Direction Midway! A Japanese bomber taking off from the carrier deck to join the combat.



Flying crews aboard the Japanese carriers were put on alert and called to the decks at 2:45. Admiral Chuichi Nagumo addressed them, unveiling all his self-confidence, if not arrogance:

Although the enemy is lacking in fighting spirit, he will probably come out to attack as our invasion proceeds. [Hearn Ch. G. (2007).]

As Nagumo saw to preparations for the strike against Midway, he kept the best of his pilots aboard his ships in case if they encountered enemy carriers. To the command of his air force, in place of the sick Commodore Mitsuo Fuchida, he had appointed Lieutenant Joichi Tomonaga from the carrier Hiryu; Tomonaga had a considerable combat experience from the war in China.

Before the take-off Japanese crews had a hearty meal composed of rice, soy soup, nuts and sake. It was not dawning yet, when four carriers switched on their projectors and lit the decks. A green flash-light blinked in the hands of Hiryu's flight deck officer, and at 4:30 the first wave of the Midway-bound planes - 36 dive bombers, 36 torpedo bombers armed with regular bombs, and 36 fighters - took off to the cheering of the flight deck crews. Soon only a garland of red and green lights in the night sky marked the flight of that destructive power.

The radar-stations on Midway had detected the incoming Japanese aircraft when they were 93 miles away. All 26 fighters at hand were immediately sent to intercept the intruders. It was a desperate measure, as 20 of those planes were obsolete Brewster F2A Buffalos, which hardly were able to match the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero. American fighters had no other choice but to climb to an altitude higher higher than the enemy's, and inflict as much damage as possible, while utilizing the factor of surprise and higher speed increased in dive flight. So, American fighters dove from the altitude of 5,000m onto the Japanese flying at 3,500m. But while they fought desperate fights with the enemy fighters, Japanese bombers managed to fly through to Midway and drop bombs on the base's installations - the first bombs hit precisely at 6:30. The raid had destroyed the power station, marines' commanding point, fuel tanks on the Sand Island, hydroplanes' hangar, hospital and storages, but luckily - thanks to strong anti-aircraft fire - landing strips remained intact. Casualties in general were not big - only few men were killed.

The raid ended at 6:50 and the Japanese planes took the course back to their carriers. The Americans had lost 17 planes out of 26, while 7 had been heavily damaged. The Japanese have not revealed what were their losses in that raid; we only know the total of their losses in the battle that had just commenced. However, some post-war testimonials suggest, that the Japanese might have lost as much as 30% of the planes (10 of 27) from the first wave.

Some 15 minutes before the Japanese raid, the base at Midway had launched a small counter-attack team of 10 torpedo bombers, while the bomber planes were ordered to take off and wait on higher altitudes till the raid was over. That first counter-attack ended up fatally - almost all the planes (Douglas TBF Avenger and Martin B-26 Marauder) were shot down by the Japanese anti-aircraft artillery; four or five planes had plunged into the water before they were able to assume position for torpedo launch. No torpedo hit the target.

After the launch of the powerful bomber mission against Midway, Admiral Nagumo kept adeck of his four carriers a strong grouping of 93 planes armed with bombs and torpedoes for battling American ships, should any were discovered in adjacent waters. Escort cruisers had launched seven reconnaissance planes, whose task was to scout for American ships. Fortunately, they took off with a certain delay - the fourth one, launched by the heavy cruiser Tone, was half an hour behind the scheduled time. As it soon occurred, it was an error of historic dimensions. Within more than two hours, till 7:00, Nagumo had not received any reports from the scouting planes. At 7:00 there came a message from Lieutenant Tomonaga, commanding the group of planes, which had just completed the air raid on Midway. Tomonaga reported: There is need for a second attack wave! [Morison S. E. (2010d).]

Tomonaga's report matched the picture of the battle that emerged in the mind of the commander of the Japanese carrier group: reconnaissance planes, which had crossed the 200-miles distance, did not report presence of any American ships; on the other hand, all thereto attacks on his ships had been carried out by the planes taking off the land-based strips.

Apart from those real and rational factors, there was also a certain psychological one, overlooked by the historians writing about the battle of Midway: after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Nagumo had been often criticized that he "did not finish the job", that he did not exploit his success utterly - did not carry out a second attack, which would destroy the naval base's installations. He did not want to have the history repeated, and a quarter of hour after Tomonaga's report, at 7:15, he issued the order of historical magnitude. Namely, he ordered that those 93 planes were taken to the hangars to free the flight decks for the wave of the planes returning from Midway. Planes, armed with torpedoes, had to be re-armed with bombs for a new attack on the American base. The whole operation required an hour of time...

At 7:28 Nagumo received report from that late plane from Tone: its pilot reported what appears to be ten enemy surface ships in position bearing 10°, distance 240 miles, from Midway. Course 150°, speed over 20 knots. [Morison S. E. (2010d).]

Admiral Nagumo did not become perturbed by that message, since it did not mention the enemy most dangerous - the carriers. He only ordered to radio to the pilot a request to identify American ships. While waiting for the answer, he suddenly changed his mind, and at 7:45 he ordered to terminate re-arming torpedo bombers and start preparing them for an attack on enemy ships. At 7:47 he once again radioed the pilot of the scouting plane from Tone with request: Ascertain ship types and maintain contact. [Morison S. E. (2010d).]

