Tag Archives: Battle of Midway

The Unsung Joint Operational Success at Midway

By Dale A. Jenkins, with contributions from Dr. Steve Wills

The Battle of Midway in June 1942 is best known for the brave actions of U.S. Navy carrier pilots who, despite heavy losses and uncoordinated action, were able to find and destroy four Japanese carriers, hundreds of Japanese naval aircraft, and hundreds of irreplaceable Japanese aviators and deck crews. What is not often remembered is that the defense of Midway was a joint effort with Marine Corps and Army aircraft also playing a brave role in the defense of the island against Japanese attack. Today, the U.S. military almost always fights in a joint context, and the Battle of Midway, especially in the key decision of the Japanese strike commander to rearm his reserve force for a second attack a Midway, highlight that even a small joint contribution can force an opponent to make fateful decisions. In this case, joint action contributed to a decision that cost the Imperial Japanese Navy victory and likely sealed the fate of its four-carrier task force and the lives of thousands of Japanese sailors.

A Joint but Disorganized American Team

By May 27, 1942, a week prior to the Battle of Midway, the code breakers at Pearl Harbor  were able to advise Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Chester Nimitz that the Japanese Striking Force, which included at least four aircraft carriers, would launch an air attack at first light on June 4th against the defenses on Midway Island to prepare for an amphibious landing on the island. Nimitz reinforced Midway with every plane he could mobilize to defend the island: old Buffalo fighters and a few new Wildcats, Avenger torpedo planes, B-26 and B-17 bombers, Marine Dauntless dive bombers, Vindicators, and amphibious PBY Catalina patrol aircraft. Among these aircraft were a number of Marine Corps and Army aircraft. Nimitz planned to have three Pacific Fleet aircraft carriers, Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown in a flanking position northeast of the projected southeast Japanese track aimed directly at Midway, and then to coordinate with the land-based aircraft to concentrate his aircraft over the Striking Force for a simultaneous attack on the Japanese forces.

Poorly Coordinated Air Battle

While Army and Marine Corps aircraft did not make up the majority of the combat aircraft, they had the vital role of supporting Navy patrol aircraft by expanding the search around Midway Island and providing more early warning. Without the Army B-17 bombers performing maritime search, fewer Navy aircraft would have been less to patrol around the carrier task force. Although Navy patrol aircraft ultimately detected the Japanese occupation and striking forces, the additional patrol space provided by Army aircraft helped ensure the detection and warning to Midway before the attack.

At 0430 on June 4, the Japanese carriers launched 108 planes, half of their total force, to attack the Pacific Fleet shore defenses on Midway Island. The remaining planes constituted a reserve force: attack planes armed with anti-ship torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs, and a large complement of Zero fighters. At 0603, a U.S. PBY patrol aircraft from Midway located the Japanese carrier fleet. Strike aircraft from Midway flew to intercept the Japanese carriers and land-based Buffalo and Wildcat fighters rose to defend the island. Marine Corps gunners on Midway fired antiaircraft guns at the attacking Japanese aircraft. The military facilities on Midway were heavily damaged in the attack with hangers and barracks destroyed. Casualties among the Midway aircraft defending Midway were equally heavy. Of the 26 Marine Corps F2F Buffalo and F3F Wildcat aircraft that opposed the Japanese strike on Midway, fifteen were lost in combat. At the end of the battle only two air defense fighters were still operational to defend the island.

The joint attackers flying against the Japanese carriers fared little better than the joint air defense fighters. Six Avenger torpedo planes and four B-26s were the first to reach the Japanese carriers just after 0700 and were opposed by thirty Japanese Zeros. Five of the six Avenger torpedo planes were shot down trying to attack a Japanese carrier. Two B-26 aircraft targeted another carrier, and one was shot down, and two escaped after their ineffective torpedo drops. The fourth B-26 was on fire, and the pilot may have attempted a suicide crash into the bridge of Japanese flagship Akagi, but he narrowly missed and ended up in the ocean. During this encounter, the carriers were forced to maneuver, and although the attacks from the Midway planes failed to score any hits, they caused alarm and confusion in the Japanese command. Aircraft from the Pacific Fleet carriers, however, failed to appear because the carriers at 0600 were over sixty miles away from their expected position, were beyond their operating range and did not launch. As a result, Admiral Nimitz’s plan for a concentrated attack failed. Joint coordination of fires is an absolute necessity in operations and the resulting failure of the Midway-based joint air attack to inflict damage is a good example of what happens when coordination is not present.

Operational and Tactical Effects of Indecision

The operational effect on the Battle of Midway from their disjointed Marine Corps and Army aircraft, and later those of U.S. carrier torpedo squadrons, however, was significant. Japanese Striking Force commander Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo received a message earlier from the commander of the Midway attack force recommending another attack on Midway but was slow in deciding how to respond. Because of the desperate attacks from Midway, and his personal narrow escape on the Akagi bridge, Nagumo decided the reserve force needed to launch a second attack on Midway. At 0715 he ordered a change in the ordnance of the reserve planes from torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs to the high explosive impact bombs used on land targets. At 0728, a Japanese scout plane sent a message – ten enemy ships sighted; ship types not disclosed.

Now Nagumo was presented with a dilemma, he had two different targets – the facilities on Midway Island and the now-spotted ships. He decided to let his returning Midway strike force land first and then launch his reserve force armed with torpedoes to attack American ships. This required changing the ordnance loaded on his reserve aircraft back to torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs from the weapons loaded to attack Midway a second time. This difficult and time-consuming operation would cause a substantial delay in getting the aircraft airborne.

The disruption of the Japanese air planning cycle by Marine Corps and Army aircraft yielded key tactical results as well. The Japanese planes that had attacked Midway returned as planned, beginning at 0830. They all landed by 0917, but an attack of all four refueled and rearmed air groups against the Pacific Fleet carriers would not be ready to launch until about 1045, at the earliest. Authors Jonathan Tully and Anthony Parshall noted, “the ceaseless American air attacks had destroyed any reasonable possibility of “spotting the decks” (preparing for strike aircraft recovery before Tomonaga’s (the commander of the Japanese Midway bombing attack force) return because of the constant launch and recovery of combat air patrol (CAP) fighters,” needed to intercept the attacking Army and Marine aircraft from Midway. This Japanese loss of tempo in Japanese carrier operations due to these attacks would prove fatal of the Japanese force.

Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, in command of carriers Enterprise and Hornet, had closed the range and dispatched full air groups from both carriers at about 0710. At 1025, Dauntless dive bombers from Enterprise, running extremely low on fuel, found and destroyed two Japanese carriers. At the same time Yorktown dive bombers destroyed a third carrier. Several hours later Enterprise dive bombers destroyed the fourth carrier, but not before its attack on Yorktown led to the loss of that ship. At the end of the day, Pacific Fleet carrier pilots had scored a major victory that marked a turning point in the Pacific War.

The attacks of the Midway-based aircraft had not scored any damage on the Japanese carriers or their escorts, but they contributed to the overall victory by keeping both the Japanese aircraft and ships engaged and unable to re-arm effectively for another Midway attack, or a strike on the American carriers. The delays in preparing this strike, and some luck left Japanese aircraft re-arming and refueling below decks when U.S. carrier-based dive bombers attacked, and they hits they scored on those planes caused conflagrations on the Japanese flattops that could not be extinguished.

Joint Lessons

The attacks by the Midway-based joint strike failed in their tactical mission but yielded later successful tactical and operational results. The Navy recognized the value of the B-17 in a scouting role to the point that Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King ordered a number of Army aircraft for naval service. The Army believed that the B-17’s from Midway had inflicted damage on the Japanese fleet, but the failed horizontal bombing attacks by the big Army bombers convinced the Japanese to ignore the Army planes in the future. Failures in hitting Japanese ships later in the Solomons campaign caused the Army to re-assess the B-17’s ability to attack ships. The Army later discovered that “skip bombing,” a process developed with the Australians was a more effective means through which Army aircraft could attack ships.

The joint aspect of Midway’s defense continued as Army Air Force aircraft provided defense of the island well into 1943 due to shortages of Navy and Marine Corps aircraft committed elsewhere in the Pacific War. The Marine Corps 6th Defense battalion remained in garrison on Midway until the end of the war, and the idea of Marine Air/Ground forces engaged in sea control warfare is returning to the Marine Corps in the form of Marine Littoral Regiments in Force Design 2030. The value in understanding the Battle of Midway from a joint perspective is that even the smallest amount of joint action at a crucial phase can fundamentally improve the odds of joint force success.

