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The Unknown Battle of Midway: The Destruction of the American Torpedo Squadrons

The Unknown Battle of Midway: The Destruction of the American Torpedo Squadrons

3.8 4
by Alvin Kernan, Frederick W. Kagan (Foreword by), Donald Kagan (Foreword by)

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The Battle of Midway is considered the greatest U.S. naval victory, but behind the luster is the devastation of the American torpedo squadrons. Of the 51 planes sent to attack Japanese carriers only 7 returned, and of the 127 aircrew only 29 survived. Not a single torpedo hit its target.
A story of avoidable mistakes and flawed planning, The Unknown Battle


The Battle of Midway is considered the greatest U.S. naval victory, but behind the luster is the devastation of the American torpedo squadrons. Of the 51 planes sent to attack Japanese carriers only 7 returned, and of the 127 aircrew only 29 survived. Not a single torpedo hit its target.
A story of avoidable mistakes and flawed planning, The Unknown Battle of Midway reveals the enormous failures that led to the destruction of four torpedo squadrons but were omitted from official naval reports: the planes that ran out of gas, the torpedoes that didn’t work, the pilots who had never dropped torpedoes, and the breakdown of the attack plan. Alvin Kernan, who was present at the battle, has written a troubling but persuasive analysis of these and other little-publicized aspects of this great battle. The standard navy tactics for carrier warfare are revealed in tragic contrast to the actual conduct of the battle and the after-action reports of the ships and squadrons involved.

Editorial Reviews

1. Sir John Keegan
“I read The Unknown Battle of Midway in one sitting. It is a momentous piece of work, reeking of the authenticity of carrier warfare as experienced by the flight crews.”—Sir John Keegan

Donald Kagan
The Unknown Battle of Midway is the clearest and most persuasive story of the Battle of Midway I have ever read or heard. It asks the right questions directly and answers them clearly, simply, and convincingly, basing its conclusions on keen analysis based on the primary sources and much new evidence rarely if ever used by other accounts. Kernan brings the events to life as only a participant with high literary talents can.”—Donald Kagan, Yale University

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Yale Library of Military History
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

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Yale University Press

Copyright © 2005 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12264-0

Chapter One

The Destruction of the American Battle Line at Pearl Harbor

On the morning of December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy made a surprise attack on the American Pacific Fleet tied up in Pearl Harbor at Ford Island, the pearl at the center of the deep inlet. At the naval yard, aft of a huge dry dock containing the battleship Pennsylvania, were the cruiser Helena and the minesweeper Oglala. Japanese intelligence had predicted that the aircraft carrier Enterprise would be in this position on December 7, and a torpedo intended for her smashed into the smaller ships. But the Enterprise and the two other American carriers then in the Pacific, Lexington and Saratoga, were not in Pearl Harbor, where Japanese intelligence had predicted they would be. The attackers knew that the carriers' absence qualified their victory enormously, and they were dead right. Little official information about the extent of the damage in Pearl was given to those of us on the Enterprise, just outside the harbor, but scuttlebutt, the navy rumor mill, piled it high. Even so, when theEnterprise entered the harbor to refuel, late in the afternoon of December 8, we were flabbergasted by the devastation we saw as we proceeded to our dock, moving slowly around the harbor from east to west. One battleship, the Nevada, was lying athwart the narrow entrance channel, beached bow first, allowing barely enough room for the carrier to squeeze by and move past the great battle fleet lying in ruins at its anchorages alongside Ford Island. The water was covered with oil, fires were burning still, ships were resting on the bottom mud, superstructures had broken and fallen. Great gaps loomed where magazines had exploded, and smoke was roiling up everywhere. For sailors who had considered these massive ships invincible, it was a sight to be seen but not comprehended, and as we made our way to a dock on the west side of Ford Island, just beyond the old target battleship Utah, turned turtle, we seemed to be mourners at a spectacular funeral.

The navy assumed that in the event of war our battle fleet, centered on its massive battleships, would sweep across the Pacific to relieve General Douglas MacArthur and the army in the Philippines, and then beat up on the Japanese navy and go on up to Tokyo. Something like this had actually been projected for years in a series of secret war plans brightly labeled Orange and Rainbow. But it was not to be. For the time being the navy fought a holding action.

