The Battle of Midway has been almost universally acclaimed as the turning point of the Pacific War against the Japanese. In four days from June 3 to 6, the outnumbered torpedo-bomber and dive-bomber squadrons from the three U.S. carriers accounted for four of Japan's fleet carriers, sinking the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and the Soryu, over half of the Japanese elite carrier strike force. It was a crippling loss, which would force Japan back from a highly successful offensive strategy onto a defensive strategy for the rest of the war.
Most of this near ruinous damage was done in a single flaming five-minute attack begun at 10:22 A.M. on June 4, by the dive-bomber squadron from the Enterprise and Yorktown, after the torpedo squadrons from the three carriers had tried, and failed, and been shot down. Coming on high overhead, unnoticed by the Japanese, who were occupied with the U.S. torpedo-bombers making their runs, the dive-bombers were able to swoop down like avenging hellions and deliver their loads on the Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu, without losing a single plane.
The three Jap carriers, turning into the wind with their flight decks crowed with rearmed and refueling torpedo planes and bombers ready for a second take-off were reduced to blazing shambles in seconds, setting of the same dread series of internal fires and explosions that had done in the Lexington. So the suicidal attacks of the U.S. torpedo-bomber squadrons were not in vain.
There is no doubt that the three torpedo-bomber attacks were suicidal. The first two, by the Hornet's planes and by those of the Enterprise, were delivered singly, unaided and totally alone, without expectation of help. Of the fifteen TBDs off the Hornet, only one pilot survived, by clinging to a rubber cushion from his crashed plane. Of the fourteen from the Enterprise, the commander and nine others in his force were shot down. It was sheer luck that dive-bombers of the Enterprise and the dive-bombers and torpedo bombers of the Yorktown, these last already veterans of the Coral Sea, arrived just minutes later. Of the Yorktown's twelve TBDs two survived. The few torpedoes that got launched at all were easily avoided by the Japanese carriers. No Japanese kamikaze pilot later in the war ever went to his death more open-eyed or with more certain foreknowledge than these men.
It is hard to know what was in the depths of these men's minds. It is plain, though, that the suicidal nature of their mission was clear to them. We can only speculate about the rest. Certainly professionalism was a factor. Many were regular navy men, and the rest had the benefit of the semi-professionalism of the U.S. Naval Reserve. A certain sense of sacrifice would help. But they could not be sure their sacrifice would aid anything; and indeed, those who died in the attacks almost certainly did not know whether their deaths had helped their cause. Esprit de corps? Surely; they were America's elite: the flyboys, and naval carrier pilots in addition. Then too, personal vanity and pride are always important factors in situations of this kind, band the sheer excitement of battle can often lead a man to death willingly, where without it he might have balked. But in the absolute, ultimate end, when your own final extinction is right there only a few yards farther on staring back at you, there may be a sort of penultimate national, and social, and even racial, masochism - a sort of hotly joyous, almost-sexual enjoyment and acceptance - which keeps you going the last few steps. The ultimate luxury of just not giving a damn anymore.
Of course, patriotism has to be taken into account, too. Despite the over-milking of that word to death. And perhaps some of them had wives they didn't care about anymore, and were glad to get rid of. Though probably they were too gentlemanly to say so openly. But whatever it was, these men went on in and died, and they were relatively healthy young Americans with no tradition of medieval warrior Bushido, and with good fortune their sacrifice was a big factor in the Midway victory. They were probably not the first, and certainly they were not the last, to carry out a deliberately suicidal mission, but they were the first large group whose suicides were blessed with success. Much was made over them in the press and in the national propaganda services. They were given about the fullest coverage the media of the time allowed. At least one movie was written about them. And in its secret heart America heaved a sigh of relief to know that its humping parents could still produce men like them. None of this detracted from what they did. Or from what they gained for themselves, in their own private satisfactions.