The Hiryu Pays—June 4th
Both attacks on the Yorktown were made by the Hiryu planes. Just as the Jap carrier’s torpedo planes are coming within range of the Yorktown, one of her scouts finds the Hiryu, with two battleships, three heavy cruisers and four destroyers, in 31º—15' N, 179º—05' minutes W, course north, speed 20. This word flashes to the Task Force, which immediately prepares to attack by air. The Hornet launches dive bombers, and so does the Enterprise. Of the latter, fourteen are Yorktown planes. They speed away, rolling and undulating in formation, bound on destruction. Almost two hours pass, and then far below they see the Jap formation in the rich afternoon light. One by one they peel off and drop like shooting stars. All the way down they encounter only about eight fighters, very good evidence that the Japanese losses have been very heavy in this day’s fighting. In they streak through the hurricane of wind rushing up past them, cascading bombs on the big flat target. The Hiryu is hit and hit hard many times in rapid succession. In a few minutes a seething mass of twisting flames glaringly obliterates her entire length, black smoke blots her out.
Swinging, weaving, diving, pulling up in quick rises, the American planes go after the two big battleships, a swarm of angry hornets. In spite of the intense A.A. fire, the bright bombs hurl home. Two 1000 pound babies, followed by a shrieking 500 pounder, tear into one battle wagon. The smoke belches up through the jagged, confused mass of heavy steel, a twisted turret knocked to a crazy angle, the big guns pointing up like spar buoys in a tideway. A few minutes ago her decks were an orderly array of functioning fighting installations. Now they are a bloody shambles. The second battleship is hit squarely twice, as near misses start her plates. A heavy cruiser, twice hit, is hidden amidships by fire and smoke. Her protruding bow and stern are alive with men, like white wood lice on a burning log. The planes unload all their deadly freight and wheel away, as internal explosions rock the tortured listing hulls. The Hiryu is destroyed and we have won complete mastery of the air.
The mellow light of late afternoon touches the waves obliquely, varnishing the far scattered ships and causing them to glisten. Clockwise the hands have moved and point to 6:30, ding ding—ding ding—ding, sounds the clear bell, just as it used to make its musical clang beneath the white sea wings of sailing ships.
Twelve B-17’s are crashing noisily through the eventide, leaving invisible wakes of sound, as they sail in for the last blow of this fourth day of June. Out of distant Oahu six have come, heavy with their deadly burden. They are making runs at thirty-six hundred feet, omitting their climb to high altitudes for conservation of their gas. The other group of six come down from on high at the same time, and both are attacked by Zero fighters, probably from the Hiryu. In go the twelve over the burning Hiryu, a flaming battleship and a cruiser smoking heavily. Three more 500 pound bombs hit the carrier, one the battleship and another the cruiser. One plane gets a hit on a destroyer, the small ship sinking in a few minutes. A patrol plane in this vicinity sees from a distance a ship sink when hit by a salvo of bombs. The sky in the west becomes a great conflagration, the burning ships small bonfires against this overwhelming grandeur. The day smolders and dies, as the Pacific Ocean drowns the sun. The flaming ships burn bright again, reflecting firelight in the deep.
At twilight the weary Ensign patches the bullet holes and inflates his rubber boat from the carbon monoxide bottle, hauls his sopping body over the round side and falls sprawling in the tiny rubber tub. Sick with salt water, faint from his wounds and lack of food, he shuts his eyes, the better to secure all the violent sights that he must remember, in order to report them. He sees again a cruiser that passed him, her rails lined with Japs in white, stoically watching their burning carrier. But most fantastic of all the scenes of his long day, was a big cruiser trying to come alongside the burning Kaga. After some maneuvering, she found it impossible to come aboard the windward side of the ship, due to the fire. To his amazement, she lay off and brought her big guns to bear, raking the disabled carrier with heavy fire, while the crew still huddled on the deck, gray silhouettes against the flames. Time was short and she must be sunk before American eyes could know her fate, so to hell with the personnel. Later a destroyer returned, found her still afloat, got alongside and removed the survivors of the attack by their own ship as well as by ours. Planes were returning like birds at the fall of night, circling down, skimming round and round, as swallows wheel about a smoking chimney that was once their home.
