The Battle of Midway may be the most important naval engagement of WWII. In the battle, which lasted from June 4 to June 6, the balance of power and strategic initiative shifted from the Japanese Imperial Navy to the U.S. Navy. Two months after Midway the United States would go over to the offensive invading the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. They would remain on the offensive until the Japanese surrender in 1945.
Numerous books and movies have attempted to tell the story of that battle with varying degrees of success, promoting some inaccurate ideas about what actually occurred. But some recent historical accounts have corrected a pair of major inaccuracies over the last 15 years.
Operation AL, the Invasion of the Aleutian Islands
Accepted as gospel in most western accounts of the battle was the assertion that the Japanese navy’s operation against Midway Island included air attacks and an invasion of the Aleutian Islands off Alaska was a diversion. As these accounts go, the American Navy would respond to the attack on the Aleutians by sending its carriers to the North West Pacific, then the attack on Midway would take place and the U.S. would find itself trapped between two Japanese fleets and would be annihilated. Instead of taking the bait offered to him, a wily Admiral Nimitz acted on intelligence that said Midway was the actual intended target of the Japanese and ambushed the Japanese carriers from a position northeast of Midway. Except that does not appear to be what happened at all.
Historians Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully in their book Shattered Sword, The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway incorporate Japanese Imperial Navy records of the battle to convincingly dispel the myth of the Aleutian Islands diversion.
On April 18th, 1942, 16 Army B-25 bombers flew off the carrier USS Hornet and struck military targets in Tokyo and half a dozen other cities in Japan. The effect was stunning to the Japanese who could not conceive of having their homeland attacked by the Americans. In response, the Japanese High Command overreacted and in doing so doomed its entire war effort.
Prior to the Doolittle Raid, the Japanese Imperial Staff was inclined to direct its operations towards the Indian Ocean, invade Britain’s main naval base at Cylon, and drive British forces from Burma. Japan believed the broad defensive parameter it had created in the Pacific had gone far enough. With supply lines stretched and limited naval power to patrol a vast ocean empire the strategy was to hold what it had while expanding into the Indian Ocean to secure supplies of rubber and oil coming from Java and Malasia in order to continue its conquest of China.
Admiral Yamamoto had wanted to expand eastward into the Pacific, invade the Hawaiian Islands, and drive the American fleet all the way back to the U.S. mainland. The Battle of the Coral Sea and the unexpected appearance of two American aircraft carriers had convinced him that striking at the U.S. Navy battleships at Pearl Harbor had not eliminated the threat from America’s navy. America’s five big fleet carriers had proven to be a dangerous threat that had to be destroyed. Yamamoto’s problem was the factional nature of Japan’s military. He controlled the navy, but lacking a substantial naval infantry force he was at the mercy of the Army to provide him with the troops and transports for any island invasions he might want to try. The Japanese Army not only refused to commit any troops to take Hawaii but actively opposed the plan. The Army complained that the Hawaiian Islands were too big and well-defended to be invaded successfully and, even if an invasion were successful, far too distant to be supported and supplied by the Army’s transport ships.
As a compromise, Yamamoto fell back on the idea of invading Midway Island instead with the hope that by threatening an island so close to Hawaii, Nimitz would be compelled to send his carriers to defend the islands and thus be destroyed. With the U.S. carrier fleet out of the way, invading Hawaii would no longer be required.
But the shock of the Doolittle Raid changed everything. The Imperial Staff was now willing to commit troops and transports to Yamamoto’s Midway Invasion plan. It also wanted to grab the Aleutian islands to prevent them from being used as a base for ships, planes, and subs that could attack Midway after it was in their hands. The Imperial Staff also feared that long-range bombers launched from the islands could strike at the Japanese home islands as well. The Japanese Army surmised that occupying the remote Aleutian islands would allow them to interdict U.S. aid convoys heading to Russia. What the Japanese did not know was just how harsh an environment those islands had. The weather and terrain made the Aleutian islands very unsuitable for any offensive operation launched against Japan by the U.S. as later events would show.
Dispelling the “Diversion” Myth
Parshell and Tully uncovered a pair of monographs prepared by Japanese naval officers after the war at the direction of the U.S. Army. Both monographs stated that the compromise between Yamamoto and the Army allowed for the inclusion of the Aleutian Island offensive as a simultaneous operation and part of the Midway invasion. Neither mention anything about Operation AL being a feint, trick, or diversion. Instead, it was done to meet the Japanese Army’s strategic goals.
When Yamamoto’s Main Force sortied from its bases on Hashirajima to begin the Midway operation it included the four battleships that were sent to the Aleutians invasion. The entire fleet sailed together until the Aleutian strike force split off from it to head north.
