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USS Enterprise CV-6
The Most Decorated Ship of the Second World War

Battle of Midway
June 4 - 6, 1942

"You will be governed by the principle of calculated risk...."
Admiral Chester W. Nimitz

For Enterprise, the Battle of Midway began in May 1942, with a crucial bit of deception in the South Pacific. In early May, Task Force 16 - centered around Enterprise and Hornet CV-8 - had raced southwest, in an attempt to join Lexington CV-2 and Yorktown CV-5 (under Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher) and deflect the expected Japanese move on Port Moresby, near the southeast tip of New Guinea. Japan's attempt to capture the port precipitated the Battle of the Coral Sea (7-8 May 1942), which ended the day before TF-16's arrival. Coral Sea was a narrow strategic victory for the United States. Repelled from Port Moresby, Japan also lost light carrier Shoho, while fleet carrier Shokaku was badly damaged and Zuikaku's air group was effectively destroyed. US Navy losses included Lexington, while Yorktown sustained heavy damage.

Coral Sea was the only major carrier battle of the war that Enterprise missed. Arriving a day too late, she and Hornet were sent north, to defend phosphorous-rich Ocean and Nauru islands. The cruise north, however, was cut short by two seemingly contradictory messages from Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet. The first message originated with Admiral Ernest King, Chief of Naval Operations, who "advised" TF-16's Commander, Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, not to operate in range of enemy land-based planes, and beyond the range of friendly airfields, "unless especially favorable results" would result. The second order came from Nimitz himself: Halsey should let TF-16 be observed by enemy search planes ... but remain out of reach of attack planes.

Halsey followed his instructions to perfection. The next day - May 15, 1942 - an enemy "snooper" appeared on Enterprise's radar, 70 miles out. The plane was allowed to approach. In a short while, Enterprise's intelligence unit overheard a contact report sent by the snooper. Fighters were scrambled, but were unable to intercept the first snooper, nor the several that soon arrived to radio contact reports of their own. Sure that Task Force 16 - and the two carriers - had been sighted and reported, Halsey turned his force due east. The next day, Task Force 16 was ordered to "expedite return" to Pearl Harbor ... and to avoid being sighted again.

This ploy, and overly optimistic assessments of Coral Sea, led Japanese intelligence to conclude that three US fleet carriers, at most, were operating in the Pacific: Enterprise, Hornet, and possibly Wasp CV-7. By allowing Halsey's force to be sighted on May 15, Nimitz intended to convince the Japanese that Enterprise and Hornet were deep in the south Pacific, and forestall any operation in that area that Japan might have planned. This, in turn, freed Nimitz to commit both carriers to operations in the north Pacific, over two thousand miles away.

In total, three US carriers stood off Midway on June 4: Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown. (Midway was the first and only battle where the three Yorktown-class carriers fought together.) Halsey and Task Force 16 arrived in Pearl Harbor on May 26, where the ships reprovisioned hurriedly and sortied on May 28 for the north Pacific. Yorktown limped into Pearl on May 27, entering Dry Dock #1 the next day. Nimitz himself personally inspected the weary carrier before telling the yard manager, "We must have this ship back in three days." She was. Early May 30, battered, patched, but battleworthy, Yorktown stood out of Pearl Harbor, bringing up the rear of Task Force 17, RADM Fletcher commanding.

Task Forces 16 and 17 rendezvoused on June 2 northeast of Midway, at a spot of empty ocean optimistically designated "Point Luck". At that time, RADM Fletcher assumed tactical command of the combined force, for VADM Halsey, Fletcher's senior and normally commander of Task Force 16, was ill. Unrelenting stress and sweltering days in the south Pacific had given Halsey a severe case of dermatitis. Gaunt and sleep-deprived, Halsey had been admitted to the hospital, but not before recommending his own replacement: Rear Admiral Raymond Ames Spruance.

Halsey and Spruance had little in common. Halsey wore aviator's wings, Spruance was strictly a surface sailor. Halsey commanded a carrier force, Spruance commanded cruisers. Halsey was a fiery, aggressive leader, Spruance cool and reserved. But Halsey respected Spruance's judgement, and Spruance's cruisers had operated closely with Halsey's carriers for months. Moreover, Spruance "inherited" most of Halsey's able staff, including CDR Miles Browning: arguably the most aggressive carrier tactician in the Pacific at that time. At Midway, Spruance, commanding TF-16, was formally subordinate to RADM Fletcher. As events transpired, however, with few exceptions Spruance called the shots.

