In Work: 1942 – The Year of the Aircraft Carrier; Part 7 – Midway Trilogy (3 of 3)

 Blown Slick Series #13 Part 7

(IN WORK) Flattop Reflections

 “An aircraft carrier is a noble thing. It lacks almost everything that seems to denote nobility, yet deep nobility is there. A carrier has no poise. It has   no  grace. It is top-heavy and lop-sided. It has the lines of a cow. It doesn’t cut through the water like a cruiser, knifing romantically along… It just plows… Yet a carrier is a ferocious thing, and out of its heritage of action has grown nobility. I believe that every Navy in the world has it as its No. 1 priority the destruction of enemy carriers. That’s a precarious honor, but it’s a proud one.” Ernie Pyle, 1945

Midway books2

On 13 June USS Enterprise returned to Pearl Harbor. Thus began the celebration, but also, evaluation of the battle operations, the impact on both US and Japanese capabilities and next steps, and of most importance, the beginning of planning to leverage the victory. And so…

“what did Midway really mean?” 

Again from Shattered Sword that answer typically comes in three varieties – 1) material, 2) strategic, and 3) counterfactual. The first focuses on the importance of such things as aircraft losses, the loss of skilled aircraft mechanics, and the size of Japan’s pilot training programs. The second analyzes what effect the defeat at Midway had on Japan’s strategy for the remainder of the war. The third seeks to illustrate the importance of Midway by creating “what if” scenarios (some well thought out, some verging on the delusional) that change the outcome of the Second World War in some way, depending on the outcome of this one battle.

Parshall and Tully  considered all three issues in turn, but considered understanding what it meant to Japan to lose the services of four aircraft carriers the key to understanding the battle’s importance.

After Midway and the exhausting attrition of the Solomon Islands campaign, Japan’s capacity to replace its losses in materiel (particularly aircraft carriers) and men (especially well-trained pilots and maintenance crewmen) rapidly became insufficient to cope with mounting casualties, while the United States’ massive industrial and training capabilities made losses far easier to replace. The Battle of Midway, along with the Guadalcanal Campaign, is widely considered the turning point in the Pacific War. But even with the pilot, ship’s company, and carrier losses, Yamamoto and the IJN moved on to fight viciously in trying to retake Guadalcanal. Midway certainly did not doom their war-fighting capability, but had they won, the remainder of 1942 and the capability and willingness of Admiral Nimitz to go on the offensive most certainly would have played out must differently.

As in part two, I have added more details on the Pacific war impact, but here the empahsis shifts to a fourth method of examination, one outside that of the scope of Shattered Sword, the impact indicated by the carrier operations and losses at Midway for the future war-at-sea.

Emergence of carrier as THE capital ship – 76 years and running


“decisive victory” context and carrier as threat vs vulnerability paradox

The battle changed the course of the Pacific War in that the loss of the four Japanese carriers turned the tide in the sense that the U.S. could now consider shifting from a defensive and raiding posture to true offensive action. As such, in early post-war analysis and writing, not only has Midway been characterized as miracle or incredible victory, it has been considered by many as the decisive battle of the Pacific War. But concurrently, it has also been pointed out and agreed that while Japan ran victorious for six months, no one – including the Japanese themselves – believed that in a protracted war, with all its industrial capability to call on, the end result could be anything other than a U.S. victory. Indeed, the war was initiated by Japan thinking it inevitable and thus desiring to strike first, do as much damage as possible and establish an island stronghold behind which to retreat.

Decisive” then becomes a  term worthy of some reflection. This then and the issues of the first aircraft carrier war is the subject of the final piece of the Midway trilogy – Part # 7 of the series.

But forsake of argument given the focus of this series on possible lessons from the early application of carrier warfare to be applied for future air warfare, let’s consider the definitions of decisive battles from 100 Decisive Battles From Ancient Times to Present; The World’s Major Battles and How They Shaped History by historian Dr. Paul K. Davis:

  1. The outcome of the battle brought about a major political or social change – the Norman victory at the Battle of Hastings completely altered the future of the British Isles
  2. Had the outcome of the battle been reversed. major political or social changes would have ensued – had Washington lost at Trenton, the defeat almost certainly would have spelled the end of the American Revolution
  3. The battle marks the introduction of a major change in warfare

That highlighted issue is obviously of concern today with all the cost, technology, people on a Ford class CV and i probably the basis for most critique on building strategy around CV’s, no?

And yet, for 76 years opponents of the U.S. have had to think and consider how to counter the carrier … China DF-21, island bases, island chains, and their own CV(s)

I intend to cover “impact” from 1942 perspective just enough for reasonable background finishing with issue of “decisive battle” or not. Conclusion: NOT decisive battle of Pacific,(allowed Guadalcanal but actual victory at Guadalcanal was not because of Midway… that’s another story in itself which I get to next in “Year of…”) but then using a modified use of “decisive” it was a decisive historical event in naval affairs- solidified and led to CV as major element of power projection for 76 years running

Shattered Sword discusses heavily the total infrastructure around carriers and the huge impact of mobility. Loss is very serious. That duality still exists with major improvements in technology on both sides.

And thus the lasting paradox of Midway: The beginning of this major capability which opponents must consider and remains a vital capability not to be thrown out but one whose loss would be very serious.

