Small Wars Journal

The American Guts and Grit That Sank Japan at Midway

The American Guts and Grit That Sank Japan at Midway by Robert R. Garnett, Wall Street Journal

Seventy-five years ago this Sunday, some 150 Japanese warships, 250 warplanes and 25 admirals were steaming toward a small atoll 1,300 miles northwest of Oahu. Imminent was the most crucial naval battle of World War II—Midway.

Aboard the Yamato, the world’s largest battleship, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto retired to his quarters each evening to play chess. He had spent his final nights in port with his geisha, Kawai Chiyoko. Departing, he sent her verses: “Today too I ache for you / Calling your name / Again and again / And pressing kisses / Upon your picture.”

His present concerns were less sentimental. For six months, Japan’s navy had battered Allied forces across 8,000 miles of ocean, from Pearl Harbor to Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka). Still, Yamamoto worried that the American fleet was wounded but still dangerous. “We have scorched the snake,” as Macbeth had put it, “not killed it.”

His American counterpart, Adm. Chester Nimitz, relaxed by pitching horseshoes. Steady, calm, old-school—his most violent oath was “Now see here!”—Nimitz marshaled his forces for battle, waiting for the unsuspecting Japanese.

Weeks earlier, with strikes expected toward Australia, Washington had ordered Nimitz’s aircraft carriers to the far South Pacific. Others feared assaults on Hawaii, perhaps San Francisco or San Diego. Or the Panama Canal, Alaska . . . even Siberia.

But in a windowless basement near the fleet’s Pearl Harbor headquarters, codebreakers under Cmdr. Joe Rochefort pored over intercepted Japanese radio traffic. Independent, impolitic, single-minded, Rochefort “left the basement only to bathe, change clothes, or get an occasional meal to supplement a steady diet of coffee and sandwiches,” one officer recalled. “For weeks the only sleep he got was on a field cot pushed into a crowded corner.”

Rochefort’s team could decode about one-eighth of an average message, filling in the gaps by educated intuition. For example, the messages called the proximate Japanese objective “AF.” But where was “AF”? Midway, Rochefort concluded. The authorities in Washington scoffed. Why would Japan dispatch a massive armada to seize a tiny atoll?

Nimitz, responsible for millions of square miles of ocean, had scant means to repel the Japanese anywhere, let alone everywhere. With his fleet, and perhaps the entire Pacific war, at stake, “I had to do a bit of hard thinking,” he would recall.

As the Navy’s heavyweights vacillated, Nimitz decided to gamble on the out-of-step Rochefort. He recalled his three carriers from the South Pacific to defend Midway. Time was short. The USS Yorktown had been damaged in the Battle of the Coral Sea and had recently returned to Pearl Harbor trailing a 10-mile oil slick. Repair estimates ranged up to three months…

Read on.


To add to this discussion, I have always been fascinated by the campaigns in the Pacific theater but I'm sure part of that is due to growing up around Navy and Marine types in my family. My grandfather's older brother spent several years in the Pacific (Army infantry type) and while fortunate to 'survive' the war, came back with malaria and a severe drinking problem (clearly suffering PTSD symptoms but back then it the significance of this issue, let alone treatment, was completely lacking) that led to an early death just a few years after the war ended.

I highly recommend the book "Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of Midway" by Parshall and Tully. It dispels a lot of the Western myths around the Midway campaign and also does a deep dive into some technical and doctrine issues that played a factor in the outcome of this campaign (such as IJN air defense doctrine, USN damage control doctrine, design of carriers, etc.).

Link to description:

Also, the authors maintain a website in the IJN called which has a lot of useful data and articles on the IJN. Here is a link to an article on combinedfleet about the Commanders of Midway, Spruance and Nagumo. Very interesting stuff.

Long story short, the outcome of the campaign was a tragedy for the IJN and a stunning success for the USN, helmed by a very competent Spruance. It also set the stage for American offensive campaigns and left the IJN to assume a defensive posture. It also sheds light on many Western myths of this campaign while doing a deep dive into technical aspects and doctrine that also had a key role in the outcome of this campaign.


Wed, 06/14/2017 - 3:07pm

In reply to by Azor

I never bought Gene Hackman as a Polish general. From photographs, though, Sean Connery bears a passing resemblance to BG Urquhart....

Gallipoli? I haven't. Strategically hopeless. Looked good on a map, but even had the landing force solidly established themselves, what then? There weren't enough troops available to break out of the peninsula, and not enough sealift to sustain them in place. The Royal Navy had already demonstrated problems with maneuvering in the strait, and while the German-manned Turkish Navy wasn't strong enough to drive the British out, it was certainly capable of defending Constantinople until the ANZACs ate themselves out of supplies.

Churchill's strategic genius was nothing more than never letting the enemy go unengaged. Stalemate on the Western Front? Attack elsewhere on the Continent. Kicked off the Continent? Mount an air campaign, attack the enemy in Africa, and raid the French coast. And so on. He understood the value of keeping the strategic initiative.


Wed, 06/14/2017 - 12:40pm

In reply to by Warlock

Ah, "Operation Market Garden", where tactics clashed with strategy. Also where, incidentally, the Polish commander spoke in an effected Scottish-American-Russian accent. ;)

Did you ever wargame Churchill's bid to knock Turkey out of the Great War? I truly believe that he was the 20th Century's supreme strategic genius, albeit many paid the price for his genius in North Africa, Greece, Italy, Dieppe and over the skies of Germany.


Wed, 06/14/2017 - 10:50am

In reply to by Azor

Yup...a tour as a professional wargamer gave me a taste for alternative futures...this is recreation. Don't even get me going on Market-Garden....


Tue, 06/13/2017 - 7:40pm

In reply to by Warlock

We seem to largely be in agreement.

As far as the “Europe First” policy was concerned, I sincerely doubt that Churchill would have allowed Japan to negotiate a settlement along those lines, or that the Japanese would have accepted it:

1. Churchill had to avenge the lost British honor at Hong Kong and Singapore

2. The British had amassed 600,000 servicemen for Operation Coronet in 1945, which would have increased to a commitment of roughly 1,000,000

3. How could the British Empire accept the loss of some of its most lucrative colonies, such as Malaya?

4. Japan’s commitment to its conquest of China was immense and continued despite the worsening war with the American colossus. It kept resources flowing to and locked in China until the bitter end


Tue, 06/13/2017 - 4:36pm

In reply to by Azor

I'm not sure what Yamamoto would have done had he known Yorktown both survived and was repaired in time to participate in the battle -- he might have chosen to go with only four carriers anyhow. Or cancelled the Aleutian operation in order to further concentrate his forces. He was very driven by his belief that if the Americans weren't brought to terms within a year, the Japanese would lose the war. And I'm not so sure he was wrong in using the Doolittle Raid as a driver to overcome opposition -- the carriers *were* the U.S. Navy's offensive center of gravity.

I don't think the Japanese would have run rampant, even if the proportional losses were reversed (the Americans lose all carriers, and the Japanese lose one). Their logistical support system was insufficient to support large-scale operations so distant from Japan, and they never developed an amphibious striking force similar to the Marine Corps. Port Moresby wasn't realistic, let alone Australia -- 5th Air Force was already on their way to making the Bismarck and Coral Seas unlivable for Japanese ships, and coupled with subs, probably could have kept Japanese carriers at bay, too. At best, I think they could have forced the New Guinea campaign to a stalemate, securing bases on the northern coast, and thus screening their base at Truk and securing their gains in the Dutch East Indies.

Add in that Nimitz and MacArthur were on shaky ground for resources, in spite of King backing Nimitz. I think it very possible the British would have pressured Roosevelt and Marshall into putting the Pacific war entirely on a defensive status -- protect Australia, protect Hawaii -- and going whole hog with a European focus, especially if Marshall thought he could force an invasion of France in 1943. And if in 1944 or '45, the Japanese offered to exchange some or all of occupied China for their new Pacific holdings, who knows? Not inevitable, but certainly a possible alternative.


Tue, 06/13/2017 - 11:46am

In reply to by Warlock

I agree that the intelligence victory prior to Midway should not be construed as having entirely lifted the fog of war for Spruance. It is very interesting that despite Spruance’s advantages prior to contact, the events of random tactical luck you discussed played a disproportionate role in the outcome of the carrier group duel. Having said that, had the Japanese won the intelligence war prior to Midway, they would probably have been aware of Yorktown’s survival and acted accordingly.

It is also interesting that the Japanese erred in response to the Doolittle Raid not unlike how the Germans erred in 1940 when British bombers mistakenly struck Berlin; British cities suffered, but the RAF was saved.

It is hard to say how the Pacific War would have proceeded specifically had the Japanese won Midway. I doubt that they would have the same strategic initiative that the U.S. did after winning Midway, as the inability of the Japanese to replace losses in carriers and naval aviators was acute, and the IJN could ill afford “victories” such as Coral Sea. In some respects, Coral Sea reminds me of Moscow in the winter of 1941/1942…

Keep in mind that the Pacific Fleet turned to aircraft carriers as its capital ships because of the outcome of Pearl Harbor. It is quite possible that a loss at Midway would have made the U.S. submarine forces more salient in the Pacific War, particularly as German u-boats had already made their worth known against British carriers, which as with American ones, were more heavily armored than their Japanese counterparts.


Tue, 06/13/2017 - 11:15am

In reply to by Azor

Actually, there was a three-month string of strategic events that framed the opportunity the codebreakers discovered. The Doolittle Raid in April was instrumental in squelching opposition to Yamamoto's insistence on bringing the American carriers to a major battle. The Battle of the Coral Sea in May led the Japanese to believe they'd sunk two American carriers, rather than one, so they were willing to rapidly pull the Americans into another battle with only four fleet carriers, rather than all six.

Tactically, bringing Yorktown back to operational status in record time and successfully concealing the reality of an extra American carrier until contact, finding the Japanese fleet first (the most valuable contribution of Midway-based air during the whole battle), and the decision to launch a full-up strike in the face of uncertain information on the exact location and composition of the Japanese carrier force gave Spruance the initiative. And tactical luck played a big role - independent decisions by American squadron commanders to attack individually, rather than waiting to form a coordinated attack, Japanese uncertainty and the decision to switch targets at the last minute, which placed their carriers in a vulnerable state just as the American strikes all could have gone very wrong!

The consequences of an American loss wouldn't have lost us the war, but it would have extended the war in the Pacific quite a bit. The U.S. Navy would have been in the same situation the Japanese found themselves in -- the strategic initiative kicked out from under them, with the cream of their carrier pilots and aircraft lost. There would have been no landings at Guadalcanal in August, which would have freed the Japanese to resume focus on New Guinea, or to attack the logistical bases the Allies were building up in the New Hebrides. There's a good chance the Joint Chiefs would have nixed any major offensive action in the Pacific until after a foothold was gained in continental Europe, so a delay of 12-18 months. That all might have shifted emphasis in the Pacific to China during that time, since we wouldn't have captured the Marianas by 1944. Assuming the Manhattan Project stayed on its historical timeline, that might have led to trying to drop the atomic bomb from bases in China...more logistically and operationally daunting. Those three months from April - June 1942 set up the rest of the war in our favor.


Sat, 06/10/2017 - 5:21pm

In reply to by Rick

On the contrary, Spruance was aware of IJN strength and ORBAT at Midway, and his forces outnumbered the Japanese almost 1.5 in aircraft. Spruance still could have lost in terms of execution, however.


Sat, 06/10/2017 - 7:00am

In reply to by Azor

The U.S. was still outnumbered 4 to 1 by the IJN when ADM Spruance was ordered by ADM Nimitz to take out TF-16 in lieu of ADM Halsey who was sick.

And although "guts and grit" would be important, more so was the steady, unflappable decision making done by Spruance at Midway.

It was my understanding that Midway was won before it began, by codebreakers: by American cleverness and sneakiness. Even then, it was a close-run thing. Yet a loss at Midway would not have been as devastating for the U.S.