Shattered Sword is a new account of the Japanese side of the Battle of Midway. Big and thick (it resembles a Japanese version of John Lundstrom's First Team books on the American side of the first year of the carrier war in the Pacific) it is a fact-laden analysis of what exactly transpired on the Japanese carriers before, during, and after the battle, in an effort to refute some of the more persistent beliefs (myths, as it turns out) about what happened on 4 June 1942.
For me, any book that purports to talk about Midway has to pay homage to my all-time favorite piece of nonfiction, Walter Lord's Incredible Victory, which is responsible more than anything else for my interest in Pacific War carrier aviation. In fact, I was apprehensive when it came in and I realized that, given all the good things I had heard about it, it was likely to contradict parts of Lord's work. I even thought about reading Lord's book one last time before I found out that parts are now probably incorrect. But after I peeked at the foreword and saw that the authors not only acknowledged Lord's book, but they had corresponded with him before his death regarding their research and he had assisted them, I felt a little better about it and started reading. They also had some pretty good recommendations from John Lundstrom - I was just hoping that their work wasn't quite as dense as his. A good as his research is, his prose is sometimes a little cryptic, and you spend a lot of time in the trees before he explains what's going on in the forest. I'm working my way through Lundstrom's Black Shoe Carrier Admiral about Frank Jack Fletcher right now and it is slow going. I read The First Team fourteen years ago after meeting Lundstrom at a Nimitz Museum symposium and later picked up the sequel (The First Team Meets Godzilla, or something like that) and never finished it.
Back to the book. After confirming that my sacred cows were relatively safe (and of course Lord would have been immensely pleased with this book's willingness to examine further the ground he covered some forty years ago - I'm just sentimental about these things) I started this book, suspending reading the new Lundstrom book, and delaying reading my fancy new copy of Lord of the Rings. Which ought to indicate how significant this book is - I have about forty books on my "to-read" list, a dozen of which are new, and this book really got me excited - it's not often that you get to read something truly new about a battle this old and significant - you'd think it had all been written. But history is sometimes about revising what's been written before, and that's certainly crucial to what this book has to say. Its central premise is that much of what we thought we knew about the Japanese side of the battle is wrong, and in large part resulted from a deliberately distorted account written by the Akagi's strike commander at Pearl Harbor, Fuchida Mitsuo. (Interestingly, Fuchida's account has been discredited in Japan for decades, but that skepticism has never made it across to the U.S.).
So perhaps a little bit of background is in order. In his 1951 book on the battle, Fuchida painted the picture, up to now the accepted version of the Japanese side - of an essentially flawless IJN carrier strike force that was literally moments away from destroying the outnumbered and outgunned U.S. carriers when the errors of its commanders came home to roost and it was destroyed by U.S. dive bombers that miraculously found the ships at precisely the right moment, with flight decks loaded with fully fueled and armed aircraft. It's a great story, but like many great stories, it turns out that's all that it is. The truth was quite different and far more complex, and as the authors point out at the beginning, just about the only thing miraculous about the battle was that the U.S. carriers achieved as much as they did given how badly two of the three carriers managed their strikes that morning. (Put it this way - the U.S. carriers had nine attack squadrons between them. Holding one in reserve, they launched eight against the Japanese carriers that morning. The three torpedo squadrons had virtually no chance of scoring any hits due to bad planes and bad torpedoes, leaving five dive bomber squadrons. Two never saw the enemy, leaving three. Two of those also took a bad heading and only by the sheerest luck did they find the carriers, by running across an escorting ship and following it. Only one single squadron out of eight did what it was supposed to do. A better illustration of how it's more important to be lucky than smart would be hard to find).
Okay, now I'll start on the book. The authors begin with a startlingly readable introduction to the ships and the commanders of the Japanese fleet that provides a useful thumbnail sketch of everyone. I found the one on Nagumo particularly useful because it emphasized his background (and lack thereof in carrier aviation) and provided a better insight into the man. The writing is good, and if the nature of their book as an analysis prevents them from really telling a story, as Lord did, they certainly have the chops to do so when they choose (and their debt to Lord for the style, as they graciously note at the outset is apparent. We should all have such good authors to copy). There are numerous places in the text where the writing is just terrific, and the metaphors stay with me. At p. 146 for example, they write that "By around 0630, out of sight and out of mind, Nagumo's meager scouting arrangements had quietly gone to hell." And later on, the effect on Nagumo of almost being made "a B-26's hood ornament" when an attacking plane swooped low over the Akagi's bridge is a extremely nice touch. This sort of color leavens the book, and makes the task of wading through reams of technical discussion on Japanese carrier operations bearable.
