| Book Reviews Index |
The Battle of Midway Roundtable
BOOK REVIEWS, page 2
CONTENTS ON THIS PAGE
1. Shattered Sword
2. The Battle of Midway
3. Midway Dauntless Victory
4. Midway Inquest
5. A Dawn Like Thunder
6. The Last Flight of Ensign C. Markland Kelly, Jr., USNR
7. Midway 1942 (Stille)
(All reviews written by the Roundtable editor except as otherwise noted.)
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1. Shattered Sword
by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully
Subtitle: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway
Published 2005 (Potomac Books)
(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2005-45)
Shattered Sword is an exceptional accomplishment, although many may find the subtitle a little misleading. The authors haven’t simply written another telling of the entire Battle of Midway story. Instead (and as you would expect from Parshall) it's an exhaustively detailed account of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) at Midway, accomplished with a depth of research and analysis not previously seen. The book is crammed with a dazzling set of graphics, including brilliant computer-generated charts and diagrams that very significantly aid the text. The triple-view images of the four Kido Butai carriers are especially noteworthy.
Of course, anyone attempting to rewrite the history of the IJN at Midway needs to convince readers that the new book offers something essential over the time-honored resource for that subject, Fuchida and Okumiya's Midway, the Battle That Doomed Japan. Parshall and Tully not only accepted that challenge, but they demonstrate that Fuchida was very loose with certain key facts in his Midway book, thereby engendering a number of deeply-entrenched myths that permeate the popular history of the battle. Shattered Sword ably exposes those myths and convincingly explains in each case what really happened and why.
While the book can justly be called outstanding, it isn't without a few flaws. Readers will stumble over an occasional minor glitch that probably should have been caught during proofreading, and some will want to argue with a few of the authors’ subjective analyses on certain aspects of the battle. Those points are solidly documented and well reasoned, though, so approach matters of that nature with an open mind.
But such quibbles are unimportant in judging the book overall. As Barrett Tillman said, it's a real groundbreaker that anyone seriously interested in the BOM will want to read and own. Accordingly, I have revised the "Midway Library" page on our web site to place Shattered Sword near the top of our recommended reference list.
If you're shopping around for a copy, check all of the vendors listed on the book's web site. And If you're one of those people (like me) who balks at paying over twenty bucks for a book, be assured that this one is of such structural quality (very heavy paper stock and solid covers, about 3.5 pounds total) that you'll be getting your money's worth. Also, Parshall has reported a lot of interest in signed copies, which he handles directly (with a discount to BOMRT members). Contact him directly for info.
Incidentally, the semi-confusing subtitle is not the authors’ fault. Their original choice was The Imperial Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway, which is really what the book is all about. The publisher, though, wanted it changed in order to broaden the book’s apparent focus, or so they thought.
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2. Revised Book Review:
The Battle of Midway
by Peter C. Smith
Subtitle: The Battle That Turned the Tide of the Pacific War
Published 1976 (Spellmount Ltd.)
(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2007-02)
One of the big advantages of e-mail is that if you write something that you later regret, you can edit the text before it is sent, or if it’s too late for that, you can conveniently send a corrected copy to all recipients. But when you’re publishing a book, you basically have one shot at getting it right—once it’s off to the publisher, you’re stuck with what it says.
That’s the case with one short passage in No Right to Win that I wish I’d said much differently. It’s one of the brief media descriptions found in Appendix D, page 312. My one-paragraph review of the above book stated that, according to some of our members, the book had “anti-American undertones.” That was a quote from one member who’d commented on the book, and I’d passed that along on both our web site and in No Right to Win (NRTW) without much thought. Also, I’d never read the book, although that’s not unusual since Appendix D primarily reflects our members’ opinions on Midway books rather than my own.
It’s too bad that I didn’t first read it myself, because its author, Peter Smith, bought NRTW upon my recommendation after I’d given him some assistance with a new Midway book he was writing. When he spotted my comment on his 1976 book, he reacted very sharply, stating that he was in fact a strong supporter of America’s role both in WW2 as well as the modern era, and that my comment was totally out of line. That prompted me to get a copy of his book and read it myself in order to find exactly what our earlier critics had found objectionable. Upon finishing it, I wrote the following review for issue #2007-02 of The Roundtable Forum.
