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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat

The Battle of Midway: Where Japan Lost World War II?

Battle of Midway
The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) underway in Hampton Roads, Virginia (USA), on 27 October 1941.

This week marks the eightieth anniversary of the Battle of Midway. That’s when, guided by imaginative intelligence work, remnants of the U.S. Navy fleet battered at Pearl Harbor ambushed the Kidō Butai, the Imperial Japanese Navy’s vaunted aircraft-carrier strike force, in the Central Pacific. American torpedo and dive-bombing assaults sent four Japanese fleet carriers plunging to Davy Jones’ locker by sundown on June 4, 1942, the day when the main fighting raged.

And Japanese naval air power was never the same.

But Midway resulted in more than downed planes and sunken ships. This was a battle with direct strategic repercussions, stalling Japan’s seemingly unstoppable campaign of conquest across the Indo-Pacific. Victory at sea prepared the way for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps to launch an amphibious counteroffensive in the Solomon Islands that August. The island-hopping campaign across the South Pacific would culminate in U.S. forces’ return to the Philippine Islands in late 1944.

The Battle of Midway is replete with valuable lessons, which is why historians and military folk still study it today. Here are two of my favorites. One, put your faith in commonsense leadership. Former U.S. Naval Academy and Naval War College professor Craig Symonds relates an instructive anecdote about Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, a surface warfare officer commanding Task Force 16, comprising carriers USS Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown and their escorts.

Accepted practice for the day had a flattop assemble its full aerial strike force overhead before sending the group on its way. And that’s prudent, isn’t it? Concentrating the air wing’s fighting power at the outset conformed to strategic logic, which advises commanders to amass superior combat power at the time and place of battle to overcome the enemy. By contrast, fragmenting a force tends to dilute its power. Keeping the group together assured fighter support for lumbering attack aircraft, which found it hard to defend themselves against fleet-of-foot Japanese fighters. And it reduced the frictions and dangers that come with scattering forces across the map while restricting radio communications among pilots to conceal their whereabouts.

Trouble is, planes waste fuel while orbiting overhead. The less fuel in their tanks, the shorter their striking range; and Spruance wanted to strike at extreme range, firing effectively first. So, despite the risks, he instructed his squadrons to proceed toward the Kidō Butai as soon as they got aloft. Swifter fighters would catch up with slower torpedo bombers and dive bombers enroute to their targets. If all went well, the air groups would mass combat power near the point of impact. That all did not go well for U.S. aviators on June 4 doesn’t obviate the wisdom of Spruance’s scheme.

Aristotle depicted common sense as the highest form of philosophy. And wisely so. It also ranks among the highest forms of leadership. When common sense collides with doctrine, go with common sense every time.

And two, manage risk. Pacific Fleet supreme commander Chester W. Nimitz essayed some commonsense risk management of his own. On the eve of battle Admiral Nimitz directed Spruance and fellow flag officer Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, embarked in Yorktown, to engage—or decline to engage—the foe according to the “principle of calculated risk.” He wanted them to interpret this principle “to mean the avoidance of exposure of your force to attack by superior enemy forces without good prospect of inflicting, as a result of such exposure, greater damage to the enemy.”

Nimitz trusted subordinate commanders to exercise their own judgment—and to refrain from fighting unless they expected to do worse to the enemy than the enemy did to them. The quest for disproportionate gain made sound tactics.

It’s worth noting that Nimitz could afford to be venturesome at Midway despite the depleted state of the post-Pearl Harbor Pacific Fleet. A simple actuarial formula defines risk as a product of multiplication of two variables, namely probability and consequences. Nimitz asked Spruance and Fletcher to gauge both variables, determining whether they had a good chance (probability) of meting out worse punishment than they suffered (consequences).

And what if they misjudged the probability of a favorable outcome, and suffered worse damage than they dished out? Well, Nimitz knew that a brand-new fleet was building back home pursuant to the Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940, and that that fleet would start arriving in the Pacific theater in mid-1943. If the worst befell Task Force 16 at Midway, the Pacific Fleet would have to make do until fresh hulls were displacing water. But replacements were on the way, win or lose. The immediate consequences of defeat could be frightful, in other words, but new shipbuilding reduced the longer-term consequences. Task Force 16 was not going to lose the war in an afternoon.

New construction, then, skewed the actuarial calculus toward risking the fleet. It’s easier to gamble with something precious when you have—or know for sure you will have—a spare.

The early phase of the Pacific War should inspire some soul-searching today. The fall of France to Nazi Germany spurred Congress and the Franklin Roosevelt administration to pass the Two-Ocean Navy Act, setting in motion a naval buildup long before America joined World War II. But neither the rise of China, nor the war for Ukraine, nor anything else has precipitated a similar surge in shipbuilding today. In fact, the Biden administration’s budget submission for fiscal 2023 proposes retiring 24 ships of war while constructing just 9 to replace them, for a net decline of 15 hulls in a single year. If the administration gets its way the inventory is set to shrink to 280 ships, well below the 355 mandated by U.S. law, not to mention the 500 or more crewed and uncrewed ships uniformed navy leaders say they need to cope with increasingly forbidding strategic circumstances.

Battle of Midway

The Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma, photographed from a USS Enterprise (CV-6) Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless during the afternoon of 6 June 1942, after she had been bombed by planes from Enterprise and USS Hornet (CV-8). Note her shattered midships structure, torpedo dangling from the after port side tubes and wreckage atop her number four 203 mm gun turret. The photo flight was led by Lt(jg) E.J. Kroeger, A-V(N), USNR, of Bombing Squadron 6 (VB-6) with photographer Mr. A.D. Brick of Fox Movietone News in a SBD-3 of VB-3 (“3-B-10”). Kroeger was accompanied by Lt.(jg) C.J. Dobson of Scouting Squadron 6 (VS-6) and photographer CP(PA) J.S. Mihalovitch in SBD “6-S-18”.

So again, the memory of Midway should give us pause. It’s doubtful a future Admiral Nimitz could give task-force commanders the same latitude his pre-battle directive bestowed on Admirals Spruance and Fletcher. Similar reserves of actual or latent combat power simply aren’t there, or in the making. Knowing that would bias commanders toward timid, conservative, risk-averse decisionmaking in naval warfare, a realm where enterprise is at a premium.

Official Washington should think twice before cutting back fleet numbers. Doing so would verge on passing a One-Ocean Navy Act of 2023 at a time when storm clouds are gathering.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.” The views voiced here are his alone. Holmes also blogs at the Naval Diplomat

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Andy Bush

    June 3, 2022 at 9:34 am

    In the aftermath of the battle, an excellent example of pragmatic leadership can be found in the way the “flight to nowhere” was dealt with.

    • Doug Hasler

      June 4, 2022 at 12:50 pm

      Stanhope Ring?

      • Jack

        June 23, 2022 at 11:48 am

        The “Flight to Nowhere” refers to the Hornet’s dive bomber squadrons. RAdm Mitscher disobeyed orders to send his planes too far to the west. A few returned to the Hornet, some ditched in the sea, and a good number landed at Midway. Lt Commander Waldron of VT-8 disobeyed his orders and went the right way, and his squadron was wiped out for their efforts sans Ens. Gay. If Hornet’s dive bombers had been there at 1020 like Yorktown’s and Enterprise’s the Hiryu would not have survived to hit back at the Yorktown. According to John Parshall, the “Flight to Nowhere” got the Yorktown sunk.

  2. Andrew M Winter

    June 3, 2022 at 9:49 am

    dang I can’t post PICTURES! Okay here is the link.
    https://nypost.com/2016/12/02/remember-pearl-harbors-75th-anniversary-with-these-tv-documentaries/

    It is the iconic photo of the explosion at Pearl that shows that crane. That damned CRANE!

    Nagumo was supposed to blast the repair and refit facilities at Pearl. When he realized that The Carriers weren’t home he made the “wise” decision to get out of Dodge. But, in so doing It is my opinion that Japan lost the war then and there.

    That damned crane. With the the repair facilities and fuel storage areas untouched the US Fleet had a massive forward base from which to strike anywhere in the Pacific Basin, and get their ships repaired without having to go all the way back to San Diego.

    The victory at Midway was only possible because Yorktown had just been repaired in record time at pearl from damage she’d taken at Coral Sea.

    https://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/youve-got-three-days-repairing-the-yorktown-after-coral-sea/

    That repair job was done really really fast, If it hadn’t been for “that damned crane”, and all that went with it, Pearl would not have been available and Yorktown 1/3 of the Naval Aviation assets used at Midway, would not have been there.

    • Stefan Stackhouse

      June 3, 2022 at 11:04 am

      The Japanese thought the Yorktown was sunk, or at least so badly damaged as to be out of commission for a very long time. It was quite the unpleasant surprise when the Yorktown’s SBDs came roaring down from overhead.

      Another lesson is to be careful about one’s assumptions.

      • Lost Souls Make Lousy Leaders

        June 3, 2022 at 6:25 pm

        The Yorktown’s planes were actually from the Saratoga. (VB3,VS3, VF3, and VT3). Losses from the Battle of the Coral Sea rendered the Yorktown’s air groups too depleted to participate.

  3. Error403

    June 3, 2022 at 10:46 am

    In ’41, Japan had people who thoroughly worshipped war and thought all problems could easily be overcome by the bayonet and the bullet and the bomb, and occasionally by fleas.Yeah, disease fleas.

    Today, USA has people like Biden and blinken who think wars are their speciality, and thus all the brazen talk about regime change.

    USA under Biden, now treading the exact same path, or walking exactly same route as Japan did during pacific war.

    Humans never learn from tough lessons of history.Biden, doesn’t even have enough functioning brain cells left in his head to even spell h-i-s-t-o-r-y.

    • cobo

      June 3, 2022 at 5:12 pm

      Biden is the sock puppet, the “real” adults in the room are in the Pentagon. They are the future of Western Civilization. I wish them the best.

    • Joe Comment

      June 4, 2022 at 2:01 am

      Error403: Oh so is it the case that Biden threatened to invade Canada unless the Eurasian Union was disbanded, this was refused, the US attacked last February, its troops got thrown out of Ottawa and are now fighting hard to liberate Quebec from the Bandera Canucks, but meanwhile all the major economies in the world have placed trade sanctions on the US? Because I must have blinked while all that was happening. (sarcasm)

  4. Rich

    June 3, 2022 at 6:18 pm

    Japan lost the war early on Sunday morning December 7, 1941. Basically, for them, the war was lost when the first bomb landed at Pearl because Japan had absolutely no hope of beating the US in a protracted war. They gambled that the US defeat at Pearl Harbor would shock the US into suing for peace. They lost the gamble. They had zero capability of bringing the war to the continental US and therefore it was only a matter of time until US industrial might and vast manpower overwhelmed them. Yamamoto knew this and correctly predicted the outcome. Japan had no viable war plan past Midway.
    They simply never possessed the sealift required to sustain a Hawaiian Island land campaign no less an assault on the US west coast. Midway was a fortunate and brilliant victory for the US but really only served to shorten the war by eliminating a significant portion of Japan’s naval air assets early on. However, ultimately even if Japan were to have succeeded at Midway, it would have only delayed their ultimate defeat. The only remaining question on the afternoon of December 7, 1941 was how much death and destruction would be required to defeat the Japanese Empire. At that point it was a question of price, not outcome.

    • Donald Link

      June 4, 2022 at 9:33 am

      Quite correct. It also illustrates the folly of today’s policy of drawing down our armed forces. Putin’s foolishness in Ukraine, no matter how it ends, illustrate that we still have opponents who can be correctly described as not quite rational.

  5. David Chang

    June 4, 2022 at 12:43 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    In 1945, navy attack each other with naval artillery, and the aircrafts which drop bomb and torpedo with high speed is fatal killer.

    In 2045, navy attack each other with missile and torpedo, and hypersonic missile is fatal killer.

    Many people don’t admit that the major risk of aircraft carrier is fighting in brown water, and claim that aircraft carrier will never be sunk.

    But swarming is an old and fatal tactic forever.

    Although the retired general is elder, his passion is like young people.

    I know safety is of the God.

  6. Rio

    June 14, 2022 at 1:04 pm

    Official Washington should think twice before cutting back fleet numbers. Doing so would verge on passing a One-Ocean Navy Act of 2023 at a time when storm clouds are gathering.

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