I can run wild for six months … after that, I have no expectation of success.
– Fleet Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto

In racing there is a saying – ‘luck is where preparation meets opportunity’ Perhaps there is no truer an example than the Battle of Midway. Popular literature seems to emphasize the American forces stumbling into a heaven-sent scenario of laden carrier decks and little to no opposition to the dive bombers, while giving short shrift to the preparation that enabled them to make use of that opportunity. How so?

COMINT: Communications Intelligence – the US code breakers labored mightily to figure out what the IJN was up to. Were it not for their efforts prior to Midway, and some particularly inspired thinking and risk taking, the US may well have fallen for the feint up to Alaska and end up caught in the trap laid by Yamamoto.

Damage Control: Had the crew of the Yorktown not been so proficient in DC, particularly something as seemingly mundane as draining the avgas lines and filling them with inert gas prior to the battle of Coral Sea, the Yorktown may very well have been lost, leaving CINCPAC with only two carriers facing four, forcing a different battle plan. The heroic work of the shipyard workers in compressing three month’s worth of repairs into 48 hours to get Yorktown turned around and back into battle was pivotal. Conversely, the almost lackadaisical approach the Japanese took in repairing Shokaku’s damage or replinishing Zuikaku’s air wing and repairing her light damage from Coral Sea’s action ensured their nonavailability for Midway, keeping the balance of forces on a razor’s edge.

Training: The contrast between USN and USMC effectiveness in employing dive bombers at Midway was signatory. Using the same platform (SBD-3’s) USN pilots scored major hits while minimizing losses to AAA and fighters, whereas the Marines suffered significant losses for little, if any gain. The difference? Tactics, training and procedures or TTP (yes, we know -ugh, one of those modern terms…) – the Navy employed steep, usually 70-degree, dives on the target whereas the Marines used much shallower, gliding approaches. The former minimizes your exposure time and profile to AAA and fighters while increasing the likelihood of a hit. However, it requires considerable practice at obtaining the proper dive angle, avoiding target fixation and knowing how/when to pullout of the dive. Lots of practice, underscoring the maxim about training like you are going to fight as well as understanding the capabilities and limitations of the forces you intend to employ and those you intend to fight.

Employment of forces: The Japanese were the first to employ massed striking power using carriers and the strike at Pearl (and subsequent actions through SE Asia and the IO) validated the philosophy. The problem was the Japanese failed to comprehend the inherent flexibility of carrier-based air and thus eschewed opportunities to utilize it in other scenarios, such as scouting, which in turn, led to less than robust search plans and reliance on out-dated search aircraft and methodologies. Curiously, the Japanese broke this rule in planning the Aleutian invasion, diverting forces on a mission of questionable value and success for territory that would prove to be exceptionally harsh on man and machine while yielding little, if any strategic value outside of propaganda for an overly wrought plan of entrapment. This leads to questions of planning…

Planning/Command: In studied contrast to the run-up at Pearl, Japanese planning for Midway was poorly thought out, egregiously evaluated and gamed and haphazardly executed (cf: the entire submarine picket plan). Indeed, it was put together and executed in such a toxic atmosphere of arrogance and bluster that even when one of the final wargame sessions showed American forces gaining an upper-hand because of gaps in the air search pattern, referees for the wargame manipulated the environment and other factors to bring about a successful conclusion for Kido Butai. Ponder that at the next wargame where logisitcs magically appear un-disrupted or air supremacy is taken for granted. As for dealing with changing factors at sea, commanders were loath to step outside the boundaries of the plan and demonstrate initiative. In studied contrast were the actions of the Americans from Nimitz’s orders based on calculated risk to Dick Best’s last minute change in targets.

Luck indeed smiled on the Americans that day, but she did not grab them by the hand (or scruff of the neck) and tell them what must be done in PowerPoint bulletized format. She merely opened the door, a crack, and offered a fleeting moment to change the course of the battle…the Americans grasped it and changed the direction of the war.

Review the list above – these are timeless lessons learned, every bit as applicable today as they were 67 years ago. My observations lead me to believe that today we are ignoring them at our future peril.

Posted by SteelJaw in Aviation, Navy
Tags: ,

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • Byron

    Another first in Command/Control is the use of radar and a Fighter Direction Officer, the birth of CIC. It didn’t work too well during this battle, but CAPs of the future would work much better. FDOs, by the way, were hand-picked stock brokers. It was assumed that stock brokers would be able to handle the complex situations in a quick manner (watch any busy trading day on the floor of the Exchange.

