Midway: The Story that Never Ends

By Thomas B. Allen

Jap Fleet Smashed By U.S.2 Carriers Sunk At Midway
Navy Had Word Of Jap Plan To Strike At Sea
Knew Dutch Harbor Was A Feint  


The story also appeared in the New York Daily News , the Washington Times-Herald , and four other Midwestern newspapers associated with the Tribune . Somehow, the Tribune knew far more than the Navy had revealed. The story gave the names of 4 Japanese carriers, 2 battleships, 2 heavy cruisers, and 12 destroyers, seemingly lifted from a secret Navy document. 1 Two headline phrases—Navy Had Word and Knew Dutch Harbor Was A Feint—suggested that the United States had some way of learning about Japanese operational plans. The Times-Herald 's headline was more explicit: U.S. Knew All About Jap Fleet. Guessed There Would Be A Feint At One Base, Real Attack At Another.

Midway Was Main Objective

Part of the massive, two-pronged Japanese force had sailed to the Aleutians and bombed Dutch Harbor, site of a U.S. naval base on the island of Unalaska. The Japanese also landed troops on Attu and Kiska, an operation that the Navy did not confirm until 12 June. 2 Japanese strategists believed that the two simultaneous attacks would lure U.S. carriers to their doom, but no U.S. carriers went to the Aleutians, and the Tribune story obligingly provided the Japanese with a reason: The Navy knew Midway was the main objective.

The Tribune story did not say the Navy had broken Japanese naval codes. But the suggestion was so strong that Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, former publisher of the Chicago Daily News , immediately contacted the Tribune and other newspapers. Without telling the editors why, Knox asked them to halt further coverage of the story. Knox's action was not enough for Admiral Ernest J. King, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Fleet. Infuriated at the leak, he ordered an investigation. Thus began the long campaign to protect a momentous secret.

The Leak

The leak investigation quickly established how the Tribune had obtained its information. The USS Lexington (CV-2) had been sunk on 8 May in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Among the survivors was Stanley Johnston, a Tribune war correspondent. Johnston and many other survivors were taken aboard the transport USS Barnett (AP-11), which was bound for San Diego. He probably shared a cabin with his friend, Commander Morton T. Seligman, executive officer of the Lexington

At sea, Johnston read a decoded intelligence bulletin, transmitted on 31 May. It described the order of battle of the Japanese fleet heading for Midway. Whether Johnston saw the bulletin with or without Seligman's permission was never determined. 3 When investigators compared the bulletin to the Tribune story, they were stunned to discover that the description of the Japanese fleet was an "almost verbatim" copy of the bulletin. The message containing the bulletin had been transmitted through communications channels available to other ships, which were expected to ignore traffic not addressed to them. Lexington officers, including Seligman, served as watch-standers on the Barnett and probably routinely decoded the message, although it had nothing to do with the Barnett . 4

The information in the bulletin had been gleaned from the decoded intercepts that had shaped Nimitz' strategy. Intelligence officers at Pearl Harbor had learned of the existence of a massive Japanese fleet and had deduced its probable objectives: Midway and the Aleutians. Analysis of the intercepts had produced a recommendation about the best place to assemble an attack. All of this work was now at least indirectly revealed by the Tribune story.

That story had its origin in Chicago, where Johnston headed after disembarking in San Diego. When he began writing his account of the Coral Sea battle, he mentioned to his editor, J. Loy "Pat" Maloney, that he also had some exclusive information about Midway. He would not reveal his sources. Maloney rewrote Johnston's Midway story, attributing unofficial information to "reliable sources in the Navy Department" and "naval intelligence." He also put a fake Washington, D.C., dateline on the story and did not add a byline. 5

Walter Winchell versus Robert McCormick

The next mention of Midway secrets was far more worrisome to the code breakers. On 5 July, gossip columnist and radio star Walter Winchell mentioned the Coral Sea and Midway battles and, in his staccato voice, excitedly added: "When the history of these times is written, it will be revealed that twice the fate of the civilized world was changed by intercepted messages." Two days later, in his column "On Broadway" in the New York Daily Mirror , Winchell attacked Colonel Robert R. McCormick, publisher of the Tribune , saying he "allegedly printed the lowdown on why we won at Midway—claiming that the U.S. Navy decoded the Japs' secret messages." 6 There had been no mention of "secret messages" in the Tribune story. But Winchell added that gossipy touch, and the fact that he was a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve buttressed his authority. 

