September 22, 2010

Let's Talk Books

A couple of years ago, I was at the Duck U Bookstore when one of our history professors came in.  At the time, we had a small area set aside on the counter for "Staff Picks", books that those of us who worked at the Bookstore had read and recommended.  My two picks that month were World War Z, which I had just finished reading, and Shattered Sword, the 2005 book that turned a lot of what was known about the Battle of Midway on its collective head.

Knowing that the professor in question taught a class on WWII, I suggested Shattered Sword to him, and thus began a close to 45 minute dialogue on Midway and the Pacific War in general (it was summertime, during a stretch where we might go the entire day and see maybe three customers).  When we were finished and the prof had purchased both of my "Staff Picks", one of my co-workers looked at me with something akin to stunned disbelief.  "He's a history professor, how were you able to to talk to him like that about his specialty?", for indeed, his specialty was the Pacific War and Korea (where he himself served). 

I thought for a second and replied "I read a lot."  Her reaction, again, was stunned disbelief.  "History books?  You read history books for fun?"

Well, yeah.  I do.

I'd like to write a little bit about some of the books on Midway that I've in my collection, if I may indulge myself a bit... and, seeing how it's my blog, I think I can.

Mitsuo Fuchida's book Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan is without a doubt the single most influential book on the topic ever written.  The author was present at Midway, on the bridge of the Akagi after suffering an attack of appendicitis and being unable to fly the attack mission.  It's no surprise that his book, one of the first to be written on the subject, was thought to be the authoritarian voice on the battle.  The book told the story of the underdog getting lucky, with the Dauntlesses plunging down on the Japanese battle fleet and delivering their shattering attacks only five minutes before the Japanese counterstrike was to take off.  What's even more amazing is that this book, which so struck the fancy of American readers (and even steered the development of the movie "Midway"), was, to be less than diplomatic about it, a pack of lies.  To be a bit more diplomatic, Fuchida embellished a number of important details of the battle so as to make the Japanese Navy come out in a better light.  Remember, he wrote the book in 1951, just as US restrictions on such things were being lifted in Japan.  At the time the military as a whole was thought of very poorly in Japan... in some ways, it's not surprising that Fuchida would want to get a "nicer" version of events out into the public eye, one that made it look like it was just sheer bad luck that the Americans showed up when they did.  What might be more surprising is that Japanese historians had discredited the book some 20 years before American historians began to do the same thing.  Having said all that, the book is still well worth reading for the Japanese side of the battle, through Japanese eyes, something that is rare in our scholarship.

The next book in my Midway collection that I'd like to mention bight might not be a history book by the accepted definition of the term.  The Last Flight of Ensign C. Markland Kelly, Junior, USNR by Bowen Weisheit came about at the urging of Ensign Kelly's father, who understandably wanted to know just exactly how his son died at the Battle of Midway.  Ensign Kelly, you see, flew with VF-8 off of the USS Hornet, and was one of the two fighter pilots that wasn't recovered after the Hornet Air Group's "Flight To Nowhere."  Weisheit, who taught aerial navigation in the Navy, found a "short-snorter" $10 bill that had been presented to the crew of the PBY that picked up four of the fighter pilots that had ditched.  Much to his surprise, the latitude/longitude that the crew had written on the bill put the pickup very far away from where the official Hornet report (such as it was) said the squadron had ditched... far enough away that it wasn't just a simple error.  Thus began a long period of research, interviewing all of the surviving pilots from the Hornet's Air Group that he could find.  The first half of this slim book is what makes it questionable from a history standpoint, telling the story of Ensign Kelly's flight to nowhere from his point-of-view.  As Kelly was never found, no matter how well-researched (and make no mistake, the book is ridiculously well researched) the first half must fall into the category of "historical fiction."  The second half, however, recaps Weisheit's research and conclusions, conclusions that are very hard to debate: that the Hornet's after-action report was falsified, showing a completely fraudulent flightpath for the Air Group.  The obvious question really becomes an accusation: why, exactly, did then-Captain Marc Mitscher and Commander Stanhope Ring (Commander, Hornet Air Group) falsify the mission flightpath?  The obvious answer is to cover up their horrid performance, removing 1/3rd of the US Navy's striking power from action, a removal which may very well have ended up sinking the Yorktown.  There are some glaring errors to be found in Last Flight, which may call into question the results found in the book.  Weisheit's reported refusal to correct the caption of a particular photo, even when presented with clear evidence that the photo can't represent what he claims, may indicate a "my conclusion is right, no matter what" mindset.  Even if it isn't 100% correct however, Last Flight is an outstanding piece of scholarship that cleared up a dreadfully dark spot on the historical record of the Battle of Midway. As a result, Last Flight is reportedly to be found in every US Navy library.  Unfortunately, it's very difficult to find anywhere else, as it was privately published.  With the recent death of the author, it's unlikely to ever be reprinted, and once current supplies are exhausted it'll be gone forever. 

