by Martin J. Quinn


The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 staggered the American fleet and unleashed a juggernaught that steamrolled across the Pacific, vanquishing everything before it.  Hong Kong, Wake Island, Singapore,  the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines had all fallen.  The Japanese Navy seemed  to be – and in fact believed themselves to be – invincible.

Until an American victory, allbiet a strategic one,  in May 1942 at the Battle of the Coral Sea, the U.S. Navy was limited to hit and run raids that were more fodder for newspapers than a threat to the Japanese, with one exception.

On April 18, 1942, eighteen Army Air Force bombers, led by Lt. Col Jimmy Doolittle, lifted off the deck of the aircraft carrier Hornet, bound for Japan on a one way mission to bomb military targets.    

The Doolittle raid electrified America and stunned the Japanese.  While President Roosevelt spoke of the bombers flying from the secret American base at “Shangri-La”, the Japanese were keenly aware that the bombers had come flown from the decks of American carriers, specifically the Hornet.  

The Japanese recognized the American carriers as a threat to their plans to create a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”.   To rid themselves of the threat, the  carriers had to be eliminated once and for all.  

To defeat the Americans, the Japanese had to draw them out into the open sea and destroy them.  The problem?  Getting them there.   Thus was born the large and complex plan to attack and hold Midway Island.

Midway, which lies approximately 1,100 miles northwest of Pearl Harbor, had been shelled by Japanese destroyers the night of December 7th as their victorious fleet retired from the Pearl Harbor strike.

If the Japanese attacked Midway, the American Navy would be forced to respond.  When they did, the Japanese planned to crush them in one final, climactic battle.

The Japanese plan was both large and complex.   First, a force would strike at the Aleutian Islands, intending to draw an American response.  Since the Aleutians were American territory, the Navy’s precious carriers would have to come out to answer the Japanese attack.

Then, the Japanese would attack Midway Island.  Once the defenses were softened up, they would invade and hold the island, establishing a forward air base.  When the Americans turned from the Aleutians to meet this new threat, the Japanese carriers and their vaunted naval aviators would crush the American fleet.  With the American carriers destroyed, the United States would have no choice but settle for a negotiated peace, or face a long drawn out war, something the Japanese thought the American public would have no stomach for.

As the Japanese put their plan – Operation MI - into motion, they had no idea that the Americans had partially cracked their naval code.  Led by the brilliant Commander Joseph Rochefort, anaylsts at Pearl Harbor were dicyphering Japanese intercepts. 

The Japanese messages constantly mentioned a place called “AF”.   The question was, where or what was AF?   Rochefort was convinced that AF was Midway, and that was where the Japanese were going to strike.  Back in Washington, the Navy brass feared the factories on the West Coast were the real target, and pressured Admiral Chester Nimitz to ignore Rochefort’s findings.

To settle the debate, Rochefort – with Nimitz’ blessing - had Midway send an uncoded message to Pearl Harbor declaring that it’s water distillation plant was broken.    A Japanese listening station picked up the message and soon broadcast one of it’s own:  “AF has no fresh water”.  Rochefort was right – the target was Midway. 

To counter the Japanese attack, Nimitz put his own plan into motion.  Practically every warship available to the Pacific Fleet would rendevous at a place called “Point Luck”, which was 325 miles northeast of Midway.  There they would lie in wait for the Japanese to attack, hopefully catching the Japanese by surprise.

Included among those ships was to be the carrier Yorktown (CV-5).  Yorktown had been badly damaged at Coral Sea but survived, while the USS Lexington - the famous “Lady Lex” - had been sunk.  When she limped back into Pearl, the Navy Yard told Nimitz it would take three months to repair Yorktown.  Nimitz gave them three days.

Besides the obvious question – how was the smaller, outgunned Pacific fleet going to take on the unbeated Kido Butai - Nimitz’s next problem was  one of command.   The obvious choice was Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, who had been in overall command of the Doolitte Raid Task Force.   However, Halsey had come down with a bad case of dermatitis and had been hospitalized. 

When Nimitz asked Halsey who should replace him as command of the Enterprise task group, the gruff Admiral didn’t hesitate to offer up the name of Raymond Spruance, who commanded the cruiser force for TF 17.  Nimitz concurred, even though Spruance had never commanded a carrier task force before.

The Enterprise and Hornet task group was already in Pearl when the battered Yorktown made her way up the channel.   Arriving with the Yorktown was Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, who had commanded the American Task Force in the Coral Sea.