Furthermore, the Midway strike force commander, Admiral Nagumo makes no mention of the invasion of the Aleutians, neither does the postwar debriefing of Commander Watanabe Yasuji who was Yamamoto’s staff officer. As Shattered Sword, The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway relates, he was completely silent on the matter. Admiral Nagano likewise did not mention anything about a diversion or ruse. Both Nagano and Yasuji were present at the planning meeting where the Aleutians invasion was added to the effort at Midway as a separate operation.
Then Parshell and Tully make what is perhaps the most important point of all. For the Aleutian invasion to have been a diversion to lure the Americans north it should have come days before the attacks on Midway to give the U.S. Navy time to move north into the jaws of the supposed trap. Yet, Yamamoto himself expected he would find the U.S. fleet East of Midway when he arrived, not to the north. In the original planning for the two attacks, Yamamoto expected to land troops on Midway Island on June 6 after spending the 4 and 5 defeating any American naval carriers that tried to intervene. In that original plan, the attacks on Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians were to also occur on that same day. That plan remained in effect until shortly before Yamamoto sailed for Midway.
As it occurred the attack on the Aleutian Islands commenced on June 3rd and the strikes on Midway Island began on June 4th. That was nowhere near enough time for U.S. carriers making a sortie from Pearl Harbor to get far enough North to put themselves in a position between the two Japanese fleets.
It seems apparent that rather than the Aleutian landings being a diversion to distract from the main effort at Midway, the opposite was true: The Japanese plan was to seize the Aleutians while the U.S. Navy was busy fighting Yamamoto off Midway.
Some of the mythology may have resulted from the excellent work of Navy cryptoanalyst Commander Joseph Rochefort in leading a team that broke the Japanese navy message cipher known as JN-25. He was able to advise Admiral Nimitz as to what he believed Yamamoto intended to do knowing that both Midway and the Aleutians were targets of invasion. It was probably Nimitz and his staff that surmised that the Japanese move on Alaska was intended as a diversion away from the attack on Midway. And this became the narrative theory of U.S. historians.
While Japan did land on Attu and Kiska Islands to attain a limited strategic goal, (enormous resources in men and material were required to take them back) the cost to Japan would end up being very high.
During the June 4 raid on Dutch Harbor, a Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter flown by Flight Petty Officer First Class Tadayoshi Koga attacked a U.S. Navy PBY Catalina flown by Bud Mitchel. Downing the PBY in the harbor, Koga and his two wingmen strafed the crew in the water killing all seven of them. Ground fire from a .50 cal machine gun severed an oil line in Kago’s Zero and they flew to a small island that had been designated as an emergency landing area from where a Japanese submarine would pick up any downed pilots. But Kago mistook a muddy marsh for a grass field and came in with his gear down. The wheels bit into the mud and the plane flipped over on its back killing Koga but leaving the Zero fighter all but intact. His wingmen circled waiting for him to emerge from the plane. They had orders to destroy any downed Zero that might fall into enemy hands, but being unsure if Koga had survived or not, they could not bring themselves to destroy his aircraft, so they returned to their carrier.
A month after the raid, the crashed Zero was recovered and restored to flying condition. There were some things known about the Japanese Zero to American pilots in 1942, but certainly not everything. This flying Zero was quite a prize as it could not only be flown against American aircraft but used to destroy the mythic invincibility of the aircraft. It was found not to be very fast, its ailerons locked at speeds over 200 knots greatly reducing its roll rate. It was also sluggish above 15,000 feet in turns. Most U.S. fighters could out-dive it. Its construction was very light without any armor protection or self-sealing fuel tanks. What became apparent in flying it was that the real secret of the Zero was the superb skill of the Japanese pilots who had mastered its flight characteristics.
Admiral Mitscher Costly Errors and Lies Obscured History for Decades
Robert Mrazek’s book, A Dawn Like Thunder is probably the seminal account of ill-fated Torpedo Squadron 8 flying from the USS Hornet during the Battle of Midway. Among the misconceptions that his book clarified was the belief that Ensign George Gay was the sole survivor of Torpedo 8. The fact was that the squadron was not wiped out on June 4 when it attacked the Japanese fleet alone and unescorted by fighters. Half of the squadron was still at Pearl Harbor with their brand new Grumman Avenger Torpedo bombers. Six of the Avengers had flown to Midway and attacked the Japanese from the island. Five of the six were shot down but the sixth survived along with its pilot, Bert Earnest. The remaining pilots of the squadron went to Guadalcanal with the squadron’s executive officer, Swede Larson. The squadron bled itself white striking at the Japanese on the island, often cobbling together a single flying Avenger from the parts of wrecks on Henderson Field.
