Five Fateful Minutes at Midway

By Mitsuo Fuchida and Masatake Okumiya

Visibility was good. Clouds were gathering at about 3,000 meters, however, and though there were occasional breaks, they afforded good concealment for approaching enemy planes. At 1024 the order to start launching came from the bridge by voice-tube. The Air Officer flapped a white flag, and the first Zero fighter gathered speed and whizzed off the deck. At that instant a lookout screamed: “Hell-divers!” I looked up to see three black enemy planes plummeting toward our ship. Some of our machine guns managed to fire a few frantic bursts at them, but it was too late. The plump silhouettes of the American “Dauntless” dive bombers quickly grew larger, and then a number of black objects suddenly floated eerily from their wings. Bombs! Down they came straight toward me! I feel instinctively to the deck and crawled behind a command post mantelet.

The terrifying scream of dive bombers reached me first, followed by the crashing explosion of a direct hit. There was a blinding flash and then a second explosion, much louder than the first. I was shaken by a weird blast of warm air. There was still another shock, but less severe, apparently a near-miss. Then followed a startling quiet as the barking of guns suddenly ceased. I got up and looked at the sky. The enemy planes were already gone from sight.

The attackers had gotten in unimpeded because our fighters, which had engaged the preceding wave of torpedo planes only a few moments earlier, had not yet had time to regain altitude. Consequently, it may be said that the American dive bombers’ success was made possible by the earlier martyrdom of their torpedo planes. Also, our carriers had no time to evade because clouds hid the enemy’s approach until he dove down to the attack. We had been caught flatfooted in the most vulnerable condition possible—decks loaded with planes armed and fueled for an attack.

Looking about, I was horrified at the destruction that had been wrought in a matter of seconds. There was a huge hoe in the flight deck just behind the amidship elevator. The elevator itself, twisted like molten glass, was drooping into the hangar. Deck plates reeled upward in grotesque configurations. Planes stood tail up, belching livid flame and jet-black smoke. Reluctant tears streamed down my cheeks as I watched the fires spread, and I was terrified at the prospect of induced explosions which would surely doom the ship. I heard Masuda yelling, “Inside! Get inside! Everybody who isn’t working! Get inside!”

Unable to help, I staggered down a ladder and into the ready room. It was already jammed with badly burned victims from the hangar deck. A new explosion was followed quickly by several more, each causing the bridge structure to tremble. Smoke from the burning hangar gushed through passageways and into the bridge and ready room, forcing us to seek other refuge. Climbing back to the bridge I could see that Kaga and Soryu had also been hit and were giving off heavy columns of black smoke. The scene was horrible to behold.

Akagi had taken two direct hits, one on the after rim of the amidship elevator, the other on the rear guard of the portside of the flight deck. Normally, neither would have been fatal to the giant carrier, but induced explosions of fuel and munitions devastated whole sections of the ship, shaking the bridge and filling the air with deadly splinters. As the fire spread among planes lined up wing to wing on the after deck, their torpedoes began to explore, making it impossible to bring the fires under control. The entire hangar area was a blazing inferno, and the flames moved swiftly toward the bridge.

Because of the spreading fire, our general loss of combat efficiency, and especially the severance of external communication facilities, Nagumo’s Chief of Staff, Rear Admiral Kusaka, urged that the Flag be transferred at once to light cruiser Nagara . Admiral Nagumo gave only a half-hearted nod, but Kusaka patiently continued his entreaty; “Sir, most of our ships are still intact. You must command them.”

The situation demanded immediate action, but Admiral Nagumo was reluctant to leave his beloved flagship. Most of all he was loath to leave behind the officers and men of Akagi , with whom he had shared every joy and sorrow of war. With tears in his eyes, Captain Aoki spoke up: “Admiral, I will take care of the ship. Please, we all implore you, shift your flag to Nagara and resume command of the Fleet.”

At this moment Lieutenant Commander Nishibayashi, the Flag Secretary, came up and reported to Kusaka: “All passages below are afire, Sir. The only means of escape is by rope from the forward window of the bridge down the deck, then by the outboard passage to the anchor deck. Nagara ’s boat will come alongside the anchor deck port, and you can reach it by rope ladder.”