"The enemy is not aware of our plans." - VADM Chuichi Nagumo
"I anticipate that first contact will be made by our search planes out of Midway at 0600 Midway time, 4 June, 325 degrees northwest at a distance of 175 miles." - Captain Edwin T. Layton

In the days before June 4, evidence grew that Pacific Fleet Intelligence had pulled off a major intelligence coupe. Though the Kido Butai - Japan's "Carrier Striking Force" - had not yet been located, Midway-based planes had made numerous contacts with other Japanese units, including transports approaching from the southeast. Midway PBYs had even scored a torpedo hit on one of the transports shortly before 0200 June 4 (Midway time)[1]. And as predicted, the Japanese had struck at Dutch Harbor and other points in the Aleutian islands on June 3, a diversion intended to draw the American fleet out of Pearl Harbor.

Expecting four or five Japanese carriers to close Midway from the northwest, Nimitz's Operations Plan 29-42 - detailing the defense of Midway - directed Fletcher and Spruance to operate northeast of Midway, on the flank of the anticipated enemy thrust. Fletcher and Spruance were to avoid placing themselves between the enemy and Midway, and instead "inflict maximum damage on enemy by employing strong attrition tactics." In a separate letter, Nimitz continued: "You will be governed by the principle of calculated risk, which you shall interpret to mean the avoidance of exposure of your force to attack by superior enemy forces without good prospect of inflicting ... greater damage on the enemy."

Dawn on the fourth of June found RADM Fletcher concerned by the lack of information about the enemy's disposition. That an attack on Midway was imminent there was no doubt, but the whereabouts of the enemy's carriers remained unknown. With battle expected, Enterprise's crews had awakened at 0130, taking breakfast between 0300 and 0400, before the pilots and airmen settled in their ready rooms to await instruction. Shortly before dawn, Yorktown launched ten VS-5[2] SBD-3s to search north of the US fleet, to a distance of 100 miles. While the Japanese were expected to approach Midway from the northwest, Fletcher wanted to be sure his own flanks were secure. Operating some 200 miles north-northeast of Midway, Fletcher was confident the Japanese could not be to the south, nor did he expect them to launch a strike against Midway from more than 300 miles out: i.e., 100 miles north of his own force.

Fletcher was not alone in searching for the Japanese that morning. On Midway, sixteen B-17s had taken off at 0415 to attack enemy transports approaching from the west, and 22 PBYs had set out to find the Japanese carriers. Those carriers, in turn, were now just 240 miles northwest of the atoll - 215 miles west of Task Forces 16 and 17 - and readying their first strike. Under the command of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, Kaga, Akagi, Soryu and Hiryu prepared 108 planes for launch: 36 Type 99 dive bombers (later known as "Vals"), 36 Type 97 level bombers ("Kates"), and 36 Type 00 fighters ("Zeroes") as escort. Their target was Midway: their mission to soften the atoll's defenses and eliminate its air strength. The planes were in the air by 0440, when work immediately began on arming an additional 105 aircraft, to strike any American ships that might interfere. Cruisers Tone and Chikuma, and battleship Haruna launched float planes to search for an enemy task force. No naval opposition was expected, however.

Midway Atoll, looking west, November 1941. Eastern Island is in the foreground, Sand Island is behind.

For the pilots in the ready rooms of Enterprise and her sister ships, time seemed to slow to a crawl as they awaited word of the enemy carriers. An hour had passed since Yorktown had launched her SBDs when Task Force 16 intercepted a brief, electrifying message from a Midway PBY at 0534: "Enemy carriers." Long minutes passed without amplification. At 0553, a second PBY radioed "Many planes heading Midway". Clearly the Japanese were out there, but where? Finally, at 0603, nearly half an hour after the original message, a solid contact report was received: "2 carriers and battleships bearing 320° distance 180 course 135 speed 25."

Quick calculations placed the Japanese 175 miles west-southwest from the US task forces. (In fact, the PBY report was in error: the Kido Butai was nearly 200 miles distant.) In Yorktown, Fletcher wondered where the other enemy carriers might be. If he tipped his hand now, launching a full strike against the two carriers the PBY had spotted, he left himself vulnerable to a counterstrike from the other carriers he suspected were out there. Instead, Fletcher decided to hold Yorktown in reserve, and at 0607 instructed Spruance's Task Force 16: "Proceed southwesterly and attack enemy carriers as soon as definitely located."

[1] All times in this article are Midway time: GMT minus 12 hours.

[2] Yorktown's original VS-5 (Scouting Five) had been relieved after Coral Sea. Immediately before Midway, VB-5 (Bombing Five) was redesignated VS-5, and Saratoga's VB-3 took VB-5's place.

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