“This 1976 book by British author Smith is of special interest to me for a couple of reasons. One, a few Roundtable members reported to me some years ago that the author was excessively harsh in his criticisms of U.S. decisions and strategies at the BOM ("anti-American" as one put it). And two, the fact that it was reissued in a second edition in 1996 made me curious as to what the author had revised and whether it truly had an ‘anti-American’ bias.
“With that level of interest, I ordinarily would have reviewed it on the Roundtable long before now, but affordable copies of this U.K.-published book seem to be rare at U.S. booksellers. I was recently lucky to find a used copy of the second edition on-line and grabbed it. And upon finishing it, I have to say that the negative opinions previously reported to me probably should be reconsidered. To be sure, it's not a perfect BOM book—there are quite a lot of errors or arguable conclusions that the Midway experts on the Roundtable will be quick to spot.
“But as I stated above, whether the book is unduly harsh in describing American actions during the battle deserves to be reevaluated. In fact, Smith's description of U.S. problems at Midway are no more than those well established by other authors: the total lack of hits by the AAF, the B-17 "sinking" of the submarine Grayling, the abominable American torpedo, and the various squadrons' failures to signal Kido Butai's location upon initial contact. That merely puts Smith on the same footing as virtually every other BOM author; hence any suggestion that his book has an ‘anti-American’ tone is unwarranted.
“In fact, and despite its various faults, this is actually quite a good BOM book when judged within its category: tight, concise, informal treatises on the battle that are meant to impart a general overview rather than an exhaustive study. In fact, I think it can best be described as ‘Miracle at Midway Light,’ because it delivers approximately the same level of knowledge about the battle as Prange's book, with about the same degree of historical veracity, but in only half the number of pages. As a bonus, the book is augmented by very good map graphics and a decent set of photos. And Smith's final chapter, in which he analyzes the reasons for the American victory and what might have resulted if the Japanese had won is about as good as you'll find anywhere.
“Those well-versed on the BOM (like Roundtable members) will not find much of anything in this book that adds to their knowledge of the battle. But as a primer for someone new to the subject or perhaps for a student needing to know just the basics for a school project, it can be a useful resource.”
While I felt the above review satisfied my need to retract what I’d written in NRTW, it is still fair to say that there are better options for anyone interested in that class of BOM history. The best of its category (short treatises of the battle intended as an overview) is Mark Stille’s Midway 1942, reviewed below. Among those written in the same era as Smith’s work, Edmund L. Castillo’s Midway: Battle for the Pacific (1968) is arguably the top contender.
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3. Midway Dauntless Victory
by Peter C. Smith
Subtitle: Fresh Perspectives on America’s Seminal Naval Victory of World War II
Published 2007 (Pen & Sword Books Ltd.)
(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2008-03)
I have to admit that I was skeptical in 2006 when I first learned that this book was in the works. In the first place, the author’s earlier BOM book, The Battle of Midway (1976) was not well regarded by our members. (See above.) And more importantly, I felt at the time that there was little point in anyone trying to retell the entire story of the battle. After the publication of A Glorious Page In Our History, plus the classic works by Lord and Prange, it seemed to me that there really is nothing more to be said about it as a whole. To be sure, there is still abundant opportunity for specialized studies, of which Shattered Sword is probably the best example. Dallas Isom’s Midway Inquest is also in that category. But another attempt to tell the full story of Midway? That had to be a pointless exercise in restating what has already been stated, or so I thought.
Well, I was wrong. British author Smith has managed to pull off the unexpected in producing an account of the BOM that pretty much surpasses the scope of anything previously seen in this category. To put it in simple terms, the depth of his research and the total effort he put into the project is truly amazing. He traveled throughout the U.S. for personal interviews with Midway vets, helped in large measure by the Roundtable. He also poured through the files at the Naval Historical Center and the National Archives in Washington, and then undertook a lengthy visit to Japan where he interviewed BOM vets and dug into Japan’s records of the battle. The output of such far-reaching research is obvious in the book—it is literally
crammed with footnote references to veteran interviews and historical documents from both countries, as well as citations to virtually every significant book or paper ever penned on the Battle of Midway. To top it off, the book has one of the most extensive BOM photo collections ever assembled in one place. Some of the photos are familiar, but many are a refreshing departure from the usual set of stock images found in nearly every Midway book.
That said, one needs to take note of the book’s subtitle (above). While Smith is indeed telling the full story of the BOM and then some, he is also drawing upon his 38 years as a military author and researcher (some 60 books in print) to present several perspectives on the battle that won’t generally be found in other works, particularly the earlier ones. The de-classification of wartime records in the 1970s-1980s led to new revelations about the battle that found their way into important new works, such as Layton’s And I Was There, Lundstrom’s The First Team and Blackshoe Carrier Admiral, and of course, A Glorious Page In Our History and Shattered Sword. Each of those, and writings like them, presented either something significantly new in the BOM’s historiography or it offered
information from which others have drawn compelling new conclusions about important elements of the battle, as in the case of Midway Inquest. In Midway: Dauntless Victory, Smith has applied that process to the entire scope of the battle, offering insightful commentary on nearly every important factor at Midway. And he projects far beyond the battle like no one has done before, offering expansive segments on the BOM as perceived in numerous other nations, both Allied and Axis.
But when one is writing “fresh perspectives,” he is actually writing his opinions, and that’s where this book becomes vulnerable. As I said, Smith’s research is truly awesome, so his personal perspectives are extremely well founded and should, for the most part, resonate well with almost anyone. Indeed, this will be an exceptionally valuable volume as-is for the average student of the BOM. On the Roundtable, though, we set the bar much higher. Minor misstatements of fact or dubious interpretations of circumstances stand out in our group like nowhere else, becoming causes for concern that wouldn’t register with others. Smith’s book has a lot of them. Here are a few:
1. He asserts that “the Battle of Midway would have been a vastly different battle had [Halsey] been in charge.” While that’s been a matter of conjecture and interest for decades, declaring it an absolute fact as Smith has done here is unsupportable. Admiral Nimitz’s expectations for his task force commanders in Op-Plan 29-42 weren’t subject to debate aboard the Enterprise. Halsey might have made some different decisions here and there, but to the extent that the battle would have turned out “vastly” different? There’s no certainty of that whatsoever.
2. Smith notes that Nimitz briefed Spruance and Fletcher separately prior to the battle and speculates that he may have done so in order to emphasize the separation of the two task forces. That’s totally incorrect in every possible regard, as the two TF commanders were jointly briefed by Nimitz on the evening of May 27th, shortly after Fletcher arrived in port on the Yorktown. That is stated in Midway: Turning Point in the Pacific (1966) by Adm. William W. Smith, the TF-17 screen commander at Midway, who was present at the meeting.
3. Smith disagrees with the analysis in Shattered Sword that the planned Japanese bombardment of Midway by four cruisers had little chance of accomplishing its purpose (nullifying the Marine defenses so that the invasion troops could storm ashore). He supports his argument with comparisons of the Japanese bombardments at Wake and Guadalcanal, ignoring the vast differences in Wake vs. Midway as articulated by Will O’Neil in Shattered Sword and No Right to Win, and the fact that the terrifying bombardments at Guadalcanal actually failed to accomplish their purpose as well.
4. Smith discusses the “Flight to Nowhere” at great length, including the question concerning course 240 degrees true vs. 265. He favors the traditional 240 degree view, but uses selective evidence to support his opinion. He doesn’t believe VS-8 commander Walter Rodee’s unambiguous statement to Bowen Weisheit that the course was 260 to 265 degrees true because he thinks Rodee made statements elsewhere in the same interview that were ambiguous, which struck me as a stretch of rationalization. He opines that the latitude-longitude coordinates recorded by the PBY that picked up VF-8 pilots far from where they are shown in the Hornet after-action report are unreliable because they were recorded in an unofficial manner, but offers no evidence that they are the
least bit inaccurate. He cites my Naval History article (“Changing Course” in the Feb. 2006 issue) in which I emphasize Clay Fisher’s sighting of Midway’s smoke column as supporting course 240, but he ignores my interview with Richard Woodson in the same article that provides an equally convincing basis for course 265.
