Review by Bill Doughty
Written by a former flight deck Sailor who was at the Battle of Midway -- as an 18-year-old aviation ordnanceman aboard USS Enterprise (CV 6) -- The Unknown Battle of Midway by Alvin Kernan is a loving tribute to “brave men and old shipmates.”
It’s a compelling look at some of the personalities, tactics, aircraft and lessons of the Battle of Midway, under Kernon’s subtitle: The Destruction of the American Torpedo Squadrons.
Historian-scholars Donald Kagan and Frederick Kagan endorse Princeton Professor Emeritus Kernan in a foreward to the book:
“His new book (2005, Yale University) is a model of scholarship of an unusual kind. The Unknown Battle of Midway is the clearest and most persuasive story of the Battle of Midway we have ever read or heard. It asks the right questions directly and answers them clearly, simply and convincingly, basing its conclusions on keen analysis of the primary sources and much new evidence rarely if ever used by other accounts.”
The book opens with the Imperial Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor of Dec. 7, 1941, at once a success -- destruction of the U.S. Navy battleships -- and a failure -- no aircraft carriers in port at the time, as expected.
Kernan gives a first-person account of what he saw from the deck of USS Enterprise in the aftermath of the attack.
When the Enterprise entered the harbor to refuel, late in the afternoon of December 8, we were flabbergasted by the devastation we saw as we proceeded to our dock, moving slowly around the harbor from east to west. One battleship, the Nevada, was lying athwart the narrow entrance channel, beached bow first, allowing barely enough room for the carrier to squeeze by and move past the great battle fleet lying in ruins at its anchorages alongside Ford Island. The water was covered with oil, fires were burning still, ships were resting on the bottom mud, superstructures had broken and fallen. Great gaps loomed where magazines had exploded, and smoke was roiling up everywhere. For sailors who had considered these massive ships invincible, it was a sight to be seen not not comprehended, and as we made our way to a dock on the west side of Ford Island, just beyond the old target battleship Utah, turned turtle, we seemed to be mourners at a spectacular funeral.
As the “battle line” was destroyed, a new more multi-dimensional era -- based on naval aviation -- was born. After Pearl Harbor, Kernan says, it became critical to ask, “where are the enemy aircraft carriers?” as what would become known as the centennial of naval aviation entered its fourth decade.
Pearl Harbor marked the end of an ancient mode of warfare -- of ironclads and broadsides on a vast watery plain. Kernan reminds us what the great American author Herman Melville said about those ancient sea battles in beautiful prose from 1854’s Israel Potter:
There is something in a naval engagement which radically distinguished it from one on the land. The ocean, at times, has what is called its sea and its trough of the sea; but it has neither rivers, woods, banks, towns, nor mountains. In mild weather, it is one hammered plain. Strategems, -- like those of disciplined armies, ambuscades -- like those of Indians, are impossible. All is clear, open, fluent. The very element which sustains the combatants, yields at the stroke of a feather. One wind and one tide operate upon all who here engage. This simplicity renders a battle between two men-of-war, with their huge white winds, more akin to the Miltonic contests of archangels than to the comparatively squalid tussles of earth.
In the new generation of warfare, almost unimaginable in Melville’s time, the Navy and nation embraced sea-based, forward operating, power projecting naval aviation.
The Battle of Midway, a turning point in the war in the Pacific, was won, according to Kernan, in spite of well-documented problems associated with defective torpedoes, insufficient training, lack of communication and poor alignment of tactics.Where other authors -- Gordon W. Prange (Miracle at Midway), Samuel Eliot Morison (Vol. 4 of History of United States Naval Operations in World War II) and Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully (Shattered Sword) -- discuss the shortcomings associated with Cmdr. Stanhope C. Ring, commander of the Hornet Air Group at the Battle of Midway, Kernan provides an eviscerating portrayal. Decisions taken and routes flown (or not flown) contributed to the loss of 44 of 51 torpedo planes and their aviators.
Despite the losses and mistakes, the Battle of Midway was a great overall success thanks to Cmdr. Rochefort’s communication intelligence at Station Hypo; strong leadership by Admirals Nimitz, Fletcher and Spruance; round-the-clock efforts by Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard to repair USS Yorktown (CV 5); and the courage and sacrifice of heroes like Lt. Cmdr. John C. Waldron and Lt. Cmdr. Gus Widhelm.
Like Molly Kent’s USS Arizona’s Last Band, The Unknown Battle of Midway introduces us to key individuals and shows their real-life characters and quirks through personal description.
Like David McCullough’s 1776, Kernon paints the battle from all sides and brings history to life, spicing the narrative with literary references and contextual insights.
But Kernon adds the priceless perspective of a deckplate Sailor -- a member of the flight crew at the Battle of Midway. He was there.