Secretary Knox, under pressure from Admiral King and Navy intelligence officers, asked Attorney General Francis Biddle to prosecute the Tribune and Johnston under the 1917 Espionage Act. But, fearing disclosure of code-breaking secrets in an espionage trial, the Department of Justice quietly closed the case. 7

Pearl Harbor code breakers believed that the damage had already been done. A key code, Japanese Fleet General-Purpose System, was changed on 15 August, only two months after an earlier change. Other alterations were made in "virtually all Japanese codes and ciphers," and it took cryptanalysts nearly four months of around-the-clock work to crack the new version and once again penetrate the Japanese navy's operational radio traffic. 8

By the end of June the U.S. Navy had announced the full toll of Japanese losses: four aircraft carriers and a heavy cruiser sunk, two destroyers and a cruiser damaged. The major American loss—the sinking of the USS Yorktown (CV-5)—was not officially disclosed until September. 9 Even after the war ended in 1945, many details of the battle of Midway were still hazy and basically known only from an American perspective.

Winchell was right. History some day would hail the code breaking as a crucial contribution to victory in the Pacific. But it would take a while for history to reveal that contribution.

Morison: No Reference to Code Breaking

In May 1942, Samuel Eliot Morison, a distinguished professor of history at Harvard, at the suggestion of his friend, President Roosevelt, had been commissioned a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve and given the mission of writing the World War II operational history of the U.S. Navy as a seagoing historian-eyewitness. He was serving in the Atlantic during the battle of Midway, but he later sailed with Pacific Fleet forces in operations from Guadalcanal to the Marianas. 10

When he returned to Harvard after the war, he continued to work on his 15-volume History of United States Naval Operations in World War II . In his richly detailed account of Midway (first published in Volume V in 1949), he did not mention the code-breaking, writing only, "Intelligence fed him [Nimitz] a fairly accurate account of Japanese plans and preparations, deduced from various bits of information from a variety of sources." 11 In a tenth-anniversary article in 1952, Morison still made no reference to the intercepts and code breaking.

The Truth, 25 Years Later

Captain Roger Pineau, a Japanese language specialist who assisted Morison, knew about the Navy's cryptographic success. But even when he realized Morison was not getting the cryptographic secrets of Midway (or Pearl Harbor), Pineau had to remain silent. 12 He "eventually arranged officially for Morison to be let in on the secret—but he could never write about it." 13 Not until 1967, in Walter Lord's classic book, Incredible Victory , did the public begin to learn about the code breakers' role in the battle.

That knowledge seemed to make the Midway story complete: Nimitz, responding to what would be an extraordinarily accurate intelligence analysis, had sent his three carriers—the Hornet (CV-8), Enterprise (CV-6), and Yorktown —to a rendezvous point for an attack on the Japanese fleet. The intelligence analysts' prediction—that aircraft from four Japanese carriers would attack Midway—came true, beginning at 0553 on 3 June when radar on Midway spotted Japanese aircraft 93 miles to the northwest. Twenty Marine F2A-3 Buffalo and six F4F Wildcat fighters flew to intercept the Japanese. Fifteen Marine fighters were shot down and seven damaged. Two Zeros were knocked out. The Japanese bombers got through under severe antiaircraft fire. Seven planes went down, and the attack leader radioed the carriers: "There is need for a second attack wave." Torpedo-carrying planes from Midway—six Navy-piloted TBF-1 Avengers and four Army Air Forces B-26 Marauder bombers—attacked the carriers. Every released torpedo missed. 14

No One Came Back

Two damaged B-26s survived, along with one Avenger piloted by Ensign Bert Earnest. Shells from Japanese Zeros killed his gunner. Other shells knocked out the hydraulic system and elevator wires. A shell fragment hit the other crewman. A bullet tore through Harry Ferrier's baseball cap and grazed his scalp, knocking him out. Somehow he regained control of the plane. Earnest had no compass, but he saw black smoke rising from Midway. He headed that way. With 70-odd holes in his plane, he skidded in for a landing, "I waited for the other people to come back," Earnest said. "But no one came back." Every other Avenger was shot down, and all the other men were killed. 15 He earned a Navy Cross for his attack on the Japanese and a second for managing to fly his riddled plane back to Midway. He was awarded a third Navy Cross later in the war. 16

