Fast, furious, and decisive.
Thank you very much to Captain Wayne Hughes, Jr., USN (Ret.) for permission to copy the text of his speech in full this Friday.
Captain Hughes; over to you.
COMMAND AND CONTROL AT THE BATTLE OF MIDWAYAND SIX THINGS IT TOOK TO WINCaptain Wayne Hughes, Jr.Naval Postgraduate School11 April 2013
Seventy-one years ago LIFE MAGAZINE told the story of Ensign George Gay, the only survivor of Torpedo Squadron EIGHT’s attack on the Japanese striking force at the Battle of Midway. His squadron’s heroism had a lifelong effect on this twelve year old boy growing up in the cornfields of Illinois.
I didn’t know the whole story then—how Gay’s commanding officer, LCDR John Waldron, broke away from rest of the Hornet air group and the deep significance his squadron’s sacrifice in making our victory possible. Personal courage was one of six critical factors—and probably the best known one—that made victory possible in the Battle of Midway on the 4th of June 1942.
Years later, in the early 1970s at Pensacola during the filming of the movie “Midway” our training carrier served as a surrogate Enterprise. At a filming of the carrier getting underway my wife, Joan, and others went down to the pier to volunteer as extras. The movie, by the way, is quite faithful to history.
Also movingly done was Herman Wouk’s vivid description of the battle in the air in War and Remembrance. Wouk’s imaginary hero, Captain “Pug” Henry, had a son, Warren, who was a dive bomber pilot who struck the Japanese carriers.
Best of all is John Lunstrom’s recently published Black Shoe Carrier Admiral. Among the many, many histories and personal accounts of the battle, Lunstrom’s stands out as the best researched, most detailed, and fairest appraisal of top-to-bottom performance on both sides.
Not long ago I wrote about Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, including his role at Midway. His presence there added to the momentum that would make him our premier fleet commander in the Pacific. Spruance was criticized later for one thing and another, but Lundstrom framed him best: “Every time when Spruance faced the Japanese, they lost.” Here is a quotation from my own appraisal of Spruance at Midway in Nineteen-Gun Salute, a recent book covering nineteen of our greatest navy leaders:
Imagine Spruance as he walks into Nimitz’s office on 26 May 1942, only to be told that Halsey is hospitalized and Task Force 16 is his. Within minutes Spruance learns that in 48 hours he will sail to fight, with 100 percent certainty, the first naval battle of his life, outnumbered 80 ships to 26, against an enemy who has not lost a battle since 7 December 1941. Nimitz says his mission will be to take calculated risks to attack and punish the Japanese, yet without losing his own force. Spruance learns that if Yorktown’s damages at the Battle of the Coral Sea can be patched up, Fletcher will join on the very eve of battle and assume tactical command. It is a mission demanding exquisite responsibility and adaptability. “Elated,” says one historian of Spruance’s reaction to the news. If you think like Spruance, “sobered” is a better term.
But let’s cut to the chase. I will talk briefly about six things all of which were necessary for an American victory—an “incredible victory,” as Walter Lord called it. I’ve mentioned two. In covering all of them, I’ll be defending Yamamoto and Nagumo and the Japanese air wing commanders. This is just in passing, but it offends me when historians have to find feet of clay in a battle’s losers. The Japanese weren’t perfect—no battle is planned and fought error free—but all of the six things I’m going to talk about had to coalesce for us, or else the Japanese would have won and maintained their unblemished record. Midway marks the turning point of the Pacific war.
The American torpedo planes were not the only ones who exhibited great courage on 4 June. One data point says more than a dozen individual stories could do. Of 233 aircraft in our three carriers, we lost 108, almost half of them. Many brave airmen also fought and survived, including Chicagoan “Butch” O’Hare, Jimmy Thach, and our own Lieutenant Dick Best who has spoken at NPS forums in the past. Human performance, including fighting to the death, is the very essence of what we glibly call command and control—not the technology of a system but the actions of men against fire.
