During World War II, the Pacific Theater saw the advent of a new form of naval warfare -- the use of aircraft carrier torpedo and dive bombers and fighters to attack the enemy's carriers, ship formations and land based installations. Carriers, which had previously been thought to be best used as protection, advance scouting and fall-of-shot spotting assets for the battleship fleet, became the dominant class of capital ships, and battleships were relegated to a defensive anti-aircraft role as well as serving as shore bombardment platforms. While there were battleship engagements, during the Guadalcanal campaign and the Battle of Leyte Gulf, air strikes launched from the decks of fast fleet carriers became a primary mode of naval offensive action.
There were six major carrier battles in the Pacific, four of them in 1942, at a time when the US Navy (USN) and Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) force structures were somewhat in parity and the outcome of the Pacific War had yet to be decided. The first was the Battle of Coral Sea (May 4-8), the first naval battle in history where the opposing ship forces never came within sight of and directly engaged each other. The Battle of Midway (June 4-7) followed one month later, during which the IJN lost two-thirds of its Mobile [fast carrier] Striking Force, the Kido Butai. The final two, the Battle of Eastern Solomons (August 24-25) and the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands (October 25-27) fell within the larger scope of the Guadalcanal campaign (August 1942-February 1943).
The remaining two were the Battle of the Philippine Sea (June 19-20, 1944), wherein the IJN air arm was virtually annihilated, and the carrier engagement off Cape Engano during the Battle of Leyte Gulf (October 23-26, 1944), during which the remaining IJN carriers were sacrificed as decoys. These latter two engagements came after American industrial might had tilted the balance of naval power in the Pacific permanently in favor of the USN.
1942 Carrier Battles
Both opponents entered the Pacific War with six fleet carriers, the USN with Lexington, Saratoga, Yorktown, Enterprise, Wasp and Hornet (the slower Ranger remained in the Atlantic for the duration); and the IJN with Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, Hiryu, Shokaku and Zuikaku. In addition, Japan had several light carriers, which did not normally operate with the Kido Butai because they were not fast enough to keep up. By the end of 1942, only Saratoga, Enterprise, Shokaku and Zuikaku were still afloat, and the two opposing navies had so exhausted their carrier resources that there was not another significant carrier engagement until the Battle of the Philippine Sea, in conjunction with the US invasion of the Marianas.
With the exception of Midway,where the IJN lost four front line carriers, Coral Sea, Eastern Solomons and Santa Cruz Islands were indecisive affairs that left neither side with a clear cut, exploitable victory. Nonetheless, the 1942 carrier battles had a significant impact on the subsequent course of the war. Japanese expansion was halted permanently as a result of the deadly six month war of attrition on Guadalcanal and in the surrounding seas and skies. But, this outcome might not have been possible without the war-changing loss of four fleet carriers at Midway and the high level of IJN air crew losses throughout 1942. Ship losses in the four 1942 carrier battles are shown in the next table. Philippine Sea losses are shown at the end of the table for comparison.
A number of factors
to loss of IJN carrier striking power, but a significant constraint on all subsequent
air operations was the loss
many of the highly trained and experienced air crews on hand at the
beginning of the war.
During the four major 1942 carrier
The reasons for heavier IJN air crew losses are many, including more effective USN anti-aircraft fire, centralized radar-aided direction of fighter defenses, superior USN fighter tactics (hit-and-run vs dogfighting, deflection shooting and John Thach's beam defense position, AKA "Thach Weave"), and inferior IJN cockpit protection for pilots and airframe robustness in the face of damage. (The USN also learned from 1942: at the beginning of the war, only 25% of a carrier's air wing was fighters, to be divided between carrier defense and dive bomber and torpedo bomber escort; by 1944 65% were fighters.7)
The IJN struggled, and ultimately failed to train and deploy quality replacement pilots. In addition to a smaller population base to draw from, replacement efforts were limited by the shortage of aviation gas for training. And, unlike the USN, front line pilots were not returned to Japan to oversee training. As a result, combat pilots already in service basically flew until they died in action, and pilot recruits were denied the benefit of learning from experienced veterans. It took the twenty months from Santa Cruz Islands to the Philippine Sea engagement for Japan to train and deploy a new cadre of carrier qualified air crews, few of whom were as skilled as the air crews that attacked Pearl Harbor. The table below lists air crew losses for each engagement. Losses at the Battle of the Philippine Sea are added at the bottom of the table.
