In late May, 1942, Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto sent four aircraft carriers with over 270 planes to attack the Pacific Fleet facilities of Midway Island. An amphibious invasion of the island would follow the air attack. Yamamoto expected the Pacific Fleet carriers to respond by rushing to the scene from Pearl Harbor and into the trap he had prepared. However, Admiral Chester Nimitz had built a brilliant cryptography team at Pearl Harbor, and they informed him of the coming carrier attack. Nimitz planned a surprise ambush of the Japanese carriers.
Nimitz had three available carriers, Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown, each with one squadron of fighters and torpedo planes and two squadrons of dive bombers—a total of over 230 planes. Nimitz also assembled a mixed force of over 70 Navy, Army, and Marine Corps planes on Midway Island. The Nimitz ambush called for planes from both Midway and the carriers to arrive simultaneously over the Japanese carrier fleet in a concentration of force and deliver a devastating attack.
Lieutenant commander Edwin T. Layton, Pacific Fleet intelligence officer, predicted on May 27th that the Japanese fleet would approach from the northwest, steam toward Midway on a southeast course of 135 degrees, and at 0430 on June 4th launch about half of their planes to attack Midway Island. The Nimitz plan called for PBY scouts to fly from Midway, also at 0430, contact the Japanese carriers about 0600, and report their position, course, and speed. Upon receiving the PBY report, the planes from both Midway and the carriers would launch their attacks.
The planes from Midway would fly the reverse of the Japanese course and intercept the Japanese carriers 140 miles from Midway at about 0720. To establish the position of the carriers, Layton would have drawn a line to the northeast from the 140-mile interception point, perpendicular to the Japanese course, and would have marked a point on the perpendicular line 140 miles from the interception point. The carriers were to be at that position at 0600 to launch their planes. The position for the carrier launch also measured 200 miles straight north of Midway Island, and that position would be used as the navigation reference point by the carrier command.
Upon receipt of the PBY contact report, the carrier planes would fly 140 miles to the interception point on course 255, well within their 175-mile maximum operating range, and meet the Midway planes over the Japanese carriers at 0720. The combined force would confront just the remaining half of Japanese carrier planes because the planes launched at 0430 would still be on their mission to attack the facilities on Midway.
The carriers departed Pearl Harbor and were northeast of Midway by June 2nd. Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher was in overall tactical command. At 0430 on June 3rd, 22 PBY search planes fanned out from Midway on assigned vectors and discovered the Japanese amphibious force, thus confirming that the Japanese overall advance was proceeding as planned. At 0430 on June 4th, the PBY search planes from Midway again flew on their assigned vectors. At 0603 a PBY reported contact with the carrier force. On receipt of the PBY report, every flyable plane on Midway took to the skies.
However, at 0603 the Pacific Fleet carriers were over 60 miles to the east and north of the position 200 miles north of Midway. They also were about 200 miles from the interception point with the Japanese carriers, and the planes were out of range. The distance to the interception point would have to be shortened by at least 25 miles to get to a maximum 175-mile operating range. At the carrier speed of 25 knots, that would take an hour. The launch time was reset for 0700.
Because the carriers were not in position to execute an attack at the appointed time, the Nimitz plan for achieving a concentration of force over the Japanese carrier fleet had failed. The Midway planes arrived alone over the Japanese carriers at 0710 without fighter protection, and Zero fighters took a heavy toll. No hits were scored on the carriers.
Admiral Spruance, now detached from the Pacific Fleet force, was in command of Task Force 16 with carriers Enterprise and Hornet. There was no backup scouting once the concentration of force failed, and Spruance established a new interception course for Enterprise and Hornet planes based on their assumed dead reckoning track. At 0700 Spruance launched the carrier planes at maximum operating range, 175 miles, on course 240.
At 0728 a Japanese scout discovered the US task force. Japanese Admiral Nagumo had ordered armament changeovers on the planes for another attack on Midway Island, and he was further confused by the lack of detailed information received from the scout. He delayed the launch of an attack even though he still had a potent capability, despite his force being partially reduced by the armament changeover. By 0830 the planes launched against Midway at 0430, low on fuel, were returning. Nagumo ordered those planes to land, and changed course at 0917 to close the Pacific Fleet carriers. The course change meant that the Enterprise and Hornet planes flying on course 240 would find only empty ocean.
Deck crews on the Japanese carriers refueled and rearmed all the planes, and by 1020 a massive attack was nearly ready to attack the Pacific Fleet carriers. However, the Enterprise air group commander, with 32 dive bombers running very low on fuel, made brilliant decisions in the search to find the Japanese carriers. He found them in the last possible moments, and at 1025 Dauntless dive bombers from Enterprise destroyed two carriers within five minutes. Yorktown dive bombers arrived at the same time and destroyed a third carrier. The fourth carrier was destroyed later in the day, but not before its attack on Yorktown led to the loss of that ship.
With four Japanese carriers sunk, Midway would go down as the greatest naval victory of the Pacific War. However, this great victory came, not as the result of executing a well-conceived battle plan, but rather as a desperate effort in the closing minutes. The Nimitz concentration of force attack plan was the best chance to achieve an early victory at Midway with a high probability of success, and without losing any Pacific Fleet carriers. The plan failed when the carriers were out of position at the appointed time, but Enterprise and Yorktown dive bombers rescued the battle and turned the tide of the Pacific War.
Dale Jenkins is the author of Diplomats & Admirals: From Failed Negotiations and Tragic Misjudgments to Powerful Leaders and Heroic Deeds, the Untold Story of the Pacific War from Pearl Harbor to Midway.
Sources: And I Was There by Edwin T. Layton; CINCPAC Action Report, Battle of Midway