BOOK REVIEW – The Battle of Midway

Craig L. Symonds, The Battle of Midway, Oxford University Press, 2011.  452 pp., appendices, notes, bibliography, photos, index.

Review by Dr. John Abbatiello
Monument, Colorado

The series editors of Oxford’s “Pivotal Moments in American History” collection certainly hit a home run when they asked Craig Symonds to write about the battle of Midway. Symonds needs no introduction to IJNH’s readership, having published widely in naval and American history and having taught countless midshipmen at Annapolis for thirty years.

Building on research for the Midway chapter from his 2005 Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles That Shaped American History (also an Oxford publication), Symonds synthesizes the recent superb scholarship on this decisive battle and adds his own emphasis and analysis. His focus is on the key decision makers, from King and Nimitz to the task force, ship, and aviation squadron commanders. His thesis is that while fortune played a minor role in the battle, Midway’s outcome “was primarily the result of decisions made and actions taken by individuals who found themselves at the nexus of history at a decisive moment.” So, when many previous authors counted luck as the key factor in Wade McClusky’s spotting the Arashi’s wake as it headed back to the Japanese carrier fleet alone at high speed, allowing the dive bombers of the USS Enterprise to follow it straight to their targets, Symonds explains this episode as being driven by individual decisions. Bill Brockman’s aggressive command of the USS Nautilus, which hounded the Kido Butai’s heavy escorts and forced the Japanese to detach Arashi to defeat this submarine threat, was instead the primary cause of McClusky’s sighting. According to Symonds, the naval culture that produced these leaders—both American and Japanese—likewise served to influence their actions and decisions in fundamental ways. For this reason, the author provides thorough biographical sketches of each of the key players throughout the narrative, focusing on education and previous naval experience. This serves the dual purposes of explaining cultural norms while offering the reader insights into individual personalities.

Symonds did not simply rely on the research of others; his examination of operational archives, oral histories, memoirs, and official records was thorough and consistent with the comprehensive archival investigation one would expect. When borrowing from previous scholarship or debunking long-held myths, Symonds is careful with his language and endnotes. For example, the late launch of the Tone’s Number 4 search plane was for many years cited as a reason for the Japanese not sighting the US carriers first.  Symonds relates later research by Dallas Isom—repeated in Parshall and Tully’s Shattered Sword—showing that an on time take off would have caused Number 4 to miss the US task forces completely.

So what is new and refreshing in this account of a well-worn topic? Primarily, the focus on the commanders and their interactions was most enlightening.  Employing expert prose that is both clear and careful, Symonds highlights the relationships between the key leaders. For example, the author makes clear Nimitz’s frustration with King, who attempted to micro-manage the Pacific War from Washington. Symonds shows how Spruance resolved differences of opinion between his Chief of Staff, Miles Browning, and the Enterprise’s CAG, Wade McClusky.  Symonds is not afraid to criticize when warranted, such as in the case of the less than stellar decision-making of Hornet’s CO, Pete Mitscher, and CAG, Stanhope Ring.  Ring’s subordinate squadrons, including John Waldron’s VT-8, abandoned their CAG on the morning of 4 June once they realized he was not leading them to the Japanese carriers. Failing to sight the enemy, Ring flew back to the Hornet alone. Had Waldron survived his suicidal attack on the Japanese carriers that morning, he certainly would have been court-martialed for insubordination. On the Japanese side, descriptions of Yamamoto, Nagumo, and the carrier captains provide valuable insights into the naval culture of command of America’s Pacific adversary. In praise and criticism, the author presents an evenhanded treatment of the performance of the decision-makers at Midway.

Symonds’ The Battle of Midway is a must-read for naval historians. The award-winning author is a brilliant storyteller who weaves culture, leadership, doctrine, strategy, technology, and biography into a powerful narrative. His focus on decision-making is reasonable, well supported, and skillfully presented.

(Return to the October 2013 Issue Table of Contents)

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