The victory at Midway is attributable to several decisions made in the U.S. Navy high command.
By Michael D. Hull
Midway, the most decisive naval battle since Trafalgar, was the turning point in the Pacific theater. It changed America’s strategy from defensive to offensive.
The Battle of Midway, fought June 46, 1942, was “a glorious page in our history,” as Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Pacific Fleet commander, observed. It was a close contest, and the Japanese could have won had it not been for several significant mistakes. The U.S. Navy was victorious at Midway because the Japanese code had been broken before the battle began; the advantage of surprise had shifted from the Japanese to the Americans. Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers from the carriers Enterprise and Yorktown arrived over the enemy carriers while Japanese attention was still on the U.S. torpedo plane attacks.
If Midway was a victory won by possessing the best intelligence, the men who toiled underground at Station Hypo at Pearl Harbor, struggling to break the enemy JN-25 naval code, deserved the most laurels–Commander Joseph J. Rochefort, Lt. Cmdr. Thomas H. Dyer, Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Finnegan, “Ham” Wright and others working under the fleet intelligence officer, Commander Edwin T. Layton.
In A Glorious Page in Our History (Pictorial Histories, Missoula, Mont., 1996, $12.95), Robert J. Cressman and Steve Ewing point out that the element of surprise would have counted for nothing had the SBD pilots been unable to place a sufficient number of bombs on four of the Japanese flattops. But before that confrontation began, the foundation for success at Midway and in subsequent Pacific battles had already been well established by the Pacific Fleet commander.
As for Nimitz, the man at the top command level, the importance of his contribution cannot be overestimated. A quiet, gentle Texan who could be tough when the situation demanded it, Admiral Nimitz fully understood the potential of naval air power, although he was not an aviator himself. Nimitz ensured victory through three major decisions: accepting the recommendation of Vice Adm. William F. Halsey, bedridden with a skin infection, to put Rear Adm. Raymond A. Spruance in command of Task Force 16; accepting Layton’s and Rochefort’s intelligence estimates; and taking the calculated risk of meeting the oncoming Japanese with the three carriers available in Hawaiian waters. Rather than assume a strict defensive posture, Nimitz had the foresight to take the advice of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest: “Get there first with the most men.” Although Nimitz did not have the most men, he entered the Battle of Midway with the element of surprise, backed by three carriers and patrol planes and bombers that were operating from tiny Midway itself. He enjoined admirals Frank Jack Fletcher and Spruance to “inflict maximum damage…by employing strong attrition tactics.” Cressman and Ewing conclude that, at the time, Nimitz was thinking more of preventing defeat than scoring victory.
The authors have high praise for Fletcher and Spruance. Fletcher, whose conduct had been questioned after the Battles of Coral Sea and Eastern Solomons, shifted his flag to a heavy cruiser after Yorktown was crippled. He transferred tactical command to Spruance, when he found himself out of position to direct the battle. Spruance, a battleship sailor, rose to the occasion brilliantly and demonstrated cool, decisive leadership.
Cressman and Ewing, aided by Barrett Tillman, Mark Horan, Clark Reynolds and Stan Cohen, have produced a stunningly comprehensive canvas of the battle, its protagonists and the tactics and weapons involved. The photographs, from both public and private sources, are superb. A Glorious Page in Our History is fully detailed and impeccably documented, and nothing is lacking.