At dawn a PBY Patrol, high in the morning light, spots the big oil slicks and dives down low observing, sees the Ensign and waves to him. The plane goes on to continue her search, leaving him parched and alone in the increasing sunlight. At noon the vertical rays are blistering, as time moves slowly with the oily swells. He dangles his burnt leg in the water to soothe its heat. At 2:30 the PBY returns. The distant hum, the loud buzz, the deep drone, and he shades his eyes with his hand as down come the pontoons and she glides lower, skids over the surface, bowing and rising in a cloud of spray. The rugged Ensign had waited to be picked up with something of the complacency with which a commuter waits for his bus.
Looking down from aloft, the way a pilot should, he sees the ocean littered with burnt wreckage, black Jap life jackets, great circles of oil, the undulating sea moving them in iridescent patterns of dull vile greens and reds. No army need dig graves on this watery battlefield.
As Ishmael said when rescued from the deep, after the infuriated Moby Dick wreaked vengeance on his whaleship—so the Ensign might also quote: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”
After attacking the Hiryu, the Task Force stood to the eastward and back to the westward during the night. At midnight, June the fifth logs in. Twenty-four hours have brought a staggering reversal to the smugly confident Japanese fleet. The Soryu has sunk, and then the Hiryu went down in the night. The Kaga, totally destroyed, sank after being fired on for scuttling by the Japanese cruiser. The Akagi is burning and is soon to sink. Their planes, running out of gas with no place to land, are falling one by one into the sea. Many other ships are sunk or limping away. We have not lost a ship, and at dawn the Salvage crew are confident that the badly wounded Yorktown can be towed to Pearl Harbor.
The Jap fighter attack on the B-17’s before sunset last night would indicate that possibly a fifth carrier might be lurking to the northwest of Midway. There was also every indication that the enemy was continuing to close on the Islands. Early in the darkness of the morning, information is received reporting many enemy ships ninety miles west of Midway. This certainly looks like a landing attempt, so the Task Force changes course to point north of Midway, increasing speed to twenty-five knots.
After daylight the reports of the eagle-eyed Navy scouting planes make it clear that the Japanese have reversed their course suddenly and all ships are in full retreat. Immediately the American Task Force heads west, then northwest in hot pursuit of the burning Akagi, lagging behind two battleships, one of them badly damaged, three heavy cruisers and four destroyers. In mid-afternoon the Hornet and Enterprise launch striking groups of planes. They make a two hundred and fifty mile search to the northwest unsuccessfully. The only quarry they find are two fast moving destroyers. These they bomb as they twist and turn at high speed, making many near misses but no hits.
When the night contacts indicated the persistence of the enemy for a landing attack on Midway, certain units were directed to close the Islands, in order to take advantage of the opportunity to attack transports and supporting ships when they were most vulnerable. Now that the retirement of the enemy is apparent, the fastest units are sent in chase. Others are directed to the enemy’s expected line of retirement. At this time other scouting planes report transport groups west of Midway, trailed by two damaged heavy cruisers.
Before dawn this morning Army B-17’s roar in search of the western group. The weather is most unfavorable, visibility bad, and they fail to find them. Later the Navy patrol plane reports begin to come in. In the meantime Marine dive bombers have left Midway and have found a great oil slick. Guessing the course, they follow signs of oil leakage for forty miles and come upon the two heavy cruisers.
Dives begin, the cruisers fight back hard, the one damaged yesterday pouring A.A. through her smoke. The Marines see the splashes all around them and make one hit forward and one close miss astern of the already damaged ship. In twenty minutes they have dumped their bombs and soar up. The near miss astern did its work. The cruiser, smoking heavily, is listing badly to starboard and turning helplessly in sharp curves, inscribing a big white zero.
