“In all its long history, the Japanese Navy had never known defeat….”
– Samuel Eliot Morison
Most of my friends don’t know what the Battle of Midway was. When I found a friend who did, he confidently explained that the American victory was nothing but luck. He might have been referring to Admiral Spruance’s self-effacing comment that “we were shot through with luck,” but I doubt it. These depressing conversations remind me that we no longer bother teaching history in elementary school or high school or college.
Midway is one of the most important and decisive battles in history. It was where the small American Fleet, still reeling from Pearl Harbor, stopped the gangrenous spread of Japanese Imperialism. The men who fought there deserve a permanent place in the American mind and the lasting gratitude of the free world.
The standard works are Walter Lord’s Incredible Victory and Gordon Prange’s Miracle at Midway. Both admit a heavy debt of gratitude to Samuel Eliot Morison’s three chapters on the battle in his epic History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Morison is certainly one of the most thrilling of all military historians, with a gift for lyric lines that burn themselves into our memory – the even pithier account of Midway in his summary work, The Two-Ocean War, is worth learning by heart. But Morison was writing very close to the events themselves (he served on shipboard during the war – a fighting history professor).
Thus he writes somewhat vaguely that American Intelligence produced a “fairly accurate” picture of Japanese intentions “deduced from various bits of information. ” In fact the extraordinary story of the Intelligence operation at Station Hypo – one the great achievements of the war – was still classified. Both Lord and Prange, writing later, explain in absorbing detail how a small group of mathematical and linguistic geniuses led by Joseph Rochefort, working underground for days and even weeks at a stretch, were able to decode enough of Japan’s naval cipher to predict where and when we would find the enemy fleet. Their prediction proved accurate within five minutes, five miles, and five degrees’ bearing, an unpredecented and unrepeated feat.
Even with our advance warning, we were almost catastrophically outnumbered: 162 Japanese warships and auxiliaries to our 76. But, in one crucial area, we were nearly even – three American carriers (Enterprise, Yorktown, and Hornet) to their four (Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu). We were lucky in some respects, unlucky in others. We took advantage of Japanese mistakes. But ultimately the battle was won by the tactical brilliance, the fighting skill and the physical courage of individual Americans, whose names we ought to know:
Admiral Raymond Spruance was in command of Hornet and Enterprise. He seized the initiative to attack with everything he had as soon as Midway-based search planes found the Japanese fleet.
Captain Miles Browning, Spruance’s Chief of Staff, was “one of the most irascible officers ever to earn a fourth stripe, but he was a man with a slide-rule brain.” He calculated the correct time to launch a strike that would catch the Japanese carriers with their planes refueling and rearming on deck.
Lieutenant Commander John C Waldron led Hornet’s Torpedo planes. He was the brilliant aerial navigator who succeeded in finding the Japanese carriers despite their last-minute change in course. He attacked without fighter cover and lost his life, as did 28 of the 29 men under his command. The Torpedo planes from Enterprise and Yorktown followed him in, suffering losses nearly as horrendous and scoring not a single hit. But the Japanese fighters were drawn low to the water by the torpedo attack, leaving the skies wide open at exactly the right moment.
Lieutenant Commander Clarence Wade McClusky, air group commander of Enterprise, appeared 19,000 feet above the Japanese fleet with our SBD Dauntless dive bombers: Bombing Squadron 6, led by Lieutenant Commander Richard H Best and Scouting Squadron 6, led by Lieutenant W Earl Gallaher. At 1026 on June 4, they came screaming down on Akagi and Kaga. At exactly the same moment, Lieutenant Commander Maxwell Leslie and his Yorktown dive bombers hurtled towards Soryu. In six minutes – six minutes as important as any in modern history – they had reduced all three carriers to a flaming shambles.
The fourth Japanese carrier, Hiryu, survived long enough to launch a counterattack which crippled Yorktown, but Yorktown was avenged by a second American raid “led by the redoubtable Gallaher” – and by 1700 on June 4, Hiryu too was a burning wreck.
By nine o’clock next morning, all four Japanese carriers were on the bottom. With them, their entire complement 250 Japanese fighters and bombers, and some 2200 officers and men. Admiral Yamamoto took sick to his cabin for the return voyage to Japan, and word was passed from Imperial Headquarters that the name “Midway” was never to be mentioned.
Lord and Prange have produced worthy accounts – Lord’s is far more readable, with a real human touch in his anecdotes. Prange’s work was published posthumously, co-authored by Donald Goldstein and Katherine Dillon. Perhaps because of the co-authoring it lacks a strong narrative voice and is much drier. But it is more recently published and had the most information to draw on. In closing, however, we must return to Morison, who commends to us “the threescore young aviators who met flaming death that day in reversing the verdict of battle.
“Think of them, reader, every Fourth of June. They and their comrades who survived changed the whole course of the Pacific War.”
Overall Goodness Rating: Complex (see below):
In sixteen pages, see Morison’s Two Ocean War, pp 147-163. OGR 10/10
In three chapters, Morison’s History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, vol. 4, chapters 6-8 OGR 10/10
In an entire book, Incredible Victory, by Walter Lord, 1967. Harper & Row, 331 pages. OGR 9/10
In another entire book, Miracle at Midway, by Gordon Prange et al, 1982. McGraw-Hill, 469 pages. OGR 8/10