Ever since I read a young reader’s edition of a book about the Battle of Midway (June 4-7, 1942) when I was a fourth grade student at Tropical Elementary School in the early 1970s, I have been fascinated by this pivotal chapter in world history. It is a story that is full of drama and an almost-cinematic story arc full of exciting plot twists, as well as a satisfying – from the American point of view, at least – reversal-of-fortune tale in which a once-battered U.S. Pacific Fleet avenges the attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) by sinking four of the six Japanese aircraft carriers (Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu) which participated in that infamous surprise attack in one of the most carefully laid naval ambushes in history.
The Battle of Midway was a major naval battle in the Pacific Theater of World War II that took place on 4–7 June 1942, six months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and one month after the Battle of the Coral Sea. The U.S. Navy under Admirals Chester W. Nimitz, Frank J. Fletcher, and Raymond A. Spruance defeated an attacking fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy under Admirals Isoroku Yamamoto, Chūichi Nagumo, and Nobutake Kondō near Midway Atoll, inflicting devastating damage on the Japanese fleet that rendered their aircraft carriers irreparable. Military historian John Keegan called it “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare”, while naval historian Craig Symonds called it “one of the most consequential naval engagements in world history, ranking alongside Salamis, Trafalgar, and Tsushima Strait, as both tactically decisive and strategically influential”.
I don’t remember the name of that first book about Midway, nor can I recall its author – I read that particular book only once, and in 1974 – but there was something so compelling about Midway that it made me want to know more about it. As a result, I’ve bought four non-fiction books about that engagement – which the Japanese code-named Operation MI – since 1976:
- Incredible Victory, by Walter Lord (1967)
- Miracle at Midway, by Gordon W. Prange, Donald Goldstein, and Katherine Dillon (1982)
- Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway, by Anthony Tully and Jonathan Parshall (2005)
- The Battle of Midway, by Craig L. Symonds (2011)
I still have the first two titles in paperback; I have two different editions of Lord’s 1967 book Incredible Victory, and one of Prange (and his successors Goldstein and Dillon); they’re highly readable still and I might review them at some point in the future. However, as you’ll see later, they have serious issues, and readers who want to know a more accurate version of Midway should check out the more recent books instead.
Of the more contemporary Midway books, Tully and Parshall’s Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway is perhaps the first title you might want to pick up and read.
I’ll give you two reasons.
First, Tully and Parshall set out to closely examine how and why the Imperial Japanese Navy, which had had a remarkable string of victories over the Allies in the first five months of the Pacific War, came to grief at the Battle of Midway. In order to do that, they delved deeply not just into the purely strategic and tactical aspects of Operation MI, but also into the culture of both the Japanese fleet – which placed a strong emphasis on offensive capabilities and methodology but sacrificed such things as survival of personnel and damage control aboard the Emperor’s fleet – and the overall ethos of Japanese society.
Per the publisher’s dust jacket blurb:
Many consider the Battle of Midway to have turned the tide of the Pacific War. It is without question one of the most famous battles in history. Now, for the first time since Gordon W. Prange’s bestselling Miracle at Midway, Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully offer a new interpretation of this great naval engagement. Unlike previous accounts, Shattered Sword makes extensive use of Japanese primary sources. It also corrects the many errors of Mitsuo Fuchida’s Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan, an uncritical reliance upon which has tainted every previous Western account. It thus forces a major, potentially controversial reevaluation of the great battle.
Parshall and Tully examine the battle in detail and effortlessly place it within the context of the Imperial Navy’s doctrine and technology. With a foreword by leading World War II naval historian John Lundstrom, Shattered Sword is an indispensable part of any military buff’s library.
Second, as the Potomac Books blurb points out in its first paragraph, it is a corrective narrative to that in both Lord’s Incredible Victory and Prange, Goldstein, and Dillon’s Miracle at Midway. Those older books are adequate when it comes to telling the American participants’ story, but because they relied so much on Mitsuo Fuchida’s 1953 book Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan, they are also woefully inaccurate when they cover the Japanese side of the Midway story and popularized some widely-held myths about the battle that were perpetuated by other Western authors and engraved in the public imagination by 1976’s Midway and its longer version for NBC.
