The Battle of Midway by Craig L Symonds

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.*

~ Dave 

* 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”.

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About atcDave

I'm 54 years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I've been an air traffic controller for 31 years; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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31 Responses to The Battle of Midway by Craig L Symonds

  1. jfwknifton says:

    Very informative, and overall, an excellent review. Well done!

  2. It’s often difficult to get both sides of a battle story, researching another nation has its limitations. This sounds like a fresh look and perhaps an easier read than some of the heavier ‘technical’ reads out there. Thank you.

  3. Ernie Davis says:

    Well you’ve done it now. Since your last recommendation worked out, and the end of my vacation meant I was looking at a 6-7 hour drive I got this as an audiobook. I like it a lot. Enough details on personality and politics to clarify, but it doesn’t get bogged down. The author seems to be a Nimitz and Halsey fan, but then who isn’t.

    I’ll probably have some more thoughts as I get further in (haven’t reached Coral Sea yet), but I’m only getting my daily commute for listening time now so my pace has slowed.

    • atcDave says:

      A lot of people who only focus on the later part of the war are awfully hard on Halsey! But he sure proved himself through 1943.
      You know I will look forward to some discussion.

    • Ernie Davis says:

      Oddly I’ve chosen TORA! TORA! TORA! as tonight’s movie

      Did you hear there are rumors of a new Midway movie?

      • atcDave says:

        Oh I love TORA!TORA!TORA! Terrific movie, certainly one of the most accurate war movies ever done (except a lot of the cast needs to be 20 years younger!).
        I hadn’t heard about a new movie. I will be excited, as long as it isn’t a sequel to Disney’s Pearl Harbor.

    • Ernie Davis says:

      I will say this does, at this point highlight some of the same themes as the last book. The allies have seriously deficient equipment and are struggling with strategy and tactics, the axis has deficient systems to cary on a war.

      • atcDave says:

        I think on a tactical level the Japanese had been much more serious about preparing for a war with the US. And by serious I mean money. They spent on weapons, recruiting and training.
        While the US planned more long term. Thinking more supplies, systems and manufacturing. And through the ‘30s planning is about all we could do, there was little money until about 1940.

        Of course there were qualitative differences in hardware that were to our advantage too. Look at how the Yorktown responds to air attack compared to the Kido Butai. Every single Japanese carrier was sunk in a single attack, I think the Akagi was sunk by a single bomb! Yorktown was first hit by three bombs, yet when the torpedo planes found it a few hours later they identified it as an undamaged ship. And even after being torpedoed a sub had to finish it off. It wasn’t just about pilot armor on airplanes; American weapons were designed to survive and last.
        And I don’t mean to suggest the Japanese carriers were bad. It’s just their whole orientation was offensive (Kido Butai launched a coordinated air strike in 8 minutes, TF 16 launched a haphazard strike in 45 minutes) but they gave little thought to taking a hit.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Just to clarify I’m referencing the planes and ordinance (as in torpedoes) on the capitol ships, which were by and large excellent. Although to my reckoning there were many who said the Dauntless was never matched by it’s replacement, but the Devastator was probably obsolete when deployed and had the additional handicap of an essentially useless torpedo.

      • atcDave says:

        Yeah those are specific areas where Japanese preparedness really showed. Although not by as much once American experience caught up. Especially the Dauntless was really as good or better than its Japanese equivalent. It was obsolescent in the technical sense of the word (slow and underpowered) but an excellent design; rugged, maneuverable and steady in a dive (better than its replacement, even if the Helldiver was faster and more powerful).
        The Wildcat is a little more problematic, clearly inferior in most traditional measures of fighter design. But it did have good firepower, very rugged construction and was faster in a dive. Once tactics were worked out to cope with the limitations (largely by Thach) the Wildcat performed adequately. It’s interesting at Midway to see the difference in Navy vs Marine fighter squadrons; the Navy did far better with more mature tactics (the Marine squadron was mostly Buffalos, but the Marine Wildcats faired only slightly better than the Buffalos).
        The Devestator is clearly the saddest story. And yeah, those torpedos killed it. They had to be dropped from 100’ or less and below 100 kts. Talk about making yourself vulnerable! Japanese torpedos were vastly better, I think 200’ and well over 100 kts. Not to mention the whole actually blowing up when they hit something part…
        To be fair, no bomber really does well flying into a prepared fighter screen. But having to fly low and slow with little or no fighter cover is a recipe for disaster.
        And then the Japanese Kate was easily the best type torpedo bomber in the world at the time, a huge disparity.

