Do we really need another history of this well documented battle? Well maybe not need, but this book proved to be a much appreciated addition to the what’s out there.
This book is purely a narrative history; that is it tells the story of the event like a novel. This is always the best sort of history for gaining familiarity with an event. But Midway is already well served on that account including such classics as “Incredible Victory” by Walter Lord, “Miracle at Midway” by Gordon Prange and “Shattered Sword” by Parshall and Tully.
What this book contributes is as a completely modern reconstruction of the events. That matters for a few reasons, and I don’t really mean the promotional sort of “this will change our understanding of the battle!” nonsense that seems to appear in advertising material for almost every new book.
The first thing that matters is just that available material has changed over time. I remember years ago talking to a friend who had been a Marine Raider based on Midway Island during the battle who made the comment “the Army B-17s won the battle with no help”. He wasn’t real pleased when I said the B-17s never hit a thing. During the war, the Navy was not willing to even admit they were there because it all tied back to code-breaking. So for years every press account only mentioned Midway Island based AirPower and the B-17s got the headlines. After the war the truth came out but certain details were still kept discrete; and even when Incredible Victory was published in 1967 Walter Lord had to be a little cagey about how the Navy knew to be there. The full intelligence wasn’t declassified until the 1980s.
I’d also say the American and Japanese perspectives weren’t really well reconciled until Shattered Sword was published in 2005. Not to say earlier writers made no effort; there were interviews with Japanese veterans (John Toland really excelled at this in “But Not In Shame” and “Rising Sun”). And of course “Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan” by Mitsuo Fuchida was published in English in 1955. But these are all basically survivor anecdotes and not serious research. Some Japanese historians did do more critical work looking at official records, issues related to doctrine and even relevant engineering data. But again, Shattered Sword was the first time English readers got a good look at that.
There are other more recent revelations like the Hornet Air Groups “flight to nowhere” being thoroughly re-examed in this century.
Which all goes to say a modern narrative of the battle has been tweaked a bit. So what Craig Symonds delivers is an excellent and very readable description of a very complicated and very important event. The book is about 350 pages long, the first 150 of that is background including a nice telling of the Battle of Coral Sea.
I also really appreciate the writer’s attitude towards all the main players. He makes an attempt to understand decisions made by each and every one of them. In some cases this is fairly unique; I think many current writers assume Stanhope Ring was actually trying to loose the battle single handed, none of that here. Of course that means this book is a little short on mean spirited gossip, but I’ll call that a win. I found it refreshing to read a fair minded attempt at actually understanding what Ring might have been thinking on that morning.
For any fan of air and naval action June 4, 1942 is familiar and epic in almost every sense. I’d recommend studying this battle in almost any form, and this book may be the best fully modern narrative history of it I’ve seen.*
* Keeping in mind “Shattered Sword” is more a deep analysis and told heavily from a Japanese perspective. That’s no criticism, it just isn’t quite a “narrative history”.
This book was certainly an interesting surprise. I was expecting something more specific about equipment and weapons development during the Second World War. The subtitle is about “Problem Solvers”. It might have been better called something like “How Things got Done”; or a “celebration of mid-level leaders”.
The 370 pages of text are broken into five lengthy chapters examining different critical campaigns from January 1943 to July 1944, and looking at the nuts and bolts of how they were won by the allies. It certainly isn’t a narrative history, more of a deep analysis. And that may be the very thing that kept it interesting for someone who has read far more on this period of time than I can even remember. The five campaigns, or specific challenges, dealt with here are The Battle of the Atlantic, Winning Air Superiority over Western Europe, Stopping the Wehrmacht, Amphibious Operations in Europe and Conquering the Vast Distances of the Pacific.
In each of these chapters the author weaves together all the details, the complexity, the interconnectedness of things needed to make things work. I found that fascinating from beginning to end. It is so often true when we read campaign or battle histories we come up short on greater context, but this book provides context in abundance and helps us keep track of how all the details come together. Whether its the cavity magnetron, T-34 testing at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, mating the Merlin to the Mustang or amphibious theory by Pete Ellis; there is just a staggering level of stuff here. As is so often the case with “big picture” stories like this there are several detail errors on little things, naturally I most notice it on aircraft but I’m sure other readers will have some other little nits to pick. But it really is just in the little stuff I have some complaints.
Fascinating and fun book.
No doubt this is one of my favorite places on Earth! So when the newly restored Memphis Belle was rolled out for display I made another journey to Dayton.
I don’t know all the behind scenes politicking, but apparently when the City of Memphis was unable or unwilling to provide an indoor display for this important relic it was reclaimed by the Air Force for restoration and an appropriate display.
The nose art is slightly different on either side.
This airplane was often presented as the first American bomber and crew to complete 25 combat missions over Europe to earn a well deserved trip home. There is a slight fudge in this, one or two other crews actually completed their missions before; but the Belle was the first plane to take its crew all the way back to the US after its tour. It went on war bond tours and on long term display in Memphis before ending up at Wright-Patterson and the Museum.
Three of the crew went on to fly B-29 missions over Japan, including pilot Robert Morgan.
