The Japanese employing six aircraft carriers at one time, as they did in the attack on Oahu on 7 December 1941, proved a radical undertaking. The U.S. Navy’s carriers, by contrast, had never numbered more than two or three during infrequent maneuvers, and the war’s coming in 1941 found only three in the Pacific, Lexington (CV-2), Saratoga (CV-3), and Enterprise (CV-6).
Carriers had been a part of the U.S. Fleet since Langley (CV-1), nicknamed “The Covered Wagon” pioneered such operations in 1922, and forward-thinking naval officers employed them in the annual maneuvers, or Fleet Problems, with varying degrees of success. The war that descended with such suddenness on the Pacific Fleet on 7 December 1941, however, found that arm of the fleet relatively outnumbered by the Japanese. The six carriers whose planes had attacked Oahu outnumbered the U.S. Navy’s flattops two to one. The Japanese carriers were concentrated – the American were scattered: one on the way to Midway (Lexington); another at San Diego, preparing to return to Hawaiian waters (Saratoga); and the third returning from Wake Island (Enterprise).
The three U.S. carriers involved at Midway differed in experience and in how they operated. Yorktown (CV-5), the first Atlantic Fleet carrier to deploy to the Pacific, had been operating under wartime conditions in the Atlantic during much of 1941; her squadrons at Midway, however, came from two different air groups: her own (VB-5), and those from Saratoga. The latter warship had been put out of action by a submarine torpedo in January 1942 and had landed her squadrons on Oahu (VB-3, VT-3, and VF-3). Only VB-5 had served in Yorktown for any length of time, from the operations in the Atlantic in 1941 through the Marshalls-Gilberts Raids, Lae-Salamaua, and the Coral Sea.
Enterprise had been involved from 7 December 1941, when elements of her air group encountered Japanese planes over Oahu; she had then participated in the Marshalls-Gilberts Raids, and had attacked Wake and Marcus, and had rode shotgun for Hornet (CV-8), the second Atlantic Fleet CV transferred to the Pacific, when that carrier took Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle’s B-25s to bomb targets in Japan. Of her squadrons, VB-6, VF-6, and VT-6 had served since the beginning; VS-6 had taken heavy losses early in the war, and had been spelled during the Halsey-Doolittle mission by VB-3.
Hornet, only commissioned in October 1941, had come to the Pacific and immediately taken part in the Halsey-Doolittle Raid; she was easily the least experienced carrier of the three.
It must be remembered that carrier operations in the U.S. Navy were in a state of flux – the air groups learning as they went along, and in the crucible of combat. On 4 June 1942, Enterprise and Hornet, in Task Force 16 (Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance), launched their respective attack groups employing a “deferred departure” plan, which sent off the fighters first, then the scout-bombers, then the torpedo planes. All loitered about the ship until the entire group was airborne before setting out for the enemy en masse. As the Japanese steamed at the extreme range of their fighter and torpedo planes’ fuel capacities this left no margin for error. Hornet’s fighters launched first and wasted much of their fuel over the ship while the rest of the strike slowly got airborne, one aircraft at a time. None of the fighters ever returned to the ship, or sighted the enemy. Enterprise’s fighters attached themselves to the Hornet’s torpedo planes (the ill-fated VT-8), while Enterprise’s torpedo planes went unescorted. Hornet’s dive bombers did not find the enemy, VS-8 returning to the ship directly and VB-8 returning to the ship via Midway.
Yorktown, however, operated differently. Her attack group, less VB-5 which Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, Commander, Task Force 17, retained on board as a reserve strike and search group, launched according to a “running rendezvous,” the dive bombers taking off first, followed by the torpedo planes, with the higher speed fighter escort launching last. VT-3, VB-3, and VF-3 proceeded directly toward the target immediately after launch, with the torpedo squadron at low altitude, the dive bombers high, and the fighters closing in from behind. The group then merged together well along its base course, with all elements arriving over the enemy fleet simultaneously – Yorktown’s air group was the only one of the three to attack as a group. Their providential arrival simultaneously with that of Enterprise’s VB-6 and VS-6 spelled the doom of Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu.
The separation of Task Forces 16 and 17, meanwhile, proved detrimental when the only Japanese carrier that survived the initial destructive attacks, Hiryu, managed to cobble together the strike that stopped Yorktown and forced Rear Admiral Fletcher to transfer his flag and turn over tactical command to Rear Admiral Spruance. The Japanese carriers tended to separate during battle, each with their own screen, spreading out and lessening the impact of antiaircraft fire and dispersing the combat air patrol (CAP). The American carriers at Midway did likewise to a degree, so that TF-17 had fewer fighters and fewer antiaircraft guns afloat to defend Yorktown than would have been the case if Enterprise and Hornet were operating in company. Yet the need to concentrate the carriers, to put up a formidable combat air patrol and take advantage of the gunfire of the screening cruisers and destroyers with their 5-inch batteries (as well as the 1.1-inch, later 40-millimeter, and 20 millimeter guns in profusion) could not be fully realized until carriers were built in sufficient numbers to group several in one formation. Until the war construction programs of Essex (CV-9) class carriers and Independence (CVL-22) class small carriers would make themselves felt, one or two carriers and their respective screens would have to suffice.
Nevertheless, the employment of aircraft carriers at Midway proved crucial, for without them, ships of either side could find themselves at the mercy of an opponent’s planes. The destruction of the Japanese carriers on 4 June left one group of Japanese warships, detached to bombard Midway, totally unprotected, and when a collision damaged two heavy cruisers and impaired their speed, they could only proceed slowly, with two destroyers for a screen. Consequently, dive bombers from Hornet and Enterprise pounded Mogami and Mikuma, sinking the latter and inflicting further damage on the former.
America’s overwhelming capacity for production, something Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku feared at the outset of hostilities, eventually produced carriers in such numbers that task groups of four carriers (three CV-9 class and a CVL-22 class) would be the norm rather than the exception. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet, had promised to “do the best we can with what we have.” Nimitz and his subordinates achieved victory with the weapon that had been forged since the 1920’s, the aircraft carrier and her embarked air group, that possessed the ability to project power over long distances, the power that aircraft carriers possess today of unprecedented utility.
For further information and links to related resources, see: Battle of Midway Showcase.