, and Marine planes,
including long-range reconnaissance.
The battle opened early on June 4, with Vice
Adm. Nagumo’s Kido Butai launching 108 planes
against Midway. His bombers inflicted heavy
damage while largely overcoming the 25 Brews-
ter Buffalos and Grumman Wildcats.
Midway’s riposte was a smorgasbord of types:
Army B-17s and B-26s, Marine SBDs and SB2U
Vindicators, and six Navy TBF Avengers in their
first action. All found Nagumo’s force but sus-
tained grievous losses: 15 of the 37 dive- and tor-
pedo bombers, without inflicting damage.
Meanwhile, the two U.S. task forces conducted
their own battle. Task Force 16 launched
Enterprise and Hornet strike groups that operated
independently. Hornet’s SBDs and F4Fs followed
their incompetent air group commander on “the
mission to nowhere,” while the independent-minded torpedo skipper, Cmdr. John Waldron,
led his 15 Devastators to lethal glory. His attack,
however, kept the pressure on Nagumo while the
Big E’s squadrons arrived.
The outcome of the battle—and ultimately
of the Pacific Theater in 1942—depended upon
Enterprise’s air group commander, Lt. Cmdr. C.
Wade McClusky. A fighter pilot by trade, he had
only become “CAG” before departing for Midway. He was new to the SBD and to dive-bombing
but not to leadership. His judgment was perfect.
He began a methodical search to the limit of his
fuel and struck gold.
In the haste and confusion, two squadrons of
SBDs had an aerial traffic jam over Kido Butai.
Although McClusky tried assigning the two nearest carriers to individual squadrons, the result
Though outperformed and
outranged by the Mitsubishi
Zero, Grumman’s rugged
F4F Wildcat offset the deficit
by astute flying and straight
shooting of well-trained
aviators. (Photo courtesy of
Obsolescent but available,
the Douglas TBD Devastator
was the U.S. Navy’s only
carrier-based torpedo plane
in the first six months of 1942.
(Photo courtesy of Stan Piet)