Marine Aviators at the Battle of Midway
Early June, 1942
The Japanese Empire was at the height of its expansion. One last, insignificant possession of the United States remained to be cleared from the western Pacific Ocean. A mighty Japanese fleet was steaming to do battle and capture Midway. If things went truly well, the Japanese would lure the American fleet into a decisive naval engagement. There was little doubt, at least in Tokyo, that the numerically superior, better-equipped, and much more experienced Japanese fleet would be triumphant.
The Japanese fleet included four of the aircraft carriers that had performed so ably at Pearl Harbor: the Akagi, the Hiryu, the Kaga, and the Soryu. These were accompanied by two huge battleships: the Haruna and the Kirishima. They proceeded as an integrated battle group, their speed constrained by the top speed of the battleships. The time advantage conceded to the Americans would prove costly.
The Japanese had planned on all six carriers from the Pearl Harbor raid, but Shokaku had been badly damaged at the Battle of the Coral Sea in early May. Zuikaku, while not damaged herself, had lost most of her planes and pilots and been forced to return to Japan for refitting. The United States lost the carrier USS Lexington. The Japanese were forced to turn back from their planned invasion of Port Moresby, so the Battle of the Coral Sea was a strategic victory for the Americans. Material loses on both sides, while certainly not trivial, were not decisive.
The Japanese were seeking a decisive victory at Midway.
So were the Americans.
The U.S. forces were deployed in two Task Forces. TF16, under Rear Admiral Spruance, had two carriers, the USS Hornet and the USS Enterprise. TF17, under Rear Admiral Fletcher, had the carrier USS Yorktown.
The fleets were on converging courses to history.
The defenses at Midway were meager, cobbled together quickly at the outbreak of hostilities -- the perfect metaphor for the American lack of preparedness prior to WWII.
The defenses included:
- Ground Assets - Sixth Marine Defense Battalion (reinforced).
- Naval Assets - Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 1 (MTBRon 1) with eight PT Boats.
- Air Assets - Army Air Force - Seventh Army Air Force Detachment with four B-26 Martin Marauders and 19 B-17 Flying Fortresses.
- Air Assets - Marine - Marine Fighting Squadron 221 (VMF-221 with 20 F2A-3 Brewster Buffalos and seven F4F-3 Grumman Wildcats) and Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 241 (VMSB-241 with 11 SB2U-3 Vought Vindicators and 16 SBD-2 Douglas Dauntlesses).
The Marine aviators would carry the brunt of the early fighting. VMF-221 would attack the incoming Japanese aircraft, estimated at 108 planes, 36 level bombers, 36 dive bombers, and 36 fighters. VMSB-241 would attack the Japanese surface fleet.
Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 241
VMSB-241 was equipped with dive bombers, 11 SB2U-3 Vought Vindicators, and 16 SBD-2 Douglas Dauntlesses. The SBD-2s and ten of the squadron's pilots arrived on Midway on 26 May 1942. Many of the pilots were untrained in dive-bombing, some had never flown their new aircraft, and gasoline was in short supply. Pilot training was a key concern going into the action.
Maj. Lofton R. Henderson, the commanding officer of the VMSB-241 attack, divided his planes into two groups. He led the first group, comprising 16 SBD-2s. The second group, comprising 11 SB2U-3s, was led by Maj. Benjamin Norris. The planes would attack by glide-bombing because of the lack of training in dive-bombing. They took off at approximately 0630 hours on 4 June 1942. The SBD-2s attacked a Kaga-class carrier. The after-action report indicates that the carrier was hit three times and badly damaged. Later damage assessment would show that the attack had resulted in near misses but no direct hits. The SB2U-3s attacked the battleship Haruna. As in the case of the carrier, there were near misses but no direct hits.
All of the personnel of VMSB-241 performed in the best tradition of the Marines. They flew against overwhelming odds and aggressively attacked. Half of the aviators were killed, including Maj. Henderson and Maj. Norris. Total casualties were approximately 70%.
Those of you who have read of the battles and sacrifices on Guadalcanal know of the central role played by the airfield Henderson Field, named after Maj. Lofton R. Henderson.
