The Triumph of Fighting Three at Midway
Stephen Leibowitz

On the morning of June 4, 1942, US Navy aircraft fatally bombed three large Japanese aircraft carriers at the Battle of Midway. With the Japanese weakened, US forces would go on to sink the remaining Japanese carrier assigned to the operation, sink a large cruiser, and force the Japanese to cancel their invasion plan for Midway Atoll. The Battle of Midway was a great victory for the Americans. Winston Churchill wrote of the battle, “At one stroke the dominant position of Japan in the Pacific was reversed.”[1]

The outcome of the Battle of Midway could have been very different. The Japanese were focused on a low-altitude US aircraft formation. By the time they noticed the high-altitude dive bombers, it was too late to defend against them effectively. Much has been written about the dive bombers that delivered the killing blow. But it is fair also to credit the Wildcat fighters that escorted the low-altitude strike with playing a major role in the victory at Midway. This article will discuss this in some detail.

Before the three US Navy dive bomber squadrons struck, the Japanese spotted a formation of twelve Devastator torpedo planes (Torpedo Three) and six Wildcat escort fighters (Fighting Three) sent from the US carrier Yorktown. The Japanese combat air patrol (CAP) of 41 Zero interceptors engaged the formation. Only two of the torpedo planes survived the Zeros and the antiaircraft fire from the ships, and they ditched on the way back when they ran out of fuel. The Wildcat escort fighters fared much better, losing only one their contingent and downing many Zeros, but could not save the torpedo planes.

The sacrifice of these American aircraft was not in vain. The attention of the Japanese was focused on them. This allowed the dive bombers to approach undetected and release their bombs without opposition from the CAP.

Combat Between the CAP and Fighting Three

The combat between the CAP and Fighting Three is considered a classic in the history of combat between fighters. Most of the literature about it describes the main significance as validating the group fighter tactic devised by Fighting Three’s leader, Lieutenant Commander John S. “Jimmie” Thach. Fellow naval aviator James H. Flatley Jr. would name it the Thach Weave. It was originally used by the Wildcat against the Zero. Later it would also be used by other US fighters, such as the Hellcat.

One book hints at another important consequence. Shattered Sword [2] says:

However, this tendency toward overpursuit [of Torpedo Three] applied doubly to the amount of effort the Japanese expended on Thach’s section. Shooting down these American interlopers—who admittedly had inflicted unprecedented casualties on the Zeros—became a goal in and of itself. If Thach’s recollections are to be believed, his three-plane formation was absorbing the attention of a third or more of the Japanese CAP. This reaction was totally out of proportion to the actual threat posed by his [high-escort division of] Wildcats. A far more intelligent approach would have been to detach a shōtai [Japanese section of three planes] to keep the Americans busy, while the remaining dozen or so fighters went back down to attend to VT-3 [Torpedo Three] or (better yet) climbed back up to top cover positions [to defend against bombers].[p. 227]

The Fighting Three contingent was divided into two divisions. A half-strength division of two Wildcats (one section) flew close escort for the torpedo planes. The other division of four (reduced to three by combat) Wildcats included Thach and flew about 2,000 feet above the torpedo planes. Thach estimated that twenty Zeros engaged the six Wildcats.[6, 8] This was a serious mistake by the Japanese. It seems likely that some Zero pilots chose to fight the Wildcats because they thought it would be more interesting than undertaking one of the other two missions mentioned in the Shattered Sword quotation. But the Zeros might have salvaged the situation if they had managed to shoot down the Wildcats in a couple of minutes. Even before shooting down every Wildcat, many Zeros might have climbed to meet the approaching dive bomber threat.

The Surprise Victory of Fighting Three

John Lundstrom had access to both Japanese and American records. He estimated that Fighting Three scored ten kills against the CAP.[11] The Shattered Sword quotation shown above casts a bit of doubt about Thach’s recollections on the size of the Japanese group that was fighting his division. But Lundstrom’s estimate of the Zero losses makes Thach’s recollections seem very plausible. Fighting Three lost one Wildcat, along with its pilot. The other Wildcats made it back to the US carriers, but three had significant damage.

Shattered Sword describes the prolonged encounter between the CAP and Fighting Three as nothing short of shocking to the Japanese. And on the American side of the fight, Thach expected the CAP to wipe out his Wildcats:

I had a little kneepad and I would mark on it every time I knew one [Zero] was gone. Then I realized this was sort of foolish. Why was I making marks on my kneepad when the kneepad wasn’t coming back? I was utterly convinced that we weren’t any of us coming back because there were still so many Zeros.[9]

To appreciate Fighting Three’s accomplishment, it helps to understand why their victory is so surprising:

Clearly, the factors mentioned above do not match up with the results. In the battle between the CAP and Fighting Three, the Japanese lost an estimated ten Zeros while the Americans lost only one Wildcat.

