LOSERS ALSO WRITE HISTORY. Sometimes it pays to read it. Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully went through the surviving Imperial Japanese Navy records with the purpose of discovering what went wrong for what was at the time the most effective naval strike force in the world. Their efforts appear in Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway, tonight's Book Review No. 12. The Midway campaign, which in the Japanese records is a separate campaign, not a joint operation with an elaborate feint toward the Aleutians to draw the U.S. Navy out of port to be annihilated, is the culmination of a series of errors in inference beginning with the Japanese victory at Tsushima. The authors quote Navy Secretary Frank Knox. "Japan was either unable to understand modern war or not qualified to take part in it." Perhaps in theory, but in practice the submarine commanders were expecting a fight of ten years and it did take two nukes to underscore the obvious. Also, in practice, the Japanese expectation that their carriers could prevail under just about any circumstance led to foolish divisions of the force such as the Coral Sea campaign which ended with Shokaku in for repairs and Zuikaku short of planes (and no urgency to transfer Shokaku's planes to Zuikaku in order to bring another carrier along for the Decisive Battle) and the creation of several invasion and occupation fleets for Midway itself, just more ships for a proper reconnaissance to find. Messrs. Parshall and Tully make the case that in the Pacific Ocean, the Japanese might have done better limiting their operations to precisely those that were so important as to require all six carriers and those that could be achieved with none, particularly as the U.S. Navy got better at fighting, deploying carriers that could also turn up unannounced anywhere in the Pacific.
So what went wrong for the Japanese at Midway? We all know that three carriers were put out of action in about ten minutes midmorning of 4 June, with the fourth knocked out later in the day. The usual story has the Japanese Navy all but ready to launch a decisive counterstrike when the Helldivers arrive overhead. The reality is somewhat different. Those fighter planes that savaged the torpedo planes coming from Midway and the various carriers had to land to reload their guns and on occasion refuel. Aircraft carriers in those days did not have tractors to push planes about on the flight deck, and the same deck space had to be used for landing, or spotting planes, or launching planes. The strike could not be spotted while the flight decks were being used to service the fighter patrols, the fighter patrols had to keep landing to reload as long as the torpedo planes kept coming, and no air officer would risk spotting planes while his carrier was dodging torpedo attacks, as the maneuvering would lead to plane-handlers getting killed by planes rolling about the decks and off the decks. Serviced strike aircraft ready in the hangar deck, however, create an environment much more conducive to secondary explosions, and the dive-bomber strikes that did come proved to be more effective precisely because those planes one and two decks deep cooked off well inside the ships. For all that, all four carriers were scuttled by Japanese destroyer torpedoes.
The final strike proved to be more coordinated than most past records suggest. Yorktown, the most experienced carrier group on scene, brought escorted torpedo planes and dive bombers. The Japanese combat air patrol was already down low after having chased away the other torpedo strikes, and, keeping in mind the lessons of Coral Sea, focused on the threat of escorted torpedo planes. There were sufficient planes to hold the torpedo strike away from Hiryu, but nobody noticed the Helldivers ... Yorktown's accounted for Soryu, and Enterprise's the other two, but not the way Walter Lord or Gordon Prange would have it.
The Japanese action reports suggest a similar axis of approach of Hornet's torpedo planes, offering indirect confirmation of the reconstruction of Hornet's failed attacks in The Unknown Battle of Midway. There are numerous other nuggets in the Japanese reports. Read the book. It does have the annoying faux-anthropology tic of using selected Japanese words where English will do, e.g. the high-explosive bomb has a different tokaki (attachment point) than the torpedo (but throughout, bombs are bombs and torpedoes are torpedoes) and one must keep the kancho (four stripes on his sleeve) distinct from the kanko (the Japanese found kanjo kogekiki, "carrier attack bomber" a bit of a mouthful.) Our side called them "Val." Lots of good stuff in the appendices, including pictures of a piece of scrap aircraft carrier (not Yorktown) on the ocean bottom.