Saturday, November 26, 2011

Battle of Midway

The turning point of the war in the Pacific

American naval aviators wiped out three Japanese carriers in eight minutes on June 4, 1942

            You almost feel like you are there, standing on the flight deck as one after another Wildcat fighter takes off to fight the Japanese Zeros in the air over a Japanese carrier.
            Craig Symonds takes you to the dark days of spring, 1942, just a half year since the Japanese naval force bombed Pearl Harbor, in his book The Battle of Midway (2011)
            After December 7, 1941 the Japanese swept across the western Pacific, destroying American and allied forces, and capturing and occupying bases and islands from the Philippines to Burma.  The Japanese were a terrible firestorm across Asia, just about to leap to Australia.  Would they attack the American mainland next?
Admiral Nimitz, 1942

            Right after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt sent an old submariner, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, to Hawaii to command all the naval forces in the Pacific.  Nimitz arrived on Christmas day, 1941 and surveyed the damage from the Japanese attack.  His first response was surprisingly positive, because he noted that, despite the destruction of several of our battleships and other ships in port, the Japanese had failed to destroy American fuel supplies, or industrial facilities and all our aircraft carriers had been elsewhere when they attacked. Those carriers would live to be the nucleus of the Navy that would go to war with Japan.
            Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto decided it was time to force a battle with the Americans and destroy our remaining aircraft carriers.  He planned to invade the tiny island of Midway, just 1000 miles north of Oahu, and at the same time, some of the outer islands of the Aleutian chain of Alaska.  These would make nice stepping stones as Japan approached Mainland USA.
            You are present at staff meetings of the Imperial Japanese Navy as they discuss Yamamoto’s plan, overcome objections, and get the Emperor’s approval.
            You are also present aboard the carriers where some of America’s finest young naval aviators are learning how to fight a war when Japanese and American forces clash in the waters near New Guinea, in the Battle of the Coral Sea May 7-8, 1942.
            Symonds brings you along as Americans and Japanese fight, and for Japan it is a wonderful Victory parade of one success after another.
            However-- Americans have been breaking the operational code of the Japanese Navy, so they are able to piece together messages which lead them to discover that the main force of the Japanese Navy will be in the vicinity of Midway Island early in June, and attack the island and occupy it.
            As June 4th, 1942 dawns, Navy, Army and Marine Corps aviators from Midway search for the Japanese, and then launch bombing raids.  They score no hits.
            Next come torpedo attacks by squadrons from three American carriers.  They score no hits, but the Japanese cut them to pieces, so few torpedo bombers make it back to their carriers.
            There’s a “Flight to Nowhere” when the commander of the air group from USS Hornet leads his aircraft on a course 35 degrees north of where they should be going, and it turns out to be the first of many failures by Hornet and her aircraft in this battle.
            The Japanese are mauling our aircraft as squadron after squadron attacks them, without scoring hits.  It looks bad for our side.
            Then, our dive bombers arrive on the scene with 1000-lb. and 500-lb. bombs and attack the carrier Kaga and bombs tear into the flight deck and down into the hangar deck, where bombs and torpedoes loaded aboard airplanes detonate. 
            More dive bombers attack Akagi, the flagship with Admiral Chūichi  Nagumo aboard, and soon that carrier is burning from stem to stern. 
            Dive bombers from another squadron attack Soryu, placing her out of action as well.

USS Yorktown, June 4, 1942

            The Japanese are now reduced to only one carrier now: Hiryu.  Bombers from that carrier search out the American carriers and find USS Yorktown and attack her.  The Japanese submarine I-168 finishes her off with two torpedoes.
            Aircraft from USS Enterprise and Hornet launch to attack Hiryu, and soon the Japanese have lost all four of the carriers of their main force.  The Americans have lost Yorktown
            In just one day, the tide turns in the Pacific, and from then on, the United States Navy is on the offensive, and the Imperial Japanese Navy will never recover.  There will be three more years of bitter fighting, and many men will be killed and wounded on both sides.  The Battle of Midway was as important in World War II as the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 when Britain defeated the French and the Spanish fleets.
            Symonds’ Midway is colorful and fast-paced, and his narrative flows with the characters who fought this battle, both the heroes and the others.
            The lessons of Midway for naval officers of our generation were many, and I believe future naval officers will be studying those lessons long into the future.


