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Midway Inquest: Why the Japanese Lost the Battle of Midway

By Dallas Woodbury Isom. 432 pp. Indiana University Press, 2007. $29.95.

For six decades, American historians of the pivotal Battle of Midway replicated a narrative of triumph against daunting odds: witness Walter Lord’s Incredible Victory or Gordon Prange’s Miracle at Midway. The dramatic zenith of their tale is the abrupt reversal of fortunes as American dive-bombers fortuitously pounce on Imperial Navy carriers just five minutes before the Japanese can launch a massive attack that would have destroyed the American carrier force. The problem is that this tale, no matter who the teller, relied on the same three sources for the Japanese side of the story: the official report of Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo, commander of the main Japanese carrier force; postwar interviews with surviving Japanese officers; and a very influential book coauthored by Mitsuo Fuchida, a senior Japanese aviator who led the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Then in 2005, the brilliant Shattered Sword, by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully, demolished the credibility of these sources—particularly Fuchida. This fundamentally altered the history of the battle in myriad ways, not least by showing that the odds were much more evenly balanced than the usual tale allowed. In addition, Parshall and Tully argued powerfully that the American victory was rooted in Japanese actions that could only be understood in the context of Japanese doctrine, from the highest strategic concepts down to the nuts and bolts of carrier operations.

Dallas Woodbury Isom sets out to address what he identifies as the key and heretofore unanswered question of the battle. After learning of the presence of an American carrier, why was Admiral Nagumo unable to get off a timely strike before his own carrier force sustained catastrophic damage? Isom not only offers an answer but also challenges Shattered Sword on the significance of Japanese doctrine over distinct situational choices by Nagumo.

Isom outlines the scenario for Nagumo’s crucial decisions as follows: On the morning of June 4, 1942, Nagumo brought his four main Japanese attack carriers (Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu) to a position north of Midway and launched 108 planes to destroy American air power on Midway to clear the way for a Japanese landing. But in keeping with standing orders from Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Combined Fleet, Nagumo retained a second strike of planes onboard his carriers, armed with antiship weapons, notably torpedoes, in case American carriers unexpectedly turned up.

When the leader of the Midway attack group reported the need for a further strike, Nagumo at 7:15 a.m. ordered the second strike planes rearmed with weaponry suitable for land attack. Then, at 7:28, Nagumo received startling news of the presence of ten American ships from a belatedly launched search plane. At 7:45 a.m., he ordered the rearming operation suspended, and at 7:47 ordered the plane to specify the types of ships located. At 8:09, the plane radioed that the ships were cruisers and destroyers, but at about 8:30 announced that an American carrier appeared to be present. Over the nearly two hours that followed, Nagumo’s carriers proved bafflingly unable to rearm and launch the second attack group before American dive-bombers inflicted fatal damage on Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu. Hiryu survived to knock out Yorktown before American divebombers destroyed it.

With fresh eyes, Isom has pored over the records, including new Japanese sources, and extensively questioned Japanese veterans— not only the flyboys, but (critically) the unglamorous maintenance crews. The key payoff is Isom’s insight into why switching the payloads of the Japanese Kates from torpedoes to bombs and then back again took much longer than previously thought.

There were several reasons. First, as Shattered Sword also points out, moving the torpedoes or the heavy bombs the Kates carried required special carts. These carts had two roles: to bear the nearly one ton weapons from the hoists bringing them up from magazines, and as lifts that allowed the torpedoes or bombs to be coupled or uncoupled from the weapons stations on the planes. The Japanese normally carried only enough carts for one-third of the carrier’s Kates.

Second, again as in Shattered Sword, Isom notes that Kates could be fitted with different racks secured to the belly of the plane by bolts, one for torpedoes and one for bombs. Changing the racks was the most time-consuming part of the laborious procedure. Isom, however, shows this process consumed even more time than anyone has recognized.

Crucially, he points out another vital but usually underappreciated factor: torpedoes or bombs weighing almost a ton each could not be safely or successfully maneuvered while Japanese carriers were executing radical, list-producing turns at high speed to evade American air attacks. Thus Isom convincingly demonstrates that the American attacks—first by Midway-based bomb and torpedo planes, then by carrier-based torpedo planes, both of which failed at terrible cost—actually played a vital role in the victory because they strung out the rearming operation. This alone makes his book significant.

Then he explains that senior Japanese leaders, like Yamamoto and Nagumo, knew that Japan possessed only about four hundred firstline carrier pilots—about two-thirds of the number usually cited by historians. To achieve Japan’s strategic goals, this cadre of irreplaceable pilots had to destroy the U.S. Pacific fleet, particularly its carrier force, in the war’s first year. For commanders, that meant every decision to launch a strike required them to balance likely results against inevitable costs. Here Midway Inquest proves congruent with the “doctrine” themes of Shattered Sword: the Japanese knew that a coordinated attack of dive and torpedo planes would inflict far greater damage and suffer significantly smaller losses than separate attacks.

And so on the morning of June 4, Nagumo faced a dilemma. Rearming his dive-bombers was a much simpler and quicker operation than rearming torpedo planes. When Nagumo first got word of the American carrier, he could have dispatched the dive-bombers of the second strike and sent the torpedo planes later. But that violated doctrine and experience. Then the series of American attacks forced him to launch fighters that had been earmarked to escort the second strike to defend the carriers instead. That almost certainly guaranteed severe losses for unescorted dive or torpedo planes. This, Isom concludes, is the deeper rationale for Nagumo’s fateful decision to wait until he could dispatch a coordinated strike.

On one significant point, however, Isom reaches too far: an overly elaborate scenario that hinges on exactly when Nagumo received the news from the search plane that American vessels were present. Historians have long noted the discrepancy between Nagumo’s narrative report, which sets the event at 8:00 a.m., and his chronology attached to it that indicates he was aware of the report no later than 7:45, and perhaps as early as about 7:30. Isom breaks ranks with other historians who followed the chronology, arguing that U.S. radio intelligence intercepts confirming receipt by at least 7:45 a.m. were somehow doctored after the event. This is extremely implausible; in fact, the American records are far more likely to be accurate than the Japanese.

But there is much to praise here. Isom’s fascinating and provocative arguments make his book an invaluable contribution to the ongoing revisionist debate about one of the Pacific’s crucial battles.


Originally published in the November 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here