Therein lies the basis for sea-based combined arms of CV, sub, unmanned, and all that NIFC-CA implies

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1942 – The Year of the Aircraft Carrier; Part 6 – Midway Trilogy (2 of 3)

 Blown Slick Series #13 Part 6

Into the Shredder

The Battle of Coral Sea had provided the first hints that the Japanese high-water mark had been reached, but it was the Battle of Midway that put up the sign for all to see. Midway also marked the gateway to the attritional war that would be fought in the Solomons, a campaign that would irreparably ruin the Japanese Navy by destroying its elite naval aviation cadres and wrecking its surface forces beyond redemption. Midway didn’t produce these consequences by itself, but it created the circumstances whereby the Japanese Navy would be fed into the shredder. *


The Japanese had the overall numbers, they had the experience, they had the initiative, and for all practical purposes they decimated three torpedo squadrons and annihilated the Army Air Corps, Marine, and Navy attackers  from the island. So why did they lose?  Initial U.S. analysis after the battle was as follows:

  • Over confidence of Japanese forces – victory disease
  • Admiral Yamamoto’s battle plan.
    • his operational scheme featured an overly rigid timetable and
    • plan designed around  his  perceptions of U.S. intentions rather than their capabilities,
    • rigidity of Japanese planning – in that the Americans were expected to react in a scripted fashion
    • Excessive reliance on the element of surprise in developing his plans followed by actual loss of the element of surprise – U.S. code breaking
  • Counterproductive and finally fatal dispersal of forces over too great an area resulting in lack of  superiority at the point of contact.
  • Too few airplanes and too much ocean to cover.

“In summary, the plan that emerged  was a crazy quilt of formations and objectives, none of which were mutually supporting. When one of the legs of the table was kicked out, the entire article promptly collapsed under the weight of its own foolishness.” *

In 1947 Rear Adm. Samuel Eliot Morison observed in the preface of volume one of his  enormously influential “semiofficial” History of United States Naval Operations in World War II

“No history written shortly after the event it describes can pretend to be completely objective or even reasonably definitive. Facts that I know not will come to light; others that I discard will be brought out and incorporated in new patterns of interpretation.”

In that light, over time several more nuanced and systemic reasons for the loss have been put forward, with possibly the most telling stemming from the in depth analysis of Japanese documentation and perspective – most significantly  as noted previously  in the work of Tully and Parshall  in *Shattered Sword. (Leading quotes)

There are many well researched and well written books on Midway. Given the nature of this series focus on carriers in battle rather than battles themselves, it would seem the remainder of Part 6 discussion would  best be served by reflection  on  that analysis by Tully and Parshall. The intent is to isolate and highlight their specific take on why the Japanese lost. What follows includes extractions from  Chapters  22 and 23 with some minor editorial modifications for format and clarity in context of Rememberedsky focus.

As part of their research they noted that  important insights could be gleaned from the  study Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War by Eliot Cohen and John Gooch, which lays out a useful framework for analyzing why militaries fail in battle. Using this framework, it became clear to them that it wasn’t just Yamamoto or Genda who failed at Midway; indeed in several important ways, the entire institution of the Japanese Navy was to blame as well.


First, Cohen and Gooch’s framework: they propose that all military failures fall into three basic categories:

  1. failure to learn from the past
  2. failure to anticipate what the future may bring
  3. failure to adapt to the immediate circumstances on the battlefield.

They further note that when one of these three basic failures occurs in isolation (known as a simple failure), the results, while unpleasant, can often also be overcome. Aggregate failures of two of the basic failure types, usually learning and anticipation, take place simultaneously, and these are more difficult to surmount. Finally, at the apex of failure stand those rare events when all three basic failures occur simultaneously-an event known as catastrophic failure. In such an occurrence, the result is usually a disaster of such scope that recovery is impossible. Sadly for the Japanese, Midway must join the ignominious ranks of this level of calamitous compound failure.

Tully and Parshall state:

“Taken as a whole, the inescapable conclusion that emerges from a careful examination of the battle is the fact that the Japanese defeat was not the result of some solitary, crucial breakdown in Japanese designs. It was not the result of Victory Disease, nor of a few crucial personal mistakes. Rather, what appears is a complex, comprehensive web of failures stretching across every level of the battle-strategic, operational, and tactical. Every aspect of the enterprise was tainted in some way.

The surface manifestations of these deeper failures may ultimately have been a host of mistakes committed by individuals. And some of those mistakes were clearly more important that others. But the vast majority of them were in some way symptomatic of larger failures within the Japanese military and within the Navy’s cultural fabric, its doctrine, and its preferred modes of combat. They were the end products of an organization that failed to learn correctly from its past, failed to plan correctly for its future, and then failed to adapt correctly to circumstances once those plans were shown to be flawed.

Intriguingly, the seeds of many of these errors had been planted some forty years before, through the initial teachings of the Japanese Naval Staff College, and from the flower of Japan’s greatest victory-the Battle of Tsushima. They had lain unnoticed all that time, growing unchecked, waiting for the right time, place, and individuals to give them expression. Instead of culling these warped seedlings, the Japanese Navy had fostered their growth in the 1930’s. The twin pressures of a violent nationalism, combined with the sure knowledge that they would be the underdog in any war with America, had conspired to skew Japan’s naval policies and doctrine still further during that time period. As a result, by the time the Pacific war began, and despite its undoubted tactical prowess, the Navy’s ability to mentally fight the war at a strategic and operational level was already fatally damaged. It was at Midway that the breadth of these shortcomings finally revealed themselves, with catastrophic results for both the Imperial Navy and the Japanese nation. Of course, in the larger context of the war, the Battle of Midway was just one of the first of a much greater harvest of bitter fruit that would fall from the poisoned tree of Japanese militarism.


