Battle of Midway Literature

By Ray Starmann


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In the seventy-three years since the Battle of Midway was fought and won by the US Navy, there has been a myriad of literature written on the subject, some of which includes works from the Japanese side as well. The US victory at Midway was a pivotal moment that changed the course of World War II in the Pacific. From December of 1941 to May of 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had ravaged the US fleet at Pearl Harbor and the Royal Navy in the Indian Ocean. In a matter of five minutes on the morning of 4 June 1942, daring US Navy dive bomber pilots struck Japan’s once invincible carrier strike force, the Kido Butai and sunk the carriers Akagi, Kaga and Soryu. A fourth carrier, the Hiryu was destroyed that afternoon. The US triumph put the brakes on the Japanese drive across the Pacific. It also opened the way for the first major Allied offensive in the Pacific, Operation Watchtower, the invasion of Guadalcanal.

From the huge field of Midway literature, I’d like to examine several books, including: Samuel Eliot Morison’s History of United States Naval Operations in World War II – Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions, Mitsuo Fuchida and Masatake Okumiya’s, Midway – The Battle that Doomed Japan, John Toland’s, But Not in Shame (The Six Months After Pearl Harbor), Walter Lord’s Incredible Victory , Gordon Prange’s, Miracle at Midway, Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully’s Shattered Sword, The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway and Craig L. Symonds’, The Battle of Midway.

Samuel Eliot Morison’s work, Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions, published in 1949, is the fourth volume in a 15 volume series on US Navy operations in World War II. Morison’s series is similar to the Army “Green Book” series on WWII, except for the simple fact that Morison authored all 15 volumes and the army volumes were parsed out to various historians. Because Morison’s work was published only four years after hostilities ended, he had limited access to logs, diaries, after action reports and other official documents that are the mainstay of any current historian delving into the subject.

Morison focuses on events preceding Midway, specifically the Battle of the Coral Sea, a strategic victory for the US Navy and the subsequent halting of Japanese advances towards Port Moresby. He also goes into excellent detail concerning the Japanese attack on the Aleutians and in fact finishes the book with the opening stages of Guadalcanal.

One of Morison’s main arguments is that the Japanese dispersed their forces too much and did not have the technical competence to conduct the giant operation of assaulting the Aleutians and Midway concurrently.

He did update the book in 1959 and included much information he had gleaned from Mitsuo Fuchida’s book. Fuchida had planned the Pearl Harbor attacks and was on the carrier Akagi during Midway.Because Fuchida’s work has now been deemed error-prone and even misleading, Morison’s work on Midway has also been criticized.

Also, Morison lacked much of the information concerning Operation Magic, the US Navy Intelligence operation that cracked JN-25, the Imperial Japanese Navy(IJN)’s code. In the 1950’s Operation Magic was still classified. Morison had to assume that Admiral Nimitz had gathered pieces of information from all source intelligence and made logical guesses from that information. Operation Magic was finally declassified piecemeal in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Nevertheless, Morison concluded that victory in the battle was nearly a miracle and that it was “a victory of intelligence, bravely and wisely applied.” [i]

Midway: The Battle that Doomed Japan, published in 1951 was written by Mitsuo Fuchida, with assistance from Masatake Okumiya. Fuchida, was the first Japanese participant in the battle to have a book published in the West. The leader of the Pearl Harbor attack spent most of the Battle of Midway as a spectator. Picked to command the Akagi’s torpedo bomber squadron, Fuchida was sidelined because of an emergency appendectomy. After the Akagi was struck by two dive bombs, he broke both of his ankles abandoning ship and spent the rest of the war as a staff officer.

Fuchida’s book blames Japan’s defeat at Midway on excellent US military intelligence, a failure of Japanese intelligence, a poor disposition of forces, poor reconnaissance and continued tactical blunders by Admiral Nagumo, including sending too many aircraft on the Midway Island strike, failure to attack the Yorktown immediately and failure to respond to the sinking of his carriers. Also, the inability to replace pilots lost during the Battle of the Coral Sea was mentioned as a contributor to Japan’s loss. Failure of communication and coordination between the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy is also mentioned.