For me, this matter remains as I stated it in No Right to Win—when you have two eyewitnesses of an event who were both there and know exactly what they saw, yet their respective accounts are mutually exclusive, you simply have to accept the testimony of both and move on. Smith didn’t do that, electing instead to take a stand that other historians can readily dispute. That makes his book, or at least this portion of it, too much of an opinion piece rather than the credible volume of history it should be.
There are other issues such as these that should cause a lot of raised eyebrows among our members, but for now I’ll mention just one further problem: readers will stumble over an inordinate number of typographical and structural errors that the author obviously didn’t intend. Most of them are routine grammatical mistakes or incorrect nomenclature, but a few defy even the most elementary common sense, as in one passage where Smith has submarine I-168 making a “360 degrees turn” in order to reverse its course. (!) Even several of the definitions in the Glossary are wrong, some of which seem to be little more than unresearched guesses. You expect a number of miscues in any large work, but the sheer number of them in this book is a major blot on its quality—my notes on
them took up five single-spaced pages! By comparison I only found about a dozen in Shattered Sword and a mere two in Black Shoe Carrier Admiral. Smith did engage an independent editor who should have fixed such errors before publication, so I don’t blame him personally for all of them. He may want to hire another editor next time, though.
But these criticisms should not be taken as a blanket condemnation of the book; quite the opposite. I only list them here because the Roundtable’s roster includes many of the world’s real experts on the BOM, who would have cause to dismiss this review had I failed to note the book’s obvious negatives. In the broad view, though, such negatives are mostly minor elements in an immense body of work that, on balance, may be the most comprehensive BOM history ever produced. It deserves a spot on any bookshelf that also contains the classics of the battle by authors such as Morison, Fuchida, Lord, Prange, Lundstrom, Cressman, and Parshall & Tully
One more positive feature of the book deserves mention here: virtually every individual who gets even modest mention in the text is accompanied by a mini-biography in the footnotes, some of which are quite detailed. I found that a very useful resource for background information on the personalities of the BOM at all levels. The only improvement I would have preferred in this case would be to place them in a separate appendix rather than in the footnotes. That would remove some of the clutter among the voluminous footnotes on every page, while making it easier to find information on a particular person.
Midway: Dauntless Victory is a fine hardbound volume, 378 pages, with a front cover featuring Dave Gray’s brilliant painting of Dusty Kleiss pulling out over Kaga. The print font is easy to read and the photos are clearly reproduced on glossy stock. At this writing, the book is published only in England, although buyers everywhere can order it from on-line booksellers.
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4. Midway Inquest
by Dallas W. Isom
Subtitle: Why the Japanese Lost the Battle of Midway
Published 2007 (Indiana University Press)
(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2007-40)
Midway Inquest is the long-awaited followup to the author’s Naval War College study of “why the Japanese lost the Battle of Midway,” published in 2000 in the NWC Review. For an extensive study of that article,
Isom, a law professor at Willamette University in Oregon, became interested in the Pacific war from his father’s tales of combat on Saipan with the Marines. He was intrigued by the BOM after reading some of the familiar accounts of the battle—in particular, he wondered why, with all of the enormous firepower the Japanese brought to Midway, they could not have prevailed in the battle. Around 1997, then, he began a zealous inquiry into the specific circumstances facing Admiral Nagumo as a miserably convoluted scenario unfolded around him on the morning of 4 June 1942.
Of course, most students of the BOM believe the reasons for Japanese defeat at Midway are readily understood: Nimitz knew when they were coming and with what, Tomonaga’s request for a second strike on Midway caused a rather inept Nagumo to change the anti-ship ordnance on his Kates to land bombs, the late-arriving contact report about a U.S. carrier from the Tone 4 scout plane caused him to change the Kates back to torpedoes, and sequential attacks by VT-8 and VT-6 made that next to impossible. The result was that bombs, torpedoes, and gasoline hoses were strewn about the hangar decks when the SBDs arrived. They attacked without opposition because of the Japanese CAP’s preoccupation with the TBDs (and by extension, Thach’s VF-3/42 escort). A relatively few bombs
piercing three flight decks pretty much ended the battle just as it began.
But Isom believes that there is much more to the story, and that some of the key elements of the classic explanation for Japan’s defeat are wrong. He bases his theories on detailed interviews with IJN veterans during three visits to Japan, plus review of primary Japanese documents while there. For that reason his book deserves a thorough evaluation, since few BOM authors undertake that level of research.