The Battle of the Philippine Sea, also known as
the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot", was a
decisive USN victory, one that virtually ended the IJN's carrier striking power.
The IJN lost fast carriers Shokaku and Taiho (albeit
to US submarine attacks) and
the light carrier Hiyo, as well
In contrast to the relatively evenly matched forces in 1942, Philippine Sea
vividly demonstrated the growing power of the US Navy and the permanent
decline of Japan's naval air capability. The USN began
deploying Essex class carriers from the beginning of 1943, and later light Independence
class carriers as well. A total of 24 Essex class carriers were
eventually delivered to the US Navy (some after the war), a force that sustained
operations far beyond the end of the war. Perhaps the key takeaway from
In fact, Japan had a total of only about 2000 carrier qualified pilots at start of the Pacific War. 3 On the other hand, the USN turned out pilots in astonishing numbers, 10,869 in 1942 alone, 61,658 in all, more than 2.5 times the number of pilots in the IJN. 9 A second point is that, while fast carrier losses were equal during 1942, the effect of Midway was to decimate Japan's Mobile Striking Force and destroy its effectiveness as a dominant instrument of warfare. Once the Essex class began to appear in numbers, the IJN could never recover; Japan lagged far behind America's vastly superior ship construction capacity and greater manpower reserves.
As noted, with the exception of Midway, the remaining three 1942 carrier battles left neither side with a clear cut victory in terms of ship losses inflicted. The Japanese incursion into Coral Sea was part of an attempted invasion of Port Moresby on New Guinea's southern coast. It was the first carrier-against-carrier battle, and as such neither side operated as effectively as they might have. On May 6, both sides came within 70 miles of each other without discovering the other's presence. On May 7 both sides mistakenly attacked ships other than their opponents' main carrier forces. The Japanese hit fleet oiler Neosho and its destroyer escort, Sims. The US launched a devastating attack on light carrier Shoho, which was operating separated from Kido Butai elements Shokaku and Zuikaku. The next day, both main forces were discovered and attacked. Lexington was fatally damaged and Yorktown limped back to Pearl Harbor trailing oil. Shokaku was heavily damaged and the Zuikaku air crew suffered debilitating losses.
Japanese search planes found the US carriers, and Enterprise came under heavy attack. The damage was serious, including a hit on the flight deck that briefly suspended flight operations. However, US anti-aircraft fire and fighter defense intercepts took a heavy toll on Japanese aircraft. With Enterprise damaged, the USN retired from the area. After a brief pursuit, the Japanese retreated, with heavy air crew losses and depleted fuel levels. Essentially a draw, the battle had little long term effect since the Japanese ground forces eventually reached Guadalcanal by other means.
After Santa Cruz Islands, Enterprise was the only USN carrier operating in the Pacific until Saratoga was repaired and the Essex class began to arrive.
Strictly from the perspective of aircraft carrier loses, the Guadalcanal carrier actions would seem to have conferred a tactical advantage to the Japanese. The USN lost two fast fleet carriers, Hornet and Wasp (the latter torpedoed by a Japanese submarine), to the Japanese loss of one light carrier, Ryujo. However, due to air crew losses and ship damage suffered, Guadalcanal left the IJN unable to sustain offensive carrier operations in the South Pacific. The IJN carrier threat having been nullified, the decisive turning point in the Pacific War was the US victory in the grinding land war on Guadalcanal and surface naval engagements in the waters around the island, supported by land-based air power operating from Guadalcanal's Henderson Field. These actions determined the fate of the Guadalcanal campaign -- and with it the end of Japanese naval expansion in the Pacific.
The inconclusive nature of Coral Sea, Eastern Solomons and Santa Cruz Islands makes the one-sided results obtained by the USN at Midway all the more significant. Which leaves the question, why was Midway different?
Admiral Chuicui Nagumo’s Mobil Striking Force, composed of Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu, launched a massive dawn strike against Midway's defenses in preparation for the land invasion. When the first strike did not knock out Midway's defenses, Nagumo ordered his second eschelon of aircraft, then armed with anti-ship weapons (as per pre-battle orders from Yamamoto), to be rearmed with land attack bombs. The belated discovery of US Navy ships caused land-attack preparations to be suspended and armor piercing bombs and torpedos to be reloaded. As a result, the hanger decks of all four ships were littered with bombs and torpedos of every type in the haste to get attack aircraft prepared.
