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The new standard on the battle of Midway

The Battle of Midway - Craig L. Symonds

When considering the truly pivotal events in American history, it is difficult to find many that are as significant as the battle of Midway. As Craig Symonds notes in his introduction, "there are few moments in American history in which the course of events tipped so suddenly and so dramatically as it did on June 4, 1942." For it was on that day that the United States Navy succeeded in smashing the heart of the Japanese carrier force that had so completely dominated the Pacific Ocean during the first six months of the war there, scoring a victory that changed the course of World War II. Symonds's book provides an account of this dramatic battle, as well as an understanding of the chain of events that led up to the clash between the American and Japanese fleets.

One of the key factors he identifies early on is the growing presence of the "victory disease" infecting the thinking of Japanese naval officers. An increasing assumption of victory was perhaps understandable, though, given the successes Japanese forces enjoyed at the start of the war. Much of this success was the consequence of the quality of Japanese equipment, as well as the demanding levels of training and previous combat experience of Japanese forces. Yet these advantages would prove to be temporary the longer the war wore on, as they were products of a system ill capable of replacing losses at the pace necessary. In the short term, though, Japan went from triumph to triumph, conquering southeast Asia and dominating Allied forces in the naval battles waged.

Yet American commanders were determined to punch back. Symonds' account of the war in the early months of 1942 is one of the great strengths of his book, as he shows how a seemingly minor series of carrier strikes against Japanese forces in the Pacific influenced subsequent events. Faced with a number of options, Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku ultimately resolved to attack Midway as a means of drawing out the American carrier forces and forcing the "decisive battle" called for by Japanese doctrine. The overly complicated plan was compromised almost from that start, though, as American codebreakers quickly uncovered some of its basic details. Armed with this information, the American commander of Pacific forces, Chester Nimitz, set a trap of his own, using all of his available carriers in a bid to cripple the Kido Butai, the carrier strike force that was the core of the Imperial Japanese Navy's offensive power.

The outcome was devastating for the Japanese. Symonds relies upon a mixture of published accounts and interviews to reconstruct events, using them to address the myths and misconceptions that have emerged about the battle. Among the participants whose role he highlights is that of Frank Jack Fletcher, the commander of American forces in the battle. Long overshadowed by other figures, Symonds credits his cool and experienced judgment for much of the outcome. The pilots are also prominently featured in his account, and he makes clear just how devastating a toll the battle took among the ranks of American flyers as well as the Japanese forces. Yet he demonstrates how their sacrifice contributed to the American victory, which permanently shifted the balance of power of the Pacific and forced the Japanese to adopt a defensive strategy that could only delay their eventual defeat.

Clearly written and supplemented with a helpful collection of maps and photographs, Symonds' book provides an excellent introduction to the battle. Though not as detailed as Gordon Prange's classic study, Miracle at Midway, it benefits from the insights of more recent works such as Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully's Shattered Sword, while the extensive coverage of the context of the battle offers a perspective lacking in most other accounts. With this book, Symonds has set the standard by which other histories of the battle are judged, one that is unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon