The Battle of Midway: the US Navy’s Greatest Victory

Diorama by Norman Bel Geddes, depicting the attack by American “Dauntless” dive bombers on the Japanese aircraft carriers Soryu, Akagi and Kaga in the morning of 4 June 1942. Source: http://www.history.navy.mil

The most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare
— John Keegan, Miltary Historian

They had no right to win. Yet they did, and in doing
so they changed the course of a war. More than that, they
added a new name – Midway – to that small list that inspires
men by example, like Marathon, the Armada, the Marne.
Even against the greatest odds, there is something in the
human spirit – a magic blend of skill, faith and valor – that
can lift men from certain defeat to incredible victory.”
— Walter Lord

Among the annuals of recent naval history there are several sea battles that changed the balance of power: Nelson’s victory over the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar in 1805, Tōgō’s decisive Japanese victory over the Russian Navy at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, and the US Navy’s crushing defeat of the Imperial Japanese Navy at Midway in 1942. Midway is unique in many ways: occurring only six months after Pearl Harbor the battle was a critical turning point in the Pacific during World War II, where the balance of sea power shifted from a dominating Japan to a position that allowed the U.S. to take eventually take the offensive in the Pacific.

On June 4, 1942 Admiral Nimitz positioned three of America’s five aircraft carriers off the island of Midway based on Navy cryptanalyst breaking of the Japanese code that indicated an invasion was planned for the Island. During a four-hour period Army Air Force and Naval planes and a submarine relentlessly attacked the Japanese fleet forcing them onto the defensive. Stunningly, within a 10-minute period, American “Dauntless” dive bombers from the USS Enterprise, USS Hornet and USS Yorktown were able to land fatal blows on three Japanese carriers (Kaga, Akagi and Sōryū) and a forth (Hiryū) was mortally wounded several hours later. Thus on a single day the American fleet was able to sink four of the six carriers that launched the Pearl Harbor attack (the last two, Shōkaku and Zuikaku, were not sunk until 1944).  During the battle we lost one carrier (USS Yorktown), a destroyer, 150 aircraft and 307 individuals were killed. The Japanese lost four carriers, one heavy cruiser, 248 aircraft and 3,057 individuals. Today, June 4, 2015, marks the 73rd anniversary of the Navy’s stunning victory.

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The Midway Memorial on the Island of Midway.

Growing up in the family of a naval aviator I have always been naturally curious about planes, ships and sea battles. Although a bit out of character, my hero as a kid was Army Air Force General Robert Lee Scott of the Flying Tigers. I must have read his book, God is my Co-Pilot, a dozen times while in grade school. As I got older I devoured books and watched films on military history from the ancient Greeks to Vietnam. For some reason WWII stories have always been my favorite and the Battle of Midway stands out as one of the most interesting (although of course there are many others great battles, such as the Battle off Samar depicted in The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors). Although I have read several books on Midway I list two of my favorites here and why I like them. You can find a more complete bibliography on Midway books here.

51rJEdDxw8LBy far my favorite book is Parshall and Tully’s Shattered Sword: the Untold Story of the Battle of Midway. In unparalleled detail the authors reconstruct the sequence of events leading up to the battle using extensive new and untapped Japanese primary sources. The entire book is told from the Japanese point of view and is an exhaustive account of the military doctrine, planning, technology and decisions leading up to and during the great naval engagement. Along the way the authors create a compelling narrative that challenges many long-held beliefs about the battle as well as offering many new insights. Among the list of myths they dispel are:

  • During the fateful American Dive bomber attack the Japanese carriers were not “minutes away” from launching a decisive counterattack;
  • The Aleutian operations were not a elaborate feint designed to lure the American Fleet out of Pearl Harbor but a goal in itself;
  • The late launch of one scout plane (Tone’s No. 4) did not doom Japanese efforts to win the battle;
  • The Japanese decision to rearm their aircraft with land attack weapons did not doom their ability to launch a counterattack against the Americans;
  • The Japanese naval air corp were not all wiped out at Midway.

Perhaps one of the most stunning revelations is that the defeat was covered up in Japan, with many of the survivors quarantined in special wards to hide the truth and treated as second class citizens. In fact the battle was portrayed as a great victory until after the war was over when the truth finally came out. The book is filled with detailed battle maps, historic photos, and illustrations that accompany the exhaustively detailed new account of the Imperial Japanese Navy at Midway. In addition, the authors have a fantastic website on the Imperial Japanese Navy.

download (1)Another great book is Smith’s Midway: Dauntless Victory which focuses specifically on the Navy “Dauntless” dive bomber’s role in the battle. This is an in-depth and highly detailed study of the Battle of Midway that reviews previous accounts in relation to new documentation that has been recently released in an effort to separate myths from reality. This is a very well illustrated book with extensive footnotes on all the major individuals involved in the battle and detailed appendices on the ships, planes and men. The text discusses several new viewpoint that have previously been missing from history books:

  • Fresh thinking on the part played by the US Navy Dauntless dive-bombers in the action;
  • A new perspective on the US Army Air Force’s role in the battle;
  • Hollywood’s totally wrong take on the battle in films.

Like Shattered Sword this book is for serious Midway fans that want to delve into the details of the battle. For a more general history I recommend Walter Lord’s Incredible Victory: The Battle of Midway (1967) and Craig Symonds’s Battle at Midway (2011).

I believe that as engaged citizens we need to be aware of our military past. Not only do these stories inspire respect and admiration for those that died defending our country but being aware of our history highlights the reasons why we ended up engaged in warfare in the first place and the horrors of war itself.  Let us not forget why we fight and the high cost of doing so to our nation.

Resources:

Midway Films:

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