Monday, July 20, 2009

Book review: Miracle at Midway by Gordon W. Prange

I am fascinated by the Battle of Midway. In June 1942 the Japanese were trying to launch a surprise attack at Midway, but the Americans were able to turn the tables and sink four Japanese aircraft carriers. It was a major setback for the Japanese. Many on both sides agree that this was the deciding battle for the Pacific conflict. The Japanese went from being on the offensive to fighting a defensive war.

My interest in Midway was first peaked with Victor Davis Hanson's Carnage and Culture. The book covers several “Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power.” Professor Hanson spends fifty five pages on Midway. One of the main points is that the American culture allowed greater flexibility at the individual level which paid great dividends. For example several times American pilots were directed to certain locations to attack the Japanese fleet. When the pilots arrived, they didn’t see any ships. Rather than wait for instructions, they went looking for the ships. Invariably they made the right decisions and the final result was the complete destruction of all four carriers.

Miracle at Midway by Gordon W. Prange covers the Battle of Midway in great detail. Four hundred sixty pages summarize years of research. To prepare for this book the author waded through dozens of diaries and thousands of pages of government records. This research was on both the American side and the Japanese side. The author interviewed many of the survivors.

The result is an engaging book. It was hard for me to put down. The author did a great job of taking the reader through the events. It is easy to follow what was happening, even with the story taking place simultaneously at several locations.

The book also does a great job of showing the “fog of war.” Often times leaders on both sides were forced to make major decisions with faulty or incomplete information. Because of the exhaustive research the author has the details from both sides. I was surprised by how many times a pilot would claim to hit a ship of a certain time, but the records from the other side would show the ship was a smaller class. Sometimes the author was not able to find any record of any ship being attacked.

If you want to know more about the Battle of Midway this is a great book to read.

Technorati tags: Miracle, , Midway, Gordon Prange


Anonymous said...

It wasn't so much westerners' initiative in making decisions so much as a fortuitous combination of several factors:
1.the Japanese admiral's indecisiveness in changing his mind back and forth between having the deck crews loading up the "Kates" with torpedoes for anti-ship attack versus conventional bombs for hitting Midway's airfield. His vacillating meant that the just-removed ordnance was sitting around on the hangar deck and NOT in the magazines where it should have been.

2.The sacrificial attack of the torpedo bomber squadrons that inflicted no damage but drew the Japanese fighter cover down to very low altitude, allowing the US Navy Dauntless dive bombers to dive in unmolested.

3.The incomprehensibly stupid decisions by the Japanese naval high command, most especially Adm. Yamamoto, in the month between the Coral Sea battle and Midway. Yamamoto had two very good light carriers diverted on a propaganda operation to assist in the capture of a couple islands in the Aleutians when they would have been of infinitely more use at Midway as their combined air groups equal about one fleet carrier's air group. Two escort carriers also were parceled out to provide top cover for the battleship group and for the transport group and so were also unavailable when needed. Together they are equivalent to another fleet carrier's air group. Then consider how easy it would have been for the Japanese to have combined the air group remnants from the undamaged Zuikaku and the damaged Shokaku, put them on the Zuikaku and sent it along on the operation instead of what they did, keeping both Shokaku and Zuikaku out of it while both their air groups were individually rehabilitated. So that would have been another fleet carrier present that thankfully was not. So the Japanese could have had instead of the four fleet carriers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu they could have had them plus the Zuikaku and the equivalent of two more fleet carriers or seven versus three US Navy carriers, likely insurmountable odds.

Take any of these three factors out of the picture and most likely the Japanese win at Midway. I tend to view the actual outcome as reflecting, above all else, Divine intervention.

Henry Cate said...

What do you think of this claim: That the Westerners' Initiative was able to take advantage of the mistakes of the Japanese navy.

I believe if the Japanese navy had gone up another group with a culture similar to the Japanese navy but made up of the same forces as the Americans, the Japanese navy still would have won, even with the three mistakes you point out.