  4. Ernie Davis says:

    Kind of unrelated, but I just watched TORA! TORA! TORA! back to back with Midway. I’ve always known about all the stock footage used, and how incredibly inaccurate it was, but it really struck me how much obviously shot for TORA! TORA! TORA! made it in to Midway outside the stock footage.

    • atcDave says:

      Yeah that footage showed up several times in the ’70s and ’80s. Midway does capture the flow, but a lot of liberties and of course the much dreaded “composite characters”.

  5. Ernie Davis says:

    So I just finished Coral Sea and had a few thoughts. This comes from both this book and the last and a lot of it stems from my lack of detailed knowledge of the Pacific theater.

    I was struck by the fact that the Japanese government, more accurately the army and navy, primarily the army it seems. was still relying on insurrection and assassination as tools of governing. Maybe I shouldn’t be given Japan’s history, but it really struck me that Yamamoto went to see as the commander in part to escape assassination. A point made in TORA! TORA! TORA! that I’d never fully understood.

    It also strikes me that it seems Yamamoto, rather than the cool calculating genius, seems more and more like a gambling addict whose addiction crept into his military career. He seems to be someone highly skilled in logic and strategy, but obsessed with the role of random chance and his ability to react to it and win. Not the typical portrayal. It strikes me that Nagumo comes off both better and worse in some ways if one sees Yamamoto as a more mercurial figure than he is usually portrayed. He failed to take advantage of some of the opportunities Yamamoto opened up, but also exercised a caution that, while it didn’t benefit Japan in the end, was utterly lacking in Yamamoto’s plans.

    As with the Wehrmacht in the previous book, whose expertise at retreat and counter-attack was hamstrung by Hitler’s no retreat orders on the eastern front, Nagumo, and others were burdened with the idea (not fully Yamamoto’s doing) that the Americans could never outfight the Japanese, or mount a counter-attack to hinder the outcomes of Yamamoto’s plans.

    I was also struck by how much Japan, supposedly an industrial nation, was more like Italy, and to an extent Germany, in that they saw producing weapons as more of a craftsman’s pursuit, rather than as the US and UK saw it, a numbers game. It often seems to me so many things come back to the fact that the UK had for two centuries dealt with the logistics of a global empire, and while the US had a similar if far shorter experience with the same had fought a civil war where the sheer force of industrial might, numbers, and (as Sherman demonstrated) hitting them where they ain’t proved decisive over strategy and tactics or supposed superior fighting spirit.

    I was also struck by how early Japan’s lack an air-sea rescue and their poor airplane production plan manifested themselves. I was struck that in the pacific, effective naval aviators was a game of hundreds rather than the thousands in Europe, at least in the early years when it counted for Japan.

    While it still seems Midway will be the real turning point, you can already see the Japanese starting to crack at Coral Sea.

    • atcDave says:

      A number of excellent observations Ernie. Like a lot of people, Yamamoto was complex, but I think the reckless gambler has become the most common depiction. And yeah, Nagumo was clearly not a complete fool. (Much like Fletcher for the Americans). One little detail I don’t think this book addresses but I’ve seen other modern works; the no third strike at Pearl Harbor thing had almost certainly been settled before the fleet ever left Japan. Fuchida claims to have had an argument with Nagumo about it after returning from the strike, but no one else present seems to remember it. Perhaps they had that argument before they left Japan? But the Kido Butai was so critically short on fuel they had to return immediately, and when Hiryu and Soryu were diverted to Wake Is they had stop and refuel in the Marshalls first. It’s amazing the thin limits they pushed their fleet to.

