Roundtable Forum
Our 20th Year

In this issue.

Mitscher, Ring and Midway Flight to Nowhere
The paradox of Pearl Harbor

The Battle of Midway Roundtable Opening Remarks

Today, December 7th, 2016 marks the 75th Anniversary of the Attack on Pearl Harbor.  To most people it seems like a long time ago.  To others it remains a memory that is never forgotten.  And to many, today will be the first they hear of it.

Much has been written on Pearl Harbor and how it might have been the catalyst that lead to the Victory at Midway.  So I won't repeat what I'm sure you are all familiar with.  Instead I'd like to briefly describe my first visit to the Arizona Memorial. 

I had a week long business trip to Hawaii that was part of a group.  When I got off the plane in the very late evening/morning, I was late getting in thanks to the never fail delay in the Denver airport, there was the traditional presentation of the Hawaiian Lae.  The woman who gave me the lae asked if I was going to visit the Arizona Memorial.  I said I was planning on it but didn't know the exact day I could get away for the afternoon.  She said to take the lae to the hotel and put it in the fridge as it is custom when visiting the Memorial to throw the lae in the water over the Arizona.  She said the lae she was presenting to me was okay as it was made entirely of flowers and vines.  Any bound with fishing line or string should not be thrown into the water as it's a problem as the fish might get tangled up in it.

The visit to the memorial was very interesting.  You get to watch a short film detailing the attack as well as the reason for the memorial.  Then you're taken out on a boat to the memorial.  I was very taken back by the absolute silence when you're on the memorial.  And I along with several others that had saved their lae tossed them over the side.  You could see the outline and some of the details of the Arizona resting just a few feet below.  The one exposed #3 turret ring above the water and the still present oil slick that is still seeping from the hull is a reminder of that December day in 1941.

If you get a chance to see the memorial do whatever it takes to do so.  It's an experience that should not be missed.

This month we have a rather brief newsletter. Things have been very busy for me and I take it for everyone else as well.  But we do have some excellent follow up articles on Ben Duarte's submission from last month dealing with the Flight to Nowhere.  Ron Russell summarizes his excellent article that appeared in the February 2006 issue of Naval History with some additional comments.  Craig Symonds and Dan Boyer also chime in.

Remember Pearl Harbor

Mitscher, Ring and Midway Flight to Nowhere

From Craig Symonds:
November 8th, 2016:

Ben Duarte offers an excellent summary of Mitscher’s professional dilemma (and Ring’s) concerning the events of June 4, 1942. When it became evident that the men who had violated their orders (including Jack Waldron) in their effort to find the Japanese carriers, had ended the day as martyrs and heroes, it would have been foolish to prosecute them. Duarte mentions that in the short article I wrote for Naval History magazine, I seemed to imply that “that Mitscher was less than the good Admiral he was.” I hope that he (and others) will look at the longer work THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY (Oxford, 2011), and especially Appendix F (pp. 389-91), where he will see that I was (and am) sympathetic with Mitscher’s (and Ring’s) dilemma, and conclude that his decision to conceal the full story of the “Flight to Nowhere” was grounded in good intentions. It is inescapable, however, that he did conceal that information even if his motive were the best. I quote here from the Appendix to THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY (p. 391):

