Parshall and Tully accessed Japanese sources for the Battle of Midway that have not been used before in English publications. In fact, the main Japanese source previously used by Western sources, Fuchida, is fundamentally incorrect in key moments of the battle. Japanese writers wrote off Fuchida years ago, but Americans have not focused on using Japanese sources. Parshall and Tully also examine Japanese naval doctrine (that is, the “best practices” of conducting a battle) to inform their account, as well as interviewing several remaining eyewitnesses. The effect of all these sources in aggregate is to inform a timeline of the battle that overturns all the of the common myths about the battle. Befitting the centrality of the Japanese sources, the book is written from the perspective of the Japanese.
The book is quite detailed—practically minute by minute during the battle—and so it starts off by introducing the four carriers and the officers in the battle, their history, personalities, and reputations within the Navy. They note that the Imperial Navy and Army were not cooperative, with the Navy resenting duties ferrying troops. There was also conflict between Admiral Yamamoto and the higher-ups in Tokyo, with Yamamoto having threatened to resign if he did not get his way in a previous campaign, with the result that Tokyo had established a precedent. Yamamoto wanted to entice the American carriers to a battle by attacking Midway, and then hopefully invade Hawaii after they were destroyed. (The authors note that this would have been very unlikely to succeed, even if the Japanese had won the battle.) The Army and naval command did not like this plan, until Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo convinced everyone that the American carrier fleet was a threat to the Home Islands. But, while naval command agreed to invade Midway, they also saddled Yamamoto with a parallel mission to seize territory in the Aleutians.
The authors’ view is that the battle was effectively lost in the planning stages. Invading Midway was of questionable long-term utility, since it is difficult to hold it. Any plan of invading Hawaii was, in the authors’ opinion, doomed to failure due to geography and the 100,000 US troops, as well as aircraft on Oahu. Yamamoto believed that the Americans had been demoralized and would need to be enticed to battle, whereas the opposite was true, and Admiral Nimitz was chaffing for an opportunity to bring Japan’s carriers to battle. As a result, he sent the carriers ahead, while the battleships trailed a day behind. Additionally, the requirement to invade the Aleutians meant that he needed to send two of his six carriers off 1500 miles away, which reduced Japan’s advantage from six carriers versus three, to a fairly even four versus three. This is even in contradiction to Japan’s philosophy of attacking with overwhelming force (such as at Pearl Harbor, where six carriers were used). The arrogance of the Japanese in believing themselves far superior, which had been reinforced by six months of straight victories in the Pacific against the US and Great Britain, also contributed, in sloppy preparations. While conducting a rather pro forma wargame of the proposed battle plans, Yamamoto specifically invalidated the actions of the team playing the Americans, who had attacked earlier than the battle plan called for (as indeed happened) and unexpectedly sunk some carriers, which were replaced back on the board. Finally, Japan believed in the importance of the Decisive Battle, that having been what won their war with Russia in 1906, and although the situation was not the same, they had not updated their beliefs, which was partly due to having completely misjudged the American reaction to the unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor—far from demoralizing the US or bring the US to the bargaining table, it galvanized public support for all-out war.
Prior to the battle there were intimations that all was not going according to plan. The American carriers had shown up in the Coral Sea unexpectedly, which meant that there were no “safe” missions (which the Japanese assumed Midway was). There was also an Operation K which would sail near Hawaii and monitor American fleet movements to see when the carriers left Pearl Harbor, but when they got to their operational location they discovered that the Americans had set up a base there and so Operation K was not possible, and the Japanese were left in the dark about the American fleet movement.
Additionally, there were other problems. The submarine fleet that was supposed to monitor for the American carriers crossing their line set out a day late and arrived after the carriers had already passed the line. The Americans had broken much of the Japanese code, and knew that something was up at Midway, but did not know exactly what or when. Reconnaissance plans from Midway spotted the troop invasion fleet to the south of the Midway, and because carrier fleet had set out a day late, the carriers in the north were farther away than scheduled. This left the Americans with confirmation that the battle would be around Midway substantially prior to the arrival of the carrier fleet.
The carrier fleet, known as Kidou Butai, was commanded by Admiral Nagumo, who was not enthusiastic about the battle plans. The day before the battle was nothing to be enthusiastic about, either—there was heavy fog, and radio silence had to be briefly broken so that the fleet could execute a turn (although there is no indication that this tipped off the Americans in any way). Throughout the day of the battle, cloud cover would prevent the Japanese from seeing the full American fleet, as well as making it difficult for the Americans to find the Japanese.
