Here’s How the Battle of Midway Crushed the Japanese Empire

 In C4ISR, Germany, GDI, Defense, Air

Key Point: Historian Craig Symonds pro­nounces Midway “the most com­plete naval vic­to­ry” since 1805.

Founding German chan­cel­lor Otto von Bismarck was not a funny guy. As a rule, in fact, Bismarck was down­right grim. He glow­ers at us from eter­ni­ty. Once in awhile, though, the Iron Chancellor came out with a jest worthy of the great Yogi Berra—as when he reput­ed­ly pro­claimed that Providence smiles on “fools, drunk­ards, and the United States of America.” Foolish besot­ted ‘Mercans must be triply blessed.

Yet Providence seldom does it all. It fur­nish­es oppor­tu­ni­ty per­chance. Individuals must grab and exploit oppor­tu­ni­ties fortune’s favor deigns to bestow on them.

Never was this truer than June 1942, when U.S. Navy and Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) air­craft-car­ri­er task forces met in battle off Midway Island, an atoll north­west of Hawaii. Hollywood essays a rare look at naval his­to­ry this week­end with the release of direc­tor Roland Emmerich’s Midway, the first cin­e­mat­ic account of this epic clash since the 1970s. Not having seen the film yet, I can nei­ther praise its whole­some good­ness nor damn its fail­ings.

There remains plenty to say about the encounter, regard­less of how well Hollywood did its work. Fortune grant­ed the USA its favor at Midway, as Bismarck might have proph­e­sied. But it was sound doc­trine and strat­e­gy, entre­pre­neur­ship among naval avi­a­tors, and shrewd senior lead­er­ship that posi­tioned the U.S. Pacific Fleet to har­vest the oppor­tu­ni­ties placed before it. And har­vest them the navy did. By the time the guns, bombs, and tor­pe­does fell silent the Kidō Butai­­—the car­ri­er strik­ing fleet that had pound­ed Pearl Harbor six months before — adorned the Pacific seafloor.

Historian Craig Symonds pro­nounces Midway “the most com­plete naval vic­to­ry” since 1805, when Lord Horatio Nelson’s Royal Navy swept the com­bined French and Spanish fleets from the briny main at Trafalgar. Was it a “deci­sive” vic­to­ry as well as com­plete? Opinions vary. How to define that word com­mon­ly pro­vokes one of those schol­ar­ly debates that’s so enven­omed because the stakes are so small. Some schol­ars of mar­tial affairs insist that a deci­sive battle must lead direct­ly to peace in fairly short order. It must decide the out­come of the war as a whole in order to qual­i­fy.

That’s a mighty con­strict­ed def­i­n­i­tion. To its pur­vey­ors we might say, with Coach Lee Corso — this being col­lege foot­ball season—not so fast, my friend! And hazard a con­trary view, as Corso does when pick­ing win­ners and losers on game day.

The clas­sics of strat­e­gy divulge no con­crete def­i­n­i­tion. Carl von Clausewitz comes clos­est in On War, stat­ing vague­ly that a great battle con­sti­tutes “a deci­sive factor in the out­come of a war or cam­paign” (my ital­ics). Midway didn’t decide the out­come of World War II in the narrow sense. It did decide whether the IJN could anni­hi­late the U.S. Pacific Fleet before it could rebuild, and it did decide the fate of Japan’s effort to rig a “ribbon defense,” or defen­sive ram­part, stretch­ing from norther­ly island strong­holds in the Aleutians through Midway at the ribbon’s mid­point through fast­ness­es far­ther south.

And it did decide whether Tokyo would accom­plish the goals for which it went to war. Answer on all counts: no. Midway reversed the flow of war in the Pacific from east to west, and oper­a­tions kept flow­ing west­er­ly until ulti­mate Allied vic­to­ry in 1945. Sounds deci­sive to me — much as Trafalgar decid­ed who would rule the sea during the Napoleonic Wars. Nelson’s clean sweep may not have led direct­ly or speed­i­ly to peace, but it was a cru­cial enabler. It was a factor indis­pens­able to the even­tu­al out­come, even though the little emper­or didn’t meet his Waterloo for anoth­er decade.

And oppor­tunism — in par­tic­u­lar the oppor­tunism of Rear Admiral Raymond J. Spruance, the com­man­der of Task Force 16, built around the flat­tops USS Enterprise and Hornet—helped the U.S. Navy reap the fruits of deci­sive battle. According to Samuel Eliot Morison, the dean of World War II naval his­to­ri­ans, Spruance dis­played “the very high­est qual­i­ty of tac­ti­cal wisdom, the power to seize oppor­tu­ni­ties.” And although Spruance was a sur­face-ship offi­cer in charge of naval avi­a­tion assets, he had the spine to over­rule pro­fes­sion­al avi­a­tors when cir­cum­stances war­rant­ed.

Pacific Fleet boss Admiral Chester Nimitz afford­ed Spruance and Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher — who headed up Task Force 17, cen­tered on the car­ri­er Yorktown, and was assigned over­all tac­ti­cal com­mand — ample leeway to shape their high-seas fate. Nimitz instruct­ed them to con­duct them­selves by “the prin­ci­ple of cal­cu­lat­ed risk” at Midway. By that he meant avoid­ing “expo­sure of your force to attack by supe­ri­or enemy forces with­out good prospect of inflict­ing … greater damage on the enemy.”