Spruance and Fletcher were summoned to Nimitz’ headquarters.  Here Nimitz laid out his plan.   Fletcher – who was senior to Spruance – would be in overall command of the American Carrier Force.  Spruance would leave almost immeadiately with Enterprise and Hornet and head for the aforementioned “Point Luck”.   Fletcher would depart in three days – once Yorktown was patched up – and rendevous with Spruance.  There the American’s would wait – and hope to catch the Japanese by surprise.

Nimitz – without revealing his source – laid out the Japanese plan and dispostion of forces with remarkable clarity.   He told the two admirals to operate on the priciple of “calculated risk”.   Take risks if the reward was there, but don’t jeopardize the remnants of the US Navy’s carrier force. 

All they would have to face the Japanese were three carriers and a handlful of cruisers and destroyers.  The only other American carrier in the Pacific was Saratoga.  “Sister Sara” was completing an exstensive overhaul in Puget Sound and would not be available for this fight.

There would be some help from Midway, where the Navy, Marines and Army Air Force were marshalling as many aircraft as they could.   Navy submarines – and their notoriously faulty torpedoes – were being positioned to intercept the Japanese fleet.   Otherwise, the carriers and their escorts were on their own. 

As the Americans moved into position, the Japanese plan began to unfold.   The Aleutian Islands were attacked on June 3rd, with a raid on the American base at Dutch Harbor, followed by the landing of Japanese troops on Kiska and Attu. 

At the same time, search planes from Midway fanned out each morning, looking for the approaching armada.    A Catalina flying boat piloted by Enign Jack Reid spotted the Japanese on June 3rd, flashing the famous “Main Body sighted” signal.  Back at Pearl, the question was, “What did ‘Main Body’ mean?   Was this the carrier force?”      After requesting more information from Reid, it became clear this was the landing force.  The question remained – where were the carriers?

From the decks of Task Force 16, scout bombers lifted into the air on the morning on June 4th, to assist Midway’s Catalina’s in the search for the Japanese flattops.

At 550 in the morning, a Catalina piloted by Lt. Howard Ady hit the jackpot – they had spotted the Kudo Butai.    Ady’s report was picked up by Midway, Pearl and Fletcher and Spruance. 

Midway’s planes – which were already in the air to avoid the impending Japanese assault on their base – headed for carriers to attack.    While the land based Avengers, Mauraders, Vindicators and Flying Fortresses scored no hits, they tied up and wore down the Japanese CAP and forced the ships into evasive manuevers.  

Now that Fletcher knew where the Japanese carriers were, he wanted to strike and strike hard.  He instructed Spruance to forge ahead with Enterprise and Hornet and lauch as soon the range was closed.  Since Yorktown was still awaiting the return of her scouts, she  would launch later.

From the decks of the Enterprise and Hornet, the lumbering TBD Devastator torpedo bomber launched first, followed by the Wildcats that would be providing fighter escort and finally came the SBD Dauntlesses.     American doctrine called for a coordinated attacked on the enemy, torpedo bomber and dive bombers stiking in unison to divert the Japanese Combat Air Patrol and AA fire.

As the American’s headed off the the reported coordinates of the Japanese, the doctrine came apart almost immeadiately.    Hornet’s Torpedo Eight, led by the firery John Waldron, headed off in a separate direction from the rest of Hornet’s air group.  Waldron told his men he’d lead them straight to the Japanese – and he did.    Torpedo Eight was decimated by the Japanese CAP and AA fire.  Every plan was shot down, and only one member of the squadron – Egn George Gay – survived.

Meanwhile, Hornet’s dive bombers and fighters arrived over the reported location of the Japanese, only to find empty ocean.   Faced with a decision on which way to turn, the Air Group Commander decided to turn towards Midway, which was away from the Japanese.   Most of Bombing 8 and Fighting 8 ended up ditching in the ocean, and were not a factor in the battle.

Enterprise’s torpedo bombers also found the Japanese fleet, and didn’t fare much better than Torpedo Eight.  Only 3 planes made it back.  

While the Japanese were repulsing repeated American air attacks, Yorktown had recovered all her scouts and was ready to launch her stike.   It was at this point that the second most important decision of the Pacific war was made.   Yorktown’s  air officer, Commander M.E. Arnold, instructed his pilots NOT to fly to the earlier reported coordinates, but to fly at a right angle to those coordinates.  He was guessing – and gambling – that the Japanese had turned away from Midway. 

