In many way’s the SBD Dauntless Dive Bombers were the forlorn hope of the Navy’s defense of Midway. While the island itself had been hit and also launching attacks all morning, EVERY single strike had failed thus far.
As Jimmy Thach fought for his life against the Combat Air Patrol of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Kido Butai; another drama was taking place high above. For the proceeding hours had seen a large formation of US Navy Dive bombers overhead, launching from 0700 to 0800 from the Enterprise and Hornet, and 0840 from Yorktown.
In many way’s the Dive Bombers were the forlorn hope of the Navy’s defense of Midway. While the island itself had been hit and also launching attacks all morning, EVERY single strike had failed thus far. Whether low level torpedo aircraft, Marine Dive bombers, or High-Level B-17s, the result was the same, the Kido Butai sailed serenely on, amidst the many splashes of near misses and fallen American aircraft.
A B-26 Torpedo Bomber did inflict severe psychological harm to Kido Butai Commander VADM Nagumo, managing to strafe the clear flight deck of Akagi, and giving a bit of a fright to the Admiral and his staff. Nagumo, as many sources note, was in conflicted situation. He had received word that a second strike was needed at Midway, but also that American Surface forces were nearby. He still needed to recover his Midway strike force, AND give his busy Combat Air Patrol a rest. The Americans were attacking all morning, but although their attacks hadn’t inflicted much damage so far, they were taking precious time his ships had to dodge these relentless attacks.
With his Combat Air Patrol Busy down, low, THREE distinct groups of American SBD Dive Bombers were winging their way to THREE distinct fates. The Hornet Air Group had fanned out in a Vast Prewar Style Line Abreast formation, as its Wildcat escort began nervously eyeing their fuel guages. Torpedo 8 Commander John Waldron had made his own decision, and headed for a rendezvous with destiny only Ensign “Tex” Gay survived. The fighters of Fighting Ace ended up having to ditch due to fuel starvation, they had been launched first in a first-class SNAFU by Hornet’s Air Department. Meanwhile, CHAG, Commander Stanhope Ring led the SBDs of Hornet Air Group toward what historians later called his Flight to Nowhere. Thus was a full THIRD of US Carrier Strike power wasted in this crucial first strike against the Kido Butai.
Meanwhile Enterprise Air Group Commander Wade McClusky flew on with his own fuel gauges reading ominously low. Only the fortuitous spotting of the IJN destroyer Arashio give clue to the location of its parent Task Force in the wide ocean below. Thus, equipped with a marker, the Enterprise Air Group found the Imperial Japanese Carriers, steaming with what pilots noted as bright yellow decks with rising sun’s contrasting against the blue seas below.
Lining up for the attack, a further coordination failure caused the majority of Enterprise’s SBDs to focus their attack on the carrier Kaga, which they managed to plaster with a series of bomb hits. Only the quick thinking of VB-6 CO Lieutenant Dick Best caused him to shift his own section against Akagi, resulting in a pair of crucial hits against the flagship of the Kido Butai.
Destruction of Akagi, from the Japanese War Film, the Eternal Zero.
For another cinematic view of the attack from the Japanese War Film Admiral Yamamoto comes this;
Meanwhile, Max Leslie’s Bombing 3 had suffered a fiasco of its own, as noted by Thach, several of its own bombs had jettisoned into the ocean when armed by their electric arming switches, including that of Leslie’s himself. Despite not having a bombload, Leslie joined his men in the Pushover, reasoning that his 50-calibre armament could be put to good use for Flak Suppression to help cover the runs of his men who still had their bombs.
As noted by Thach’s account, the result was three flaming Imperial Japanese Navy Aircraft carriers, as Enterprise and Hornet SBDs scored some of the most important hits of the Pacific War. As the bombers pulled out of their dives, and Enterprise’s in particular took losses against the remaining Zeros of the Kido Butai’s Combat Air Patrol, they missed amidst the confusion the fourth Imperial Navy Carrier, the Hiryu, which would remain a threat to the American Carriers at Midway to the very end.
And thus did the momentum of Midway shift from the most powerful Carrier Task Force on Earth, to a single remaining Imperial Japanese Navy Carrier.
Below you can see Pensacola Aerospace Museum’s Hangar B Virtual Gallery Turntable of Max Leslie’s SBD-3, as it appeared before its electric arming switch caused to drop its bomb load into the Ocean. Leslie attacked the Imperial Japanese Navy Carrier Soryu with this aircraft on Jun. 4, 1942, and brought it back to the Yorktown Task Force just in time to have to remain in orbit while waiting for attacks from Hiryu to cease, something which resulted in Leslie having to ditch the aircraft because of fuel starvation.
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Photo credit: U.S. Navy
Turntable: Hangar B