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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Battle of Midway: Part I

...those old piston engines talked to you at low power and sang a beautiful song in flight, very seldom complaining.

Chapter 29

The Battle of Midway

(I shall not attempt to provide a chronology of the vital turning point in the war in the Pacific—the very illogical defeat of the Imperial Japanese Navy at Midway Island on 4 June 1942, just six months after the sneak attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet on 7 December 1941.  I shall, instead, simply relate my own very small part in the historic action.
                        To understand the details of the Battle of Midway, I highly recommend Walter Lord’s book, “The Incredible Victory”.  Mr. Lord is an unparalleled researcher and his account of the Battle of Midway is not only accurate, but also captures the atmosphere of the time.

Briefly, we found in later years that Admiral Yamamoto himself had predicted the fate of Japan after the attack on Hawaii.  His reaction to the apparent success of the raid which did not include destruction of our American aircraft carriers was to say, “I fear that we may have awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.”  He went on to predict, “We ( the Japanese naval forces) will run wild in the Pacific for six months—beyond that, I cannot answer for the consequences.”
The Battle of Midway was intended by the Japanese to draw out the American aircraft carriers (we were down to only three in the Pacific—ENTERPRISE, HORNET, and the crippled YORKTOWN) to their destruction and force the U.S. to sue for peace.  All of the Japanese military and civilian leaders realized that Little Japan could never prevail in a prolonged war with the might of the United States once its war machine had been activated.
That June of 1942 the U.S. war machine had barely begun to stir in response to the battle cry, “REMEMBER PEARL HARBOR!”, which had unified the nation overnight.  Meanwhile, Yamamoto had assembled the greatest naval armada of all time including Admiral Nagumo’s elite fast carrier task force, a main battle fleet including the mighty battle ship YAMATO, and an invasion fleet to take over the island.
We, on the other hand, were literally hanging on by our fingertips with no battleships, three aircraft carriers (with few squadrons of F4F “Wildcat” fighters, TBD torpedo planes, and Douglas SBD dive bombers), a few heavy and light cruisers, several destroyers, and perhaps three dozen of our slow and clumsy PBY “Catalinas”.  There was also a miscellany of a few Army B-17s, some obsolete Brewster “Buffalo” Marine fighters, and other land-based aircraft that would play no significant role in the Battle of Midway.
We were clearly outnumbered and out-gunned.  The Japanese pilots had proven on December 7th, 1941, that they were superbly trained and our F4F Wildcats were no match for the fast, slashing Mitsubishi Zero fighters.  We had little chance of victory.  Fate had dealt Yamamoto a full house and the U.S. an inside straight flush.  Thanks to a handful of Douglas SBD dive bombers and some very incredible coincidences and circumstances, we drew to that busted flush and history records the outcome.  We broke the back of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
The incredible coincidence at Midway was the timing between an attack of some of our torpedo planes and the arrival of our first wave of SBD dive bombers.  In short, our initial attacks on the Japanese carriers had failed.  The first two or three of our torpedo attacks resulted in the loss of many of our planes and no hits on the enemy.
Our coordination was so bad that our covering fighters had lost track of the torpedo and dive bomber squadrons they were supposed to protect.  The dive bombers had also gotten separated from the torpedo planes with which they were to make the attack.  All squadrons had difficulty in finding the enemy fleet.
The torpedo planes found Nagumo’s carriers first and bored in to attack just as the enemy planes on the carrier decks were being re-armed.  Patrolling Zeros above the carriers promptly came down and had a field day shooting down American torpedo planes but leaving the higher altitudes without fighter cover.
It was then that the tardy dive bombers arrived over the enemy carriers at seventeen thousand feet.  With the torpedo planes keeping both the Zeros and the Japanese anti-aircraft fire occupied, the SBDs poured down on three of the Japanese carriers literally unopposed.  The one remaining Japanese carrier, HIRYU, would suffer the same fate later in the day.