      The Army definitely ruled by assassination, and it tended to be mid-ranking officers, who were never punished for anything, that always initiated it. Even after the atomic bombings the Army attempted a palace coup that resulted in a fire fight with the Imperial Guard. It’s like something from another era.

      Japan did have a bit of a craftsmen mentality to industry, probably somewhere between Germany and Italy in their approach. It wasn’t completely irrational, they KNEW they couldn’t compete with the west in pure numbers so they made a conscious effort to build quality. And their success in China and the opening of the Pacific seemed to reinforce their correctness.
      I’d add to your observations about the allies that the US was already the world’s leading industrial power and knew to play to their strengths. So yeah, US and U.K. both treated war like a business and a numbers game. Very similar perspectives.

      The Japanese losses did start adding up very early. So many things, lack of pilot armor, no self sealing fuel tanks, weak ASR, little damage control on heavy ships… it was very much a Samurai mentality; everything was razor sharp but brittle.
      Many Japanese writers have claimed over the years that losses were sustainable until the Guadalcanal campaign just wore them out completely. Perhaps in a literal sense that’s true. But it’s hard to look at the casualties they took even at Coral Sea, and again at Midway (casualties among shipboard mechanics were even more drastic than among flight crews) without thinking the blood letting was already beyond their expectations.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Funny that, though the Americans and the UK were supposedly less concerned with the craftsmanship they managed to produce probably the best fighter plane of the war, the Mustang, and the best carrier plane, the Hellcat.

    • Ernie Davis says:

      Wow, Just got past the flight to nowhere. Wow. To say that that seems to have been downplayed in movies and the general history the public is aware of. I can understand the apparent coverup. In the wake of the grand victory nobody wanted to allow that an incompetent officer may have been responsible for the loss of the Yorktown, however indirectly you may want to calculate the scenarios. Makes doubts about Fletcher look trivial except for the disparity in rank and responsibility. Ring effectively took an entire carrier group out of action in that critical first strike.

      • atcDave says:

        One of the previous books I reviewed here was “A Dawn Like Thunder” which was a history of just Torpedo Eight; but wow those guys REALLY hate Ring. No doubt the survivors (and there were more than you may think, two crews on Hornet didn’t fly and about a dozen were left behind in Hawaii) blame him directly for the loss of most of the squadron and a much loved CO.
        But the author of that book seems to think Mitscher was the genius who chose Ring’s course and the two of them conspired to loose the combat reports.
        Obviously we may never really know what happened, but apart from Torpedo Eight’s sacrifice the whole Hornet air group was basically irrelevent to the battle. Many analysts have noted the Yorktown ran the most effcient flight operations (it also had the most relevant combat experience), while Enterprise did the lion’s share of the damage (sank three carriers and a heavy cruiser).

        I would agree the flight to nowhere is one of the more interesting details to emerge in recent years. Obviously we’ve long known that Air Group Six found the Japanese while Air Group Eight did not, but it is interesting to read more of the how and why of it.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Well that’s why it’s good to have someone more well read on the subject to bounce impressions off of. This is the first time I’m hearing about a lot of this. Though on it’s face Ring, who got lost on a training mission and had to get his XO to bail him out, seems the likelier culprit than Mitscher, the complete lack of documentation does seem to indicate Ring had help.

        I guess you could see this as the end of the learning curve for the Navy, well aware that they were flailing in throwing uncoordinated attacks at the far more experienced Japanese fleet, but that very chaos may have been the thing that kept Naguro flat-footed for so much of the early stages of the battle.

      • atcDave says:

        Yes on all of that.
        It did take a while yet to master multi-ship strikes, but we did quickly get better at the one ship deck load strike. 45 minutes is really bad!

