At 06:20 on June 4. 1942, Japanese carrier aircraft bombed and heavily damaged the U.S. base at Midway. However, American bombers were still able to refuel and attack the Japanese invasion force, and most of Midway’s land-based defenses were intact. Having taken off prior to the Japanese attack, American bombers based on Midway made several attacks on the Japanese carrier fleet.
At 07:15, Admiral Chuichi Nagumo ordered his reserve planes to be re-armed with contact-fused general purpose bombs for use against land targets. At 07:40 a Japanese scout plane reported a large American naval force of uncertain composition to the east. Admiral Nagumo reversed his order to re-arm the bombers and demanded information regarding the composition of the American force. However, Nagumo’s opportunity to attack the American ships was now limited by the imminent return of his Midway strike force that needed to land promptly or ditch into the sea. Additionally, constant flight deck activity associated with combat air patrol operations gave Nagumo no opportunity to position his reserve planes on the flight deck for launching.
US Navy Admiral Raymond Spruance, judging the need for an immediate attack urgent, launched several uncoordinated groups of fighters, bombers, and torpedo bombers toward the target. But the American carrier aircraft had difficulty locating the Japanese carriers. On incorrect headings and low on fuel, many turned back or ditched in the sea.
Torpedo Squadron VT-8 from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, led by LTC John C. Waldron, broke formation and followed the correct heading. Waldron’s Grumman F-4 Wildcat fighter escorts, low on fuel had to turn back, leaving Squadron VT-8’s obsolete, slow, under-armed Douglas TBD Devastators unescorted.
At 0920 Waldron’s squadron sighted the enemy carriers and began the attack, followed by Torpedo Squadron VT-6 led by LTC Eugene E. Lindsey and VT-3 led by LTC Lance E. Massey from the USS Enterprise, also without fighter escort. A few TBD Devastators managed to fly close enough to their targets to drop torpedoes and strafe the enemy ships, forcing the Japanese carriers to make sharp evasive maneuvers. But all of their torpedoes either missed or failed to explode.
Without fighter escort, all fifteen TBD Devastators of VT-8, 10/14 of VT-6 and 10/12 of VT-3 were shot down by Japanese Mitsubishi A6M2 Zeros without being able to inflict any damage.
The tragic loss of these torpedo squadrons without any hits, nevertheless achieved three important results that facilitated the subsequent successful American air attack on the Japanese carriers:
- Japanese carriers were thrown off balance, preventing them from launching an effective counterstrike
- Japanese combat air patrols were pulled out of position
- Many Japanese Zeros ran low on ammunition and fuel