The Saratoga was torpedoed in January near the Hawaiian coast, and after that America, with two oceans to fight in, had only three carriers in the Pacific, the Enterprise, the Yorktown, and the Lexington, while the Japanese had six fleet carriers and a number of smaller ones. It was risky to go anywhere west of Hawaii, and Vice Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet (Cincpac), played his cards carefully even after the Yorktown and the brand-new Hornet, sister ships of the Enterprise, came around from the Atlantic. There was, too, it has to be admitted, something of a shell-shocked sluggishness in the American fleet after Pearl Harbor. We had thought the Japanese manufactured only cheap goods you bought in ten-cent stores, but now we became acquainted with their superb optics, the devastating Zero fighter, and what was later called the Long Lance torpedo. It took only a little while to learn that the Japanese were also first-rate in their courage and in their training, and that they were unsurpassed not only in gunnery and some actions like fighting their ships at night but, most significantly for our immediate futures, in their magnificent aerial torpedo system.

The crews chafed as the American aircraft carriers operating in task forces with fast cruisers and destroyers were sent to the South Pacific to block a Japanese invasion of Australia and were limited to a series of raids, quick in, quick out, against isolated Japanese bases far out in the Pacific: Marcus, Wake, Kwajalein. We were not at the beginning really ready for war, and these raids punctuating long days of cruising taught us the skills that would enable us to win, with the aid of some good luck, the Battle of Midway. It was amazing how long it took to get the hang of it and to react instantly in the right way. War, we gradually learned, is a state of mind before it can be anything else.

The run in to an island would begin at high speed the night before a raid, and the crew sweated in their bunks all night long while the driveshafts turning at high speed rattled everything. Flight Quarters came before daylight, and soon afterward General Quarters was sounded. The ship turned into the wind to add near 30 knots plus the wind to the speed of the planes taking off. The first planes off were the fighters for the combat air patrol (CAP) overhead and then the scout planes of the anti-submarine patrol (ASP) to fly vectors looking for enemy ships or subs. The radar antenna-one thing we had, courtesy of the British, that the Japanese did not-like a double-bed spring rotated constantly on the mast top. Early radar was short-range and quirky, but it gave us a distinct advantage in knowing when unidentified planes were approaching.

Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, leader of the Pearl Harbor strike and of Kido Butai, the Japanese fleet of aircraft carriers at Midway, and his commander in chief, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, were proud Japanese samurai, and while we were making small raids, they were ranging over half the world. After devastating the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese empirewent on in six months to destroy British naval power in the Far East by sinking the warships Prince of Wales and Repulse off Malaysia, capture Singapore, raid Ceylon, and obliterate a combined Australian, Dutch, and American fleet off Indonesia, bringing down the old colonial empires of Britain and the Netherlands. Japanese troops were halfway across China, had stalemated the Russians in Manchuria, and soon forced Bataan and the fortress of Corregidor to surrender in the Philippines. And now, in early June 1942, the navy was preparing to bring its ships to Midway Island, the westernmost American outpost remaining in the Pacific, with the intention of extending Japan's conquest to within 1,200 miles of Hawaii and drawing out and sinking any opposing American fleet. It was also said that the Japanese navy was so deeply embarrassed by the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, in sight of the emperor's palace, in mid-April 1942 that it was determined to make sure that the U.S. Navy could never approach Japan again.

The Japanese navy had begun to push in late April and May toward New Guinea and Australia to the south, and the Solomon Islands and Fiji to the east, with the aim of cutting off the United States from our allies down under, Australia and New Zealand. Task Force Seventeen, commanded by Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, built around the two carriers Yorktown and the old warhorse the Lexington, stopped the Japanese drive, sinking one small carrier and putting a larger one out of commission. But the Lexington was sunk in the exchange and the Yorktown was heavily damaged. When the Enterprise and Hornet, Task Force Sixteen, arrived too late to get into the fight, the three remaining carriers were ordered to make a fast run back to Pearl Harbor.

The Enterprise and Hornet arrived back in Pearl Harbor on May 26. On May 27, the Yorktown returned from the Coral Sea and soon went into dry dock. The navy yard worked miracles on it, repairing in three days enough of the damage to make it possible for it to fight at Midway. All liberty was canceled, and reprovisioning and refueling of the ships began immediately. Our admiral on the "Big E," William Halsey, had been tormented with a terrible allergic rash and was forced to go into the hospital. He was relieved as commander of Task Force Sixteen by Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, a line officer, not an aviator, who had been in command of a cruiser force.