The author also faults Japan’s lack of ingenuity by using battleships as close escorts for carriers, a shortage of planes and pilots, the lack of radar on Japanese ships and what Fuchida calls “Victory Disease”, the arrogance the Japanese possessed after so many victories in the Pacific prior to May of 1942. Fuchida also discusses the fateful error in the IJN’s erratic dispersement of forces.

The book served as a primary source for historians for decades, but is now largely considered to be inaccurate and full of distortions. Fuchida insists that the attack on the Aleutians was a diversion, but modern historians have discovered that it wasn’t, although it certainly may have become one. Also, Fuchida’s information concerning the launching of the scout plane from the Tone is false. He claims that the plane was launched late, but recent information indicates it left on time. Perhaps most importantly, Fuchida propagated the myth that the Japanese were just minutes away from launching off their carriers when they were hit by US Navy dive bombers. In actuality, it would have taken them another 45 minutes to launch and the planes were still in their hangars when the attacks occurred. He also fails to mention repeated US attacks that morning which kept the Japanese CAP(Combat Air Patrol) in the skies and the tactical commanders occupied and off balance.

While interesting reading, most scholars now agree that Fuchida’s book is riddled with errors, changed by the author to fit his version of events.

But Not In Shame, The Six Months after Pearl Harbor, published in 1961, was written by noted John Toland. Toland is best known for his works: Hitler, Battle – The Story of the Battle of the Bulge, and The Last 100 Days. But Not In Shame is not a book that exclusively covers what happened at Midway. Rather, it breaks down in easily readable Toland prose the events leading to and including the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor and the series of rapid and calculating Japanese conquests from January to May 1942. Like all of Toland’s works, this book is fast paced and does not bog down in scholarly analysis.

The last 60 pages of the book are solely devoted to the Battle of Midway. Much like Walter Lord, Toland relies on a myriad of sources to tell the story of the US Navy’s shocking victory. And, much like the earlier works on Midway and continuing with Prange’s work, John Toland describes the American victory at Midway as not only tenuous but miraculous. And, like the authors before him, he writes that this victory, although based somewhat on luck, was only successful because of the bravery and skill of US navy pilots, the sound decisions made by Spruance, Fletcher and Nimitz and the ingenuity of Commander Joe Rochefort’s team at Station Hypo, Pearl Harbor. If you want a complete history of Midway, there are of course other books, but if you also want to explore the events that led to Midway, this is a great book to read.

Toland traveled more than 75,000 miles and interviewed 800 people while conducting his research. Toland does an excellent job of describing the British fights for Singapore and Hong Kong. He also discusses MacArthur’s and Wainwright’s fate in the Philippines in superb detail, while also detailing the Japanese conquests of Wake, Guam and the infamous Bataan Death March.

Walter Lord’s Incredible Victory was published in 1967. He is also known for his work on the Alamo, A Time to Stand, his story of the coast watchers, Lonely Vigil and specifically for his book on the Titanic, A Night to Remember . Like John Toland, Lord was a best-selling writer of populist history, a writer with a journalist’s style who utilized a vast number of interviews with various participants as his primary research tool. This book is really the best starting point for any in-depth study of the subject. Lord’s greatest talent as a writer is the ability to put you there; with Joe Rochefort or Wade McClusky or Chester Nimitz.

Lord begins his book with perhaps one of the most stirring introductions ever… “They were hopelessly outclassed. They had no right to win. Yet they did and in doing so they changed the course of the war. Even against the greatest of 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.” [ii]

Lord was the first writer to detail the operations of Navy Signals Intelligence in Pearl Harbor under the command of Commander Joe Rochefort at Station Hypo and their cracking of the Japanese Imperial Navy Code, JN-25. Lord argues that obtaining the intelligence concerning the Japanese plan was only half the fight. The Americans still had to successfully APPLY that intelligence and defeat the Japanese, which they did.

Walter Lord would come to the following conclusions: the Japanese suffered from bad luck with the late start of the search plane from the Tone, the failure to launch an attack on US carriers before they were attacked themselves, a poor dispersal of forces, an assumption that the US Navy was weak and would act predictably or “defensively.”

He also discusses the US Navy’s problems during the battle: underutilized subs, poor and dispersed scouting, poor communications, lack of coordination and a failed pursuit after the battle was won. Lord’s thesis is continuous throughout his easily readable book. “A few determined men reversed the course of the war in the Pacific.”[iii]. Lord writes that the Midway battle was a David vs Goliath story, a thesis that has recently been refuted by current scholars such as Parshall and Tully.