        The only explanation that fits both the circumstances and the personalities of the principal decision makers is that Mitscher himself decided it was his duty to find the two “missing” Japanese carriers that had not yet been reported by any of the scouts. Like Fletcher and Spruance, Mitscher did not learn that all four Japanese carriers were operating together until the afternoon. He knew that the Air Group from Enterprise was going after the two carriers that had been sighted, and he very likely calculated that a course of 265 was most likely to lead his Air Group to the other two carriers that were presumably operating separately behind the first two. By the time Mitscher learned that all four enemy carriers were operating together, he also knew the details of the various mutinies that had taken place during the Flight to Nowhere. A truthful and complete report of that flight would not only have exposed his own error in sending the Hornet Air Group the wrong way, but it would also have compelled him to consider pressing formal charges against Waldron, McInerny, Mitchell, Johnson, Rodee, and perhaps others for abandoning the Group Commander. That was hardly the kind of press the Navy wanted after the Battle of Midway. So instead of court martialing his squadron commanders, he recommended all of them for medals, and submitted a false report. Of the mutiny by Waldron’s Torpedo Eight, Mitscher (or someone on his staff) wrote: “Torpedo Squadron Eight, flying low, beneath the broken clouds, became separated from the remainder of the group, which flew at higher levels. They found the enemy carriers, those at high altitude did not.” Technically, each word of that is true, but it is also deliberately misleading.

        At the time, at least, the squadron commanders went along with this solution. Certainly they knew they had a responsibility to complete a report. The form itself declared that it was “to be filled out by unit commanders immediately upon landing after each action or operation,” and specifically enjoined each recipient: “Do not ‘gun deck’ this report.” Perhaps they each filed a report and Mitscher’s staff suppressed them; or more likely Mitscher told the squadron commanders that he (or his staff) would write the report and not to bother. In any case, it is clear that at some point Mitscher decided that only one report would be submitted by the Hornet, that he assigned his staff to write it, and that he signed it knowing it was false. It is hard to argue, even now, that he made the wrong decision. With victory in hand, what was to be gained by acknowledging the confusion, insubordination, and failure of the Flight to Nowhere?

Craig Symonds

From Don Boyer:
November 8th, 2016

I noted with interest the input from Mr. Duarte, -- ​"In Craig Symonds article he seems to suggest that Mitscher was less than the good Admiral that he was. I disagree. Mitscher wrote a report that protected many dead heros from likely court-martial. It was a noble act that I honor him for and shows why he was a good Admiral, that is, to bend the rules when necessary to provide the right and just outcome. The military is full of these kinds of deviations because the written rules are stringent to the absurd requiring some bending at times to effect the right outcome. Others were aware of Mitschers report while it was written and likely had input to it. "

I've noted that Arliegh Burke and others have pointed out that Mitscher "hated" reading "reports". Not that he didn't read them, but that his look-see was often cursory at best. Burke mentioned it was a concern to him, as stated in his biography, later in the war when he was CoS for Mitscher. I would bet that this trait is what had more influence on the "errors" of the Hornet report rather than any concern for CYA and careerism -- Mitscher was already a RAdm at the time, and he was not noted as a cocktail-balancing careerist by anyone in the navy that I've ever read about. The onus for the quality of the report's content probably rests with Mitscher's staff more than anything in my estimation, and they well may have been concerned with "how things looked" rather than how they were -- a bane of dealing with "managers" at any level in any organization in my 40 years experience with the military and the federal government in general. And, since Midway was about as resounding a success in battle as you could possibly ask for, despite Hornet's floundering, nobody in the senior command would be the least interested in taking any of the shine off of that victory by petty bickering and nit-picking of what were obviously errors, but errors that did not affect the final outcome in the long run. Nimitz was not vindictive like that. King could have been, he had the personality for it, but he would not have done so without Nimitz' concurrence. Other than cowardice in the face of the enemy, I can see no circumstances that would have prodded Nimitz to even think of court martial actions against anyone involved.

Nimitz would have been the first to acknowledge that in wartime, and especially when things were looking bleak, the consequences of outright breaking of the hard and fast traditional "rules" of the navy could go out the window when necessary. The risks were the same -- if you're right, you're a hero, if your wrong you don't get four stripes and a carrier command, you end up in a supply depot in Alaska. If it didn't affect the outcome, you tend to get a pass. Plus the navy could always deal with issues more subtly -- for example, "Fuzzy" Theobald, informed by Nimitz of Japanese intentions in the north, didn't exactly believe what he was told and, following his own impeccable logic, decided to act otherwise and thus had zero effect on the Northern Force's actions. This must have thoroughly pissed off Nimitz, but he did not "lash out" or otherwise publically affect Theobald's image. Theobald simply never received any further command in the Pacific. His career dead-ended with no fanfare, no public flogging and no public "retribution." Problem solved.