      • Ernie Davis says:

        I take it back, I wasn’t past the flight to nowhere. I’d stopped about where they talked about how there was no official record outside the flawed Mitscher report, Burt didn’t realize how much more there was to come. Whether or not Ring was responsible for the bad heading, he was certainly responsible for a lack of leadership due to the apparently zero confidence his men had in his ability to lead them. Within hours of taking off his entire command had essentially mutinied. One hundred percent. He landed alone.

        While Waldron, had he survived, almost certainly would have had to face court marshal given how flagrant and public his defiance was, Ring would almost certainly faced some disciplinary action or review. The quasi-cover-up makes a bit more sense in retrospect. His non-combat losses could not be explained outside a failure of command.

      • atcDave says:

        The good news is Ring was removed from his position right after the battle, the bad news is he stayed in the Navy and reached flag rank. I believe he was close to the Redmans, which was essentially a Navy “Get out of Jail” card; Miles Browning had similar pull. But no doubt the verdict of history has been harsh on both men.

        It is telling that none of those mutinous pilots were ever brought up on charges, I think you’re right though that Waldron might have been an exception.
        I can understand the Navy not wanting to air their dirty laundry, especially during wartime. But it is frustrating that he mostly “got away with it”.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Well I highlighted the 100% because that is a very different thing than say the Bounty or the fictional Caine mutiny where the crew splits in factions and one overpowers the other, either rhetorically or for real. In those cases there is doubt as to the commander’s culpability. One hundred percent, it is pretty clear the commander was incapable of exercising leadership.

        I guess I should clarify the Waldron comment. Absent Ring’s subsequent failures, Waldron almost certainly would have been court marshaled, and he must have known it when he broke off. But given that by the end of the day every other unit under Ring’s command did the same, something less than court martial, given as you say the reluctance to air the dirty laundry, might have been found, absent the cover-up. As it turned out the consequences for Waldron and his unit was that instead of being awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously (Except Gay) they had to settle for the Navy Cross.

      • atcDave says:

        But there were factions, on how long it took to break away!
        At least Ring was able to unite the group in their disobedience.

  6. Ernie Davis says:

    Just finished during last night’s commute home. I found it a compelling read (listen). A lot of information I had never heard before, like the Japanese government essentially being a mafia style organization, or Yamamoto going to sea to escape assassination. Also I’d never heard about the Hornet’s rather sub-par performance during the battle although I was aware that their air wings, outside the torpedo squadron, never found the Japanese that first day. I was not aware of how much of a disaster it really was though, especially for the fighter wing.

    Very compelling tale of the battle, with some information that was new to me included. While I was aware that the Japanese carriers were destroyed so quickly because they were in the midst of arming their bombers I wasn’t aware of how shoddy they were in their handling of the ordinance or that two of the carriers were destroyed by a single bomb in the hangar deck due to that shoddiness. By comparison the Americans, though not nearly as efficient as the Japanese in their air operations had the advantage of radar so they could start their damage control measures before an attack even started. One of the real demonstrations of their efforts was that the Japanese could not conceive of the Yorktown looking like an undamaged carrier less than 24 hours after they left her for a mortally wounded ship.

    It was also interesting to get a sense of the commanders involved, especially on the American side, and where they went from their roles at Midway. I admit I had forgotten some of Halsey’s later lapses, though I think I was aware at some point. Definitely worthwhile for anyone interested in the Pacific theater in WWII.

    • atcDave says:

      I’m glad you liked it! Much better than when I hear “you liked this book? What’s wrong with you?”
      The good news for Hornet, American ASR was pretty good so most crew were rescued and it did perform better at Guadalcanal up until it’s loss. But yeah, not a promising start.
      Yorktown’s damage control is pretty inspiring; starting with the three day turn around before the battle, and then getting attacked twice. I think it was about three hours between those strikes?
      The Japanese credited so much of what went wrong at Midway to “Victory Disease”, the idea they’d Become complacent from so much success that they didn’t take the risks seriously enough. Undoubtedly there’s some truth in that, but I think it goes further and really represents their whole war effort from Pearl Harbor on (as Samuel Eliot Morrison said “seldom has a successful operation been so disasterous to the victor”).