Miracle at Midway was first published in 1982. Written by Gordon Prange, former Professor History at the University of Maryland for many years and from 1942-1951, a US Navy officer and chief historian on the staff of Douglas MacArthur during the occupation of Japan. Prange’s most famous work was At Dawn We Slept, a hugely best-selling book on the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, much of what was a basis for the screenplay he wrote for the producers of Tora! Tora! Tora! Co-authors Donald Goldstein and Katherine Dillon, finished the manuscript after Prange’s death in 1980 and helped provide a highly detailed analysis of the causes and outcomes of the battle. Prange’s writing is more scholarly and not written in the easy-going style of Lord or Toland.

Unlike modern historians who have set out to break apart the “incredibly lucky victory” thesis, Prange believes that the success at Midway, while based on competence and bravery, was somewhat miraculous. Prange also argues that all military planning and preparation gave way to events during the battle, where commanders had to make instant and sometimes fateful decisions, while entrusting the personnel they commanded. As at Midway, the fate of a battle, a navy, perhaps a nation can sometimes be determined in several minutes of combat as seen on 4 June at Midway. Prange illustrates this by describing Commander Wade McClusky’s decision to continue searching for Nagumo’s carriers even though his planes were running out of fuel. He also discusses the decisions Nimitz made on where and when and how to deploy his forces to ambush the Japanese and Nimitz’s faith in Navy Intelligence, which he gained after the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Prange also blames Admiral Yamamoto for the defeat at Midway. He states that Yamamoto made multiple bad decisions; splitting his forces, creating an overly complicated battle plan and remaining on the battleship Yamato under radio silence during the battle. The author argues that Japan’s failed calculations and planning for the battle doomed it from the start, but that luck still loomed largely in the US victory.

Prange came to many of the same conclusions as Lord and Morison. He believed that a series of tactical missteps by Nagumo and his staff, superb US Intelligence, outstanding leadership by Nimitz, Spruance and Fletcher, the bravery of the men who fought the battle and the skill of the dive bomber pilots contributed to final victory.

In Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway, was published in 2005, and written by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully. It is perhaps the best account of what Japanese carriers were doing during the battle. The authors argue that the constant American air attacks on the morning of 4 June caused the Japanese to be completely disoriented in the coordination of their launches and attacks. The US attacks forced the Japanese to continually maneuver and therefore this hindered rearming operations and the location of inbound US torpedo and dive bombers. Parshall and Tully also argue that Nagumo was nowhere to being ready to launch against the Americans when his carriers were savaged by the US dive bombers.

Shattered Sword attempts and does shatter some previous myths about the battle. The authors focus heavily on the Japanese side of things, explaining how the Japanese came to the decision to attack Midway and the various politics behind the decision. They also go into immense detail explaining how the Japanese carriers operated and how they were built. They discuss the differences in American and Japanese carrier doctrine. The IJN is painted as not the unstoppable juggernaut believed at the time or in early histories of the battle. In truth, the authors describe the IJN high command as extremely dysfunctional and state that Yamamoto was placed in command at sea to prevent his assassination by Tojo-backed war mongers in Tokyo.

The authors also wish to conclude that the attack on the Aleutians was not a diversion as so many historians have previously indicated. They claim that the Aleutian attack was “at the top of frivolous goals”[iv] attempted by the IJN.

They seem to want to diminish the great US Navy victory by making arguments that the Americans and Japanese were on equal terms during the battle. They believe that the US Navy and the IJN fought the battle at near parity, a much different theory than anything previously written, with the Japanese fielding four carriers against the Americans’ three, with Midway Islands’ resources adding weight to the equation. Although, one has to wonder how accurate this really is. Gordon Prange states that there were only had 115 aircraft on Midway Atoll and the aircraft were mainly high level army bombers. Also, the US Navy had many obsolete aircraft such as the Brewster F2A Buffalo, the Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bomber and the Chance Vought SB2U Vindicator scout bomber. Many of the US pilots were green and right out of training, not only with zero combat experience, but with limited flying time.

According to Parshall and Tully, the Japanese violated their theory of mass and objective with Yamamoto dispersing his forces too much, such as diverting a carrier group to support the Aleutian operation.