Related to Last Flight is Alvin Kernan's The Unknown Battle of Midway: The Destruction of the American Torpedo Squadrons.  Kernan was an 18-year old aviation ordinanceman on the USS Enterprise during Midway, but became a history professor at Yale and Princeton after the war.  His book delves deeply into just exactly what happened to the Devastator squadrons, not just during the battle, but beforehand; the blunders that put obsolete torpedo planes, carrying fundamentally flawed torpedoes, into the hands of poorly-trained young men (many of whom had never actually dropped a live torpedo, either in combat or even in training) at a time when they needed every scant advantage.  That they didn't get those advantages resulted in the massacre of the three squadrons flying off the carriers, and the fourth "Midway Squadron" (six Avengers and four B-26 Marauders rigged to carry torps) as Kernan calls it as well.  He leans heavily on Last Flight for his discussion on the Flight to Nowhere; indeed, this book is where I first heard of Weisheit's book.  The Unknown Battle of Midway is an important read for anybody wanting to understand the behind-the-scenes action that led to the tragedy of the VTs at Midway, and the steps that were eventually taken to correct the problems.

I've written on The Pond manyatime about the Battle of Midway Round Table (BOMRT), a unique gathering of veterans of the battle, historians, amateurs, and those interested in the battle in cyberspace.  The mailing list has been going strong for many years, and the current head of the Round Table, Ronald Russell, pulled some of the best anecdotes and threads from the list to compile No Right To Win: A Continuing Dialogue with the Veterans of The Battle of Midway.  Ranging from the humorous (the fresh-baked muffin incident) to the deadly serious (escaping the mortally wounded Yorktown), the stories come directly from the memories of those who were there when it happened, an invaluable resource at a time when the numbers of these veterans are being whittled away by old age.  Also included are many of the discussions between such historians as Jon Parshall (co-author of Shattered Sword) and John Lundstrom (author of The First Team) on such topics as "could the Japanese have successfully invaded Midway?"  A truly valuable work, if not the traditional style of history book, No Right To Win is fascinating, since it's mostly written by people who were there. 

Finally, what happens when a gathering of eminent historians decide that they want to write the definitive history on something?  You get a book like A Glorious Page In Our History.  Written in 1990 by Robert Cressman, Steve Ewing, Barrett Tillman, Mark Horan, Clark Reynolds, and Stan Cohen, this book goes into incredible detail on the Battle of Midway, starting with a chapter on the militarizing of the island in the 1920s and working up through the Battle itself.  While the scholarship involved is impressive enough, its the photographs in the book that are the high point.  Designed as a portable history exhibit of a sort, A Glorious Page In Our History is considered by the BOMRT as the most important reference on the battle available.  "If you can only afford one book on the Battle of Midway, Roundtable members will tell you to get this one," says the review on the BOMRT Library page, and while it is well and truly out of print, there are still copies floating around on Amazon and Ebay.  This was probably the first book to correct such misconceptions as the details of the "AF is short of water" radio ruse for example (the intel folks already knew that AF stood for Midway in the Japanese codes; the message was sent to prove the point to the powers that be in Washington).  It's not written in the most engaging style, to be sure, but it's an excellent read for a historian of the battle. 

There are many other titles I could write on, but I think I'll leave it at that for the time being.  If you're familiar with the Battle of Midway but want to know more, any of these books would be a good place to start... even Fuchida's has a lot of value, despite the embellishments.  They're all worth the money.  And if you're interested in Last Flight, let me know and I'll e-mail you with the contact information you need to get a copy.