Because the latter is really what this book is about. Eschewing the traditional analysis of IJN carrier operations based on the assumption that they were the same as U.S., the authors have reconstructed how Japanese carriers fought, and discovered in the process of computer analysis of hangar space and elevator cycles (surprisingly, a hell of a lot depending on the inadequate number of bomb carts in the hangars - a good illustration of the old saw that for the want of a nail the kingdom was lost) in conjunction with Japanese carrier operation doctrine (much of which apparently was not available in English until the 1990's) that Fuchida's story that the carriers were ready to launch at the time the U.S. dive bombers appeared simply wasn't true. Their planes were still in the hangar decks, and not on the flight deck, and were at least 45 minutes away from being ready to launch. The carriers were constantly landing and lauching their fighter cover, and could not even begin arranging aircraft on deck and warming them up for a strike until the U.S. air attacks stopped. This then provides the real reason why the sacrifices of Torpedo 8 and Torpedo 6 mattered - it wasn't that they pulled the fighter cover down so that the dive bombers could get through, as the popular view has it. Torpedo 8 attacked an hour before the SBDs even got there, a fact that has been conveniently overlooked, and Torpedo 3 actually attacked the Hiryu after the dive bombers did (didn't do much good - two of the Japanese carriers were actually faster than the American torpedoes - although the effect on Japanese flight operations of constantly having to run away from the torpedo planes to maximize their fighters' ability to shoot them down is an important theme in the morning's battle). It was that they kept the carriers from even beginning to prepare to launch a strike against the U.S. task forces. When the dive bombers got there Nagumo was nowhere near being ready to launch, and the attack planes, while fueled, were not on the flight deck, where their explosions would have been largely vented into the air. They were stuffed in the two levels of hangar deck cheek by jowl, where the explosions would cause far more damage. For example, the Kaga was essentially blown apart from the flight deck to her original battleship main deck some 50 feet below over half her length (the book includes an artist's rendering of this horrific sight, which no other book has ever noted). And the Akagi was burned out as a result of a single bomb hit by Dick Best (describing him as a "deadeye" was another terrific piece of wordsmithing. I heard Best in 1992 at the same Nimitz symposium and he was crystal clear on what he saw. He reminded people that he remembered that day very well - due to a lung injury he sustained in that afternoon's attack, he never flew in combat again.) The lack of good antiaircraft and damage control was also a tale well-told, since readers of this book are probably well-aware of the outstanding damage control on, say, the Yorktown at Midway and the Franklin off Japan in 1945, and the authors explain what of that wasn't present here.
The same painstaking analysis debunks other parts of the accepted tale. For example, that the Tone's scout aircraft was late actually didn't affect anything - if it had launched on time, it would still have missed the U.S. carriers - they were on another plane's search leg, and even if it had sighted the U.S. carriers much sooner, it wouldn't have done Nagumo any good. He could not attack until the attacks from Midway and the U.S. carrier planes stopped, and - more importantly - unless he could attack the U.S. carriers before they launched the fatal strike, it really didn't matter. For this reason, the real flaw was - well, first of all, not launching an adequate search and launching it in time to locate any naval targets early enough to hit them before they could launch, but specifically that a Japanese search aircraft did apparently overfly the U.S. fleet in time to have allowed Nagumo to hit them before they launched. For some reason - the authors claim sloppy search procedures - it just didn't see them, although the pilot and observer had a wonderful morning traipsing through the cloud cover before returning to their cruiser.
The book also explains that, contrary to the accepted wisdom, the Japanese carrier fleet was hardly the crack unit that is portrayed. Although well-trained, it was exhausted from six months of war, and needed time to repair and refit. Incredibly, it was also short on aircraft - the carriers sailed with approximately 80% of the aircraft complement, due in part to the shortage of carrier planes. Not shortage as Americans understood it, meaning that there were competing demands for the thousands of planes rolling out of the plants, but shortages as in the Japanese aircraft industry wasn't making them anymore - only a few dozen replacement carrier bombers were made in all of 1942 as the plants retooled to make different planes.
Another interesting point is the conditions under which Nagumo had to make his decision on the tiny bridge of the Akagi. Unlike the American carriers, which had separate bridges for the captain and the flag in their relatively spacious islands, the Japanese crammed one to two dozen people into one tiny (about 12 x 15) bridge, with the admiral and his staff shoulder to shoulder on one side, and the captain, his staff, and various enlisted on the other. Under these cramped conditions, with no privacy, it would have been unlikely that anyone would have offered Nagumo a frank disagreement in front of that crowd. Plus the fact that that ship was under continuous air attack all morning, including an almost direct hit by B-26 (not its bomb - the entire plane nearly took the island out as it crashed). No other book has ever remarked on these conditions.