Dale A. Jenkins is the author of Diplomats & Admirals, 402 pages, Aubrey Publishing Co., New York, Dec. 2022.

Dr. Steve Wills is a navalist for the Center for Maritime Strategy

Featured Image: Torpedo Squadron Six (VT-6) TBD-1 aircraft are prepared for launching on USS Enterprise (CV-6) at about 0730-0740 hrs, June 4, 1942. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives)

From Midway to Monterey: Leveraging Initiative and Technology

By Captain Jeffrey Kline, USN (Ret.)

Seventy five years ago, Ensign “Dagwood” Propst sat in the pilot seat of his large PBY search plane waiting to takeoff from Midway. He and his crew were about to embark on a night mission they had never conducted, to employ a weapon they had never used, against an enemy they had never met.  

On June 3, 1942 the four Japanese carrier groups had not yet been located and the famous engagements to occur the following day were still in the future for both American and Japanese forces. But reconnaissance aircraft stationed at Midway had located Admiral Tanaka’s transport forces approaching from the east and the island’s defenders were keen on attacking where they could.  

Ensign Propst’s Catalina was number three in a flight of four radar-equipped PBYs taking off from Midway to conduct a night torpedo attack against the Japanese transport group – unsuccessfully attacked earlier that day by Midway’s B-17s. The idea to strap torpedoes to the wings of these large slow search aircraft and conduct a night attack had been thought up that afternoon, and the least tired crews of the VP-44 air reconnaissance squadron had been selected to fly them. They had been briefed, discussed tactics, and were ready to take the action to an enemy that had attacked Pearl Harbor only six months earlier.

Lead by Lieutenant Red Richards, the flight of these large, slow PBYs-turned torpedo attack planes were airborne at 2115 and winging toward their target. After navigating through bad weather one PBY lost contact with the others and after an unsuccessful search for the enemy returned to Midway. As told by Gordan Prange in his book Miracle at Midway, the three remaining PBYs broke into clear weather just as they neared Tanaka’s ships. Although not coordinated, all three made attack runs. Ensign Propst targeted the largest silhouette, swung in a wide spiral to mask his approach by flying into the moon’s path, lowered his aircraft to 50 feet altitude, and dropped his weapon. His attack resulted in the first and only American air dropped torpedo hit in the entire Battle of Midway. Ensign Propst’s hit on the oiler Akebone Maru killed or wounded 23 men and was the first blood drawn in the entire battle.

Was this night attack a foolhardy and reckless plan blessed by luck, or a high-risk venture informed by a sound plan, good knowledge of aircraft and weapon capabilities, and a motivated air crew? 

In his “Lessons from the Battle of Midway,” Victor Davis Hanson observes  “…American commanders were far more open to improvising and risk-taking than their Japanese counterparts.” But more than just the commanders, the mid-grade and junior officers combined technical competency, innovative thought, and bold initiative to do such things as strap a torpedo on the wings of a PBY, develop the “Thach weave” to overcome fighter short comings, and gleam information from  Japanese communications.    

The Thach weave was a two-aircraft tactic to counter the Zero’s superior maneuvering capabilities. Conceived months early by John Thach using match sticks as a simulation and then tested in mock combat with Ensign Edward Butch O’Hare, the namesake of O’Hare Airport, the Thach weave was first employed by John Thach himself while in combat on 4 June. Used again in Guadalcanal, it became a standard U.S. fighter tactic.

And, as every intelligence officer knows, Commander Joseph Rochefort, Chief of the Combat Intelligence Office on Hawaii, lead innovative efforts to derive Japanese Midway attack intentions that led to Nimitz positioning Task Force 16 and Task Force 17 northeast of Midway. What is not universally appreciated is that his assessments were frequently challenged by his intelligence chain of command, particularly in Washington D.C.  

