The time was 1020, 4 June 1942. The location: a nondescript patch of the Pacific Ocean about 150 nautical miles northwest of Midway Atoll. Overhead, puffy cumulus clouds formed a spotty white quilt over the dappled waves. They also were a coverlet that shrouded danger, for at this very moment, 50 SBD Dauntless dive bombers began pitching into near-vertical dives. Ten thousand feet below, oblivious to the presence of the U.S. aircraft, steamed four Japanese aircraft carriers, their flank-speed wakes snaking white through the dark blue waves.
Just five minutes later, three of those carriers—the Akagi, Kaga, and Sōryū—were wrecked beyond redemption, set ablaze by bombs exploding in their hangars, oily black smoke boiling up through the gaping holes rent in their flight decks. The bloody remains of sailors were scattered about in hangars below—a grim down payment on the 3,057 Japanese who would ultimately die this day. Though the final outcome had yet to be revealed to either side, the United States had just won the Battle of Midway.
Fixating on the tactical level of Midway is easy because the battle was so dramatic and so human. The stories of the pilots and sailors on both sides still naturally resonate; we easily can imagine ourselves in their shoes. Yet we should also remember their leaders, who underwent their own special trials. On their shoulders rested the heavy responsibility for the outcome of the battle, and yet their direct control over that outcome was practically nonexistent. Once their orders were issued, in most cases they could only wait—devoid of real input, often painfully lacking meaningful information—until some battered aircraft returned or a garbled radio signal announced the outcome of their directives. It is to the most important six of these leaders—and an assessment of their leadership at Midway—that we now turn.
‘We . . . Must Take the Offensive’
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander-in-Chief of Japan’s Combined Fleet, was the architect of Midway and arguably the chief author of its failure. He was 57 years old, the adopted son of a former samurai family. An inveterate gambler, accomplished bureaucratic infighter, and air-power advocate, he was also an outspoken opponent of the Axis alliance with which Japan had entered the war. Yet the outbreak of the conflict he feared had been coincident with his most spectacular achievement: the attack on Pearl Harbor. Now, just a few months later, Yamamoto was trying to end the war he had begun. Midway was intended to be the decisive battle that would destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s remaining aircraft carriers, break the United States’ morale, and bring the enemy to the bargaining table.
American historians have noted the hubris of Yamamoto’s aims at Midway. But we often forget he was driven by fear. Having lived and traveled extensively in the United States, Yamamoto was intimately familiar with the country’s industrial might and the ingenuity and drive of its citizens. After months of easy victories during the opening phase of the Pacific war, others within Japanese Emperor Hirohito’s military might have been pooh-poohing U.S. martial prowess. Yamamoto was not.
He remarked in April 1942 that “the Combined Fleet cannot assume a long, drawn out defensive; on the contrary we . . . absolutely must take the offensive.” He continued, “The enemy’s power in military armaments is 5 to 10 times ours; against this we must increase the intensity of our attacks, hitting the enemy’s vital places, one after the other!”1 One can detect Yamamoto’s undertone of urgency. This war needed to be won, and won quickly. If the United States could not be beaten in the first year of conflict, it probably could not be beaten at all.
Sadly for Japan, Yamamoto’s Midway battle plan was fundamentally flawed and based on a fatal misreading of the moral character of the enemy. His primary goal was simple enough: pick a fight close enough to Hawaii to draw out the U.S. carriers. At the same time, the battle site had to be far enough from Oahu’s formidable air power that Japanese carriers would not have to fear its intervention.
Yamamoto selected the tiny atoll of Midway—less than two square miles of real estate, located at the very tip of the Hawaiian island chain, about 1,100 nautical miles from Pearl Harbor. The initial goals of his operation were to hit Midway with Vice Admiral Chu¯ichi Nagumo’s Mobile Striking Force (known as the Kidō Būtai), destroy the U.S. air group there, and then invade the atoll and turn it into an advance base. What was supposed to come next was more complex.