I have boundless admiration for Raymond Spruance. He earned his reputation over the rest of the Pacific War, commanding at Tarawa, the Marshalls, the Marianas, the Battle of the Philippine Sea—a near-perfectly fought battle underappreciated at the time—then at Iwo Jima, and finally at the bitter, culminating Okinawa campaign in the spring of 1945. The adulation Spruance received after Midway largely came from his timely decision to launch his two air wings at the right moment to attack the Japanese carriers before they detected and struck us. It was vital that he not waffle or hesitate, but for this Monday morning quarterback who is neither caught up in the heat of the battle nor under orders to fight boldly without risking my carriers, attacking as soon as possible was a no brainer. Spruance’s greater wisdom at Midway was something he was condemned for at the time. The night after the battle he turned east away from the Japanese force he had just destroyed. Spruance was afraid Yamamoto would try to redeem the battle by sending battleships and cruisers east to catch him coming west. As it turned out that is exactly what Admiral Yamamoto did. What was a great victory could have turned into the debacle Nimitz at all costs wanted to avoid.
But the real hero of the battle is Admiral Chester Nimitz himself. He understood that only he could gather all the threads in his hands ashore at Pearl Harbor and communicate the vital information in one-way transmissions to Fletcher, Spruance, and his commander on Midway Island, and synthesize incoming messages from an assortment of submarines and sea planes on reconnaissance. Moreover, up to the moment when the Japanese carriers were located and the attacks began, Nimitz was his own tactical commander. He put Task Forces 16 and 17 where they needed to be. He gave each task force its own distinctive role. And in everything important he outwitted his very capable Japanese counterpart, Admiral Yamamoto.
Finally I want to add Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher to my honor roll. His Yorktown air wing was the best handled in the battle and who did not hesitate to turn over command to Spruance when he lost communications in his damaged carrier. Fletcher was one of the unrecognized heroes in everything that had gone before. The CNO, Admiral King, tried to get Nimitz to fire Fletcher. Nimitz resisted as long as he dared, because he saw that the Japanese navy was a seasoned fighting force in 1942, while Fletcher’s forces were green and still learning.
Napoleon said he wanted “lucky generals” and Branch Rickey said of baseball “luck is just the residue of good design.” We can say that Lieutenant Dick Best was a “lucky general” because he saw at the critical moment that McClusky was leading all the dive bombers against the Kaga. He broke off and with two wingmen dropped just three bombs on the Akagi to achieve two near misses and one fatal hit. Lucky? Sure. But perceptive and heroic, too. However, I’m not talking about making your luck, but about just plain chance. There is no other explanation for the fact that the critical Japanese search plane assigned to search where our forces lay silent and undetected was the only one that was delayed. If the cruiser Tone’s scout had found our ships on time then the two air fleets would have struck each other almost simultaneously and our outnumbered forces would have lost the battle.
Nor is there any explanation other than sheer luck that Wade McClusky’s and Max Leslie’s forty dive bombers, coming from different directions and different carriers, arrived over the Japanese carriers at the exact same time and fatally damaged three carriers in five minutes, at 1025 on 4 June 1942. It was not just for their courage that we remember Waldron, Lindsey, and Massey’s torpedo bombers. They had to arrive, all three squadrons, just minutes ahead of the dive bombers to draw away 41 Japanese fighters and the attention of the entire Japanese striking force and let the dive bombers attack literally unhindered. It took courage and bold leadership, but the culminating event by which we won the battle has to be one of the most fortuitous events in all naval history.
FOURTH, CODE BREAKING
Many people know now that we had broken the Japanese code. But in crypt-analysis nothing is certain and our success was part science, part art, and part Nimitz’ faith in his cryptographer team at Pearl led by Ed Layton and Joe Rochefort. As a result, Nimitz brought the Enterprise and Yorktown back from the South Pacific and patched up the damaged Yorktown just in time to play a key role in the battle. Instead of one carrier we had three. By some clever deception, the code breakers confirmed the target was Midway Island, which we promptly loaded with over one hundred aircraft—more than on any carrier—all unbeknownst to Yamamoto. Best of all, we knew to within a day or so when and where to search, find, and attack his fleet.
