Explaining the “Miracle” at Midway

In the “Famous Four Minutes,” Japan’s offensive in the Pacific came to a halt as SBD Dauntlesses from USS Enterprise (CV 6) and USS Yorktown (CV 5) surprised Vice Adm. Nagumo’s strike force on the morning of 4 June 1942. The carriers Akagi (foreground), Kaga (in distance), and Soryu were mortally damaged. The fourth carrier, Hiryu, would be attacked later that same day. (R.G. Smith, rgsmithart.com)

Seventy years ago, over the course of the first week of June 1942, naval, air, and ground forces of the United States and Imperial Japan fought what would be known as the Battle of Midway. Although other battles would soon eclipse Midway in size and scope, no naval battle of World War II—and few others, if any, in all of naval history—would have so many momentous consequences ascribed to it as this singular engagement. Going into the battle, Japan’s martial fortunes were advancing in every theater of Asia, and the United States and its allies were reeling from one defeat after another. Less than a week later, four Japanese fleet carriers would be twisted ruins on the bottom of the Pacific, and the Imperial High Command would be so stunned that it would keep the results of the battle a secret from the Japanese people for the rest of the war.

The story of the battle has been told and retold over the years, and Midway continues to hold a mythological place in the collective memory of the U.S. Navy and the United States. In the past decade and a half in particular, however, a new generation of scholars has greatly added to our understanding of the battle. This article will present a portrait of this work that will hopefully prove illuminating for both those who follow the field and those who do not.

In a classic photo that has come to symbolize the Battle of Midway, U.S. Navy Douglas SBD-3 "Dauntless" dive bombers of scouting squadron VS-8 from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet approach the burning Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma to make the third set of attacks on her, during the Battle of Midway, June 6, 1942. National Archives photo

To talk about Midway is to confront the problem of explaining coincidence, contingency, and outcome in war. American scholars of Midway have long sought to explain the many seeming coincidences by characterizing the result of the battle as little short of a “miracle.” Walter Lord would name his 1967 narrative of Midway Incredible Victory, and 15 years later Gordon Prange’s posthumously published account of the battle was straightforwardly entitled Miracle at Midway. One battle participant’s memoir, God Was at Midway, even saw divine intervention at work.1The titles were more than mere rhetorical flourishes; the concept of the miracle has helped to explain the elements of the battle that have eluded detection, explication, or understanding. Over the years, Midway has perhaps become less of a miracle—but many mysteries remain.

One of the first monographs to describe the battle was Victory at Midway, written by Griffith Bailey Coale, the U.S. Navy’s first official combat artist and witness to the immediate aftermath of the battle (he arrived on Midway days after the main engagement). The book, published in 1944, is mostly autobiographical and filled with the exaggerated casualty claims common to a war still in progress (i.e., multiple Japanese battleships, destroyers, and transports are said to have been damaged or sunk, none of which actually occurred). Nonetheless, the work established the broad themes and tone that would characterize many of the Midway histories to follow: a crushing defeat was achieved against great odds; further invasions of Hawaii, Panama, and the West Coast were averted; and American bravery and fighting spirit won the day.2

It is telling that Midway’s story would first be told by an artist. Perhaps more than any other major battle of World War II—a conflict otherwise documented by abundant film and still photography—Midway long lacked a clear and detailed visual record.3 There are no images of the battle’s key moments—most notably the final U.S. dive-bombing attacks on the Japanese strike group (the Kido Butai). Only a few photos exist of the attacks’ aftermath, and these are of only one carrier (Hiryu). Coale’s work, as well as that of other artists such as R.G. Smith, has come to be among the most important visual representations of the battle. None of these artists, however, was an eyewitness to the combat at Midway.

Dramatic art by Griffith Bailey Coale, such as his “Dive Bombing Japanese Carriers at Midway,” depicted the Battle of Midway as a triumphant victory over the Japanese. Unlike the scene here with multiple ship types sinking, in reality the attacks by VB-6, VS-6, and VB-3 on 4 June fatally damaged three of the Kido Butai’s carriers—a more than decisive result. (Griffith Bailey Coale, Navy Art Gallery)

Historians have also been key participants in the construction of the story and memory of Midway. Just as the creation of the visual record of the battle’s most important moments has required the skilled brushes of painters, so too has Midway’s incomplete written record required the critical imaginations of historians working in the absence of important documents. Most important, deck logs and maintenance records from all four Japanese carriers, as well as from USS Yorktown, were lost and incompletely re-created from memory. Modern scholarship, increasingly concerned with the hours before the final attack on the Kido Butai on the morning of 4 June and the question of what was happening on the flight and hangar decks of the Japanese carriers during that time, have had to speculate using a range of alternative sources to answer these questions.

The first widely available historical account in English was Samuel Eliot Morison’s Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions, the fourth volume in his 15-volume History of the United States Naval Operations in World War II. Originally published in 1949 with the benefit of only a handful of available official documents including log books, action reports, and publications from the Office of Naval Intelligence and Naval War College, Morison’s work lacked strong input from Japanese sources. A subsequent printing in 1959 incorporated scholarship from what has been the most significant (and long the only) Japanese source translated into English on the battle, Mitsuo Fuchida’s and Masatake Okumiya’s Midway: the Battle that Doomed Japan, published in the United States in 1955. Later scholars would argue this work suffers from serious faults of credibility—despite the authorship of Fuchida, who led the air attack on Pearl Harbor and was present on Akagi at Midway. Morison also suffered under the limitation of having to skirt around the issue of the true nature of the intelligence coup that made the battle of Midway possible. In the 1950s, much of the story on the breaking of the JN-25 naval code was still classified, so Morison and his team of research assistants had to explain Adm. Chester Nimitz’s apparent foreknowledge of Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto’s plan by stating vaguely that “Intelligence fed [Nimitz] a fairly accurate account of Japanese plans and preparations, deduced from various bits of information from a variety of sources.”4

The mystery of the origin of these “bits of information” could have been the basis for a strong claim, if any could be made, that the battle indeed was a “miracle” for the United States. Morison concludes matter-of-factly, however, that “Midway was a victory of intelligence, bravely and wisely applied.”5 The full declassification in the 1960s and 70s of the efforts that resulted in the breaking of the JN-25 naval code allowed later historians to incorporate more detail about the intelligence side of the battle into the narrative. Subsequent historians dealing with Midway would acknowledge the importance of intelligence breakthroughs in allowing Nimitz to have foreknowledge of Japanese plans and forces. (Walter Lord, writing in the late 1960s, was the first to outline in detail the story of Cmdr. Joe Rochefort and his group at Station Hypo, which broke JN-25.6) Getting the two forces in proximity, however, only ensured that a battle took place—intelligence alone did not predetermine the outcome at Midway. The search for explanations would come to focus on the many key moments and coincidences of the battle, none more so than the crucial American dive-bombing attack on the carriers Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu.

Hornet’s air group, spotted on deck and warming up on the morning of 4 June. Hornet’s performance during the battle revealed serious deficiencies in the new carrier’s operational procedures and planning.

Fuchida and Okumiya brought to the narrative of Midway the Japanese side of the gripping story of the “five fateful minutes,” in which Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo’s carriers went from seeming success to utter ruin on the morning of 4 June. “At 1020 Admiral Nagumo gave the order to launch when ready. On Akagi’s flight deck all planes were in position with engines warming up. The big ship began turning into the wind. Within five minutes all her planes would be launched. . . . At 1024 the order to start launching came from the bridge by voice-tube. The Air Officer flapped a white flag, and the first Zero fighter gathered speed and whizzed off the deck. At that instant a lookout screamed: ‘Hell-divers!’” Fuchida’s retelling was all the more compelling because he claimed to be on the flight deck at that moment American bombs began to fall.7

Fuchida and Okumiya explained the loss at Midway with a number of criticisms of Japanese actions and failures. These included: the success of U.S. intelligence and a corresponding failure of Japanese intelligence; faulty planning, especially an unwise dispersion of forces, lack of a single goal, and bad pre-battle reconnaissance; specific tactical faults by Nagumo, in particular inadequate search procedures on 4 June, allocating too many aircraft to the Midway strike, and a failure to attack the American carrier (Yorktown) immediately on contact; and Yamamoto’s failure to respond appropriately after the crisis and his self-imposed isolation at sea that left him too distant from the Kido Butai to help.

The authors also faulted Japan’s lack of ingenuity in using battleships as close escorts for the navy’s carriers, an overemphasis on quality over quantity in naval aviation, the lack of radar on Japanese vessels, and, perhaps most important of all, Japan’s sufferance from “Victory Disease”— the clouding of judgment resulting from the many easy victories of the early months of the war. “There is an irrationality and impulsiveness about our people which results in actions that are haphazard and often contradictory,” Fuchida and Okumiya conclude. “Indecisive and vacillating, we succumb readily to conceit, which in turn makes us disdainful of others. . . . Our want of rationality often leads us to confuse desire and reality, and thus to do things without careful planning.”8
Lord’s narrative description of the battle incorporated Fuchida and Okumiya’s view of the imminent launch of the Japanese strike against the American carrier force and the attack of American dive-bombers happening within minutes of each other.9 Lord’s conclusions would also mirror those of The Battle that Doomed Japan. The Japanese side suffered from bad luck with the late start of the search plane from Tone, the inability to launch its own attack against the American carriers before being attacked themselves, an unwise dispersal of forces, an assumption that U.S. forces would act predictably, and of course a bad case of “Victory Disease.”10 The U.S. had its problems as well—underutilized subs, poor scouting, slow communications, lack of coordination, and a tentative pursuit after the battle—but victory was nonetheless secured. “Against overwhelming odds, with the most meager resources, and often at fearful self-sacrifice,” Lord concluded, “a few determined men reversed the course of the war in the Pacific.”11

Gordon Prange (and his co-authors Donald Goldstein and Katherine Dillon, who completed his manuscript after his death in 1980) provided the most detailed analysis to date of the causes and outcomes of the battle, but broadly followed similar lines to Morison, Fuchida, Okumiya, and Lord in assigning primacy to Japan’s loss to a host of tactical missteps by Nagumo and the ever-present “Victory Disease,” while crediting U.S. victory to intelligence, the leadership of Nimitz, Rear Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher, and Rear Adm. Raymond Spruance, and the bravery of the men who fought the battle.12 For all of Nagumo’s faults and wrong turns, however, fate dealt him a blow that was beyond his control. “The final debacle was due to a stroke of good luck on the United States side—the uncoordinated coordination of the dive bombers hitting three carriers at once while the torpedo strikes were still in progress,” wrote Prange. “Except for those six short minutes, Nagumo would have been the victor, and all his decisions would have been accounted to him for righteousness.”13

For Prange, Yamamoto was ultimately to blame for the outcome at Midway because of the admiral’s decisions to split his forces, to provide an overly complicated plan, and to hamstring himself by remaining aboard the battleship Yamato under a communications blackout. Here was a paradox that is implicit in much of the historiography of Midway: luck was at play in the tactical conduct of the battle (i.e., the coincidences that constitute the “miracle”), and yet the fatal flaws of the plan doomed it to failure from the start (either because of the faults of Yamamoto personally or the Japanese in general). How can a battle be both a miraculous and an inevitable victory (or defeat)?

Since the late 1990s, research on Midway has shifted toward a closer analysis of the Japanese forces in the battle, made possible by engagement with Japanese documents (in particular, the official history, Senshi Sosho) and other sources either ignored by or unknown to earlier American historians. Key to this movement was the publication of two seminal works, David Evans and Mark Peattie’s Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1997 and Mark Peattie’s Sunburst: The Rise of Japanese Naval Air Power in 2001, which incorporated extensive research in Japanese archives and provided keen analysis of operational doctrine, technology, and strategy. Taking advantage of this work, a series of articles in the Naval War College Review by Dallas Isom (“The Battle of Midway: Why the Japanese Lost,” Summer 2000) and Jonathan Parshall, David Dickson, and Anthony Tully (“Doctrine Matters: Why the Japanese Lost at Midway,” Summer 2001) brought a renewed focus on Nagumo’s decisions and the shipboard operations of his aircraft on the morning of 4 June. Both Isom (Midway Inquest: Why the Japanese Lost the Battle of Midway, 2007) and Parshall and Tully (Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway, 2005) subsequently published book-length versions of their arguments.

The late Dallas Isom, a former Oregon law professor, brings a lawyer’s attention to detail to the study of the battle in Midway Inquest. He focuses on the Kido Butai’s actions on the morning of 4 June, specifically the “crucial period” between 0715 and 1025, during which time a second strike on Midway was contemplated, part of the American fleet was identified, the first Midway strike returned, and a series of decisions about which targets to strike were made by Nagumo. At the heart of Isom’s analysis is the study of torpedo handling and loading procedures—for if the Kido Butai was to attack the American ships spotted that morning by the cruiser Tone’s search plane, it would need its Nakajima B5N Kate bombers loaded with the deadly Type 91 torpedo. The Type 91 was the most powerful ship-killing weapon in the Japanese arsenal, so it is unlikely they would have launched a strike without their torpedo aircraft being ready. Switching between bomb loads (for land targets) and torpedo loads (for ship targets) or back again took time, and it is the issue of time (both when orders for rearming were given and how long those orders took to carry out) that is at the heart of Isom’s analysis. His key claim is that because of a series of factors—the timing of the search plane’s contact with Task Force 17, the multiple attacks by land- and carrier-based U.S. aircraft, and the physical time necessary to rearm the torpedo planes—Nagumo was not ready to launch a strike against the American carriers at 1020 when the SDB Dauntlesses from Enterprise and Yorktown appeared above the Kido Butai.14

As these photos of the Soryu, Hiryu, and Akagi taken on the morning of 4 June by attacking American aircraft from Midway reveal, the only aircraft on deck are a handful of combat air patrol fighters. Because of the nearly continuous evasive maneuvering of the carriers during the numerous American attacks that morning, several authors have argued that the Japanese were not ready to launch a strike before the aircraft of Enterprise and Yorktown attacked.

In Shattered Sword, Parshall and Tully provide an alternate time sequence and explanation of the events on the morning of 4 June, claiming that because of the nearly constant attacks by American aircraft and the necessity of retrieving combat air patrol (CAP) aircraft, it was the maneuvering of the Japanese carriers that hindered rearming operations and the spotting of the strike force aircraft.15 The two books’ tactical explanations for Nagumo’s inability to launch a strike against the American carriers that morning differ, but the overall conclusion of both books is that Nagumo was nowhere near being ready for such a strike—and hence the miraculous coincidence of Fuchida’s “fatal five minutes” is greatly diminished. Photographic evidence taken of the carriers maneuvering to avoid early morning air attacks clearly shows empty flight decks, except for a handful of CAP fighters.16

Parshall and Tully make a series of other significant claims: that the late launch of Tone’s No. 4 search plane may have actually led to an earlier sighting of the Americans (also argued by Isom); that a reserve strike group was not ready to go when the Americans were first discovered as claimed by earlier historians; that VT-8’s sacrifice alone did not disrupt Japanese CAP operations; and that it was the Kido Butai’s loss of its highly trained maintenance and ground crews, not its pilots, that was the most grievous loss of Midway.17 And the authors also debunk the myth of the “miracle” at Midway: rather than being a triumph of an American David over a Japanese Goliath, Yamamoto’s exceptionally complicated plan ensured that for all of the forces he used for the operation, it would be only the 20 warships of the Kido Butai that would engage the 25 warships of the American Task Forces 16 and 17. Nagumo could confidently rely on only 248 aircraft; Nimitz could call on 233 carrier aircraft and 120 or so aircraft at Midway. The authors’ most trenchant conclusion is that explaining the outcome of the battle means looking far deeper than the tactical missteps on which most historians have dwelled. “[T]he 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. . . . 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.”18 Here, the key failure was going to war in the first place with a flawed military system—even had Midway ended differently, allied victory was inevitable against a Japanese military that could neither produce adequate numbers of ships, aircraft, and trained personnel nor learn from its mistakes.

The most recent work on Midway, The Battle of Midway by former Naval Academy history professor Craig Symonds, incorporates much of the work done by Isom, Parshall, and Tully, and is a comprehensive account (if focused on narrative rather than analysis). Notable among Symonds’ contributions is his emphasis on the problems encountered by Hornet’s air group throughout the battle. The newest carrier at Midway, USS Hornet and its pilots suffered a series of misfortunes that led to nearly all of them failing to engage the enemy during the battle—except for the men of Torpedo Squadron (VT) 8, who attacked the Kido Butai but had only one survivor.

The carrier’s faults were so numerous that only a single action report was filed after the engagement (rather than one for each squadron) and the ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Marc Mitscher, may have deliberately falsified it to cover up the notorious “flight to nowhere.”19 Symonds brings back into sharp focus the many missteps and disappointing performance on the American side—for all the effort by scores of aircraft (and the sacrifices of pilots and air crewmen), for instance, only the SBDs from Enterprise and Yorktown scored hits during the battle. Symonds argues that it was the decisions and actions of key individuals, rather than of chance, that led to the battle’s outcome. “[T]he Battle of Midway is best explained and understood by focusing on the people involved.”20 Although this is in line with the movement toward making the battle out to have little to do with luck, in a way it brings the story of the battle full-circle by reemphasizing the actions of individuals, rather than the doctrine, operational procedures, strategy, and organizational culture emphasized by other historians.

At the heart of the story of Midway is the issue of contingency in battle. To say that contingency was a factor in the battle’s decision is not to say that its outcome was a “miracle”—indeed, contingency was as present at Midway as it is at every battle. In that sense, Midway was unremarkable. What was remarkable about Midway was the sudden shift in the war’s direction brought about by the battle’s outcome. As some historians have argued, that shift may indeed have been inevitable—had it not taken place at Midway, it would have taken place somewhere else—but studying this battle remains valuable for better understanding of how these kinds of shifts take place.

1 Stanford E. Linzey, God Was at Midway: The Sinking of the USS Yorktown (CV-5) and the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway (Chula Vista, Calif.: Black Forest Press, 1996).
2 Griffith Bailey Coale, Victory at Midway (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1944), p. 151-53.
3 This was a problem largely rectified by A Glorious Page in Our History: The Battle of Midway, 4-6 June 1942 (Missoula, Mont.: Pictorial Histories, 1990) by Robert Cressman, et al.
4 Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II: Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2001 [1947-62]), p. 80.
5 Morison, p. 158.
6 Walter Lord, Incredible Victory (Short Hills, NJ: Burford Books, 1998 [1967]), pp. 17-28. Rochefort himself finally became the subject of a serious biography with Eliot Carlson’s Joe Rochefort’s War: The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2011).
7 Mituso Fuchida and Masatake Okumiya, Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan, The Japanese Navy’s Story (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1955), pp. 176-77.
8 Fuchida and Okumiya, pp. 232-48.
9 Lord, pp. 160-61.
10 Lord, p. 285.
11 Lord, p. 288.
12 Gordon W. Prange, Donald M. Goldstein, and Katherine V. Dillon, Miracle at Midway (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982), pp. 370-90.
13 Prange, pp. 374-75.
14 Dallas Woodbury Isom, Midway Inquest: Why the Japanese Lost the Battle of Midway (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2007), pp. 173-76.
15 Jonathan B. Parshall, David D. Dickson, and Anthony P. Tully, “Doctrine Matters: Why the Japanese Lost at Midway,” Naval War College Review, Summer 2001, Vol. LIV, No. 3, p. 146; Jonathan B. Parshall and Anthony P. Tully, Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Dulles, Va.: Potomac Books, 2005), pp. 229-31.
16 The authors suggest Fuchida had an agenda to serve by deliberately distorting the record to cover up deficiencies in Japanese actions on the morning of 4 June. Parshall and Tully, Shattered Sword, pp. 438-39.
17 Parshall and Tully, Shattered Sword, pp. 431-33.
18 Parshall and Tully, Shattered Sword, p. 414.
19 On the morning of 4 June, Hornet’s air group flew on a too-westerly course that overshot the Kido Butai. The group’s squadrons abandoned the group commander, Cmdr. Stanhope Ring, and either returned to Hornet, ditched, or (in VT-8’s case) participated in the fateful torpedo attacks on the Japanese carriers. Craig L. Symonds, The Battle of Midway (New York: Oxford, 2011), pp. 245-65, 389-91.
20 Symonds, p. 5.