The authors also put new light on the events after the bombing of Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu. Conventional wisdom is that Nagumo was in shock, and the admiral commanding the remaining carrier, Yamaguchi Tamon charged to the attack, leaving Nagumo behind. In fact, Yamaguchi trailed behind Nagumo, who was acting aggressively to engage the Americans in a surface battle (his expertise was, after all, in torpedo engagements using destroyers). Surprisingly, it was the Japanese that was using carriers to bring about a surface action - Nagumo allowed the Hiryu to unnecessarily sacrifice itself by charging the U.S. fleet, when she could, and should, have pounded the Yorktown and then turned for home, preserving at least one of the IJN's precious and irreplacable flight decks. Instead, Nagumo ordered the three (soon to be four) burning carriers scuttled - something the records were later redacted to delete references to - to free up the torpedo tubes on the escorting destroyers for a night engagement. Nagumo's action were bold and correct - if Spruance had blundered by continuing to close the distance with the Japanese fleet that night - as Yamaguchi did that afternoon, costing him his carrier, and as some historians claim Spruance should have done - Nagumo would have had the night surface engagement the Japanese Navy had trained for. That they were unmatched in their night-fighting skills was to be shown a couple of months later at Guadalcanal. If Spruance kept his distance, his planes would finish off the burned out wrecks the next day (as they did two days later with the cruiser Mikuma which was accompanying its crippled sister Mogami). Akagi and Hiryu probably were not fatally damaged and could have been towed back to Japan - but not under the American air attacks that were sure to come.
A few other points. First of all, it turns out that a Japanese invasion of Midway would probably have failed due to Japan's lack of a good amphibious assault capability. For that matter, Japan could never have seriously threatened an invasion of Hawaii for the same reason, plus that it would have been numerically overwhelmed by the U.S. military on the islands, and it could never have achieved the sort of air superiority that such an invasion required - as events turned out, it really couldn't do so over Midway either. Its carriers were a raiding force, not an occupying one, and they had nowhere near the strength or logistical capabilities to stand offshore and support landings in the same way that the U.S. carriers later did off of, say, Okinawa in 1945.
More importantly, however, the authors put a whole new light on Nimitz' decision to commit the three carriers he had to the battle. They were not actually defending Midway at all - they were there to seek out and destroy the Japanese carriers. Had they been unable to do so, he would simply have recalled the surviving ones and let the Japanese have the island (if they could take it). For a nation with little (soon to be virtually none due to U.S. submarine warfare) merchant capability, Midway would have been a tremendous problem to keep supplied, and would have essentially been a convenient place for U.S. air power and submarines from Hawaii to destroy Japanese planes and supplies. The Japanese would have been forced to convoy massive supplies all the way from Japan to what would quickly become a beleagered garrison well within range of U.S. planes from Hawaii, and Nimitz could sink their convoys and raid their airstrip at his leisure until he decided to retake the island. Viewed in this light, losing Midway was in fact no net loss to the Americans - it would have provided an exceedingly efficient way to destroy Japan's already limited war material. With three carriers and an unsinkable air base, Nimitz was spoiling for a fight with the Japanese fleet. He could afford to lose the base and even his forces. The Japanese, on the other hand, could not. Why? Because of the nature of the war the Japanese had gotten into.
The authors delve into the major strategic issues related to the battle, claiming that the Japanese should not have split up the Pearl Harbor attack force because they could not afford to run the risk that the forces would be lost piecemeal - which is exactly what happened (paradoxically they then criticize the Japanese for not splitting up the Midway carriers during the battle to allow two to focus on any naval targets, which strikes a contradictory note to me). Risking two fleet carriers at Coral Sea the month before resulted in losing both for this operation, leaving Nagumo with no margin for error with his irreplacable assets - the four big carriers. (I particularly like the contrast between the Japanese Navy's declining to even attempt to put new squadrons on the unscratched Zuikaku after Coral Sea and send her off with Nagumo with Nimitz' moving of heaven and earth to repair and refit the damaged Yorktown and swap in new squadrons so she could even the odds a month later. The authors used the entirely appropriate analogy to the sports axiom that the Americans simply wanted the win more than the Japanese did). Japan did not replace her losses at Midway in terms of carriers for two years - by that time Nimitz had eight new fleet carriers, nine light carriers, and the American shipyards were turning out a new heavy fleet carrier every other month. Contrary to Henry Fonda's statement playing Nimitz in Midway (which, while an accurate portrayal of what Lundstrom memorably called "Incredible Victory disease" it perhaps overstated how desperate the situation was, since Japan could not have followed up on a victory) the Americans could afford to trade Japan carrier for carrier. While it would worsen the short term situation, the U.S. could eventually replace those assets, and Japan could not.
