Four months after Pearl Harbor U.S. planes took off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet and bombed Tokyo. They caused little damaged but boosted U.S. morale and embarrassed the Japanese who launched the ill-fated attack on Midway six weeks later.

In the Battle of the Coral Sea from May 4 to May 8, 1942, an American naval task force battled a Japanese invasion fleet in the Coral Sea, northeast of Australia. Planes launched from the American aircraft carriers Yorktown and Lexington forced the Japanese fleet to withdraw on May 8. It was the first Japanese setback of the war. The Americans lost the Lexington, one destroyer, 66 planes and 543 men.

The Battle of the Coral Sea dealt a blow to Japan's plans to capture Port Moresby in New Guinea. It also marked a new era in naval warfare: the dominance of aircraft carriers and airplanes in sea combat. Surface ships did not fire a single shot. Attacks were made instead by carrier-based planes.

The American effort in the Pacific was slowed somewhat by a Europe-first approach. Even by 1945 only 1.2 million of the U.S.’s 5.4 million military personnel were in the Pacific. But what MacArthur wanted even more than men was better equipment.

Battle of Midway

For the Japanese to gain control of the Pacific, they needed to incapacitate the remaining aircraft carriers of the United States. In 1942, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto lured the U.S. ships into a defense of Midway island. The strategy was brilliant but he failed to back it up with the enough aircraft carrier power to complete the job.

Six months after Pearl Harbor, and a month after Coral Sea, the U.S. Pacific Fleet under the command of Admiral Chester Nimitz used shrewd guesswork and decrypted Japanese messages to find Admiral Yamamoto's fleet not far from Midway, a small island about 250 miles northwest of Hawaii.

The four-day Battle of Midway (fought between June 3 and June 6, 1942) was one of the first modern navel engagements to take place in the open sea. The Japanese had hoped to capture Midway Island and use it as a base for launching attacks on the United States. The American forces won at Midway and Coral Sea despite being outnumbered. The victories marked the beginning of the tide turning against Japan.

Yamamoto began his assault on Midway by sending a diversionary force up to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska in hopes of drawing away some of the American fleet but Nimitz was not fooled and stayed where he was. The fighting began when the Japanese bombed Midway with 108 planes launched from four aircraft carriers---the Kaga, Akagi, Soryu and Hiryu. The Americans counterattacked with 26 Midway-based planes attacking the aircraft carriers. Without making a single hit, the Americans lost 15 planes. After the first wave of Japanese fighters returned to the aircraft carriers, Japanese admiral Chuichi Nagumo ordered them to be quickly rearm with fragmentation bombs for a second strike on Midway.

American Counterattack Against Japanese Aircraft Carriers at Midway

Zero taking off from the Akagi

In a brilliant stroke of luck for the United States and bad timing for the Japanese, U.S. bombers attacked the Japanese aircraft carriers when the Japanese were in the middle of the second rearming and all their fighters and bombers were on the four carriers at the same time, allowing American planes to attack them with relative ease. Commanded by U.S. Admirals Frank Fletcher and Raymond Spruance, Task Force 16 launched 152 planes---43 torpedo bombers, 65 dive bombers and 46 "Wildcat" fighters---from the carriers Enterprise and Yorktown.

Caught by surprise, the Japanese made three crucial mistakes. First, they lost time and stranded planes below by ordering that the fragmentation bombs be replaced with torpedoes for an attack on the American aircraft carriers. Second, to save time the torpedoes and bombs were stored on the deck instead of placed in the heavily armored magazine. Third, the decks had been cleared so the planes from the first strike could land, which made it difficult for the Japanese to quickly launch a defensive assault.

In just five minutes, from 10:25 to 10:30am on June 4, 1942, American aircrafts crippled three of the four Japanese aircraft carriers. The battle didn't start well for the Americans however. The first American planes to arrive, Torpedo Squadron 8, lost all 15 planes. Torpedo squadron 3, didn't fare any better. It lost all 12 planes. Torpedo 6 lost 10 of 14 planes. Thirty Hornet fighters were given an incorrect bearing and all ran out of gas and had to abort in the sea. The 10 wildcats launched from the Enterprise also ran low on fuel and were forced to return to the carrier before carrying out their mission.

