Midway: When the Airplane Sank an Empire (Part IIIb)

Image: ‘80-G-7878’ by National Museum of the U.S. Navy. Released under Public Domain Mark 1.0 License

Destination: Fate. The battle.

The pilot detects his target: there it lies, a visible warship beneath his SBD Dauntless dive-bomber wings, having a remarkable wide red circle at its deck. He also realizes that there are no enemy fighters to stop them. He decides to attack, and orders his squadron to attack the warships and other similar ones that were also detected. The planes dive towards their targets while facing as only opposition the Japanese flak. In a full display of bravery, they execute their attack with determination and cold blood. When they are flying away from the enemy fleet, the leave 3 Japanese main aircraft carriers in flames, doomed to lie until the end of times at the bottom of the sea. but not only the Japanese carriers are doomed, as the attack shatters the aims of Japan to be the dominant power in the Pacific. The brave US Navy pilots changed a war and History with a dozen of planes and bombs.

Midway is among the most decisive and great naval battles in History, like the battles of Salamis, Lepanto, the defeat of the Spanish ‘Invincible Armada’, Trafalgar and Jutland/Skagerrak. Yet the Battle of Midway stands for being the first decisive battle where the airplane and the aircraft carrier decided the outcome of a battle – and even a war[1]. This naval battle basically represents the rise of a new type of warship, which back then was received with mixed assessments and serious doubts, and faced the opposition of those preferring the battleship over those that envisioned the aircraft carrier as a decisive weapon, displaced the battleship as the capital ship, according to Crawford (2001).

As it was reviewed in the first part, Midway became important as it allowed the US to guard the routes going to the east towards Hawaii, guarding also these islands, the naval base of Pearl Harbour and the American Pacific coast. It was also important for supporting any operations with the air and naval base placed there, being also a relay station for a trans-Pacific submarine cable connecting Hawaii and the Philippines. For Japan, it was valuable a prize to win, as it would allow the Japanese Navy to reach Hawaii and the continental US, providing also a shield to operations – and conquests – in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific. It would provide also a platform for naval power projection to neutralize US efforts.

Considering these factors, it was a matter of time for Midway to become the scenario for an epic and decisive battle between two regional hegemons, that decided the fate of the Pacific War and of two great – naval powers. And it was the scenario where History would be changed, being the zenith of the geopolitical competition unleashed by the US and Japan, and the ultimate clash between Leviathans. And just like the encounter between the two gigantic mythological creatures, the seas (and the world) would shake tremendously.

A haunting air raid and a prelude

The Battle of Midway was preceded by another battle roughly a month, often shadowed by the Battle of Midway, which prevents people to realize the importance of this preceding battle: the Battle of Coral Sea. This battle is important as it meant an opportunity for both contending navies to have a brief and preparatory encounter, all under a set of naval operations that reinforced or diminished their operational capacities of either side, or simply pushed to commit all. And even this battle made one of the sides to have a wrong assessment of its opponent, which would be decisive in Midway.

As it was aforementioned, the Battle of Coral Sea was the very first naval encounter where the aircraft carriers became the main warship of choice, where direct contact between both fleets did not take place except the embarked naval planes. The battleship also played no significant role here (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011).

The battles of Midway and Coral Sea were possible thanks to an apparently unrelated event that would prove crucial for the Pacific War. This event was the air raid by Major “Billy” Mitchel against Tokyo and other cities 18th of April, 1942[2]. This air attack, performed by a mere dozen of B-25 Mitchell medium bombers which was at first mocked by the Japanese press, managed to instil fear and insecurity in the Japanese high command and main admirals. First, it managed to highlight the vulnerability of Japanese cities to American air power. Second, doubts were casted over the established Pacific security zone. As a result, many concluded that the bombers couldn’t have taken off from aircraft carriers given their size, but rather from an airbase in an island. As Midway became the obvious answer to this question, Yamamoto and the Japanese Imperial Navy considered necessary to seize Midway to prevent further similar attacks. It was also necessary to meet other objectives in China and near Australia so to stop renewed ‘hit-and-run’ American, and cut supply lines between the US and Australia. The Japanese were conscious of the value of Australia as a forward base for the US to retake the Pacific, along with the fact that General Mac Arthur was actually based there, hence the importance of isolating it (Dahms, 1974; Gibelli, 1972; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969; Thomas, 2007).

