The Fleets Clash
Now came the Japanese turn for bad news, as the combined American fleet was spotted 200 miles away – well within range to launch a bomber attack.
Spruance timed his attack carefully, waiting until the Japanese would be pulling back their planes to refuel. The first three waves of bombers and torpedo planes from the American carriers still suffered terrible casualties to little effect, thanks to the Zeros defending the Japanese carriers. But by the fourth wave the Zeros had also had to land to refuel. With few enemy fighters in the air, the Americans were able to cripple three Japanese carriers – the Kaga, the Soryu, and the Akagi. Because the Japanese planes were on deck to re-arm and re-fuel, many were destroyed where they sat.
While this was happening, a group of bombers from the Hiryu were on their way to attack the Yorktown, flying with six Zeros for support. Spotted 46 miles out, most of them were shot down by American fighters. But three bombs hit the Yorktown, knocking out the engine room and starting fires that threatened the explosive supplies of fuel and ammunition.
Captain Elliot Buckmaster and the rest of the crew raced to save the Yorktown. Fires were brought under control with great loss of life. Engineers got the ship moving again. A huge new Stars and Stripes flag was raised above the ship.
But a wave of torpedo planes now arrived. Again, most were shot down, but most were not enough. Two hit the Yorktown below the waterline. Lights, power, and communications all went out as the carrier started listing to port. At last, Buckmaster gave the order to abandon ship.
Up until now, the Japanese carrier Hiryu had managed to avoid attacks by American planes. That was about to end, as a scout plane spotted the carrier. Twenty-four Dauntless, ten of them originally from the Yorktown, set off from the Enterprise, followed by sixteen dive-bombers from the Hornet.
They were intercepted by Zeros, but this time, most of the attackers got through. Four bombs hit the flight deck of the Hiryu, starting fires that the crew was unable to bring under control. The Zero fighters, running out of fuel and with nowhere to land, were forced to ditch in the sea.
Yamamoto still hoped to reach Midway with his invasion force. Without cover from the carriers, and with American bombers flying from the island, his only hope to do this safely was under cover of night, and he pushed for this. But then word arrived of the other American carriers in the area, and that two of the cruisers with which he wanted to bombard the island would not arrive by nightfall. At three in the morning on the 5th June, he reluctantly gave the order canceling the invasion of Midway.
The Hiryu was eventually abandoned and sunk. The Yorktown was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine while being towed to Pearl Harbor, and she too sank.
Japanese pilots had out-matched the Americans in the skies above Midway, but still been unable to protect their fleet, and so had been lost along with their carriers. The Americans could afford to build new aircraft carriers. The Japanese fleet, now a ghost of its former glory, could not.
The Americans now controlled the seas, and could commence the bloody campaign to retake the scattered islands of the Pacific.