I had seen references to this book, which came out a couple of years ago, but as a Walter Lord loyalist (Lord wrote Incredible Victory about the battle in the late 1960’s), didn’t think I would be interested in a general history of the battle. Of course there have been numerous recent substantive additions to the history of the battle, most notably Shattered Sword by Parshall & Tully (reviewed here), and I think that Lord would have enjoyed hugely the detailed analysis that those authors have devoted to the battle. This is even though it has resulted in a trend towards if not debunking, then at least deemphasizing Lord’s approach that the battle was an “incredible victory” calling it such scholarship “incredible victory disease” as a nod to Lord’s characterization of the Japanese military’s mentality post–Pearl Harbor and pre–Midway as “victory disease”. Symonds instead notes that Nimitz’ decision to confront the Japanese fleet bearing down on Midway was not the long shot we initially believed. He was taking a risk, but he expected – with good reason – to win.
As an aside, I met Mr. Lord at the Nimitz Museum’s symposium on the 50th anniversary of the battle in 1942, and he seemed to enjoy the back and forth of his panel as various aspects of the campaigns of 1942, so every time I read a new analysis of the battle, I think of how much he would have enjoyed its new telling of the story.
But back to this book. I actually purchased it as a Audible audiobook, and was immediately surprised at how much I enjoyed having a good narrative of the battle waiting for me every morning and evening as I drove to and from work. A side benefit was that my twins Colin and Parker also listened to it on the way to school, and Parker became very interested in the minutia of the battle. He eventually decided to watch the movie Midway with me last week, and then after a tough day at school decided that we need to just start watching Tora, Tora, Tora Since he couldn’t find Pearl Harbor. But it’s nice that he and I now have a common set of knowledge about the details of the battle that we can discuss. I have noticed, for example, that he now carries around the remains of a cast metal 1/1200 aircraft carrier Yorktown with his collection of heavily used toys, so that is a good indication for the future. He also wants to go see another aircraft carrier (I took him to the Lexington a few years and back and pointed out repeatedly while watching Midway that that ship was a stand-in for everything in the movie except the palm trees outside Admiral Halsey’s hospital room). He is learning to make the crucial distinctions between the “original” Lexington and Yorktown and the subsequent Essex class incarnations that are museum ships today.
What is a different about Symond’s book on the battle is that fully half the book is devoted to the background of the battle, beginning decades before the attack on Pearl Harbor and spending a great deal of time on the Pacific Fleet’s actions between Pearl Harbor and the Midway action proper. I learned a great deal I did not previously know, including useful background information that helped explain why the battle came out the way it did. Oddly, when the actual battle starts, while it may be unfair to compare his narrative to Lord, it seemed incomplete and a little flat, and certainly did not take advantage of the recent insights from Parshall and Tully regarding the operations of the Japanese carriers. Symonds does cite to Shattered Sword, but he nowhere recognizes the discrepancy in oral histories between the state of the Japanese carriers’ air operations at the time the dive bombers struck, as Shattered Sword does, nor does he recognize how materially worn down and depleted the Japanese carriers and their air groups were by the time of Midway.
What he does do, however, is make crystal clear that the Japanese strike aircraft were on the hangar, not the flight deck, as it was being used to land the returning planes from Midway, and cycle the fighter cover as needed. Although it is not expressly said, the (correct) inference is that the carriers were not on the verge of launching the killer blow at the American carriers – in fact they were nowhere close. He also does a good job making clear that scene on the hangar deck was a chaotic one, with torpedoes, bombs, and fueling apparatus all over the place, the significance of which would soon become clear.
This is consistent with Parshall and Tully’s most radical departure from conventional Midway analysis, which is that it really made no difference when the dive bombers showed up, or even whether they showed up at the same time. Once the American forces located the Japanese carriers before the Japanese located the American carriers – as was extremely likely to be the case – the Japanese striking force was likely to take serious if not fatal damage. They might or might not take a couple of American carriers with them, but once the American dive bomber squadrons, which proved to be the only effective weapon the U.S. forces had in the battle, the Japanese carriers were going to suffer catastrophic losses because they would be in the vulnerable position of operating and rearming aircraft when they were attacked because of their other priority in the battle – that of neutralizing the U.S. base at Midway in preparation for a landing. Incredibly (here the word still fits) this was the outcome in the wargaming exercises held on the Japanese flagship Yamato before the battle, and the referee changed the outcome, declaring it was “impossible.” Similarly, the referee also ruled out as “impossible” the placement of the U.S. carriers in the war gaming exercises at a point northeast of Midway where they could ambush the attacking Japanese carriers as they approached midway, which, of course, is exactly what happened. So neither the tactics of the potential American response nor its likely effect were unknown to the Japanese – they were just rejected because they did not fit the Japanese evaluation of the U.S. Navy at this stage of the war as timid and ineffective. Incredibly (there’s that word again) that was even though near the end of the games the outcome of the Coral Sea operation became known. In that action, two American carriers surprised a Japanese invasion of Port Moresby in New Guinea by appearing in perfect position, sinking s small carrier on the first day and burning out one of the two carriers in CarDiv 3 the second day, and essentially destroying both carriers’ air groups as a fighting force for the time being. Of course both were believed sunk, but the fact that the American carriers so clearly could show up where they were not expected and could inflict serious damage should have caused some concern. Clearly it did not, and the action went forward as planned.