The ‘Operation MO’ was hence devised, aiming at attacking the Tulagi, the Salomon Islands and Port Moresby; with New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa to be targeted so to besiege Australia. The Japanese Imperial Navy advanced towards the targeted areas, dividing its forces, but unaware that the US Navy was ready thanks to its intelligence services. The Battle of Coral Sea started in consequence: when the Japanese seized Tulagi, the USS Yorktown attacked, while the USS Lexington attacked the Japanese convoy. After this, the Japanese decided to look for the American aircraft carriers to no avail, as both fleets were not able to detect each other. Mistaken sightings by both sides, whose planes thought they detected the main fleets, led to ineffective attacks and sinking of tankers and destroyers mistaken for battleships and aircraft carriers (Gibelli, 1972, Canales y del Rey, 2016).

At a point, both fleets detected each other, unleashing the first aircraft carrier battle in History: The Japanese carriers Shoho, Zuikaku and Shokaku fought the US carriers USS Lexington and USS Yorktown. The result of the battle is hard to determine at first sight, as the US Navy clearly took a comparatively hard rate of losses, by losing the USS Lexington and having the USS Yorktown severely damaged, considering the US Navy was short of aircraft carriers. The Japanese managed to weak the US Navy further, yet they missed an opportunity to destroy the US naval forces deployed thanks to the indecision by the Japanese commanding officer to pursue the American warships. This mistake would have severe consequences for the Japanese in Midway[3]. But the Japanese suffered the loss of the light aircraft carrier Shoho, and with the Zuikaku and the Shokaku having lost most of their air wings, hence being neutralized, even more as the last one suffered heavy damages. Tactically, the Japanese were clearly victorious. But in a strategic sense, the Americans managed to ward off Japan and to neutralize its aims of landing in New Guinea and block Australia, as Japanese air superiority was neutralized and the landings were forced to be cancelled (Cau, 2011; Canales & del Rey, 2016; Dahms, 1974; Gibelli, 1972; Murray & Millet, 2005; Ralby, 2013; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969). That is one of the important elements the Battle of Coral Sea had.

Yet there were other factors behind this battle’s importance for the Battle of Midway. For instance, the battle provided the US Navy with an opportunity to implement operational and tactical lessons learned at the ‘hit-and-run’ limited operations implemented in the islands of Wake, Rabaul and New Britain; and to test its strategy to fight the Japanese. It also benefited the US Navy by providing enhanced knowledge over its adversary, which would be crucial for the incoming battle. And as a last, the fact that two Japanese aircraft carriers were neutralized, denying them to take part in Midway, allowed the US Navy to face the Yamamoto more easily, as the balance of power was slightly reduced. The outcome of the power would have been different if the Zuikaku and the Shokaku would have taken part in the Battle of Midway (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Gibelli, 1972).

Noteworthy to remark, that the intelligence played a vital role in this battle, the same way as it would do in the Battle of Midway, as it alerted Admiral Frank Fletcher bout the Japanese aims and intentions, prompting him to gather a naval force to thwart such plans at the north of Australia (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