The military defeats that began with the Battle of Midway stem from the harsh reality that, far from being the truly modern, progressive institution that it fondly imagined itself to be, the Imperial Navy was in fact possessed of the most parochial of outlooks. Instead of the quick, limited war Japan’s military leadership envisioned, the Pacific war soon revealed itself to be all encompassing and all consuming. In a shockingly short time, America had begun waging war against Japan across every strategic dimension available to a great industrial power-military, political, economic, and scientific. Japan was assaulted on the ground, through the air, and on and under the sea. Ultimately, it was beaten decisively in every one of these arenas.

In this sense, Midway was merely symptomatic of the imperial military’s larger failings. Most obvious was their fatally misguided decision to launch a war of aggression against the most powerful nation on earth. Having done so, moreover, they found themselves engaged in a conflict whose scope and complexity forced its participants to evolve at a frenetic pace. As it developed, for the Japanese this was a particularly daunting challenge. Despite the amazing speed with which they had modernized their fighting forces after 1848, they were still bound by thought patterns linked to an earlier military and cultural era, as well as the warped legacy of Tsushima. In the final analysis, it is no exaggeration to say that the conflict the Japanese military instigated in 1941 was not only beyond its resources, but also beyond its understanding.”

As stated previously, there are many excellent books covering all aspects of the Battle of Midway spread over the 76 years since the battle. Just noting six of those that  were accessed for this post , the dates of publication are 1951/1955, 1967, 1983, 2005, 2006, and the latest, the anthology from the Naval Institute in 2013.

The thrust of this piece has been to separate out analysis of how the most experienced carrier based navy, the IJN, operated in the second  major clash of carriers. Part #7, Reflection, will address Midway, IJN operations, and overall carrier operations for potential learning for future carrier operations, before turning to the two carrier battles at Guadalcanal in Part#8.

For a more detailed look at Shattered Sword’s analysis, please continue to read extracts from Tully and Parshall in outline form below.

From Chapter 22 and 23

Pearl Harbor Attack, 7 December 1941

1) Failure to learn indicates that a military has been either unable or unwilling to adequately address the lessons of the past.

a. Imperial Navy’s failure to draw correct conclusions from the past stemmed in large part from its crowning naval triumph at Tsushima in 1905.

1. Tsushima seemed to confirm the notion that naval power could be used to shape and control conflicts so that they remained localized and were fought for limited objectives.

2. Tsushima (falsely) taught the lesson that victory at sea devolved solely from winning climactic fleet engagements. This lesson seemed inescapable, since Tsushima was one of the most decisive naval battles in history, resulting in the utter annihilation of the Russian fleet.

3. Tsushima implanted in the Imperial Navy the unfailing belief in the primacy of offensive factors, as compared to defensive considerations. Tsushima cemented the notion that big guns were the final arbiter of any naval encounter, a belief further reinforced by the clash of heavily armed battle lines at Jutland.

b. These three lessons were later fused unhealthily with Japan’s growing fixation after the First World War on the possibility of war with the United States. The Japanese understood that any such conflict would pit them against a foe whose numerical superiority was ultimately ensured by overwhelming industrial might. Seeing no way to fight numbers with numbers, the Imperial Navy fell back on the unswerving belief that quality-if wielded with superior skill and Japanese fighting spirit (Yamato damashia)-must be able to defeat quantity.

1. As a result, the other traditional roles that great navies throughout history have embraced-protecting one’s commerce, destroying the commerce of the enemy, and conducting amphibious landings-were strictly subjugated to the Imperial Navy’s overriding need to augment the fleet’s raw offensive strength. Speed, range, and firepower were everything.

2. The problem was that none of these dictums was appropriate in the context of a global war in the Pacific, particularly a protracted one.

3. As for the cherished notion of creating a single decisive battle that would decide the course of the war, the Imperial Navy searched in vain throughout the conflict for such an engagement-first at Midway, and then elsewhere. The Japanese completely failed to understand that a power like the United States could never be brought to ruin-or even to the bargaining table-as the result of a single engagement, no matter how successful it was. The industrialized, massively mobilized nature of World War ii ensured that protracted warfare was practically inevitable. In such a setting, nations could be defeated only after the application of levels of cumulative force and destruction that beggared the imagination.

c. The third lesson from Tsushima manifested itself in the Imperial Navy’s continuing overemphasis on offensive factors. At the strategic level this meant that its naval force structure, while formidable in frontline strength, did not possess the characteristics needed for the protracted war it had unwittingly purchased for itself. And operationally, it meant that Japan came to Midway armed with a doctrinal outlook rigidly inclined toward the offensive.

d. the most important learning failure of the Imperial Navy concerned lessons not from prior wars, but rather from the first five months of the Pacific war itself. At the top of this list must stand the Navy’s inability to correctly perceive the underlying reasons for its success up until April 1942.

1. The only way for the Japanese to avoid being outnumbered and ambushed by a suddenly appearing enemy carrier task force that “wasn’t supposed to be there” was to bring the entirety of their own carrier force to every major operation. There really was no middle ground in terms of force allocation. Quantity had arguably been the critical factor in Japan’s seminal victories to date.

