| Book Reviews Index |

The Battle of Midway Roundtable






1.  Combined Fleet Decoded

2.  Carrier Combat

3.  The Ship That Held the Line

4.  SBD Dauntless and the Battle of Midway

5.  Walk Around: SBD Dauntless

6.  Attack on Pearl Harbor


(All reviews written by the Roundtable editor except as otherwise noted.)




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1.  Combined Fleet Decoded


by John Prados

Subtitle:  The Secret History of American Intelligence and the Japanese Navy in World War II

Published 2001, Naval Institute Press



(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2006-48)


Reviewed by RADM D. M. “Mac” Showers, USN-Retired


Combined Fleet Decoded is basically an examination of the intelligence efforts of the U. S. Navy and the Japanese Navy during all of World War II in the Pacific.  The author accomplished this by a thorough accounting and analysis of U.S. intelligence activities and, through interviews and research in Japan, comparable treatment of what could be learned of the Japanese intelligence efforts.   It becomes evident that the U.S. Navy's effort was far more detailed, achieved greater appreciation and use by the fighting forces, and was more successful overall.  The Japanese effort, by comparison, was smaller, less appreciated and used by the Japanese commanders, and was a major contributor to their eventual defeat.


The book is relatively heavy reading, but it is recognized as the most authoritative account of the intelligence efforts by both sides and their relative effectiveness.  The research conducted by the author in Japan and his analysis of the Japanese intelligence effort are unique in current literature.  The author concludes that the superior U.S. effort and use of intelligence was a decisive factor in the ultimate defeat of the Japanese Navy by the U. S. Navy.





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2.  Carrier Combat


by Frederick Mears

Published 1944, Doubleday-Doran



(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2008-13)


Reviewed by Scott Kair


LT(jg) Mears' account of his participation in the first year of the Pacific war is an invaluable supplement to the literature on the Battle of Midway.  He opens his narrative as a newly minted reserve ensign awaiting advanced carrier training in California when Pearl Harbor was attacked.  He then relates his experiences and impressions through training as a Devastator pilot, his temporary attachment to VT-8 aboard the Hornet during the BOM, his subsequent training in Avengers, and his ultimate deployment with the reconstituted VT-8 in the Solomons campaign.


Of particular interest to students of the BOM is his recollection of the pilots of VT-8 and their commander, John Waldron.  Waldron made quite an impression, as Mears spends much of a chapter recalling Waldron's personality and leadership techniques.  Some of his vignettes of Waldron were obviously gathered from the other pilots of the squadron before the battle, and from George Gay afterwards.  Some of the latter will be familiar to those who have read Gay's book, Sole Survivor.  Mears' portrait of Waldron is clearly a spirited defense of his skipper, systematically demolishing attempts to portray Waldron as unhinged and at fault for the annihilation of his squadron.


Although he gives no source for the assertion, Mears clearly states that "we could only be sure that they (VT-8) had sighted and attacked the enemy, because the ship (Hornet) had received Waldron's position report."  Locating the Japanese strike force, Mears states, was Waldron's great contribution to our victory, because he alone, "of all the squadron commanders and of the higher-ranking officers who direct the squadron commanders, figured out where the Jap fleet was and confirmed his reasoning by finding it."


Mears' function as an observer and witness at Midway might overshadow the rest of his book.  It shouldn't--he writes with clarity and economy of words.  He describes himself as a carrier pilot, a "matter-of-fact" sort, not given to being overly emotional or carrying any illusions about what he is getting into.  Still, we see him evolve from an eager ensign to experienced combat pilot.  Early on, he mentions that he regarded watching carrier landing qualifications as sport, but the lust of his eyes for spectacle is soon sated; he continues to observe, but to learn, not for fun.  He doesn't approach the heart-felt and heart-wrenchingly poetic strains of Ensign "Squire" Evans [see the top the Roundtable home page , just under the VT picture], but by the end of his tour most of his friends are indeed dead, and the nonchalance with which he faces danger is certainly apparent.  He remains an optimist, though, noting the beauty of the jungle on Guadalcanal on the only occasion when he had time to look--while sitting on a latrine and suffering through an attack of dysentery.


The book was accepted for publication between Mears' return to the states late in 1942 and his death in a training accident in June, 1943.  A postscript, written by Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, notes the citation for his posthumous Distinguished Flying Cross for a mission which Mears only describes as worse than usual due to his bombardier being severely wounded.


Mears died when his aircraft began losing tail and wing surfaces.  An incident he recorded earlier may shed light on his death.  He noted that another pilot who had bailed out and was recovered while his crew did not survive had to "live under a shadow."   


[Ed. note:  the book is out of print, and used copies command premium prices, but an on-line search of the title and author’s name shows a variety of resources in electronic form.  Also, the book is listed in several public libraries.]








