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Five Minutes That Changed the World

The Battle of Midway
By Craig L. Symonds
(Oxford University Press, 464 pages, $27.95)

As Branch Rickey famously put it, “Luck is the residue of design.” In The Battle of Midway, Craig Symonds, who teaches American Naval History at the U.S. Naval Academy, shows how that resounding American victory during World War II was the product of design and its residue, which historians might call contingency.

Symonds’ book is another in Oxford’s series on “pivotal moments in American history.” In an introductory note for an earlier entrant in that series, Washington’s Crossing, by David Hackett Fischer, James McPherson explained that such pivotal events were the product of “decisions and actions by people who had opportunities to choose and act otherwise,” and that opportunity “introduces a dynamic tension into the story of the past.” Properly addressing the “dynamic tension of contingency and choice” calls for a combination of new scholarship “with old ideas of history as narrative art and traditional standards of sound scholarship, mature judgment, and good writing.”

Symonds book succeeds on all counts. The battle of Midway is a remarkable story, and Symonds tells it well. On June 4, 1942, “in little more than five minutes,” aided by heroic but unsuccessful attacks by American torpedo bombers, American dive bombers destroyed three Japanese aircraft carriers. Later that day, they followed up by putting four bombs onto the flight deck of the fourth. The Americans lost the carrier Yorktown and a destroyer, aircraft, and brave pilots and sailors, but victory was complete. Symonds doesn’t just tell the story, he also describes the culture and equipment of the American and Japanese pilots and naval personnel, showing how the differences worked in context.

Nineteen forty-two started badly for the United States and its Pacific allies, much the way 1941 ended. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and, while they inflicted great damage on the American battle fleet, they missed the American aircraft carriers. Before 1941 was over, the Japanese had taken Hong Kong and Wake Island and invaded the Philippines. By mid-April 1942, they had taken Singapore, bombed Darwin, Australia, raided British bases on Ceylon, sinking a number of warships, and forced the surrender of the American forces on Bataan. That “dizzying string” of successes “fed what historians later labeled ‘victory disease’ in Japan.”

After the American forces in the Philippines retreated to Bataan, the Americans began to fight back. In January, American carriers raided Japanese bases in the Marshall and Gilbert Islands, inflicting “little more than a pinprick,” while sinking a transport and a sub chaser, damaging six other vessels including a cruiser, and destroying a number of aircraft. In March, American carrier aircraft attacked Japanese shipping off Lae and Salamaua on New Guinea with greater success, “savag[ing] Japanese sealift capability” in that area. Finally, in April, B-25s under the command of Colonel Jimmy Doolittle took off from the Hornet and bombed mainland Japan.

In early May, the Americans achieved what historians view as a strategic victory even if it was a tactical success for the Japanese at the Battle of the Coral Sea. The Americans went into battle knowing “more about the Japanese movements than they did about” ours because we had made progress in breaking the Japanese naval code. Symonds explains that this gave Admiral Fletcher, the American commander, “an indisputable advantage” but didn’t guarantee success. In the fighting, the Lexington was sunk and the Yorktown damaged. The Japanese lost only a small carrier, but the larger Shōkaku was damaged, and it and the Zuikaku lost a sufficient number of aircraft and experienced pilots that neither could participate in the upcoming Midway operation. The “complex timetable” of the Japanese operations was “irredeemably wrecked.”

The battle of Midway in June 1942 resulted from design, in that both the Japanese and the Americans planned for conflict. The Japanese plan was complicated; four “different and independent” groups of ships sailed independently in the direction of Midway with the goals of taking the island and luring the American aircraft carriers into a decisive battle. (The Japanese fleet that headed for the Aleutian Islands in the Northern Pacific off Alaska was a “separate initiative unrelated to the Midway Operation apart from its timing.”) The Japanese planned to use six large carriers to both establish air superiority over and support the landings on Midway and engage the American carriers, an arrangement that “created the opportunity for confusion and uncertainty.” The Battle of the Coral Sea intervened, however, depriving Admiral Yamamoto of two of those aircraft carriers.