2. Given that fact, bringing the entire carrier force to an operation such as Midway was absolutely imperative. An astute naval leadership would have noticed this correlation, but the Imperial Navy did not.

3. Coral Sea and Midway make it clear that the Japanese Navy was going after too many objectives at once. It was dispersing its carrier assets, thereby casting aside its proven formula for victory In the process, it was unnecessarily elevating the Navy’s risk by placing irreplaceable combat assets in situations where its weaker opponent could temporarily concentrate superior numbers against them.

4. Had Yamamoto supplied his subordinate with true superiority of naval airpower at the point of contact, it could have widened Nagumo’s tactical options immensely

5. Midway hints at the start of a “learning gap” appearing between the two navies. This was a phenomenon that would become increasingly evident as the war progressed-the the U.S. Navy as an organization often (although not always) had a superior capacity for absorbing battle lessons and translating them into doctrinal and technical modifications that would aid it in future battles.

e. The overall conclusion is inescapable-the Japanese Navy had a learning problem.

1. The cherished precepts that it had carried down from Tsushima-the value of geographically limited wars, the primacy of offensive over defensive factors, and the supremacy of big-gun navies-were largely inapplicable to World War.

2. Furthermore, at its highest levels of command, the Navy had also failed to grasp the lessons of the war they had launched. Not the least important of these principles was the overriding importance in carrier warfare of numerical superiority, despite having emphatically driven that very point home for all the world to see at Pearl Harbor.

2) Failures of anticipation. As Cohen and Gooch point out, “The essence of a failure to anticipate is not mere ignorance of the future, for that is inherently unknowable. It is, rather, the failure to take reasonable precautions against a known hazard.”29 Along with its failures in learning, it is clear that the Imperial Navy failed to anticipate as it went into the battle of Midway.

a. At the level of operational planning, Genda was clearly guilty of failing to foresee that a larger number of scouting aircraft would be required to implement a thorough search. “Carrier attack planes could be used as scouts during transits to the battlefield. But once battle was joined, scouting with attack aircraft was to be avoided. If there weren’t enough floatplanes to do the job, it just didn’t get done.”

b. Nagumo’s failure-on the basis of the intelligence he had in hand before the battle-to anticipate that the American carriers might be present off of Midway. It is clear that Nagumo probably ought to have been suspicious of the level of American activity in the area, if nothing else. But he chose not to act on this intelligence. These tendencies were further reinforced by the military culture prevailing in the Imperial Navy, which valued conformity and obedience over creativity or personal initiative.

c. Yamamoto was clearly guilty of the sin of planning operations around perceived enemy intentions, rather than on the basis of the enemy’s likely capabilities.

d. The corollary failure that flowed from this assumption was Yamamoto’s decision to disperse his forces in the face of the enemy. By subdividing his superior mass into a welter of smaller formations that were not mutually supportive, the overall battle plan was unnecessarily weakened.

e. note that throughout the war, even as their strength weakened relative to the Americans, the Japanese never lost their fondness for complex dispersed operations.

f. It is clear in this regard that Japanese naval strategy was influenced from its very inception by Oriental philosophies on the conduct of war, which emphasized the value of deception and indirect approaches. Akiyama Saneyuki, the most brilliant thinker at the Imperial Navy’s Staff College at the turn of the twentieth century, drew heavily not only on contemporary Western naval practices, but also on ancient Oriental military masters such as Sun Tzu as he began hammering out Japanese naval strategic thought at that time. Akiyama’s principles, in particular his love of indirect approaches so as to conceal the true objective of an operation, were seen by the Japanese as laying the strategic foundation for the victory at Tsushima.

g. Unfortunately, at Midway the Japanese encountered a strategic problem where subtlety was a dangerous luxury. If ever a situation called for using brute force, this was it. But Yamamoto, shaped by his institutional training, adopted an elegant strategic approach that suited his service’s martial sensibilities, and it is likely that any other graduate of the Imperial Naval Staff College would have done likewise. In a nutshell, Japanese naval strategy was warped and was likely to produce unworkable solutions no matter who was in charge of the planning. In this sense, Chihaya’s complaint that the Japanese Navy had as “good as planned for” its defeat at Midway is true-but the reasons for that defeat reached back well before six months of overweening pride brought them into focus.

h. In sum, the Japanese Navy was clearly guilty of several crucial errors of anticipation. Genda’s anemic reconnaissance scheme, Yamamoto’s obtuse battle plan, even Kaga’s unlikely resurrection at the hand of Ugaki during the May war games-all were indicative of a Navy that had failed miserably to foresee what the future might bring. Instead, they habitually assumed that a “best case” rather than a “worst case” scenario would unfold in their favor-a bad idea in military planning. Thus, the Japanese came to Midway with a flawed doctrine, having drawn the wrong conclusions from the past, and having failed to absorb the most critical lesson from the current conflict (failure one). Moreover, their battle plan was similarly flawed and did not consider contingencies such as the American fleet being present off of Midway (failure two).

