On October 5, 2011, Oxford University Press published Craig L. Symonds’ The Battle of Midway, one of the 18 books in the Pivotal Moments in American History series, which is edited by David Hackett Fischer, James M. McPherson, and David Greenberg. Based on exhaustive research and drawing on a cornucopia of new revelations about the naval battle that took place in the Central Pacific Ocean near the U.S-controlled atoll of Midway Island between June 4 and June 6, 1942, Symonds’ 411-page book serves as an introduction into one of the most crucial U.S. Navy victories of World War II.
Symonds, who taught history at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis for nearly 30 years and was the Ernest J. King Distinguished Visiting Professor of Maritime History at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport Rhode Island from 2017 to 2019, has written extensively about naval history and, before tackling the Battle of Midway, was a co-winner (with Civil War expert James McPherson) of the 2009 Lincoln Prize for Lincoln and His Admirals.
In The Battle of Midway, Symonds examines the six-month period between the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and the carrier clash that stopped the Imperial Japanese Navy’s string of victories against the Allies in the Pacific. With the cool, analytical gaze of a naval historian and using resources that were either previously unavailable to Western historians or ignored by them altogether, Symonds explodes the myths – promulgated by previous chroniclers of Midway, including the late Walter Lord (Incredible Victory) and Gordon W. Prange (Miracle at Midway) – about this historic event.
There are few moments in American history in which the course of events tipped so suddenly and so dramatically as at the Battle of Midway. At dawn of June 4, 1942, a rampaging Japanese navy ruled the Pacific. By sunset, their vaunted carrier force (the Kido Butai) had been sunk and their grip on the Pacific had been loosened forever.
In this absolutely riveting account of a key moment in the history of World War II, one of America’s leading naval historians, Craig L. Symonds paints an unforgettable portrait of ingenuity, courage, and sacrifice. Symonds begins with the arrival of Admiral Chester A. Nimitz at Pearl Harbor after the devastating Japanese attack, and describes the key events leading to the climactic battle, including both Coral Sea–the first battle in history against opposing carrier forces–and Jimmy Doolittle’s daring raid of Tokyo. He focuses throughout on the people involved, offering telling portraits of Admirals Nimitz, Halsey, Spruance and numerous other Americans, as well as the leading Japanese figures, including the poker-loving Admiral Yamamoto. Indeed, Symonds sheds much light on the aspects of Japanese culture–such as their single-minded devotion to combat, which led to poorly armored planes and inadequate fire-safety measures on their ships–that contributed to their defeat. The author’s account of the battle itself is masterful, weaving together the many disparate threads of attack–attacks which failed in the early going–that ultimately created a five-minute window in which three of the four Japanese carriers were mortally wounded, changing the course of the Pacific war in an eye-blink.
Symonds is the first historian to argue that the victory at Midway was not simply a matter of luck, pointing out that Nimitz had equal forces, superior intelligence, and the element of surprise. Nimitz had a strong hand, Symonds concludes, and he rightly expected to win. – Publisher’s dust jacket blurb, The Battle of Midway
The Battle of Midway begins in late December of 1941, nearly three weeks after the Japanese air raid on the naval base at Pearl Harbor and several Army and Navy bases on Oahu, which at the time was part of the Territory of Hawaii. Texas-born Admiral Chester W. Nimitz has just arrived from the mainland aboard a PB2Y Coronado patrol plane to take command of the U.S Pacific Fleet after the relief of Admiral Husband E. Kimmel on December 17.
For Nimitz, a former submariner who had distinguished himself as an engineering innovator, ship commander, and gifted administrator – before Pearl Harbor, he was a two-star rear admiral in Washington, DC, where he was the chief of the Bureau of Navigation (BuNav) in the Navy Department – his promotion to Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC) was the pinnacle of his naval career. But he took command – aboard the submarine USS Grayling – when most of the fleet’s battleships were sunk or damaged – and only three aircraft carriers were in the Pacific to challenge Japan’s mighty Combined Fleet.
