The Battle of Midway Roundtable
ADMIRAL NIMITZ AND THE INITIAL PLACEMENT
OF THE U.S. CARRIERS AT MIDWAY
by John B. Lundstrom
Citing veteran dive bomber pilot Lt. Cdr. George J. Walsh, USNR (Ret.), Peter Smith’s recent book Midway Dauntless Victory declared in an extensive discussion (pp. 51-56, 292-94) that Adm. Chester W. Nimitz had specified “an ambush position” or “waiting area” located 200 miles north of Midway. According to these orders, Rear Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher was supposed to have placed the Striking Force there at dawn on 4 June 1942. Smith (p. 51) speculated that had the US carriers been there at that time, they would have started the battle “nicely within 180 miles of their opponent,” in proper strike range for the massive attack to be launched as soon as the enemy carriers were sighted. According to Smith (p. 56), Nimitz, who was in “general tactical command,” personally directed Fletcher to make a particular course change on 3 June to bring him to the desired spot at the proper time.
However, Smith noted, at sunrise on 4 June Fletcher was actually “about 80 miles east of Nimitz’s ‘desired position,’” and thus much farther away than Nimitz wished (p. 52). “Had Nimitz’s intentions been followed to the letter, “some naval aviators maintain, a much better scenario would have developed as far as the morning strikes were concerned” (p. 53). The morning strike by the two Task Force 16 carriers Enterprise and Hornet certainly experienced great difficulty finding the enemy force. Walsh argued (Smith, p. 293) that much better results would likely have ensued had Fletcher “strictly” followed “Nimitz’s plan.” Smith (p. 56) also held Fletcher directly responsible for this “misplacement;” in his words a deliberate “delay and temporary turn away,” implying that
Fletcher knew exactly where the Japanese carriers would be but swerved to avoid them. Smith quoted Walsh at length on Fletcher’s failure to be where he was supposed to be and the dire consequences thereof. A map drawn by Walsh (Smith, p. 294) demonstrated how much better off the morning strikes should have been had Fletcher not disobeyed orders and been too far from the target.
Lt. Cdr. Walsh’s blog, “A Dive Bomber’s Critical Review of the Battle of Midway” categorically stated that “[Nimitz] ordered Fletcher to take up a position 200 miles north of Midway Island at dawn on the morning of June 4th.” According to Walsh, at 0700 (Z+12) Fletcher was, at about 260 miles northeast of Midway, too far east of where the “original plan ordered by Nimitz” had dictated. Nimitz’s intended position 50 to 75 miles closer to Midway would have put the US carriers decisively closer to their targets. Thus Fletcher’s failure to follow Nimitz’s direct order accounted for “much of the confusion and misfortunes” of the morning’s carrier strike.
To decide whether that serious charge laid against Fletcher is in fact valid, one must review the original documents to examine Nimitz’s positioning of his carriers and their movements prior to the battle. CINCPAC Op-Plan 29-42 (27 May 1942) estimated that Japanese carrier air attacks against Midway could begin “at daylight or during moonlight” and continue for two days or until Midway’s air defenses were beaten down. The enemy’s carrier deployment might be complex. “One or more carriers may take up close-in daylight positions for this purpose. It is estimated a northwesterly bearing will be favored,” while at the same time there might also be “Covering of attacking carriers against our surface forces by additional carrier groups, and fast battleships.” CINCPAC’s plan was to “Operate with Task Forces available initially to the northeast of MIDWAY commencing thirty May, in order to seize opportunity to obtain initial advantage against carriers which are employing their air groups against MIDWAY.” Subsequently Nimitz decided on those “initial areas” for the “Striking Forces.” He designated Point “Luck” (Latitude 32o North, Longitude 173o West), bearing 045oT., 325 miles from Midway, from where Rear Adm. Raymond A. Spruance’s Task Force 16 (Enterprise and Hornet) was to “initially operate north and west” and Rear Admiral Fletcher’s Task Force 17 (Yorktown) to the north and east. During “each local forenoon” both task forces were to approach Point Luck and “exchange communications by plane if desired.” Fletcher received this instruction on 29 May as an appendix to Op-Plan 29-42, but with the following final sentence: “The above is not intended to restrict the operation of either force in any manner but to avoid having embarrassing or premature contact made with own forces.”
However, the final sentence in the version transmitted the same day [message 300227 of May 1942, CINCPAC to CTF-16; CTF-17 by hand] to Spruance (who had already sailed) instead read: “Above [arrangement] is intended only to assist initial coordination.” It is obvious Nimitz provided for the carrier task forces to loiter if necessary near Point Luck possibly for several days awaiting the optimum time to intervene off Midway. On 30 May [message 310357 of May 1942, CINCPAC to NAS Midway, info CTF 4, -9, -16, -17, COMINCH] he gave Midway and his task force commanders his best estimate of the timing of the Japanese attack: “Believe enemy has set June Fifth our date for his landing attack. Therefore on night 2-3 June or following morning preliminary attacks are most probable.”
Fletcher and Spruance made contact near Point Luck on the afternoon of 2 June, and Fletcher assumed tactical command of the Striking Force. He directed TF-16 to keep station 10 miles south of TF-17. [Action report, Commander, Cruisers, Pacific Fleet, to Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, “Battle of Midway” 14 June 1942] By that time Nimitz had reconsidered where the carriers might best be deployed at the start the impending battle. That morning he sent the following dispatch to Fletcher [message 022205 of June 1942 CINCPAC to CTF-17, info CTF 4, 7, 9, 16, COMINCH]: “Suggest for your consideration making initial area of operations northerly rather than northeasterly from Midway in order to insure being within early striking distance of objectives.