The Zeros that managed to take off the carriers were drawn from the carrier by the Yorktown's six fighters. This left the Japanese carriers unprotected and the Yorktown's 17 dive bombers approached unopposed. Four direct hits were scored on the Kaga, which was blown apart by massive explosions caused in part by Japanese bombs and torpedoes exposed on the decks. The Enterprise's 33 dive bombers caused similar explosions on the Akagi and Soryu. Fifteen American planes were shot down in these attacks.

The only Japanese carrier left afloat, the Hiyru, launched its planes for an attack on the Yorktown. The bombers broke through the Yorktown's defenses and inflicted enough damage on the carrier to leave it dead in the water. The Yorktown and the Haumann, a destroyer that went to help it, were both sunk the next day by a Japanese submarine. A counterattack led by 10 Enterprise dive bombers and 14 homeless Yorktown planes scored four direct hits on the Hiyru. Before the Hiyru went down, its captain, Tomeo Kaku, and superior officer, Adm. Tamon Yamaguchi, committed suicide.

Eyewitness Account of Battle of Midway on June 4th

Mitsuo Fuchida, a Japanese seaman on the Akagi, wrote: "The Air Officer flapped a white flag, and the first Zero fighters gathered speed and whizzed of the deck. At that instant, a lookout screamed, 'Hell-divers!' I looked up to see three black enemy planes plummeting toward our ship. Some of our machine guns managed to fire a few frantic bursts at them, but it was too late. The plump silhouettes of the American 'Dauntless' dive bombers quickly grew larger, and then a number of black objects suddenly floated eerily from their wings. Bombs! Down they came straight towards me! I fell intuitively to the deck and crawled behind a command post mantelet." [Source: Eyewitness to History , edited by John Carey, Avon Books, 1987]

"The terrifying scream of the dive bombers reached me first, followed by the crashing explosion of a direct hit. There was a blinding flash and then a second explosion, much louder that the first. I was so shaken by a weird blast of warm air. There was still another shock, but less severe, apparently a near miss. Then followed a startling quiet as the barking of the guns suddenly ceased. I got up and looked at the sky. The enemy planes were already gone from sight." [Ibid]

"Looking about I was horrified at the destruction that had been wrought in a matter of seconds. There was a huge hole on the flight deck just behind the midships elevator. The elevator itself, twisted like molten glass, was drooping into the hangar. Deck plates reeled upwards in grotesque configurations. Planes stood tail up, belching livid flames and jet-black smoke." [Ibid]

" Akagi had taken first hits, one on the after rim of the a midship’s elevator, the other on the rear guard on the port side of the flight deck. Normally, neither would have been fatal to the giant carrier, but induced explosions of fuel and munitions devastated whole sections of the ship, shaking the bridge and filling the air with deadly splinters." [Ibid]

Japanese and American Losses at Midway

AKagi Hit

The Japanese lost four aircraft carriers, 13 other ships, 275 planes and 5,000 men, including most of their best-trained naval pilots. The Americans lost the Yorktown, Haumann, 91 planes (60 percent of those that took part in the battle) and 300 men. Many historians regard Midway as turning the point in the war. Admiral Yamamoto recalled his ships to Japanese ports; the Japanese offensive on American territory, in Hawaii and Alaska, was halted; and for the rest of the war the Japanese fought to hold on to territory their seized in the first few months of the offensive.

The loss at Midway was so so humiliating for Japanese commanders that Japanese Prime Minister Tojo was not informed of the defeat until weeks after it happened. From that point on Japan was no longer on the offensive and the remainder of war for them was a defensive war. Deprived of air and naval superiority in the Pacific, Japan had great difficult providing food, weapons, ammunition and other supplies via sea transport to its forces stationed in the Pacific.

In May 1998, Robert Ballard, the man who found the Titanic, found the Yorktown in 16,500 feet of water 200 miles north of Midway.

Doolittle and the First Firebombing Raid on Japan

The first bombing raid on Japan in April, 1942 was masterminded by flyer James Doolittle, a famous 5-foot 4-inch American flyer who set many speed records and pioneered the art of instrument flying. The mission, one the riskiest ever conceived, was to launch 16 fully-loaded Mitchell B-25 bombers from an aircraft carrier (the first time this was ever tried), fly to Japan and drop their payload of three 500-pound bombs, and then continue on to China where they hoped they had enough fuel to take them to friendly territory. [Source: James A. Cox, Smithsonian magazine]

The B-25 Mitchells usually took off at about 95 mph from a 1000-foot-long airstrip. On the aircrafts carrier they would have to take off at 45mph from a deck less than 500 feet long. Parts of the plane were removed to reduce weight and the gas tanks were enlarged to increase the range. The 80 crew members that took part in the mission were briefed that Orientals who grinned were Japanese and those who grinned and smiled were Chinese.