In each of these examples, relatively junior officers were put in unfamiliar crisis situations which demanded action on their part. Using their technical knowledge, innovative approaches, and courage they found sound, bold courses of action. This is the tie to the Naval Postgraduate School today. As an institution we keep that spirit alive by providing technical know-how, in context of operational and tactical situations, and challenge our students to produce innovative solutions to real world problems. From exploring concepts of swarming unmanned aerial vehicles to smart warheads on torpedoes, we advance graduate and professional education synergistically. That is our niche, that is our uniqueness, and that is our contribution to the nation’s future security.

The importance of continuing to educate officers in preparation for a future conflict was not lost on Chester Nimitz, even before World War II started. As told in one of our Dudley Knox Special Collection papers authored by John Sanders, Admiral Nimitz wrote a letter in 1965 stating “When I became Chief of Bureau of Navigation in June 1939—my first act was to send for the BuNav War Plans. To my horror—I learned that on “D” day—it was planned to close down the Naval War College and the Naval Postgraduate School in order to provide officers for an expanding Fleet—as was done on ‘D’ day for World War I…..I immediately cancelled those plans and prepared for expanded classes at both the War College and Postgraduate School.” In fact, after 1941 the postgraduate school’s student population increased threefold. By war’s end, Chief of Naval Operations Ernest King was already ordering surveys for a west coast NPS site to accommodate the school’s future growth. And, in 1951 the school moved to its new location in the Hotel Del Monte in Monterey which had served well as an aviation training location during the war.  

In addition to Nimitz and King, Admiral Arleigh Burke recognized the importance and uniqueness of the Naval Postgraduate School when, in a NPS commencement address, he said recognized the foresight  of NPS founders by saying “They recognized that ships and naval weapons were becoming more complex, that their proper employment at sea would require officers who were familiar not only with the age old profession of the sea, but who could understand and could use effectively the complex weapons of the years to come.”

And today, are we meeting the expectations of Nimitz, King, and Burke? In their time the stuff of lasers, robotics, and 3-D printers was science fiction. Today, our graduates who studied how to apply these technologies at NPS are in the fleet. Graduates like CDR Chad Kaiser, when as a student and Lieutenant, modeled and simulated the real threat of an unmanned aerial swarming attack against our destroyers, coming up with  the best way to use our combat systems to defend against it. His work was sent to the fleet as a tactical bulletin. Or now Lieutenant Commander Jeffrey Kee, who, using insight in potential adversaries locating and targeting methods, suggested ways for our ships to maneuver to increase the enemy’s uncertainty in targetingor recently retired, Admiral McRaven, whose NPS thesis became doctrine for counterinsurgency operations. There are many examples, such as work in bi-static acoustic operations, adaptive optics, distributed and integrated logistics, cyber operations, attacker-defender optimization, unmanned systems, force design, and energy research.

To summarize with a quote from William Lind in the Maneuver Warfare Handbook :

“The process that is tactics includes the art of selecting from among your techniques those which create that unique approach for the enemy, time, and place.  Education is the basis for doing that – education not in what to do, but in how to think.”

At NPS we teach officers how to think about employing technology in situations they have not thought about before. We rarely know the answers, as it is a journey of discovery for both officers and faculty. But I do know this, our graduates are prepared to face unanticipated conflict situations, and then apply their technical and tactical talents to generate and apply innovative ways to meet our country’s future challenges.  That is what makes the Naval Postgraduate School a most unique educational institution in our country.

A retired naval officer with 26 years of service, Jeff is currently a Professor of Practice in the Operations Research department and holds the Chair of Systems Engineering Analysis. He teaches Joint Campaign Analysis, executive risk assessment and coordinates maritime security education programs offered at NPS. Jeff supports applied analytical research in maritime operations and security, theater ballistic missile defense, and future force composition studies. He has served on several Naval Study Board Committees. His NPS faculty awards include the Superior Civilian Service Medal, 2011 Institute for Operations Research and Management Science (INFORMS) Award for Teaching of OR Practice, 2009 American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Homeland Security Award, 2007 Hamming Award for interdisciplinary research, 2007 Wayne E. Meyers Award for Excellence in Systems Engineering Research, and the 2005 Northrop Grumman Award for Excellence in Systems Engineering. He is a member of the Military Operations Research Society and the Institute for Operations Research and Management Science.  

Featured Image: U.S. Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive bombers of VS-8 from USS Hornet about to attack the burning Japanese cruiser Mikuma for the third time on 6 June 1942 (Wikimedia)