The Midway atoll that gave the June 1942 battle its name is about 1,400 miles northwest of Hawaii. The discoveries, which were first reported by the Associated Press, rank as some of the biggest underwater historical finds in years.
The sprawling battle was one of the most epic in naval history, and it left the cream of the Japanese navy as blazing wrecks. It stunned the Japanese, who were careful to hide the outcome from the public, and reversed the course of World War II in the Pacific.
The discoveries, in 17,000 feet of water, were made by the Research Vessel Petrel, in conjunction with the Navy, and are part of an underwater exploration effort started by Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft. The Petrel is owned and operated by Allen’s Seattle-based company Vulcan Inc. Allen died last year.
The Petrel has been scouring the Pacific to locate and document sunken ships of World War II and has found more than 30 vessels. Experts said they hope to find the two other lost Japanese carriers, Soryu and Hiryu.
The Kaga is the first sunken Japanese aircraft carrier ever found, Vulcan said.
The Petrel has spent several weeks surveying the vast ocean battlefield, which lies within the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, Vulcan said.
The Japanese navy was devastated by the loss of four aircraft carriers — all of which had been used in the attack on Pearl Harbor six months before. Hundreds of its planes and thousands of its sailors were also lost when the four ships went to the bottom, either sunk outright or scuttled by the Japanese after suffering catastrophic damage.
“We send our thoughts and prayers to our trusted and valued friends in Japan,” Rear Adm. Brian P. Fort, commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Japan, said in a statement. “The terrible price of war in the Pacific was felt by all our navies.”
The battle came after American code-breakers figured out that the Japanese planned a massive attack on American-held Midway. The Navy was able to set up an ambush and attack the Japanese force as it approached.
The Americans lost scores of planes and airmen, as well as the carrier USS Yorktown, in the battle.
The Yorktown was discovered in 1998 by oceanographer Robert Ballard, in 16,000 feet of water, also northwest of Hawaii.
The battle raged from June 4 to June 7, and the climactic American assault on the Japanese fleet was “the single most decisive aerial attack in naval history,” historians Jonathan B. Parshall and Anthony P. Tully have said.
Robert Kraft, director of undersea operations for Vulcan, said: “It was a major carrier-to-carrier battle that left its eerie evidence strewn for a total area covering thousands of square nautical miles across the ocean floor,” according to a Vulcan statement about the discoveries.
Japanese Navy Capt. Mitsuo Fuchida was aboard Akagi during the June 4 attack on his ship by Navy planes.
“The terrifying scream of the dive bombers reached me first, followed by the crashing explosion of a direct hit,” he wrote after the war.
“Looking about, I was horrified at the destruction that had been wrought in a matter of seconds,” he remembered. “Reluctant tears streamed down my cheeks as I watched the fires spread. … 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.”
The blazing carrier was abandoned and intentionally sunk by torpedoes launched from Japanese destroyers, Fuchida wrote. More than 250 men were lost.
With a “terrific underwater explosion,” Akagi went down at 4:55 a.m., just before sunrise, on June 5, he wrote.
The devastated Kaga, which had been hit at the same time as Akagi, was also abandoned. The carrier, “now a burning hulk, was wrenched by two terrific explosions before sinking,” Fuchida wrote. “In this battle 800 men of Kaga’s crew, one third of her complement, were lost.”
Soryu was hit by three bombs at 10:25 a.m., on June 4, he wrote. “The first blasted the flight deck in front of the forward elevator, and the next two straddled the amidships elevator, completely wrecking the deck and spreading fire to gasoline tanks and munition storage rooms.”
“By 10:30 the ship was transformed into a hell of smoke and flames,” he recounted. The blazing ship was soon abandoned and sank several hours later, taking 700 men and the skipper down with it.
Hiryu was attacked by waves of American planes at about 5 p.m., Fuchida wrote. Four bombs struck home, wrecking the ship. The carrier was abandoned and also intentionally sunk by Japanese torpedoes at about 5 a.m. on June 5.
Frank Thompson, a historian with the Naval History and Heritage Command who is aboard the Petrel, told the AP: “We read about the battles, we know what happened. But when you see these wrecks on the bottom of the ocean … you kind of get a feel for what the real price is for war.”
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