The planes took off a day ahead of schedule on April 18, 1942 because the carrier that carried them was spotted by a Japanese vessel. Before they took off the planes were rocked back and forth to get rid of air bubbles which would allow the planes to take on more fuel. The only mishap occurred when one crew member was blown into a propeller and his arm was cut off. In 60 minutes all the planes were in the air. They kept their radios turned off to avoid detection.

The planes reached Japan and dropped their high-explosive bombs on dry docks, ships, arsenals, oil refineries and aircraft factories in Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe and then fled south. They encountered little anti-aircraft fire and only one Zero followed in pursuit. The Japanese plane was lost during low altitude evasive maneuvers; there were no casualties and only one plane was hit by flak. the whole operation was over in minutes but he hard part of mission had yet to begin.

After thirteen hours in the air the planes found themselves in darkness and clouds somewhere over China or the Sea of China, running dangerously low on fuel. The only plane that landed safety was one that veered north to Vladivostok, Russia. Of the remaining 15 planes, four crash landed. The crew from other 11 planes parachuted. Doolittle landed in a rice paddy full of night soil. Of the eight crew members who were captured by the Japanese, five were executed and three were sent to prison (where one died of malnutrition). The other 72 men miraculously made it safety, although one them had his face smashed and his arm amputated after the crash.

The bombing raid was mainly a psychological ploy to show that Japan was vulnerable to attack. One newspaper in America ran the headline "TOKYO BOMBED! DOOLITTLE DO'OD IT!" The Japanese were so shaken they launched an attack on the airbases in China, where the pilots had hoped to land. When the dust settled thousands of Chinese were dead.

Eyewitness Account of Doolittle Raid

Describing the take off of Doolittle’s plane, Lt. Ted Lawson, who piloted one of the attacking bombers, wrote: "A Navy man stood at the bow of the ship, and off to the left, with a checkered flag in his hand. He gave Doolittle, who was at the controls, the signal to begin racing his engines again. He did it by swinging the flag in a circle and making it go faster and faster. Doolittle gave his engines more and more throttle until I was afraid that he'd burn them up. A wave crashed heavily at the bow and sprayed the deck. [Source: Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo by Ted W. Lawson, 1943, reprinted 1953]

“Then I saw that the man with the flag was waiting, timing the dipping of the ship so that Doolittle's plane would get the benefit of a rising deck for its take-off. Then the man gave a new signal. Navy boys pulled the blocks from under Doolittle's wheels. Another signal and Doolittle released his brakes and the bomber moved forward. With full flaps, engines at full throttle and his left wing far out over the port side of the Hornet, Doolittle's plane waddled and then lunged slowly into the teeth of the gale that swept down the deck. His left wheel stuck on the white line as if it were a track. His right wing, which had barely cleared the wall of the island as he taxied and was guided up to the starting line, extended nearly to the edge of the starboard side. [Ibid]

We watched him like hawks, wondering what the wind would do to him, and whether we could get off in that little run toward the bow. If he couldn't, we couldn't. Doolittle picked up more speed and held to his line, and, just as the Hornet lifted itself up on the top of a wave and cut through it at full speed, Doolittle's plane took off. He had yards to spare. He hung his ship almost straight up on its props, until we could see the whole top of his B-25. Then he leveled off and I watched him come around in a tight circle and shoot low over our heads-straight down the line painted on the deck." [Ibid]

On the attack on his bomb target in Tokyo, Lawson wrote: "I was almost on the first of our objectives before I saw it. I gave the engines full throttle as Davenport [co-pilot] adjusted the prop pitch to get a better grip on the air. We climbed as quickly as possible to 1,500 feet, in the manner which we had practiced for a month and had discussed for three additional weeks.There was just time to get up there, level off, attend to the routine of opening the bomb bay, make a short run and let fly with the first bomb. The red light blinked on my instrument board, and I knew the first 500-pounder had gone. [Ibid]

