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Why the Japanese Lost the Battle of Midway
By Dallas Woodbury Isom
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2007 Dallas Woodbury Isom
All rights reserved.
WHY THIS INQUEST
A great many books have already been written about the Battle of Midway. It continues to grip the imaginations of those interested in World War II because it had all the ingredients of an epic saga: it was the pivotal battle of the Pacific, and the underdog won. Not only did the Americans win this legendary battle of June 4, 1942, but they won by one of the most lopsided margins in naval history. Even Nelson's victory at Trafalgar and Togo's at Tsushima Strait — where outnumbered naval forces also won spectacular victories — pale in comparison with the most striking aspect of the Battle of Midway: the lethal damage that determined the outcome was done during a two-minute period when three of the four Japanese aircraft carriers were set ablaze by American dive-bombers.
When the battle was finally over, all four of the Japanese carriers were at the bottom of the ocean. With four of the six fleet carriers in her navy now gone, along with about 250 carrier planes and more than 100 irreplaceable pilots, Japan's naval air power was decimated. What little chance Japan had of winning the war in the Pacific went up in the smoke of her burning carriers. The titles of the three most widely read books on the subject sum it up: "Miracle at Midway," "Incredible Victory," and "Midway — The Battle That Doomed Japan." Then why another book about the battle? Has not the subject been exhausted, the sources mined out? Although the story of the American side of the battle has been told and retold in great detail, and with stirring drama, there is no satisfactory account of what happened on the Japanese side — and, in the final analysis, no satisfactory explanation of why they lost the battle. The commander of the Japanese carrier force, Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, has been roundly criticized and belittled for making a series of decisions that resulted in catastrophe in a battle that he was supposed to have won. But the books available, on both sides of the Pacific, give inconsistent — and in some cases implausible — accounts of those decisions. It became clear that much more needed to be known about the nature of those crucial decisions and the circumstances surrounding them. What really happened on the Japanese carriers of Nagumo's Mobile Force during the hours just before they were destroyed?
It is generally agreed that had Nagumo been able to launch a strike against the American carrier force before his own carriers were destroyed by American dive-bombers, he probably would have won the battle. However, as will shortly be seen, existing accounts fail to provide a plausible explanation for why that could not be done. In order to better explain why the existing accounts of what happened on the Japanese carriers before they were destroyed do not make sense — and why a fresh look is needed at why the Japanese lost the battle — let us first set the scene.
PREVIEW OF THE BATTLE
The Midway operation was masterminded by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet. It sprung from the failure of the attack on Pearl Harbor to catch and destroy the American carriers that Yamamoto had expected to be there with the rest of the Pacific Fleet. The Doolittle raid on Tokyo and other Japanese cities in April 1942, in which sixteen B-25 bombers were launched from the carrier Hornet, had crystalized support in the Japanese high command for an operation to eliminate the American carrier force in the Pacific. Yamamoto's objective was to entice — by attacking and occupying Midway atoll with its vital naval base — the American carriers into a decisive battle in which they could be destroyed. Midway, about 1,100 miles northwest of Pearl Harbor, was regarded by the Japanese as the "sentry for Hawaii," too valuable an asset for the Americans to lose without a fight.
Yamamoto's plan — which included an attack in the Aleutians — was unprecedented in its complexity and scale, involving almost every combatant ship in the Japanese navy, almost 140 in all, along with dozens of support ships. The "Teeth," however, were the four fleet carriers in Nagumo's Mobile Force: Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, and Soryu. Between them, these ships embarked around 250 carrier planes, of which 230 were operational (and another 21 land-based Zero fighters that were being ferried for use on Midway after its capture.) It was these four carriers, with their supporting ships, of the Mobile Force that were involved in what is popularly called the Battle of Midway.
On the American side, code breakers at Pacific Fleet headquarters in Hawaii had deduced the general outline and approximate date of Yamamoto's Midway operation. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, planned to ambush Nagumo's carrier force. For this he had three carriers available: Enterprise and Hornet in Task Force 16, under the command of Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, and Yorktown in Task Force 17, under Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher. (Yorktown, damaged three weeks earlier in the battle of the Coral Sea, and assumed to be out of action by Yamamoto, had been miraculously repaired in less than three days.) The three carriers collectively carried 234 planes, of which 221 were operational. In addition, there were about eighty land-based combat planes and thirty-two PBY Catalina flying boats for reconnaissance on Midway itself.
Thus Nimitz actually had more planes at his disposal in the immediate arena of the battle than Yamamoto, but Nagumo's planes — especially his torpedo planes — could potentially deliver far more ship-sinking firepower, and his pilots were generally much more experienced. If the Americans were to have a reasonable chance of winning, their planes had to strike Nagumo's carriers before they could launch their own attack against the American carriers. That, of course, is exactly what happened — but just barely. Why could the Japanese not get an attack launched in time?