However, the Kido Butai soon
came under frequent and repeated, albeit unsuccessful attacks
by Midway aircraft, and later, USN carrier torpedo bombers. These attacks,
as futile as they first appeared, were vital to the American victory because
they impacted the ability
of the Japanese carriers
to conduct unimpeded air operations -- and
they probably disrupted Nagumo’s ability to make timely and sound operational decisions.
Once American ships were discovered, Nagumo had a narrow window to launch a partial strike, but
he declined to do so,
preferring a full deck load strike, in accord with long-standing Japanese
doctrine. But, thereafter he
never had an opportunity to launch a large-scale strike because of
continuing sequential American attacks – the payoff from
the horrific sacrifice by Midway assets and US carrier torpedo
squadrons. His deck operations were also constrained by the need
to land his Midway strike aircraft.
His deck operations were also constrained by the need to land his Midway strike aircraft.
When the final American attack eventually came, by dive bombers from
Enterprise and Yorktown, the hanger decks were filled with fully fueled
strike aircraft and loose weapons scattered throughout the hanger. The
results were catastrophic for Akagi, Kaga and Soryu --
Hiryu was hunted down
later in the day, after two strikes had been launched against Yorktown.
When the final American attack eventually came, by dive bombers from Enterprise and Yorktown, the hanger decks were filled with fully fueled strike aircraft and loose weapons scattered throughout the hanger. The results were catastrophic for Akagi, Kaga and Soryu -- Hiryu was hunted down later in the day, after two strikes had been launched against Yorktown.
The first was John Waldron, commander of torpedo squadron VT-8 from Hornet. Breaking away from Hornet's dive bombers and fighters, VT-8 was the only Hornet aircraft to encounter the enemy that day. Although every VT-8 TBD Devastator was shot down by Kido Butai Zero combat air patrol, the smoke emitted by escort ships subsequently led VT-6 from Enterprise to the Japanese carriers. They suffered vitually the same fate as VT-8, but once again, smoke from their attack led Yorktown's VT-3 to the fray, once again to achieve no hits while almost being wiped out as well.
However, these three sequential attacks prepared the way for the final dive bomber attacks that sealed the fate of the IJN on that day. First, the radical manuevers needed to avoid each attack prevented launch of any further attacks against Midway or USN carriers. And second, they pulled CAP assets down to sea level, clearing the way for the simultaneous dive bomber attacks by Enterprise and Yorktown SBDs. Had Waldron not disobeyed orders to remain with the rest of the Hornet air group, perhaps none of the torpedo bombers would have found the enemy, and Japanese CAP might then have been at high altitude to intercept the dive bombers -- as had happened at Coral Sea.
Second, and crucially, submarine Nautilus skipper William Brockman persisted in harassing the Japanese carrier force on the morning of the Midway strike, causing the destroyer Arashi to be detached to suppress the Nautilus. It was the Arashi, returning to the Japanese carriers, that led Enterprise air group leader Wade McClusky, the second critical individual, and his Douglas Dauntless SBD dive bombers to the Japanese carriers.
The Kido Butai having maneuvered away from its location at the time USN carrier strikes were launched, McClusky could not find the Mobile Striking Force along the vector he had been given. Nevertheless, he had kept up his search for the Japanese carriers despite a seriously dwindling fuel supply. His reward was sighting Arashi and following it to Kaga and Akagi at 10:25 AM. They were unprotected, with IJN combat air patrol Zeros at deck level, chasing the remnant of torpedo bomber attacks. And then it was Dick Best who, seeing flight leader McClusky take the first carrier he encountered, Kaga, the reverse order of dive bomber attack doctrine, pulled out of his dive and took two other pilots with him to attack Akagi with a far more difficult broadside approach. Best scored the single hit that ultimately destroyed Akagi.
Of McClusky’s decision to continue his search, no less an authority than Admiral Nimitz said that it “decided the fate of our carrier forces at Midway."
Absent the decisions, actions and skills of these four
the outcome at Midway might have been very different indeed. Kaga and
Akagi might have survived
the initial dive bomber
attack, with only Soryu incurring damage, from a separate attack by
(Hiryu was fatally damaged later in the
afternoon in a second strike.)
In the end, the
battle turned on five factors.
The first was the fact that Nagumo had two missions, land attack and anti-ship
attack, while the Americans had only one.