A Navy against the ropes

After the Battle of Coral Sea, and despite managing to dislodge and even neutralize the Japanese plans, the US Navy was in a bad shape to still face the Japanese on a head-on confrontation. It was already weakened after Pearl Harbour and the aforementioned battle further weakened it, thus facing the adversary in inferiority of conditions, having only 4 aircraft carriers in contrast to 10 of the Japanese. Yet it must be reminded that the fast repair of the USS Yorktown made it to be the 4th carrier, while absence of the the Zuikaku and the Shokaku, and the loss of the Shoho meant the Japanese were having 7 aircraft carriers in reality. In any case, even the two task forces assembled by Admiral Nimitz to face the Japanese Imperial Navy, the Task force 16 and the Task Force 17, were very small and having scarce assets. For instance, Task Force 16 was comprised by the USS Enterprise and USS Hornet, 6 cruisers and 11 destroyers; Task Force 17 was comprised by the USS Yorktown, 2 cruisers and 6 destroyers[4]. Both forces were very small in contrast to the total force deployed by Japan in Midway and their supporting operations: 9 battleships, 5 aircraft carriers (one was a light carrier), 14 cruisers, 32 destroyers, 21 submarines and 700 airplanes (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011; Macdonald, 1993; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

Clearly, the US Navy was facing a dire situation, as it was at absolute disadvantage and facing a very resolved enemy willing to use his naval superiority to destroy its opponents, and expanding further while consolidating its advances. But as the US Navy was between the wall and the sword, it began to learn how to deal with the sword. Following Gibelli (1972) and Murray & Millet (2005), the US Navy began to wage some limited but important counterattacks in the islands of Wake, Rabaul and New Britain; at these operations, the US Navy learned how to match the Japanese naval and army aircraft. Also, the US Navy numerical inferiority was compensated by two important elements: the quality of the command, in the person of Admiral Nimitz, and the excellent intelligence service that gave a hint about the Japanese plans. As it was reviewed in the previous part, all of these factors were decisive in the Battle of Midway.

The Encounter: A Chess at the Seas

Operations at Midway were part of the general aforementioned plan by the Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, so to tackle the American limited ‘hit-and-run’ type operations, including the ‘Doolittle Raid’ over Tokyo. As a result, the Imperial Navy would advance towards Midway to seize this valuable strategic outpost, and to destroy the US Navy aircraft carriers by ambushing them into a decisive encounter. The aims were to further secure the territories and resources recently seized, but also to seize Hawaii and seeks a beneficial armistice, destroying also the US naval power before its industrial might would change the balance of power. Hence, an amphibious force would take Midway, placed at the reserve force and under Yamamoto’s direct command, which included battleships like the famous Yamato. The advance would be in three axis of advance: a fleet under Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s command would attack Midway, having the bulk of the aircraft carriers; another fleet under Admiral Boshogiro Hosogaya’s command would execute the diversion attack against the Aleutians; and a reserve fleet under Admiral Nobutaka Kondo’s command having a couple of aircraft carriers and battleships, which would seize Midway after the US Navy destruction (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011; Dahms, 1974; Gibelli, 1972; Macdonald, 1993; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1974)[5].

The Japanese were positive that the plan would work and that they would be facing a very weakened enemy, as they thought they would be facing only two aircraft carriers and a navy diminished in firepower, heavily affected by the series of defeats prior the battle, sailing towards battle in full overconfidence. Little they knew that the Americans were not only ready to face Japan on an intelligent manner, but also that they were having a third, unexpected carrier: the same USS Yorktown the Japanese thought it was sunk at Coral Sea, as it was quickly repaired and put back into service. First, Admiral Nimitz was already informed of Japanese intentions and plans thanks to the intelligence services, being able to devise a proper answer while setting his own counter-trap and creating two task forces: 16 and 17, the former having the USS Enterprise and the USS Hornet under Spruance command, and the later having the Yorktown and under command of Fletcher. The surprise factor was lost for the Japanese as their plans were discovered, while advancing in confidence (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011; Dahms, 1974; Macdonald, 1993; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969; Shepherd, 2003; Thomas, 2007).

