“FOE RETIRES FROM MIDWAY; Battle Continuing.” This was part of the rather judicious headline from The New York Times on Saturday, 6 June 1942—the first day in which the Battle of Midway got a headline of its own, and at a time when the true scope of the U.S. victory there was not entirely clear. This was reasonable enough, given that combat was still underway. Indeed, the only American carrier lost during the battle—the USS Yorktown (CV-5)—would not be sunk until the following day, 7 June, when the crippled flattop was picked off by a Japanese submarine.
Even so, Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, was confident enough of the battle’s outcome to issue a communique noting that while it “was too early to claim a major Japanese disaster,” the Americans were in firm control of the battlefield and had inflicted damage on the Japanese “far out of proportion to that which we have received.”1
The same day, and much nearer the scene of the action, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin (which had a penchant for much gaudier headlines than the more restrained Times) printed a triumphant extra edition whose elephantine type fairly screamed “Japanese SMASHED at Midway.” The elation (and exhalation of collective relief) was perhaps understandable—after the disaster at Pearl Harbor, Honolulu viscerally understood the dangers of Japanese bombs in a way New Yorkers never would.
These newspaper articles were the beginning of the legendary status that has rightly attended this epic carrier battle, fought 80 years ago this month. By 6 June, the outlines of what still makes Midway so momentous to the modern reader already were becoming apparent—a major Japanese reverse, and disproportionate damage inflicted on Japan’s powerful navy. Lopsided clobberings of the Japanese had been in notably short supply during the calamitous opening months of the Pacific war. By the summer of 1942, Allied fortunes had dipped to their lowest ebb against the Axis, and the entire war situation seemed utterly ruinous. Midway offered a glimmer of hope to the American public in this bleak landscape.
It didn’t take long for Midway to begin being recognized as much more than just a victory. It was a “decisive battle,” and a “turning point” in the entire war. Little wonder that in 1948, the U.S. Naval War College’s analysis (known as the Bates Report) already was referring to Midway as “one of the more important naval battles of history.”2
‘A Stepping-Stone for Further Incursions’
Midway’s broad outlines have been well understood for generations now. The Japanese, intent on bringing the Americans to the bargaining table and ending the war on their terms, were looking to land a final knockout blow against the U.S. Navy. With the American battleship force already sunk or crippled as a result of his attack on Pearl Harbor, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Commander-in-Chief of Japan’s Combined Fleet) reasoned that the surest way to deliver a haymaker to American morale was to destroy the U.S. Navy’s remaining two or three aircraft carriers. And what better way to bring those vessels to battle than precipitating a major operation near their main base at Pearl Harbor?
The target of the operation, the atoll of Midway, likewise was carefully selected. Located at the farthest northwest tip of the Hawaiian island chain, it was close enough to Pearl to draw the Americans out, but far enough away that Oahu’s air power could not participate directly in the battle itself. Should Midway be secured, it would provide a stepping-stone for further incursions down the island chain that would end in the outright invasion and capture of Oahu itself, which Yamamoto perceived as an immensely important bargaining chip during any negotiations with the Americans.
Unfortunately for Japanese plans, U.S. codebreakers had compromised Japan’s main naval operational code—JN-25b. On 14 May, just three weeks before Yamamoto was set to open his new offensive, the Americans began getting wind of an upcoming operation aimed at Midway. This gave Nimitz scant time to put together a battle plan and scrape up the necessary forces. He was taking appalling risks. If Nimitz lost his remaining carriers now, just six months into the war, they wouldn’t be replaced until mid-1944, probably delaying U.S. victory by years.
Nimitz, though, was determined to give battle. By hook or by crook, he managed to patch up the Yorktown from the damage she’d suffered at the Battle of the Coral Sea earlier in May and get all three available carriers—the Enterprise (CV-6), Hornet (CV-8), and Yorktown—up to the optimistically named “Point Luck,” some 320 nautical miles northeast of Midway. There, they were seemingly in a perfect location to ambush the Japanese carrier force (Kidō Butai) if the Japanese opened their attack as forecast from northwest of the atoll.
At the same time, Nimitz scrambled to get a dozen submarines in position nearby, substantially beefed up Midway’s land-based air power, and ordered its sizable Marine garrison to dig in and prepare for battle. In the nick of time, the stage was set.
