Case In Point: The Battle of Midway

By James Cobb 20 Nov 2015 0

In War and Peace, Tolstoy promotes the thesis that battles are won entirely by chance, “incident by incident”. Historians can safely dismiss the dead hand of chance but the concept of “incident by incident” should be a guide for how serious students of history should approach what may appear to be a stand-alone event. The interconnectedness of events demands the use of more than one book or source. A ready-made example of this is the Battle of Midway.

Midway has been described as decisive, pivotal, miraculous and incredible; any student of World War II would read about it. The short version is that three American carriers sank four Japanese carriers and a heavy cruiser while suffering the loss of one carrier. The usual single volume accounts include Walter Lord’s Incredible Victory, Gordon Prange and others' Miracle at Midway, and Craig L. Symonds’ The Battle of Midway. Any of these books will give the casual reader a reasonable account of the battle. What they lack, with the possible exception of Symonds’ work, is critical analysis of actions in the six months prior to the clash.

Starting the trail with Pearl Harbor may be puerile but mentioning Admiral Nagumo’s caution in allowing the base facilities and oil farms to be untouched is crucial to everything about the Pacific war. General MacArthur’s mishandling of his air assets on the same day gave the Japanese an incredible bonus and probably shortened their conquests by a month. Jeffery Cox in Rising Sun, Falling Skies: The Disastrous Java Sea Campaign of World War II details how this ineptness prevented the American Far East squadron from serving even as a speed bump for the Japanese.

The American carrier raids in the winter of 1942 are often understood as morale boosters with little strategic impact. Symonds and Richard Freeman in Coral Sea 1942 correct this misinterpretation. The raids on Japanese transports in the Marshalls and Gilbert islands forced the Japanese High Command to decide New Guinea had to be conquered from the south as well as the north. Hence, the invasion fleet for Port Moresby and the American interception of that fleet in the Coral Sea was set in motion.

The battle of the Coral Sea has often been called an American strategic victory but a tactical defeat. This view is derived from a simple ship count: the Japanese lost the small carrier Shoho with moderate damage to the fleet carrier Shokaku while the Americans lost the Lexington and had to send the Yorktown back to Pearl Harbor. Freeman makes a good argument that this concept is an oversimplification. The Shoho’s planes were to provide ground support for the landing therefore the invasion fleet turned back with its loss. The other Japanese carrier, Zuikaku, was undamaged but its air group was decimated. Since Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) doctrine didn’t allow the switching of air groups, both carriers were lost to any operation until Shokaku was repaired. American repair facilities had Yorktown ready for duty quickly so, operationally, the IJN lost three carriers for the immediate future as opposed to only one American loss.

The American side of Midway is fairly well described in the Lord and Prange books but Symonds goes the extra mile in describing the bureaucratic in-fighting between CincPac and Washington over the credibility of the code breakers. He also explains the failure of the Hornet’s first strike, “The Road to Nowhere”. However, a complete understanding of the battle requires reading Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully’s Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway. This excellent book describes the battle from the IJN side and describes Japanese deficiencies in strategy, tactics and ship design. For example, the major IJN weakness was in reconnaissance which would have been overcome had the operational Zuikaku been present and not a prisoner of doctrine. Another eye-opener is that the Japanese planes were not being rearmed on the flight decks but in the enclosed hanger decks where hits were much more destructive.

The US Naval Institute Press has two recent books on the battle: The Battle of Midway: The Naval Institute's Guide to the U.S. Navy's Greatest Victory, edited by Thomas C. Hone, containing every article written in the Proceedings since 1942 and the US Navy’s The Battle of Midway: Aerology and Naval Warfare which examines the effects of weather on the battle. The historiography and technical aspects of both works is fascinating.

All books should be read critically but some more than others. George J. Walsh self-published The Battle of Midway: Searching for the Truth posits a navy cover-up about Midway. Supposedly, Admiral Halsey ordered that no torpedo planes should be used against warships and that Admiral Fletcher’s handling of the Yorktown was inept. Mr. Walsh is a former Navy dive bomber pilot who served in the Pacific in World War II and has an agenda. He feels that the dive bombers at Midway have not gotten their due when compared to the print spilled on the torpedo planes. He also revives the “black shoe/brown shoe” conflict with a vengeance. His book should be taken with a grain of salt.

The multiplicity of books on Midway underscores the necessity of reading more than one book about any battle. No single volume can cover all the action and the necessary contexts. Due diligence must be exercised. War game developers should take note. Only two strategic Pacific war games exist: Gary Grigsby’s War in the Pacific and Shrapnel’s War Plan Pacific these two represent both poles of play: Grigsby’s game is detailed but daunting in its scope while War Plan Pacific is a nice three-hour game, capturing the essence of the conflict in abstract way. What is needed is a strategic game with interlocked operational scenarios that allow incidents to be built upon each other, allowing the entire story of Midway or an alternate path to be played out in a comfortable fashion.

About the Author
Jim Cobb has been teaching history at Cardinal Stritch University since 2000 and is a veteran gamer.

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