Marine Fighting Squadron 221
VMF-221 consisted of 20 F2A-3 Brewster Buffalos and seven F4F-3 Grumman Wildcats. The Brewster Buffalo was no match for the Japanese Zero and was being phased out in favor of the Grumman Wildcat. At the time of the battle, most of the squadron's planes were Buffalos. The squadron's pilots were experienced in peacetime, but they had no combat experience.
Maj. Floyd B. Parks divided VMF-221 into two flights. He led the first flight, comprising 12 Buffalos, directly to the incoming Japanese. One of the 12 developed mechanical problems and had to return to base. Only one of the remaining 11 Buffalos survived. Maj. Parks and eight other pilots died. Capt. Kirk Armistead led the second flight, comprising eight Buffalos and seven Wildcats. The second flight lost an additional four pilots and planes.
The after-action report filed by Capt. Armistead shows that VMF-221 inflicted serious losses on the enemy. Capt. Armistead included the following tribute:
The F2A-3 is sadly out-classed in all respects by the Japanese 00 Fighters. Although all pilots of this squadron were aware of this fact, they drove their attack home with daring and skill.
The Japanese air attack did not achieve its goals because of VMF-221 and the ground defenses, and a second attack had to be mounted. In the confusion, with fuel and ammunition on the flight decks, the Japanese carriers were extremely vulnerable to air attack. Enter the American carrier planes.
The Naval Battle
In any short treatment of a consequential and complex event, much detail must be omitted. This essay concentrates on the Marine aviators from the ground bases at Midway. The Navy aviators from the three American carriers were faced with similar difficulties to what the Marines endured. They were vastly outnumbered, with less experience and lesser performance aircraft. They, like the Marines, attacked without question and with great courage. It was the Navy aviators who got through and destroyed all four Japanese carriers.
The following is from remarks given by former Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger at a Battle of Midway commemorative dinner on 5 June 2003:
Through an extraordinary combination of the skill and courage of our pilots, splendid intelligence, prudent risk-taking by our commanders that paid off, and sheer good luck, the apparently inferior American forces were victorious. This victory occurred despite the inferiority of our aircraft, the ineffectiveness of our torpedoes, the substantial absence of backup surface ships, and our overall numerical inferiority. You know the rest! Four Japanese carriers had been sunk. It all confirmed the dictum of Otto von Bismarck: "the Lord God has special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America." The Japanese offensive had now been blunted. The Japanese fleet turned back toward the Home Islands and the opportunity for victory had been lost forever.
The cost was high. Each of the three American carriers lost about 50% of its aircraft. Hornet lost 32 planes and 37 aviators. Enterprise lost 32 planes and 51 aviators. Yorktown lost 31 planes and 23 aviators. Yorktown was badly damaged by enemy aircraft and later sunk by a submarine, with a significant loss of life.
The Old Burying Yard at Kittery Point is idyllically situated on the rugged coast of Maine. It is a small cemetery, maybe two hundred graves, on a granite outcropping overlooking the entrance to the Piscataqua River, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, and Portsmouth Harbor. Many of the monuments are set off with American flags, signifying veterans, such as the gravestone shown below:
The simple stone is the marker for the Alvord family: Henry, Margaret, and their son John. The ever-encroaching lichen partially covers the inscription "IN LOVING MEMORY."
John Robert Alvord was a United States Marine, a captain, an aviator, and a warrior. He flew Brewster Buffalo MF3 of VMF-221 and fought and died at the Battle of Midway.
Captain Alvord posthumously received the Navy Cross "for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in the line of his profession." The Navy Cross is the second-highest medal of valor, the highest being the Congressional Medal of Honor. Twenty-two other pilots of Captain Alvord's squadron also received the Navy Cross, mostly posthumously.
Each year between Memorial Day and 4 June, I take the short drive up the coast to Kittery Point and visit the Alvord memorial. It is a time of reflection, patriotism, and pride in honor of those brave men and women who have served and continue to serve. Thank you.
Mike Johnson is a concerned citizen, a small-government conservative, and a live-free-or-die resident of New Hampshire. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.