Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway

Authors:  Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully
: Potomac Books, Inc.
Year: 2005
: Daryl Carpenter


The Battle of Midway has transcended mere history to become a permanently-engrained part of the modern American mythos. Few would doubt that it was one of the most important naval battles of the 20th Century. The image of Dauntless dive bombers plummeting from the heavens, smashing three Japanese carriers in a matter of minutes, is one of the most evocative of the Second World War. But is the battle really all it’s made out to be? That’s the question authors Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully ask in their fascinating and potentially controversial new book Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway.

We already have Walter Lord’s Incredible Victory, Gordon Prange’s Miracle At Midway, and Mitsuo Fuchida’s Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan to fall back on. Fuchida’s book served as the main account of the Japanese side for more than 50 years. Do we really need another book in the Midway canon? I can unequivocally say Yes! Shattered Sword is the first English-language account of the battle to rely primarily on Japanese official sources, including the air group records of Kido Butai, and the official Japanese war history. At it’s core is a minute-by-minute forensic deconstruction of the events of June 4th through 7th, 1942, told mostly from the Japanese perspective. In a way, it’s more about why the Japanese lost the battle, and not how the Americans won it.

Not only did they lose it, but they suffered a catastrophic loss, the sort not easily recovered from. But why? Except for Coral Sea, the Japanese Navy crushed the Allies in every encounter up until Midway. Was it because of a late launch of a scout plane that failed to detect the American fleet? Did Admiral Nagumo make a mistake in re-arming his planes with land attack weapons? And if they had won, could Japan have invaded Hawaii and forced a truce with America? In Parshall’s and Tully’s interpretation, these ideas are either downright erroneous, or considerably flawed and worthy of further examination.

In compiling this book, the authors discovered numerous gaps and outright factual distortions in Western accounts of the battle, most of them stemming from Fuchida’s book. Fuchida was discredited in Japan shortly after his death in 1976, but nobody in Japan bothered to tell anyone. Unfortunately, his fabrications have since formed the basis for the battle’s "popular" conception. Some will view Shattered Sword as revisionist. Well, it is, but in the best sense of the word. Instead of trying to dramatize the proceedings, Parshall and Tully bring it down to Earth with their calm and colloquial writing style. And if sounds downright fallacious, they’ve done plenty of hard research to back it up.

Most interestingly of all, Shattered Sword provides new insights into the inner workings of the Imperial Japanese Navy, especially their carrier fleet. Up until now, it’s been generally assumed that Japanese warships and their crew operated much like their Allied counterparts. The authors managed to dig up reams of information on everything from hangar and flight deck layouts, the poor quality of damage control training, to the capabilities of Japanese flak guns. Even the diminutive size of their carriers’ bridges and the number of onboard bomb carts factor into the equation.

Shattered Sword doesn’t just stop there; it also explores many of the human factors behind Japan’s loss. In a society that valued rigid conformity and shunned failure, the Japanese were unable to change battle plans "on the fly." Ever since their stunning victory at Tsushima in 1904, they’d conformed to a strict policy of massive, overwhelming force. It didn’t help much that the Army and Navy utterly loathed one another, Admiral Yamamoto wasn’t an unflappable genius, and the IJN was tired after seven months of constant battle. Speaking of Yamamoto…

This is the first book I’ve ever read that shows Yamamoto, one of the few Japanese military leaders to get a "free pass" after the war, in a critical light. The authors present him as a harsh and borderline deceitful leader, whose dictatorial control over the Navy and his obsession with destroying the American carriers played no small part in Japan’s path to ruin. In one telling moment, he censures an officer during a crucial wargame which essentially foretold the battle’s outcome weeks beforehand. His strategic vision is blasted as well, and Operation Midway is presented as the grotesquely overblown, disorganized, rigidly-timetabled disaster-in-waiting it really was.

Of course, some will frown upon any attempt to portray Midway as anything less than an utterly decisive, miraculous victory. In many ways, the "polish" of this famous battle has been stripped away. That doesn’t change the outcome one whit, but readers will find themselves challenging long-held misconceptions.

Shattered Sword is a rare book in a cluttered genre: a thick, detailed-packed history book that doesn’t bore the reader. It’s also a groundbreaking take on an old story, and is sure to launch plenty of heated arguments on internet bulletin boards. The production values are also extremely high, with plenty of photos and useful maps scattered throughout instead of sequestered into a half-hearted intermission.

Now for the bad part. In wargaming, a grognard is a person who’s absolutely obsessed with historical and technical accuracy. Shattered Sword is very much a grognard book, in that the authors seem a little too obsessed with trivial details at times. Thankfully, they saved the "hard" information for the appendixes (11 of ‘em, plus an extensive list of notes), and where nice enough to remind the reader to get some coffee for the boring bits. Parshall and Tully are also serious IJN junkies, and sprinkle the text with Japanese terms like Chutai (air division) and Hikotaicho (air group commander) throughout. Interesting the first time, but distracting in the long run.

Those quibbles aside, I heartily recommend Shattered Sword to anyone with a serious interest in the Pacific War. It also raises some serious questions about relying on "standard works" for historical information, while leaving ambiguous events open to future reinterpretation.


Shattered Sword is a 640 page hardcover book, published in November 2005 by Potomac Books. It is 640 pages long, and divided into 24 chapters, 11 appendixes, and a list of notes and citations. The illustrations, which are spread throughout, consist of maps, photographs, and three-view drawings of the Japanese hardware used in the battle.

Jonathan Parshall is a widely-published author of articles on naval history, and currently runs the Combined Fleet website ( Anthony Tully is also a well-known writer for military journals. This is their first published book.

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