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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: Voices from Midway

The following are excerpts from reports and oral histories from participants in the Battle of Midway:

Commander John Thach, the leader of Yorktown's fighter pilots, was escorting torpedo planes attacking the Japanese carriers:

Several Zeros came in on a head-on attack on the torpedo planes.... In the meantime, a number of Zeros were coming down in a string on our fighters. The air was just like a beehive. I was utterly convinced that we weren't any of us coming back because there were still so many Zeros.... And then I saw a glint in the sun that looked like a beautiful silver waterfall. It was the dive-bombers coming in. I could see them very well because they came from the same direction as the Zeros. I'd never seen such superb dive-bombing. After the dive-bomber attack was over, I stayed there. I could only see three carriers. And one of them was burning with bright pink flames and sometimes blue flames. I remember gauging the height of those flames by the length of the ship, the distance was about the same. It was just solid flame going skyward and there was a lot of smoke on top of that. Before I left the scene I saw three carriers burning pretty furiously.

Thach later defended Yorktown during its attack by Japanese dive-bombers:

Now I saw a torpedo plane coming. I made a good side approach on him and got him on fire. The whole left wing was burning and I could see the ribs showing through the flames. But that devil stayed in the air until he got close enough and dropped his torpedo. That one hit the Yorktown. He was a dedicated torpedo plane pilot, for even though his plane was on fire and he was falling, he went ahead and dropped his torpedo. He fell into the water immediately after, very close to the ship. These Japanese pilots were excellent in their tactics and in their determination. In fact, as far as determination was concerned, you could hardly tell any difference between the Japanese carrier-based pilots and the American carrier-based pilots. Nothing would stop them if they had anything to say about it.

Mitsuo Fuchida commanded one of the Japanese carrier squadrons at Pearl Harbor, but did not participate in the action at Midway because he was recovering from an appendectomy. He observed the battle from Akagi:

Preparations for counterstrike against the enemy had continued on board our four carriers throughout the enemy torpedo attacks. One after another, planes were hoisted from the hangar and quickly arranged on the flight deck. At 10:24 the first Zero fighter gathered speed and whizzed off the deck. At that instant a lookout screamed: "Hell-divers!" I looked up to see three black enemy planes plummeting toward our ship. Some of our machine guns managed to fire a few frantic bursts at them, but it was too late. The plump silhouettes of the American Dauntless dive-bombers quickly grew larger, and then a number of black objects suddenly floated eerily from their wings. Bombs! Down they came straight toward me! I fell instinctively to the deck and crawled behind a command post mantelet.

The terrifying scream of the dive-bombers reached me first, followed by the crashing explosion of a direct hit. There was a blinding flash and then a second explosion, much louder than the first. I was shaken by a weird blast of warm air. There was still another shock, but less severe, apparently a near miss. Then followed a startling quiet as the barking of guns suddenly ceased. I got up and looked at the sky. The enemy planes were already out of sight.

The attackers had gotten in unimpeded because our fighters, which had engaged the preceding wave of torpedo planes only a few moments earlier, had not yet had time to regain altitude. Consequently, it may be said that the American dive-bombers' success was made possible by the earlier martyrdom of their torpedo planes. We had been caught flatfooted in the most vulnerable condition possible--decks loaded with planes armed and fueled.

Looking about, I was horrified at the destruction that had been wrought in a matter of seconds. Planes stood tail up, belching livid flame and jet-black smoke. Reluctant tears streamed down my cheeks as I watched the fires spread. Explosions of fuel and munitions devastated whole sections of the ship. As the fire spread among planes lined up wing to wing on the after flight deck, their torpedoes began to explode, making it impossible to bring the fires under control. The entire hangar area was a blazing inferno, and the flames moved swiftly toward the bridge.

On June 28, 1942, Admiral Nimitz filed his official report on the battle:

In numerous and widespread engagements lasting from the 3rd to 6th of June, with carrier based planes as the spearhead of the attack, combined forces of the Navy, Marine Corps and Army in the Hawaiian Area defeated a large part of the Japanese fleet and frustrated the enemy's powerful move against Midway that was undoubtedly the keystone of larger plans. All participating personnel, without exception, displayed unhesitating devotion to duty, loyalty and courage. This superb spirit in all three services made possible the application of the destructive power that routed the enemy.

Questions for Reading 3

1. Why did Commander Thach think he would not survive?

2. What did Thach think about the Japanese pilots against whom he fought? Thach's account was recorded in 1971. Do you think his opinion might have been different in 1942? Why or why not?

3. What were Fuchida's feelings during the attack? How do you think you would have felt?

4. What role did the unsuccessful attacks of the torpedo planes play in the success of the dive-bombers?

5. How long did the attack of the American dive-bombers take? How do you think the course of the battle might have been affected if it had come after the Japanese planes had taken off?

6. Based on what you have read, do you think Nimitz's summary of the battle was accurate?

Reading 3 was compiled from John T. Mason, ed.,The Pacific War Remembered: An Oral History Collection (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1986), 103-105; and David C. Evans, ed., The Japanese Navy in World War II: In the Words of Former Japanese Naval Officers, 2nd ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1986), 140-142. Admiral Nimitz's report was taken from the Online Action Reports of the Battle pages of the Naval Historical Center's Web site.

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