THE CRUCIAL PERIOD
The period that determined the outcome of the battle was the little over three hours between 0715 and 1025 on the morning of June 4, 1942. Prior to that, at 0430, a "first wave" of thirty-six torpedo planes armed with land bombs, thirty-six dive-bombers, and thirty-six Zero fighters had been launched from the four carriers to attack Midway. Also, between 0430 and 0500, seven search planes had been launched to canvas the area for American ships. At 0715, Nagumo had on his carriers a "second wave" of at least thirty-six torpedo planes armed with torpedoes and thirty-six dive-bombers armed with anti-ship bombs standing ready to attack any American ships that might show up. He also had a sufficient number of Zero fighters on hand at that time, in addition to those needed for air defense, to provide an effective escort for those torpedo planes and bombers.
Had the American carriers been discovered by that time, Nagumo could have launched a full-scale strike, which most likely would have knocked them out of the battle. This is because the Japanese Navy possessed a deadly ship-sinking weapon — an aerial torpedo that was very accurate and reliable, and so fast that it was difficult to evade. (The American aerial torpedo at that time in the war was extremely unreliable and slow — it essentially did not work.) Moreover, had such a strike been launched, then even if Nagumo's four carriers were later attacked by American carrier planes exactly as happened, those carriers probably would have sustained only a fraction of the damage actually inflicted because their fight decks and hangars would have been clear of planes and the hazardous gasoline and ordnance they carried.
But, as it turned out, at around 1025 his carriers were caught by American dive-bombers in the most vulnerable condition a carrier can be in: crammed with armed and fueled bombers — the hangar decks littered with bombs. In two minutes, three carriers were hit by nine high-explosive bombs, most of them 1,000-pounders. Those bombs by themselves would not necessarily have been fatal. Unlike the Japanese, the Americans lacked armor-piercing, delayed-fuse bombs that could penetrate into the bowels of a ship before exploding. It was the burning gasoline from ruptured fuel tanks and the secondary explosions of their own ordnance that turned those carriers into funeral pyres. (It is possible that a well-placed hand grenade could have destroyed a 36,000-ton carrier in that condition.) By 1030 in the morning — the time his own strike force had originally been scheduled for launch — Nagumo had lost the battle.
The disaster that befell the Japanese at 1025 on June 4 is exactly what would be expected from an ambush. That clearly was what Admiral Nimitz had planned. But there was no ambush. The American naval presence had been discovered by a Japanese search plane — the infamous Tone 4 — three hours earlier at 0728, and Nagumo was aware of at least one American carrier in the area two hours before the fatal attack. Had Nagumo gotten his strike off before 1025 he most probably would have won the battle. Nimitz's ambush plan depended on his carriers not being discovered until he had hit Nagumo's carriers. It was a gamble that Nimitz lost — but he still won the battle because Nagumo could not take advantage of the unexpected discovery. Again, why was Nagumo unable to get his attack launched before 1025?
The problem, as is well known, is that at the time the American fleet was first discovered — at 0728 — Nagumo's carrier torpedo planes were in the process of being rearmed with land bombs for a second strike on Midway, and thus were temporarily out of action. But, still, it does seem incredible that with such lead time Nagumo could not have reversed the armament back to torpedoes and launched his planes before the American strike. What went wrong in Nagumo's headquarters; why were the torpedoes not restored in time for an attack to have been launched before 1025? That is a mystery that has not been satisfactorily explained to this day, and is the central focus of this book.
The widely accepted chronology of key events during this crucial period — given by the leading American and Japanese authorities — is as follows: At 0715 Nagumo issued the order to rearm his standby torpedo planes and dive-bombers with land bombs for a second strike on Midway. The planes on the fight decks were stricken below to the hangars, and work began to remove the torpedoes on the torpedo planes and antiship bombs on the dive-bombers. Then, at 0728, the Tone 4 search plane discovered elements of the American fleet, and sent back a vague sighting report merely stating that "ten ships" were seen. That report was supposedly received by Nagumo at around 0740. At 0745, Nagumo issued an order to suspend the rearming operation, and at 0747 he radioed a request to Tone 4 to specify the ship types and maintain contact. A second request to specify ship types was made at 0800. At 0809, Tone 4 reported back that the ships consisted of five cruisers and five destroyers. Then, at 0820, it sent another report identifying an aircraft carrier. Nagumo received that report at about 0830.