Don Boyer

From Ron Russell:
November 25th, 2016:

Thom, in the last newsletter you cited my article in Naval History magazine concerning course 265 for Stanhope Ring's squadrons on June 4th. "Changing Course: the Hornet Air Group at Midway" came about after the magazine's publisher, USNI, had declined my review of Bowen Weisheit's "Kelly" book, the source of the course 265 revelation. They were interested in the book, but instead wanted a feature article on Weisheit's premise. "Changing Course" was the result, in the February 2006 issue.

The article laid out Weisheit's thesis in detail, contrasting it with the "course 240" assumption in prior BOM histories. It wasn't exactly news in 2006, though. John Lundstrom, with input from Weisheit, was probably the first to cite course 265 in general publication with "The First Team" (1984), and Robert Cressman and his coauthors repeated it in "A Glorious Page in Our History" (1990). Parshall & Tully's "Shattered Sword" followed suit in 2005.

While those books were largely or totally focused on the BOM, Naval History magazine has a much broader scope, which brought the subject to the attention of a great many readers for the first time. The Midway Roundtable had a surge in membership immediately thereafter, which helped to propel the 240/265 discussion to the prominence we still see today in our newsletters.

Researching the article was quite interesting, in large measure due to my interview with Hornet vet Dick Woodson, who unintentionally provided very strong support for course 265. He'd been a gunner on a VS-8 SBD and had noticed VT-8 breaking away from the formation about 30 minutes after heading out from the carrier. We discussed at great length what he'd seen, and he was adamant that Waldron had broken to port on a bearing roughly 30 to 40 degrees to the left of Ring's heading. Had the air group been on course 240, he would have seen VT-8 turn to starboard, which got me to thinking--was he seated facing aft at that moment, in which case VT-8 breaking to starboard would have been on his left side? "No," was the emphatic response, "the radioman-gunner always faces forward except during the attack; he has to work the radios and help the pilot maintain formation. I was facing forward and the TBDs broke left." Waldron going left only works with course 265.

The capper to the Woodson interview was the fact that he had never heard of Weisheit's book. His testimony was completely independent of any other influence.

After 2006 or so, we observed on the Roundtable that course 265 began to achieve general acceptance. As to why Mitscher had sent Ring that way, Lundstrom had actually figured it out rather thoroughly in the "The First Team," long before the matter became a major topic on the Roundtable. Quoting from page 333 in the original edition of the book:
"Spruance's orders called for search-attack procedure by the strike planes, indicating he was not certain all of the Japanese carriers were located where the PBY had found [only] two of them. Mitscher and his people may have wanted to cover the area north of where the Enterprise thought the target area was in order to find the Japanese if they were a little farther away from Midway."
I can't recap the Roundtable's years of discourse on that subject in this brief format, but suffice to say that both Mitscher's and Waldron's reasoning became more clear over time. Mitscher was an aviator; Fletcher and Spruance were not, plus Mitscher was senior to Captain Murray in the Enterprise, the nominal commander of the two-carrier task group. Carrier doctrine in that early era allowed the ship's captain a measure of autonomy in deciding how his air group was engaged in battle. Mitscher had to feel that he knew more about how an air attack should go than the infernal blackshoes on the Enterprise and Yorktown. Knowing that Murray's planes was going after Howard Ady's "two" carriers, he must have decided that he'd save the day by taking on the other two, which had to be trailing somewhere to the north. Course 265 would find them.