His direc­tive made strate­gic sense. Both com­bat­ants had com­mit­ted all of their deploy­able fleet car­ri­ers to action at Midway. The IJN enjoyed a 4 – 3 numer­i­cal edge, yet it was Nimitz who had the luxury of risk­ing his car­ri­ers. They were replace­able where Japan’s were not. Nimitz presided over a rem­nant of the prewar Pacific Fleet. He knew that a bigger, better U.S. Navy — includ­ing a brand-new class of fleet car­ri­ers, the Essex class — was build­ing in ship­yards back home and would make its way to the Pacific Ocean start­ing in 1943. With only a frac­tion of American indus­tri­al capac­i­ty, Japan could scarce­ly regen­er­ate naval strength deplet­ed in action. America could redeem its losses and then some; Japan would strug­gle to sus­tain itself.

If you have a spare weapon in the armory — or soon will — you may as well risk the one you have.

Admiral Spruance wield­ed Task Force 16 to good effect. Around day­break on June 4 a Midway-based patrol plane report­ed sight­ing two IJN car­ri­ers steam­ing south­east toward the island. The American fleet had taken sta­tion to Midway’s north­east in hopes of mount­ing an ambush from an unex­pect­ed quar­ter, so Admiral Fletcher ordered Spruance to take Enterprise, Hornet, and their cohort south­west to inter­cept the foe. Spruance and his chief of staff, Captain Miles Browning, right­ly sur­mised that Admiral Chūichi Nagumo, the Kidō Butai­­ com­man­der, meant to bom­bard Midway and its U.S. Marine gar­ri­son.

They also sus­pect­ed that Nagumo assumed no U.S. car­ri­ers would be in the vicin­i­ty. After all, a diver­sion­ary force had staged attacks in the Aleutian Islands, and top IJN com­man­ders believed Nimitz would have dis­patched the Pacific Fleet to inter­vene. Nagumo, then, was con­flict­ed when scout planes report­ed the pres­ence of U.S. car­ri­ers: should he rearm the Kidō Butai­­’s war­planes with tor­pe­does to assail enemy ship­ping, or keep load­ing them with bombs to exe­cute sub­se­quent raids against Midway?

Spruance and Browning timed their launch­es to coin­cide with times of max­i­mum flux in the Japanese fleet’s recov­ery and launch cycle — and to exploit Nagumo’s inde­ci­sion. Carrier crews trying to refuel and arm war­planes are busy with other duties than self-defense. They’re also han­dling explo­sives and flam­ma­ble liq­uids in parts of the ship vul­ner­a­ble to bomb blasts.

For all that, the American air attacks were no mas­ter­piece of mass­ing fire­pow­er at the deci­sive place and time for mass impact. In mid-morn­ing Hornet and Enterprise tor­pe­do-bombers went in low, and broke them­selves against the cur­tain of IJN anti-air­craft fire as well as Zeke fight­ers swoop­ing over­head. While Japanese defend­ers con­cen­trat­ed their ener­gies down low, Enterprise and then Yorktown dive-bombers arrived over­head. They pounced on the enemy flat­tops from high alti­tude, set­ting three of four ablaze within six min­utes. Hiryu, the lone undam­aged car­ri­er, struck back suc­cess­ful­ly at Yorktown—only to be dis­patched itself late that after­noon.

The Imperial Japanese Navy thus lost four of the Kidō Butai­­’s four fleet car­ri­ers in a day (two others dam­aged pre­vi­ous­ly remained at home under repair and would return to action later in the war), to one of three for the U.S. Navy. Providence favored the U.S. Navy, and the lead­er­ship put its gift to good use.

Tempering his respect for tech­ni­cal spe­cial­ists, in par­tic­u­lar career airmen, com­prised part of Ray Spruance’s entre­pre­neur­ship. For a time on the morn­ing of June 4 he deferred to the wishes of Captain Browning, only to over­rule him when the threat of Japanese air attacks loomed. Doctrine in those days called on air groups to stage a “deferred depar­ture” from the car­ri­er. All squadrons would launch, gather over­head, and then pro­ceed on their route en masse. In the process the first air­craft to launch would orbit over­head — and waste pre­cious fuel while the rest of the group assem­bled.

The Hornet air wing con­duct­ed a deferred depar­ture on the morn­ing of June 4 at Browning’s direc­tion. When the staff radio intel­li­gence offi­cer report­ed inter­cept­ing a Japanese scout plane’s trans­mis­sion report­ing the task force’s where­abouts, how­ev­er, Spruance decid­ed that, as Craig Symonds puts it, “enough was enough.” He had the flag­ship signal to Enterprise dive-bomber squadrons cir­cling over­head: “pro­ceed on mis­sion assigned.” In other words, do not dawdle. Get aloft and pro­ceed along your way. Spruance over­rode pro­ce­dures. That’s why the air wings attacked in frag­men­tary fash­ion — a draw­back in combat — but it helped the bomber squadrons con­serve fuel they would need to search out and attack the Japanese flat­tops. “It was the right deci­sion,” affirms Symonds, even though it cost the Americans in terms of coor­di­nat­ed action.

Source: National Interest

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