Our speed was picking up. The red light blinked again, and I knew Clever [bombardier] had let the second bomb go. Just as the light blinked, a black cloud appeared about 100 yards or so in front of us and rushed past at great speed. Two more appeared ahead of us, on about the line of our wingtips, and they too swept past. They had our altitude perfectly, but they were leading us too much. The third red light flickered, and, since we were now over a flimsy area in the southern part of the city, the fourth light blinked. That was the incendiary, which I knew would separate as soon as it hit the wind and that dozens of small fire bombs would molt from it. [Ibid]

The moment the fourth red light showed I put the nose of the Ruptured Duck into a deep dive. I had changed the course somewhat for the short run leading up to the dropping of the incendiary. Now, as I dived, I looked back and out I got a quick, indelible vision of one of our 500-pounders as it hit our steel-smelter target. The plant seemed to puff out its walls and then subside and dissolve in a black-and-red cloud. . . Our actual bombing operation, from the time the first one went until the dive, consumed not more than thirty seconds." [Ibid]

Crash Landing off of China After Doolittle Raid

Doolittle Raider taking off

About 6 ½ hours of leaving Tokyo Lawson's plane is low on fuel as the crew spots the Chinese mainland. Describing his attempts to land on a beach in a driving rain, Lawson wrote: "So I spoke into the inter-phone and told the boys we were going down. I told them to take off their chutes, but didn't have time to take off mine, and to be sure their life jackets were on, as mine was. I put the flaps down and also the landing wheels, and I remember thinking momentarily that if this was Japanese occupied land we could make a pretty good fight of it while we lasted. Our front machine gun was detachable. [Source: Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo by Ted W. Lawson, 1943, reprinted 1953]

“Davenport was calling off the airspeed. He had just said, 'One hundred and ten,' when, for some reason I'll never understand, both engines coughed and lost their power.In the next split second my hands punched forward and with one motion I hit both throttles, trying to force life back into the engines, and both prop pitch controls. And I tried to pull back the stick to keep the nose up, so we could squash in. We were about a quarter of a mile off shore when we hit. [Ibid]

The two main landing wheels caught the top of a wave as the plane sagged. And the curse of desperation and disappointment that I instinctively uttered was drowned out by the most terrifying noise I ever heard. It was as if some great hand had reached down through the storm, seized the plane and crunched it in a closing fist. Then nothing. Nothing but peace. A strange, strange, peaceful feeling. There wasn't any pain. A great, restful quiet surrounded me. [Ibid]

Then I must have swallowed some water, or perhaps the initial shock was wearing off, for I realized vaguely but inescapably that I was sitting in my pilot's seat on the sand, under water. I was in about ten or fifteen feet of water, I sensed remotely. I remember thinking: I'm dead. Then: No, I'm just hurt. Hurt bad. I couldn't move, but there was no feeling of being trapped, or of fighting for air. [Ibid]

I thought then of Ellen [Cpt. Lawson's wife] - strange thoughts filled with vague reasoning but little torment. A growing uneasiness came through my numb body. I wished I had left Ellen some money. I thought of money for my mother, too, in those disembodied seconds that seemed to have no beginning or end. I guess I must have taken in more water, for suddenly I knew that the silence, the peace and the reverie were things to fight against. I could not feel my arms, yet I knew I reached down and unbuckled the seat strap that was holding me to the chair. I told myself that my guts were loose. [Ibid]

I came up into the driving rain that beat down out of the blackening sky. I couldn't swim. I was paralyzed. I couldn't think clearly, but I undid my chute. The waves lifted me and dropped me. One wave washed me against a solid object, and, after I had stared at it in the gloom for a while, I realized that it was one of the wings of the plane. I noticed that the engine had been ripped off the wing, leaving only a tangle of broken wire and cable. And with the recognition came a surge of nausea and despair, for only now did I connect my condition with the condition of the plane. Another wave took me away from the wing and when it turned me around I saw behind me the two tail rudders of the ship, sticking up out of the water like twin tombstones." [Ibid]

Image Sources: National Archives of the United States; Wikimedia Commons; Gensuikan;

Text Sources: National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun, The New Yorker, Lonely Planet Guides, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, Eyewitness to History , edited by John Carey ( Avon Books, 1987), Compton’s Encyclopedia, History of Warfare by John Keegan, Vintage Books, Eyewitness to History.com, The Good War An Oral History of World War II by Studs Terkel, Hamish Hamilton, 1985, BBC’s People’s War website and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2016

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