March 03, 2006
It was hailed as 'the turning point of WWII.'
It all hinged on 'the fateful five minutes.'
It was 'The Battle That Doomed Japan.'
IT was The Battle of Midway. And everything you know about it is wrong. The book Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway" by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully, is one of those books that makes history by correcting 'known facts' about something that "everybody knows."
You may have a rough idea about what happened at and around Midway, those days in June, 1942. The Japanese Navy came into the battle with an overwhelming force of aircraft carriers and planes, but the Americans caught them with their decks full of planes and sent three experienced carriers to the bottom of the ocean in five minutes, and the fourth a few hours later.
You might even know that the Japanese were caught in the middle rearming their aircraft for an anti-shipping attack, having discovered the US fleet while a second strike on the island of Midway was being prepared.
It's possible you're familiar with the gallant sacrifice of the US torpedo squadrons at the Battle of Midway, where flying old and slow Devastator bombers, they were hacked to pieces, yet drew the Japanese Combat Air Patrol (CAP) down to very low altitude where they could not engage the dive bombing Dauntless bombers that eventually killed the carriers.
Except it didn't really happen that way.
Parshall and Tully, working from the original Japanese flight logs, reports, and a huge amount of collected interviews, letters, and so forth, looks at Midway from the JAPANESE side of the battle, and discover some important facts that are frightfully important, and incredibly obvious (once they are pointed out).
But sometimes it takes genius to see the incredibly obvious. Take the one that slapped me upside the head with a 2x4 when it was pointed out in Shattered Sword, for example. The 'traditional knowledge' states that the Dauntless attack caught the four carriers on the Japanese side (the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu) with flight decks crammed with planes, just about to take off and attack the three US carriers (the Yorktown, Hornet and Enterprise).
If that's true, why then do photographs taken from the B-17 bombers that attacked the Japanese shortly before the fatal attacks show the carriers with COMPLETELY EMPTY flight decks?
Because there weren't any airplanes on deck. The Japanese were at least 45 minutes of calm (i.e. not being attacked) time from being able to launch an attack on the American carriers, but they never got that 45 minutes. For close to two hours, US airplanes attacked the carriers of the Combined Fleet, one squadron or so at a time (starting with the B-17s from Midway, then the torpedo squadrons, then the dive bombers). A marvelous plan by the Americans: hold the Japanese carriers, keep them busy after they land the planes of their morning strike on Midway, until the heavy hitters could show up.
Except it wasn't planned that way at all, and only because of a miserable performance by the US Navy in the area of 'strike coordination' did it turn out that way.
Getting to that point, however, requires that Parshall and Tully tell us WHY the Battle of Midway happened the way it did on the Japanese side, and this they do marvelously. They go deep into how their aircraft carriers operated, and how their doctrine was different from the US's, and why that made all the difference in the world.
They also point out the glaring fact that, honestly, the odds weren't that lopsided to begin with. Not to say that the victory at Midway wasn't amazing: it was... but not because the US won despite incredible odds. Consider this; the Japanese had four aircraft carriers, the US had three... plus Midway itself (and Midway couldn't be sunk!). In fact, the US had MORE aircraft available than the Japanese did!
Who was at a disadvantage again? Why didn't the Japanese bring more carriers to the battle? And what was Yamamoto Isoruku, commanding Admiral of the Combined Fleet thinking when he gave his battle orders?
Read Shattered Sword. If you're interested in this sort of thing, it's an invaluable experience.
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