Kidou Butai was a highly trained weapon, and the authors go into detail the how the well-oiled machine worked. In particular, that loading (or changing) ordnance of the planes took about 30 minutes, that it took about 1.5 hours to prepare the planes, bring them on the elevators to the flight deck, and spot them (warm up the engines on the deck), before they could be launched. Although tired from relentless fighting, the planes efficiently took off from the four carriers the morning of June 4th in one large group and headed to bomb Midway. However, plans for scouting were a lick and a promise; additionally one plane that should have found the Americans inexplicably did not, and the other plan found them only at the end of the run, which was a little too late. Also, that plane did not give usable information about the American fleet for a long time.
Meanwhile, in contrast with the precision of the Japanese, the American carriers Enterprise and Hornet performed their launch very poorly, and the planes went out in small groups. At 0700, the Midway attack group radioed that “there is need for a second attack wave” (in contrast to the battle plans but not unexpected to participants). Nagumo gave the order to change the armament on the plans being prepared for a second wave from torpedoes to land bombs. At 0710 they discovered American planes attacking them. Since they were a small number, the Japanese air patrol dispatched most of them easily, and those that did manage to drop their torpedoes (“fish”), were clearly not good at it.
At 0740 the Japanese plane sighted the Americans, but thought it was a relatively small force and did not report any carriers. Nagumo and his officers believed that the presence of airplanes implied a carrier, but did not think that the Americans would use more than one. The report of a small fleet did not pose a serious threat. As it turned out, Admiral Nagumo had about 15 minutes with which to avert disasters—assuming that there was even a way to do that. However, he had no good options. The rearming had been progressing for 30 minutes, and would have to be completely redone back to torpedoes to attack an American fleet. It would take about 1.5 hours for them to be ready to launch (in contrast to Fuchida’s account which had the planes on the deck with only five minutes until launch when the American planes from Yorktown arrived). But the returning planes from Midway would be landing from about 0830 - 0900. Perhaps he could have launched the planes still armed with torpedoes, but from his standpoint, a less-than-full wave was inviting destruction (which is what happened to the small American groups). There was also the issue of fighter escorts, and while the other carriers had been spotting fighters to replace the air patrol, sending them with the reserve fighters being rearmed would have left the fleet fairly defenseless. As if this was not enough, deviating substantially from the plan would draw Yamamoto’s ire and Nagumo was already in the doghouse. And compounding all this, Nagumo was making the decisions in a hot, noisy, cramped room with all the other officers and ship’s captain of the flagship Akagi so he would have had to find a very narrow path (if it even existed) quickly in a noisy and chaotic environment where the Americans had attacked long before they should have.
Over the course of the next 1.5 hours or so small groups of American planes attacked and took heavy losses. Although they lead to the deaths of most of the attackers and no results, they did have two results. The first was that the Japanese focused on sending up air patrol fighters to deal with the threat, which meant that the flight decks were occupied. Secondly, it forced the Japanese fleet into reactionary mode. The return of the fighters from Midway helped deal with the Americans, but in the middle of this mess an American submarine put up its periscope in middle of the carrier box and launched some torpedoes, most of which were evaded and one or two failed to detonate. This also increased the chaos. About this time the Yorktown launched her fighters, with operational excellence, getting them all into a full wave.
The Japanese managed to land most of the returning fighters (except for one which ran out of fuel just before landing, and another who heroically managed to land but expired in his plane from wounds taken during the attack on Midway. The American resistance had been unexpectedly strong, and the anti-aircraft fire effective, resulting in an unexpected level of losses. The pilots, who had started operations about 0500, where hungry and exhausted.
At 0917 Nagumo, who was probably beginning to think about being able to spot a counter-attack since there had been no American planes since 0840, turned northeast—towards the Americans. A minute later he was attacked by slow torpedo planes, which were shot down. The last one was shot down after dropping its fish (which the carrier Souryuu dodged easily) and narrowly missed crashing into Akagi‘s command tower. This attack had drawn off the air patrol, so the American planes that arrived shortly afterwards were not immediately opposed, but once they were, they were destroyed before being able to damage any ships. However, the carriers were completely out of their box formation. Nagumo ordered a resumption of the northeast course, which lined up the carriers parallel to each other (numerous diagrams of this and other ship / aircraft movement are provided).