Yorktown’s planes were now in the air, and headed right for the Japanese fleet.    At the same time, Bombing 6 from the Enterprise had arrived at the same patch of ocean that the Hornet’s air group had been a short time earlier.

In the cockpit of his SBD Dauntless, Lt. Commander Wade McClusky was faced with a decision.    Where were the Japanese?  Which way do I turn?   Checking his fuel tanks, McClusky knew he didn’t have the fuel for a standard search – which involved flying in an ever increasing square.    With fuel becoming an issue, McClusky had to make a decision.   Which way to go?

Turn left, and head towards Midway.   Turn right and head towards empty ocean.  Where were the Japanese?   McClusky then made the most important decision of the  Pacific War.   He decided to turn right. 

At first, the decision seemed to be a poor one.   Fuel was even more of an issue, and there was nothing but empty ocean.   Then, someone spotted a thin white line in the ocean, which could only mean one thing – the wake of a ship.

That ship was the Japanese destroyer Arashi, churning her way back to the Japanese carriers after chasing off the submarine Nautilis.

As McClusky followed the Arashi, the Yorktown’s torpedo bombers and fighters had found the Kido Butai.   Led by Commander Lance Massey, the torpedo bomber bored in on their targets, only to meet the same fate as Torpedo 8 and 6, as Jimmy Thatch’s Fighting 3 was mauled by the fearsome Zero’s of the combat air patrol.

At this point of the battle, the Japanese had beaten off everything the Americans had thown at them – the strikes from Midway and the carrier torpedo attacks.   Nagumo knew where the American carriers were, and was prepared to launch a devastaing attack.   As he turned his ships into the wind to launch, it looked like the Americans were doomed – even with the advance intel, the US Navy could not defeat the Imperial Navy in combat.

As the first plane of the strike force rolled down the deck of the Akagi, a lookout onboard the Japanese flagship screamed “Helldivers!”, and pointed into the sky.

McClusky had continued to follow the Arashi, which had led him right to the Japanese carrier force.   Focused on the repeated attacks by the doomed American Torpedo squadrons, the Japanese had not seen the Dauntlesses coming up out of the sun, nor was their combat air patrol in a position to defend their charges.

Splitting his force in two, McClusky’s fliers attacked the Akagi and Kaga.    As they pushed over in their dives, the dive bombers from the Yorktown arrived, and began to dive on Soryu.  

In what became known as the “famous four minutes”, history changed, an Empire’s dreams were destroyed, and the cream of Japanese Naval Aviation was lost.   Their decks loaded with fully armed and fueled aircraft, Akagi, Kaga and Soryu were each mortally damaged by multiple hits from the American dive bombers.   Only Hiryu – which was hidden under a rain squall – would survive the initial holocaust.    Remarkably, she was also caught with her deck full of planes by American dive bombers later in the day.

Wade McClusky’s decision to turn right instead of left changed the course of the Pacific War, and perhaps the 20th century.  If he turns left – the decision that Crommelien of the Hornet made –  then only the Yorktown dive bombers arrive over the Japanese carriers, catching them at their most vulnerable.   Perhaps those dive bomers cripple  only one – maybe two – carriers.   That would have left two carriers left to battle the Americans.  

An attack by one Japanese carrier – Hiryu - was able to overwhelm the Yorktown’s CAP and AA defenses not once, but twice, and inflict mortal damage.   Two Japanese carriers may have been able to defeat the two remaining American carriers.

Instead of being on the defensive, the Japanese still have those carriers and those crews to throw into the fracas around Guadalcanal .   With Hornet and/or Enterprise sunk - and the Japanese with two more carriers full of veteran airmen - who knows what the outcome of the struggle for the Solomon Islands is?  Assuming that the Americans even go on the offensive.

Instead, Wade McClusky turned right.  Coupled with the instructions of Yorktown’s CAG, the American’s found themselves not only extraordinarily lucky, but  in the perfect position to deal the Japanese a blow they would never recover from.   

After Midway, Japan was never again on the offensive.  After Midway, the Americans went on the offensive and never looked back, even during the darkest days of the Guadalcanal campaign.   Wade McClusky helped hasten the end of the Pacific War.   Instead of having a negotiated peace with a smaller Japanese empire that was still a formidible foe, the Allies achieved total victory in the Pacific – and changed the history of the world.

It was truly the most important moment of the Second World War, perhaps the most important moment of the 20th Century.