Yamamoto’s plan ultimately encompassed a dozen different formations of warships operating in support of Nagumo but spread across about 2.5 million square miles of ocean. The reason for such dispersion? Deception. Yamamoto was convinced that after the U.S. Navy’s early war defeats, its morale was so low that its carriers would have to be lured to their doom. One of the Japanese formations—the invasion Support Force with two fast battleships—was to serve as bait. The other major units were to stay out of sight—Yamamoto didn’t want to tip his hand too soon and spook his prey.
After the U.S. warships had sallied forth to attack the Support Force, Yamamoto’s heavy-gunned Main Body, along with other battleship and carrier forces drawn down from operations in the Aleutians, would converge on them.2 Nagumo’s carriers would destroy their opposite numbers, after which Yamamoto’s battleship formations would destroy the U.S. battleships that the Japanese (wrongly) presumed would be tagging along. The result would mimic Japan’s seminal victory against the Russians at Tsushima in 1905—a decisive, annihilating victory that basically won the war at a stroke. Thereafter, Hawaii would be successfully invaded. Surely these defeats would bring the United States to its senses, and to the bargaining table.
In retrospect, the notion of U.S. forces needing to be lured into battle seems ludicrous. In fact, Yamamoto’s opposite number, Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, was itching for a fight. And in Yamamoto’s eagerness to shroud his intentions, he forfeited one of his key advantages: mass. The Imperial Japanese Navy outnumbered the U.S. Navy’s Pacific forces in every major warship category. In terms of offensive assets, Nimitz was down to four carriers (the Japanese thought the number was two or three) and his fleet’s submarines with which to wage war. The massive U.S. shipbuilding program would not really begin bearing fruit until mid-1943. Nimitz had to hang on until then. If ever the occasion warranted using a sledgehammer against a weakened foe, this was it. But Yamamoto squandered that advantage by preferring stealth to mass.
In addition, his plan dissipated his forces still further by employing many warships on secondary operations in the Aleutians, which were to be attacked simultaneously. The net effect was to leave Nagumo, at the tip of the spear, with only 20 warships to carry out his mission. Likewise, Yamamoto did little in the way of contingency planning. What was Nagumo to do if the U.S. carriers showed up? At that point was his primary objective capturing Midway or destroying the U.S. carriers? Could the invasion of Midway be pushed back? Nobody had any clear idea.
‘Governed by the Principle of Calculated Risk’
Nimitz had his own problems, namely, how to turn around what was a complete train wreck of a war. But despite the Navy’s early reverses, he remained confident in the training and skill of his men. Nimitz also held a trump card of his own—the U.S. Navy had broken the Japanese Navy’s operational code, JN-25b. Once Pacific Fleet’s intelligence services began making noises about the likelihood of a forthcoming battle at Midway, he wasted no time formulating his own battle plan and scrambling to assemble the needed assets to implement it.
The plan was simple enough. Nimitz reasoned that if he could beef up Midway’s organic air power and get sufficient submarines into the area, he might be able to whittle down the Japanese carriers (which he thought might number as many as five) before his own carriers attacked. He would mass his flight decks northeast of Midway, so positioned that their aircraft could hopefully ambush the Japanese. If Midway’s long-range PBY-5 and -5A Catalina patrol bombers found the Japanese force first, the U.S. carriers could hit it before the enemy even knew they were there.
Nimitz skillfully positioned his outnumbered assets. However, his masterstroke lay in the orders he issued to his two task force commanders, Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher (overall commander, in Task Force 17), and his subordinate, Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance (in Task Force 16). Nimitz ordered them to use “strong attrition tactics” to chip away at the enemy and then attack. However, this was not to be a fight to the finish—far from it. Nimitz directed that their actions must “be governed by the principle of calculated risk which you shall interpret to mean the avoidance of exposure of your forces to attack by superior enemy forces without good prospect of inflicting, as a result of such exposure, greater damage to the enemy.”3 In other words, Fletcher and Spruance were to “fight smart.” If they found themselves in a sticky situation, and Midway had to be left to defend itself, so be it. Nimitz wanted judicious combat, not misplaced histrionics.