Pacific War Pivot Point
On the morning of 4 June, almost precisely where and when the U.S. codebreakers had predicted, Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo’s powerful force of four carriers—the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryū, and Sōryū—materialized and launched a dawn strike against the atoll. The battle was on. But the morning’s initial exchanges all seemed to go Japan’s way. Midway was heavily bombed, its fighter force decimated. Numerous American attacks against the Kidō Butai were beaten off with heavy losses, and no damage inflicted to the Japanese.
But then, at 1020, by an almost unimaginably lucky series of events, the U.S. Navy managed to surprise the Kidō Butai with attacks delivered by two groups of aircraft from the Yorktown and Enterprise. In the space of just seven minutes, the Akagi, Kaga, and Sōryū were left crippled, heavily afire, and ultimately doomed. The Hiryū would be similarly smashed later in the afternoon. By the time the battle finally concluded on 7 June, the results were every bit as lopsided as the Times and the Star-Bulletin were getting wind of when they ran their headlines the day before. Japan lost four carriers, a heavy cruiser, 248 carrier aircraft, and 3,057 sailors killed. The Americans had lost the Yorktown, a destroyer, about 150 aircraft, and 307 sailors. It had been a rout.
Not only that, it had been a rout that checked Japan’s momentum, allowing the Americans to undertake their subsequent offensive around Guadalcanal. After Midway, America would always be on the offensive, Japan on the defensive.
A Clearer Picture Emerges
Four enemy carriers sunk. Midway saved. Japan routed. Turning point. Even as a World War II–obsessed kid in the early 1970s, with Midway only 30 years in the rearview mirror, I knew all of this. My guess would be that the majority of Naval History’s readership today could say the same. But what I didn’t know as a kid was that the “conventional wisdom” on the battle had already changed drastically during those 30 years. And it has kept changing, as we have continued adding new layers of clarity and nuance around the central pillars of our understanding. In fact, even within the past few years, we have continued expanding our knowledge of the battle in important ways.
For instance, throughout the war years, the U.S. Army Air Forces had firmly maintained that their B-17s had been responsible for at least one or two of the Japanese carriers lost that day. By 1948, though, based on postwar interviews with Japanese officers in 1945–46 (during the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey), and a translation of Admiral Nagumo’s after-action report (captured on Saipan in 1944 and translated in 1947), the Bates Report noted, “The B-17’s claimed three hits on two carriers, but these claims seem to be in error.”3 Indeed they were: No hits had been made by any B-17s during the battle, leading Bates to rightly conclude that “high altitude horizontal bombers were entirely ineffective against maneuvering surface ships.”4
At the same time, though, Bates still gave the submarine USS Nautilus (SS-168) credit for having torpedoed the carrier Sōryū, hitting her with two or three torpedoes.5 This claim would endure all the way into the 1960s, until Walter Lord’s beautifully written Incredible Victory revealed that the Nautilus’s target was in fact the Kaga, and that her attack had succeeded in delivering only one hit—a dud torpedo that had broken in half on impact.6
What the Nautilus had viewed through her periscope as the explosion of her torpedoes were more likely the ongoing convulsions of the Kaga, which was still heavily afire at this time. Viewed at a higher level, though, the result of these various revisions was to take a feel-good story wherein many hands (dive bombers, B-17s, and submarines) had all made telling blows against the enemy and narrow it down to the dive bombers alone doing all the damage.
A Research Renaissance
Lord’s account remained the most important and readable book on the battle for the next 15 years. But the 1980s saw a spate of new scholarship, starting with the publication of Gordon Prange’s bestselling Miracle at Midway in 1982 (the first book on the battle I ever read) and Edwin Layton’s ‘And I Was There’ in 1985. These came on either side of H. P. Willmott’s brilliant The Barrier and the Javelin in 1983, the most noteworthy British contribution to the battle’s historiography.