Nimitz’s was prepared to face the Japanese and not to fall on their deception at the Aleutians, mainly thanks to the work of the intelligence services that deciphered the Japanese code, denying the Japanese the element of surprise. His sixth sense contributed to prepare the US Navy to face the Japanese more efficiently, as he ignored the fleet of Hosogaya when a scout plane detected it, judging correctly that it was a diversionary attack and not the main advance force. He also suggested Fletcher and Spruance to take advantage of Midway as a ‘fourth carrier’ impossible to sink and reinforced with further airplanes and AA defences, advising them to concentrate on taking the Japanese aircraft carrier while avoiding the Japanese battleships. This evidences Nimitz’s – correct – recognition of the potential the aircraft carrier-based aircraft attacks groups to counter the Japanese (Cau, 2011; Dahms, 1974; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

The battle began at 4th of June 1942 with two simultaneous events: first, the attack made by around 100 Japanese planes departing from all the 4 Japanese aircraft carriers against Midway at 0430 hours, that destroyed deposits and facilities but failed in neutralizing the base entirely, as the airstrips were left mostly intact and all the base airplanes were able to strike back[6]. Second, the sighting of the Japanese fleet some 1,125 km southeast off Midway by a PBY-40 Catalina at 0552 hours. After Midway was bombed by the Japanese, the American launched a series of counter attacks between 0705 and 0837 hours; this was the second stage of the battle, with the Midway-based airplanes trying to attack the Japanese aircraft carrier fleet to no avail, falling victims of the Japanese AA and fighters[7]. Another air attack at 0920 by the US Navy followed, having the same results yet forcing Nagumo to change the position of his aircraft carriers; this attack also gave Nagumo a hint on the American aircraft carriers position. This situation made the Americans to look for the Japanese aircraft carriers, which were detected by mere chance: when the American airplanes where returning from another unsuccessful attack, they spotted a lone Japanese warship, which led them into the bulk of the Japanese fleet as they decided to follow it. At the same time, Japanese scout planes detected the American aircraft carriers (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011; Dahms, 1974; Gibelli, 1972; Macdonald, 1993; Murray & Millet, 2005; Pacific War Historical Society, n.d.; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

The third stage of the battle began when the US Navy launched another attack against the Japanese aircraft carrier from all the three aircraft carriers between 1020 and 1022 hours, though uncoordinated and with some airplanes – especially the torpedo-bombers and the fighters – nearly wiped out by the Japanese AA defences and fighters once again. This time, however, the attack would be benefited by three factors, thus being the decisive one. First, the combination of good luck for the Americans along (and due to) the mistakes of Nagumo. As it was reviewed in the previous section, Nagumo ordered the aircraft carriers to give priority to the planes coming from the attack against Midway, yet being undecided on the type of armament to install on the reserve planes. Midway was not entirely neutralized thus a new attack was deemed necessary, while his subordinates were advising an attack against the recently detected American fleet[8]. Nagumo then changed his mind, but only after 40 precious minutes were lost after the scout managed to confirm the composition of the US fleet, after detecting it at 0728 hours[9]. Second, the previous American attacks against the Japanese aircraft carriers forced their fighters to fly at low altitude and to be on low fuel and ammunition; this allowed the SBD-3 Dauntless dive-bombers to find no opposition and to reach their targets undetected until it was too late for the Japanese. These planes managed to destroy the best of the Japanese aircraft carrier fleet and the Japanese aim of expansion, changing the course of the war, as the Kaga, the Akagi and the Soryu were destroyed[10]. And third, Spruance’s initiative and aggressiveness that actually set most of the American attacks against the Japanese fleet: this attitude allowed the Americans to exploit their assets thus achieving an impressive victory (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011; Dahms, 1974; Gibelli, 1972; Macdonald, 1993; Murray & Millet, 2005; Pacific War Historical Society, n.d.; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

