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

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"It is not believed that the enemy has any ... carriers ... in the vicinity."
- VADM Chuichi Nagumo
"Task Forces 16 and 17 ... should be able to make surprise flank attacks on enemy carriers from position northeast of Midway."
- RADM Raymond Spruance

In Enterprise, Spruance and his staff conferred. Within minutes of receiving Fletcher's message, Spruance decided to launch at 0700: to throw everything Task Force 16 had at the Japanese, who he estimated would be 155 miles distant when found by the attack group. For reasons which have never been well understood, Spruance's intentions were not clearly communicated to Hornet - the second carrier in TF-16 - with the result that Hornet did not know of the launch until seven minutes before the scheduled time. Fortunately, Hornet's Air Group had been ready to fly for hours, and Hornet and Enterprise were both prepared to launch when they turned into the gentle southeast wind at 0656.

Moving at high speed, Enterprise prepares to launch Torpedo Six the morning of June 4, 1942. Note dive-bombers forming up, near the right edge of the photo.

One of the ironies of Midway was that Yorktown - the only US carrier with wartime experience in carrier-vs-carrier combat - was initially held in reserve, while Hornet and Enterprise were called on to launch the first all-important blow against the Japanese fleet. Naval doctrine of the time held that enemy aircraft were a carrier's worst enemy. A flattop's best chance of survival was to destroy the enemy's carriers before they could launch an attack themselves. In short, fortune favored the side that could land the first punch. In Yorktown, Fletcher, Captain Elliott Buckmaster, and their staffs had acquired first-hand experience in organizing and launching a full strike against an enemy force, and were ready to apply the lessons learned to the present situation. Unfortunately, there had not been time to pass these insights along to Enterprise and Hornet. As a result, TF-16's strike organization quickly broke down, with unfortunate consequences.

Enterprise and Hornet directed their squadrons to form up overhead and depart as a group. The two air groups would operate independently, but squadrons within each - fighters, torpedo bombers, scouting and bombing squadrons - were to maintain contact and synchronize their attack. When Enterprise began launching at 0700, her flight deck was spotted, first, with eight Wildcat fighters for Combat Air Patrol. Behind the Wildcats were 37 SBD-2 and SBD-3 bombers from Scouting and Bombing Six: six VS-6 SBDs carrying a single 500-lb bomb, thirteen with one 500-lb and two 100-lb bombs, and eighteen VB-6 SBDs armed with one 1000-pounder each bringing up the rear. By 0725, all the planes were in the air, less four with mechanical troubles, forming up and climbing in lazy circles over the Big E. Then, in the words of Enterprise Air Group commander LCDR C. Wade McClusky, things "seemed to come to a standstill." For long minutes, plane handlers struggled to strike below the disabled SBDs, and bring Torpedo Six's TBD-1 Devastators up to the flight deck. Finally, over 20 minutes after the last Bombing Six SBD had clawed into the air, the first VF-6 Wildcat sped down Enterprise's flight deck, followed shortly afterwards by LCDR Eugene Lindsey's Torpedo Six. But McClusky and the SBDs, signaled by Spruance at 0745 to "proceed on mission assigned", were already gone. The attack group fragmented further when Fighting Six unintentionally took up station over Hornet's Torpedo Eight squadron, leaving Torpedo Six without fighter escort.

Hornet Air Group fared little better. Its Torpedo and Bombing/Scouting squadrons parted ways soon after launch, unable to agree on the course to follow. Only Yorktown, which Fletcher ordered to begin launching at 0838, formed a well-coordinated strike. The battle-tested Air Department ordered Yorktown's squadrons to make a "running rendezvous". The slowest planes - Torpedo Three's TBDs - launched first, and departed immediately. Bombing Three and Scouting Five launched next, followed by Fighting Three's fighters as escort. The faster planes naturally overtook the slower planes, and the strike group proceeded as a whole.

Meanwhile, a degree of disorganization had also beset the Kido Butai. As late as 0640, when the commander of Kaga's attack group reported "great results obtained" in the strike against Midway, all seemed to be going according to plan. Then twenty minutes later - nearly the same moment that Enterprise began launching - the leader of the Japanese strike, LT Joichi Tomonaga, contacted Nagumo: "There is need for a second attack...". As if to emphasize the point, at 0710 the first of several groups of Midway-based planes found and attacked the Japanese carriers. Six TBF-1 Avenger torpedo planes went in first. The Avenger's combat debut was not encouraging. Five of the TBFs were brought down by Zeroes and anti-aircraft fire, while the sixth - its control surfaces shredded by enemy shells, the gunner dead, the radioman and pilot wounded - survived to drop its torpedo and struggle back to Midway. There were no hits. Four torpedo-bearing B-26 Marauders, attacking moments later, similarly failed to score a single hit, though their strafing fire killed two Akagi crewmen. Two of the bombers never returned to Midway.

Nagumo needed no further convincing: Midway was alert, throwing punches, and might yet land one. No US ships were expected, and indeed none of the float planes launched earlier had reported any contacts. At 0715, Nagumo ordered that the planes reserved for attacking any naval targets, be rearmed to attack ground targets. The task was only partially complete, when cruiser Tone's No. 4 float plane found the US fleet.

At 0728, Tone's scout reported "ten ships, apparently enemy", roughly 240 miles north of Midway, steaming south-southeast at high speed. (This was probably Fletcher's Task Force 17.) No ship types were identified, and Nagumo and his staff may not have immediately suspected the presence of US carriers. For fifteen minutes, Nagumo weighed his options. Finally, at 0745, Nagumo ordered Akagi and Kaga to suspend rearming, directed his force to again prepare to attack surface ships, and ordered his scout to "ascertain ship types."

