20. An American Lieutenant Commander’s Spur of the Moment Decision Doomed Japan
The first American planes to reach the Japanese fleet were Devastator torpedo bombers – slow planes that had to fly low, steady, and straight, to launch their torpedoes. 41 Devastators attacked the Japanese carriers without fighter escort. 35 were shot down, without scoring a hit. The Japanese carriers resumed refueling and rearming. While the American torpedo bombers were getting slaughtered, a flight of American Dauntless dive bombers was lost, trying to locate the Japanese. They neared the point beyond which they wouldn’t have enough fuel to return to their carriers, but their leader, Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky, decided to keep going. He was rewarded by spotting a lone Japanese destroyer below. Guessing that it was heading to rejoin its fleet, McClusky used the destroyer’s wake as an arrow.
It led him to the Japanese fleet, which was caught at the worst possible time for an attack from dive bombers. The carriers were rearming and refueling, so bombs, torpedoes, and fuel hoses were all over the place. There was also no fighter cover: Japanese fighters had gone down to intercept and destroy the torpedo bombers that had attacked at low level. They hadn’t regained altitude when the American dive bombers showed up high above and dove down. Within five minutes, three of the four Japanese aircraft carriers were burning. The fourth was sunk later that day. Japan’s plan for a decisive victory had backfired. It turned the tide in the Pacific, and dealt the Japanese a defeat from which they never fully recovered.