The fourth stage of the battle was when the Japanese decided to strike back against the USS Yorktown from the surviving aircraft carrier Hiryu with two attacks between 1054 and 1245 hours, after receiving the shocking information that they were facing not two but three aircraft carriers, including the USS Yorktown. They inflicted several damages to the American aircraft that ended in sinking it, along with a torpedo fired by a Japanese submarine that sentenced the ship, which sank at 0458 hours of the 7th of June[11]. This, however, would be a very short lived victory for the Japanese, as the US Navy counterattacked with the planes of the USS Hornet and the USS Enterprise, sinking the Hiryu at 1703 hours. After these events, both fleets tried to detect each other to no avail, with Yamamoto resolved to destroy the US Navy remaining aircraft carriers and Midway’s base with his battleships and cruisers, failing in that purpose as well. Both fleets withdrew from the scene. Yet adversity was not over for the Japanese yet, thanks to the decision of Takeo Kurita, commander of a small squadron of 4 cruisers and 2 destroyers tasked with shelling Midway, to sacrifice the cruisers Mikuma and Mogami that collided during the night while escaping from a US submarine that detected it. This submarine directed the embarked airplanes to attack them, sinking the Mikuma and heavily damaging the Mogami by the 5th of June. The Japanese left Midway in full shock after losing 4 of their main and best aircraft carriers, along 275 aircraft and 3,500 skilled sailors and aviators to an adversary having fewer units, and having in comparison fewer losses: the USS Yorktown, 1 cruiser, 1 destroyer, 50 airplanes and 307 men (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011; Dahms, 1974; Gibelli, 1972; Macdonald, 1993; Murray & Millet, 2005; Pacific War Historical Society, n.d.; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969; Shepherd, 2003; Thomas, 2007).

Yet the Japanese were reluctant to accept defeat. Following Dahms (1974), the Japanese still considered possible to win the war and to recover from the hit received at Midway. But such optimistic assessment was met with the crude nature of reality, as the defeat imprinted a heavy psychological impact in the Japanese military. Despite of the fact it was still having superiority in quantity and quality of naval and air assets, in reality, the losses were heavier for Japan: it lost the best air and naval assets it had, which were hard to replace given the mentioned system in the previous part, the lack of enough skilled pilots and instructors, and the lack of enough resources to replace the material losses[12]. This was worsened by the fact that a fast and decisive victory was not achieved, dooming Japan to wage a long war it could not sustain. Even worse, the initiative was now in the hands of the US, as the Japanese shifted to a mere defensive stance, being reluctant to face the US Navy in a direct encounter until the epic and massive Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944. Yamamoto also lost support for new daring and risky operations, and the Imperial Navy doomed to gradually retreat and lose territory – and warships – to the United States, as it lost its supremacy at sea and became unable to advance further at sea. Japan’s stubbornness in trying to establish bases remained as they tried to establish bases in Guadalcanal: the upcoming long battle there would finish what the battles of Coral Sea and Midway achieved (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011; Gibelli, 1972; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

The Battle of Midway proved to be very decisive for the war between the United States and Japan, as it changed the course in a definitive way, at the point that at least in the Pacific Ocean, it made Japan to retreat and lose territory to US advance, being a long and steady decline of the Japanese Empire that ended in its ultimate defeat. For the United States, Midway meant its consolidation as the main Pacific power, along the point in which it was able to stop the advance of an enemy that had the upper hand in the earlier phases of the war. Yet after Midway, the US had a long way to bring the Japanese Empire down and become the hegemonic nation in the Pacific. Nevertheless, Midway was a decisive victory for the US Navy that allowed the American industrial might to give the US the assets to emerge victorious. The eagle simple emerged victorious after the battle.



[1] Of course, Midway was not the first battle of aircraft carriers: the first one where these vessels were used, was in the Battle of Coral sea, whose outcome also contributed in the outcome of the Battle of Midway, as it will be explained below.

[2] Following Dahms (1974), the ‘Doolitle Raid’ also prompted Japan to reject proposals of common operations by Germany and Italy.

[3] The Japanese thought that both US aircraft carriers were sunk, as the USS Yorktown was badly damaged. This optimistic assessment led to miscalculations that led to overconfidence by Yamamoto and ultimately, his defeat at Midway (Gibelli, 1972).

[4] Canales & del Rey (2016) point out that the US was having only 19 submarines available for the battle.

