Nimitz Reports on the Battle of Midway

Thursday, June 7, AD 2012

My wife has the distinction of being one of the few people born on the Island of Midway.  (We have pictures of her as an infant with some Laysan Albatrosses, better known on Midway as Gooney Birds.  The medical staff was so excited at her birth that they put her in the new incubator, although they did not turn it on.)  This has led to never-ending confusion over the years when she has presented her birth certificate, with puzzled individuals wondering where Midway is.  Seventy years ago today all of America was learning where Midway was.  A battle which has been called a miracle, Midway was the turning point of the war in the Pacific, with the decisive defeat of the Japanese strike force aimed at Midway that Admiral Yamamoto had intended to give a crushing blow to the remaining US carriers.  The victory of Midway was the product of hubris, MAGIC, luck, courage and skill.

1.  Hubris-Since Pearl Harbor the Japanese had won incredible victories on land, sea and in the air, and now controlled a huge Empire throughout East Asia.  Japanese historians have described this as the period of “victory fever”.  Even a very level headed and pragmatic individual like Admiral Yamamoto was affected by this atmosphere of seeming invincibility.  Japanese intelligence as to the dispostion of the US fleet in the Pacific was poor, and Yamamoto’s plan to lure the Americans into battle by threatening Midway was very much a strike into the unknown, and risked Japan’s fate in the war on one battle. 

2.  MAGIC-US cryptographers had broken many Japanese diplomatic and military codes.  The project was collectively known as MAGIC.  In December of 1941 Naval cryptographers had broken the Japanese high command naval fleet code designated JN-25.  Nimitz, the commander in chief of the US fleet in the Pacific, knew as a result that Midway was the target of the Japanese fleet and assembled his three carriers and support ships to oppose the Japanese fleet with its four carriers, two light carriers and support ships.

3.  Luck-It is hard in our era of satellite surveilance and ubiquitous electronic sensoring systems, to realize just how much a deadly game of blind man’s bluff a carrier battle was in 1942.  Radar, still in its infancy, gave the US a critical edge at Midway, but finding the Japanese fleet carriers to attack them was as much a product of luck as anything else.  If the Japanese had been luckier, Midway could easily have been a disastrous US defeat.

4.  Courage-There were many brave men on both sides, however the palm for gallantry has to go to the aviators of Torpedo Squadron Eight from the Hornet and Torpedo Squadron 6 from the Enterprise and their attacks on the Japanese carriers on June 4.  The men had to know that without cover from their own fighters they would almost certainly not survive their attack runs on the carriers.  They went in anyway, and almost all of them died.  Many Japanese observers were stunned while watching this.  Japanese propaganda called Americans weak, decadent and cowardly, and here were American pilots going to their deaths in the best samurai style as they attempted to sink the well guarded carriers.  The attacks failed, but they drew most of the Japanese carrier air patrols away from the carriers, kept the carriers off balance and unable to launch their own strikes and depleted the ammunition and gasoline of many of the Japanese planes guarding the carriers.

5.  Skill-Approximately 30 minutes after the torpedo squadron attacks, three squadrons of American SBD’s from the Enterprise and the Yorktown came upon the Japanese carriers.  They were led by Commander C. Wade McCluskey who decided to prolong the search for the Japanese carriers and found them by following the wake of a Japanese destroyer.  In a matter of minutes the three squadrons inflicted devastating damage on three of the four Japanese fleet carriers, winning the battle of Midway for the United States.

Here is the report of Admiral Nimitz on the battle.  Note the emphasis in his report on lessons learned and improvements that had to be made based upon these lessons:

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8 Responses to Nimitz Reports on the Battle of Midway

  • I’d add one:

    6. The brilliant leadership of Raymond Spruance. New to command, he was the ideal mix of controlled aggression and prudence. Not a gambler like a Halsey, he knew when to walk away from the table. He did the same thing at the Philippine Sea.

  • Spruance probably made the right call Dale, but emotionally I do wish the pursuit of the Japanese fleet had continued after Midway. However Spruance was a great admiral and a greater man as this self assessment indicates:

    “I think that what success I may have achieved through life is largely due to the fact that I am a good judge of men. I am lazy, and I never have done things myself that I could get someone to do for me. I can thank heredity for a sound constitution, and myself for taking care of that constitution.”

    “Some people believe that when I am quiet that I am thinking some deep and important thoughts, when the fact is that I am thinking of nothing at all. My mind is blank.”

    Humor and self-deprecation in a man of his accomplishments says a lot of good about him.

  • I remember the movie “Midway”, where The Duke was one of the pilots.
    Good movie.