A thorough evaluation, then, reveals two very significant new findings that Isom brings to the BOM discussion, and they alone are justification for the book. Number one, his Japanese interviews were focused more on the enlisted mechanics and ordnance handlers who worked on Kido Butai’s hangar decks than on the more colorful airmen who flew the planes and who are the usual subjects of researcher interviews. From them Isom developed an understanding of exactly how, for example, the Type 91 aerial torpedo was mounted on a Kate, and especially what was involved in removing one, replacing it with a land bomb, and then reversing the process shortly thereafter. It turns out that such seemingly minor details are a very important factor in Nagumo’s decision process on June 4th, and once you read them you get a far
better understanding of why the admiral could not get a strike mission launched before it was too late.
The second major revelation concerns the flight of the cruiser Tone’s number 4 scout plane, which ultimately spotted the Yorktown and thus indirectly caused its loss. Tone 4 launched thirty minutes behind schedule due to mechanical trouble, which led many BOM authors to conclude Nagumo would have won the battle if the scout had launched on time. A half hour of advance notice that an American carrier was nearby would have given the Japanese a head start on rearming their Kates, with the result that a full strike might have been launched before the SBDs struck. But Isom’s careful analysis of Tone 4’s track and the time of its contact report over Yorktown reveals an interesting anomaly—the plane wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near the American carriers at that time.
Its assignment should have taken it well to the south and beyond the U.S. fleet’s location, with the result that its aircrew either wouldn’t have seen any enemy ships, or at best, they would have found them much later on their return leg, exacerbating the delay in their contact report.
But that didn’t happen—Tone 4 found the Yorktown at a time it shouldn’t have, leaving Isom to conclude that its pilot had decided to make up for his lost thirty minutes by shortcutting his assigned track. He apparently turned north to start his dogleg return much sooner than he would have had he launched on time, and thus overflew TF-17 at a time and location that he shouldn’t have. Ironically, then, Tone 4’s mechanical problem was the cause for Nagumo having any luck at all in striking the U.S. carriers, rather than the critical failing in Japanese search operations that earlier BOM books make it out to be.
The book has other positive features, most notably a superb chart showing all of Nagumo’s scout plane assignments superimposed over the tracks of the opposing fleets. It makes the Tone 4 issue very clear. Other plusses are Isom’s supplementary chapters, which give a very good overview of America and Japan’s march to war as well as synopses of the post-BOM battles of 1942: Guadalcanal, Eastern Solomons, and Santa Cruz. Those brief summaries are excellent in their own right; anyone wanting a quick understanding of their subjects will find Midway Inquest a handy reference.
So much for the good points. I frequently say that the perfect BOM book has yet to be written, and Midway Inquest sustains that view. While Isom has made a major addition to the BOM’s historiography, his book has a bevy of flaws that take it out of the five-star category. This review will be far too long if I cite all of them, but in brief, Isom comes off as a bit too elitist in his preface (in my opinion), implying that other BOM authors are guilty of chauvinism and that only a lawyer like him can dispassionately analyze the facts of the BOM in an unbiased manner. I think professional historians will argue that they are as capable as Isom for writing on a subject without prejudice.
Isom errs in numerous other ways, but for me the problems were mostly minor. He has no naval background, which shows in some of his terminology, i.e. repeatedly referring to the flag bridge on Akagi and Enterprise as “headquarters.” He miscounts the invasion troops slated to take the atoll by double, numbering support and admin personnel among the assault forces. A claim that Akagi was incapable of receiving long-wave radio transmissions because of a limited antenna array is wrong from a technical standpoint (if Akagi’s radiomen didn’t receive critical intel on the eve of the battle, it wasn’t because of their antennas.) He goes at great length to describe the two versions of the Hornet air group’s “flight to nowhere” but concludes that the 265 Degrees True option didn’t happen because it doesn’t make any sense to him. (CINCPAC’s Op-Plan 29-42, which may have given him a clue, is not included in his references.) And, his suggestion on how the Japanese could have actually taken the atoll focuses exclusively on the carrier battle without considering the critical problems that would have faced the Japanese cruisers conducting the bombardment and the troops that would had waded ashore against daunting defenses (as explained in Appendix 5 of Shattered Sword and Chapter 5 of No Right to Win). I found several other quibbles, but as I said, this review needs to come to an end at some point.