History records that, to Admiral Nagumo and his staff, it appeared that they had been hit with a beautifully coordinated attack timed to perfection for just when the Japanese were re-fueling and re-arming their airplanes for another attack on Midway Island and to seek out the American aircraft carriers.
Actually, nothing could have been farther from the truth.  The American dive bombers had been launched from extreme range almost in desperation when it became apparent that the land-based airplanes and the torpedo attacks were futile.  The SBDs found the enemy barely before they were down to minimum fuel and would have to turn back.
The whole thing was almost an accident—but what a glorious accident for the United States Navy!  It left the Imperial Japanese Navy creeping back to the home islands in shame.  Japense survivors of the Battle of Midway were literally smuggled ashore in the dead of night and were kept in isolation lest the terrible defeat become public knowledge.  The Japanese press claimed a might victory because of the sinking of the YORKTOWN.
When asked what they would tell the Emperor, Admiral Yamamoto’s answer was, “Only I must answer to the Emperor.”)
After early breakfast at Kaneohe on that morning of 5 June 1942, Davenport and I went to the airplane on the ramp in the pre-dawn darkness to do our pre-flight checks.  When he shined a flashlight on the wing bomb rack, Dave groaned, “Shee-it!  Yesterday we were a suicide torpedo plane and now look—they’ve made a DIVE BOMBER out of us!! “  On each wing rack there were two five hundred pound contact bombs.
As it turned out, we were not expected to do any dive bombing.  When Marcy came to the airplane he stated that we would ferry the bombs to Midway for the B-17s that were helping pursue the retreating Japanese fleet, then we would fly rescue and patrol behind the running battle that was still in progress.
By the time we were airborne and headed for Midway, still leading the formation of PBYs , we had heard the scuttlebutt that three Jap carriers had been sunk the previous morning and a fourth went down in the afternoon.  We later learned that they had been four of the Japanese first-line carriers—KAGA, AKAGI, SORYU, and HIRYU.  All had been involved in the attack on Hawaii.  We also learned, to our dismay, that we had paid a price.  Many of our fighter, torpedo plane, and dive bomber crews had been shot down and survivors were scattered over the ocean in life rafts.  Part of our job would be to locate and rescue as many as possible.  We also heard that our carrier YORKTOWN had been hit hard and was being abandoned.
During our approach to Midway that afternoon, we made a wide sweep to the northwest of the island over the battle area looking for survivors.  In the distance we saw a towering pillar of smoke and flew toward it.  It was the listing hulk of YORKTOWN.  Two cruisers were standing by and two destroyers circled the stricken carrier on anti-submarine patrol.  The destroyer HAMMAN was alongside YORKTOWN and her pumps were pouring water into the burning hull of the mighty ship.

(That was the last we were to see of YORKTOWN.  While the HAMMAN was alongside, a Japanese submarine penetrated the destroyer screen and put two torpedoes into YORKTOWN and one into HAMMAN.  The destroyer broke in half and sank in minutes.  The depth charges on her stern racks were still armed and two of HAMMAN’s crew went under water with the stern, still struggling to disarm the depth charges.  They gave their lives in vain.  HAMMAN’s depth charges exploded beneath YORKTOWN and may have been the final straw.  The following morning, 6 June 1942, the big aircraft carrier slid beneath the surface.)

Midway was a dismal sight when we came in over the reef to land in the lagoon.  Bombs had pulverized most of the buildings including the PBY hangar at the seaplane ramp.  The water tower was down, the building containing the brig had been a direct hit, and black smoke was billowing from a large fuel oil storage tank.
The island looked worse than it was.  Having been warned well in advance by Naval Intelligence, everything had been dug into the sand.  Large underground bunkers were being used as barracks.  The hospital was under the sand.  Only some administration offices and the island mess hall were relatively intact above ground.  The beaches of the island were laced with barbed wire coils, marine machinegun nests, and anti-aircraft guns.  The little island was literally swarming with steel-helmeted marines, dungareed sailors, and equipment.
When we were pulled up to the ramp, Davenport and I quickly discovered that we had a problem.  The other PBYs were either from VP-71 or from the Patrol Wing Two squadrons out of Ford Island.  They had sent maintenance ground crews out in advance.  We were “orphans”—the only flight crew at Midway from VP-11 and would have to service and maintain our own airplane.
That was only the beginning of our problems.  The Japanese bombing attack the previous morning had not only shattered the hangar but had also knocked out the aviation gasoline system.  It was necessary to refuel the big wing tanks with a hand pump from barrels of gasoline delivered by truck from island reserves scattered in the sparse undergrowth of the island.  The entire crew itched in to help but it was still wearisome and it was nearly midnight when we finished re-fueling.  We were to be ready for takeoff at 0500 the next morning.
The rest of the crew headed for our assigned barracks but Dave and I discovered another problem.  Both engines needed a couple of gallons of oil.  We found that the island oil supply also was in barrels scattered in the underbrush.  I found the duty officer’s office and finally procured the services of the duty truck driver.  After nearly getting shot twice by nervous and trigger-happy marines still expecting a Jap invasion, we finally found a barrel of oil and trucked it to the airplane.  Then we had to pump the oil up to the engine nacelles with a hand billy pump.  It was after 0200 when we were finished and the airplane was ready for takeoff.  We did not bother to go to the underground barracks bunker.  We simply flaked out on bunks in the airplane.
The pattern for our sixteen-day stay at Midway was established. Up at 0500, takeoff at 0600, then ten hours or so of combing the ocean behind the battle searching for survivors or enemy submarines.  Only once did we stand down for a day so that Dave and I could accomplish our 80-hour engine checks and change the spark plug (twenty-eight plugs per engine).  During that two-week period, we were in the air a total of more than 180 hours.
(I must pay tribute here not only to Consolidated for building those sturdy PBY-5 Catalinas but also in particular to Pratt & Whitney for those always reliable fourteen-cylinder R-1830-92 radial engines.  They were the finest and most faithful airplane engines ever manufactured.  Modern jet engines simply scream—those old piston engines talked to you at low power and sang a beautiful song in flight, very seldom complaining.)