Rumors began to circulate that the Japanese were planning to invade little Midway Atoll and draw our ships out to fight the great sea battle their strategy had long anticipated. Our information, we heard, at the scuttlebutt, came from code breakers: "Like troglodytes, [the code breakers] inhabited a kind of underworld cellar, approached only by two locked doors and in a permanent state of shabby disorder amid which heaped files and the ejections of IBM machines struggled-as the occupants were indeed doing-for survival. [Commander Joseph] Rochefort presided, in his ancient red smoking jacket and carpet slippers: a man driving himself to the limit on two or three hours of sleep and a diet of coffee and sandwiches. He slept on a cot among the squalor and had to be expelled to take a bath. A perfectionist, he allowed no message to leave Hypo [Hawaiian Code Center] until he himself had checked the translation."

Unbelievably, the Japanese never tumbled throughout the entire war to the fact that their codes had been broken, and the U.S. Navy, equally blindly, continued to believe that its ability to read one after another of the Japanese codes remained a deep, dark secret from its own sailors. But when the American carriers sailed from Pearl Harbor to the Battle of Midway everyone aboard knew what was in the wind and how we knew it.

Naval Intelligence long persisted in asserting that no one other than senior officers in the fleet could have known before the battle of the breaking of the Japanese Purple Code and the impending clash at Midway. The truth was at long last brought out and established in a BOMRT (Battle of Midway Round Table) online exchange in August 2005, in which various veterans recalled how the information spread. It developed that Cincpac, at Nimitz's direction, had sent a top-secret code ULTRA message describing the Japanese plans and their ships to all senior officers in mid-May 1942. As the Yorktown returned from the Coral Sea, Admiral Fletcher shared his knowledge with all his officers. The information was later distributed in a "non-codeword summary" to all involved in the battle. Most tellingly, perhaps, Dan Kaseberg, a yeoman in Torpedo Squadron Three, remembers getting and posting the order of battle while on Oahu, because when he abandoned the sinking Yorktown, he found a copy "on oil soaked onionskin paper" in his pocket.

Admiral Nagumo may have told his carrier sailors that "the enemy lacks the will to fight," but the American navy had been making itself ready for years to fight this, its greatest sea battle.

Chapter Two

Trading Armor for Speed: The New Battle Line

There is something in a naval engagement which radically distinguishes it from one on the land. The ocean, at times, has what is called its sea and its trough of the sea; but it has neither rivers, woods, banks, towns, nor mountains. In mild weather, it is one hammered plain. Stratagems,-like those of disciplined armies, ambuscades-like those of Indians, are impossible. All is clear, open, fluent. The very element which sustains the combatants, yields at the stroke of a feather. One wind and one tide operate upon all who here engage. This simplicity renders a battle between two men-of-war, with their huge white wings, more akin to the Miltonic contests of archangels than to the comparatively squalid tussles of earth.

So our great American sailor-writer, Herman Melville, described in Israel Potter (1854) the nature of naval warfare as it was conceived and practiced until December 7, 1941, and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The American and Japanese aircraft carriers that steamed to the Battle of Midway left behind them in the fires and wreckage of Pearl Harbor not just a fleet of devastated ironclads but an ancient mode of naval warfare in which for centuries battleship had thundered broadsides against battleship. Now aircraft carriers would be able to ambush unsuspecting enemies, and the crucial question for naval commanders from Pearl Harbor on had to be, "Where are the enemy carriers?"

Admiral Nimitz well understood the new strategy and tactics that December 7 enforced. Some of the Pearl Harbor battleships had been repaired by the time of Midway and were assembled in San Francisco harbor, raring to go, but Nimitz left them there, to their great chagrin. They were, he knew, too slow to keep up with 30-knot carrier task forces for one thing, but he also understood that their day had passed. They would serve in the long war to come for bombardment of assault beaches, and they slugged it out once in the Philippines in late October 1944 with equally obsolescent Japanese battleships. But the Pacific war featured fleet carrier task force against fleet carrier task force, and this type of warfare would first be displayed in its full dimensions at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, and then at Midway one month later.