 3) Failures to adapt.Despite these glaring problems, Nagumo still might have won the battle, or at least have made the outcome more even, if the Japanese had been able to adapt to the challenge of their changed circumstances.

a. By far the most important reason for these adaptive failures was an unhealthy rigidity on the part of the Japanese regarding the sanctity of battle plans. Indeed, this is a common theme for the imperial military that can be seen not only at Midway, but throughout the Pacific war as well.

b. it is clear that the Japanese held their plans in such high regard that, once in place, they were loath to alter them. This manifested itself in Yamamoto’s failure to adapt to the setback at Coral Sea. By not allowing Operation Ml’s timetable to slip, he lost the chance to include either member of CarDiv 5 in the starting lineup, and thus condemned Nagumo to fight on even terms at Midway, rather than from a position of strength. By

c. At an operational level, plan inertia manifested itself in a stubborn unwillingness to adapt immediately before and during battle. Karl von Clausewitz’s famous maxim that “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy,” probably never met with a less enthusiastic audience than the Imperial Navy.

d. it is clear from many of the failures of learning and adaptation just discussed that the Japanese entered the Battle of Midway wearing doctrinal handcuffs, the effect of which was to retard still further their ability to innovate. Whereas American doctrine is generally presented to a commander as a codification of guidelines concerning the effective conduct of combat, the very nature of the Japanese military culture made its own doctrine far more rigid with regards to interpretation. This manifested itself in Nagumo and Genda’s disinclination to augment their tactical scouting assets with carrier strike assets, even in the face of accumulating evidence that the Americans were more alert than they ought to have been.

e. Japanese doctrine prescribed massed airpower as the correct answer to any tactical problem that arose, and Nagumo and his staff dogmatically stuck to that formula.

f. Some of these problems stemmed from the simple fact that in early 1942 the aircraft carrier was still a brand-new weapon system. As such, the body of doctrinal thinking in all the carrier navies was relatively small and still maturing. Other navies might have viewed an immature doctrine as being a tacit admission that some degree of interpretation by unit commanders would be required during the course of battle. The Japanese apparently did not see things this way-they stuck to the playbook, small as it might be. When improvisation was called for, they answered with the most expedient, and transparent tactic available-charging the enemy. Thus, in the critical matter of adaptation, the Japanese likewise failed abysmally.

4) Conclusion Taken as a whole, the inescapable conclusion that emerges from a careful examination of the battle is the fact that the Japanese defeat was not the result of some solitary, crucial breakdown in Japanese designs. It was not the result of Victory Disease, nor of a few crucial personal mistakes. Rather, what appears is a complex, comprehensive web of failures stretching across every level of the battle-strategic, operational, and tactical. Every aspect of the enterprise was tainted in some way.

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1942 – The Year of the Aircraft Carrier; Part 5 – Midway Trilogy (1 of 3)

Blown Slick Series #13 Part 5

 Paradox and Redemption: 4 to 7 June 1942               The Battle of Midway 

Among the many gems is a reminder to all who study mankind’s self-inflicted cataclysm: “Yet the overwhelming reality during the war…is that nobody knew how it would go.” Winds of War/War and RemembranceHerman Wouk

Before the battle was joined there was  no way the Japanese could have lost it…once it began, there was no way they could have won it. The Barrier and the Javelin, H.P. Willmott


The Battle of Midway occurred six months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and one month after the Battle of the Coral Sea. Under overall command in the Pacific of Admiral Chester Nimitz, Admirals Frank Jack Fletcher, and Raymond A. Spruance – neither a naval aviator – defeated an attacking fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy under Admirals Isoroku Yamamoto, Chuichi Nagumo, and Nobutake Kondo near Midway Atoll, in the second only battle of aircraft carriers vs. aircraft carriers. Inflicting the loss of all four IJN carriers, the U.S. victory is arguably the most well known, researched, scrutinized and written about  naval battle in history. Military historian John Keegan called it “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.”

Indeed, in the “common wisdom,” the battle has not only been considered the decisive battle of the Pacific war, it has evoked the words/terms miracle, incredible, tide-turning, and no right to win. As noted in 2005 in the much heralded book and basis for much of the re-thinking of the battle,   Shattered Sword,

the defining moment will always be the devastating and seemingly last-minute attack of American dive bombers against the Japanese carrier force at 1020 … hurling down from the heavens to drop their bombs on helpless Japanese  carriers, their decks packed with aircraft just moments away from taking off

As it turns out, over the long years since the battle, multiple controversies, paradoxes, and myths have sprung up and gained traction. Some participants have gone to their graves steadfastly claiming competing stories. The two most persistent “myths” are that the Americans faced overwhelming odds and that the Bombing 6 (VB-6) Dauntless dive bombing of the carriers Kaga and Akagi occurred with their flight decks full within five minutes of launching against the American carriers. While there are multiple reasons, one of the most crucial is the reliance of multiple researchers and authors  on the 1951 (1955 U.S. translation) book Midway – the Battle That Doomed Japan by Akagi’s airwing commander Mitsuo Fuchida .

While there is a huge library of books on the battle by noted historians and authors, the previously noted Shattered Sword by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully has delved deeply into Japanese sources.  Its research and focus on the battle has shined a bright light into dark corners and revealed much needed hidden or partially obscured details. Much that was found draws into question significant aspects of Fuchida’s version of events. It also provides explanations of events that had never been quite reconciled. Sword has been a major resource for this series and is most highly recommended.

There is so much detail and complexities related to the battle that no short rendition can do the battle justice, and interested readers should explore the many well researched books. A few are recommended below.

Here it seems worthwhile to note that while RememberedSky always makes effort to honor the participants of the Battle of Midway each June 4th, the focus of this sub-series is on the aircraft carrier in warfare, with the battles being the vehicle for discussion. The second piece, Series #13 Part 6, will discuss the Japanese loss factors and the third Part 7 take on reflection on the carriers and how they were used and implications. Below is a short overview for perspective that leverages updated graphics of the battle to bring clarification stemming mostly from Shattered Sword.