At Midway, the Americans “knew what was coming, where it was coming from, and more or less when it was coming.” Admiral Nimitz, the American naval commander in the Pacific, planned to meet the Japanese with two or three carriers. In the end, Nimitz had three after the Yorktown, which had been hit by one bomb and damaged by several near misses, was repaired in a remarkable three day round-the-clock blitz. While “eager to confront the Japanese,” Nimitz “was not a gambler.” Rather, he “reviewed all the available information, weighed the odds carefully, and planned accordingly.”

Nimitz stationed the American carriers to the northwest of Midway Island, where they lay in wait, hoping to hit the Japanese carriers before they were found. Significantly, in the war games conducted by the Japanese in preparation for the operation, Admiral Ugaki, the chief judge, ruled “that such a move by the Americans was so improbable that it could not be allowed.” Ugaki also overruled a roll of the dice that had two Japanese carriers sinking, holding that one was damaged, not sunk, and the other removed from the table to return later. Symonds concludes that the war game exercises were “all but useless.”

On the fateful day, the Japanese began by sending 108 bombers, torpedo planes armed with bombs, and fighter cover drawn from all four carriers to attack the facilities at Midway. When those planes were gone, the crews began outfitting the next wave for attacks on the American carriers. At about 7:00, Admiral Nagumo, the commander of the carrier group, received word that another attack on Midway was needed. Nagumo ordered that the planes held in anticipation of an attack on the American carriers be rearmed with fragmentation bombs for that second attack. As Symonds notes, arming and rearming the planes was a labor intensive task; the Japanese had to lower the torpedoes from the planes onto bomb carts with a hand crank and lift them by hand onto holding racks on the bulkheads.

Nagumo learned of the presence of American ships, then an American carrier by about 8:20, and ordered the dive bombers on the Hiryū and Sōryū to prepare for that attack. He was unable to send those planes off, though, for several reasons. First, American aircraft based on Midway attacked his carriers in a “haphazard,” uncoordinated way. Even though Nagumo’s carriers were unharmed, they had to maneuver to avoid the attacks, making it impossible to rearm the planes for an attack on the carriers. Second, Nagumo also put all of his remaining fighters aloft to defend against the attacks. He needed to recover and rearm those fighters, as well as the Midway strike force which was returning. He decided to do that and send his entire strike force against what he thought was one carrier.

In the meantime, American torpedo planes, followed by dive bombers, arrived. The torpedo planes were all but annihilated, but they pulled the Japanese combat air patrol and antiaircraft weaponry down to sea level. When the dive bombers arrived, they put bombs on the Akagi, the Kaga, and the Sōryū, turning each into an inferno as the bombs found hangar decks full of Japanese aircraft gassed up and bombs and torpedoes in the process of changeover. While the Japanese later found the Yorktown, and the Americans got the Hiryū, the “tipping point” had been reached.

It wasn’t just big decisions, like those of Nimitz, which contributed to the outcome. Symonds tells the story of an American submarine, the Nautilus, which was in the right place at the right time and sparked a duel with a Japanese destroyer, the Arashi. The Arashi kept the Nautilus underwater until the carrier group passed, then hustled to catch up with the other Japanese ships. American dive bombers from the Enterprise spotted the Arashi’s bow wave and followed its line to the Japanese carriers. As Symonds notes, the inconclusive duel between the Arashi and the Nautilus had a “profound effect” on the outcome, illustrating the way in which decisions, big and small, can affect history.

Symonds concludes, “June 7 was a Sunday morning, and it dawned on a changed world.” Six months after Pearl Harbor, the “instrument” of the Japanese attack “had been smashed beyond recovery.” A long and difficult slog remained, but the battle of Midway was the hinge on which the war in the Pacific turned. Its story deserves retelling, and Symonds’ book does a wonderful job of it.

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