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Review: The Battle of Midway

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The Battle of Midway
The Battle of Midway by Craig L. Symonds
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So many histories of the Battle of Midway consider the US Navy lucky in defeating the Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway in June 1942. Historian and author Craig L. Symonds, in The Battle of Midway (Pivotal Moments in American History), argues that luck wasn’t the primary factor in the US victory at Midway. In the process of showing that there was more than just luck involved Symonds shows how the US and Japanese navies came to be in their respective positions, debunks a myth, and casts a shadow on an American carrier aviation hero. He also shows how the Battle of Midway was a pivotal moment in World War II, shaping how the rest of the Pacific War would pan out.

“Certainly chance – or luck – played a role at Midway, but the outcome of the battle was primarily the result of decisions made and actions taken by individuals who found themselves at the nexus of history at a decisive moment. In short, the Battle of Midway is best explained and understood by focusing on the people involved.”

Symonds argues that “the Battle of Midway is best explained by focusing on the people involved.” He does this by focusing on the command staff of the American and Japanese fleets including Nimitz, Fletcher, Spruance, Mitscher, Yammamoto, Nagumo, and others. He develops the personalities of these leaders before the battle because their personalities played into their decision making. He also looks at how cultural differences between the Americans and Japanese played into their decision making. Additionally, he explores the Pacific War from prior to the war up to the battle itself to show how the fleets came to be in the strategic and tacitical positions they were in and how those positions would effect decision making in the battle to come. By focusing on the individuals involved and the path to the battle, Symonds set not only the stage for the battle but the pieces to be involved.

Once he comes to the battle itself, Symonds manages strike an excellent balance between being detailed and capturing the attention of the reader. He goes into great detail about the classes of the ships and the types of planes involved. He also explores the decisions made on both the fleet staff level, ship/air group level, and even down to the squadron level. He gives a blow by blow account of the air strikes on both sides, sometimes down to the level of individual planes and crews. In doing so, he tells how the strikes were either successes or failures and explains why. It isn’t difficult to to lose the attention of the reader, especially one that isn’t a military or naval history anorak, when getting into such detail but Symonds did so while still engaging the reader and keeping things interesting.

The Battle of Midway also explores the role of something that, as an amateur radio operator and radio hobbyist, is close to my heart: Communications Intelligence. COMINT played a key role in the Battle of Midway and in some circles a myth has grown up that US Navy code breakers were able to provide the fleet with an order of battle and battle plans that enabled a US victory. Symonds demonstrates that while the code breakers and analysts made a significant contribution to victory they most certainly did not provide a full order of battle and set of battle plans that gave the US fleet leadership a key to certain victory at Midway.

Admiral Marc Mitscher became a hero of American carrier aviation later in World War II via his exploits with the Fast Carrier Task Force but this book casts somewhat of a shadow on Mitscher’s actions at Midway while in command of the USS Hornet. Of the three US Navy carriers involved in the battle, Hornet contributed the least as Symonds shows in his account of the battle. The Hornet’s squadrons performed poorly due to leadership problems and the after action reports attempted to cover it up. Symonds explores the Hornets actions and attempts to explain what, in the absence of any after actions reports other than Mitschers, may have happened and why. He also confronts the issue of how Admiral Fletcher was moved aside and Admiral Mitscher moved on to further combat command. Personally, I would like to think that Mitscher took Midway as a learning experience in combat command and applied what he learned toward future successes such as the Marianas Turkey Shoot.

“None of this detracts from the crucial contributions of the code breakers, but it does remind us that the subsequent decisions made by the commanders on the scene were more complex and open-ended than might otherwise be assumed. The Battle of Midway was not won by the code breakers alone but by the analysts, the decision makers who trusted them, and finally by the men who drive the ships, manned the guns, and flew the planes at the point of contact. Certainly there is enough glory for all of them.”

Symonds makes clear that that while COMINT played a significant role in victory, it was not the key in victory. He shows that decision making was the key role, not just decisions made by American leadership but Japanese leadership as well. He shows that the decisions to made weren’t always easy. Sometimes the code breakers and analysts put leadership in the position of making informed decisions but not always. There were times when the decision making process was complex and made with incomplete information and this is often where cultural differences and strategic considerations affected tactical decision making. He also gives credit to the men who carried out the plans of the decision makers with the bravery and determination to push the attacks home despite the destruction of entire squadrons (VT-8 for example).

Finally he describes how Midway was a pivotal battle. Through the almost complete destruction of the Japanese Navy’s striking force, the US Navy didn’t just balance the scales in the Pacific after 6 months of Japanese domination, they tilted the sales in American favor. The Japanese lost four aircraft carriers and squadrons of planes and pilots. They were never able to recover from that loss; the US had the industrial capacity and manpower reserves to replace what they would lose not only at Midway but in the hard slog across the Pacific to come, the Japanese did not. While they were able to make the US pay a heavy price for victory in the Pacific, the Japanese would never be able to stem the tide of the American advance.

While secondary sources were used in writing The Battle of Midway, Symonds made heavy use of both oral histories and interviews in research for the book. No doubt the use of those primary sources helped him explore the role of communications intelligence and tell the detailed story of the carrier strikes in the battle. Simply put this book is well researched and Symonds presents the results of that research in a very interesting, very engaging, and very readable form. Not only that, I consider it a very balanced look at the battle. Symonds grinds no axes, shows no allegiances toward any particular personalities, and points out mistakes where they are made regardless of who made them. If you are a student of World War II or Naval history I strongly recommend this book.

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