      Halsey has always taken a lot of heat for his operations in the last year of the war. It is possible things simply got too big for him. Like he was a good commander with dozens of ships and hundreds of airplanes, but not so good with hundreds of ships and thousands of airplanes. But he does deserve to be celebrated for what he did well; aggressive and fearless in the early part of the war when no one else was, and a good planner and operator in the Guadalcanal/Solomon’s Campaign from late ‘42 through ‘43.

      One of the more interesting things to me that the book didn’t go into was the performance of American fighter pilots. The Marines off of Midway were slaughtered (the Wildcats faired better than the Buffalos, but not by much); the pilots were mostly green and they basically charged into battle with no plan.
      While John Thach, over the Japanese fleet, took four Wildcats against 30+ Zeroes and scored at least six kills for a single loss. Then later, defenders of the Yorktown shredded the Japanese air strikes. Apart from the Flying Tigers it was really the first Allied fighter force to have much success against Japanese fighters. But Navy training and tactics really stand out, from deflection shooting to expecting to fight superior aircraft.

      One of the things I liked right from the start of this book was how it did look at a change of attitude among historians. Earlier books credit American victory largely to dumb luck, and it’s easy to see a lot of that at play! But it does look like there was some inevitability to it, at least to say it was probable the Japanese were going to get clobbered at some point. They were really sloppy with important details.

    • Ernie Davis says:

      Yes, it seems one of the big differences between the two forces was that American pilots could make a mistake and have a good chance of learning from it, assuming they survived the initial mistake whereas it isn’t even clear to me that the Japanese HAD any ASR from this or any other account of the Pacific war I’m familiar with.

      As you and I have discussed on more than one occasion, the Japanese philosophy of war, the lighting fast first strike killing the enemy, versus the western way of war which tended to be long grinding campaigns with multiple battles, does lead to a mindset that values almost pure offense when defense is critical to campaigns that rely on maintaining that offensive capability. Between Coral Sea and Midway the Japanese seem to have lost almost their entire offensive naval air capability whereas those two battles seem to represent the US just beginning to figure out how to do naval air offensive operations.

      I also liked the way this book looked at the “dumb luck” aspect of the historical treatment of the Midway battle. There was certainly luck involved, like having your thousand pound bomb explode in a hangar deck full of fueled planes and ordinance, but as was pointed out in the account of Coral Sea, the American dive bombers managed to score multiple hits on one Japanese carrier, setting up the battle of Midway to be a near even contest, given that the Americans had Midway as a 4th immobile yet unsinkable platform for launching planes.

      It is also evident that while some of the shoddier aspects and tactics of the Americans look stupid, like B17’s attempting to bomb a moving fleet from 10,000 feet, I think this book made the fair point that this was the Americans throwing everything they had at the Japanese fleet desperately hoping that it would keep the Japanese from taking the initiative while hoping that in addition to keeping them reacting to the American strikes one of them would finally succeed in drawing blood. While it does show that we were flailing a bit due to lack of experience it does show that while tactically inexperienced we did have a strategy for winning in place.

      • atcDave says:

        The Japanese DID have lifeguard destroyers accompanying the carriers, and they did assign submarines to wait at rally points after planned air strikes. But that’s about it. They didn’t systematically scour the area looking for survivors like we did. Definitely among the reasons their pilot pool mostly shrank while ours gained experience.

        You sum up the range of American attacks very well.
        One funny thing I’ve read about the B-17 role is that because they got most of the credit during the war, it led to some altercations in Hawaii between bomber crew and Navy pilots… who still weren’t allowed to say they’d been there.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Now that you mention it I did know they had some provisions for rescuing downed pilots. After Pearl Harbor one Japanese pilot crash landed on Niiahu and managed to “take over” the island with the help of some of the Japanese Hawaiians on the island until the native Hawaiians eventually overpowered and killed him. It had been designated as a rally point due to it’s remoteness.

      • atcDave says:

        Yeah, although I think he only had one “ally”! But briefly they had the only gun.

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