Craig L. Symonds, The Battle of Midway, 2011. New YorkOxford University Press, 452 pp.

Craig Symonds is a brilliant naval historian.  I first met him when he was a professor at the Naval War College and I was an instructor in the naval warfare department.  He continued his career teaching naval history at the U.S. Naval Academy, and was well known for his specialty, the naval side of the Civil War.
Recently Craig retired, then came back to occupy the Naval Heritage Chair at Annapolis, an endowment of the Class of 1957.  My classmates and I from 1957 contributed to endow this chair for our 50th anniversary gift to the Academy, and we’re proud of each of the three fine scholars who have occupied that chair since 2007, and particularly proud of Craig. 

When we arrived at Annapolis and became Plebes in 1953, only 11 years had elapsed since Midway. Among the many bits of naval lore we were expected to spout off whenever asked by an upperclassman was “Kaga, Akagi, Soryu and Hiryu” --- the four Japanese carriers that were sunk at the Battle of Midway.
All during my naval career I felt the proximity of the heroes and key actors of the Battle of Midway.  Several of the flag officers I knew when I was a young submarine officer had served aboard submarines at Midway.
I took command of the destroyer, USS  McCaffery, at Midway in 1972.  We had stopped for refueling before we continued on to Yokosuka, Japan, on our way to take part in the last months of the Viet Nam war.
I relieved Captain Gene Lindsay as Commander of Fleet Activities, Sasebo, Japan.  Gene’s father had commanded one of the ill-fated torpedo bomber squadrons at Midway, and died in that battle.  Sasebo, the base I commanded, when it had belonged to the Imperial Japanese Navy, had been commanded by Admiral Chūichi Nagumo, the commander of the Carrier Attack Force at the Battle of Midway. He had also commanded the force when it attacked Pearl Harbor.
Early in my tenure at Sasebo I hosted members of the Japanese Diet as we flew aboard USS Carl Vinson for flight demonstrations at sea.  One of those Diet members in 1983 was Minoru Genda, the bright young naval officer who had planned the Japanese naval strike on Pearl Harbor, and then helped plan the Midway operation. I sat next to him as we had lunch with Admiral Sylvester Foley, CINC Pacific Fleet, aboard the carrier.
A lesson from Midway: Let us always keep our Navy ready for the next war. Not the last war, but the next.

Fighters on deck, 1942

The Personal Navigator offers these books and papers about World War II:

United States Naval Institute Proceedings, November, 1942, Vol. 68 No. 477 Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute. World War II issue includes excellent photos, including Battle of Midway, June 4-6, 1942, sinking of carrier Yorktown after Midway, aerial view of convoy in South Pacific, , formation of VB-3's, modern Navy fighter, tail marking XF-4F-2, Navy Patrol Bomber by Glenn L. Martin Co., Cruiser USS Memphis.  "The Case for Aircraft-Carrying Oil Tankers" by B. Orchard Lisle. "Fox's Mission to Russia" by Commander L.J. Gulliver, USN (Ret.) writes of Civil War Mission of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Vasa Fox to Russia, and of Russian fleet visits to American ports during that war. "The Captain of the 'Whip' Pearl Harbor to Australia" by Lieut. Commander C.A. Ferriter, USN (16 p.). Professional Notes: USS Yorktown. Commander Irving Day Wiltsie, USN, ace aviator and formerly navigator of Yorktown describes the final hours of that ship. Ads for Kollsman, Bethlehem Steel Co., Foote Bros. Gear and Machine, Remler, Kellogg's Cereals, Electric Boat Co., Chicago Wheel & Mfg. Co., New York Shipbuilding Corp., Higgins Industries, Inc., Cramp Shipbuilding Co., Boeing, Douglas Aircraft Co., RCA, Alcoa, Nordberg Mfg. Co., and more. 152 pp. + adv. 17 x 25 cm. Paper periodical, minor nicks and soiling  in cover wrap, very good.     (7901) $28.00. Navy/World War II