At this point one of the piecemeal squadrons and the fighters from Yorktown converged on Kidou Butai. The air patrol saw one squadron and swarmed over it, although this one had some fighters. Jimmy Thatch tried out his “Thatch Weave” that he had been ruminating on, which left the Zeros frustrated for the first time. The torpedo planes were splashed, as before, but this had take the air patrol, which had a tendency to bunch up, to low altitude and the dive bombers were able to attack. The squadrons were supposed to attack different ships, but apparently got their signals crossed, and both attacked the carrier Kaga, located on the south end of the line, which took several hits. The smaller group of planes attacked the carrier Souryuu on the north end. The anti-aircraft fire was ineffective, and she took several hits. Lt. Richard Best had managed to pull out of his dive when he noticed that three groups of fighters were attacking the same Kaga, and he and his two wingmen attacked Akagi, which attempted to turn. Two bombs missed, although one disabled the steering, but Lt. Best, a skilled dive-bomber befitting his name, nailed Akagi in the center. The remaining torpedo planes unsuccessfully attacked the fourth carrier, Hiryuu, unsuccessfully.
The bombs on the three carriers had punched through the wooden flight deck, exploding in the hangars below. In this enclosed space the force of the explosion was greater. Additionally, the hangars were full of aviation fuel: fumes, tanks, and fuel in hoses. Additionally, WWII-era ships had a lot of petroleum products in the air. The result was huge fires. Unfortunately, the Japanese fire-prevention equipment got the short end of the operational trade-offs (compared to the British and Americans). There were portable fire-proofing partitions, but the explosion rendered them ineffective. There were pumps, but the lost of power to the ships prevented their effective use, and gasoline floats on water anyway. The authors spend many pages on first-hand accounts of the heroic attempts to fight the fires, but they were unsuccessful.
Nagumo reluctantly transferred his flag to a carrier, and directed two destroyers apiece to stay with the three carriers. It seems that he hoped to bring the Americans to a surface battle, where his surface strength, including several battleships, and the Main Fleet led by Yamamoto could dominate. Hiryuu was finally able to launch a counterattack, which arrived around 1200, but it was much diminished in size. The Japanese noted that the American anti-aircraft fire was very strong, and a number of planes were lost. However, the attack managed to start a fire on Yorktown and they radioed back that there were two carriers, one of which had been hit twice (which would presumably sink it). By 1400, however, the Americans had put out the fire. The commander of the Hiryuu gathered his remaining aircraft and launched another sortie, which arrived at 1434. This group also took noticeable losses from anti-aircraft fire, and hit Yorktown again, thinking it was the second carrier. When the planes left, Yorktown was listing heavily and dead in the water. Since it was dead in the water, the crew were transferred to other vessels, which sailed east to avoid a possible surface battle at night.
Yorktown‘s planes were recovered by the other two carriers and Enterprise had launched another attack. Lack of coordination meant that Hornet was bringing down planes, and had to hurriedly send up a few belated aircraft. This was the second squandered opportunity for a coordinated, multi-carrier attack, although by this time it no longer mattered. This attack arrived at Hiryuu at about 1656, with Lt. Best making a second appearance. The carrier took a number of hits and rapidly was ablaze stem to stern, while her planes continued their patrols above her until they ran out of fuel and had to ditch in the water.
As night became imminent, Nagumo finally admitted that he could not have a bunch of destroyers stuck by doomed carriers. So they abandoned ship (although several of the captains refused to leave their ship, with one giving his subordinates a direct order to tie him to a post) and torpedoed the three carriers. On being informed that Hiryuu was still afloat, Nagumo sent two ships to rescue survivors, but Hiryuu sunk on her own before they arrived. Nagumo now knew that there was no hope of a surface engagement, what with his strength depleted and his ships all spread out, so he headed west. Yamamoto ordered a retreat at 0255.
Another division which had just received the orders for retreat and was turning when it was sighted by an American submarine. The ensuing maneuvers resulted in two cruisers colliding in the bow. The collision warped the bow of one such that it plowed through the water and could not make enough speed to keep up with the rest of the fleet, so the other cruiser escorted it along while the rest of the fleet left. The captain of the damaged cruiser wisely threw everything inflammable overboard, including the torpedoes—heresy. The captain of the escorting ship kept his torpedoes. The next morning, planes from Midway found them and bombed them. The one with the torpedoes caught fire and was sunk, but the other managed to escape.
When daylight approached, the Americans came back for Yorktown, and got her stabilized and began towing her. However, a Japanese submarine found her and torpedoed her. The destroyers attacked the submarine until he was so near running out of air and so full of diesel fumes that the rats even came out of the bilges, but then they left and the submarine was able to resurface.
The authors wrap up the book with analysis of the impact of the battle, and why Japan lost the war. They briefly mentioned the tactical reasons the battle was lost, and then observe that most writers want to find the main reason why the battle was lost, an approach which they state is rubbish. They go on to ask the more important question of why the Japanese were in a position where they could lose the battle in the first place, given that Kidou Butai was the strongest naval weapon in the world at the time, and a smoothy operating machine (contrast with the repeated inability of the Americans to launch a coordinated attack and the failure of all the American torpedoes). They conclude, as already mentioned, that the battle was essentially lost before it began, with an inappropriate battle plan that misunderstood the enemy as well as requiring the enemy to follow a complex choreographed movements to remain within the plan; poor operational planning; dividing the the strength of Kidou Butai down to four carriers instead of six; haphazard scouting in the morning, and just a general sense of the Americans being not a serious threat.