No additional information to change estimate of enemy plans which include a north westerly approach for Striking Force.” Nothing was said here about the carriers proceeding southwest from Point Luck to any “ambush position” 200 miles north of Midway. Fletcher was simply advised to shift his carriers westward to somewhere north rather than northeast of Midway. A dispatch also sent that morning [message 021935 of June 1942, CINCPAC to CTF 16, -17, info CTF-7] advised Fletcher that the US submarines patrolling in a cordon to the west of Midway were being warned that “own carrier task forces may now operate to westward meridian Midway,” something not mentioned in the previous plans. Had Nimitz thought from the beginning his carriers might cruise near to due north of
Midway or west of there, it is likely he would have already made his subs aware of it, for as the message cautioned Fletcher, there was “Possibility submarines may not receive above [warning] promptly.”
On the afternoon of 2 June Fletcher started west as Nimitz ‘suggested’ (When the fleet commander ‘suggests’ something, prudent commanders obey!) in full anticipation the Japanese carriers would likely open the battle the next morning by attacking Midway. At sunrise on 3 June he was about 300 miles NNE of Midway. It is again telling, therefore, that when the battle was first expected to begin, Fletcher had not steamed southwest from Point Luck, nor had Nimitz told him to go southwest. Thus he was nowhere near the “ambush position” that Nimitz had supposedly determined well prior to the battle. To the northwest beyond 300 or 400 miles from Midway, the weather on 3 June was again very poor, hampering Midway’s search and possibly shielding the approach of the enemy carrier force.
Fletcher flew a precautionary morning search in a SW to NE semi-circle to 200 miles. During the morning while anxiously awaiting sighting reports (the weather to the northwest remained poor), he moved the carriers farther north about 90 miles, and after flying off another similar search, he steamed back southward in the afternoon. That morning and afternoon Midway reported enemy ships, evidently the occupation force, approaching from the west and southwest, but the enemy carrier force remained unsighted apparently in the low visibility area off to the northwest.
After sundown on 3 June with the Japanese carriers evidently now a day late, Fletcher decided to operate more closely to Midway the next morning. At 1950 (Z+12) when again about 300 miles from the island, he turned the Striking Force onto course 210o T. at 13.5 knots and directed the carriers to a dawn (0430 Z+12) 4 June position bearing 013o T. and 202 miles from Midway. TF-16 reached that position at that exact time, with TF-17 in visual contact about ten miles north. At 0420 (Z+12), the Yorktown launched a “security search” of the northern semi-circle of ten dive bombers to 100 miles and also a combat air patrol of six fighters. Fletcher advised Spruance the base
course would be easterly for the time being and ordered him to keep station 5 to 10 miles southwest of TF-17. It was shortly after 0600 (Z+12) when Fletcher received the sighting report of the Japanese carriers. [Sources: Action Reports, COMCRUPAC to CINCPAC, “Battle of Midway” 14 June 1942 and CO, USS Enterprise to Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, “Battle of Midway Island, June 4-6, 1942 - Report of” 8 June 1942].
How does this analysis compare with the Walsh-Smith thesis? It is interesting neither Walsh nor Smith discussed the location or significance of the rendezvous at Point Luck, the fact that Nimitz suggested Fletcher move west from Point Luck rather than southwest, or that Fletcher kept the carriers more than 300 miles north of Midway exactly when Nimitz expected the battle to break out. Moreover, there is no evidence whatsoever that Nimitz ordered Fletcher to be 200 miles north of Midway at dawn on 4 June or otherwise issued any additional instructions to the carriers after 29 May other than his 2 June ‘suggestion.’
Although he was certainly in general tactical command, Nimitz did not micro-manage his commanders, especially the carriers, and there is no evidence whatsoever he sent any messages on 3 June directing Fletcher to operate closer to Midway. The four secondary sources [H.P. Willmott’s The Barrier and the Javelin, 364; Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison’s History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Vol. IV, 102; Walter Lord’s Incredible Victory, 83; and Gordon Prange’s Miracle at Midway, 170] that Walsh cited in support of his assertion that Nimitz ordered the carriers to be 200 miles north of Midway at dawn on 4 June (and which Smith accepted) in no way or manner mention or even hint at such a Nimitz “order.” Instead they simply relate that the carriers were moving overnight on 3-4 June to that particular position. In
fact, as has been shown in the action reports, Fletcher himself selected the point roughly 200 miles north of Midway as a convenient starting position for operations on 4 June.
The Walsh-Smith condemnation of Fletcher for supposedly breaking orders and thus being out of optimum launch position on the morning of 4 June is based strictly on hindsight from knowing well after the fact exactly where and when the Japanese carriers would be reported and where they actually were. Thus it is easy to map out what-if scenarios based on comprehensive information that Fletcher lacked at the time. Until someone can come up with actual original dispatches from Nimitz or other relevant primary documents, the charge that Fletcher disobeyed Nimitz’s orders to be in a certain start position at dawn on 4 June 1942 must be rejected.
Editor’s note: John Lundstrom has a master’s degree in diplomatic and military history and recently retired as the curator of American and military history at the Milwaukee Public Museum. He is the author of several books on the naval air war in the Pacific, including
The First South Pacific Campaign (1976), The First Team (1984), The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign (1994), Fateful Rendezvous: the Life of Butch O’Hare (1997, with Steve Ewing), and Black Shoe Carrier Admiral (2006). He is currently working on the history of a Minnesota regiment in the Civil War and will soon begin work with James Sawruk on a new book about the Battle of the Coral Sea.
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