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

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Well, I've got on my tin hat. I can't do anything else now! - RADM Frank Jack Fletcher

Around 1150, Yorktown's radar had made unexpected contact with a group of planes 32 miles west-southwest. These planes represented the most powerful strike the Japanese could muster: eighteen dive-bombers escorted by six fighters, all from the unscathed carrier Hiryu. Launched at 1045, just after the devastating US dive-bomber attack, the strike group was guided to Yorktown by a float plane from the cruiser Chikuma. The attackers were greeted by a determined combat air patrol, composed of 12 Yorktown F4F Wildcats reinforced by eight more F4Fs from Enterprise and Hornet Air Groups (four each). Under Yorktown's direction, the F4Fs intercepted the enemy strike at 1156, one minute after the Japanese spotted the carrier's wake. In running the gauntlet formed by VF-3, VF-8 and VF-6 (and in that order), eleven of the eighteen bombers were brought down. The rest reached positions ranging from west to southwest of Yorktown and began their dives.

At this point in the war, naval anti-aircraft fire was more impressive than effective. The first two bombers to attack were blown to pieces by Yorktown's 1.1-inch anti-aircraft guns, yet the first landed its 242-kg bomb just aft the carrier's No. 2 elevator, while the second scored a near miss, spraying the stern with splinters and starting fires. Several near misses followed, before one lucky hit detonated deep in uptakes for the ship's boilers. This blow instantly reduced Yorktown to a single operable boiler, and she slowed rapidly, vitally damaged by enemy bombs for the second time in less than a month.

Yorktown CV-5 under attack, June 4, 1942. Note water fountaining from a torpedo exploding against her port side.

Yet Yorktown's fight was not over. Seeing her flight deck out of action, most of Bombing Squadron Three flew some 30 miles southeast to land aboard Enterprise. The Big E's crew prepared the new arrivals and the remaining planes of Enterprise Air Group for a second strike. Based on intelligence gathered before the battle, and the reports of the returning airmen, Spruance and his staff believed three of four Japanese carriers had been knocked out. The fourth carrier clearly posed a threat, and had to be eliminated. But hours had passed since the last contact report, and Spruance could not afford another hurried, disorganized strike. However, before Yorktown was attacked, Fletcher had again sent out his scouts: ten SBDs of "Scouting" Five launched at 1133 to search out to 200 miles. While they wouldn't make contact soon enough to save Yorktown, they would seal Hiryu's fate.

Fletcher transferred his flag from the damaged Yorktown to Astoria at 1323. Less than ten minutes later, Hiryu launched her second strike: smaller than the first, it consisted of ten torpedo planes with six Zeroes as escort. By this time - thanks to search plane reports and information gleaned from a captured Torpedo Three pilot - the Japanese knew they faced three American carriers, and believed one of those carriers to be heavily damaged, if not sunk. So it is perhaps understandable that when Hiryu's second strike spotted an apparently undamaged carrier an hour after launch, they assumed it wasn't the same carrier that had been attacked around noon. But it was. Coolly and efficiently, Yorktown's men had put her fires out, patched up her flight deck, and brought her boilers back on line. At 1350, less than two hours after the attack, she was making five knots, her engine room reporting her capable of 20.

At 1427, the cruiser Pensacola CA-24 - one of four ships sent from TF-16 to assist Yorktown - reported incoming planes 45 miles out. Again, VF-3 and Enterprise's Fighting Six greeted the intruders. Three Zeroes and as many as five torpedo planes were lost to the Wildcats' guns, though it is possible one or two of the torpedo planes fell victim to an innovative defense developed by the cruiser Astoria. Firing large caliber shells into the sea ahead of the low-flying torpedo planes, the cruiser created virtual walls of water, which would violently halt any plane unfortunate enough to fly into them.

Several torpedo planes did slip through, however. At about 1444, two torpedoes slammed into Yorktown's port side in succession, well below her waterline. Losing steam and electrical power instantly, she also listed to port unnervingly: six degrees just after being hit, rapidly increasing to 17 and then 26 degrees. Though the decision has been debated ever since, Fletcher afterwards strongly supported Captain Buckmaster's command to abandon Yorktown at 1455.

Yorktown Avenged

This second attack on Yorktown only increased the tension in Task Force 16. Spruance's staff, CDR Browning in particular, had wanted to launch a second strike immediately after the morning strike had returned, but Spruance had preferred to wait. Now radio messages and billowing smoke confirmed that Yorktown was under attack again, while Task Force 16's bombers still sat idle. Then, moments after Yorktown was struck by torpedoes, one of her scouts radioed a contact: one carrier, two battleships and escorts, 110 miles west of Yorktown's midday position. Spruance ordered a strike launched. Available on Enterprise were 25 dive bombers: seven from VS-6, three from VB-6, and the remainder from VB-3, all led by LT Earl Gallaher of Scouting Six. Repeating the morning's misstep, Hornet was informed of launch less than fifteen minutes before planes began rolling down the Big E's deck, at 1530. By that time, Hornet was busy retrieving the VB-8 SBDs that had flown up from Midway. When she was able to launch her own strike, the Enterprise and Yorktown bombers had been gone for half an hour.

