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April 17, 2010

Incredible Victory

The Battle of Midway, June 4th, 1942
Walter Lord - ISBN - 9780060923600

(The ISBN given is for the paperback version. I purchased the original hardbound volume for $3.00. Neither is in print. It is well worth the time and minimal effort to purchase and read.)

By any standard, this is a marvelous book; the first and best recounting of the battle of Midway (1942). I found it exciting to read, though I've known much of the history of that day for most of my life. It was a spectacular victory. The Japanese plot was to lure the remaining vessels of the U.S. Pacific Fleet into a battle for supremacy, which logic dictated the Japanese would win; but it became America's Trafalgar. It remains the most decisive single naval battle in U.S. history. Even as I write this review I get a "tingle down my leg" (but over something magnificent, and incredibly important, unlike the infamous MSNBC commentator and recognized air-head who experienced his while listening to an oration by Emperor Obama.)

The book begins stirringly: "They had no right to win. Yet they did, and in doing so they changed the course of a war. More than that, they added a new name--Midway--to that small list that inspires men by example . . . like Marathon, the Armada, the Marne [he might have noted the stunning clash of the 300 at Thermopylae in 480 BC]. Even against the greatest of odds, there is something in the human spirit--a magic blend of skill, faith and valor--that can lift men from certain defeat to Incredible Victory."

Lord first explores the intelligence underlying the victory, without which the battle would have been lost. History lay in the hands of U.S. command. If they were able to keep secret their knowledge of the Japanese attack plan, and the location of the Pacific Fleet, a surprise attack might once more make the U.S. supreme in the Pacific; but if the plan became known, and/or the battle lost, the Japanese would "walk in to take Midway; Pearl [Harbor, Hawaii, would] be almost neutralized and in dire danger . . . the fate of our nation [was] in our hands."

The U.S. had no battleships, the Japanese eleven; we, eight cruisers, the enemy, twenty-three; we had three air-craft carriers--one crippled--they had eight; our shore defenses were composed largely of guns from the turn of the century manned by a relative handful of men, while their invasion force alone included many thousands of experienced soldiers with modern weapons. Our men were, almost without exception, new to war; theirs, experienced from many battles since the invasion of Manchuria in 1931. They had the most experienced pilots flying the best airplanes on the planet, while ours were just out of flight school, many flying planes made of wood with canvas coverings. Some of our "dive bombers" couldn't dive--the fabric came off of the wings. Our torpedoes were slow and unreliable, and the torpedo planes were even worse. Our military men were exhausted, theirs well rested. It is impossible to envisage worse odds.

Of our torpedo squadrons virtually all of the men were killed without inflicting damage on the Japanese. Our fighters did little better: one squadron lost 21 of 27 planes and crews. He details the events hour by hour, including many interesting asides. Under usual circumstances I might have commented that there was too much information, but somehow his expert synthesis kept the narrative fascinating. His colorful and exceptional descriptions of the pandemonium of combat are especially riveting.

He spent several years interviewing survivors of the battle on both sides of the Pacific. They are absorbing. As well there are a few previously unpublished pictures from the Japanese archives. He delves into the weaknesses of the Japanese plan, noting that they expected the Americans to respond in a given way, and when they did not they were flummoxed. Yamamoto, the Japanese commander, "frittered away" his incredible advantage by not properly concentrating his ships. Hubris and the overconfidence based upon prior battles resulted in "victory disease," and this was compromised further by their "dangerous contempt" for the enemy, whom they had presumed to be cowards. He mentions but fails to pursue another point about which I have read previously: when the commanding Admiral Fletcher found himself aboard the sinking carrier flagship Yorktown he immediately transferred command to Admiral Spruance aboard the carrier Enterprise, because Spruance was now in a better position to command. Neither power nor fame--let alone ego--mattered. Winning was the only consideration. That is something no Japanese admiral would ever do. As well he gives little attention to the fact that Yorktown was near mortally damaged at the Battle of the Coral Sea only a month before. When she limped into Pearl it was determined that it would take months to repair the damage. It could not wait; time was of the essence, and while not up to par she was rendered combat ready within 72 hours. (Only In America!) She played a major role at Midway before finally being sunk by the Japanese.

Winston Churchill observed: "This memorable American victory was of cardinal importance, not only to the United States, but to the whole Allied cause. . . . At one stroke, the dominant position of Japan in the Pacific was reversed. . . . The annals of war at sea present no more intense, heart-shaking shock . . . the qualities of the United States Navy and Air Force and the American race shone forth in splendour."

As Lord reviews the history of the events he emphasizes that "In ticking off the things that weren't done, it is easy to forget the big thing that was done. . . . At 10:22 A.M. . . . the crack Japanese carriers Akagi, Kaga and Soryu were heading proudly for the battle that was to finish the U.S. Pacific Fleet. By 10:28 A.M. all three were blazing wrecks." Yes, the Yorktown and a destroyer were sunk, but the Yanks won! They inflicted disastrous losses upon the Japanese navy and its empire, and reversed the momentum of the war "in one swell foop."

Wonderful read . . . makes everyone proud to be American (the execrable Tom Hanks and his ilk excepted--Hanks, you may not be aware, recently opined that our war with Japan was purely "racist.")

Posted by Curmudgeon at April 17, 2010 3:10 PM