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The Battle of Midway Roundtable
BOOK REVIEWS, page 4
CONTENTS ON THIS PAGE
1. Miracle at Midway (Mercer)
2. Rendezvous at Midway
3. Midway: Turning Point In the Pacific
4. Midway: Battle For the Pacific
5. Midway 1942 (Healy)
(All reviews written by the Roundtable editor except as otherwise noted.)
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1. Miracle at Midway
by Charles Mercer
Published 1977, Putnam Publishing Group
(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2009-45)
First off, it’s necessary to point out that this is not Gordon Prange’s renowned Miracle at Midway that was published in 1982 and which became the number one best seller of all BOM books. Somehow, Prange was either unaware of that title on an earlier work, or he deliberately purloined it because he thought nothing else would do for the Midway masterpiece that he had in mind. In either case, Mercer’s book was first with a title that would become an iconic symbolism of the battle.
The book runs 160 pages and includes a collection of familiar photos. Mercer is said to have been an intelligence officer during WW2, who became a prolific writer and publishing house editor in his postwar career. His brief biography on the book’s jacket doesn’t say if he was in Army or Navy intel; my guess would be Army since he gets shipboard terminology wrong in a few places.
The book is a very easy read, which explains why some booksellers list it among juvenile literature. As for its historical quality, there isn’t much a 160-page book on the BOM written over 30 years ago is going to reveal to us today, but it does have a few attractions. The first half of the book is a good synopsis of Pearl Harbor and Coral Sea plus the runup to the war; topics not always covered very well in other BOM works. Then, it seems that Mercer’s research made him privy to a few interesting tidbits of insight that I haven’t seen before. He mentions VMF-221 pilots on Midway calling their old F4F-3s “Wilbur Wrights” instead of Wildcats, and he talks about the Enterprise pilots’ habit of never shaving before going into
battle, saving that as a ritual carried out only after victory. The meticulously groomed Spruance reportedly joined his pilots in that tradition on the morning of June 4th.
Mercer also comes up with an insightful analysis of the precarious position Fletcher and Spruance found themselves when preparing their task forces for battle. He says that, mindful of the need to preserve their carriers more than Midway itself, the two admirals faced a three-horned dilemma. They’d be publicly castigated if the atoll fell at the expense of saving their ships. On the other hand, if Midway is saved but the carriers are lost, they’d have violated CINCPAC’s principle that the carriers were more important. And worse, if the enemy took Midway and sunk our carriers in the process, their names would go down in infamy as the commanders who lost everything in the most vital battle of the Pacific war.
As you might expect, a book of this vintage has an assortment of historical errors that will cause raised eyebrows for just about any Roundtable reader. Mercer claims that U.S. intel forces had broken the chief Japanese naval codes prior to Pearl Harbor, which would delight the “FDR knew” crowd. He says Pearl Harbor was the first use of a carrier in combat, which would surprise the Royal Navy vets who bombed Taranto and ran down the Bismarck. He has Fletcher, rather than Buckmaster, in command of the Yorktown at Coral Sea. He has Best and his two wingmen diving on Kaga. He has a floating George Gay in visual range of the damaged Hiryu. And incredibly, he has “a swarm of Zekes” bagging all six of Thach’s VF-3 fighters.
But on balance, I’d say the book’s unexpected plusses manage to overcome its minuses, most of which were not unexpected. High on the list of good points is Mercer’s mention of the intel annex to CINCPAC’s Op-Plan 29-42. The basic op-plan for Midway was made public long ago, but to my knowledge, Annex B, the special intelligence report to the task force commanders, has never been found. Mercer briefly describes it as a detailed analysis of each of the ships likely to comprise the enemy force. That brief comment is more than we (or at least, I) ever knew concerning the illusive Annex B.
Used copies of Mercer’s Miracle are available on Amazon for less than a dollar (plus shipping). I can recommend it to anyone who likes to maintain a complete collection of BOM references. By no means is it any sort of stellar work on the battle, but it is unique enough on various levels to have a place in anyone’s Midway library
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2. Rendezvous at Midway
by Pat Frank & Joseph D. Harrington
Subtitle: The USS Yorktown and the Japanese Carrier Fleet
Published 1968, Warner Paperback Library
(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2007-34)
Reviewed by Robert B. Armstrong
Rendezvous at Midway is a small book, but it covers the essentials in a colorful, readable style. Many incidents are recounted from the viewpoint of participants, bringing a vivid character to the carrier activity and air battles that more lengthy and scholarly chronicles lack. The book includes a number of quoted eyewitness accounts that I haven't seen reported elsewhere.
The authors make several editorial observations that are remarkably consistent with current thinking. For instance, they credit Thach's dogfight with the Japanese CAP as the decisive factor in leaving the SBD formations free to attack. On the other hand, they attribute the Yorktown squadrons' successful navigation toward the enemy carriers to astute forethought by aerologist Hubie Strange and CAG Oscar Pederson rather than to air officer Murr Arnold.
This book is one of my favorites on the subject, due both to its lively style and to its concise description of several complicated naval encounters, including the attacks on Jaluit and Salamaua in February and March 1942, with mention of my uncle Robert G. Armstrong as commander of VB-5 at the time.
