- - Wednesday, November 9, 2011

THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY
By Craig L. Symonds
Oxford University Press, $27.95, 366 pages, illustrated

Craig Symonds has delivered yet another outstanding work, a work that will set the standard for studies of the Battle of Midway for years to come. Even if one thinks one knows all there is to know about Midway, Mr. Symonds‘ plethora of new facts, rationales for what and why each side performed the way it did, human interest stories and more make “The Battle of Midway” indispensable.

Not that Mr. Symonds ignores previous works. He gives full credit and acknowledgement to those who have researched and written before, but he adds to the lore narrative insights that are his and his alone.

Mr. Symonds‘ story begins some six months prior to the actual battle, when Adm. Chester Nimitz arrived in Hawaii to take command in the wake of Pearl Harbor. The Pacific Fleet was in disarray with battleships and other ships run aground, sunk at their moorings or even turned upside down. Perhaps even worse, the president had decreed that despite the Japanese attack, the nation would undertake to defeat Hitler first. Morale in the Pacific was understandably low.

Yet, aircraft carriers, a number of destroyers and almost all Pacific Fleet submarines were undamaged and ready for action. Nimitz put them to work almost immediately with hit-and-run raids across the eastern and southern perimeters and even into the center of the Japanese expansion, not only to test and train his fleet, but to do what was possible to keep open the lines of communications to Australia.

Meanwhile, the Kido Butai, the all-powerful Japanese carrier force, which had hit at Pearl Harbor, ran rampant across all the Western Pacific, south to Singapore and Indonesia and even into the Indian Ocean. By late May 1942, they were ready to move into New Guinea.

Mr. Symonds retells the ensuing Battle of the Coral Sea because that action had such an impact on the battle of Midway early the next month. While the United States lost Lexington, and the Japanese lost only one small carrier, the damage to their larger carriers and their loss of experienced pilots was such that they were scrubbed from the planning for Midway.

Thus, instead of six carriers at Midway, the Kido Butai was limited to four. It was also at Coral Sea that Nimitz gained solid appreciation for his signals intelligence team, the team that played such a critical role at Midway. Without the Coral Sea experience, Midway might have been a different story.

The story of signals intelligence getting into the Japanese playbook prior to Midway is the thing of legends and has been often told. Yet it was a near run thing, and Mr. Symonds makes that very clear as he describes how. He also points out how the often unappreciated roles played by the Marine and Navy aircraft and Army high-level bombers from Midway were critical to eventual success. Though they achieved not a single hit on a single ship, their strikes were enough to throw off the Japanese schedule and focus their fighter aircraft in the wrong places, thus making major contributions to their eventual defeat.

Likewise, the disaster among the torpedo squadrons. Over the years, Torpedo Squadron Eight from the Hornet has received the major publicity for their heroic, but fruitless attack. However, the torpedo squadrons from the Yorktown and the Enterprise fared little better. Yet, by persisting in their attacks in the face of near-certain death, they delayed the rearming of Japanese aircraft ordered by Adm. Chuichi Nagumo and drew Japanese attention away from the lethal Navy dive-bombers soon appearing high overhead.

Also present on scene during the battle were American submarines, something one never hears much about. Yet, when the long, drawn-out battle between the USS Nautilus and the Japanese destroyer Arashi, ended in a draw, Arashi headed at high speed directly for the Kido Butai main body churning a giant wake. Spotting that wake, American dive bombers merely followed it to where they could finish their job against the rest of the Kido Butai.

While it was largely the pilots and air crewmen of the Douglas SBD Dauntlesses that did in the Kido Butai and, by extension, stopped the Japanese expansion in the Pacific, it was actually a terrific team effort, a team put together by Nimitz and quarterbacked by Raymond Spruance.

Mr. Symonds does a particularly good job of describing personalities and idiosyncrasies of participants, American and Japanese, sailors, junior pilots and flag officers. Indeed, one of the principal attractions of this book is the insights he provides to the thinking of those involved. Not all pilots, air group commanders and flag officers were heroes, and several who were not are singled out.

Fortunately, there were plenty of Americans who did their job and were indeed heroes and achieved that incredible victory. A special treat is Mr. Symonds‘ epilogue, wherein is told the post-battle stories of many of the key participants.

The story of the battle unfolding and being fought is absolutely outstanding, but the events before and after it are equally well told. In addition, the supporting charts, photographs, references and bibliography are awesome. For anyone at all interested in the Battle of Midway, the Pacific War or the Navy, this is a must read.

Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn is the president of the Naval Historical Foundation.