A much bigger part of the corrected narrative is how the strike from the USS Hornet on June 4 was sent on the wrong course and all but missed the battle’s first day. People who remember the movie Midway will recall a scene wherein Commander Waldron, the skipper of Torpedo 8 from the Hornet breaks off from the rest of the strike group to go and find the carriers on a hunch. It wasn’t a hunch though. Waldron and the other four squadron leaders of the 59 planes the Hornet sent up for that first strike knew the bearing they would need to fly to find the Japanese carriers, a course of 243 degrees, but the strike group commander had decided they would fly a course of 265 instead.
From murky sighting reports by U.S. scout planes, Mitscher and Ring believed that the Japanese had split their four carriers into two groups and the second group would be many miles to the north. While the movie shows Waldron taking his 15 planes to the location he knew the Japanese carriers would be found, it is silent not only on why they went the wrong way and on what happened to the rest of the 45 other planes in the strike group. The result would be a disaster not just for Waldron and his squadron but also for the other three squadrons. The 10 Wildcat fighters would turn back to the Hornet low on fuel and ditch in the sea. One of the dive-bomber squadrons had lost three planes trying to return to the Hornet as well. Of the 59 planes the Hornet sent up that day, 29 would be lost without ever striking a blow against the enemy.
This error likely resulted in the loss of the carrier USS Yorktown later in the day. The planes of the Yorktown and Enterprise did attack the Japanese furiously and they succeeded in sinking three of the four Japanese carriers. Had the 34 dive bombers of the Hornet also found the Japanese fleet it is near certain they would have destroyed the Hiryu, the fourth carrier left untouched. It was the planes launched by the Hiryu later in the day that found Yorktown and scored hits that crippled her. She was later sunk by a Japanese submarine along with the destroyer Hamman.
Marc Mitscher, who had been captain of the Hornet, had been promoted to admiral only days before the battle. He was under the command of Admiral Ray Spruance who had taken over the task force comprising Hornet and Enterprise. The first day at Midway was Mitchner’s first time at bat as a carrier commander in a major battle, and he struck out badly. The Navy had won a stunning victory at Midway and his command had played almost no part in it.
As was routine following a battle, the squadron commanders were required to file After Action Reports that would then be compiled into a larger report by Mitscher himself on the actions of the Hornet in the battle. But Mitscher decided to lie about it. The report Mitscher filed with his commanding officer, Admiral Spruance, was so full of errors and omissions that Spruance himself had problems endorsing it to his boss, Admiral Nimitz.
As Mrazek relates in the book, Spruance was put in quite a precarious spot. He knew Mitscher was lying about what his air group had done that day and was loath to be brought into it officially by endorsing those lies to Admiral Nimitz in his own After Action Report. Signaling his displeasure on the endorsement page Spruance wrote, “As a matter of historical record, the Hornet report contains a number of inaccuracies. The Enterprise report is considered accurate and should be relied upon for reference.”
The false After Action Report filed by Mitscher and his staff would have a deadly consequence for the aircrews of the Hornet. Since the official report would misstate the return course of the 10 Wildcat fighters that had ditched at sea trying to reach Midway, PBY Catalina flying boats sent from Midway to find the lost pilots would be sent 200 miles in the wrong direction. After four days adrift in their rafts, out of food and water, eight of the Wildcat pilots would be rescued when a PBY found them by accident. Two would be lost and never recovered despite heroic efforts by the PBY aircrews.
The Air Corps Claimed They Won the Battle of Midway
After Midway, a giant public relations battle took place back in the U.S. The papers were full of accounts that the Army Air Corps had won the battle all but single-handedly. The Navy had some catching up to do in terms of getting the actual truth out. It certainly couldn’t be reported that this victory was marred by bad decisions made by Mitscher. Although Nimitz would take no official notice of the false after-action report filed by Mitscher he was relieved of his command of the Hornet’s upon returning to Pearl Harbor and rather than get an admiral’s assignment to a carrier task force at sea, Mitscher was given command of a Patrol Wing at Pearl Harbor for six months. It took the personal intervention of his friend Admiral William Halsey for Mitscher to be sent to Noumea in December 1943 to command air forces in that area under Halsey’s overall command. Mitscher, a “hero” of the battle of Midway would not see another sea command until January 1944 when the U.S. Navy had so many carriers at sea it was literally short of admirals to command task forces.
History is never finished being written; it is under constant revision as new facts come to light. Both, A Dawn Like Thunder and, Shattered Sword, The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway have made major contributions to better understanding the battle. If you don’t already have them in your library of military history you are encouraged to add them.