    And in the NASCAR world, luck means, “if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin'” 😉

  • And in the NASCAR world, luck means, “if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’”
    That’s only what they say on their way *out* of the big black and yellow trailer… 😉
    – SJS

  • Andy (JADAA)

    Some additional thoughts from the cheap seats in the back of the Ready Room:
    –Kido Butai demonstrated a heretofore advanced capacity to launch multiple, coordinated strikes from a Task Force, wherein air groups from each carrier planned and operated together. At this point in the game we were only able send CAG-sized strike packages which operated independently of one another, thus limiting the size of the package and the potential advantages of large, coordinated groups of aircraft arriving over a target in a planned sequence to visit maximum violence upon the enemy.

    –Hornet’s utterly dismal performance has historically been laid at feet of the Air Wing Commander, Stanhope Ring, with no small amount of justification. Yet many casual historians fail to account for the fact that at that period of time the CV CO also had a huge say in how the Air Wing was tactically employed. (See above) Who was Hornet’s CO? None other than the subsequently officially revered Marc Mitscher who backed his CAG’s dodgy strike plan despite vigorous and vocal opposition to the plan and it’s execution from the skippers of his VF and VT squadrons. To the credit of both Mitscher and Ring, they learned from their mistakes; Mitscher went on to celebrated success as a TF commander. Ring also learned and had subsequent better results and displayed better judgment later in the war. Nonetheless he was dogged by his performance and judgment that fateful day both professionally and personally until his death.

    As I have remarked elsewhere, we seem to be fated to repeat the bitter lessons of history over and over. Until such time as those who help define our naval culture recognize that technological excellence needs the tempering of such disdained disciplines as History, the story will remain much the same and blood and treasure will be spilled to, as the song goes “go back, Jack, and do it again.”


  • Chuck Hill

    Nicely done.

  • Byron

    @Andy: well said. “The Big E” politely walks around that situation, but also makes it plain that someone didn’t have it together, and that with all three carriers, a killing blow on the first strike could have been dealt, and the loss of Yorktown averted.

    @SJS: who knew, another NASCAR fan 😉

  • who knew, another NASCAR fan
    …since ’84…
    – SJS

  • UltimaRatioReg

    THIS is why there are times where I just love this blog. Learning something all the time. (Not easy for a Marine with a smallish brain!)

    Excellent point on both damage control and urgency of the repair yards. I have a very interesting book of transcripts of prisoner interrogations of senior IJN officers in the 1945-46 time frame. They seemed very reluctant to talk about damage to Shokaku from Coral Sea and whether or not they could have repaired her damage in the nearly eleven days in between her arrival at Kure (May 18th?) and when she would have had to depart to participate in the action at Midway.

  • Yorktown damage control had another affect on the outcome… it probably spared Enterprise or Hornet from attack. After the first successful attack by japanese units, Yorktown was hit & burning. When Japanese commanders from Hiryu briefed pilots for the second attacks (after the other three IJN carriers were out of commission), they emphasized to the pilots that they should attack the carriers that had not been damaged. By the time those attack groups made there way to the us task force, they came upon Yorktown again. By this time, the men on yorktown had suppressed their fires and battle damage from the morning–yorktown was limping but still in the game. The IJN pilots thought she was one of the undamaged US carriers and attacked. Though this resulted in the loss of Yorktown, the result was that she occupied to full air group attacks, when the Japanese might have been better off attacking Hornet or Enterprise. At the very least, I don’t think they would have poured their entire attack force if Yorktown had still been burning and showed herself to be wounded.

  • Byron

    It was serendipity, for sure.

    Something I forgot to mention, back when this first came out. Yes, Marc Mitscher had a hand that day…but made up for it later at the Turkey Shoot when he turned all the lights on.

  • Robedrt (Andy) Anderson

    I’ve always wondered to what extent the lack of combat training by the “8” squadrons and commanders contributed to their “poor” performance at Midway. The Hornet squadrons had been kept below deck during the entire cruise from Hawaii and run-up to Japan for the Doolittle raid and were only available to fly in combat after the B-25s had launched. There was no time or opportunity for squadron training and the all important combat raid missions that the Yorktown and Enterprise crews had conducted. The Midway carrier strike was the first combat mission for VS, VB, VT, and VF 8 and the results may have shown that. They had the guts but not the skills. Those would show later.