Hiryu burning shortly before sinking, June 5, 1942. Her forward flight deck has been peeled open, smoke streams from every opening.

Despite this, the attack went more smoothly than the morning's. Flying directly to their objective, at 1645 Enterprise's attack group spotted the target: a carrier - Hiryu - with several heavy ships, separated by several miles, according to the Bombing Six action report. Climbing to 19,000 feet, Scouting Six led the attack from out of the sun at 1705. Several Zeroes attacked the bombers before and during their dives, downing the Dauntless manned by ENS Frederick T. Weber and Ernest L. Hilbert AOM 3/c. As Hiryu turned radically, the first three Dauntlesses missed the mark. Seeing the misses, Bombing Three's LT Dewitt Shumway changed his target from the battleship Haruna to Hiryu, following VS-6. Then followed a succession of four direct hits on the forward half of her flight deck: some certainly made by VB-3, others possibly by VS-6. Additional hits were scored by VB-3 and Dick Best's Bombing Six, though like that morning, flames and smoke poured out in such volume as to make counting impossible. Two VB-3 SBDs attacked Haruna, but missed. Two other VB-3 SBDs fell to Zeroes during and immediately after the attack, but for the price of three planes, Enterprise and Yorktown had bagged their fourth carrier of the day. Hornet's SBDs arrived fifteen minutes after this attack. Finding Hiryu heavily damaged, they focused their efforts on ships in her screen but failed to score any hits, ending a day of frustration for Hornet Air Group.

The Enterprise and Yorktown bombers returned to Task Force 16 at 1808, and all landed by 1834, shortly before sunset. At 1920, the last fighter from Enterprise's combat air patrol touched down, and for the airmen who had survived, the long, challenging day came to an end. For many, particularly in the fighter sections that had patrolled over the task force during the day, it wasn't until evening that they learned of the terrible price the torpedo squadrons had paid for the day's triumphs.

June 5

The night of June 4-5 set the stage for the rest of the battle, though its consequences weren't fully realized until June 6. First, shortly after 1800, Spruance notified Fletcher of the attack on Hiryu, asking if Fletcher had further instructions. Recognizing that he could not effectively fight a carrier battle from the bridge of a cruiser, Fletcher yielded tactical command to Spruance: "Negative. Will conform to your movements."

Spruance's instincts in commanding surface forces took over. Despite the pounding the enemy's carriers had taken, their powerful surface forces remained unharmed. Outnumbered and outclassed in every category of big-gun ship, Spruance could not risk a night engagement. At 1915, Task Force 16 and the remainder of Task Force 17 turned due east, away from the Japanese and Midway, and then due north at midnight. Shortly after midnight, a surface radar contact caused mild alarm, but nothing came of it. At 0420, the ships turned southwest and again approached Midway. Spruance considered a fifth enemy carrier - or a carrier revived from the previous day's attacks - a possibility. An enemy landing on the atoll remained a threat as well.

Remarkably, on the evening of June 4 occupation of Midway still seemed viable to the Japanese as well. To say that Japanese estimates of the situation were confused would be an understatement. Contact reports received that afternoon and evening identified five US cruisers and one carrier, burning; then five cruisers and five carriers, all burning; then one carrier afire and four others untouched. According to some reports, the US fleet was heading west, towards the Japanese. According to others, the fleet was withdrawing to the east. Nagumo, understandably discouraged by the day's events, was effectively relieved at about 2130, when Fleet Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto - desperate to salvage victory - ordered Nagumo to withdraw and protect Hiryu, and directed Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo - commanding the cruisers and battleships in the Midway Occupation Force - to take command of the surface ships in Nagumo's force and destroy the Americans in a night engagement. Yamamoto also directed a submarine - I-168, which we will encounter again - and four cruisers under Rear Admiral Takeo Kurita to approach and bombard Midway in the early morning.

These orders were issued at 2030, June 4. Within a few hours, Yamamoto was having second thoughts. His plans would place his heavy ships within easy range of Midway- and carrier-based US aircraft in the morning, with no air protection of their own. In fact, none of the Japanese forces arrayed against Midway could enjoy air support until June 7, when light carriers Ryujo and Junyo, hastily recalled from the Aleutians operation, would be on the scene. Realizing the futility of pressing on, Yamamoto cancelled the Midway bombardment shortly after midnight, June 5. At 0255, he ordered a general withdrawal.

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