And in fairness, the quibbles are not a reason to avoid buying the book. Quite the opposite—Midway Inquest should be read by everyone seriously interested in the BOM. Isom has given us something very rare, a book about the battle that doesn’t simply retell it. Its subject matter is new, important, and very well presented, and its supplementary chapters are reason enough to put it on your bookshelf.
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5. A Dawn Like Thunder
by Robert J. Mrazek
Subtitle: The True Story of Torpedo Squadron 8
Published 2008 (Little, Brown & Co.)
(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2009-01)
A Dawn Like Thunder is an account of the Torpedo Squadron Eight (VT-8) told with exceptional thoroughness. The author went the extra mile in tracking down every surviving member of the squadron and capturing their reminisces of Midway and Guadalcanal to the fullest extent possible. While the gallantry of VT-8’s aircrews flying from the USS Hornet at Midway is quite familiar, the book goes well beyond that much-chronicled story by providing insight not previously seen on the men involved, including the heroic, the mundane, and occasionally the deplorable.
Additionally, a little over half the book could be called “the rest of the story” about VT-8: their post-Midway saga at Guadalcanal. While the tribulations suffered by the Hornet torpedomen at Midway could hardly be surpassed, that tragedy began and ended within a few hours. But the squadron’s detachment on Guadalcanal endured months of brutal attrition during the long Japanese campaign to retake the island, while the U.S. fleet struggled against resilient enemy carrier forces that eventually sank the Hornet.
The author paints a vivid picture of the horrific conditions on Guadalcanal. The reader can sense the terror of the pilots as they suffer through bombardments by the Japanese navy, and the struggles of the mechanics to patch together the squadron’s shot-up Grumman Avengers while enduring incessant rainstorms, tropical diseases, and strafing Zeros. One can almost feel their muscular strain as the enlisted men struggle to lift a salvaged wing up to the pieced-together fuselage of their last Avenger so that a pilot might make one final bombing run against the Japanese troops surrounding Henderson field. It was desperation worthy of Valley Forge, the Alamo, or Bataan, relieved only by the eventual American victory in the Solomons.
But A Dawn Like Thunder isn’t just another recounting of wartime history—it’s much more about the men who lived VT-8’s portion of that history. There are new revelations about their celebrated skipper, Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron, plus the 13 pilots who died with him as the Midway battle commenced. And as expected, there is a great deal more about the others, both officer and enlisted, who went on to Guadalcanal and survived that epic battle in order to ultimately provide the wealth of veteran testimony that made this book possible.
Chief among the personnel stories is that of Lieutenant Harold H. “Swede” Larsen, who stayed with the squadron’s detachment in Hawaii during the Midway battle and took command thereafter as the senior surviving officer. To the extreme regret of VT-8’s junior officers and enlisted men, Larsen turned out to be “a bullheaded young martinet with the charming leadership style of Captain William Bligh.” Although fearless in battle (he overtly boasted that he’d earn a Medal of Honor at Guadalcanal), Larsen was a cruel despot to his men, two of whom even tried to shoot him. At the other extreme were men like Aaron Katz, a Jew who had to suffer Larsen’s virulent anti-Semitic insults while becoming one of the squadron’s most successful pilots, and John Taurman, who survived a ditching but refused his automatic stateside leave
in order to stay with the squadron and was killed shortly thereafter. Such tales bring clarity to the VT-8 story like never before.
While a fine achievement by any measure, A Dawn Like Thunder does have some factual mistakes that will give knowledgeable readers pause, like the mention of two airfields on Midway in 1942 (there was just one) or identifying Japanese land-based “Betty” bombers as carrier aircraft. Such errors probably should have been excised in the editing process, but they don’t detract at all from the book’s core value as a superb account of men at arms in the air, on land, and at sea in 1942
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6. The Last Flight of Ensign C. Markland Kelly, Junior, USNR
by Bowen P. Weisheit
Published 1993, second edition 1998
The Ensign C. Markland Kelly, Jr. Memorial Foundation
(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issues 2004-04 and 2009-32. The following is an edited version of the 2009 review.)
