Book Review – The Battle of Midway: The Naval Institute Guide to the US Navy’s Greatest Victory

Thomas C. Hone (ed.), The Battle of Midway: The Naval Institute Guide to the US Navy’s Greatest Victory. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013. Illustrations. Chronology. Appendices. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Illustrations. Hbk. 360 pp.

Reviewed by Alexander Clarke, PhD Candidate, King’s College London

Midway

They say never judge a book by its cover; however, we all do to some extent. The cover of this book does not disappoint. A beautiful descriptive painting wraps around the work in style. Further reading of the book suggests that the cover turns out to undersell its contents. This is a compilation text, with each chapter providing different authors’ perspectives on a part of the preparation for, its events, or the effect of the Battle of Midway. It provides perspectives from both sides of the battle as well as academic opinion. Sourced from Proceedings and Naval History, the publications of the US Naval Institute, the chapters replicate the high standards extent in these publications. Compiled under themes, chapters appear under section headings that act as a quick reference guide for readers. Despite this approach the book’s flow does not feel ‘bitty’, which many compilation books do, and this speaks to the hard work that Hone has put into arranging and editing the contributions.

Good Japanese sources from the Pacific War, let alone the Battle of Midway, are rare. Those written in English are rarer still. This work has three chapters, Four, Five and 19 drawn from Mitsuo Fuchida and Masatake Okumiya’s 1955 book, Midway: The Battle that Doomed Japan, the Japanese Navy’s Story.[1] This was an English translation by the Naval Institute Press of their 1951 Japanese work. Fuchida was a Japanese naval flyer of renown and the commander of the attack at Pearl Harbour and during Midway; he was aboard Akagi. Okumiya was another Japanese naval flyer and whilst only a Commander during the Second World War, he later joined the Japanese Air Self Defence Forces and rose to the rank of Lieutenant General. Between the two of them, these authors remain the key repository of knowledge concerning the Japanese side of many of the naval events of the Second World War. Now shown to be unrealistic, their contribution shed light for the reader on Japanese motivations, thinking and beliefs, especially about their ability to conduct a limited war.

Identified in the contribution of John Thach, ‘Flying into a Beehive’, a US Navy Lieutenant Commander at the time of Midway, some of the most revolutionary ideas in the world are the simplest. Thach, in conjunction with Ensign Edward ‘Butch ‘O’Hare, developed the so-called Thach Weave in response to a September 1941 Fleet Air Tactical Unit Interpretation Report on the manoeuvrability of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero (pp. 125-126). First used at Midway, the Thach Weave allowed the less manoeuvrable Grumman F4F Wildcats to turn the strength of the Japanese fighters (speed and manoeuvrability; acquired at expense of structure & weaponry) against them by forcing them fly into the gun sights of the American fighter pilots. Thach, who eventually rose to the rank of Admiral, also came up with Big Blue Blanket that would protect fast carrier task groups from kamikaze attack in 1945. The Thach Weave remains a common fighter tactic to this day. This chapter and its words are valuable and reinforced by views presented in Appendix B. Appendix B is the then Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance’s letter, from 8 June 1942, to Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher.

If it had not been of what you did and took with the Yorktown, I am firmly convinced that we would have been badly defeated and the Japs would be holding Midway today. (p. 341)

Thach’s squadron served aboard the USS Yorktown at Midway. The whole letter reads not of someone writing words to appease or commiserate but a frank expression of opinion from one officer to another; a personal account of the battle from the perspective of one of its pivotal personalities.

These words though are not Spruance’s only contribution to this work; he also wrote Chapter 43. Taken from the foreword Spruance wrote to Fuchida and Okumiya’s book, this contribution contains honest words and represents a desire to give a frank and fair overview of the battle. Spruance does not claim the credit when it was luck that dictated timing. However, Spruance does explain his thought process and situational analysis of the situation at the time. By doing this, Spruance provides a context through which all the other opinions should be considered. This is this books real unique selling point, it combines relevant personal accounts of people who were there from both sides alongside the academics and modern officers that provides the reader with the widest possible understanding of the battle.