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3. Midway: Turning Point In the Pacific
by William Ward Smith
Published 1966, Crowell
(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2008-25)
Reviewed by Randall Bedore
This book is a readable but not scholarly work, told from an up close and personal perspective by the commander of the TF-17 screening force. The primary focus is on Coral Sea and Midway. Smith's description of his own role takes a back seat to the whole of these campaigns. Included is an overview of the period from December 7, 1941 to the Battle of the Coral Sea, and a summation and reflection of the post Midway years.
John Lundstrom, in Black Shoe Carrier Admiral, p. 512, says Smith picked up his pen about 1965 in reaction to Samuel Eliot Morison's negativity and lack of knowledge of Fletcher, and in reaction to Samuel Griffith's total vilification of Fletcher [The Battle for Guadalcanal, 1965]. Lundstrom also states that though Fletcher and Smith were friends, Smith was not wholly uncritical. In this work, Smith is supportive of Fletcher's approach, tactics, and command decisions at Coral Sea and Midway. It was Smith's distinct recollection that Nimitz' "calculated risk" principle existed and was followed. When presented with a reasonable opportunity, Fletcher joined the battle.
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4. Midway: Battle For the Pacific
by Edmund L. Castillo
Published 1968, Random House
(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2007-13)
I didn't expect much from this book because of its listing as part of a children's series plus its publication nearly 40 years ago, when there was still much to be learned about the BOM. But I was pleasantly surprised. Navy Captain Castillo wrote a great little narrative on the battle, encapsulating all of its important facts, some very good analysis, and a surprisingly good photo set in only 176 pages. And if this book is supposed to appeal primarily to youngsters, then I guess my level of literary maturity hasn't yet peaked at age 65, for in my view it's written on a level that's appropriate for readers of any age.
To be sure, you don't get the depth of research and detail to be found in the more serious works of that era by Lord and Prange, but evaluated within its own peer group--short treatises on the BOM intended as an overview rather than a scholarly study--Castillo's book is among the very best to be found. For one thing, his text avoids the annoying technical errors made by other writers who either don't have a naval background or don't bother to get help from someone who does. Castillo had "been there" before writing this book, having served afloat in amphibs during WWII.
But the book shines in its description of the Midway story, flowing evenly and quite accurately through all of its important concepts and segments. Included are the origins of Midway as a U.S. possession, brief biographies of Yamamoto and Nimitz, a good synopsis of the battle from beginning to end, and an insightful analysis of why the Japanese failed when they clearly should have won.
One of the book's biggest surprises, for this reviewer at least, was the photos. I thought after seven years on the Roundtable that I'd seen about all of the important BOM-related pictures that one is likely to see, but Midway: Battle for the Pacific has several that were new (to me) and quite notable. The title page includes a closeup view of a Yorktown-class carrier's island, and it's a two-page spread providing far more detail than I've seen elsewhere. There's a photo of Bert Earnest and Harry Ferrier's shot-up TBF that I'd never seen before, quite different than the familiar view found (for example) on page 71 of
A Glorious Page In Our History. Another photo shows a good closeup of an in-flight SBD that had just released its bomb, sort of a black-and-white inspiration for the cover of No Right to Win. Finally, the most dramatic shot of all: another version of that familiar scene of Admiral Nimitz presenting awards on the flight deck of the Enterprise (see p. 314 in The First Team or the photos following p. 140 in Miracle at Midway), except this one is an expanded-scale view, taken by another photographer high on the ship's island. It shows nearly all of the officers and sailors mustered for the occasion plus Pearl Harbor in the background, with still-sunken ships breaking the water's surface.
I've recently reviewed other books in this category; tight overviews of the battle suited to quickly inform the uninitiated reader of the BOM's essential points, and this one is near the top of that class. If you're a collector of Midway media, you'll want this one somewhere in your bookcase after you've enjoyed reading it.
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5. Midway 1942
by Mark Healy
Subtitle: Turning Point in the Pacific
Published 1996, Osprey
(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2007-22)
Reviewed by Terry Higham
Midway 1942 is number 30 of the Osprey Campaign Series. Like many of its contemporaries, it contains a number of historical flaws. For example, it recounts the myth from the Nagumo/Fuchida report that the Kido Butai was beginning to launch its second strike when McClusky's and Leslie's SBDs arrived overhead. In discussing the impact of Midway, it also repeats the myth that the IJN lost the cream of its experienced aircrews at Midway—myths rebutted in more recent studies like Shattered Sword and No Right to Win.
Yet, despite these deficits, Midway 1942 offers a number of remarkable features for consideration. Apart from these common flaws, it appears faithful to the story and would be well suited as an introductory work for junior high and high school students. It also contains a number of illustrations of the various carriers from both sides, depictions of the ebb and flow of battle, photographs, maps, an order of battle for each fleet, and plots showing the relative positions of the various attacking forces. It contains an interesting chronology of events moving from a day by day chronology during April and May 1942 to an hour by hour account for events during the period of June 3 to June 7.
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