All in all, if one had to hand out grades for strategic leadership, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Nimitz deserved a solid “A” and Yamamoto a “C–” (or worse). Yamamoto’s plan was overly complex, too scripted, rigid, and based on a faulty reading of the enemy’s temperament and intentions. Nimitz’s plan made the most of what he had. Crucially, too, Nimitz gave his subordinates crystal clear orders on how they were to fight. Advantage: U.S. Navy.
Losing Sight of the ‘Big Picture’
When we examine task force leadership, the same general pattern repeats itself. Vice Admiral Nagumo, commander of the Kidō Būtai, traditionally has taken a heavy share of the blame for the disaster at Midway. And it is true that he was hardly an inspiring leader. At 55 years old, Nagumo lacked much of the fire that had marked his younger years. Nor was he really an air-power expert, having been a surface officer for virtually his entire career. As such, he’s an easy target. But right up until the climactic attack at 1020, he played his cards about as well as possible.
Nagumo was plagued by bad weather that hid the U.S. task forces. One of his scout aircraft took off late, and another apparently flew its route incorrectly, failing to detect the U.S. carriers at about 0615. Once these scouting arrangements fell apart, the Americans had basically wrested the initiative away from him, though neither party knew it at the time. Nagumo’s morning attack against Midway was good, as far as it went. But as he had expected, a single blow did not put the island out of business.
With no U.S. warships reported in the neighborhood, Nagumo ordered his reserve aircraft rearmed to strike the island yet again—which was a perfectly reasonable course of action based on the information at hand. Just half an hour into replacing torpedoes with land-attack bombs, though, his tardy scout plane finally glimpsed a U.S. task force to the northeast. Now Nagumo was wrong-footed, with no armed bombers ready to go. From that point forward, his force was hampered by a constant stream of U.S. air attacks that prevented him from spotting his flight decks to strike the enemy. Indeed, when the climactic 1020 attack smashed three of his carriers, those attack planes were still in the hangars.4
At this point things became really interesting and the true nature of Japanese task-force leadership was revealed. Nagumo had one carrier left—the Hiryū, under the command of Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi. Far from being a passive observer of events, Nagumo shifted his flag from the Akagi to the light cruiser Nagara, gathered what few heavy warships he had, and began closing on the U.S. force. He hoped to bring about a surface engagement. It was a desperate long shot but the only thing Nagumo could reasonably do to turn things around.
But what of the Hiryū? It was imperative that the Japanese counterattack with her, of course, and Yamaguchi wasted no time in launching a first strike at 1100. But now the question became how to maneuver. If any moment during the battle called for the prudent employment of a truly precious flight deck, this was it. The Hiryū’s aircraft had all the range they needed to hit the U.S. carriers, but at some point, her depleted air group was bound to go into a downward spiral. When that moment came, it would behoove the Hiryū to be in a position to break contact with the enemy. Yet throughout the afternoon, Yamaguchi basically tagged along behind Nagumo’s ragtag surface force, thereby closing the range.
This was madness. But the evidence seems to suggest that at this point in the battle, Yamaguchi (and Nagumo as well) lost sight of the “big picture.” Japanese society very much values trying one’s hardest. Winning is optional; trying your hardest is not, even when the task at hand is patently hopeless. These cultural considerations apparently began to dominate. It is equally clear that Nagumo and Yamaguchi’s outlooks were becoming mono-dimensional and limited to a sphere of combat that was primarily tactical, personal, and visual. Neither man was capable of placing his tactical decisions within the larger context of the nation’s war-waging. Yet even now, with the odds against them, they still had the very real possibility of extracting some measure of revenge while simultaneously preserving Hiryū for future battles. And no matter whose societal math you used . . . bringing at least one of Kidō Būtai’s carriers home was a damned sight better than losing all four.5
In the end, almost inevitably, U.S. scouting aircraft sighted the Hiryū later in the afternoon. It didn’t take long for the two remaining operational U.S. carriers—the Enterprise (CV-6) and Hornet (CV-8)—to send 60 aircraft her way. Just around supper time, as the Hiryū was preparing what was hoped to be an evening strike, she was caught and smashed just like her compatriots. The battle was over.