Posted by: Wonderduck at 11:05 PM | Comments (8) | Add Comment
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In "The Codebreakers", Kahn devotes an entire chapter to the code group at Pearl Harbor, particularly talking about their performance during the Midway campaign. As you say, it's clear that the code breakers themselves were not in doubt about what "AF" meant, but since they were trying to convince Nimitz to gamble the fleet on it, they needed proof.

The "Midway" movie is a travesty in a lot of regards, especially concerning the codebreakers. That scene where they talked about "15%. No, 10%" is bullshit. In fact, they completely decoded and translated the entire Japanese operational order which was transmitted in JN-25B just before the superencipherment tables were changed, and gave the whole thing to Nimitz so he could use it to plan his battle. He couldn't have learned more if he'd personally attended Yamamoto's flag briefing session.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at September 23, 2010 12:34 AM (+rSRq)


Bee-YOOT-eeful post, Duck.  Ordered up a copy of "A Glorious Page" while I was reading your post.  Please to send the info WRT Last Flight as I think I need that to go with my copies of Shattered Sword and A Dawn Like Thunder.

Thanks for feeding my history jones....

Posted by: The Old Man at September 23, 2010 12:59 PM (+LRPE)

3 Got interested in Midway flight to nowhere after seeing the movie battle of midway on tv over Memorial day.  The magnetic declination in the Midway Islands in 1942 was just under 10 degree positive from true north.  If that guy that went the wrong way "flight to nowhere" and left the torpedo bombers unprotected had not used this declination it might explain the whole mystery.  This seems to be a common mistake for new crews, especially is they are used to using some other declination say from the US west coast.  Thank God for GPS these days.  Thanks, nice site

Posted by: ted parsons at June 02, 2011 02:06 AM (i4M8y)


If the magnetic declination was added instead of subtracted the difference would be from 240 to 270 degrees, almost exactly (to the degree) the diffence in the flight paths reported during the battle.  Just so no one thinks I'm a know it all, the reason I thought of this was that I failed desert phase of Ranger school for sending my company in on the wrong heading during a raid.  We jumped into in west Texas and heading out on a heading I planed while still in Ft. Benning GA (incorrectly using Ft. Benning GA magnectic declination).

WWII had very unpleasant results much worse than mine, interestingly with possible overall benefit to the battle as chance or providence would have it (who knows what the fighter cover would have been like over the successful bombing runs if this mistake had not happened).  I know its possible to easily screw this up, as it happened to me too.

Posted by: ted parsons at June 02, 2011 08:10 PM (i4M8y)

5 OK I know its 30 degrees verses 20 degrees difference but what the alternative explaination? 

Posted by: ted parsons at June 02, 2011 08:57 PM (i4M8y)


I remember that the first one that came down got us over to the left. Lt. Cmdr. Waldron, who was on his air phone, asked Dobbs if that was a Zero or if it was one of our planes. I didn't know whether Dobbs answered him or not, but I came out on the air and told him that it was a TBD. He also called Stanhope Ring from "John E. One, answer" and we received no answer from the air groups. I don't know if they even heard us or not, but I have always had a feeling that they did hear us. I think that was one of the things that caused them to turn north as I think the squadron deserves quite a bit of credit for the work that they did.

Personally, I was just lucky. I've never understood why I was the only one that came back, but it turned out that way. I want to be sure that the men that didn't come back get the credit for the work that they did. They followed Waldron without batting an eye. I don't feel like a lot of people have felt that we made mistakes and that Waldron got us into trouble. I don't feel that way at all. I know that if I had it all to do over again, even knowing that the odds were going to be like they were, knowing him like I knew him, I'd follow him again through exactly the same thing because I trusted him very well. We did things that he wanted us to do not because he was our boss, but because we felt that if we did the things he wanted us to do, then it was the right thing to do.

Posted by: ted parsons at June 02, 2011 09:17 PM (i4M8y)

7 What is this, fanfic?

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at June 02, 2011 09:20 PM (+rSRq)

8 Almost, Steven... it's a quote from George Gay's book, Sole Survivor.  In many ways, it qualifies as fanfic.

Posted by: Wonderduck at June 03, 2011 03:51 AM (n0k6M)

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