“Through the skill and devotion to duty of their armed forces of all branches in the Midway area our citizens can now rejoice that a momentous victory is in the making.
It was on a Sunday just six months ago that the Japanese made their peace‑time attack on our fleet and army activities on Oahu. At that time they created heavy damage, it is true, but their act aroused the grim determination of our citizenry to avenge such treachery, and it raised, not lowered, the morale of our fighting men.
Pearl Harbor has now been partially avenged. Vengeance will not be complete until Japanese sea power has been reduced to impotence. We have made substantial progress in that direction. Perhaps we will be forgiven if we claim we are about midway to our objective!” -ADM Chester W. Nimitz (6 June, 1942)
The Enterprise, the Hornet and the Yorktown, all on station at Point Luck near Midway Atoll, didn’t have to wait very long before the Japanese strike group showed up. The odds in terms of strength of forces were numerically against the United States. They just couldn’t rival the number of ships the Imperial Japanese Navy were sailing against them. Four Japanese fleet and two light carriers, thirty three heavily-armored battleships and cruisers, sixty five destroyers and twenty submarines versus three American fleet and one light carrier, seven heavy cruisers, seventeen destroyers and twelve submarines. Air power would prove to be an invaluable asset to the US Navy and Marine Corps in their ambush of the IJN fleet.
IJN Admiral Nagumo, charged with the command of the carriers steaming towards the Atoll, sent off his first aerial strike flight in the early hours of the 4th of June along with another group of scouts that were tasked with pinpointing the location of any American carriers that might find themselves in the relative area of operations. The IJN attack flight lead radioed in his recommendation for a secondary strike on Midway and Nagumo complied with prepping the majority of his air wings for such a mission, though almost all of those aircraft he originally held back were supposed to be used offensively against the US carriers near the islands. Then, he received the shock of a lifetime: a scout had spotted a flattop. Now faced with an enemy naval component closing in on their location, Nagumo ordered the air wings to halt their rearming for a land-attack and instead revert to their original loadouts (torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs) to deal with the US Navy’s surface fleet. Things were a mess aboard the IJN’s six carriers.
Meanwhile, ADM Spruance ordered his strike aircraft off the deck at extreme range (the maximum effective combat range of the aircraft) with the intention of catching the relatively-unaware Japanese in complete disarray. The Hornet’s Torpedo Eight (VT-8) squadron’s TBD Devastators were the first of Spruance’s aircraft to get into the fight. Torpedo Eight’s pilots and their gunners took to the air and vectored in on their targets, dropping down to the wavetops as they readied their attack. LCDR John C. Waldron briefed his men beforehand, knowing that there would be a very low chance of survivability without a fighter escort. Making sure they all knew their mission was to get a hit, damn the consequences, they flew to the last man and the last bullet. All anti-aircraft guns aboard the Japanese ships opened up with Mitsubishi Zeros swooping in, their cannons tearing into the Devastators flying low and slow on their final torpedo runs. Only one man of VT-8, pilot Ensign George Gay, survived that ill-fated attack.
LCDR Eugene Lindsey’s Torpedo Six (VT-6) squadron, launched from the Enterprise, were the next USN aerial element to join the fight. Out of fourteen Torpedo Six aircraft launched, only four were recovered aboard their mother ship. CDR John S. Thach (credited with the development of the Thach Weave) flew combat air patrol with his Wildcat squadron, protecting the Yorktown’s Torpedo Three (VT-3) as they made their runs. This attack also failed as the Zeros flying a defensive perimeter around their carriers were quick to deal with the incoming American torpedo bombers. The Japanese commanders thought victory was almost certainly theirs, their carriers and ships mostly unscathed after six American waves of attacks.
Then the game changed.
LCDR Wade McClusky, commander of the Enterprise’s air group, ordered his SBD Dauntlesses to fan out and commence their attack on the Japanese fleet. Flying right behind and about to begin their own attack run was LCDR Maxwell Leslie and VB-3, his own Dauntless squadron. Kaga took four hits, Akagi two and Soryu took three. Aircraft on the deck and in the hangars, armed with bombs and torpedoes and full tanks of gas blew up, munitions cooked off and all three carriers were soon raging infernos. Hiryu, the only remaining effective IJN carrier launched an attack that, in tandem with a Japanese submarine, was able to finally sink the Yorktown. Enterprise and Hornet soon got their revenge with a combined aerial effort, sinking the Hiryu.
Thus ended Japanese naval air dominance. The United States Navy, outnumbered, outgunned and sailing battle-damaged carriers with rag-tag reorganized air wings were able to decimate the Japanese strike force and achieve arguably one of the most important victories of the war in the Pacific, especially with the ever-invaluable asset of air power.