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Shattered Sword (in re Battle of Midway) — book review

29 November 2010

Shattered Sword (in re Battle of Midway) — book review

Shattered Sword: the untold story of the Battle of Midway, Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully, 2007, ISBN 978-1-57488-924-6, 612 pp.

blog Shatter Sword cover Maryam Rostamian

Shattered Sword: the untold story of the Battle of Midway by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully, cover Maryam Rostamian

This is the untold story of this pivotal WW II battle.  Additionally, this book is authoritative and extremely well researched using interviews and information from both sides of this conflict. The authors also sought understandings for the reasons each of the participants opted on their respective strategic choices as well as key tactical decisions. I found this book to be rewarding since I now have a much better understanding of what brought Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) and the United States Navy (USN) to this epic moment of combat.

I also unlearned many myths of the Battle of Midway, for example:

  • The aircraft carriers of the IJN were not sunk because they were caught with armed and fueled aircraft on their decks. As a matter of fact, the IJN strike aircraft were below in hangars but even that is not so much why the carriers were so dramatically turned into infernos. The book clearly explains the IJN’s aircraft carrier design choices and why these ships were more vulnerable to catastrophic combat damage than USN carriers. It was the IJN carrier design philosophy that made for ships which could be fatally wounded after a relatively small number of hits.
  • The simultaneous invasion of the Aleutian Islands were not a feint to draw USN forces away from the main battle area of Midway — it was an invasion timed to take advantage of what the IJN thought would be thin USN forces.
  • That U.S. cryptographic analysts determined Midway was the primary objective of the IJN when a message was decoded which stated that the planned invasion target had a broken water plant. Instead the decoded message stated that the IJN invasion force should bring with it a water ship.
  • That the IJN definitely did not suffer strategic losses of its pilots in this battle.

I learned many things and some of them are:

  • The IJN had a poor performance level of damage control and damage control systems.
  • The Mitsubishi Zero fighter (like each IJN aircraft carrier) had been designed for speed, range and powerful armament. It is common knowledge that the Zero had poor armor for the pilot as well as the fuel tanks  — but the book states that it had a relatively weak fuselage (a weight saving effort) and 60 rounds per 20mm cannon (Zeros had to land in the battle to have ammunition reloaded as the ammunition would be depleted after just a few gunnery passes), as well. Purposeful decisions although making the Zero “deadly as a rapier and as fragile as a butterfly”, as written by the authors.
  • The IJN failed to plan for combat loss replacements by not having pilots in training, replacement aircraft carriers on the ways or even sufficient munitions during the advances made in the early phase during the war in the Pacific Theater. Incredibly, only 42 aircraft or so were completed for the IJN in 1942. Poor planning when starting a war against the United States in late 1941.
  • Perhaps the most strategic harm to the IJN was the irreplaceable loss of nearly 2600 aircraft service technicians. After this point in WW II the IJN suffered and would be handicapped by inadequate aircraft maintenance for the rest of the war.
  • Japan entered the war against the United States with the idea of have a decisive big gun battle in the western Pacific Ocean. The IJN had better torpedoes, destroyers and cruisers and was well practiced in night combat operations. The IJN planned to pare down the superior numbers of the USN with nocturnal torpedo attacks and, subsequently, defeat the USN battleships with their super battleships Yamato and Musashi. The invasion of Midway was part of the strategy to lure the USN into this redux of the Battle of Jutland. This epic and dramatic battle did not occur due to the advent of the aircraft carrier and the IJN failed to see this contingency.
  • The differences between aircraft operations on IJN aircraft carriers as opposed to those of the USN.
  • The influence of the weather at the time of the battle with the USN behind a warm front and the IJN following a cold front.
  • That Admiral Yamamoto was not the perfect and slightly pacifistic officer of which I had originally learned. He was human, after all, and a complicated person.

Exploits by individuals on both sides were many and several are addressed. In many instances one man made a difference. This book must be in any library for those with interests in aircraft carrier tactics.

Note: Chicago’s Midway International Airport has an excellent museum grade exhibit at the entrance to Terminal A, including a Douglas SBD Dauntless. A post for this can be found by entering “Midway” into the search window and selecting ENTER. Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport has a Grumman F4F Wildcat on display in Terminal 2 as part of an exhibit to honor Edward “Butch” O’Hare who was the US Navy’s first ace in WW II as well as its first Medal of Honor recipient — he was lost after being caught in the cross fire of a Grumman TBF Avenger and a Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” while leading the Navy’s first fighter attack mission at night in 1943.


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