3.  The Ship That Held the Line


by Lisle Rose

Subtitle:  The USS Hornet and the First Year of the Pacific War

Published 2002, Bluejacket Books



(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2006-49)


This book was reviewed and commented upon by several Roundtable members, all of whom were highly critical of its numerous errors.  Fred Branyan, the son of a Hornet veteran, noted that the author interviewed a very small number of Hornet vets to prepare his manuscript, while a large number of others, never contacted, were more than willing to contribute their stories.  Branyan also noted that, according to Rose, Roundtable member and SBD pilot Clay Fisher was lost in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, which Clay says is news to him.  Author Barrett Tillman cited Rose’s glaring lack of familiarity with carrier operations and the “innumerable, almost laughable errors” in the text.  Bill Vickrey tried to communicate with Rose to bring some of the problems to his attention, but Rose would not reply.


Some of the reviewers tried to balance their criticism by pointing out that this is the only book dedicated solely to the Hornet, CV-8.  While errors abound that Roundtable members will easily spot and possibly cringe over, the history of the ship is actually covered more or less thoroughly.  But does that rate it a spot on your naval or WW2 bookshelf?  Possibly, but it’s more likely that the book’s principal value is as impetus for another author to produce a much better history of the Hornet.





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4.  SBD Dauntless and the Battle of Midway


by Daniel Hernandez

Published 2004, Aeronaval



(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2004-23)


This book’s primary focus, of course, is the SBD Dauntless, but in the process of giving you virtually every conceivable detail about the plane, the book also provides an in-depth history of the SBD's finest hour, the Battle of Midway.


First about the SBD:  the diagrams and photographs are simply outstanding, and there seems to be no end to them.  The see-through color line drawings are especially good.  And as for the aforementioned every conceivable detail:  would you like to know the difference between the crankshaft bearings used in the SBD-3 vs. the SBD-2?  Or the number of degrees that the trim tabs will move up and down?  How about the amount of fluid required to charge the hydraulic system?  Or the engine's compression ratio?  The point is, the level of technical detail about the plane and its various component parts far exceeds anything I've seen anywhere else.  You're almost led to believe that, using only this book as a guide, you could assemble an entire Dauntless yourself if you had all the parts.  In summary, if you want to dig very deeply into the nuts and bolts of the SBD (all of them!), this is a book you're going to want to have.


As for the Battle of Midway, this book isn't the best overall reference you can find but it does a quite a good job of covering the essential details, and without falling prey to some of the myths and errors found in other references.  For example, the "Midway is short of water" ruse, commonly mistaken as an attempt to learn the meaning of "AF" in Japanese ciphers, is correctly explained here.  When a book gets that part right, it's an indicator that the author has done his homework and knows what he’s talking about.  You get that feeling throughout this volume.


If the book has one noticeable flaw, it's the fact that the author, a Spanish airline captain, wrote it in Spanish, then directly translated it into English rather than paraphrasing it into idiomatic English.  The result is Spanish grammar and syntax using English words, and that can be a bit odd at times.  But it's a relatively minor flaw that you can live with, particularly in view of the book's quality in every other regard.


In summary, Daniel Hernandez has done a very creditable job of relating the Battle of Midway, and his exhaustive coverage of the SBD Dauntless is simply something that you're going to have to see yourself to fully appreciate.


The book is sold on-line by its publisher in Spain, and U.S. buyers have reported that the transaction is problem-free.  For more info or to make a purchase, click here.





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5.  Walk Around: SBD Dauntless


by Richard Dann

Published 2004, Squadron Signal Publications



(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2006-06)


Each issue of the Walk Around series by Squadron Signal Publications focuses on a particular aircraft with as much detail as they can possibly cram into about 80 glossy pages.  The photographs are outstanding, with vivid close-ups of every significant portion of the aircraft.  In the case of the SBD, that includes both of the cockpits, showing all of the controls and the extensive array of equipment operated by the radioman-gunner.  Other photographs show SBDs in action during the war, i.e. ready for takeoff on various flight decks.  There are also large line drawings of each SBD variant, including the Army's A-24 "Banshee."


I can highly recommend this book to anyone wanting more detail on the SBD than you'll find in the familiar BOM history books.  The only other SBD reference I've seen that approaches Squadron Signal's level of detail is Daniel Hernandez' SBD Dauntless: The Battle of Midway (reviewed above), but that book is about much more than just the Dauntless.  If the SBD itself is your primary interest, the Squadron Signal publication is an excellent choice.  Scale modelers should find it particularly useful.







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6.  Attack on Pearl Harbor:

Strategy, Combat, Myths, Deceptions


by Alan D. Zimm

Published 2011, Casemate Publishers



(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2011-15)


When I first became aware that a major new book about the Pearl Harbor attack was in the works, my immediate thought was Pearl Harbor? In 2011?  What could possibly be said about Pearl Harbor that wasn’t said long ago by Morison, Prange, Toland, Lord, and Fuchida?