All of these accounts brought greater focus on a topic that had first been broached by Lord: the critical role played by U.S. codebreakers and their monumental triumph over JN-25b. The cryptographic aspect of the battle had still been classified, of course, during the 1940s and ’50s. But in some ways, its revelation in the 1960s swung the interpretational lens around to overfocus on the importance of Nimitz’s foreknowledge of Yamamoto’s intentions. It stood to reason that if we knew the Japanese were coming, we would of course beat them. And there was a certain “whiz bang” appeal to this newly revealed American technological and cryptographic capability. However, this overlooked the very real difficulties involved in translating solid operational-level intelligence into actionable tactical results on the battlefield.
At the same time, John Lundstrom’s groundbreaking 1984 work The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway delivered a veritable blow-by-blow, who-shot-down-whom account of Midway’s air battles. This was well complemented by the lesser-known but very valuable ‘A Glorious Page In Our History’ by Robert Cressman et al. With these two books, scholars now had a much better understanding of the air battles to work with and were beginning to build a more solid foundation for Midway scholarship based on analysis of unit records.
Despite this excellent work, gaps remained. One enduring myth revolved around the valiant but futile attacks from the three U.S. carrier torpedo-plane squadrons (first VT-8, then VT-6, and finally VT-3), which supposedly made the subsequent dive-bomber attack possible. Because the squadrons had dragged Nagumo’s Zero fighters down to sea level, so the story went, the Kidō Butai’s top cover was nowhere to be found when the Yorktown’s and Enterprise’s dive bombers arrived high overhead at 1020. Thus, the torpedo squadrons’ sacrifice (the complete annihilation of VT-8, along with the decimation of VT-6 and VT-3) was not in vain after all. This was another perfectly understandable feel-good story that rationalized and canonized the slaughter of these brave aviators. But it conflicted with the facts.
As Anthony Tully and I showed in our 2005 book Shattered Sword, the performance characteristics of the Zero meant that the Japanese combat air patrol (CAP) would have had no problem in regaining altitude in a matter of minutes after the destruction of both VT-8 and VT-6—and they probably did. Instead, it was the attack by VT-3, starting at medium altitude around 1010, that had sucked the Japanese CAP into the southeast threat vector, thereby leaving the Kidō Butai uncovered as the Enterprise’s and Yorktown’s dive bombers approached from the southwest and northeast, respectively. In other words, the distortion of the CAP was lateral, not vertical. The real contribution of VT-8 and VT-6 was taking time off the clock, preventing Nagumo from prepping his counterstrike, and creating enough smoke that some other U.S. aircraft formations were drawn toward the action.
This ties into perhaps the most pernicious myth of the entire battle—that at the time of the U.S. dive-bomber attack, Nagumo’s carriers were just minutes away from launching their own devastating counterstrike against the Americans. This fable had been intentionally fed into the historical record by Mitsuo Fuchida in his important 1955 book Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan. As one of the few Japanese sources translated into English, Fuchida’s fable had the effect of freezing the Japanese account in place for about 50 years, at least on this side of the Pacific.
Ironically, it was translated copies of the Japanese air group records, along with an innocent phone call from naval historian John Lundstrom to me in about 2000, that helped unfreeze it. John knew that Tony and I were working on a new book on Midway, and he had been reviewing the same B-17 photographs of the battle that we were studying when he noticed an odd thing: There were no Japanese aircraft on the flight decks during the 35 minutes the B-17s had been overhead. Yet Fuchida’s account would have had us believe that there should have been reserve strike force planes present on the decks at this time. What did that mean?
The result of that conversation was to set Tony and me digging deeper into the mechanics of how aircraft are spotted and launched on Japanese carriers. This, in turn, resulted in our conclusion in Shattered Sword that at the time of the 1020 dive-bomber attack, there was no slightest possibility that the Japanese had a counterstrike ready to launch. Their flight decks had been occupied all morning by CAP operations—a fact then confirmed by translations of Japan’s official war histories.
Finally, Tony and I also pushed back hard on the notion—expressed in title wordings like “Incredible Victory” and “Miracle at Midway,” that the American victory had been won against overwhelming odds. This made for another feel-good story, but it again conflicted with the facts. The only forces that actually fought each other off Midway on 4 June were Nagumo’s 20 Japanese warships, including four carriers and 264 total aircraft, versus 25 U.S. warships, three carriers, an unsinkable airfield, and 306 carrier and land-based aircraft. David vs. Goliath this was not—and the reason it was not was because of poor Japanese planning and their unwillingness to muster all available force at the point of contact.