Much of this was due to a brilliant performance by Thach. He was officially credited with shooting down three Zeros but probably scored higher. In an especially daring encounter, he shot down a Zero that was attacking R. Dibb from behind. He flew head-on at Dibb, barely clearing Dibb as he dipped underneath, to line up for a head-on attack with the Zero. He pressed the attack with such determination that he just missed colliding with the Zero by a few feet.[12]

Not only did Thach devise the Weave, he also smartly improvised. Shortly into the combat, Thach’s division was down to three aircraft. Thach’s wingman Dibb was inexperienced. It was his first combat and he had very little gunnery training.[10] But he had a rudimentary knowledge of the Weave, while the other teammate had no knowledge of it. By radio, Thach informally promoted Dibb to function as a second section, without a wingman. In this fashion, a scaled-back version of the Weave was used. In spite of his inexperience, Dibb performed very well and was credited with one kill. The other pilot was also helpful, even scoring a probable kill, although he was in the dark about the tactics that his teammates were using.

The close-escort section also did well, downing two Zeros plus one or two probable kills, and helping directly protect the torpedo planes. In a day noted for its drama, another incident stands out. A close-escort pilot was inexperienced and injured, and his Wildcat had battle damage. In this condition he fought a Zero head-on at wave-top height. The Zero did not maneuver as well, dipping a wingtip into the ocean and cartwheeling to destruction. The Wildcat barely missed flying into the splash from the crash of the Zero.[13]

Also, the Wildcat aircraft deserves more credit than many people gave it. The Wildcat had both strengths and weaknesses compared with the Zero. The Zero was good at traditional one-on-one dogfighting where each fighter maneuvers to get on the tail of the other. Thach realized that this would be a losing game for the Wildcat and devised a tactic, the Thach Weave, that would play to advantages that the Wildcat possessed: ruggedness and firepower. The close escort did not use the Thach Weave, but did make head-on attacks, which also put the Wildcat’s advantages to good use.

Later US fighters also had to contend with the Zero. The Zero retrieved from the Aleutians showed that at high speed, the Zero’s aileron controls responded poorly. But at lower speeds, the Zero could outturn any US fighter used during the war. The P-38 Lightning is a good example of this. It proved to be very successful in aerial combat, but in early encounters P-38 squadrons sometimes got painful lessons in how not to fight the Zero.[17]

What If Fighting Three Had Lost?

Would the Zeros Have Seen the Approaching Dive Bombers?

What if the Zeros engaging Fighting Three had quickly shot down most or all of them? We cannot say for sure what they would have done next. They might have chased after the torpedo bombers, which were already being intercepted by other Zeros.

It is also quite likely that some of these Zero pilots might have scanned the skies and spotted the approaching dive bombers. Part of the CAP had consisted of a high cover to defend against high-altitude attack (dive bombers and horizontal bombers). It shot down a US Marine dive bomber squadron that attacked earlier that morning. The fleet also withstood a high-altitude attack from B-17 bombers. But then the high cover joined their low-cover comrades to intercept successfully torpedo bombers from the Hornet and Enterprise. They stayed at low altitude when the Yorktown torpedo bombers and fighters arrived as the earlier torpedo bomber action was ending. It seems that at least some Zero pilots would have realized that without the high cover the fleet was vulnerable to another high-altitude attack. And some pilots may have thought that their mission was to fly high cover as soon as the low-altitude situation allowed it. In fact, Sōryū had launched three Zeros at 1000 to intercept a suspected high-altitude attack from a “horizontal bombing unit,” but the Zeros went after the low-altitude Yorktown formation.[14] If the CAP had quickly vanquished the Wildcats, at least some Zero pilots would have likely looked up and scanned for high-altitude threats, or started climbing to reestablish the high cover even before seeing the dive bombers.

In searching for high-altitude enemy aircraft, the Zeros would have had one visual advantage over the lookouts on the ships. There were scattered clouds at 1,500 – 2,000 feet.[20] But most of the Zeros engaging Fighting Three were above this cloud cover.

Shattered Sword [p. 227] argues that the CAP would have had difficulty seeing the dive bombers approaching from an orthogonal direction. As I understand it, the idea is that the visual cross-section that the dive bombers exposed to the CAP would have been small. From the maps [p. 218, 222, 233], it seems to me that if the Zeros engaging Fighting Three had finished quickly, they would have been in a good position, with respect to x and y coordinates, to look for the dive bombers. Also, the CAP was at a lower altitude. The altitude difference would have exposed the underside of the dive bombers to view, if the Zero pilots looked up and scanned for them.