Before the float plane could respond, more Midway-based planes found the Japanese. At 0755, sixteen Marine Corps SBD-2 Dauntlesses, led by Major Lofton Henderson[3], attacked Hiryu. Six planes, including Henderson's, were shot down by Zeroes before they could drop. The remainder pressed home the attack, but could score only a single near miss. Downing one Zero as they escaped the enemy formation, just eight planes returned to Midway. Of those, six were too shot up to fly again. A lull followed, with Tone's scout reporting at 0809 that the enemy force was composed of cruisers and destroyers, five each. Nagumo barely had time to read the dispatch before Midway lashed out again. Fifteen B-17s (recalled from their mission to strike the transports) bombed Hiryu from 20,000 feet. The airmen claimed hits on two carriers: in fact, they scored at best a near miss, with most of the 68 tons of bombs dropped falling wide of the target. A few minutes later, eleven obsolete Vindicator dive-bombers - also from Midway - approached, first aiming for a carrier, then targetting the battleship Haruna. Given the planes' sluggish performance, it's remarkable that nine survived the mission, but again, not a single hit was scored.

Akagi, followed by a destroyer, turns sharply as Army B-17's attack. Note the "Rising Sun" painted on her flight deck forward, and the absence of planes on her deck.

In a moment, we'll take leave of the Kido Butai, to catch up with the US carrier attack groups, particularly Enterprise Air Group. There were, though, two more incidents in the Japanese force which fundamentally changed the course of the battle. At 0820, as the Midway-based attacks ended, Tone's scout revised its earlier report: "Enemy is accompanied by what appears to be a carrier." For the first time, Nagumo knew with certainty he faced an American flattop. The news came as a shock: the Japanese plan assumed the American fleet would not arrive for several more days. Nagumo had two options: immediately launch the 36 dive bombers spotted on Hiryu and Soryu to attack the enemy carrier, or wait until his Midway strike was recovered and then prepare an all-out strike. Unable to spare fighters to escort the dive bombers, constrained by Japanese doctrine calling for large, coordinated strikes, and not sensing the critical situation he faced, Nagumo chose to wait.

At about the same time, the submarine USS Nautilus SS-168, commanded by LCDR William Brockman, raised its periscope in the middle of the Japanese force, discovering ships moving "across the field at high speed and circling away to avoid the submarine's position." One of eleven US subs stalking the waters north and west of Midway, Nautilus had already endured strafing and depth-charging. Now she invited further attacks, though not before getting off a torpedo at a large enemy ship: a miss. For many minutes, the cruiser Nagara and destroyer Arashi depth-charged her. As the attack ended, Nautilus again raised her periscope: Arashi pounced. More depth-charging ensued, until Arashi broke off the attack at 0918 and sped away to rejoin Nagumo's force.

Under scattered cumulus clouds in an otherwise clear sky, the destroyer's wake etched a brilliant white streak across the calm sea. Like a ghostly thin finger, it pointed directly towards the Kido Butai.

"The enemy lacks the will to fight..." - VADM Chuichi Nagumo
"This is the real thing today, the thing we have trained for, and I will take my squadron in." - VT-6 Commander LCDR Gene Lindsey, flying despite internal injuries suffered in a landing accident days before.

As related earlier, what organization there was in Enterprise's attack group had fallen apart during the launch. Concerned about fuel consumption, at 0745 Spruance had ordered Bombing and Scouting Six to depart, even before Torpedo Six and its fighter escort were airborne. Air Group Commander, LCDR C. Wade McClusky, had led his bombers west-southwest, on course 231° True, anticipating he'd encounter the Japanese around 0920.

Fighting Six Commander, LT James S. Gray, and ten F4F-4 Wildcats were to protect VT-6's vulnerable TBD-1 Devastators. But cruising at 20,000 ft., Gray was unable to distinguish one torpedo squadron from another, and inadvertently took up station over Hornet's Torpedo Eight, commanded by LCDR John C. Waldron. Waldron, who had sparred with Hornet Air Group Commander, CDR Stanhope C. Ring, over the course to be followed, led Torpedo Eight away from the rest of the air group, heading southwest while Hornet's bombers and fighters took a more westerly course.

Torpedo Eight was the first US carrier squadron to find the enemy fleet. Approaching low and from the northeast, the fifteen Devastators came upon Nagumo's force at 0920, immediately after the last plane from the morning strike against Midway had landed. Nagumo had abruptly changed course, from southeast towards Midway, almost due north, to evade further strikes from Midway and to close the American ships. Expecting neither fighter support, nor coordination with Hornet's bombers, Torpedo Eight attacked immediately. At first, Waldron divided his squadron to pin his target - likely Akagi - between two groups of planes, but as Zeroes swarmed over then, VT-8 formed up again on Waldron's TBD. Grinding along at perhaps 100 knots, the Devastators began to fall to the Zeroes. Several were splashed almost immediately. Waldron's wing tank was hit; just before the plane slammed into the water, he was seen climbing from the cockpit to escape the flames. The remaining planes pressed on, now targeting Soryu in the center of the Japanese formation, but their determination wasn't enough. Of the fifteen planes, only one - Ensign George Gay's - dropped its torpedo: a miss. Of the thirty men, only one - Ensign George Gay - survived the mission, crashing shortly after his attack, to become a front row spectator for the events that followed.

[3] In August 1942, Marines on Guadalcanal named their captured airfield Henderson Field, in honor of Major Henderson.

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