And this underscored the basic flaw in the Japan war plan. As the authors explain, Japan's military experience counseled that an initial crippling strike, following by a climactic battle, would force its opponent to sue for peace. This emphasis on offense at the expense of all else in an effort to win a battle against an opponent with overwhelmingly superior resources was fatally flawed, since once Pearl Harbor had occurred, the U.S. was never coming to the peace table, and it never had to. Hawaii was essentially impregnable against direct assault, and even if it had lost the battle Japan wanted to provoke, within two years of Pearl Harbor the U.S. would have overwhelming naval superiority. No amount of conquests before then could protect Japan against what that fleet would do. It could simply never hope to protect its conquests (all of which weakened its ability to make war - it wasn't like it was taking the Norwegian steel supply, or naval facilities in Frances, or industrial facilities in Czechoslovakia as Hitler was doing. With the exception of oil supplies, its conquests were economically worthless, and in the long term impossible to keep supplied). The book even includes an analysis of the effect on Midway, which concludes that, truth be told, it wasn't all that decisive. While it was a necessary predicate to taking the offensive in Guadalcanal two months later, it would not have slowed the eventual Central Pacific assault that began in the fall of 1943. The naval casualties that the U.S. suffered in Guadalcanal (and Japan's aircrew casualties) would probably have been incurred a year later. But the result would have been the same. In the end, Midway was a dramatic victory with enormous short-term consequences, but there was eventually going to be a turning point somewhere, if not at Midway then perhaps in the Gilberts or the Marshalls sixteen months later. While the war in Europe could easily have been lost, after Pearl Harbor the war in the Pacific was going to be won, albeit probably not until 1946. Japan was simply not up to competing against the U.S., and her allies in Europe were never going to be able to help her sufficiently to do so. Even if the U.S. had balked at taking on an entrenched Germany without Britain as a base, that would have just made things worse for Japan as the U.S. redirected all of its forces to the Pacific.
The book concludes with an excellent analysis of the Japanese flaws that led to its defeat at Midway, citing a work (whose title I have forgotten) that military errors are in the nature of failing to learn from the past, failing to anticip[ate the future, and failing to adjust to conditions on the battlefield. The Japanese naval commanders clearly failed to learn from the past - most spectacularly they did not recognize the import of Coral Sea, which was that the American carriers would and could put up a fight. More importantly, pre-battle war games made clear that if American carriers showed up, Japan was likely to lose at least some of its carriers, and yet the clear danger was simply ignored. Second, it failed to anticipate the future - what would likely happen in battle, and plan accordingly. Finally, it did not react well to changed circumstances in the battle itself. For example, as noted above, the Hiryu should not have charged toward the Yorktown while attacking her - she should have used the longer range of her planes to allow her to strike without being in range for the U.S. carriers to retaliate. But it was in the nature of the Japanese commanders in many cases to prefer an honorable death while attacking to admitting error and retreating, and so the enormous errors in planning were compunded by failure to adjust during the battle.
In conclusion, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and learned a great deal from it. While the story of the battle is not as one-sided as it seems, it is still an incredible story of achievement and dedication and courage on both sides. Incongruously, the real drama is that despite losing the Hornet's entire air group to bad tactical decisions and nearly losing all of the Enterprise's, the Americans still knocked out three of Nagumo's carriers before they could hit back. Only luck led to Enterprise's dive bombers sighting the Japanese carriers at all, and they still nearly fumbled the attack by concentrating both squadrons on one carrier. Again, only Dick Best's quick actions and skill saved the day, saving three planes from VB-6 to attack a second carrier, and scoring the only hit of those three himself. (Deadeye indeed). In fact, only the battle-tested Yorktown launched a coordinated strike that saw all three of its squadrons engaging the enemy at the same time.
Battles rarely occur according to a perfect drramatic script, and notwithstanding the past sixty years of accounts of the battle, it turns out Midway didn't either. This book explains how and why. It's more than a worthy addition to the Midway genre - it's an indispensable asset to anyone seeking to understand what happened and why. It is not a balanced account of both sides of the battle, but it doesn't pretend to be - the American side has been told well already, and many times over. It deals with the part of the battle where errors have - we now know - gone uncorrected for over sixty years. The end result is the same, but why it happened - and the role of the various players in bringing it about - is significantly clearer now, thanks to this book.