In this latest installment of my Daily Wire military history series, I explore what was arguably the most decisive engagement of the Pacific War—indeed the most significant naval battle since Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in 1805. Feel free to leave respectable questions that I’ll answer if I can, and any comments or corrections—it is a very complex battle with conflicting claims, numbers, timelines, and even incongruent eye-witness accounts so I’ve tried to do my best, but am always willing to learn. My devotion is to the history, not my particular narrative. Also feel free to suggest future topics as the more of these I write the more I learn. I hope you enjoy reading it, and in so doing help to keep the memories of these young combatants alive as their brave generation rapidly leaves this world.
“We Must Have This Ship”
The burned and bomb-cratered ship trailed a ten-mile oil slick as it limped into Pearl Harbor, Oahu on May 27, 1942. To those on shore watching the battered aircraft carrier slowly steam into port, there was no way the U.S.S. Yorktown could possibly be seaworthy again for months. The warship had endured the fury of the superb Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) air crews during the recent Battle of the Coral Sea (May 4-8, 1942). A 550-pound armor-piercing bomb landed on the flight deck and penetrated 50 feet down before exploding, causing massive damage and killing or badly wounding 66 sailors, while near misses from eight additional bombs opened seams in her hull. The damage was so severe that triumphant Japanese pilots believed they’d either sunk her outright or smashed her beyond repair. And yet, the 56-year-old Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC), Admiral Chester Nimitz, demanded that the vessel be repaired and put back out to sea ready to do battle in just seventy-two hours. The control of the Pacific, along with its vital natural resources, sea lanes, and millions of people stretched across 63.8 million square miles of ocean, vital sea lanes, atolls and land masses, hung in the balance; the war with Japan, barely half a year old, was entering a crucial phase.
The Coral Sea battle had been a tactical victory for Japan, even though both sides suffered similar losses on paper—the fleet carrier Lexington sunk and Yorktown badly damaged on the American side, and the light carrier Shōhō lost and carrier Shōkaku severely mauled on the Japanese. But the more formidable Lexington was a disproportionate trade for the light Shōhō. However, the savage naval engagement was a strategic Allied victory as the Japanese attempt to invade Port Moresby on the southern coast of New Guinea, just 300 miles from the Australian mainland, was thwarted. It also rendered two Japanese carriers unusable in any coming engagement—the Shōkaku, due to the heavy damage she sustained, and Zuikaku, which, though unscathed, saw its air crews decimated in the fighting.
The battle was also significant in another way: it was the first naval action in history in which the opposing fleets never made visual contact and no gunfire was exchanged. Instead, it was a carrier-versus-carrier affair, wherein dive bombers and torpedo planes flew over vast tracks of ocean to seek out and destroy the enemy. The heavily gunned battleships and cruisers served a supporting role by throwing up curtains of anti-aircraft fire while their fates were decided not by broadsides of shells but rather a handful of brash young naval aviators in their little propeller-driven warplanes screaming straight down from 20,000 feet to drop their bombs or skimming along the waves to line up for their torpedo runs.
A new age in naval combat had dawned…the battlewagon, former queen of the seas, was superseded in import by the aircraft carrier. And it was with this reality in mind that Nimitz demanded the impossible from the swarm of 1,400 repairmen who descended on the mangled Yorktown, dry-docked the day after she pulled into port, and went to work around-the-clock in 12-hour shifts. “We must have this ship back in three days,” he said. (After a long silence, hull repair expert, Lieutenant Commander. H. J. Pfingstag, gulped and said, “Yes, sir.”) There was another battle on the horizon, and Nimitz, down to just two undamaged fleet carriers in the entire Pacific Theater, needed Yorktown for what was shaping up to be a major naval showdown. By his calculations it should take place in the first week of June—almost six months to the day after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that thrust the United States into the Second World War. This time, however, the Americans would do the attacking, not near Hawaii, but in the deep waters off two sandbar islets 1,100 nautical miles to the west called Midway.
Miraculously, just three days after pulling into port, the patched-up Yorktown put to sea with a full compliment of aircraft and a highly motivated crew, including scores of dockworkers who would continue the repairs. With an accompanying pack of cruisers and destroyers, she would form the nucleus of Task Force 17, which set off to rendezvous with her sister carriers of Task Force 16 (Task Force 16, Enterprise andHornet, at a spot some 320 miles northeast of Midway optimistically code-named “Point Luck.”
At the same time Nimitz was in Pearl Harbor setting up his chess pieces for the coming engagement, his opposing Japanese Navy commander-in-chief, Admiral Yamamoto Isoruku, was just setting sail on the massive battleship Yamato while putting the final touches on his complex plan to lure the American carriers into battle and destroy them. This was something he failed to do on December 7, 1941, when his surprise attack on Pearl Harbor found neat rows of battleships but no flattops, which were at sea at the time. The escaped carriers had been a chronic threat ever since. His plan was to attack and invade strategic Midway Island, believing such a brazen move would surely compel the Americans to come to the outpost’s defense. To achieve his goal, Yamamoto brought together four separate task forces that would make up the most powerful naval armada yet assembled. His combined fleets consisted of an awesome array of five heavy fleet carriers, three light carriers, 11 battleships, 34 cruisers, 63 destroyers, plus transports with 6,100 invasion troops, minesweepers and a host of tankers and support ships. Once the American carriers were drawn out in the open, Yamamoto would bring his overwhelming firepower to bear and remove the U.S. Pacific Fleet from the order of battle once and for all.
Although Yamamoto’s plans rested on the element of surprise, he had no idea that the Americans, due to a monumental intelligence coup, knew he was coming and would be waiting in ambush…and that the carrier their pilots reported put out of action if not sunk outright a month before was steaming towards his fleet ready to do battle once more on the high seas. Already the Japanese plans were going awry…and the battle that would mark one of the most stunningly abrupt turning points in military history was only just beginning.
Brad Schaeffer is an historian, author, musician, and trader. His eclectic body of writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, and a variety of well-read blogs and news outlets. Of Another Time and Place is his first novel, which takes place in World War II Germany and the deadly skies over the Western Front. You can pre-order his book here: