Saturday, May 17, 2014

'God-Awful Luckiest' Battle of Midway

by Bill Doughty
Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz
How did the United States Navy achieve victory at Midway and turn the tide in the Pacific so early in World War II?  An anthology from the Naval Institute Press shows the answer: Sailor ingenuity, science and skill blended with Admiral Nimitz's wisdom and determination -- along with some luck.

Other factors contributed, including miscalculations and overconfidence of Imperial Japan, whose military leaders were set on taking out "Hawaii's sentry," Midway Atoll. But fortune favored many of the U.S. carrier aviators who fatally damaged three enemy carriers, writes John B. Lundstrom in historian Thomas C. Hone's "The Battle of Midway: The Naval Institute Guide to the U.S. Navy's Greatest Victory."  Imperial Japan would lose four carriers that attacked Pearl Harbor and more than 100 of its aviators.

Lundstrom notes, "The actual sequence of events was stranger than anyone could have imagined; as [Rear Adm. Murr] Arnold wrote in 1965, it was 'the most god-awful luckiest coordinated attack.'"
In "The Battle of Midway" editor Hone brings together a gifted roster of writers and leaders including Craig L. Symonds, E.B. Potter, James Schlesinger, Adm. Raymond A. Spruance, Rear Adm. Edwin T. Layton, Elliot Carlson, Mitsuo Fuchida, Masatake Okumiya, Lundstrom and Mark R. Peattie, among others.

Throughout this book of mostly essays written over a span of seven decades, Hone adds context and analysis. In his introduction to Chapter 9, "Prelude to Midway," he explains Imperial Japan's motive for the attack.
"The Midway operation had two central objectives. The first and more limited one was the seizure of Midway as an advance air base to facilitate early detection of enemy carrier forces operating toward the homeland from Hawaii, with the attack on the Aleutians as a diversion ... The second, much broader objective was to draw out what was left of the United States Pacific Fleet so that it could be engaged and destroyed in decisive battle. Were these objectives achieved, the invasion of Hawaii itself would become possible, if not easy."
America's fury against Imperial Japan and commitment to avenge at Midway immediately after the attack on Oahu of December 7, 1941 was fueled by lies: pretended diplomacy in Washington D.C. even after the "Rising Sun's" torpedo bombs exploded in Pearl Harbor. Americans, led by President Roosevelt, called the act illegal, ignoble and infamous.
Eri Hotta's "Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy," published by Alfred A. Knopf Publisher, describes how the two emissaries, Nomura and Kurusu, were set up by the military government "warmongers" in Japan. The two were returned to Japan in a citizen exchange via Rio de Janeiro in the Atlantic, Mozambique in the Indian Ocean and finally Yokohama in Pacific, arriving August 20, 1942. Hotta writes:
"By then, Japan's preponderance at sea was declining precipitously. The balance of power had been tipped. From June 4 to 7, the Imperial Japanese Navy fought one of the most devastating naval battles in modern history, the Battle of Midway. The same men who planned the Pearl Harbor attack conceived of the Midway strategy, hoping to eliminate the United States from the Pacific once and for all. The operation ended in disaster for Japan. By this time the Japanese military code had been broken by the United States ... The Japanese navy was dragged down from its glorious pinnacle only six months after it had reached it."
Hotta's "Japan 1941" shows how misunderstanding, miscalculations and misinformation not only led Japan into war but also perpetuated the fighting even after defeat was inevitable.

Hone's "The Battle of Midway" opens with Part I, which explores Nagumo's kido butai (air fleet), presents Admiral Yamamoto from a Japanese perspective, and shows why Imperial Japan's carrier pilots were so skilled in the first year of the war with the U.S. Navy; it was because they had already gained experience in the previous decade in China. Part II is titled "Approach to Midway" and includes a brief but powerful piece from Proceedings, "Lest We Forget: Civilian Yard Workers," by Lt. Cmdr. Thomas J. Cutler, USN (ret.). Cutler is author of "Bluejacket's Manual," "A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy" and numerous other books.

USS Yorktown struggles in vain to survive during the Battle of Midway.
Part III, "The Battle," recounts the battle Kurosawa-like, from different angles and viewpoints including several from an Imperial Japanese perspective. "I Sank the Yorktown at Midway," by Yahachi Tanabe and Joseph D. Harrington, is one provocative title. Parts IV and V deal with the aftermath of the battle, its finale and the official report by Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet. 

Part VI of "The Battle of Midway" explores the personalities, strategies and relationships of the commanders: Nimitz, Spruance, Nagumo, Yamato, Fletcher and Mitscher. Part VII shows how code-breaking helped provide some of the "god-awful luck" that gave U.S. Navy the edge against the enemy fleet. Editor Hone leads with an analysis of the complicated state of affairs with regard to code-breaking, and he includes an excerpt from Elliot Carlson's excellent "Joe Rochefort's War: The Odyssey of the Codebraker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway."

Hone's book concludes with Part VIII "Assessments of the Battle" and appendixes, including the USS Enterprise Action Report and Spruance's Letter to Fletcher of June 8, 1942. 

There are several implied and outright pleas by historians to ensure Midway is understood and commemorated. Since Adm. Jonathan Greenert became CNO, The Battle of Midway has been part of a curriculum for Sailors and has been honored at every command.

The source materials, oral histories, chronologies and analysis in "The Battle of Midway" make this book a compelling overview of the heroic battle while leaving some mysteries, fog-of-war questions, and the impact of luck as still part of the story and lessons of Midway.

Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Jonathan Greenert, members of the official party and ceremony attendees salute a wreath at the U.S. Navy Memorial placed there in honor of the Battle of Midway Commemoration Day ceremony in Washington, D.C. June 4, 2012, the 70th Anniversary of the decisive Battle of Midway. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter D. Lawlor/Released)

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