[5] Noteworthy to point out that, as the Japanese were not having the Radar like America, they had to resort to submarines to detect the American aircraft carriers. This was another disadvantage as the submarines were in position with some delay, as well as the main force of Yamamoto (Gibelli, 1972; Macdonald, 1993).

[6] At the same time, a scout plane was launched from the cruiser Tone; this plane would detect the American fleet and become the eyes of Nagumo. See: Pacific War Historical Society, (n.d.). and: Canales & del Rey, (2016).

[7] This first counterattack was possible also by the fact the aircraft were ordered to either disperse or to become airborne and to counterattack or meet the Japanese attack. See: Pacific War Historical Society, (n.d.).

[8] The inability to neutralize Midway was a result of Nagumo’s decision to arm some of the planes with torpedoes, in fear of encountering US naval forces, following (Canales & del Rey, 2016).

[9] These changing decisions had as a result that the ammunition was not correctly stored, but rather scattered in the hangars as well as on the flight decks, which were also full of planes; this fact alone maximized the effects of the bombs dropped by the SBD-3 Dauntless. See: Canales & del Rey (2016), Murray & Millet (2005), and: Macdonald (1993).

[10] The Hiryu was spared because at that very moment it was sailing in a more advanced position than the other carriers, following the Pacific War Historical Society, (n.d.)

[11] Interestingly, and according to Pacific War Historical Society, (n.d), the Japanese were not aware that they were attacking the USS Yorktown for a second time.

[12] In fact, and following Dahms (1974), Japan only managed to build 2 new aircraft carriers to cover the losses, while the US was able to build 6 main aircraft carriers plus 19 escort aircraft carriers.



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Crawford, S. (2001). Portaaviones y Acorazados [Battleships and Carriers, José Luis Tamayo, & L. Martín, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial LIBSA (Original work published in 1999).

Dahms, H. G. (1974). La Segunda Guerra Mundial. [Das Zweiten Weltkrieg, Victor Scholz, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Bruguera (Original work published in 1963).

Gibelli, N. J. (1972). La guerra se aproxima Australia. In La Segunda Guerra Mundial (Vol.4. pp. 97–120). Buenos Aires, Argentina: Editorial Codex.

________________. Victoria estadounidense en Midway. In La Segunda Guerra Mundial (Vol. 2. pp. 121-144). Buenos Aires, Argentina: Editorial Codex.

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_____________________________. Vice Admiral Nagumo Feels the Pressure of American Air Attacks from Midway. Retrieved from: http://www.pacificwar.org.au/Midway/Nagumo_under_pressure.html on 20.05.2017

_____________________________. The Search for Nagumo’s Carriers. Retrieved from: http://www.pacificwar.org.au/Midway/June4.AM2.html on 20.05.2017

_____________________________. The Tide of Battle Turns at Midway. Retrieved from: http://www.pacificwar.org.au/Midway/June4.AM3.html on 20.05.2017

_____________________________. Battle of Midway – Events of 4 of June 1942 (Afternoon). Retrieved from: http://www.pacificwar.org.au/Midway/June4.PM.html on 20.05.2017

_____________________________. Battle of Midway – Events of 5 and 6 June 1942. Retrieved from: http://www.pacificwar.org.au/Midway/June5_6.html on 20.05.2017

Ralby, A. (2013). Atlas of Military History: from Antiquity to the Present Day. Bath, UK: Parragon Books.

Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe. (1969). Los primeros cañonazos. In Historia de la Segunda Guerra Mundial (Vol.I, pp. 39–79). [Eyewitness History of World War II, Editorial Marin, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Marin. (Original work published in 1969).

Shepherd, J. (2003). 1942. In USS Enterprise CV-6. Retrieved from: http://www.cv6.org/1942/1942.htm on 15.01.2017

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One response to “Midway: When the Airplane Sank an Empire (Part IIIb)

  1. Pingback: Midway: When the Airplane Sunk an Empire (Part IV) | Drakkar: Defence, Strategy and Security

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