James M. D’Angelo, Victory at Midway: The Battle that Changed the Course of World War II. Jefferson NC: McFarland & Co., 2018. Pp. v-vii & 198.
Review by Galen Roger Perras, PhD
Associate Professor of History, University of Ottawa
Do we need another history of the June 1942 Battle of Midway? After all, consulting the Library of Congress catalog reveals a list of more than 200 books. No doubt, the number of journal articles addressing aspects of that key confrontation far exceeds even that lengthy roster. In this new study, James D. D’Angelo, a retired physician and founder of the International Midway Memorial Foundation, makes clear in the monograph’s title his main argument; that the American victory at Midway changed not just the Pacific campaign, but the entire course of World War II globally. I am unconvinced.
Let me begin with what I liked about this Midway account. The book’s chronology when it comes to the battle’s events is clear, detailed, and easy to follow. D’Angelo also includes some vital aspects that add real human interest to the monumental Midway story, notably an interesting and useful explanation of Admiral Bill Halsey’s odd skin ailment, plus Lt. Richard Best’s struggle with active Tuberculosis. In both cases, D’Angelo’s medical expertise brings real value to these discussions and reminds us that great events should not blind us to the fact that individual human lives, above all things, matter most in the study of History. And certainly, D’Angelo’s main argument cannot be accused of lacking in ambition. Other historical studies on various topics could emulate such ambition, even if here it fails to satisfy. Tis better to have thought than never to have thought at all.
But the book’s problems are many and injurious to its cause. First, D’Angelo uses few primary sources, mostly files about aircraft and Admiral Bill Halsey’s official military file. This choice, and it appears it was a deliberative choice as D’Angelo often critiques other studies at great length to make his argument, injuries this study. If one wishes to make a revisionist case that previous authors have failed to make the case properly, I believe that one must mine primary sources to make such a case. Sadly, D’Angelo does not do that.
Second, D’Angelo’s writing style is sadly bland, and also repetitive. The Battle of Midway naturally exemplifies drama with an outnumbered but gutsy United States Navy springing an audacious trap on a dangerously skilled foe. However, that drama, unfortunately, does not come through in this dryly written monograph
Third, given my extensive study of the Aleutian campaign, I found D’Angelo’s explanation for the origin of that quixotic campaign unsatisfying. I agree that the Imperial Japanese Navy decision to assign two small aircraft carriers to Aleutian operations was a mistake, that those carriers should have been attached to the main thrust at Midway. But I have argued, as have others, that Japan’s Aleutian attacks, using minimal resources, brought clear strategic dividends to Japan given the mistakenly outsized American counter-response to Japan’s occupation of the western Aleutians. (Canada too devoted resources to that region that could have been better used elsewhere). I might also add that the book’s index, which states mistakenly that the Aleutian Islands are mentioned on just two pages, does a poor job of directing the reader to material about the Aleutians.
Fourth, and most importantly, I do not accept D’Angelo’s argument that the clear and deserved American victory at Midway changed the course of the titanic global struggle that was World War II. Others have argued far better than I could ever do that Japan’s fortunes truly changed for the worse thanks to the grueling struggle for Guadalcanal in 1942-1943 that savaged Japan’s naval and aviation assets. Moreover, in a global struggle that saw the savage losses endured at Stalingrad or Kursk on the Eastern Front, the bloody fight in Normandy’s restrictive bocage country, or the devastating US Navy submarine campaign that annihilated Japan’s merchant fleet. To say that a naval battle so early in the Pacific campaign, even one so one-sided as Midway turned out to be, won the war for the Allied cause is simply wrong.