Figure 1: The Set-up

The Japanese operation, like the earlier attack on Pearl Harbor, sought to eliminate the United States as a strategic power in the Pacific, thereby giving Japan a free hand in establishing its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and was an element of expanding IJN control. As part of an overall “barrier” strategy to extend Japan’s defensive perimeter, Operation Mo focused on Port Moresby resulting in the May Battle of the Coral Sea Both operations were  considered preparatory for further attacks against Fiji, Samoa, and Hawaii itself. Yamamoto expected to lure the American aircraft carriers into a trap after occupying Midway. He leveraged the Doolittle air raid on Tokyo to insure support from Japanese authority including a reluctant Army senior staff.  The Japanese hoped another demoralizing defeat would force the U.S. to capitulate in the Pacific War and thus ensure Japanese dominance in the Pacific.

Four Japanese aircraft carriers faced off against three U.S. aircraft carriers and Midway Atoll defenses  None of the remainder of the overwhelming Japanese force was in a position to affect the outcome of the battle including three small carriers used to execute a combined attack in the Aleutian Islands.  Admiral Yamamoto’s plan was seriously flawed – overly complex and based on what he thought the U.S. Navy would do rather than what they could do. While his overall strength was more than the American, at the point of battle he was actually outnumbered (248 Japanese aircraft to 360 U.S. aircraft) – needlessly.

Admiral Nimitz, on the other hand, had a good plan based on exceptional intelligence that gave the us the crucial element of surprise and thus had good reason to believe that he was taking a “calculated risk” with a reasonable chance of success; he did not believe he was making a desperate gamble with the precious remaining U.S. aircraft carriers.

As a result in the execution, as the commander of the Japanese carrier task force, Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo launched a strike on Midway, he had no clue that 152 carrier aircraft from Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown were en route to attack him (only at 0820 did he even know one U.S. carrier was even in the area).

The first waves of U.S. attacks on the IJN carriers originating from Midway Island were completely ineffective and slaughtered in multiple separate, extremely valiant, but futile attacks. But it must be noted, the raids from Midway, and the ferocious resistance of Marine AAA on Midway to the Japanese morning attack, instigated the dynamic for Admiral Nagumo in regard to arming his aircraft for another strike on Midway or for attack on the U.S. carriers.

From the U.S. perspective, given the decision to launch at extreme range by Admiral Spruance, the launch cycle of three types of aircraft with different speeds and capabilities, from three different carriers, weather/visibility, need for radio silence, combined with the decision to delay Yorktown’s launch by Admiral Fletcher, the strike unfortunately fractured into at least seven uncoordinated groups. In addition some aircraft were heading in directions that would miss the Japanese carriers entirely.

Figure 2 provides graphic depiction of location AND significantly timing of the Devastator torpedo squadrons (VT-8, VT-6 and VT-3) and the Dauntless dive bomber squadrons (VB-6, VS-6, and VB-3) during the crucial time frame of the attack.


Figure 2; Reader Situational Awareness aide “American air attacks on Kido Butai. 0920-1020. This illustration shows how the Japanese carrier formation was shoved in new directions as a result of the ongoing American attacks.” Shattered Sword (2005)

Figure 3 then shows the attack based on the individual IJN carrier positions resulting from the twisting and turning of each carrier as effected by the torpedo squadron attacks. While earlier accounts have used the VT attacks as basis for bringing Japanese fighters down to water level, leaving the Dauntless bombers free of threat, the timing shown in the graphics indicate that the fighters had time to climb and re-position.

Here from “…Sword

it should have been of concern to both Nagumo and his staff that the fleet was being shoved around by these attacks. The attack by VT-8 had been equivalent to a stone thrown into a group of pigeons, blowing apart Ki’do Butai’s formation and forcing it west. The attack by VT-6 had been a longer, more grinding affair. Nagumo and his carriers had had little choice but to run northwest for a full twenty minutes. Thus, a perceptive observer would have noticed that Japanese control over the flow of events was almost nonexistent. They were trying to recapture the initiative, but in truth they were still in “reaction mode.” This was no way to win a battle.

The four carriers had to constantly maneuver because of the VT squadron attacks.  Flight deck activity was focused on launching more fighters not getting ready for a strike on the U.S. carriers. The torpedo squadrons main contribution then was not in terms of the CAP fighter positioning, rather their actions and bravery forced such action by the IJN carriers that they disrupted the whole counteroffensive activities of the Japanese.


Figure 3;  Reader Situational Awareness aide – Kido Butai immediately before attacks. The Carriers are line abreast, with the two carrier divisions widely separated.”  Shattered Sword (2005)

The dive bombing attacks by the three Dauntless squadrons would leave Kaga, Akagi and Soryu in ruins. The  Hiryu would survive to get off two separate strikes that left the Yorktown in critical condition, before a late-afternoon U.S. counterstrike left her also flaming wreck; all four Japanese carriers would eventually be scuttled.  A Japanese heavy cruiser, the Mikuma, which had been escorting her sister the Mogami, seriously damaged in a collision, was sunk on 6 June by carrier aircraft. The cost to the Japanese was all four carriers involved – Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, Hiryu, and all 248 carrier aircraft, plus a heavy cruiser.