The academics whose writings are in it are leading researchers; Lundstrom, who own book The First Team, is a seminal work on wartime US naval aviation (and a fine accompaniment to this book), provides eight chapters.[2] Drawn from his work Sunburst, Mark Peattie provides four chapters.[3] However, one surprising omission is any contribution from Clark Reynolds, who work, The Fast Carriers, is another seminal work on wartime US naval aviation. Overall, this does not take away anything from the high quality of the contributions extent in this collection; rather it was just a surprise that such a renowned author was absent. Though to be fair Peter Smith, one of the most prolific authors on naval aviation only makes it in due to a review of his book Midway: Dauntless Victory.

Produced by current officers of the US Navy, some of this work’s most reflective analysis includes Commander Brian Fort’s final chapter of this work; ‘Midway is our Trafalgar’. As its title suggests, it places Midway into its historic context concerning the US Navy’s history. It relates what the US Navy has done to what it is doing as well as future operations. Whilst doing this, Fort make makes some illuminating recommendations that are worth repeating (p. 332), as in conclusion, they serve to exemplify very extensive breadth of content in this work that show the enduring and didactic relevance of Midway to the modern US Navy. Fort recommends three lessons, firstly, ‘Don’t waste time re-inventing the wheel’ and incorporate naval heritage into basic training at all levels. Second, ‘Send Historians to sea’; integration helps to increases understanding between all branches of the navy. Finally, open up US Navy to the public in order to educate them about the services enduring relevance.

Citation: Alexander Clarke, ‘Review of Thomas C. Hone (ed.), The Battle of Midway: The Naval Institute Guide to the US Navy’s Greatest Victory’, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 23 November 2013

You can download a copy of the review here.


[1] Mitsuo Fuchida and Masatake Okumiya, Midway: The Battle that Doomed Japan, the Japanese Navy’s Story (Annapolis, MD: Nava; Institute Press, 1955).

[2] John B. Lundstrom, The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984).

[3] Mark R. Peattie, Sunburst: The Rise of Japanese Naval Air Power, 1909-1941 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2003).

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6 responses to “Book Review – The Battle of Midway: The Naval Institute Guide to the US Navy’s Greatest Victory

  1. While likely an enjoyable read, the fact that it relies so heavily on Fuchida and Okumiya’s account is disturbing. Discredited in Japan for years due to incredible bias and huge factual errors, it puts the entire text into doubt. This indicates that the book is in fact a rehash of what so many others have done so well. A better account would be Shattered Sword which not only points out the errors of Fuchida but corrects significant issues in the time line.

    • Dr Dienesch

      I would like to reply to your points as it’s obvious something has been lost in reading of the review. The book does not rely heavily at all on Fuchida and Okumiya – as I said it makes use of them for 3 chapters, out of 53 (this number not including appendices, Help for Readers – a chronology of the battle, Introduction or the General Chronology) . It also makes use in Chapter 6 of the translation of part of the Mobile Force Commanders Estimate of the situation to provide further colour.

      Added to this the chapters are individual benefiting from their own author’s research – including chapter 51, ‘Identifying Kaga’ which was written by Jonathan Parshall with Anthony Tully and David Dickinson originally for the Proceedings magazine; therefore treating it as a book which ignores something is very difficult as it all those authors would have to ignore it.

      In fact the select bibliography includes a description of Parshall & Tully’s 2005 work Shattered Sword which makes your point about Fuchida’s work. Describing Shattered Sword as the book which “brought the fruits of Japanese Scholarship to an American audience that had relied too long on Captain Mistuo Fuchida’s…The product of years of research, Shattered Sword, showed what extensive communication among Japanese and American investigators facilitated by the World Wide Web could do for naval history.”

      So whilst I will not say one is definitively better than the other, I haven’t read Shattered Sword in years; as far as Hone (ed) The Battle of Midway goes I felt the multi-author approach it took provided a balanced perspective as well as interesting and nuanced analysis.

      Anyway I hope this clears it up,

      yours sincerely
      Alexander

  2. An interesting take. On the bottom line communication is key.
    I always wondered if the tactics of plowing your plane into a ship was a last straw by the Japanese or a way of the samurai, death with honor.

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