Bowen Weisheit’s landmark book is at the heart of Chapter 8 of No Right to Win, and it appears again in Chapter 12. The book prompted fresh interest on the Roundtable upon Weisheit’s passing early in 2009, which brought another lengthy discourse over his controversial thesis. See "The Flight to Nowhere" in these update pages.
The Kelly book has long been one of our most discussed, reviewed, and debated BOM references. Weisheit published it in 1993 after some years of research into the fate of his friend Mark Kelly, one of the two VF-8 pilots who didn’t survive the Hornet air group’s “flight to nowhere” on the morning of 4 June 1942.
The debate concerning Weisheit’s research and his book arises from his belief that CDR Stanhope Ring’s Hornet air group (HAG) flew a curious westbound course (265 degrees true) upon launch from the ship, which dramatically contrasts with the 240 degree course reported in Captain Mitscher’s official after-action report. The difference in the two headings is of paramount importance: course 240 was approximately in the direction of the enemy fleet, while 265 literally turned out to be a course toward nothing, and should have been seen as such by the commanders who ordered it in the first place.
For those who have difficulty visualizing this issue from the azimuth bearings (240 & 265), think of it like a slice out of a pie. Looking at it from the point, the right edge is course 265 and the left edge is course 240. The enemy fleet was close to the left edge of the slice (course 240), and very distant from the right edge.
While Weisheit’s theory is backed by extensive interviews of various HAG pilots and Hornet officers whose testimony solidly supports his findings, it must be emphasized that the official version (course 240) cannot not be totally discounted. Its principal proponent is our own CDR Clayton Fisher, who had been Ring’s wingman during the flight. Fisher has stated emphatically that he clearly saw the smoke from Midway’s burning oil tanks off his port wing about a half hour after launch (approx. 0800-0830 Midway time), which only could have happened on course 240. There are other, less explicit suggestions in certain references concerning the HAG’s course, such as George Gay’s quote of Waldron telling him that Ring intended to take the air group “down there” and that he intended to
lead VT-8 “more to the north” (Soul Survivor, p. 113). That terminology by Waldron, if accurate, makes no sense with regard to course 265.
So while Weisheit’s theory seems well founded, it shouldn’t be considered absolute. Still, the depth of his research and particularly the supporting testimony from other pilots who flew that mission have led many respected historians in recent years to accept course 265 as accurate. That explains the continuing interest in the Kelly book, because it strongly suggests that the Hornet’s official after-action report contains a blatant fabrication that was innocently repeated in most of the earlier books about the battle.
I got my first copy of the Kelly book around 2005 and referred to it extensively in preparing No Right to Win. Other authors had done the same, starting with John Lundstrom in The First Team and the authors of A Glorious Page In Our History. But I’d only actually read it cover-to-cover one time, so the news concerning Weisheit’s passing prompted me to give it another look. I read it through again, this time taking note of some points that I’d glossed over four years previously.
While I found nothing suggesting a flaw in Weisheit’s basic premise, the book does have some flaws. Most are minor, like referring to Ring as a lieutenant commander on page 8, but a couple of them are worthy of comment. The most obvious is the
photo on page 7
that Weisheit says shows the VF-8 escort launching on the fateful June 4th flight, with Kelly’s aircraft prominently in the center of the picture. The glaring error in this case is that there are no other squadrons in the picture, just seven fighters. Everyone, including Weisheit, agrees that VF-8 was just ahead of VS-8, VB-8, and part of VT-8 on the flight deck, so that picture is clearly of another launch, maybe even on another
What makes this error troublesome is that Weisheit continued to insist on its authenticity even after I pointed out the obvious discrepancy to him in a phone conversation. He was unmoved by the lack of SBDs in the photo, even though his book has several indications that he knew precisely how the squadrons were spotted on deck that morning. I found this surprising since Weisheit, an attorney of long experience, was ordinarily very precise in matters of detail. His refusal to acknowledge a correction in the face of hard evidence struck me as inconsistent with his otherwise meticulous research. I wondered if that indicated a tendency on his part to make the evidence fit the conclusion instead of vice versa.
