25. The Last Minute Change of Plans That Changed WWII in the Pacific
Early on June 4th, 1942, Japanese aircraft carriers launched a strike against Midway Island. They inflicted significant damage, but a second strike was necessary. While preparing that strike, the Japanese discovered there were American carriers nearby. Reasoning that Midway was going nowhere, Japanese Admiral Chuichi Nagumo ordered that bombs be switched from ones intended for ground targets, to anti-ship bombs and torpedoes. That took time, and while that was going on, the American carriers launched their own planes against the Japanese. First to arrive were Devastator torpedo bombers, which had to fly low, slow, and steady, 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 to strike the American carriers.
While the American torpedo bombers were getting slaughtered, a flight of American Dauntless dive bombers was desperately searching for the Japanese fleet, while running low on fuel. Then they spotted a lone Japanese destroyer below. Guessing that it was heading to rejoin its fleet, the flight’s commander, Wade McClusky, used its wake as an arrow. It led him straight to the Japanese fleet, which was caught with its pants down. The carriers were srefueling and still switching munitions, so their decks were full of bombs and torpedoes and gas. They also lacked fighter protection: the Japanese fighters had not yet regained altitude after slaughtering the American torpedo bombers that had attacked at low level, when the American dive bombers suddenly appeared above and dove down. Within five minutes, three of four Japanese aircraft carriers were burning, and the fourth was sunk later that day.