Kusaka made a final plea to Admiral Nagumo to leave the doomed ship. At last convinced that there was no possibility of maintaining command from Akagi , Nagumo bade the Captain good-bye and climbed from the bridge window with the aid of Nishibayashi. The Chief of Staff and other staff and headquarters officers followed. The time was 1046.

On the bridge there remained only Captain Aoki, his Navigator, the Air Officer, a few enlisted men, and myself. Aoki was trying desperately to get in touch with the engine room. The Chief Navigator was struggling to see if anything could be done to regain rudder control. The others were gathered on the anchor deck fighting the raging fire as best they could. But the unchecked flames were already licking at the bridge. Hammock mantelets around the bridge structure were beginning to burn. The Air Officer looked back at me and said, “Fuchida, we won’t be able to stay on the bridge much longer. You’d better get to the anchor deck before it is too late.”

In my condition this was no easy task. Helped by some sailors, I managed to get out of the bridge window and slid down the already smoldering rope to the gun deck. There I was still ten feet above the flight deck. The connecting monkey ladder was red hot, as was the iron plate on which I stood. There was nothing to do but jump, which I did. At the same moment another explosion occurred in the hangar, and the resultant blast sent me sprawling. Luckily the deck on which I landed was not yet afire, for the force of the fall knocked me out momentarily. Returning to consciousness, I struggled to rise to my feet, but both of my ankles were broken.

Crewmen finally came to my assistance and took me to the anchor deck, which was already jammed. There I was strapped into a bamboo stretcher and lowered to a boat which carried me, along with other wounded, to light cruiser Nagara . The transfer of Magumo’s staff and of the wounded was completed at 1130. The cruiser got under way, flying Admiral Nagumo’s flag at her mast.

Meanwhile, efforts to bring Akagi ’s fires under control continued, but it became increasingly obvious that this was impossible. As the ship came to a halt, her bow was still pointed into the wind, and pilots and crew had retreated to the anchor to escape the flames, which were reaching down to the lower hangar deck. When the dynamos went out, the ship was deprived not only of illumination but of pumps for combating the conflagration as well. The fireproof hangar doors had been destroyed, and in this dire emergency even the chemical fire extinguishers failed to work.

The valiant crew located several hand pumps, brought them to the anchor deck, and managed to force water through long hoses into the lower hangar and decks below. Firefighting parties, wearing gas masks, carried cumbersome pieces of equipment and fought the flames courageously. But every induced explosion overhead penetrated to the deck below, injuring men and interrupting their desperate efforts. Stepping over fallen comrades, another damage control party would dash in to continue the struggle, only to be mowed down by the next explosion. Corpsmen and volunteers carried out dead and wounded from the lower first aid station, which was jammed with injured men. Doctors and surgeons worked like machines.

The engine-rooms were still undamaged, but fires in the middle deck sections had cut off all communication between the bridge and the lower levels of the ship. Despite this the explosions, shocks, and crashes above, plus the telegraph indicator which had rung up “Stop,” told the engine-room crews in the bowels of the ship that something must be wrong. Still, as long as the engines were undamaged and full propulsive power was available, they had no choice but to stay at General Quarters. Repeated efforts were made to communicate with the bridge, but every channel of contact, including the numerous auxiliary ones, had been knocked out.

The intensity of the spreading fires increased until the heat-laden air invaded the ship’s lowest sections through the intakes, and men working there began falling from suffocation. In a desperate effort to save his men, the Chief Engineer, Commander K. Tampo, made his way up through the flaming decks until he was able to get a message to the Captain, reporting conditions below. An order was promptly given for all men in engine spaces to come up on deck. But it was too late. The orderly who tried to carry the order down through the blazing hell never returned, and not a man escaped from the engine-rooms.