Though he had designed the Pearl Harbor attack that initiated carrier war, Admiral Yamamoto, commander of the Imperial Japanese Combined Fleet, never entirely understood the lesson he had taught. At Midway, which was also very much his operation, he continued to treat his carriers as an advance force for the big-gun fleet he commanded from his flagship, the largest battleship in the world, the Yamato, named for the ancient Japanese kingdom. It weighed 63,000 tons, had 18-inch guns, and displayed the royal chrysanthemum on the bow. He placed his carriers several hundred miles in front of what he designated his main fleet, confidently planning to use them to clear the beaches for the invasion force and to draw out the American fleet for him to finish off with his big guns. His leading pilot, Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, commented wryly after the war that at Midway, "The officers and men of the big battlewagons were still confident that their massive firepower would win the [war-ending] battle when it came." Yamamoto's death after his defeat at Midway seemed almost designed finally to teach him the superior force of modern air power. In 1943, while on an aerial tour of his Solomon Island command, his plane was shot down by American fighters alerted to his schedule by the code breakers in their Pearl Harbor basement who had set up his fall at Midway.

In time nuclear submarines armed with atomic missiles would displace the aircraft carrier as the world's first-line capital ship. But in the 1920s the aircraft carrier was still considered an auxiliary to the main line of battleships, and the champions of air power, the visionaries of the Japanese and American navies, had to fight to design and construct them. The two countries competed directly with each other under conditions imposed by the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, which attempted to limit the major naval powers of the world by setting a 5-5-3 tonnage ratio for the British, American, and Japanese navies. The Japanese, with growing imperial plans, were embittered by being treated as a lesser power and at once began to rearm for the "big battle" they anticipated with the Yankee enemy, building new battleships and big carriers like Akagi (Red Castle) and Kaga (Increased Joy).

At the outset the Japanese, though advised by the British, who were leaders in carrier construction, were as uncertain as the Americans about the best design for their carriers and modified them constantly as they learned what worked and didn't work. As first built, for example, "Akagi had three separated, vertically arranged flight decks: an upper landing deck 190 meters (624 feet) in length, a middle takeoff deck for fighters 18 meters (960 feet) long, and a 49-meter (160 foot) deck beneath that for launching torpedo bombers."

Like the American carriers Lexington and Saratoga, Akagi and Kaga were built on unfinished hulls of battle cruisers that, had they been completed, would have exceeded allowed tonnage under the Washington Naval Treaty. Commissioned in 1927, Akagi, the Japanese carrier flagship, was loaded with features that suggested its origin as a battle cruiser. It was a big carrier, 36,000 tons to begin with, and later modifications brought its displacement up to just over 41,000 tons. It was 855 feet long, and 102 feet wide after modifications, and had that distinctive Japanese open look under the flight deck at either end. Its decks could carry 63 planes, while 131,000 horsepower drove its four shafts and moved the huge ship at 31.5 knots. A peace-time crew of twelve hundred, plus eight hundred air personnel, manned the ship. Six guns of 8-inch caliber were in casemates below the flight deck, twelve 4.7-inch anti-aircraft and fourteen twin 25mm along the deck. The Japanese flight decks had 45mm wooden planks and 7mm steel plates. Akagi was armored with 10 inches of steel in a side belt, with a 3-inch armored deck above the machinery.


Excerpted from THE UNKNOWN BATTLE OF MIDWAY by ALVIN KERNAN Copyright © 2005 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Alvin Kernan is Avalon University Professor of Humanities, Emeritus, Princeton University. He served in the U.S. Navy, 1941–45. Among his previous books are The Fruited Plain: Fables for a Postmodern Democracy and In Plato’s Cave, both published by Yale University Press.

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Unknown Battle of Midway: The Destruction of the American Torpedo Squadrons 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
scifijoe More than 1 year ago
The biggest problem with this book is that the publisher refused to grant the rights to show any pictures in the book. The book itself is not bad and gives a look into life on board the aircraft carriers berfore, during and after Midway. but without pictures this book is worthless.
JJAudubon More than 1 year ago
An excellent book by a veteran of the battle. Kernan, was a torpedoman's mate on Enterprise during the battle who later became a distinguished professor. He does not sugar coat the US victory in which courage and determination overcame often-flawed leadership, inadequate weapons / training (i.e. the TBD Devastator and Mk.13 torpedo), and the fog of war. The sacrifice of the torpedo bomber squadrons deserves this history. No understanding of Midway is complete without this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Why isn't anyone commenting? I bet you guys aren't history fans but you should read it. NOOOOOOOWWWWWWW!!!!! < > - ----