As a bonus, the Museum’s IMAX Theater was showing a newly restored print of William Wyler’s 1943 classic movie Memphis Belle. This was from the original 16mm film that has been kept by the film-maker’s family. So it was better quality to begin with than even the prints that first ran in wartime theaters. The restoration removed all scratches and was in vibrant color. Just stunning to see.
Also note this was a wartime documentary NOT the Hollywoodized 1990s movie. It was filmed on bombers in combat, camera crews suffered injuries and one cameraman was killed. It really drives home the mood of the time and has an understated power about it. And it’s really something to see both the artifact itself and a 75 year old movie it starred in.
Lend-lease could flow both ways. Is this an honor or a travesty?
This is not a small museum! I’ve been more times than I can count and it’s always a full day.
Posted in Museums
I’ve mentioned my model shop being down for a basement remodel, well I thought I’d share a look what’s been done with the main part of the space.
The major part of the newly finished space is a home theater, with sections I call office and library. But of interest to this site is significant model display space!
My wife and I have been in this house for 18 years and we’ve discussed doing something with this space almost from the start.
Now that the Dave Cave is complete I can work on getting the model shop back up and running.
The True Story of Torpedo Squadron Eight
This is an excellent look at a pivotal period from an unusual perspective. I’ve read several unit histories. Often they are a bit dull, except presumably to those with a close connection to the unit. But this book really stands out for several reasons. First is just that the squadron’s period of activity is so key to the history of the Pacific War. Torpedo Eight was operational from late 1941 to late 1942, but more to the point the unit saw action at the Battle of Midway and in the Guadalcanal campaign.
The book further stands out for telling the story at a very human level while weaving anecdotes and reminiscences into the greater historic narrative. So we get a nice balance of exciting, tragic and funny combined with why these things mattered. It is an extremely effective way of writing such a history.
I admit to being a bit cautious about this book at the start, Torpedo Eight’s part in the Battle of Midway is an American tragedy. Out of 21 sorties (15 TBDs from Hornet and 6 TBFs from Midway) only one aircraft and three men survived. So the personal stories at the start all came with a sense of dread, nearly every one of those first characters gave their lives in that battle. But those stories are all well told, even if mostly tragic. And so much of the well known Midway story is filled in with details of interest to a Torpedo Eight centered perspective. Including the three crews left behind on Hornet and the detachment in Hawaii I had known nothing about.
Those who have read more recent accounts of the Battle of Midway are likely aware there is some controversy over the exact route flown by Hornet’s air group and a possible cover-up involving Stanhope Ring and Marc Mitscher. That is explored some here, and in greater detail in the appendix. The author concludes Ring essentially took the blame for Mitscher’s bad decision and really comes down hard on both men.
A final interesting item from this section, that I previously knew nothing about, is that the Hawaii detachment of the squadron flew their TBFs out to Hornet on its way back from Midway. So the plane the squadron had eagerly hoped to have for battle was on board when the ship returned to harbor; creating an unusual situation of a squadron being wiped out in battle, yet being on board at strength, with newer equipment when returning home.
The larger part of the book involves the squadron’s activities in the Guadalcanal campaign. They flew off Saratoga during the initial invasion of the island and participated in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons where they were involved in sinking the Ryūjō. After Saratoga was damaged they transferred to Espiritu Santo and began feeding detachments up to Guadalcanal as a major part of the “Cactus Air Force.” This added a level of physical hardship squadron personnel had previously avoided, and the book captures well the exhausting, grinding aspect of the campaign.
Several strong personalities emerge over the course of this story. The original commander, John Waldron is well known and it was interesting to see his impact even after his death at Midway. His second in command, and squadron commander through the second part of the book was Swede Larson who was a much less loved character. I think I’ve never heard of such an officer who had two separate attempts on his life from squadron members!
The rest of the squadron is brought to life in appealing (and some times not so appealing) detail.
On balance this is an excellent book both as a history and on a more human level. It is maybe not the best introduction for readers who are otherwise unfamiliar with this story. A more general narrative history as introduction might be preferable; but this book does a good job with overview so perhaps it is not actually required.
Note: as mentioned previously, my model shop has been down for a remodel these last few months. I expect I’ll be back working in another month, and my first completed model should follow a couple weeks after. I just want to assure readers I have forgotten neither my hobbies nor this web site! More to come…
The Japanese aircraft industry produced some excellent high performance fighters towards the end of the war. The N1K was generally considered the very best among the naval types.
Join me for a look at fighter that Allied pilots were thankful never appeared en masse. Continue reading
Talk about an unexpected treasure, I think this book has been sitting in my “to read” pile for five years. I do have a large pile, and I regularly buy books that look like they might be interesting and just get to them when I get to them. But I think I had failed to notice when I picked this up that the author is part of the “Parshall and Tully” who wrote Shattered Sword. It might have moved higher up the pile if I’d noticed this! It also might have languished because I’ve read a number of excellent books over the years about the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf, of which the Battle of Surigao Strait is just one of the four actions that make up that major epic. Continue reading