As the number of dead and wounded increased and the fires got further out of control, Captain Aoki finally decided at 1800 that the ship must be abandoned. The injured were lowered into boats and cutters sent alongside by the screening destroyers. Many uninjured men leapt into the sea and swam away from the stricken ship. Destroyers Arashi and Nowaki picked up all survivors. When the rescue work was completed, Captain Aoki radioed to Admiral Nagumo at 1920 from one of the destroyers, asking permission to sink the crippled carrier. This inquiry was monitored by the Combined Fleet flagship, whence Admiral Yamamoto dispatched an order at 2225 to delay the carrier’s disposition. Upon receipt of this instruction, the Captain returned to his carrier alone. He reached the anchor deck, which was still free from fire, and there lashed himself to an anchor to await the end.

Stand-by destroyer Arashi received word at midnight that an enemy Task Force was ninety miles to the east of Akagi ’s and her own position. One hour later a lookout sighted several warships through the darkness, and the commander of the destroyer division, Captain K. Ariga, gave chase with all four of his ships, Arashi , Nowaki , Hagikaze , and Maikaze . He failed to catch up with or identify these shadows, however, and returned to stand by the carrier. It later turned out that the mysterious ships belonged to Rear Admiral Tanaka’s DesRon 2.

When Admiral Yamamoto ordered the delay in disposing of Akagi , it was because he saw no need for haste in this action since his force was then proceeding eastward to make a night attack on the enemy. Now, however, as defeat became apparent and the prospect of a night engagement grew dim, a quick decision became necessary. At 0350 on June 5, Admiral Yamamoto finally gave the fateful order to scuttle the great carrier. Admiral Nagumo relayed the order to Captain Ariga, directing him to rejoin the force when his mission had been accomplished. Ariga in turn ordered his four destroyers to fire torpedoes at the doomed ship. Nowaki ’s skipper, Commander Magotaro Koga, later described how painful it was for him to fire the powerful new Type-93 torpedo into the carrier, which was his first target of the war. Within twenty minutes all four destroyers had fired. Seven minutes later the sea closed over the mighty ship, and a terrific underwater explosion occurred, sending out shocks that were felt in each destroyer. The carrier’s final resting place was at latitude 30° 30’ N, longitude 179° 08’ W. The time was 0455, just minutes before the sun rose on June 5.

All but 263 members of the carrier’s crew survived this last of her great battles. Before the fatal torpedoes were fired, Akagi ’s navigator, Commander Y. Miura, had boarded the carrier and persuaded Captain Aoki to give up his determination to go down with the ship. Both men finally moved safely to one of the destroyers.

Kaga , which had been hit almost simultaneously with Akagi in the sudden dive-bombing attack, did not last as long as the flagship. Nine enemy planes had swooped down on her at 1024, each dropping a single bomb. The first three were near-misses which sent up geysers of water around her without doing any damage. But no fewer than four of the next six bombs scored direct hits on the forward, middle, and after sections of the flight deck. The bomb which struck closest to the bow landed just forward of the bridge, blowing up a small gasoline truck which was standing there and spreading fire and death throughout the bridge and surrounding deck area. Captain Jisaku Okada and most of the other occupants of the ship’s nerve center were killed on the spot. The senior officer to survive the holocaust was Commander Takahisa Amagai, the Air Officer, who immediately took command of the carrier.

Furious fired broke out, seemingly everywhere. During the succeeding hours damage control crews fought desperately to check the spreading flames, but their efforts were largely unavailing, and there was scarcely a place of shelter left in the entire ship. Commander Amagai was forced to seek refuge on the starboard boat deck, where he was joined by many of the men. The carrier’s doom seemed imminent.

Some three and a half hours after the bombing attack, a new menace appeared. The flame-wracked carrier now lay dead in the water and had begun to list. Commander Amagai, scanning the adjacent sea, suddenly discerned the telltale periscope of a submarine a few thousand meters from the ship. Minutes later, at 1410, Lieutenant Commander Yoshio Kunisada, a damage control officer, saw three white torpedo wakes streaking toward the carrier. They seemed sure to hit, and Kunisada closed his eyes and prayed as he waited for the explosions. None came. Two of the torpedoes barely missed the ship, and the third, though it struck, miraculously failed to explode. Instead, it glanced off the side and broke into two sections, the warhead sinking into the depths while the buoyant after section remained floating nearby. Several of Kaga ’s crew, who were swimming about in the water after having jumped or been blown overboard when the bombs struck the carrier, grabbed onto the floating section and used it as a support while awaiting rescue. Thus did a weapon of death become instead a life-saver in one of the curious twists of war.