For the U.S., just as it appeared that heroic damage control efforts would save the Yorktown, she was torpedoed, along with the destroyer Hammann, by Japanese submarine I-168 on 6 Jun. Hammann sank immediately, and Yorktown went down the morning of 7 June. The U.S. carriers Enterprise (CV-6) and Hornet (CV-8) were never found by Japanese strike aircraft, although both their air groups suffered extensive losses. The cost to the U.S. was sinking of the Yorktown and the Hammann, about 145 aircraft lost and 307 killed.

Although more than 75% of the Japanese aviators lived to fight again, the more telling costs were the carriers themselves, the crew and the built up organizational and operational experience. Over 3,000 Japanese sailors lost their lives.

It should be noted that the two battles – Coral Sea and Midway – remain highly coupled. Had either Shokaku or Zuikaku been at Midway, the battle probably would have been unwinnable for Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown. Again from Shattered Sword:

In the end, Midway stands as the most important battle of the Pacific war, not because it was decisive in an absolute sense, and not because it won the war in a day, but because of its immediate practical effects on American military options in the Pacific. In the succinct words of the Naval War College study of the battle, Midway “put an end to Japanese offensive action … and … [restored] the balance of naval power in the Pacific.” In this modern era of unchallenged American naval supremacy, merely restoring parity may not seem like much of an accomplishment. But it must be recalled that Midway was fought “between one navy at the peak of its strength and another if not at its nadir then close to it.” In the dark months of 1942, being able to claw back to parity was an enormous achievement. Thus, Midway clearly delineated where and when the strategic momentum in the Pacific war shifted over to the Americans. The Battle of Coral Sea had provided the first hints that the Japanese high-water mark had been reached, but it was the Battle of Midway that put up the sign for all to see. Midway also marked the gateway to the attritional war that would be fought in the Solomons, a campaign that would irreparably ruin the Japanese Navy by destroying its elite naval aviation cadres and wrecking its surface forces beyond redemption. Midway didn’t produce these consequences by itself, but it created the circumstances whereby the Japanese Navy would be fed into the shredder.

As noted the Midway Trilogy continues in Part #6 with some analysis of the Japanese loss and provide discussion of the paradoxes, various dissenting analysis over time, and Part #7 will address implications and reflection on carrier warfare. For now here are links to previous posts and four references/good reads with diversified focus:

 Previous RememberedSky posts on the Battle of Midway:

Recommended Reading:
(Note: These four books were used as references but are not inclusive. There are so many books on this battle, but these each  provide different perspectives.)

Midway composite

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Memorial Day 2018 – Remembering Smokey

Smokey2Remembrance days can be illustrated by stories of war and sacrifice, of great and decisive battles, or of the bravery of whole units who “stood fast” in the face of a massive threat, or most certainly by the above and beyond courage of a single warrior who determined “this will not be allowed on my watch.”  Most often that act is not so much in context of winning a battle, but rather in giving up of life to save one’s comrades.  But memory of all can also be elicited by memory of one, one who chose to be there, to be with those, who like him most certainly loved country, but also resonated with those friends who liked being around others who understood the idea of service at its deepest level, and gave it willingly, joyfully – for love of country most certainly, but also for love of the game. Smokey Tolbert was one of those.  Smokey was my squadron-mate and my great friend. He died over North Vietnam the sixth of November 1972.

“For love of the game” might seem an odd or even inappropriate usage for a day we honor our fallen comrades in arms, but for any who have followed this website over the years, you know I do not take days like Memorial Day, Independence Day or Veterans Day lightly. Service under fire is always about love of those “in the foxhole with you.”  “Love of the game” here reflects those relationships and that service to fellow warriors. I hope you will agree that this denotes and reflects most highly on the very heart of the serviceman when called “under the fire.” Continue reading

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1942 – The Year of the Aircraft Carrier; Part 4 – The Battle of the Coral Sea

Blown Slick Series #13 Part 4

“Scratch One Flattop!”

The Battle of the Coral Sea, fought from 4 to 8 May 1942 is historically significant as the first action in which aircraft carriers engaged each other, as well as the first in which neither side’s ships sighted or fired directly upon the other. And of great importance, the battle marked the first time since the start of the war that a major Japanese advance had been checked by the Allies.


The Port Moresby Attack Plan, Operation ‘MO’

In an attempt to strengthen their defensive position in the South Pacific, plus provide the air support bases to threaten Australia, the Japanese decided to invade and occupy Port Moresby (in New Guinea) and Tulagi (in the southeastern Solomon Islands). Admiral Yamamoto reluctantly agreed to the plan but was concerned with the potential impact on his effort to lure U.S. Navy carriers into an engagement at Midway. In typically complex fashion, in early May, they deployed five naval forces, including a covering group with the light carrier Shoho and five escorts, and Vice Admiral Takeo Takagi’s striking arm: Carrier Division Five (CARDIV 5) with heavyweights Shokaku and Zuikaku screened by eight escorts. Combined Japanese air strength of the three carriers was 141. Continue reading

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1942 – The Year of the Aircraft Carrier; Part 3 – The Four Battles

Blown Slick Series #13 Part 3

The Clash of the Carriers

During the course of the first months after the Pear Harbor attack, U.S. carriers had been conducting multiple raids on the periphery of Japanese occupied ocean areas. The raids were not executed at random, but were based on intelligence that indicated Japanese carriers would not be present to oppose the raids. The Doolittle attack on Tokyo launched from USS Hornet can be characterized as the end of that “carrier raiding” period. And indeed, both the U.S. and Japan were ready to move forward. These opposing plans gave rise to the clash of the carriers throughout the remainder of 1942. Both sides would suffer tremendous losses but in the end the Japanese irreplaceable loss of experienced combat aviators and their aircraft were the seeds of final defeat.