Commander Ferrier's retelling of events at the Battle of Midway

in the Naval Institute's Americans at War Series

Meanwhile, a Japanese search plane reported "what appears to be ten enemy surface ships" about 200 miles from the Japanese carriers. At almost the same moment, the Hornet and the Enterprise began to launch their aircraft toward what they believed to be two Japanese carriers. The Hornet 's 15-plane Torpedo Squadron Eight flew into a swarm of Zeros and an inferno of antiaircraft fire. The Japanese defenders wiped out the squadron. The only survivor of 30 men was Ensign George H. Gay, whose riddled plane cart-wheeled into the water with the radioman-gunner dying and Gay wounded. 17 A PBY Catalina rescued him on 5 June.

Torpedo bombers kept coming in at low levels. As Norman Polmar points out in Aircraft Carriers : "Of the 41 carrier-based torpedo planes that had attacked the Japanese ships only four survived the massacre. . . . But the disastrous attack of the three torpedo squadrons was the final event leading to the conditions that made possible the destruction" of the Japanese carriers. 18

While Zeros and antiaircraft crews concentrated on the torpedo planes, Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers from the Enterprise , far overhead, went into steep dives over two Japanese carriers, the Akagi and Kaga . SBDs from the Yorktown dived on a third, the Soryu . Within minutes, the three Japanese carriers were aflame and doomed. The fourth carrier, the Hiryu , had only hours to live. She, too, would be destroyed by dive bombers, but she had already launched dive bombers that had mortally damaged the Yorktown .

Jammed Japanese Flight Decks?

Accounts of the battle, beginning with the first published Navy version, usually say that the Japanese carriers' flight decks were jammed with fully fueled and armed planes when the American dive bombers tipped over and dropped their bombs. 19 Pilots diving on the carriers did see some planes on the flight decks. Most of them were defensive aircraft—fighters assigned to combat air patrol. But writers on the battle assumed that offensive aircraft were crowding the decks. That assumption was based on two entangled decisions by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, commander of the carrier striking force.

Nagumo had ordered a second attack on Midway, and so aircraft that returned from the first attack had to be refueled and rearmed, along with other aircraft assigned to the second strike. But, reacting to the search plane report that a U.S. carrier was within striking distance, Nagumo ordered that the Midway-bound aircraft be rearmed: The bombs for an attack on ground targets had to be replaced by torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs for an attack on ships.

Recent Revisionism

The next revision of the Midway story has taken up the crowded-deck issue and the question of Nagumo's decision, reexamining what a recent chronicler of the battle, Dallas Woodbury Isom, called the "standard scenario": A "befuddled" Nagumo ""refuses to accept the reality of the situation, 'dithers,' and then in a series of blunders throws away any chance he had of countering the American carrier threat."" The Japanese, Isom wrote in the Naval War College Review , did not make "idiotic mistakes, as is commonly implied." According to Isom's view, Nagumo assumed he could not make a quick, effective attack with what he had available: unescorted dive-bombers. 20

Isom essentially accepted the crowded-decks aspect of the "standard scenario," inspiring criticism from a new set of Midway writers, also writing in the Naval War College Review . They pointed out that aerial photographs "show no strike planes on deck, only a handful of fighters." 21 In reality, they wrote, the rearming and most of the refueling was done on hangar decks below the flight decks. 

Both Isom and his critics followed up the Review articles with books that use Japanese sources and change the traditional American perspective. Isom's book, Midway Inquest , will be published by the University of Indiana Press in June 2007. Shattered Sword , by two of the Review critics, was published in 2005. 22

The two books are unlikely to be the final accounts of Midway, one of the most analyzed battles of World War II. An annotated bibliography of books, periodicals, videos, and Web sites related to Midway is already 110 pages long. 23

Mr. Allen has written or cowritten 34 books on a vast array of subjects, from espionage to exorcism. Among the many publications where his work has appeared are National Geographic Magazine , Smithsonian , Military History Quarterly , American History , the Washington Post , New York Times Magazine , Washingtonian , Naval History , and this magazine.

