Monday, June 09, 2008

Moments of Decision

Far below could be seen perfect blue Pacific Ocean waters with nothing to be spied upon them. There were no feathery wakes to betray the existence of ships, ships of the Imperial Japanese Navy that were his targets this fine morning. And that was the dilemma one man found himself in one June day in 1942.

At 0700 that morning, planes of the carriers Enterprise and Hornet had launched. These were maximum effort strikes with 33 and 35 dive bombers respectively, 15 and 15 torpedo bombers, and 10 fighters each. Their contact information on two enemy carriers was an hour old when they launched. At 0745, Enterprise's dive bombers left the task force to strike at the enemy.

Now it was 0920 and where the expected enemy carriers were supposed to be found was undisturbed ocean. For Lt. Commander Wade McClusky, Enterprise CAG, that meant he had a profound decision to make - press on with his 31 dive bombers and hope to find the enemy or return to Enterprise, jettison all the bombs, trap, and hope to get in another lick at the Japanese later.

For a pilot who's normal mount was not a Dauntless, McClusky was the man on the spot. His decision at this juncture would match the name of the plane he found himself flying, Enterprise's dive bombers would press on. As VT-8 was being slaughtered attacking the First Air Fleet, VB-6 and VS-6 started a new search to find Nagumo's carriers. By 0935 McClusky's dive bombers had finished an abbreviated box search and were now following what would prove to be Nagumo's actual course. Meanwhile gas gauges in 31 dive bombers continued to read lower and lower and pilots got more nervous.

Then an incident happened that could only happen in a novel or a kind deity had decided to lend a hand. As the Dauntlesses continued to drone on at 20,000 there was spied a lone ship's wake. McClusky decided someone had to be in a hurry to the reported carriers. Using the ship's wake as a pathfinder arrow, Entperise's Dauntlesses passed over the destroyer Arashi and at 1005 and 35 miles away was the target of all this effort - the IJN First Air Fleet comprised of the carriers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu.

The carriers closest to these dive bombers were Akagi and Kaga, both beloved warships of the IJN. Using hand signals, McClusky directed VS-6 under Best to strike one carrier while he and VB-6 took the other carrier. And then they pushed over into the steep dives dive bombers are famous for. And within the span of a few minutes, both carriers were mortally hit as bombs landed among fully armed planes. As Entperise's pilots were pulling out, they found they were not alone as Yorktown's VB-3 plastered a third carrier the Soryu.

By 1030, the anticipated launch time of the First Air Fleet against the reported American carrier, three of Japan's aircraft carriers were burning furiously and the tide of the war in the Pacific had shifted once again. This time to the side of the Americans where it would reside for the rest of the conflict.

Sorry for this belated post on the Battle of Midway but life intervened and I felt I would not do such an important event justice if I just batted something out. As to what happened to Hornet's dive bombers. Commander Stanhope Ring, when he reached the same patch of ocean as McClusky, decided that the enemy carriers had pressed on and were to the southeast. So Hornet's bombers flew towards Midway and when Kure was spotted, they realized they had guessed wrong. Hornet's dive bombers would be out of action until late that afternoon after refueling at Midway.

1 comment:

Mike's America said...

The History Channel, or is it the Military Channel?, was running the documentary about this a week or so ago. It's amazing how they found the Japanese, but the cost to our side was high. So many of our pilots didn't return.