That would cast a measure of doubt over his entire book. Yet, its verbatim pilot interviews that explicitly indicate a westbound course on June 4th make any such doubt largely moot—one really can’t argue with the guys who were there, especially when all of them (who were interviewed by Weisheit) are independently saying the same thing.
A second issue that has generated debate from our HAG veterans is Weisheit’s contention that the Hornet’s YE homing transmitter was broadcasting an azimuth error of some 20 to 28 degrees, which he believes contributed to VF-8 missing the ship upon their return flight. His book contains page after page of detailed explanation on the YE-ZB system and the specific evidence he says shows that the ship’s YE was off kilter on June 4th. But absent in this contention is any explanation as to why VS-8, part of VB-8, Ring’s two wingmen, and even Ring himself (arguably the air group’s worst navigator) successfully made it back to the Hornet by following its YE signal, or why a great many other sorties during the three day battle brought the same result. Clay Fisher is especially adamant on that score, pointing out that all 39 of his 200-mile solo search missions only ended successfully because he followed the Hornet’s YE to an on-deck landing every time. So as convincing as Weisheit is on what seems to be a significant compass error affecting the YE at Midway, testimony from multiple Hornet airmen effectively argues against it.
It would be easy to quibble with some other elements of the book. For example, too much space in this small volume is devoted to irrelevancies, such as two pages on Kelly’s athletic prowess in college, or two more on the loss of the Hornet at Santa Cruz. But all such quibbles are tangential to Weisheit’s basic thesis, which seems unassailable. Therein lies his book’s fundamental value and the reason why it has captured the attention and interest of everyone at every level who has a serious interest in the BOM.
Note: as of July 2009, the book is available directly from the author’s estate for $25.00 plus shipping. To request a copy, contact:
Edith B. Weisheit
2636 Calvary Rd
Bel Air MD 21015-6616 USA
* * * *
7. Midway 1942
by Mark Stille
Published 2010 (Osprey)
(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2010-40)
I’ve become dubious about any new book related to the BOM. With all of the outstanding latter-day references by the likes of Lundstrom, Parshall & Tully, Cressman and their various co-authors, it seems unlikely that there would be anything more for anyone to say. But I still try to maintain an open mind because a new book occasionally comes along that brings a pleasant surprise. A Dawn Like Thunder is an example, which at first looked like the much-told tale of VT-8, but which expanded that story long past Midway to a level not previously seen. Midway Inquest and Midway Dauntless Victory, despite their many flaws, also brought important new insight to various aspects of the battle not fleshed out by other authors.
So when Commander Mark Stille’s Midway 1942 was announced, I ordered a copy on the chance it might contain yet another pleasant surprise. It did, albeit to a minor degree.
Stille relies heavily on the aforementioned first-line BOM authors, as evidenced by his “Further Reading” list at the end of the book. The influence of Parshall-Tully is evident throughout, with heavy emphasis on the re-thinking of the BOM found in Shattered Sword. In fact, one Roundtable member told me that this book’s title should have been Shattered Sword Extra Light.
The “extra light” part comes from the book’s size and structure: paperback, 7.25 x 9.75 inches, and only 96 pages between the covers. But that’s not bad—the limited format forced the author to condense the battle into is salient facts, and he did a credible job of that. But for those well-versed in the BOM (especially if you’ve read The First Team, Shattered Sword, and A Glorious Page In Our History) there is nothing in the text that’s new. However, the book does excel in one important regard: its graphics. Most prominent are the dazzling original paintings by Howard Gerrard, especially the close-up on the cover of Tomonaga’s bullet-riddled Kate lining up on Yorktown amid a hail of AA. The dramatic image is repeated in a two-page spread inside, as are scenes of the attacks on Hiryu and Mikuma. In addition, full-page color charts nicely detail the battle’s progress, and
three-dimensional drawings illustrate the air attacks like you probably haven’t seen them before (unless you were there).
The bottom line: despite a few minor errors in the text, Midway 1942 is possibly the best contender in the category of brief treatises on the BOM, and it has, by far, the best graphics of anything in its class.
In a curious coincidence, this is the second book published by Osprey with the exact same title, and in the same series of books. This one is #226 in the “Campaign” series, while the
earlier one by Mark Healy
is #30. It’s almost as if Osprey lost track of the earlier book.
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