Set and Drift: Doctrine Matters why the Japanese Lost at Midway
Pictured: Axis and Allies Naval Miniatures game, "Atlanta" card
Pictured: The Book Requiem for Battleship Yamato
Naval War College Review, Summer, 2001 by Jonathan B. Parshall, David D. Dickson, Anthony P. Tully
Dallas Isom's article "The Battle of Midway: Why the Japanese Lost" [Naval War College Review, Summer 2000, PP. 60-100] is laudable for its use of Japanese sources and for the interesting points it raises. In particular, we applaud Isom's interviews with Japanese survivors, which contribute new and useful information regarding Japanese aircraft rearmament procedures. This new data is crucial to building an accurate account of the events that transpired aboard the Japanese carriers on the morning of 4 June 1942. However, in our opinion, Professor Isom's arguments appear to rely too much on a rather rigid (and highly debatable) interpretation of Japanese communications: namely, exactly when did Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo received transmissions from scout plane 4, launched by the cruiser Tone. In addition, while Isom's rearmament information (which he puts forward as central to Nagumo's inability to launch his anticarrier strike before being fatally attacked) is clearly important to understanding the Japanese s ide of the battle, we feel that he did not carry his operational analysis far enough. As a result, we cannot accept his conclusions.
At the time of Isom's writing, we were engaged in a reappraisal and rewriting of the Japanese account of Midway as a result of our own work in identifying wreckage from the carrier Kaga. (1) A key part of our approach was to build an accurate model of the operations of the Japanese carrier striking force. As we will show, the disaster that befell the Japanese carrier force hinged neither on whether Nagumo received Tone 4's message at 0740 or at 0800, nor on how quickly the armorers in the Japanese hangars could do their work. Rather, the fate of the Japanese Mobile Striking Force (Kido Butai) revolved around what was happening on its flight decks. Armed with a knowledge of Japanese carrier doctrine, as well as the operational information from the battle, one can reach an accurate assessment of the state of readiness of Nagumo's force at the time of the climactic American attack without resorting to Isom's indirect method.
A major error in the Isom article is that it repeatedly misstates what aircraft actually were on the Japanese flight decks. In several places, Isom presumes that the Japanese antiship strike force was on the flight decks when it is demonstrable that those aircraft were still in their hangars. This presumption carries forward the (mistaken) conventional view that the Japanese had spotted their antiship strike force on the flight decks shortly after the initial Midway attack force had taken off and had only briefly moved these antiship strike aircraft below for the purposes of rearming them or recovering the first-strike wave. As will be shown, this is the root of the fundamental misunderstanding of circumstances at the time the carriers were struck.
In fact, both Japanese doctrine and the operations of the Japanese combat air patrol (CAP) fighters would have kept the reserve strike planes securely below in their hangars until they were definitely needed. Not only that, but because of Japanese hangar design, the window of time necessary to lift, spot, and launch the aircraft was substantially longer than has been previously understood. As a result, given the frenetic nature of Japanese CAP operations after about 0800 (particularly aboard Akagi and Kaga), it is unlikely that many of these second-wave aircraft were ever spotted on the flight decks before the fatal American dive-bomber attack commenced at 1020.
This point cannot be overemphasized, because from the conventional belief of what was on the flight decks flow nearly all Western interpretations of the battle. To put the matter succinctly, at the time Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu were struck, their flight decks were more empty than occupied. This is almost the reverse of the standard view, which has the Japanese flight decks packed with strike aircraft awaiting takeoff. There were aircraft on deck, but most were CAP fighters, not attack aircraft. There were also fewer aircraft on deck than is generally supposed. Though potentially startling, this is less a "revision" than a correction and careful restating of the existing historical record. We will show that official Japanese sources on the battle have been aware of this for some thirty years.
These errors in both the conventional Western interpretation and Isom's article cannot be addressed without first developing a sense of how the Japanese conducted carrier operations. Unfortunately, standard English-language histories of the battle of Midway have not well understood Japanese carrier operations. From the common misperception that Japanese naval aviation was derivative of Western (primarily British) practice, Western writers typically believe that the Japanese carriers of World War II behaved much like their Western counterparts. In fact, they did not. Japanese carrier operations contained elements of both U.S. Navy and Royal Navy practices. However, as a result of differences in physical design and operational doctrine, by the late 1930s Japanese carriers fought in a fashion all their own. Without understanding these points of divergence, understanding Nagumo's actions is likewise impossible.