Symonds describes how Nimitz – a quiet, cool-tempered, and thoughtful naval officer – took charge of a shaken, demoralized Pacific Fleet staff at a time when the Pacific War seemed to be going Japan’s way. Instead of dismissing most of Kimmel’s staff, Nimitz asked the officers, including Lt. Cmdr. Edwin T. Layton, the fleet’s intelligence officer – to stay on. As chief of BuNav, Nimitz was aware of every officer’s area of expertise and service record, and he knew that each one felt a need to redeem himself after the Japanese attack on their base and their ships.
The Battle of Midway also delves into such topics as the development of the U.S. Navy’s naval aviation force – known as the “Brown-Shoes Navy” for the distinctive footwear worn by pilots and senior officers who had qualified to wear either the coveted Gold Wings of Naval Aviators or the Silver Wings worn by Aviation Observers – and the tension between the traditional surface warfare officers – the Black Shoes Navy – and the cocky “flyboys.”
There are also contrasting chapters about the Imperial Japanese Navy’s officer corps and the various political affiliations within the ranks – especially among the admirals – regarding which stance Japan should take during the runup to the Pacific War. There were two main factions: the “Fleet” officers thought Japan should assert itself as the predominant power in the Pacific even if it meant going to war with Great Britain and the United States. “Treaty” officers also believed that Japan should be second to none in East Asia, while at the same time they believed that a U.S.-Japan war would be a disaster that would seriously imperil the Japanese Empire.
Symonds notes the irony that one of the chief naval officers in the Treaty faction, Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, was the Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1941 and was tasked with preparing it for war with America by the nation’s militaristic leadership. Yamamoto had served as Tokyo’s naval attaché in Washington twice during the interwar years, had studied English at Harvard, and was keenly aware of America’s rich natural resources and industrial capacity. He warned Japan’s last civilian prime minister, Konoye Fuminaro, that he could “run wild” in the Pacific against the U.S. for the first six to twelve months of the conflict, but that he could not offer any guarantees of a Japanese victory after that.
Like all chroniclers of the Midway battle, Symonds explains that while Yamamoto opposed a war with the Americans, he devoted all his energies into planning Japan’s naval war in the Pacific once Tokyo decided to go on the offensive in October of 1941. The Pearl Harbor raid was conceptualized and forcefully “sold” to a somewhat passive and reluctant Naval General Staff by Yamamoto. So was Operation MI, the complex and ambitious plan to invade Midway in the late spring of 1942.
The Battle of Midway explains how the two navies’ strategies and balance of forces acted as shapers of the events that took place between June 4 and June 6, 1942. Several chapters examine the Japanese offensives in the early stages of the war, particularly those that featured the use of the First Striking Force, known in Japanese as Kido Butai, as well as Admiral Nimitz’s methodological use of the sparse resources he had at his disposal to protect Hawaii and the West Coast while at the same time taking the war to the Japanese.
Here’s the chapter list for The Battle of Midway:
Table of Contents
2. The Kido Butai
3. The Brownshoe Navy
4. American Counterstrike
5. Seeking the Decisive Battle
6. Pete and Jimmy
7. The Codebreakers
8. The Coral Sea
9. The Eve of Battle
10. Opening Act
11. Nagumo’s Dilemma (4:00 A.M. to 8:30 A.M.)
12. The Flight to Nowhere (7:00 A.M. to 11:20 A.M.)
13. Attack of the Torpedo Squadrons (8:30 A.M. to 10:20 A.M.)
14. The Tipping Point (7:00 A.M. to 10:30 A.M.)
15. The Japanese Counterstrike (11:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M.)
I have been fascinated by the Battle of Midway since I read about it in a book for young readers (I can’t remember the title or the author, but I remember checking it out from the library at Tropical Elementary in the mid-1970s.) For me, Midway is a story full of dramatic twists and turns – the sorties of Yamamoto’s various forces in late May 1942 across vast expanses of the Pacific….the valiant efforts to repair the battle-damaged carrier USS Yorktown to have her ready in time to participate in the battle….the hard work of the Pacific Fleet’s efforts to break the Japanese JN-25 code…the daring but doomed attack of the USS Hornet’s Torpedo 8 squadron against the Kido Butai which saw all 15 planes – slow TBD Devastators – shot down, with only one survivor left to tell the tale…and, of course, the history-changing attack on the carriers Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu that left three of the Kido Butai’s four carriers burning and out of action, leaving only one, Hiryu, to strike back at the American carries. (The Hiryu would, indeed, extract a modicum of revenge when her planes attacked and damaged the USS Yorktown – twice. But by nightfall of June 4, 1942, she too would be fatally hit by U.S. dive bombers.)