Communicating a Sighting of the Dive Bombers

If one or more Zero pilots had spotted the approaching dive bombers, telling this to the other Zeros and the ships would have been important. The most obvious method would be by radio. But the Zero’s radio was of poor quality. Also, the radio channel used was crowded. A simple radio message, “Hell-divers,” would have been sufficient, but only if it had gotten through. The pilots were experienced in using hand signals to communicate with each other, providing an alternative to the radio. And conceivably, a pilot could have improvised by taking a page from a technique used by Japanese ships to alert the CAP. A pilot could have pitched up and fired his 7.7-mm guns, with one-third of the rounds being tracers,[18] in the direction of the dive bombers. If nothing else, one or more Zeros climbing steeply to intercept the dive bombers might have alerted the other Zeros and the ships to the new threat.

How the Japanese Could Have Fought the Dive Bombers

The engagement between the CAP and Fighting Three started at 1010. Imagine that it had been the expected victory for the CAP: finished in a couple of minutes, light CAP losses, and not requiring a heavy expenditure of ammunition. If they then promptly spotted the dive bombers, they could have climbed to intercept. One Enterprise dive bomber squadron approached at 19,000 feet. The other squadron carried a heavier bomb load and a smaller oxygen supply. It approached at 15,000 feet. The Yorktown dive bombers also approached at 15,000 feet. The bombers pushed over into their dives between 1022 and 1026, with bomb release about one minute later. The CAP would not have had the luxury of a long time to fight the dive bombers before bomb release, but it could have been enough to alter the results of the attack substantially.

The Japanese would have had the following points in their favor in such a scenario:

Summary and Aftermath

The desperate battle fought by Fighting Three was high drama. Against expectations, most survived, downed many Zeros, and validated the Thach Weave. But most importantly, they tied up the Japanese at a pivotal time, setting the stage for the devastating bomb attack.

With three carriers gone, the Japanese carrier force at Midway was reduced to just the Hiryū. The Americans had also suffered losses. Not only were many American planes shot down, but others ran out of fuel and ditched on the way back. The Hiryū managed to attack and badly damage the Yorktown, which would be finished off by a Japanese submarine. The Americans retained enough strength to sink the Hiryū and a large cruiser.

The results could have been very different. If the CAP had the expected quick success against Fighting Three or, as suggested by Shattered Sword, chose not to do more than keep them busy, the CAP would not have lost ten Zeros to them. And if the American dive bombers had been detected in time, they would have been intercepted before bomb release. Many of the dive bombers would have been shot down. One or more of the three Japanese carriers bombed that morning would have likely survived. If one or more had also remained operational, the available Japanese carrier force would have been more than just the Hiryū.

Had these “ifs” been resolved well for the Japanese, the result would have likely been a much more favorable outcome for them in the Battle of Midway.

  1. ^ Churchill, Winston. The Hinge of Fate. p. 226
  2. ^ Parshall, Jonathan and Tully, Anthony. Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway. 2005.
  3. ^ Ibid. p. 225–226
  4. ^ Ibid. p. 242
  5. ^ Ibid. p. 231
  6. ^ab LCDR John S. Thach, USN. “The Red Rain of Battle: The Story of Fighter Squadron Three.” Collier’s. December 12, 1942. p. 17
  7. ^ Ibid. p. 47
  8. ^ Mindell and Mason. “The Thach Weave Put to the Test.” The Pacific War Remembered: An Oral History Collection. p. 101
  9. ^ Ibid. p 103–104
10. ^ Ibid. p 103
11. ^ Lundstrom, John B. The First Team: Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway. 1984. p. 363 (book club ed. p. 459)
Lundstrom’s accounting yields an estimate of ten Zeros lost against Fighting Three. (11 shot down outright + 2 ditched from battle damage − 1 friendly AA fire loss − 1 or 2 lost fighting the torpedo and dive bombers)

12. ^ Ibid. p. 355 (book club ed. p. 448–449)
13. ^ Ibid. p. 359 (book club ed. p. 453)
14. ^ Ibid. p. 344 (book club ed. p. 433–434)
15. ^ ——————————. The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign. 1994. p. 529
16. ^ Rearden, Jim. “Kogaʼs Zero.” Invention & Technology Magazine. Fall 1997 Volume 13, Issue 2.
17. ^ ———————. Cracking the Zero Mystery. p. 114–115
18. ^ab Ibid. p. 93
19. ^ Cressman, Robert. “A Glorious Page in Our History,” The Battle of Midway. 1990. p.94
20. ^ VT-6 Action With Enemy report. June 4, 1942.

© 2011 Stephen Leibowitz