Of course, Waldron knew that wouldn't work. He was an expert on the TBD and knew right away that his heavily-laden bombers didn't have the fuel to fly Ring's intended search and get back to the task force, even without finding the enemy. Since his chance of winding up in the water was pretty much assured no matter what he did, he elected to at least have a chance at striking a blow in the process. With luck he'd do some good with his torpedoes and still make it back to the Hornet.

In summary then, Mitscher's judgment was to independently go after the supposed two trailing carriers. He had simply guessed wrong and was faced with the horror of apparently contributing nothing to the victory while still losing half of his planes. His altered after-action report was therefore a face-saving coverup. Was it more altruistic than that, as suggested by Ben Duarte in the last newsletter? Maybe, although I tend to feel that altruism wasn't on Mitscher's mind at the time. But regardless of his motives, his doctored report helped to direct the focus of history upon the victory instead of controversy, with the added effect of shielding Waldron and his heroic compatriots from any doubt as to what they really did and why.

--Ron Russell

Editor's Note:  I don't think we can ever really solve the exact course of the Hornet's air group but course 265 is what the logic suggests.  I remember reading Walter Lord's 'Incredible Victory' and being totally mesmerized by the book.  In it he suggested that Enterprise and Hornet both chose different courses for different reasons.  The Enterprise staff looked at the course of the Japanese fleet and figured out the maximum distance they could travel closing Midway.  McClusky then lead his flight to intercept the Japanese fleet should they continue on their present course and speed.  When he got to the intercept point if the Japanese fleet was not there he only had to turn North or right to continue the search as he knew they couldn't be to his left.  That course was 240.

Hornet's air staff chose to fly to the spot where the Japanese fleet had been spotted figuring somewhat oddly that the Japanese fleet might stay where they were or possibly remain in the same position where the morning attack was launched.  Even so they appeared to have picked an intercept point somewhat behind even the spot where the PBY first reported the Japanese fleet. Unfortunately for Ring when he reached the intercept point he was faced with a dilemma, that being which way to go, turn left, right, or continue on his present course.  If the Japanese fleet was heading on to Midway then he must turn left.  But if the Japanese fleet doubled back after being spotted by the PYB's then he should turn right.  Still more maddening was the possibility that they turned west and out of range.  Since by this time he had lost both VT-8 and VF-8 and his own two squadrons were dangerously low on fuel to make it back he turned left towards Midway.  Either other choice by this time would have risked the loss of his entire two remaining squadrons due to lack of fuel.  Correct choice as it turns out but too late.  By this time the Japanese fleet was heading at the most present danger, Hornet, not Midway, and his two squadrons missed.  His own VB-8 ironically enough passing behind the Japanese fleet on their way to Midway.

Waldron instead headed for the 0700 position plot that the Hornet air staff anticipated would be the place where the Japanese fleet would be or approximately 175 miles from Hornet and just within range of the TBD's.  As it turns out the plot was about 35 miles west and thus closer than the actual location of the Japanese fleet.  This might have been the most significant reason Waldron headed slightly further south as he was plotting his own intercept point which as it turns out was exactly where the Japanese fleet was operating.

The US Navy's assumption that the Japanese might be operating in two separate task forces is what ultimately doomed Mitscher and Ring into thinking that there might be two carriers trailing the two spotted early in the morning by Ady.  Certainly the fact that only two of the four they expected were spotted helped to contribute to the mistake.  Still I believe both men did what they thought was correct.  And when it didn't work out I'm sure they were devastated.  This was magnified when they realized that all of Torpedo Eight was lost actually attacking the Japanese fleet while disobeying a direct order.  However being the only squadron to actually make contact with the Japanese fleet it was best to make the subsequent report appear at least as positive as possible.

The Paradox of Pearl Harbor

By Ian W. Toll

Editors Note:  This is an article written by Ian Toll that I thought was a very good read.  He did not submit it to the RoundTable and hopefully he is fine with my sharing the link.  There are many others out there that you can search for and read if you're so inclined I'm sure.  But since this is from one of our members I thought it appropriate to share.