As a long-time World War II (and Midway) buff, I’ve owned and read several books that form the “Midway canon,” including Walter Lord’s Incredible Victory (1967) and Gordon W. Prange’s Miracle at Midway (1982). These two books are the ones that most readers my age (55 and up) are most familiar with; they are also the centerpiece of the near-mythical narrative that has shaped the public’s perceptions about the battle.
Now, Incredible Victory and Miracle at Midway are, for the most part, meticulously researched and well-written. They were based on a mix of interviews with veterans from both sides, ship’s logs and other historical records, contemporary media accounts, unit histories, plus diaries and memoirs by some of the main surviving senior officers.
The problem with Lord and Prange’s now-classic works is that they tend to focus on the American participants’ side of the story or, in the case of Captain Fuchida Mitsuo, a highly unreliable source whose embellishments of Kido Butai’s experience at Midway helped create certain myths, including the story that the Japanese had their strike planes spotted on the flight decks of all four carriers and were “only five minutes away” from launching a counterstrike at the Americans when the “Helldivers” appeared over the Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu and dropped their bombs amidst the massed planes on the flight decks of those carriers.
As dramatic and compelling as this version of the Midway narrative is, it simply is not true. More recent research – especially by Anthony Tully and Jonathan Parshall – into the Japanese Navy’s side of the story shows that many Western authors – daunted perhaps by the language barrier they needed to overcome to use primary sources in Japan – simply took Fuchida’s story (which he wrote, with Okumiya Masatake, in 1951’s Midway: The Battle that Doomed Japan) at face value. Beguiled by the visuals of the “plucky Americans who snatch victory from the jaws of defeat” and mental images of American bombs landing amidst Japanese planes – fully armed, fueled, and with engines spooling up – on the carriers’ wooden flight decks, Lord, Prange, and other late 20th Century authors in the West perpetuated Fuchida’s distortions.
Symonds, who wrote The Battle of Midway after Tully and Parshall published Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway, argues that Midway was not the David-versus-Goliath story that most Americans have consumed and internalized since 1942. Yamamoto’s scheme – like most of Japan’s World War II naval offensives – was too elaborate for its own good. Operation MI violated several vital principles of war, including Concentration of Forces and Simplicity of Plan, by dividing the Japanese fleet into several task forces that were too far apart for mutual support or to assert local superiority in ships and aircraft.
Symonds isn’t disrespectful of authors such as Lord and Prange, but he does not agree with their notions that the American victory at Midway was “incredible” or “miraculous.” Instead, he argues that a series of decisions made by smart, experienced, and, for the most part, courageous men on both sides of the conflict created the results – both positive and negative – at the Battle of Midway.
The Battle of Midway is informative, factual, and carefully mixes personality profiles of the American and Japanese commanders, explanations on 1942-era carrier warfare and naval doctrine, and the cultural differences between the U.S. Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy. This last factor – culture – plays a major role in the undoing of Japan’s war in the Pacific, as it explains why damage control in the latter service took a back seat to offensive-related concepts in weapons systems design, ship operations, and operational planning.
And though Symonds’ writing has a less dramatic tone than “popular historian” Lord or Stephen E. Ambrose, The Battle of Midway is never overly dry or “academic” in style or narrative voice. Sure, I would have liked more of a “you are there” feel to the book – this was one of Walter Lord’s main strengths as a chronicler of history – but at least the narrative is aimed at a general audience and not just an Annapolis naval cadet or serving Navy officer. If you haven’t read any books about this pivotal moment in world history, or if you have read Incredible Victory and Miracle at Midway and think that those two books are the Alpha and the Omega about Operation MI, I strongly urge you to get The Battle of Midway. Symonds knows his stuff, and it shows in the pages of this magnificent book.
 In Japan, individuals’ names are rendered by the family name first, in contrast to Western naming customs. Symonds uses Japanese attribution style. In most Western books, the Japanese Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleet is referred to as “Isoroku Yamamoto.”