  1. RADM Edwin T. Layton, USN (Ret.), with Captain Roger Pineau, USNR (Ret.), and John Costello, And I Was There: Pearl Harbor and Midway—Breaking the Secrets (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1985), p. 453. back to article
  2. Hanson W. Baldwin, "Japan's Fleet Hurt," New York Times , p. 4. back to article
  3. LCDR (later RADM) Robert E. Dixon, commanding officer of the Lexington 's Scout-Bomber Squadron, told the FBI that he had seen Johnston taking extensive notes from the bulletin. See Robert Mason, "Eyewitness," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , June 1982, pp. 40-45. back to article
  4. Frederick D. Parker, A Priceless Advantage: U.S. Navy Communications Intelligence and the Battles of Coral Sea, Midway, and the Aleutians (United States Cryptologic History, Series IV, World War II, Volume 5, Fort Meade, Md.: National Security Agency, 1993), p. 68.  back to article
  5. Douglas McCollam, "The End of Ambiguity," Columbia Journalism Review , July-August 2006 [reprinted at http://www.cjr.org/issues/2006/4/mccollam.asp ]; Parker, p. 67. back to article
  6. New York Daily Mirror , 7 July 1942. The column is quoted in Layton, p. 454, but is wrongly cited as the New York Daily News . back to article
  7. Parker, p. 68. back to article
  8. Layton, p. 455. back to article
  9. "Big Warship Hit by Planes, Sent Down by Submarine," New York Times , 17 September 1942,  p. 1. back to article
  10. "RADM Samuel E. Morison, United States Naval Reserve, Retired" [biography, dated 4 December 1967] in Biographies, 20th century collection, Navy Department Library, available at http://www.history.navy.mil/bios/morison_s.htm . back to article
  11. Samuel Eliot Morison, Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions May 1942-August 1942 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1961 reprint of 1949 edition), p. 80. back to article
  12. Interview with the author, December 1991. back to article     
  13. Layton, p. 500. back to article
  14. Norman Polmar, Aircraft Carriers (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2006), p. 232. back to article
  15. Thomas B. Allen, "Return to the Battle of Midway," National Geographic Magazine , April 1999, p. 91. back to article
  16. Polmar, p. 545. back to article
  17. Allen, p. 93. back to article
  18. Polmar, p. 238. back to article
  19. CDR Murr E. Arnold, air officer of the Yorktown , at a Pearl Harbor press conference on 12 June, reported that one carrier had "all its planes on deck" during the American attack, and the planes of another carrier were about to take off but "never got into the air." New York Times , 13 June, 1942, p. 4. back to article
  20. Isom, a retired law professor, lays out his argument in "The Battle of Midway: Why the Japanese Lost," Naval War College Review , Summer 2000, pp. 60–100. back to article
  21. Jonathan B. Parshall, David D. Dickson, and Anthony P. Tully. "Doctrine Matters: Why the Japanese Lost at Midway," Naval War College Review , Summer 2001, pp. 139-151. back to article
  22. Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully, Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Dulles, VA:  Potomac Books, 2005). back to article
  23. Michaele Lee Huygen, The Battle of Midway: A Bibliography . (Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School, 2006). back to article


Thomas B. Allen is well known for his writing in the subject of espionage and military history. His books include Declassified: 50 Top-Secret Documents That Changed Military History. He is also the co-author with Norman Polmar of Spy Book: The Encyclopedia of Espionage, and an encyclopedia of World War II: America at War 1941-1945. His writings on intelligence and related topics have appeared in such national publications as Smithsonian and The Washington Post Magazine, in addition to the Naval Institute's Proceedings and Naval History magazines.

More by this Author

None found for this author.

Events and Conferences

None found for this author.


Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Fri, 2016-07-08

You are cordially invited to: Delivering on the Vision for the Future of Submarine Warfare A discussion with Rear Admiral Charles...

2016 Naval History Conference

WEST 2017

San Diego Convention Center, San Diego, CA

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership