Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan

Author: Mitsuo Fuchida, Masatake Okumiya
Publisher: Bluejacket Books (2001 Paperback)
Year: 1951 (Japan) 1955 (United States)
Reviewer: Daryl Carpenter
 

Although the winner "always writes history," when one considers most naval battles that old maxim falls flat on it's face. Attempting to write a balanced account of the Japanese side of the Battle of Midway from a purely American perspective would be simply impossible. Dive bomber pilots boring down on their targets at 250 knots were often unreliable witnesses, nor were they aware of what their opponents were thinking at the moment.

Mitsuo Fuchida was the first Japanese participant of the battle to have a book published in the West depicting Midway from his nation's perspective. Slated to command Akagi's torpedo bomber squadron, Fuchida was rendered hors de combat due to an emergency appendectomy performed several days prior to the battle. Reduced to being a passive viewer, Fuchida broke both of his ankles abandoning ship and spent the rest of the war as a staff officer. Despite having led the attack on Pearl Harbor and the February 19, 1942 bombing of Darwin, he renounced his Samurai past and became a Christian missionary in 1952, remaining so until his death in 1976.

Before the review begins, a quick history lesson is in order. In May 1942, having suffered the embarrassment of the Doolittle Raid the previous month, the Japanese were itching for an opportunity to expand their empire. That same month, at the Battle of the Coral Sea, carrier Shokaku had been heavily damaged, and Zuikaku lost sizable portion of her air group. No matter - Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the brain behind the attack on Pearl Harbor, devised a elaborate scheme to capture Midway Atoll and to lure out and destroy the American carriers. It was an absurdly elaborate proposal involving most of the Imperial Japanese Navy, rigidly timetabled and allowing no room for improvisation. It didn't help matters much when the Imperial General Headquarters tacked on a secondary operation to Yamamoto's plan involving an invasion of two of the Aleutian islands. More than 200 Japanese warships and auxiliaries, in a half dozen separate formations, would be sprawled out across two million square miles of ocean, spaced so far apart that they couldn't assist one another in the event that anything went against Yamamoto's script.

And soon enough, things went south for the Japanese. Through clever exploitation of signals intelligence, the Americans were able to get three aircraft carriers to sea, and place them in a good position to ambush the Japanese carriers when they arrived. The Japanese search plan fell apart from the beginning - their submarines never sited the deploying carriers, and their attempt at reconnoitering Pearl Harbor literally never got off the ground. The Americans spotted elements of the Japanese fleet hours before the Japanese ever could, placing the element of surprise firmly in their favor. Despite some truly poorly-planned aerial attacks that resulted in the complete destruction of a torpedo bomber squadron and the near-annihilation of another, all four Japanese carriers were eventually destroyed, with the loss of the USS Yorktown and an accompanying destroyer. The Japanese ran from the scene with their tails tucked firmly between their legs; probably the only intelligent decision they made during the battle, as the Marines had placed so much defensive armament on Midway that any army stupid enough to invade it would have been reduced to chunky salsa in about an hour.


 

Originally published in 1951, The Battle That Doomed Japan has served as a primary source material for Western historians for the better part of five decades. There's just "one" small problem with it; Fuchida's account of the battle was considered so inaccurate and full of distortions that it was effectively discredited and overturned following his death. When Japanese started researching their massive official history of the war in the late 1960s, the material they unearth simply didn't jibe with what Fuchida had written. No doubt the language barrier proved an insurmountable obstacle in this situation, but few in Japan bothered to tell anyone that Fuchida was just plain wrong, and that his book was obsolete as a historical reference.

Why is it obsolete? I'll point out three of the most obvious (to me, at least) examples. At several points Fuchida implies that the Aleutian Operation was intended as a diversion to draw the American carriers out of harbor. This is untrue - both it and the Midway operation were to occur at the same time, with the Aleutians invasion intended to take advantage of the Americans being busy elsewhere. Fuchida alludes to the flawed Japanese aerial search plan, insisting that a "two phase search" - one search plane takes off on a designated course, and another takes off an hour later and follows behind it - would have located the American fleet much earlier. An interesting insight on the author's part, but since the Japanese didn't start conducting two-phase searches until mid-1943, an obvious red herring as well. He concludes that the delayed launch of a scout plane from the cruiser Tone resulted in the American carriers being spotted late. However, recent research strongly suggests that if Tone's plane had been launched on time, it probably would have never found the Americans!

However, the most blatant revisionism on Fuchida's part is the manner in which he simplifies and distorts the events of the morning of June 4th, especially the famous dive bomber attack of 1020-1026. This is the book that first propagated the myth that the Japanese were moments away from launching a massive counterstrike when dozens of Dauntlesses suddenly swarmed out of the Sun, and dropped their bombs upon dozens of planes awaiting takeoff. A quick study of the Japanese air operations that morning, combined with an understanding of how their carriers operated, reveals that this depiction of the attack to be completely implausible. Before they had angled flight decks, carriers could launch aircraft, land them, or spot them on deck in preparation for an air strike. They could do one of these, but none of the others, at any given time. To spot a full strike required at least 45 minutes, and Akagi, which Fuchida was aboard, was still launching CAP fighters just minutes before being fatally bombed. It's far more likely that these aircraft were still in their hangars when the attack occured. Fuchida also fails to mention many of the piecemeal attacks by the Americans against the Japanese that morning, which inflicted no damage but kept their carriers busy spotting CAP fighters and repeatedly forced them to turn away from a proper launching position.

Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan may have been the "definitive" Japanese account of Midway, but recent scholarship has proved it long-in-the-tooth and riddled with factual distortions. It makes for an interesting historical curio, and at 248 pages, isn't a particularly difficult read. Recent editions include numerous footnotes correcting many mistakes pertaining to the American side, but none correcting Japanese-related errors. Fuchida's final denouncement, that the Japanese lost the battle due to "Victory Disease," is a weak one that simplifies an extremely complicated subject. It's a fine bit of handwringing that doubtless pleased the Allied occupation force censors who probably oversaw every step of this book's creation. But sheer arrogance doesn't explain an offensive-minded naval culture that valued attack over defense, and shunned critical subjects such as damage control and anti-aircraft gunnery.

Even if he was present there, there's no doubt denying that Mitsuo Fuchida lied about what happened at the Battle of Midway. He didn't just misunderstand certain events, he modified them to suit his personal agenda. If you want to read a good book about the Japanese at Midway, I'd recommend Shattered Sword. It debunks all of Fuchida's myths in exhausitive fashion, and goes into much greater detail subjects such as Japanese naval air doctrine, damage control, and carrier tactics. It's a little long and drawn out, but still a must-have for serious naval enthusiasts, and the maps and Order of Battle are much better as well.

 


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