In June 1942 we had air search radar and the Japanese did not. Therefore they had no warning of the approaching dive bombers. That made all the difference. The defending Japanese fighters in the air were all too low to intercept our dive bombers because they had no air search radar to warn them. With radar the carrier decks would not have been caught with aircraft loaded with fuel, bombs, and ammunition. Radar itself is merely a technology. It takes wise command to appreciate its value—which we did not have at Pearl Harbor on 7 December. But by the following June we were proficient in using it to control our aircraft.
SIXTH AND LAST, MIDWAY ISLAND
The sixth necessary factor I have never seen specified is the role of Midway Atoll itself. Midway served as a fourth aircraft carrier on our side, and since its location was known and it could not move, Midway Island drew a lot of attention. It is not a big place but on the fatal day it was packed with Navy, Marine and Army aircraft, including B-17 bombers. Of the approximately 115 aircraft on the island we lost almost 60% of them. They did no damage whatsoever, but by making a series of badly coordinated attacks they preoccupied Nagumo and affected his decisions. Without the distraction of Midway Island we could never have attacked his striking force successfully. The irony of Midway is this. Yamamoto didn’t care as much about taking the island as he did about drawing out and destroying the remnants of our fleet. But Nagamo became distracted, and what was intended to be the seduction of our fleet—Midway Island—ended by seducing the seducer.
WARFARE AT SEA IS STILL FAST, FURIOUS, AND FATAL
Need I say that the six things, courage, leadership, luck, cryptanalysis, radar, and the island of Midway itself were all intertwined in a single fabric? Herman Wouk pays special tribute to the valor, leadership, radar, and luck of the aviators by having Captain Henry’s son die on the third day of the battle while diving, one last time, on a crippled Japanese cruiser. He memorializes all the aviators in the three torpedo squadrons from Hornet, Enterprise, and Yorktown by naming the pilots and crewmen, both the 68 who died and 14 who lived. Ian Toll in Pacific Crucible likens our torpedo bombers to the charge of the light brigade, but that’s the image of a foolish, useless sacrifice. Lundstrom, by comparison, give the torpedo planes a heroes’ credit for opening the door for the dive bombers’ success.
What is the command and control connection? A big technology change is embodied in our unmanned aerial vehicles. There is currently a debate about the ethics of attacking with unmanned aircraft. I think if you had asked John Waldron, Gene Lindsey, Lance Massey and their torpedo squadron mates, to a man they’d have said bring on the UAVs: it is better to sacrifice enemy lives with robotic attacks than to sacrifice American aviators.
The Battle of Midway was a special turning point in the war, but it in terms of fighting it is typical of all the great naval battles of the Pacific War. Aircraft carriers were vulnerable. By the end of 1942 both sides were reduced to one operating carrier, so that both sides had to rebuild their carrier fleets in 1943. As to aircraft losses, in the five big Pacific air battles, one-third of our aircraft were lost per battle, and two-thirds were lost per battle on the Japanese side.
The US Navy hasn’t fought a sea battle since 1945. Midway was fast, furious, and decisive. Has anything changed since then? I don’t think so. In the Falklands War a big deal was made in Time and Newsweek about the ships the Royal Navy was losing in 1982. This bugged me so much I took to the lecture circuit to put the record straight. That half-dozen or so British ships were sunk was not unusual, and at the same time the defenders destroyed the cream of the Argentine air force. Argentina lost so many aircraft, more than 40% of them, they had to change their strategy. Missile battles between ships have also been just as fast and furious in modern combat as in the past.
The Battle of Midway was not an anomaly in terms of destructiveness. The anomaly was that a badly outnumbered force won a great victory against a very skillful opponent, and it took all six critical things for us to win.