By early March 1942, with the exception of isolated U.S. forces valiantly holding out on the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor Island in the Philippines, the Japanese had achieved all their pre-war objectives, over three months ahead of schedule.  What to do next resulted in massive infighting between the Japanese army and navy and also internal to the Navy. Continue reading

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1942- The Year of the Aircraft Carrier; Part 2 – The Doolittle Raid

Blown Slick Series #13 Part 2

War, Remembrance, Honor – The Doolittle Raiders

18 April, 1942

Lead Pic

Spotted by a Japanese ship two days before they intended to launch 400-450 miles off the coast of Japan, Admiral Halsey, Hornet commanding officer Captain Marc Mitscher, and LtCol. Jimmy Doolittle determined the necessity to launch immediately – probably 600 plus miles out and meaning the raiders could most probably not reach the Chinese mainland.

The Doolittle Raid, also known as the Tokyo Raid, on Saturday, April 18, 1942, was planned and led by Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle as the first air operation to strike the Japanese Home Islands including the Japanese capital Tokyo.


Continue reading

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1942 – The Year of the Aircraft Carrier; Part 1- Background

Blown Slick Series #13 


Seventy-five years ago -1943 – Nimitz, King, and particularly the air navy admirals worked a seemingly endless slate of problems to leverage the advantages the navy had hard earned in the last year. The F-4 Wildcat was replaced with new F-4U Corsairs and F-6F Hellcats, replacing scout bombers and torpedo bombers proved problematic. Roles and missions had to be adjusted, particularly for the ever increasing demands of observation and reconnaissance. New Essex class aircraft carriers were coming on line. The careful days of a single carrier in the Pacific after Guadalcanal were over, but how best to employ- individually or with two inside the screen? Experienced carrier operators supported both concepts. Continue reading

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A Second Look – Aviation Week Debate on the F-35

Blown Slick Series #12

Last summer Aviation Week conducted a podcast debate between the first commanding officer of a USMC F-35B squadron, retired  LtCol. David Berke,  and former “fighter mafia” participant during the Light Weight Fighter competition (YF-16/17) Pierre Sprey.


Berke has an  extremely unique  flight experience background in that he’s instructed at TOPGUN, conducted operational test flights of the F-22 and has significant flight time in the F-16, F/A-18, F-22 and F-35. Sprey was a participant in the LWF program and heavily involved with the A-10 program development. Their views of the F-35 and future airpower needs and application are significantly different.

Given the RememberedSky thought that like it or not the F-35 is THE elephant in the room for assessing future airpower application, upon listening for the third time, it seemed an appropriate post. A few comments are provided below the links.

Aviation Week Podcast: F-35 in the Crossfire, Part 1

Aviation Week Podcast: F-35 in the Crossfire, Part 2

Brief Comments

Continue reading

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War and Remembrance 18 December 1972; Linebacker II and the General Who Made It So

On the third night of LB II three B-52s were shot down on the first raid. Seventh Air Force Headquarters Headquarters in Saigon and SAC Headquarters in Omaha went into shock. As a result they recalled the six B-52Gs targeted for Hanoi on the second raid, with the result that the North Vietnamese had done something that the Germans, Japanese, Soviets, Chinese, and North Koreans had never been able to to achieve – they had made an American bombing raid abort for fear of losses (Michelle, The Eleven Days of Christmas).

On the third wave, two more G’s were lost with nine of twelve crew-members lost.  When Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Moorer was briefed on the third night losses of the B-52’s, he picked up the phone and called the SAC Command post – “they’re setting their God-damned watches by the timing of your bombing runs!” 

Brigadier General Glenn Sullivan at U-Tapao had had enough with the SAC/Omaha imposed “same  way, same time,” single file bomber streams that were costing lives and aircraft. At 0930 the next morning, General Sullivan Sent a U-Tapao developed set of recommended new tactics directly (copy only to Eighth Air Force in Guam) to  General J.C. Meyer, Commander of SAC. Things changed, but Sullivan’s action came at the cost of his career- one more assignment, not promoted and retired.

Whether you spent 18 hours watching Ken Burns Vietnam documentary or as many vets did, just skipped it, you owe it to yourself to spend 30 minutes or so watching this video on Linebacker II and the career ending courage of Brigadier General Glenn R. Sullivan who jumped his chain of command after the first three nights of disastrous same tactics over and over for the B-52’s and changed they way the rest of LB II was conducted.

This video plus the website Triumph and Tragedy at 30,000 Feet are the products of General Sullivan’s son, G. Ray Sullivan, Jr.

“Sully: A General’s Decision” from Peachtree Films on Vimeo.

December 18, 1972 The beginning of Linebacker II one of the most important operations in the history of the Vietnam conflict. Often overlooked, excluded or completely mischaracterized, it is, in fact, what brought the POWs home and ended our involvement in Vietnam. Please visit the site and at the very least, the “Day by Day” page to pay tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice during those 11 days. …
We share a toast with ALL of those who participated in whatever capacity and whatever branch of service. It was an amazing feat on so many levels. Who knows what would’ve happened had we started here rather than finishing here…THANK YOU to all who were involved…Remember forever those who didn’t return…

Ray Sullivan

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