Book Review: The Battle of Midway, by Craig L. Symonds

By HistoryNet Staff
3/1/2012 • Military History Book Reviews

The Battle of Midway, by Craig L. Symonds, Oxford University Press, New York, 2011, $27.95

The June 1942 Battle of Midway was one of the most consequential engagements of World War II. In this new history author Symonds describes it as “the most complete naval victory since…Trafalgar.” The comparison is particularly apt, for, like Horatio Nelson’s victory, Midway had far-reaching effects on the course of the conflict during which it occurred. As Symonds explains, on the morning of June 4 the Japanese navy claimed the initiative and was in a position to choose from at least a half-dozen strategic options. On the other hand, the U.S. Navy—still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor—was strictly on the defensive and able to do little beyond desperately trying to defend its crippled Hawaiian base and its vulnerable outpost on Midway Island. By the end of that first day of battle their fortunes had completely reversed. The Japanese had lost four of their largest and best aircraft carriers, along with their irreplaceable veteran aircrews, and the U.S. Navy had gained a strategic initiative it would never again relinquish. From that day on the imperial navy had no options other than trying to maintain a perimeter defense of Japan’s recent Pacific gains.

A number of authors have since suggested that luck, or even divine will, had a great deal to do with the battle’s outcome. Symonds, however, insists the outcome was “primarily the result of decisions made and actions taken by individuals.” Thus he concentrates primarily on people rather than on technology. Symonds also explains how, in many ways, Midway was decided long before the war even began. The political and philosophical attitude of the Japanese officers in general, and specifically those in the navy and naval air service, had as much to do with the battle’s outcome as any tactical decisions made in the midst of combat.

Japan’s single most important tactical asset during the first six months of the Pacific War, Symonds writes, was its Kido Butai (“Mobile Force”)—six large, fast aircraft carriers grouped together in a single hard-hitting task force. Although the Americans and British also possessed carriers at that time, they usually operated them in tactical units built around a single carrier and its escorts. The Kido Butai was the most powerful naval force in the world. With it the Japanese were able to cripple the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, ravage the Royal Navy in the Indian Ocean and even bomb Darwin, Australia.

Unfortunately for Japan, however, its navy went to war with a built-in disadvantage, one the Japanese leadership was philosophically conditioned to ignore. They were aware they could not maintain their mighty naval force indefinitely, as their industrial base could not outproduce that of the United States, and that their extremely strict training program could not turn out naval aviators at the rate the U.S. Navy could. Thus their entire program for victory was based upon the expectation that quality could win out over quantity and that a succession of early, quick victories would persuade a demoralized United States to capitulate. The Japanese hoped to cap that string of successes by luring the battered remnants of the Navy into a trap off Midway, where their carrier-based planes would destroy the last vestiges of the Pacific Fleet. It was at Midway, however, that whatever hope the Japanese had of victory died, as their own carriers ended up in a trap.

Symonds recounts events at Midway not merely from the planning stages but from the prewar buildup of the Japanese war machine. His portrait of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese naval commander in chief, is of a poker player who at Midway played one hand too many. Symonds also describes the Pacific Fleet’s rapid recovery from the Pearl Harbor attack under the leadership of two remarkable admirals: Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J. King and Commander in Chief, United States Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.

The Battle of Midway is told from the perspective of both sides, from those in the highest echelons of power to those on the sharp end, and the author doesn’t leave out the contributions of those in obscure rooms who deciphered enemy codes, gathered intelligence and interpreted information. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the Battle of Midway may not have been the end, nor even the beginning of the end, but it was the end of the beginning.

—Robert Guttman

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