Kaga ’s protecting destroyers, Hagikaze and Maikaze , were unaware of the submarine’s presence until the torpedo attack occurred. Immediately they sped out to it suspected location and delivered a heavy depth-charge attack, the results of which were not known. The submarine failed to reappear, so the destroyers turned back to the crippled carrier and resumed rescue operations.

Meanwhile, uncontrollable fires continued to rage throughout Kaga ’s length, and finally, at 1640, Commander Amagai gave the order to abandon ship. Survivors were transferred to the two destroyers standing by. Two hours later the conflagration subsided enough to enable Commander Amagai to lead a damage-control party back on board in the hope of saving the ship. Their valiant efforts proved futile, however, and they again withdrew. The once crack carrier, now a burning hulk, was wrenched by two terrific explosions before sinking into the depths at 1925 in position 30° 20’ N, 179°17’ W. In this battle 800 men of Kaga ’s crew, one third of her complement, were lost.

Soryu , the third victim of the enemy dive-bombing attack, received one hit fewer than Kaga , but the devastation was just as great.  When the attack broke, deck parties were busily preparing the carrier’s planes for take-off, and their first awareness of the onslaught came when great flashes of fire were seen spouting from Kaga , some distance off to port, followed by explosions and tremendous columns of black smoke. Eyes instinctively looked skyward just in time to see a spear of thirteen American planes plummeting down on Soryu . It was 1025.

Three hits were scored in as many minutes. The first blasted the flight deck in front of the forward elevator, and the next two straddled the amidship elevator, completely wrecking the deck and spreading fire to gasoline tanks and munition storage rooms. By 1030 the ship was transformed into a hell of smoke and flames, and induced explosions followed shortly.

In the next ten minutes the main engines stopped, the steering system went out, and fire mains were destroyed. Crewmen forced by the flames to leave their posts had just arrived on deck when a mighty explosion blasted many of them into the water. Within twenty minutes of the first bomb hit, the ship was such a mass of fire that Captain Ryusaku Yanagimoto ordered “Abandon ship!” Many men jumped into the water to escape the searing flames and were picked up by destroyers Hamakaze and Isokaze . Others made more orderly transfers to the destroyers.

It was soon discovered, however, that Captain Yanagimoto had remained on the bridge of the blazing carrier. No ship commander in the Japanese Navy was more beloved by his men. His popularity was such that whenever he was going to address the assembled crew, they would gather an hour or more in advance to insure getting a place up front. Now, they were determined to rescue him at all costs.

Chief Petty Officer Abe, a Navy wrestling champion, was chosen to return and rescue the Captain, because it had been decided to bring him to safety by force if he refused to come willingly. When Abe climbed Soryu ’s bridge, he found Captain Yanagimoto standing there motionless, sword in hand, gazing resolutely toward the ship’s bow. Stepping forward, Abe said, “Captain, I have come on behalf of all your men to take you to safety. They are waiting for you. Please come with me to the destroyer, Sir.”

When this entreaty met with silence, Abe guessed the Captain’s thoughts and started toward him with the intention of carrying him bodily to the waiting boat. But the sheer strength of will and determination of his grim-faced commander stopped him short. He turned tearfully away, and as he left the bridge he heard Captain Yanagimoto calmly singing “Kimigayo,” the national anthem.

At 1913, while her survivors watched from the nearby destroyers, Soryu finally disappeared into a watery grave, carrying with her the bodies of 718 men, including her Captain.

Not one of the many observers who witnessed the last hours of this great carrier saw any sign of an enemy submarine or of submarine torpedoes. There was a succession of explosions in the carrier before she sank, but these were so unquestionably induced explosions that they could not have been mistaken for anything else. It seems beyond doubt, therefore, that American accounts which credit U.S. submarine Nautilus with delivering the coup de grace to Soryu have confused her with Kaga .

 

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