  • John Ford served in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II making films. Here is a film that he made as a tribute to the men of Torpedo Squadron Eight. It was originally intended only for the families of those gallant men, all but one of whom died in their attack on the Japanese carriers on June 4th:

  • Divine Providence at Midway — in addition to hubris, MAGIC, luck, courage, skill:

    This week marks the 70th anniversary of the pivotal Battle of Midway (June 3- 6, 1942). I have reviewed numerous accounts of this battle and have concluded that the large number of coincidences that occurred seriatim to give us victory were due to more than luck and planning and other human factors. I submit that the Protection of Divine Providence, upon which the Declaration’s signers relied and for which FDR later prayed on D-Day, was extended to us and is the only way to account for what Gordon Prange called the “Miracle at Midway.”

    Here are 12 things, among others, which had to happen in order for 3 of the 4 Japanese carriers to be vulnerable to the dive bombers for the 90 seconds of destruction and the 4th vulnerable again, in the same manner, 7 hours later.

    1) Our carriers had left Pearl Harbor shortly before the attack came on Dec. 7 — otherwise, they would have been doomed.

    2) 2 of the 6 Japanese carriers in the Pearl attack were damaged in the battle of the Coral Sea, May 4- 8, and could not participate in the Midway attack. That evened things out — the Japanese attack group would only have 4 carriers to our 3 (Hornet, Enterprise, Yorktown) plus the unsinkable carrier of Midway island itself.

    3) US naval radio intelligence had cracked the Japanese Naval code, JN-25 — and was able to decipher some of the messages about the planned Midway attack, enabling us to accurately guesstimate the timing and route of the attack — a few days before the JN-25 was changed again, blocking our decoders.

    4) The navy brass acted on this intelligence (the army wasn’t so sure about it – it was new) and shipped out 3 carriers to lie secretly in wait to the NW of Midway.

    5) Our 3 carriers slipped out of Pearl just before the Japanese picket submarines got there to spy on naval movements — the subs never saw the carriers and couldn’t alert Yamamoto.

    6) As the time of battle drew near, a Japanese scout plane did not accurately transmit information about our carriers until after the first wave of Japanese planes had taken off to hit Midway.

    7) When the Japanese carriers learned of ours (only one had been spotted) – in order to attack the spotted US carrier, they had to recover the Midway attack planes, change their bombs from contact (land) bombs to armor-piercing ones, refuel, all while being under attack. This cost them quite a bit of time.

    8) That time allowed the dive bombers from the Enterprise and Yorktown to find the Japanese carriers.

    9) The Japanese carriers were first under attack by torpedo bombers at a low altitude — resulting in their guns and Zeros being focused low, and not high. The dive bombers were at 15,000 feet and came up unobserved and unattacked.

    10) The US dive bombers originally did not know exactly where the Japanese carriers were and the two groups had two different clues which led them to the specks on the ocean that were the enemy carriers.

    11) The 2 groups of dive bombers arrived at the same time above 3 of the carriers who were turning into the wind to launch, just 5 minutes before the enemy carriers were to launch an attack on the known US carrier, at a time when there were loose contact bombs, all enemy attack planes were on the ships and not launched, and refueling was going on below the top deck for the recovered planes — a time of maximum vulnerability.

    12) a set of similar circumstances occurred for the 4th Japanese carrier, several hours later — she was hit by dive bombers just before she could launch another attack with her planes.

    End result — 4 Japanese carriers sunk, vs 1 US carrier; 2500 Japanese lost — including many experienced pilots, vs 307 US men lost, 322 Japanese planes lost vs 147 US planes

    and more importantly, it changed the balance of sea power in the Pacific from that point on, shortened the war, saved lives, and provided a huge boost to our nation’s war-time morale.

    More than planning. More than luck.

  • As Kipling said Bob:

    E’en now their vanguard gathers,
    E’en now we face the fray –
    As Thou didst help our fathers,
    Help Thou our host to-day.
    Fulfilled of signs and wonders,
    In life, in death made clear –
    Jehovah of the Thunders,
    Lord God of Battles, hear!

  • Recessional Kipling [midway verses]

    Far-called our navies melt away —
    On dune and headland sinks the fire —
    Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
    Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
    Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
    Lest we forget — lest we forget!

    If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
    Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe —
    Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
    Or lesser breeds without the Law —
    Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
    Lest we forget — lest we forget!

    For heathen heart that puts her trust
    In reeking tube and iron shard —
    All valiant dust that builds on dust,
    And guarding calls not Thee to guard.
    For frantic boast and foolish word,
    Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!

  • Scanning through Shattered Sword by Parshall and Tully what struck me was the flimsiness of the Japanese aircraft carriers which came across as oversized pontoon bridges. The Akagi received only one direct hit and sank nine hours later. Japan was the most backward country of all the major belligerents and it showed. When the Americans put sufficient carriers in play they invariably beat the Japanese. All the emperor worship and racism availed the stupid Japanese nothing against the industrial might of the US once she had started smoking.