Or was it? Throughout the afternoon, tidings of woe had been trickling back to Yamamoto’s Main Body, some 300 nautical miles behind Nagumo. Yamamoto, like his subordinate commander, was desperate to pull the fat out of the fire somehow, and he ordered Nagumo’s surface forces to continue their efforts to close the Americans during the night. He also ordered Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo¯’s fast battleship force to charge east and support their efforts.
Keeping Their Eyes on the Prize
On board the U.S. carriers at dusk, the tactical situation was far from clear. Rear Admiral Fletcher, having adroitly placed his and Spruance’s forces in position to hit the Japanese during the morning, had then watched as his flagship, the Yorktown (CV-5), was crippled by the Hiryū’s initial counterattack around noon. Thereafter he was occupied with trying to save her, until she had to be abandoned after another Hiryū strike during the afternoon. When Spruance radioed Fletcher for instructions at about 1600, Fletcher graciously turned over tactical command to his subordinate. It was up to him to figure out what to do for the rest of the night.
Spruance basically had two options: head west to be in position the following morning to continue harrying his beaten enemy, or head east, away from any potential nighttime entanglements. Spruance opted for the latter course, knowing full well that it might rob him of the opportunity to attack effectively the following morning. He had no idea if the Japanese might be gunning for him this evening. But keeping Nimitz’s orders in mind, he reasoned that nothing he could accomplish that night was worth risking his two remaining carriers. As such, he decided that after recovering the aircraft that had just wrecked the Hiryū, he would turn east. In so doing, he cemented his and Fletcher’s signal victory.
Thus, at the task force level, too, the Americans clearly enjoyed a decided advantage. Fletcher and Spruance maneuvered cleverly, fought bravely, but also kept their eyes on the prize. Fletcher was big enough to swallow his pride and turn over command to Spruance when required; Spruance did not squander what was entrusted to him. For their parts, Nagumo and Yamaguchi oversaw a disaster. Worse, they did not save the Hiryū, the one consolation prize they might have yanked from the fires of utter calamity. All in all, at the task force level, the U.S. admirals each receive a well-deserved “A”; their Japanese counterparts “Cs” or “Ds.” Advantage: U.S. Navy.
Of course, U.S. leadership alone guaranteed nothing. Twists and turns and plenty of sheer dumb luck were ingredients in this battle’s recipe. Men had to fight. And inevitably men had to die. At the tactical level, too, the Japanese demonstrated that they were every bit as skilled and brave as their foes. Thus, the battle rested on a knife’s edge for hours before the climactic 1020 dive-bomber attack finally tilted the scales decisively in the United States’ favor. But it can likewise be fairly stated that without solid planning and execution at the highest levels of leadership, the valor of the individual U.S. aviators and sailors would likely have availed them nothing. Superior leadership was truly the wellspring of this seminal U.S. victory at Midway.
1. RADM Edwin Layton, “2nd Operation K,” unpublished, 1. Monograph of selected translations from Bōeichō Bōeikenshūjō Senshibu, Senshi Sōsho (War history) series, Shimbunsha Asagumo, Midowei Kaisen (Midway Naval Battle), vol. 43, 1971, author’s collection. Research materials of Dallas Isom, Archives of the National Museum of the Pacific War, Fredericksburg, TX.
2. Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully, Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2005), 48–57.
3. John Lundstrom, Black Shoe Carrier Admiral: Frank Jack Fletcher at Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2006), 228.
4. Parshall and Tully, Shattered Sword, 229–31.
5. Ibid., 271.