The authors note—as they have already demonstrated repeatedly throughout the text of the battle, that the common beliefs about the battle are simply untrue, largely because of reliance on the account of Fuchida, who had reason to make the battle seem like it was a very close thing. In particular: the Americans did not triumph against overwhelming odds, the odds were roughly equal; the Aleutians goose chase was not Yamamoto’s idea; Nagumo had reasonably good knowledge of what he was facing (although he did not integrate it at times); the Japanese could not have done a two-phase aerial search because they did not think of that until late in the war; even if Nagumo had not decided to re-arm the aircraft he still would not have been able to attack the Americans when he learned of their existence; the US torpedo squadron eight did not pull down the air patrol and enable the dive bombers, its sacrifice was indeed in vain; and the attack did not wipe out all the elite aviators (the battles in the Solomons would do that).
The authors consider the question of the effect of the Battle of Midway. It has been hailed as a decisive battle, but in their analysis, it merely sped things up. Many aircraft had been lost on both sides, but aircraft were cheap (about $50,000 per) and both sides treated them as such. The US built over 300,000 aircraft and the Japanese 67,000, so the loss of a few tens of aircraft was not at all decisive. Nor was Japan losing four carriers debilitating; there were still at least three other usable carriers after Midway. However, by the middle of 1943 the US was producing one carrier every two months, while Japan did not get a new carrier until 1944. Additionally, the Americans got logistics working well, created floating dry-docks, not to mention a new generation of ships. Effectively, by the end of 1943 the US had a completely new navy. This would have happened whether they won or lost at Midway, and if losing a “decisive” battle merely delays the victory, then it cannot be considered a decisive battle. However, winning Midway did enable the counterattack at Guadalcanal, which prevented the Japanese from severing communications with Australia as well as opened up a staging place for further attacks.
Finally, the authors ask why Japan lost the war. It started out from a position of strength, but they conclude that, like the Battle of Midway, the war was doomed before it started. One reason is that the lesson of the importance of the decisive naval battle that the Japanese had learned from their war with Russia was not generally applicable. Another reason is that Japan had rapidly industrialized, but had nowhere near the capacity of US; as mentioned previously, the US was building six carriers a year. More seriously, the Army and the Navy were fighting internally, as was the Navy headquarters and Yamamoto. Also quite serious was that Japan failed to learn important lessons from the battle, primarily because of a need to save face internally. In fact, Emperor Hirohito personally ordered the truth of the battle to be covered up. Some tactical improvements, such as fire handling, resulted, but nothing like the deep rethinking that was required. Ultimately, however, the failure was the mindset of Japanese militarism. Improvisation was not a strength—in fact, rank and file were drilled for instant obedience—and if the going got tough, they reverted to samurai heroism and charged the enemy. Between not learning from mistakes and assuming a quick war (as well as attacking the enemy unprovoked to ensure that he is fully devoted to the war) against a far stronger industrial power, the war was doomed from the beginning.
Shattered Sword is a detailed look at an important battle with many new sources. Unfortunately for this review, this is the first that I have read on the Battle of Midway. So from the standpoint of a novel, it starts slowly, but despite clear foreshadowing, I did not know what was going to happen. I knew Japan lost some carriers, but I did not know how, when, or how many. I did not think that all four were going to be lost. So as events unfolded, I could feel the unrelenting pressure of the attacks on the Japanese, and then things like a submarine show up, and things just keep piling on top of each other. Between poor decisions and luck, the battle slowly gets worse and worse until it ends up being a fair catastrophe. (And then the authors note at the end that, really, Midway was not actually a decisive battle.) The battle does grind slowly in the afternoon, as the first-hand accounts of the survivors of the carrier sinkings wind their way through, but it really does feel like you understand the Japanese side. And clearly the authors have done their research. I think war geek might not be too much of a stretch, although part of the details is to clearly show that the commonly held account of the battle is just infeasible. If that is your thing, they provide diagrams of ship movements, operational details, some very astute cross-discipline deductions, even logs of when the launches happened. I am hardly a war scholar, but this is clearly a reference work as well as one accessible to the public. I read this book because a historian whom I respect has repeatedly said that this is an excellent book, and while I am unqualified to assess the historical part, it seems like the authors have done a seminal job of incorporating extensive Japanese sources into the English record for the first time. You will have a thorough account of the battle and incisive analysis with this book.