A few minutes later several of the B-17’s attack the two ships from an altitude of twenty thousand feet with many five hundred pound bombs. From the confusing picture far below of water columns, spray and smoke, they are certain of one hit on the stern of a cruiser, and both
In the early afternoon, Army Flying Fortresses, B-17’s, each armed with five hundred pound bombs, fly to the northwest to attack the remnants of the fleeing Jap Striking Force, followed two hours later by another group of B-17’s. En route the first group sighted one heavy cruiser, went on beyond and found nothing. Returning, they bombed her from nine thousand to sixteen thousand feet, making three hits. This was three hundred miles from Midway, bearing 300º. The second group likewise found and attacked a heavy cruiser bearing 320º, 425 miles from Midway, no hits.
Two planes ran out of gas and landed in the sea. One of these crews was never found, the other was rescued, with loss of one man. These were the only losses of the B-17’s attack on the Japanese fleet. During the evening a Jap sub sneaks in and opens fire on Midway. The shore batteries open up, hitting or near missing, causing her to dive. No damage was done except to the sand.
Weather conditions to the northwest are deteriorating, and as the search of the Task Force is unsuccessful, the best opportunity of contacting the routed fleet appears to be to the west. Therefore in the evening the Force turns to a westerly course.
Dawn of the fourth day of battle—the pursuing American ships, gray in a gray light. The carriers, cruisers and destroyers spread far out, plow menacingly forward. At dawn SBD planes are launched, rising up in the breaking day for a search in a westward semicircle. Their hum fades into the morning, as the ships plow on. Then about an hour later flash two reports’ from the vanished planes, almost simultaneously. The first is the word of two heavy cruisers with two destroyers on course Southwest, speed fifteen knots, bearing 275º, distance 400 miles from Midway. The second, five minutes later, bearing about 280º, 435 miles from Midway, reports a battleship with three or four destroyers on course West, speed 10 knots. The planes come in over the group, attacking the big ships with accurate devastation as the heavy bombs go hurtling seaward. A five hundred pounder hits a destroyer, paralyzing her. The Hornet’s planes fly off, their bomb-bays empty, and a lone SOC pilot from a cruiser sees the paralyzed destroyer sink without regaining consciousness.
Before the shattered ships can estimate their damage, the groups from Enterprise come over to attack with tremendous effectiveness. Part of the group roars by, searching ahead for the reported battleship, but one VB Squadron quits the search and comes diving in on two wounded cruisers before noon. The other squadrons come in at intervals, so that the attack lasts more than an hour. The cruiser Mikuma is almost completely disabled by the first hits, suffering frightful punishment in each ensuing attack. The last squadron comes in at 1:00 over the torn wreck, and finishes her off with a bomb directly amidships that detonates her torpedoes, blasting her open. Burning furiously, shaken with heavy internal explosions, shattered and abandoned, she heels over a few minutes after the last hit and sinks in a welter of filthy foam. The Mogami also receives more smashing hits. Banged, torn and smoking ponderously, she continues westward toward Japan, leaving a trail of her life’s blood blotching the water astern. Two sympathetic destroyers, like faithful hounds, accompany her.
Two hours later the Hornet launches the final attack of this four-day battle. Her planes come over the limping Mogami and let go one thousand pound bombs.
At the time of this last attack the planes find a light cruiser, which the Mogami probably was trying desperately to join. They attack and hit her a number of times, and they also smack a destroyer. A Navy photographic plane gets some excellent pictures of the mutilated Mogami, and while over her hulk sees another light cruiser and a destroyer fleeing under full draft to the westward.
The only other flight of this day was that of some Army B-17’s, sent out to attack the Transport Force which is scurrying away with all speed on an estimated western course. They make a thorough search, but possibly due to the change of direction, are unable to find it.