Battle of Midway, 4-7 June 1942

Posted: Thursday, June 02, 2011 by Travis Cody in
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I've written about the Battle for Midway Atoll in the past.  If you like, you can read those posts here and here.   Today I'd like to tell you a little about Midway's land based air defense.


It's often overlooked, but fighter planes and bombers launched from the Atoll's landing strip got first shots off before the planes from USS Enterprise, USS Yorktown, and USS Hornet sank the four enemy carriers.  Midway's bombers continued to harass the enemy throughout the engagement, despite deficiencies in speed and maneuverability when matched against the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M "Zero" long range fighter, Nakajima B5N "Kate" torpedo bomber, and Aichi D3A "Val" dive bomber.

Douglas SBD Dauntless
Marine Aircraft Group 22 (MAG-22) was formed at Midway on 1 March 1942, commanded by Lt Col Ira B Kimes.  MAG-22 consisted of a Marine fighter squadron (VMF-221) and a Marine scout-bomber squadron (VMSB-241).

Major Lofton R Henderson USMC (1903-1942) commanded 16 Douglas SBD-2 Dauntless dive bombers and Major Benjamin W Norris commanded 11 Vought SB2U-3 Vindicator dive bombers.  On the morning of 4 June 1942, PBY Catalina scout planes launched from Midway confirmed by radio an enemy carrier bearing down on the Atoll at 180 miles distances, speed 25 knots. 

Major Lofton Henderson USMC
Major Henderson took his group to 9,000 feet.  At 0755, the flight sighted the enemy and coordinated its attack.  They were jumped almost immediately by Japanese Zeros.  The SBDs that made it through the fighter umbrella dove on the enemy and released bombs at 500 feet.  Pilots reported at least 3 direct hits and smoke from the target as they retired back toward Midway, but later reports confirmed that none of the bombs actually scored a hit on any enemy vessels.

Of the 16 SBDs in Major Henderson's attack group, 8 did not make it back.  Those that did return and land safely were badly damaged and could not immediately return to the fight.

Vought SB2U-3 Vindicator
Major Norris and his group of 11 SB2U-3 bombers approached the enemy at 13,000 feet.  They made contact at 0820 and were also jumped by Zeros that chased them off the primary target of an aircraft carrier and forced them instead to pursue a battleship.  Rather than dive on the enemy, the pilots dropped ordinance from altitude.  Despite constant attacks from enemy fighters, the bombers reported at least 2 hits on the battleship and observed that she was smoking and listing as they returned to Midway.  Unfortunately, these reported hits were in error.

Both Major Henderson and Major Norris were listed as missing in action and presumed killed.  They both received the Navy Cross, awarded posthumously.  Many other pilots, crew, and ground support personnel were decorated for their bravery.  VMSB-241 lost 19 aircraft and 37 men killed, missing, or wounded in action. 

Major Floyd "Red" Parks, USMC
Meanwhile, the fighters of VMF-221 launched in defense of the airstrip at Midway.  Major Floyd Parks (1911-1942) commanded 21 Brewster F2A-3 Buffalos and 7 Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats.  The Buffalos were slow and not very agile.  The Wildcats were better planes, but there just weren't enough Wildcats and neither plane was any match against the Zeros.  Despite that disadvantage, Major Parks and his pilots shot down 17 enemy aircraft.  But they lost 13 Buffalos and 2 Wildcats, and Major Parks was killed along with many others.

The pilots of VMF-221 were awarded 23 Navy Crosses for valor during the battle for Midway.  But the squadron was effectively decimated.  It would be reconstituted later in the war, deploying eventually as part of MAG-21 to participate in the fighting at Guadalcanal, Bougainville, and New Georgia.  Marian E Carl (1915-1998), who ultimately rose to the rank of Major General and was a pilot in VMF-221, was the first Marine Ace in WWII.  Lt Col Harold W Bauer (1908-1942), who was killed at Guadalcanal, received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the fighting there.

VMF-221 would earn 185 air to air victories during World War II, second most of any Marine fighter squadron. 

Brewster F2A-3 Buffalo
Despite suffering severe losses and inflicting very little comparative damage to either enemy ships or aircraft, Midway's air defense elements helped to kept the Japanese off balance and guessing from 4 June through 7 June.  The SBD and SB2U attacks forced the enemy task force into defensive maneuvers during which they could neither launch nor recover aircraft.  And the pilots of VMF-221, in their old and slow Buffalos, scattered attacking formations to such a degree that the first wave of Japanese bombers failed to destroy Midway's landing strip. 

Carrier based aircraft from USS Enterprise, USS Hornet, and USS Yorktown ultimately destroyed the Japanese carriers.  That led to the reversal of fortunes in the Pacific campaign, ending in the Japanese defeat.  But while that glory goes to the fighter and bomber squadrons from those three gals, be sure to remember the men who flew older and slower planes off the Atoll and into harm's way.

These are just hi-lights I've given you here.  There was so much going on during the 3-4 days of the battle that it can be difficult to get the timing organized.  There are also conflicting reports and many articles available that can distort the facts.  One thing is clear to me though...the gallantry and intrepidity of the men who fought must be honored.  So I do so here.

Should you be interested in a more in depth study of the Battle of Midway, check out this account or this account.

7 comments:

  1. I remember reading a book called "Clear for Action," which had a great piece about the battle of Midway. this is a nice addition to that since that book talked really only about the naval aspects

  1. Akelamalu says:

    Interesting post Trav, thankyou.

  1. thanks for posting this one.

  1. Jeni says:

    I don't know if it would be considered wrong or disrespectful to say that I enjoyed reading this piece -considering the losses sustained in the Battle for Midway of men and equipment, but I think you know and understand how I mean that word - "enjoy." Your writings about various aspects of WW2 and battles around the world are always interesting and yes, enjoyable readings because they are also very understandable. Keep up the great work!

  1. Dang dude... you should put all these into a book