Instead of launching an immediate attack at that time against the American carrier with what was readily available — dive-bombers without a fighter escort — Nagumo chose to postpone his attack until after the Midway strike force, which had just returned, had been recovered. The launch of a coordinated strike force, with rearmed torpedo planes along with the dive-bombers and a Zero escort, was then scheduled for 1030. At around 1025, American dive-bombers from Enterprise and Yorktown attacked and destroyed Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu. Most readers of this book will be familiar with this chronology of events. For that reason this chronology, and the decisions supposedly made by Nagumo during that period, will be referred to as the "standard scenario." But, as will be seen, much of that scenario is myth.
THE CRUCIAL DECISIONS
In order to show why existing accounts, Japanese as well as American, fail to explain the central mystery of why Nagumo could not get his attack launched before the fatal American bombing, it might be helpful to review the decisions made by Nagumo during the crucial period prior to 1025. The following is a summary of the various, and often contradictory, versions given of those decisions, and the facts upon which they were based, by the leading American and Japanese commentators on the battle. Many readers will be familiar with the principal American sources. However, the principal Japanese reference on the battle has received little mention in America. It is The Midway Sea Battle, published by the Japanese government in 1971 as part of a one-hundred-volume war history series popularly known as Senshi Sosho. The scenario it gives differs from the American standard scenario on a number of points, as will be noted, but it also contains some irrationalities of its own.
Three decisions made by the admiral determined the course of the battle.
THE FIRST DECISION — TO REARM THE TORPEDO PLANES
It is generally agreed by the commentators — all American, and most Japanese (including Senshi Sosho) — that the decision by Nagumo to rearm his "second-wave" torpedo planes with land bombs was made at 0715. It was made pursuant to a report sent at 0700 by the commander of the Midway strike force, Joichi Tomonaga, that a second strike on Midway was needed. Such a strike was needed primarily because the American planes based on Midway had not been caught on the ground and destroyed, as had been hoped.
This decision contravened a "standing order" by Yamamoto that half the torpedo planes in the Mobile Force remain armed with torpedoes at all times — and be on standby in a state of readiness to attack any American carriers that might turn up. Tomonaga's request coincided with the first attack by Midway-based torpedo bombers on Nagumo's carriers, which, no doubt, made Tomonaga's recommendation more persuasive. The admiral hoped that these bombers — and others expected to follow — could then be caught on the ground and destroyed after their return to Midway from the attack on his carriers.
Although this is generally regarded as the fatal decision, it has also been judged by most commentators to have been reasonable under the circumstances — this, despite the fact that it contravened Yamamoto's standing order, and was made before the search operation to look for American carriers was completed. Nagumo opted to forgo readiness against a possible American carrier threat that he deemed unlikely in favor of dealing immediately with a threat from Midway that had already materialized.
There is, however, a dissenting view in Japan that has a considerable following among younger Japanese historians — though it is vehemently challenged by most veterans of the war. Hisae Sawachi, in her Record of the Midway Sea Battle, contends that Nagumo made his decision to rearm the torpedo planes with land bombs for a second strike on Midway not at 0715, but almost two hours earlier at 0520. The main basis for this surprising conclusion is a somewhat cryptic order from Nagumo, recorded in Nagumo's battle report as having been issued at 0520, stating that "unless unforeseen changes in the situation occur, the second attack wave ... will be carried out today." This had been interpreted by Senshi Sosho as being merely a "precautionary order," informing the carrier air group commanders that a second strike on Midway might be necessary. While Senshi Sosho accepts that certain preliminary steps were taken pursuant to this order, such as hauling 800-kilogram land bombs from the magazines up to the hangar decks of Akagi and Kaga, it insists that the actual rearming of the torpedo planes did not begin until 0715. Sawachi rejects the "precautionary order" theory, and contends that it was interpreted as an order to begin rearming the second-wave torpedo planes.
Excerpted from Midway Inquest by Dallas Woodbury Isom. Copyright © 2007 Dallas Woodbury Isom. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of ContentsForeword
Chapter One - Why This Inquest
Chapter Two - Prelude
Chapter Three - The Run-up to Midway
Chapter Four - The Fatal Decision
Chapter Five - Gamble Lost
Chapter Six - To Launch or Not to Launch
Chapter Seven - Ironies
Chapter Eight - Denouement
Chapter Nine - Aftermath
Chapter Ten - Post-mortem
Appendix A - Nagumo's Official Report (excerpts)
Appendix B - SRMN-012, Traffic Intelligence Summaries, pp. 499-505
Appendix C - Reconstruction of Japanese CAP activity
Appendix D - War Game Exercise
What People are Saying About This
"Even Nelson's victory at Trafalgar and Togo's at Tsushima Straitwhere outnumbered naval forces also won spectacular victoriespale in comparison with the most striking aspect of the Battle of Midway: the lethal damage that determined the outcome was done during a two minute period when three of the four Japanese aircraft carriers were set ablaze by American dive bomber"