Surprisingly, the answer is quite a lot.  While those earlier works rather thoroughly cover the details of the raid, none of them deal in great depth with Japanese strategy—what the enemy intended to do at Pearl Harbor, how they intended to do it, why they planned to do it the way they did, and most especially, how their entire strategy was inherently flawed.  That’s the approach taken by Roundtable member CDR Alan Zimm, USN-Retired, who is an operational research analyst at Johns Hopkins University.  His new book is far from a simple rerun of the familiar tale—instead, he has probed very deeply into Japanese planning, preparation, and execution of the attack, with particular focus on factors that he believes other historians have either skipped or gotten wrong.


Dr. Zimm’s forte is operational analysis, and that’s the thrust of his book, focusing entirely on what the Japanese intended to do vs. what they actually did, plus intriguing postulations about what would have transpired had they done certain things differently, like mounting a third strike against Pearl Harbor's fuel tank farm, or launching the attack a week earlier when Hawaii's defenses were locked and loaded.


The book includes several revelations that will be new to many readers, and one in particular is essential to the author’s thesis: Admiral Yamamoto’s fundamental goal for attacking Pearl Harbor.  Because of his renown as a champion of naval air power, there is a general belief that he first hoped to sink the Pacific Fleet’s carriers, and failing that, its battleships.  The fact is, though, that the primary target of Kido Butai’s raiders was actually battleships, not carriers.  That’s not news to those familiar with the subject—Samuel Eliot Morison said as much in Volume III of his landmark history of the U.S. Navy in WW2, published in 1948.


However, Dr. Zimm reveals that authors who have tabbed the American battleships as Yamamoto’s primary target haven’t quite seen the whole picture.  Yamamoto thought he knew the American people well from his time in the U.S. before the war, which led him to believe that the public had a special fondness for the Navy’s battleships, viewing them as romantic icons of the nation’s prestige and worldly influence.  He thought that smashing them into scrap in one violent stroke would be so appalling to Americans that they would be cowed to the negotiating table rather than driven for revenge at any cost.  For Yamamoto knew that the only way Japan could win against America was by negotiating from a position of military dominance.


Consequently, Admiral Yamamoto’s primary target at Pearl Harbor was neither carriers nor battleships, but the American people themselves.


Beyond that obvious miscue, the book abounds in revelations of how faulty the Japanese plan was, in its conception, rehearsing, and execution.  The initial attack was badly fumbled by the flight leader, Mitsuo Fuchida, who botched a prearranged tactical signal built around the firing of flares as the formation approached Pearl Harbor—one flare if surprise was achieved, two if it was not, requiring all aircraft to abandon attack priorities and immediately strike en masse.  Surprise was indeed achieved and Fuchida launched a flare, but noticed that the Zeros were not pealing off to their assigned targets.  Thinking they’d missed the first flare, he fired another one, momentarily forgetting that one plus one equals two.  The dive bomber pilots saw both flares and attacked per the “no surprise” contingency, creating chaos for the torpedo planes that led to four of them being shot down.  As the author put it, they “went into the attack with the same level of organization as the Kentucky Derby after the horses are turned loose.”


To add to that fiasco, a substantial portion of the strike was wasted in attacks on empty carrier anchorages, which sent bombs and torpedoes toward targets of little importance.  In the end, only 11 of 40 torpedoes hit what Yamamoto sent them for, and only one bomb did any significant damage to the American fleet by sinking the Arizona.  The sole element of the raid that exceeded Japanese expectations was the attack upon Army aircraft at Hickam Field, and that only happened because of unwitting American cooperation—the Army was defending against sabotage, not an air raid.


Dr. Zimm’s analysis includes a few notable what-if scenarios, including popular speculations about the enemy’s failure to strike Pearl Harbor’s fuel tanks and shipyard facilities.  A detailed examination of the structure and containment features of the tank farm, matched against the limited aircraft and ordnance that the enemy could muster for a third strike against alert defenses reveals that fears about the Pacific Fleet being forced back to California due to fuel exhaustion are exaggerated.  Even with several tanks ruptured, their design tended to mitigate the chance for fire, and the quantity of lost fuel compared to that on board the fleet’s ships (including tankers) was quite adequate to keep the fleet where it was.  Operations toward the central Pacific would not have been possible, but that wasn’t going to happen soon in any case.  Similarly, concerns about damage to the naval shipyard ignores the scope of the target compared to what the Japanese could have brought against it through an AA and fighter gauntlet that would have been far worse than they’d faced earlier.


My criticisms of the book are few and minor:  Dr. Zimm likes to use Latin and French terms to emphasize a point, and that sent me to Google a few times to figure out what the point was.  Then, I found that a bookmark in the glossary was necessary due to his frequent use of Japanese words.  Finally, I wished that the key map of Pearl Harbor on December 7th that introduces the first chapter had been printed as a two-page spread instead of just a half page, since frequent referral to the fine details on that map greatly aid the reader in understanding numerous points in the text.  Unless you have a teenagers’s eyes, you may want to keep a magnifying glass handy.


Beyond that, this is a five-star addition to your Pacific War library.  I can highly recommend it to all who have ever read one of the more familiar treatises on the “Day of Infamy.”   —RR





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