Despite the fact that Kido Butai had a proven ability to launch coordinated
strikes from six decks simultaneously (four at
Third, f ate also played a hand -- only
Yorktown's Task force 17 was ever discovered; Task Force 16, centered
around Enterprise and Hornet, were operating in heavy cloud cover when the
Japanese search plane assigned to their radial passed overhead, above the
clouds. Yorktown was attacked twice, leaving Enterprise and
unscathed. In all other 1942 carrier encounters both sides found each
other in time to launch strikes before they themselves were attacked.
ate also played a hand -- only Yorktown's Task force 17 was ever discovered; Task Force 16, centered around Enterprise and Hornet, were operating in heavy cloud cover when the Japanese search plane assigned to their radial passed overhead, above the clouds. Yorktown was attacked twice, leaving Enterprise and Hornet unscathed. In all other 1942 carrier encounters both sides found each other in time to launch strikes before they themselves were attacked.
The fourth factor was the disruptive impact on Japanese air operations of repeated, albeit uncoordinated, carrier and Midway Navy, Marine and Army Air Corps attacks on the Kido Butai. Despite the almost total lack of coordination on the part of the Americans’ various Midway sorties and carrier-launched torpedo bomber runs, the repeated waves of American attack aircraft, all of them ineffective right up to the final dive bomber attacks, kept Nagumo’s carriers off balance and maneuvering (or else recovering their own strike aircraft), rendering them unable to do much other than launch and recover combat air patrol (CAP). This lack of coordination could have proved fatal for the Americans, but thankfully it did not.
The final factor was the choices made by the four individuals named above -- whose actions were decisive -- as well as decisions made by Task Forces 16 and 17 commanders on the morning of the battle.
The outcome was doubly fortuitous because Hornet's entire complement of SBDs and F4F Wildcat fighters never contacted the enemy, earning the dubious sobriquet, the "flight to nowhere."11 The actions of Hornet's air group have long been the subject of scrutiny and controversy.12 Of Hornet's performance, RADM Raymond Spruance, commander of Task Force 16, wrote in the first paragraph of his after action report, "Where discrepancies exist between Enterprise and Hornet reports, the Enterprise report should be taken as the more accurate."13 He also wrote, "Hornet dive bombers failed to locate the target and did not participate in this attack. Had they done so, the fourth [IJN] carrier could have been attacked and later attacks made on Yorktown by this carrier prevented."
A Different Perspective
Controversially, they called into question Walter Lord's assertion that the US Navy victory was a “miracle victory" against a vastly superior foe by the underdog US Navy -- inspired by “a magic blend of skill, faith and valor". When it comes to hyperbole it’s difficult to find prose more purple than Walter Lord’s: “They had no battleships, the enemy eleven. They had eight cruisers, the enemy twenty-three. They had three carriers (one of them crippled); the enemy had eight." Miraculous win indeed, against those odds.
Well, not quite. As Parshall and Tully point out, at the
pointy end of the spear,
when and where the engagement actually took place,
the resources available to each side were
rather balanced, with the USN possessing the all-important element of
surprise due to intelligence intercepts of Japanese plans.
Admiral Nagumo’s Mobile Striking Force included four
Furthermore, none of the surface combatants ever saw each other – they simply provided anti-aircraft and anti-submarine protection -- so their numbers, while not completely irrelevant, are certainly secondary in any accounting of the striking power of the opposing forces. And thanks to herculean repair efforts at Pearl, the Yorktown was not “crippled" in any operational sense but instead was able to conduct effective flight operations up until the moment it was attacked by aircraft from Hiryu. In fact, the Yorktown launched the only coordinated American air strike of the day, as her torpedo squadron, dive bombers and fighter escort were the only ones to arrive on target together that morning.
On the Japanese side, the defeat was attributable to fundamental flaws in Japanese strategic thinking as well as fatal flaws in ship design and damage control. As Shattered Sword points out, one of the (many) fatal flaws of Admiral Yamamato’s Midway plan was that much of his mighty force, most of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) if the Aleutian invasion is included, was deployed in such a way as to be too far removed to be of any use to Nagumo when it counted. In the end, all that mattered were the carrier and land-based aircraft present at Midway -- as well as the role played by the USN's Nautilus. None of this, of course, diminishes the incredible courage and technical skill exhibited by USN pilots and the critical decisions made by US commanders. Midway was the only Pacific War carrier battle during which USN air losses were equivalent to that of the Japanese, a telling memorial to the sacrifice by carrier and Midway airmen.