The authors also claim that the launch of the Tone’s search plane may have led to an earlier discovery of the US forces, that a reserve strike force was not prepared to launch when the Americans were initially spotted, that VT-8’s attacks did not disrupt the Japanese CAP operations, and that the Kido Batai’s loss of quality maintenance personnel was more destructive to the Japanese Navy than the loss of pilots.

Parshall and Tully conclude that, “The Japanese defeat was not the result of some solitary, crucial breakdown in Japanese designs. It was not the result of Victory Disease, nor of a few crucial personal mistakes. Rather, what appears is a complex, comprehensive web of failures stretching across every level of the battle—strategic, operational, and tactical. . . . They were the end products of an organization that failed to learn correctly from its past, failed to plan correctly for its future, and then failed to adapt correctly to circumstances once those plans were shown to be flawed.”[v]

In the most recent book on the subject, Naval Academy history professor Craig Symonds uses much of the research and analysis done by Parshall and Tully. But, his work, The Battle of Midway, published in 2011, uses narrative more than standard analysis. It is very well written and relatively easy to read for someone new to the subject. He uses a large amount of primary and secondary Japanese and American sources to illustrate his points.

Symonds focuses on the problems encountered by the USS Hornet’s air group during the battle. The USS Hornet and its pilots suffered a series of poor navigation, including the infamous “flight to nowhere” and communication issues that contributed to most of the pilots failing to engage the enemy during the battle, except for the men of Torpedo Squadron (VT) 8, who attacked the Kido Butai but had only one survivor, Ensign George Gay. Symonds offers a sharp indictment of Hornet commander Marc Mitscher and air group commander Stanhope Ring for contributing to a cover up of the “flight to nowhere” on 4 June.

Symonds discusses in detail the many disappointments on the US side and the brave sacrifices made by pilots and air crewmen. He argues that it was the actions of key personnel that contributed to the battle’s outcome, rather than pure luck as some historians have argued. He wants to put to rest the arcane thesis that Midway was a victory based on pure luck or fate or divine will. Symonds discusses the actions of individuals rather than naval doctrine and standard operating procedures that many authors have previously written about.

Symonds believes previous writers have over-stressed the luck US dive bomber pilots had. Like Parshall and Tully, Symonds feels that the consistent attacks from US pilots was taking its toll by forcing the Japanese to continually react to American strikes. Most interestingly, he discusses the roles played by US Army Air Corps high level bombers. Even though, they failed to hit anything floating in the Japanese fleet, they contributed to the confusion on the Japanese flight decks.

The Japanese after Midway were unable to quickly replace losses in aircraft. They had long had a tradition of quality over quantity. Their code of Bushido and the aggressiveness of it enabled them to make quick attacks with their Zeros, but they paid less attention to carrier defense than the Americans.

Symonds, like other writers before him, also comments on the Japanese Navy’s complete mis-reading of the American military mind. The overly confident Japanese felt that the Americans would never attack them. They believed the US carriers would be sitting idly at Pearl Harbor. They also lacked radar and had no idea Navy Intelligence had cracked JN-25. Symonds discusses Commander Joe Rochefort’s bureaucratic battles and the fact that even though the Navy knew the Japanese were coming, they didn’t know their dispositions initially.

Symonds also mentions the Japanese shortcomings: a failure of task force organization, shipboard damage control procedures, and a lackadaisical approach to aerial reconnaissance. And, according to Symonds, the battle was decided long before it was fought. The political and philosophical attitudes of the Japanese Naval officers had as much to do with the final outcome, as the decisions made in combat.

Finally, Symonds argues that Midway was not a miraculous victory as Morison, Lord and Prange wrote, but rather an inevitable shift in naval power that would have taken place in the Pacific War, had Japan been victorious at Midway or not. Symonds believes that there was nothing the Japanese could have done to beat the US, once the die had been cast at Pearl Harbor.

[i] Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operation in World War II: Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Operations (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2001), pg. 158.

[ii] Walter Lord, Incredible Victory (NY, NY: Harper & Row, 1967), pgs. ix, x.

[iii] Lord, Incredible Victory, 288.

[iv] Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully, Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2005) pg. 52.

[v] Parshall and Tully, Shattered Sword, 414.


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