Seventy years ago today, a few hundred naval aviators and aircrew turned the tide of the Second Great War of the twentieth century. When the sun set on the Japanese fleet skulking westward at the end of the day, the days of Japanese expansion were over. Never again would the offensive might of Imperial Japan be used for conquest and expansion.
Okay, they had some help from the Marines and the Army.
The Battle of Midway was the first of three major Allied victories in 1942 that put the Axis powers on the defensive for the rest of the war. The Battle of El Alamein in western Egypt stopped the German advance on the Suez Canal, the loss of which would have severely impacted the British ability to continue the fight. Later that winter, the Battle of Stalingrad (ending in February 1943) would the turn the tide on the Eastern Front.
There were a lot of great airplanes in WWII, some of which had great impact on the war efforts of their respective countries; the British Spitfire, the Japanese Zeke (Zero), the German BF-109 (ME-109), the Russian Sturmavik, the American B-17.
But I think the greatest of them all was the Dauntless dive bomber. It sank more Japanese ships then any other aircraft, and on a morning in early June, seventy years ago, it saved the world. And it did it in five minutes.
For six months, the forces of Imperial Japan had been running roughshod over the Pacific and Indian Oceans, stopped only once, at the Battle of Coral Sea in early May.
Although our primary carrier weapon was supposed to be the torpedo bomber, problems with their torpedoes rendered them fairly combat ineffective. Although they did have some success during Coral Sea, due to special maintenance on the newest lot of aerial torpedoes in the inventory, the torpedo bomber squadrons suffered from the same problems their submarine counterparts did, fuse problems that thwarted detonation upon impact with their targets. Then current air wing tactics called for a coordinated attack using the dive bombers to distract the defenses so the torpedo planes could sneak in for the crippling blow.
The early morning hours of June 4, 1942 saw the Japanese carrier task force approaching Midway Island (the westernmost island in the Hawaiian chain) from the northwest. Their first attack, at 06:30, although fairly effective, failed to cripple the island’s defenses. During this attack the Marine air defense fighters lost 16 fighters, leaving only two flyable. They shot down 4 bombers and 3 fighters.
Now it was the defenders turn. A number of Army Air Corps B-17s attacked first from 20,000 feet. The Japanese, recognizing the futility of level bombing attacks from that altitude did not even bother sending fighters after them.
During the next few hours the following Midway-based aircraft attacked the Japanese carrier strike force:
|B-26 Marauder (Army torpedo bomber)
|SB2U Vindicator (Marine dive bomber)
|SBD Dauntless (Marine dive bomber)
|TBF Avenger (Navy torpedo bomber)
Please note that the Marine Dauntless pilots were untrained in the high-angle dive bombing attack profiles and used a glide-bombing technique that was less accurate and more dangerous.
Leaving aside the B-17s, 37 bombers attacked the Japanese fleet that morning, 20 of which were shot down, and no hits were made on the Japanese.
At 09:20 the first wave of carrier-based TBD Devastator torpedo bombers from VT-8 on the USS HORNET commenced their attack runs on the Japanese carriers. Without fighter escort, they were easy meat for the experienced Japanese fighter pilots. To drop their torpedoes they had to fly a suicidal flight profile, under 120 knots, about 100 feet off the water, and in a straight line so they could align the gyros in the torpedoes. All fifteen of them were shot down without a hit.
Shortly thereafter, fourteen TBDs from VT-6 aboard the USS ENTERPRISE followed them in. Ten were shot down. Still no hits.
At 10:00, twelve TBDs from VT-3 aboard the USS YORKTOWN attacked. Ten were shot down with no hits.
To recap: 35 of 41 carrier-based torpedo bombers were shot down. All told, 55 of 78 bombers were downed by the Japanese defenders (again, not counting the B-17s which the Japanese didn’t even worry about), or just over 70% of the American attackers.
The American carrier-based attacks to this point had been brave, but uncoordinated and unsuccessful and suicidal in effect, if not in intent. But they served a purpose.
LCDR Wade McCluskey, the ENTERPRISE Air Group Commander, had guessed correctly a few minutes earlier, and arrived overhead the Japanese carriers at an altitude of 17,000 feet, undetected and unopposed, just as VT-3 was making their attack runs.
At 10:22, he started raining Dauntlesses.
What was it like that morning? Picture the best, the steepest rollercoaster ride you have ever been on. You know the one, the one that when you crest the top and tip over, it looks like your going past the vertical? And it lasts for only about 5 seconds (although it can seem like hours for some of you)? Yeah – that ride.
Now imagine that you’re in a Dauntless, hurdling earthbound at about 250 miles per hour, and you look out over the wings and you see these big pieces of metal, all full of holes, sticking up from the trailing edges of the wings, and you realize that your dive brakes are keeping your airspeed steady and allowing you to track your target more effectively.
And you fall, and fall, and fall, for about two and a half minutes, as a Japanese carrier gets bigger and bigger in your windscreen. At 2000 feet, you pickle your bomb and yank back on the stick, putting about five G’s on the airplane as the blood rushes out of your head and down towards your feet, and you grunt and groan to prevent this – since anti-G suits have yet to be invented.
By 10:27, three Japanese carriers, the AKAGI, KAGA and SORYU are aflame and you have just helped save the world.
The rest of the day sees the sinking of the remaining Japanese carrier, Hiryu, as well as the crippling, once again, of the USS YORKTOWN, by Japanese torpedo and dive bomber planes.