Thousands of feet above, Ensign Lewis Hopkins of the Enterprise's
Bombing Squadron 6, who would also receive the Navy Cross and retired as a rear admiral upper half, prepared to go into a dive in his Douglas Dauntless, aiming for three "water bugs," as he called the pride of Japan's navy, the carriers Kaga
"It takes about 22 seconds, I guess, to go from that altitude down to your release point," he remembered in a 2006 interview. "There's three or four planes in front of you. You can see them all as they're diving. You can see some of the bombs dropping and everything. Throughout that process, you're simply doing what you were trained to do. ... You get into the dive and you get as close to 60 degrees or so as you can. ... You keep your sight - and we used the old gun sight with the cross hatch - and you'd go down. My rear seat gunner was a - one of his responsibilities was to call out the altitude. He was saying, '4,000; 3,500; 2,500; 2,000.' You order your release at that point, so I went a little bit lower like everybody else did that day to improve your chance of hits.
"Then he said, '1,500 feet. Zero from the right. I released and immediately turned to counter his attack and got down as low on the water as I could. We're now in the middle of the Japanese fleet. It's kind of comical. My rear seat gunner ... said, 'Let's get the hell out of here.' I said, 'What do you think I'm trying to do?'"
These would be the most critical moments of the battle, according to Cressman. Indeed, within five to 10 minutes, Hopkins and his fellow bombers destroyed three out of four Japanese carriers. "Up to that moment," Cressman said, "the Japanese were pretty much having things their way."
Now, the carriers "resembled a very large oilfield fire," said Gay, who was hunkered down in a rubber life raft on the water's surface. "The fire coming out of the forward and aft end of the ship looked like a blow torch, just roaring white flame and the oil burning ... and just billowing big red flames belch out of this black smoke." The Kaga
sank quickly, while the Akagi
was scuttled the next morning.
Mourning the Fallen
According to Hopkins, his plane was one of five in his squadron to make it back to the Enterprise
. It was a close call, but he was alive and on the dregs of his fuel. He was one of the lucky ones. The losses among all of the pilots were "staggering" said Kernan, almost unfathomable, agreed veterans who waited in vain for most of the planes to return to their ships, to clap friends on the back, to celebrate a great moment in naval history.
"When I sat in the officer's wardroom (dining room), I looked at two completely empty tables," remembered then-Lt. j.g. Clayton E. Fisher on a tribute site. Fisher was a bomber on USS Hornet
who scored a direct hit on the destroyer Arashio
and logged 17 combat hours during the Battle of Midway, actions for which he received the Navy Cross. "I could remember some of the individual pilot's conversations and jokes.
I visited the VT-8's ready room. It was completely empty except for the pilots' uniforms. ... As shipmates of the deceased pilots, some of us were assigned the job of inventorying their personal effects and then packing them for shipment to their next of kin. ... It was a very emotional and depressing experience." - Lt. j.g. Clayton E. Fisher
But with a fourth Japanese carrier lurking somewhere near Midway, not to mention dozens of enemy cruisers and destroyers, the battle was far from over. Commanders cobbled the remaining pilots and planes together into a new task force, but it wasn't enough to repel a devastating strike against the Yorktown
by planes from the carrier Hiryu
the afternoon of June 4. American bombers then wreaked fatal vengeance on Hiryu
as damage repair experts got to work on the Yorktown
. She survived the next two days, and commanders thought she was salvageable, but an enemy submarine delivered the death blow, June 6, to both Yorktown
and the destroyer USS Hammann
(DD 412), which was tethered to the injured carrier, providing water and electricity.
"All I heard was the port turbine engine on the Hammann
just raising heck," said Cmdr. William Roy, then a photographer's mate on the Yorktown
who was helping repair the ship and burying fallen Sailors at sea. "You could hear it screaming, trying to back away from Yorktown
and cutting the lines. She was hit. As a consequence, the momentum kept the stern going back, and when it went back, [the Hammann
] went under with people clinging on, people in the water. The 18 depth charges reached their set depth and then blew up. And again, the ship was rocked stem to stern, rocked bodily back and forth tremendously. I was knocked over, didn't suffer severe injuries or anything, but other Sailors were blown overboard. ... The ship actually hits you. You're bobbling around from the explosion and the concussion and the movement of the ship."