Fuchida was the Japanese flier who led the attack against Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and was present aboard the Akagi during the Kido Butai’s six-month-long reign of terror in the Pacific. He did not fly at the Battle of Midway on June 4, 1942 because he had had an appendectomy aboard Akagi, Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s flagship, but he was on the bridge of the carrier and was able to witness many of the events that led to the Japanese fleet’s defeat in the Battle of Midway.
However, as Shattered Sword reveals, his account of Operation MI per Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan is laced with falsehoods and distortions of reality that Fuchida created to soothe the Japanese readers’ bruised national ego and – this is an important cultural factor – find a palatable reason for the defeated Japanese Navy to save face. He did this by creating the Big Lie of Midway, i.e., that Nagumo’s four carriers were only five minutes away from launching a devastating attack on the American fleet when the dive bombers from the American carriers arrived over Kido Butai at 10:20 AM on June 4 and planted bombs on Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu, leaving only one carrier, Hiryu, in a position to avenge her stricken Mobile Fleet mates.
The image that many American readers – and moviegoers – have of The Fateful Five Minutes is a dramatic one: four Japanese carriers, their flight decks teeming with Zero fghters, Val dive bombers, and Kate torpedo bombers preparing to launch are caught flatfooted by American SBD-3 Dauntless dive bombers, and three of them are hit and set ablaze in less than 10 minutes.
That’s what Fuchida wanted his Japanese readers to believe back in 1953. And because Western authors like Lord and Prange (the latter of whom befriended Fuchida while researching his books about Pearl Harbor and Midway) decided that Fuchida’s account was reliable and were unable – or unwilling – to use primary sources in Japan due to the language barrier, that’s the version of Midway that most 20th Century readers in the English-speaking nations absorbed into their collective memories.
Shattered Sword goes out of its way to shatter – pun intended – this and other myths about Midway, and tells the reader that in Japan, many historians call out Fuchida as a clever, personable, but dishonest narrator. Not only that, by describing in detail how the Japanese carriers were designed and how they were operated, Tully and Parshall show the readers why Fuchida’s version of the events is riddled with inaccuracies and outright fabrications.
Uniquely in an American book about Midway, Shattered Sword tells the story of the doomed Kido Butai and how – and why – all four of its carriers were bombed and eventually went to their watery graves.
There is, of course, some narrative about the Pacific Fleet and its key personnel at Midway and how they performed – for good or ill. But for the most part, the reason the book is titled Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway is because, unlike the American-centric Incredible Victory and Miracle at Midway, its “untold story” is about the vanquished at Midway, rather than the victors.
Besides, if you want to see Midway from the American perspective, there is this book.
The Battle of Midway
Written by naval historian Craig L. Symonds and published by Oxford University Press in 2011, The Battle of Midway is a fair and balanced account of the battle that ended Japan’s offensive phase in the Pacific and forced her to assume a defensive posture in the vast expanses she had conquered in her six-month blitz against her Western enemies.
Because Symonds’ book was written after Tully and Parshall’s definitive look at the Japanese side of Midway, some of Shattered Sword’s conclusions and corrections of the historical record are – by necessity – referred to here, since the earlier book is now the definitive history of Midway as experienced by the Japanese Navy.
Symonds’ challenge in The Battle of Midway is to meld the new and more accurate accounts of how Admirals Yamamoto, Nagumo, Yamaguchi, and Kondo thought and acted before, during, and after the battle with a more complete narrative about the U.S. Pacific Fleet and how its officers and enlisted personnel recovered from the Pearl Harbor attack, learned – the hard way – how to fight against Japan’s Combined Fleet, and – aided by the persistent and professional efforts of the codebreakers based at Pearl Harbor – were able to discern Yamamoto’s plans for Operation MI and lay a deadly ambush for the unsuspecting Kido Butai.
