The Foreward to Walter Lord’s Incredible Victory begins as follows: “By any ordinary standard, they were hopelessly outclassed. They had no battleships, the enemy eleven. They had eight cruisers, the enemy twenty-three. They had three carriers (one of them crippled); the enemy had eight. Their shore defenses included guns from the turn of the century. They knew little of war. None of the Navy pilots on one of their carriers had ever been in combat. Nor had any of the Army fliers. Of the Marines, 17 of 21 new pilots were just out of flight school-some with less than four hours flying time since then. The enemy was brilliant, experienced and all-conquering.”
Such was The Battle of Midway…on paper. A total mismatch. A slaughter waiting to happen. On the Japanese side, nearly 190 ships. On the American side, less than one-third that number. It’s a good thing the Battle of Midway wasn’t fought on paper, because any rational analysis would have painted a bleak picture for the U.S. Navy.
But what started on the morning of June 4, 1942 as a day of destiny for the Japanese ended as a day of disaster. In the space of six minutes (10:22-10:28am), U.S. Navy dive bombers had hit three carriers (Akagi, Kaga, & Soryu) and rendered them floating wrecks. A fourth carrier (Hiryu) would be added to that list later in the afternoon.
This most improbable of American victories didn’t stem from one factor, but from many, all of which conspired to make the impossible a reality. Among them, Admiral Nagumo not being notified of the cancellation of Operation K, so he wasn’t aware of the U.S. fleet’s presence. A group of Japanese picket subs that arrived late to their scouting station, where the U.S. fleet had passed just a day before. The catapult that malfunctioned, causing a Japanese float plane to launch 30 minutes late…the same float plane that would discover the U.S. fleet, and then require another 45 minutes to identify a carrier as one of the vessels.
And how about Admiral Spruance’s decision to send in two low-level torpedo squadrons (Torp Squadrons 6 & 8) with no fighter escort? Flying at extremely slow speed, they presented a juicy target to the Japanese fighters protecting the carriers, who swooped down and shredded them. And then, just minutes later, those same Japanese pilots watched helplessly, at low altitude with low fuel and little or no ammo in their guns, as U.S. dive bombers swooped down and chopped three Japanese carriers to pieces.
Or Nagumo’s decision to land his planes returning from their attack on Midway Island and then rearm them for carrier attacks, which left his carrier decks awash in aviation fuel and bombs? Or the bravery of those afore-mentioned Torpedo Squadron pilots, who flew into what they knew would be a slaughter, but did it anyways?
There were other factors as well, but suffice to say that the Six-Minute Miracle at Midway (and the 5-6 hours that led up to it) is simply one of the most astounding turn of events in the history of warfare. In six minutes (about the time it took you to read Today’s History Lesson), the vaunted Japanese military went from unbeaten and largely unbloodied to a force that would never recover the initiative again.
Recommended Reading: Incredible Victory – The Battle of Midway