I can’t say that Symonds actually adds new insight to what happened in the battle, other than in his treatment of the Hornet’s air group. I may have simply forgotten what I knew from Lundstrom and Parshall and Tully, but I did not realize how ineffectual the Hornet’s air group was throughout the battle. In essence, the battle was fought and won with two carriers – Enterprise and Yorktown, with Hornet failing to contribute anything until all four of the Japanese carriers were mortally wounded by her sister ships’ air groups.
Symonds pulls no punches in describing the deficiencies of its air group commander Stanhope Ring, and his account of how the dive bombers gradually abandoned Ring to turn around and return to the Hornet or seek refuge on Midway is a damning piece of evidence regarding Ring’s leadership as well as his navigation skills. I did know that the Hornet’s squadrons never filed the required reports, and its’ captain Marc Mitscher’s report after the action was notably lacking in information regarding what the air group did and why.
Previous historians have also used the recently uncovered fact that the American commanders did not know that all four Japanese carriers would be operating together. Nor did historians know until recently that the Hornet and Enterprise were “cocked and loaded” so to speak, with the intent of launching full deck load strikes against Japanese carriers to since they were located, with the Yorktown’s air group deliberately held in reserve. This piece of information was not yet public when Lord and Prange wrote their books on Midway, but it goes a long way towards explaining what happened to the Hornet’s air group.
As Symonds makes clear – clearer than any other author as best I can recall – the Hornet was a terribly inexperienced ship, with a unpopular and in many ways only minimally competent air group commander and an inexperienced and somewhat dysfunctional air group. What seems to have happened – although no contemporary records reflect this, largely because there were no contemporary records made – is that the Enterprise launched her air group at the two carriers that had already been sighted that morning as soon as Spruance could close the range to a minimally acceptable distance.
Although Mitscher later claimed, and historians have assumed, that the Hornet’s air group missed the carriers by going too far south, what appears to have actually happened is that Mitscher deliberately directed the Hornet’s air group to a position north of the reported position in the hopes of catching the other two Japanese carriers which he appears to have assumed would be operating separately north of the reported location. But it appears word didn’t make it to the squadron commanders, because once the squadrons left Hornet the commander of the torpedo squadron John Waldron had a heated exchange with Ring about the direction the squadron should go, which ended with Waldron angling off to the south to the location he knew the carriers had been reported at – apparently unaware that his captain and Ring were never intending to hit those carriers – he was looking to attack a suspected second task force of Japanese carriers to the north. Thus Waldron’s was the only Hornet squadron to intercept the Japanese carriers, and was lost down to the last plane and very nearly the last man – only Ensign George Gay, who was “Tail-end Charlie” of the formation survived after his plane was downed. Ring’s dive bomber squadrons missed the Japanese entirely, and the Hornet’s fighters ditched for lack of fuel.
Here, again the book reminded me of how fortunate I was to be at that Nimitz symposium in 1992, where I met the very outgoing George Gay, and he autographed a copy of his book for me.
While they were on their “flight to nowhere” the Enterprise and Yorktown took out one Japanese carrier each, and the CO of Bombing 6, Dick Best accompanied only by his two wingmen (both of whom missed) took out the Japanese flagship Akagi with only his single 1,000 pound bomb. (Did I mention he autographed a print of his plane bombing the Akagi for me at that Nimitz Symposium?) He did, of course, have a substantial assist from the dozens of torpedoes, bombs, and fuel hoses spread through the Akagi’s two hangar decks, which underscored the importance of when a carrier is hit, and nearly as important, the crucial role of radar. After that single bomb hit the Akagi was an unsalvageable wreck.
In sharp contrast to the Akagi, a few hours later that afternoon, with advance warning from radar and necessary damage control precautions taken (e.g. fuel lines purged and topped with carbon dioxide, all combustibles removed from the flight and hangar decks) three direct hits on the Yorktown only knocked her out of the fight temporarily. Before the second Japanese strike reached her, she was underway (albeit at a some what reduced speed) and operating aircraft again.
There is one other notable piece of information that came from the book, however. Prior to the battle, the Enterprise and Hornet which together comprised Task Force 16, had been commanded by Rear Admiral William F Halsey, who staff included a controversial chief, Miles Browning. Who would have ever thought that Browning’s grandson would be noted 1970s comedian Chevy Chase? Strange but true.
All in all, I really enjoyed this audiobook and it has indicated to me that I would really enjoy more nonfiction in an audiobook format. Currently, I tend to lean towards fiction for audiobooks and electronic or paper editions for nonfiction, but that may change. I had no idea I was going to enjoy listening to this book as much as I did.