Tony and I wrote in our conclusion in 2005, “Without question, elements of this account will be modified and reinterpreted in the future, perhaps drastically. . . . Such revisions are only to be expected—indeed, they are to be welcomed.” I’m pleased to report 15 years later that this has, in fact, happened. In 2014, Tony and coauthor Lu Yu published an important article in the Naval War College Review detailing how the badly flawed intelligence estimate Nagumo had been given before the battle drove his equally flawed scouting plan.
Tony, Seunghun Rhie, and I also published an article here in Naval History in 2019 containing a much-modified account of the ill-fated encounter of the submarine USS Tambor (SS-198) with Kurita’s Cruiser Division 7 during the night of 4–5 June. (See “A Double Turn of Misfortune,” June 2019, pp. 42–49.) This led to the collision of the Mogami and Mikuma, ultimately resulting in the sinking of the Mikuma with heavy loss of life. And by the time you are reading this, I also will have also published an article in the Naval War College Review pointing out a vital role that “Point Luck” played in Nimitz’s battle planning that has not been properly understood in any prior history of the battle, and indeed probably not since 1942.
Infusion of Japanese Perspective
Yet, at the same time, if you asked me if there are things I would change in a new edition of Shattered Sword, the answer would be yes. For instance, it is clear since the publication of Dallas Isom’s 2007 Midway Inquest, which included interviews with Japanese hangar crewmen, that our statement that Nagumo’s reserve strike force should have been rearmed by about 0920 (and thus available to be spotted on the flight deck, if that had been possible) was overly optimistic. In fact, the situation down in the hangars was even more chaotic than we understood at the time, and the reserve strike planes were still unarmed (and may still have been so even an hour later).
Likewise, the exact status of the Hiryū’s dive-bomber squadron at around 1020 is still in some doubt. But additional translations of modern Japanese accounts actually have begun adding to our collective knowledge on these matters.
Meanwhile, to continue with the major books published in English since ours, John Lundstrom’s superb 2006 Black Shoe Carrier Admiral: Frank Jack Fletcher at Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal shed new light on Fletcher’s critical leadership during the battle. Craig Symonds released his excellent The Battle of Midway in 2011. It contains, among other things, an incisive analysis of the Hornet’s notorious “Flight to Nowhere,” which resulted in that carrier’s air group largely being squandered during 4 June’s fighting. Symonds is set to follow this up this June with a much-needed new biography of Chester Nimitz (Nimitz at War) focusing on his leadership during the Pacific war. Trent Hone, meanwhile, is set to release his new biography of Nimitz through the Naval Institute Press in the fall of 2022. In Mastering Command, Hone will focus on Nimitz’s prewar development of an approach to leadership and his creation of an agile command organization capable of responding to the rapidly evolving challenges in the Pacific. I look forward to having both these titles on my shelf.
History’s Ongoing Quest
Four enemy carriers sunk. Midway saved. Japan routed. Turning point. These fundamentals haven’t changed. But hopefully what this article has illustrated is that the more things stay the same, the more they actually change. Indeed, the thing that I find so interesting about the Battle of Midway is that it remains interesting, even after 80 years.
There are still new things to be discovered here, particularly on the Japanese side. It is my hope that a reader 50 years hence will look back at Shattered Sword and say something along the lines of “a valuable work, but since superseded in its appreciation of [this], [that], and [the other thing] by the discovery of sources X, Y, and Z.”
I truly welcome that, because it will mean that history is doing what it’s supposed to be doing: updating and changing itself to reflect newfound knowledge. I’m confident that Midway will remain just as monumentally important as it ever was, despite that ongoing process.
1. The New York Times, 6 June 1942.
2. Richard Bates, “The Battle of Midway Including the Aleutians Phase, June 3 to June 14, 1942: Strategical and Tactical Analysis,” AD/A-003 054 (hereafter “Bates Report”) (Newport, Rhode Island: U.S. Naval War College, 1948), 1.
3. Bates Report, 90.
4. Bates Report, 225.
5. Bates Report, 98, 145.
6. Walter Lord, Incredible Victory (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 210–13.