The Battle of Midway is a carefully researched and well written re-examination of a pivotal event in American history. Military historian John Keegan called this victory “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.”
It all began six months before the battle when just after dawn on Christmas morning 1941, Admiral Chester Nimitz landed in a Coronado flying boat on the still waters of Pearl Harbor. He saw the gigantic curved bottoms of the upended battleships Oklahoma and Utah and the wrecked Nevada run aground nearby. This was the battle fleet he had flown eight thousand miles to command. When the doors were thrown open he smelled “fuel oil, charred wood, and rotting flesh.” America’s “Germany First” policy meant that he wouldn’t see any reinforcements until new warships could launch in a year. In the meantime what did he have to work with? A battle fleet resting in the mud on the bottom of Pearl Harbor, three aircraft carriers, a mixed bag of cruisers and destroyers, and a fleet of nineteen submarines whose torpedoes didn’t work. While outwardly calm, he confessed to his wife that he couldn’t sleep and felt “depressed” most of the time.
Despite his limited resources, he decided to strike back where he could. He helped engineer an attack on Tokyo by flying B-25 bombers off the deck of the Hornet for a huge propaganda victory. He also fought the Battle of the Coral Sea, May 7-8 1942. The Japanese lost the little carrier Shōhō but Admiral Fletcher lost America’s biggest carrier, the Lexington.
Nimitz had to attack but without losing too many of his limited assets, especially his three remaining aircraft carriers, the Yorktown, Hornet, and the Enterprise.
The impending attack on Midway Island was Admiral Yamamoto’s attempt to lure the remaining American carriers into a battle so the Kidō Butai, or strike force, could annihilate the American Navy once and for all. He launched 185 ships from the Combined Fleet Headquarters at Hashirajima Bay, an armada he divided into four attack divisions, with carriers in the front and two support divisions behind. By dividing his force so precariously, Yamamoto hoped to lure the Americans into his trap without scaring them off with his overwhelming numbers.
He also split off 52 ships almost immediately to the north to carry out a totally irrelevant raid on three barren Aleutian Islands.
For the invasion of Midway Island, the admiral had four large carriers: the Akagi, Kaga, Sōryū,and Hiryū. In addition he had hundreds of well-trained, experienced pilots. Three types of carrier-based aircraft–torpedo planes, dive bombers and fighters were employed. The Japanese torpedo plane dubbed “Kate” was the best in the world. The American torpedo plane, the Devastator, simply wasn’t. It was heavy, slow, with limited range and then had to come in low and slow at near stall speed to launch its unreliable “fish.” The Japanese dive bomber called “Val” was reliable but slow. Its American counterpart, the new Douglas Dauntless, was bigger, sturdier, and faster and carried a bigger bomb load than the “Val.” American dive bomber pilots likened releasing a five hundred pound bomb on a ship to “dropping a marble from eye height on a scampering cockroach.” In the fighter squadrons, the Americans had just gotten the faster Grumman Wildcat. But it was still no match for the Japanese fighter nicknamed the “Zero.” The Zero had longer range, faster climb and sharper turns than any other fighter. It also had “terrific offensive punch” with two machine guns and two 20mm cannon. All in all, the Japanese brought superior airpower to the battle.
Up against the 185-ship Imperial Japanese Navy, the Americans fielded a task force of only 28 ships. What sort of crazed admiral would enter a battle where his forces were outnumbered nearly seven to one?
Chester Nimitz knew the following:
The enemy had four superb carriers, but the Americans had three, each sporting more planes per deck. In addition, the U.S. had a fourth, unsinkable ‘carrier’– Midway Island itself.
Thanks to the work of Commander Rochefort and his code breakers, Nimitz knew Yamamoto’s battle plan and the dates of each planned thrust.
Americans used radar to detect the number and location of approaching Japanese planes.
Finally, the outnumbered Americans needed a little bit of luck, which they got.
Then in eight minutes on the morning of June 4, dive bombers from the Enterpriseand Yorktown arrived simultaneously over the Japanese carriers while their fighters were busy down at deck level shooting up hapless American Devastator torpedo planes. The Dauntless dive bombers were able to push over without interference, and multiple 1,000 pound bombs landed on the flight decks of three Japanese carriers. The bombs exploded on the hangar decks jammed with 80,000 pounds of ordnance as well as fully fueled and armed planes being readied for the next strike.
Scholars of the Battle of Midway are neatly divided into two schools. The larger group believes that the victory was incredible, miraculous or at the very least extraordinarily lucky. The much smaller group believes that the American Navy triumphed because of a careful plan, radar, and superior intelligence combined with a small dose of luck. As a ten-year student of the battle, I started out in the incredible camp but now believe the victory was due to the better decisions made by American sailors at all levels and by the exceptional code-breaking led by Lt. Commander Joseph Rochefort who did his best work in slippers and a maroon smoking jacket.
Symonds’ book is a great read. I highly recommend it to you.
David E. Hoekenga, MD
This review was originally published in ‘The Internet Review of Books’. Book Club India by an arrangement made with ‘The Internet Review of Book’ republishes some of the best reviews. We gratefully acknowledge and thank the original reviewers and the promoters of this website.
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