It was six months after Pearl Harbor, and the odds did not look good for the United States. Japan had run wild. Wake Island had fallen, despite a stand for the ages. Aside from the Doolittle Raid, there had been little to cheer about.
Ironically, it was the Doolittle Raid that had started a chain of events that lead to two carrier task forces operating northeast of Midway. The presence of North American B-25 bombers over Japan had rattled the top echelons of the Japanese Navy. Even though President Franklin Roosevelt had claimed the bombers came from Shangri-La, Japanese planners had figured out that American carriers had been involved. Their plan at Midway had been to grab the island, then take out the United States Navy’s carriers when they rushed in.
Japan’s plan to keep the initiative had been foiled in a basement on Hawaii. Navy codebreakers, lead by Commander Joe Rochefort cracked the JN-25 code, and that enabled Captain Edwin T. Layton to give Admiral Chester W. Nimitz advance warning of Japan’s intentions. The United States had taken a hit at the Coral Sea, with the loss of USS Lexington (CV 2), while USS Yorktown (CV 5) was damaged.
But repairs to Yorktown were done in record time. And she joined her sister ships Enterprise (CV 6) and Hornet (CV 8) off Midway – and Japan had no idea they were there. When a Japanese search plane did find the carriers, it caught Admiral Chuichi Nagumo off balance. Nagumo, whose force started to come under attack from planes based on Midway, vacillated between ordering a strike on the American vessels or hitting Midway again.
Three torpedo squadrons equipped with the Douglas TBD Devastator took frightful losses. Only six returned to their carriers. Torpedo Squadron 8 lost all fifteen, with only one survivor – Ensign George Gay. Torpedo Squadron 3 had two survivors, while four from Torpedo Squadron 6 returned to the Enterprise.
But the torpedo squadron attacks bought time for the Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers to arrive. In the space of five minutes, planes from Enterprise fatally damaged Akagi and Kaga. A squadron from USS Yorktown delivered three devastating hits on the Soryu. Japan’s fourth fleet carrier on the scene, Hiryu, would survive long enough to cripple Yorktown, but planes from Yorktown and Enterprise would hit the Hiryu so hard she had to be scuttled the next day. The crew of the Yorktown would fight for their ship’s survival until a submarine attack sent her to the bottom.
Ironically, for what was perhaps the Navy’s most decisive battle in the Pacific Theater, only one person would receive the Medal of Honor. That person was Captain Richard Fleming, United States Marine Corps. During the attack on Mikuma, Fleming’s plane was hit. Despite the damage, Fleming pressed home his attack, scoring a near miss. After the near-miss, accounts disagree as to whether Fleming crashed his plane into Mikuma, or if it went into the sea.
Strikes from Enterprise and Hornet would later put Mikuma on the bottom of the Pacific, and damage her sister Mogami so badly she needed a year of repairs. Two destroyers escorting those cruisers were also shot up.
It would take over four decades to officially recognize Joe Rochefort for his part in making the finest moment of the United States Navy possible. Rochefort was sidelined after Midway due to bureaucratic conflicts with bureaucrats in Washington. He died on July 20, 1976, a month after the movie Midway premiered. In 1985, he would receive the Distinguished Service Medal that Nimitz recommended posthumously. The next year, he would get the Medal of Freedom. To date, no naval vessel has been named to honor Rochefort.