Per the book’s dust jacket blurb:
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.
Of the two books, Shattered Sword is the book I like the most because it has the most detail, not just in the highly technical aspects that delve into Japanese carrier design vis a vis that of their U.S. and British counterparts, doctrine, and operations, but also the personal experiences of the participants. Of course, Shattered Sword is the longer of the two works – the hardcover edition has 640 pages, while The Battle of Midway is more concise at 464 – so Tully and Parshall have more space in which to tell their tale with more concrete and intimate details than Symonds.
In a way, The Battle of Midway should be seen as a supplement to Shattered Sword that adds more of the U.S. side of the pivotal battle that marked the high-tide mark of Japan’s expansion and set the stage for the long, bloody campaign for Guadalcanal, a six-month battle of attrition that is considered by many historians to be the true turning point of the Pacific War. After that campaign, which gutted the Japanese naval air arm and reduced the Combined Fleet’s surface force, Japan was doomed. From February of 1943 (when the last Japanese troops were evacuated from Guadalcanal) until August of 1945, the initiative passed from the hands of the Japanese Empire to those of the Americans and their British, Australian, and New Zealander allies in the Pacific, and Japan was forced to be on the defensive for the rest of the Pacific War.
As both books point out, even if the Japanese had won at Midway, the most Japan could have achieved would have been to delay the inevitable U.S.-led Allied countermarch in the Asia-Pacific War. Japan’s capacity to replace lost warships, aircraft, and – above all else, well-trained replacement pilots – was negligible when compared to America’s. The Kido Butai would, by 1943, be vastly outnumbered by the number of new and more modern Essex and Independence class carriers, and it is unlikely that the Japanese Army, which had 90% of its divisions in China, would have been willing or able to invade Hawaii. Just holding Midway and basing planes there to harass Pearl Harbor would have proved impossible to achieve, considering the vast distances between the small atoll in the Central Pacific and the Home Islands, as well as the fact that Hawaii-based subs and bombers could easily isolate Midway by cutting its slender supply line to the rest of Tokyo’s Empire.
Symonds, like Tully and Parshall, believes that the U.S. Navy wasn’t outnumbered at Midway because the island base could – and was – used as a fourth if immobile and unsinkable carrier to supplement the three carriers of Task Forces 16 and 17 (Yorktown, Enterprise, and Hornet, thus giving Nimitz rough parity with Nagumo’s four carriers of Kido Butai. Furthermore, Symonds argues that the codebreakers successes in “cracking” Japan’s JN-25b code and the fact that the Japanese thought the Americans would react according to Admiral Yamamoto’s scheme and couldn’t imagine a proactive response gave Nimitz the advantage a commander needs the most in war: the element of surprise.
Symonds is a good writer – I like The Battle of Midway more than I like his later book World War II at Sea: A Global History, a work that would have been good had it not been plagued by annoying factual errors that made me question the book’s accuracy – and he did a good job at covering the first six months of the Pacific War and the Battle of Midway.
I do wish, though, that The Battle of Midway had more of a “you are there” sensibility that made Walter Lord and Gordon Prange’s Midway books so readable by the general public. Maybe I was spoiled by those authors, as well as by Shattered Sword, but when I finished reading The Battle of Midway, I felt like saying, “Wait. Is that it? I wanted more of the Midway story!”
 Unfortunately, as cinematic as this 1942 battle is, neither version of Midway (Jack Smight’s 1976 one or Roland Emmerich’s 2019 retelling) does it justice. The newer film is more accurate in many respects, but it tries too hard to cram six months of the Pacific War into 138 minutes’ worth of running time…and fails.
 I am also fascinated by other famous WWII battles, such as the Pearl Harbor attack, the Battle of Britain, Operation Market-Garden, and the Battle of the Bulge, so I tend to seek different books about them.