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”.