United States Naval Institute Proceedings, December, 1942, Vol. 68 No. 478 Church, Albert T., Rear Admiral, USN, Editor. 1942 Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute. World War II issue includes excellent Navy photos of Greenland, U.S. Navy ships lost thus far; ships of the Polish Navy, views of the Battle of the Solomon Islands, August 1942. "The Mexican Escuela Naval Militar del Pacifico" by CDR Olin Scoggins, USN. "Three Years of War at Sea" by C.H.Spilman. Total losses for all nations now approach 1,000. Of 14 aircraft carriers sunk, only HMS Glorious was sunk by shellfire. HMS Hermes, USS Lexington and IJN Akagi, Hiryu, Kaga and Ryukaku were all sunk by aircraft. HMS Courageous, Ark Royal, Eagle were lost to submarines, and USS Yorktown and IJN Soryu were both heavily damaged by planes and then sunk by submarines. "Seabees" by CDR. E.J. Spaulding, USNR. Includes several photos of Seabee operations in the Pacific. "Professional Notes" are rich with reports of the War, including reports on submarines, blimps, "submarine slugger", Mosquito fast bombers and new battleships. Ads for Sylvania, Brewster Dive Bombers, Alcoa Aluminum, Consolidated battleships of the air, Inco Nickel Alloys, RCA Mfg. Co., Inc., Cramp Shipbuilding Co., New York Shipbuilding Corp., Sterling Engine Co., more. 154 pp. + adv. 17 x 25 cm. Paper periodical, minor nicks and soiling  in cover wrap, fair. (7919) $28.00. Navy/World War II

Wings for America, Fighting Planes of the U.S.A. by Thomas Penfield, with foreword by Colonel Edgar S. Gorrell, cover illustration by Herbert Rudeen; American Patriot's Series.  ©1941 Chicago, IL: Rand McNally & Co. History of U.S. Military aviation. Numbering system. Pictures of Lockheed P-38, Curtiss SO3C-1, Douglas SBD-1, Consolidated B-24, more; Bombing tactics, Pensacola; U.S. Army Air Corps schools, aerobatics. 64 pp. 14 x 17 cm. Paper on board, cover lightly worn and soiled, text block very good. Overall very good. (5283) $20.00. History/World War II

U.S.S. Bon Homme Richard: Aircraft Carrier Commissioning, November 26, 1944, Navy Yard, New York 1944 New York, NY: Navy Yard, New York. Pamphlet handed out at Commissioning Ceremony; Program of events for Commissioning. History of ship, named after first USS Bon Homme Richard, John Paul Jones' Continental Frigate. In the famous battle with HMS Serapis on 23 Sept. 1779, Serapis was captured, and Bon Homme Richard caught fire .... Commodore Jones, when called upon to surrender, replied "I have just begun to fight."  His ship was lost.  This new carrier cost more than $60 million, or the equivalent of 3,200,000 war bonds of $18.75 denomination. Sponsor for the ship was Mrs. J.S. McCain, wife of Vice Admiral J.S. McCain, one of the Navy's top-ranking aviators.  [The McCains were the grandparents of Senator John McCain of Arizona.] 4 pp. 15 x 20 cm. Paper pamphlet folded with vertical crease. Fair. (7817) $26.00. World War II/History 

Jane's Fighting Ships, 1942 [Issued June 1943] Founded in 1897 by Fred T. Jane, 46th Year of Issue 1943  McMurtrie, Francis E., A.I.N.A., Editor. New York, NY: The MacMillan Co.  Forward to this book notes the tremendous difficulty of preparing this edition, with secrecy on part of combatants and neutrals, efforts to obscure or propagandize, and ships being sunk daily. Frontispiece photo of HMS Exeter, Royal Navy cruiser that bore the brunt of action with the German "pocket battleship" Admiral Graf Spee at the Battle of the Plate on December 13, 1939. Text notes that, while the Graf Spee was scuttled, Exeter was completely refitted and returned to combat. She was sunk by Japanese air attack at the Battle of the Java Sea in 1942. This fascinating real-time record of naval action in World War II shows the ships that survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7th, 1941), even noting changes to them as result of repairs after the attack. Also with 62 pages of advertising for everything you need to outfit a warship. 582 pp. + 62 pp. adv. 31 x 20 cm. Light blue cloth on board with gilt lettering. Edges worn, tiny white paint spots on cover, good. (6985) $106.00.  Naval/World War II

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