At 8:09 the pilot replied: Enemy is composed of 5 cruisers and 5 destroyers. Eleven minutes later he augmented his estimation with a cautious statement: The enemy is accompanied by what appears to be a carrier. The navy historian Samuel Elliot Morrison, whose narrative is presented here, adds a comment on the Japanese pilot's reports: A conservative fellow, that pilot! [Morison S. E. (2010d).]

Meanwhile the Japanese squadron was again under fire - this time from 16 dive bombers of the Marine Corps, which took off from the Midway. The attack was led by Major Lofton Henderson. Due to his pilots' lack of experience, he gave up diving attack, and ordered a gliding attack - at lower speed. His squadron suffered heavy losses; Henderson was shot down too. Some pilots managed to attack Hiryu, but all bombs missed the target. Also without a result went the attack of 15 "flying fortresses", which dropped four tons of bombs each from 6,000m altitude. The squadron had actually reported four hits on two carriers, but in fact no one Japanese ship was hit. Finally, at 8:20 eleven dive bombers Vought SB2U Vindicator, very slow and therefore helpless against the Japanese fighters, abandoned an attempt to get through to the carriers, and dropped their bombs on the battleship Haruna - without a visible effect.

Although those attacks were clumsy and inefficient, they required counter-action, and kept Nagumo's forces busy and distracted from the primary objective.

A juicy moment of that otherwise dramatic situation became appearance of the American submarine Nautilus in the midst of the Japanese formation. After an attack with depth charges from the Japanese destroyers, her captain, Lieutenant-Commander William Brockman, ascended his ship to the periscope depth at 8:20, right at the time of a subsequent attack from Midway, and saw a stunning picture:

The picture presented on raising the periscope was one never experienced in peacetime practice. Ships were on all sides, moving across the field at high speed and circling away to avoid the submarine's position. A cruiser had passed over us and was now astern. Flag hoists were going up, blinker lights were flashing and the battleship on our port bow was firing her whole starboard broadside at the periscope. [Roscoe Th. (1949).]

Five minutes later Brockman fired a torpedo at the enemy from 4,500 yards, but he missed; as the screening destroyers charged, he ordered to deep. Manoeuvring in the depth helped the submarine to evade the pursuit.

After the short interlude with the submarine enemy, Nagumo once again changed his orders: he decided to receive on deck fighter planes returning from the mission on Midway. After refuelling they would take part in the prepared attack on the enemy fleet as the cover for the torpedo bombers. For that it was necessary to remove bombs from the planes. It had to be done hastily right on the decks; removed bombs were piled up right next to the planes readied for the new mission. Nagumo in fact was in a difficult position - his best planes and pilots, he could not afford to lose, were in the air. His chief of staff, Rear-Admiral Ryunosuke Kusaka, opted for immediate action, while Captain Minoru Genda, the mastermind of the attack on Pearl Harbor, who saw in the air dozens of planes flown by men he knew - and they all were his friends - insisted that all they should be landed in first place. Nagumo followed his advice.

First planes started landing aboard Akagi. Tomonaga, the commander of the last wave of attack, who was proposing a renewed attack, landed his machine in spite of having the left fuel tank shot through. With Tomonaga's bombers were coming back covering fighters  - 34 out of 36 that took off.

Nagumo, determined to fight a victorious battle with the enemy caught in open, ordered to transmit a dispatch to Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto: Enemy composed of 1 carrier, 5 cruisers, and 5 destroyers, was sighted in position bearing 10 degrees, distance 240 miles from Midway. We are heading for it. [Morison S. E. (2010d).] Whereas to his own ships he advised by blinker: After taking on the returning planes, we shall proceed north to contact and destroy the enemy task force. [Isom D. W. (2007).] Before four minutes elapsed after transmitting that message, last bombers landed adeck of carriers Akagi and Kaga; seven minutes later landed the last 12 fighters.

The commander-in-chief of the American Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz, later commented that phase of the battle as follows:

Most of Midway's fighters, torpedo planes, and dive bombers - the only types capable of making a high percentage of hits on ships - were gone, and 3 of the Japanese carriers were still either undamaged or insufficiently so to hamper operations. This was the situation when our carrier attack began. [Potter E. B., & Nimitz Ch. W. (1960).]

Nagumo ordered full speed, and within few minutes Japanese carriers, surrounded by splashes of bow waves and leaving behind foamy wakes, developed 30 knots, while getting ready for the final blow. Four Japanese carriers were sailing in the middle of the fleet formation of two battleships, three cruisers and eleven destroyers. Akagi was on the right wing; Kaga, of comparable size, was following her some 10 cables behind. On the left wing, some 3 miles away, was sailing the squadron of smaller carriers - Hiryu and Soryu. The atmosphere of joy and excitement ruled on and under the decks: all American attacks were repelled and the Japanese fleet was going to get its final victory.

At 9:05 Nagumo ordered to make a 90-degree change of course to east-north-east and transmitted to the commanders his design: We plan to contact and destroy the enemy task force. [Morison S. E. (2010d).] At 9:17 the manoeuvre was completed; refuelling and rearming the planes did not finish...