The authors touch a
raw nerve when they assert that Hornet's Torpedo 8 did not, in fact, pave
the way for the dive
bomber attacks by drawing down the Japanese Zero combat air patrol (CAP) to
Waldron’s squadron was decimated long before the SBDs attacked.
The implication that those sacrifices and others like them, by the
other torpedo squadrons and by the Midway attack waves, were in vain is
simply intolerable to many. This is one point where the authors may have given an incomplete assessment
Another doubtful point is their dogged defense of Nagumo’s violation of Yamamoto’s direct order to keep one-half of his striking force in reserve, armed with anti-ship weapons in case US naval forces should make an appearance. Nagumo’s order to rearm his reserve wave with land attack weapons when the first wave did not fully knock out Midway, at which point his search aircraft had flown only the outward leg of their (very sparse) search patterns, and rearm again when Yorktown was sighted, certainly complicated his air operation from that point on. Worse, it left unused ordinance on the hanger decks of all four carriers -- fatally so when SBD bombs crashed through Japanese flight decks and set off inextinguishable infernos in the hanger decks of Akagi, Kaga and Soryu.
At the macro level, the authors raise doubts regarding just how much of a turning point Midway was, given the attritional carnage of the six-month Guadalcanal campaign and the subsequent impact of the Essex class carrier program. These assertions, of course, benefit from 20-20 historical hindsight -- and they give a rather dismissive evaluation of the road not traveled, i.e. what if all of Kido Butai had survived and the US Navy had lost more than just Yorktown.
|Admiral Chester Nimitz signing surrender document aboard battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay.|
Why was Midway different? Only at Midway, where the US Navy benefitted from and, crucially, was able to
the element of surprise, materially aided by totally inadequate IJN search
results on the decisive morning, were
carrier loses so one-sided.
Historians, book reviewers and armchair quarterbacks aside, Admiral Nimitz
provided perhaps the best summation of Midway ever
offered. “Midway was the most
crucial battle of the Pacific War, the engagement that made everything else
possible." Sounds about right.
Historians, book reviewers and armchair quarterbacks aside, Admiral Nimitz provided perhaps the best summation of Midway ever offered. “Midway was the most crucial battle of the Pacific War, the engagement that made everything else possible." Sounds about right.
Six months of sustained
bloodshed and sacrifice at Guadalcanal completed what the carrier battles had
begun. Although both sides lost four fleet carriers in 1942, Japan could not
thereafter match the ship construction capacity of the US. On the
pilot front, their massive losses were equally debilitating. In
combat effectiveness, nothing would ever again match the veterans of Pearl
Six months of sustained
bloodshed and sacrifice at Guadalcanal completed what the carrier battles had
Although both sides lost four fleet carriers in 1942, Japan could not thereafter match the ship construction capacity of the US. On the pilot front, their massive losses were equally debilitating. In combat effectiveness, nothing would ever again match the veterans of Pearl Harbor.
1 "Battle of the Coral Sea," Wikipedia.
2 Estimated from disparate casualty reports, including Midway-based Marine aviators.
3 "Battle of Midway," Military.Wikia.com.
4 "Battle of the Eastern Solomons," Military.Wikia.com.
5 "Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands," Military.Wikia.com.
6 "Philippine Sea", Pacific War Online Encyclopedia.
7 "Aircraft Carrier Tactics of World War II, JohnsMilitaryHistory.com, John Hamill
8 "USS Wasp (CV-7)," Wikipedia.
9 "Aviation Cadet Training Program (USN) 1940-1945," Wikipedia.
10 No Right to Win, Ronald Russell, Moderator, Battle of Midway Roundtable, iUniverse Inc., 2006
11 "Mitscher and the Mystery of Midway", Craig L. Symonds, US Naval Institute, June 2012
12 The Last Flight of Ensign C. Markland Kelly, Jr., USNR, © 1996 by Bowen P. Weisheit (Battle of Midway Roundtable)
13 "Commander Task Force Sixteen, Serial 0144A, RADM Raymond Spruance, 16 June 1942 (Battle of Midway Roundtable)
14 "The Battle of Midway: The Sole Survivor of Torpedo Squadron 8", George Gay (Chuck Oldham), Defense Media Network.
Note: images linked from Wikipedia Commons.
|© 2019 Michael W. Masters Return to top|