He Who Hesitated


The Battle of Midway Island is often considered the turning point in World War II in the Pacific. It took the Japanese several mistakes to bring this about, including one in planning by their great naval genius Isoroku Yamamoto. But his was not the error that changed the nature of the entire Pacific theater in 1942. That one specific mistake was left to the commander on the scene.

A little more than six months after their attack on Pearl Harbor was a heady time for Japan and the Imperial Japanese Navy, often referred to as the IJN. Victory seemed automatic, with armies surrendering at Singapore and Bataan and the quick capture of islands all over the Pacific. They had challenged the mighty United States and seemed to be winning. Morale in the navy and among the Japanese people had soared, and the militarist leaders found themselves popular. Then all that joy came crashing down, due to the daring bombing raid by Jimmy Doolittle and sixteen B25s on Japan itself. It was not that the raid did any real damage or that several of the bombers were not shot down, but rather it was the sheer fact that the home islands were bombed. When the war had been both successful and distant, it was one thing; when the Japanese saw their home islands attacked for the first time in centuries, it was a shock and an embarrassment.

Something had to be done to restore the prestige and face lost by the raid. The decision was to accomplish this and more by invading Midway Atoll. Yamamoto’s real hope was that the much stronger IJN could draw what remained of the American navy into a decisive battle and destroy it. This was actually a good strategy. If Midway fell, it would be almost impossible for the U.S. Navy to protect the Hawaiian Islands. If the atoll was occupied, hundreds of land-based aircraft from Midway would be able to support an IJN attack on Hawaii. The Pacific fleet would have to move to San Francisco. With the U.S. Navy gone and the air base at Midway in Japanese hands, the Hawaiian Islands were as good as lost. So the Japanese knew correctly that the American navy had to react to any attack on Midway.

At this point in the Pacific theater, the U.S. Navy was definitely not in a strong position. The IJN was correct in thinking they had almost every advantage. The odds were against the Americans, who had so few surviving large ships that a surface battle was inconceivable. This allowed two fast battleships to be assigned to protect the Kido Butai, the main carrier force. Those two ships alone had more heavy gun firepower than the U.S. Navy had in the Pacific. But the Japanese also had another major battleship force a day behind the Kido Butai, and that force included the Yamato, the world’s largest battleship. Added to this was the painful fact that at this point in the war the Japanese surface ships were newer, often faster, and all better armed than their U.S. Navy counterparts.

The Japanese also had more than twice as many fleet aircraft carriers in the Pacific, with eight IJN to just three U.S. carriers. Worse yet, there were three only by including the badly damaged Yorktown. After the Battle of the Coral Sea, this carrier was in such poor condition that when she sailed out of Pearl Harbor toward Midway, a number of frantically working repairmen were still on board.

The U.S. Navy had one very real advantage. The surprise attack on Midway was not a surprise. The cryptography division on Hawaii, under Commander Joseph Rochefort, had managed to break the IJN’s code. While the United States could not read all of every message, they were able to determine, and then use a ruse to confirm, that Midway Atoll was the target and when it would be attacked. This allowed what remained of the Pacific fleet to sail days sooner than a just-reacting fleet would have left Pearl Harbor. The U.S. Navy also could ignore a real but unimportant attack on two islands off the Alaskan coast, Attu and Kiska. Even so, the odds remained four highly experienced fleet carriers and a light carrier to the U.S. Navy’s three carriers. And there was the Japanese massive dominance in surface combat ships.

After the war, the Japanese attempted to understand why their admirals acted as they did in the attack during the battle for Midway Atoll. The eventual conclusion was what they called “victory disease.” By this they meant overconfidence and disdain for your opponent based on past victories. This was a concept that might well have been studied almost thirty years later by the U.S. military leaders who confidently expected to overwhelm the Vietcong in weeks. What directly resulted from this attitude was an overly complicated battle plan that split the IJN into several parts. Then, even though he wanted a decisive victory, the Japanese admiral chose this time to split off two of his eight fleet carriers to support the unimportant Alaskan invasion whose sole purpose was to—unsuccessfully, thanks to Rochefort—distract parts of the U.S. fleet. Then he sent away two more carriers to Japan for needed, but not vital, repair and refurbishing. So by plan and before a bomb fell, half the IJN’s aircraft carriers were not where the planned decisive battle was to take place.

But that overly ornate battle plan—the splitting of forces and the overconfidence shown by the Japanese navy at every level—was not the mistake that made all of the difference. The error that ended the IJN’s dominance of the Pacific and halted the Japanese empire’s expansion was made not by Admiral Yamamoto, but by the commander of the Kido Butai carrier force itself, Admiral Chuichi Nagumo.

Now, the character of the carrier fleet’s commander was a major factor. Unlike the innovative Yamamoto, Nagumo was a competent but by-the-book officer. When your strategy is working and you have serious superiority in numbers, this is not a problem. But what you don’t learn when you command by the book is how to make vital decisions quickly when disaster looms. But Yamamoto had given his carrier commander detailed orders on what to do in a range of situations. That made Nagumo’s consistent obedience to his orders a positive thing because Yamamoto could count on him to do what he was told. But his elaborate plan meant that the brilliant and decisive IJN commander was hundreds of miles away and under radio silence during the entire Battle of Midway.

The Japanese invasion plan followed a proven pattern that had been successful many times. The carrier force, the Kido Butai, would lead the attack, neutralizing any land-based airfields and sinking any ships in the atoll. If the first wave of bombers and fighters didn’t do the job, there was plenty of time for a second wave to finish it. This plan assumed that it would take the U.S. Navy at least two days to steam to Midway from Pearl Harbor once they heard about the attack. That would leave plenty of time for Nagumo to thoroughly pummel the atoll before help could arrive. With Midway’s airfield and major defenses bombed into ruin, the battleships would arrive and further bombard the island into submission. By the time the elite assault force landed, resistance would be minor and uncoordinated. By the time the U.S. Navy arrived, the island would be in Japanese hands.

So the first wave of Japanese attack planes went in, but thanks to the broken code they were not able to surprise the island. Every plane at the air base was already in the air when they hit and every weapon was manned and waiting. The air base was damaged, but heavy ground fire prevented the Japanese bombers from completely wrecking the atoll’s defenses. At about the same time the IJN aircraft had brushed past the obsolete U.S. fighters to attack Midway, the heavy bombers, dive bombers, and torpedo planes from Midway had attacked the four carriers of the Kido Butai. While bravely delivered, not a bomb or torpedo struck, and most of the American attackers were shot down.

The need for a carrier aircraft second attack on Midway was one of the contingencies in the fleet commander’s orders. Nagumo prepared to recover the first attack wave’s aircraft and got a second attack ready to bomb the island. Everything was going according to the plan. Then a radio message arrived that changed everything. One of the IJN scout planes had spotted the Yorktown. This was not part of the plan; there weren’t supposed to be any American carriers in the area for days yet. He had been assured just hours before, by a line of scout submarines, that no major ships had been spotted leaving Pearl Harbor. Thanks to Rochefort, the American ships were already gone when the Japanese subs got into place to watch for them.


The Battle of Midway

The information that a U.S. Navy carrier was nearby meant that Chuichi Nagumo was torn between two conflicting orders. One order was to follow the plan and finish off Midway. To do this he had to launch his aircraft at the island again. But he also knew that the intent of the whole plan was to draw out the American carriers, and now one was within attack range. But it was days early, and the IJN battleships were not yet even close. His aircraft would have to take care of the carrier. To go for the Yorktown, Admiral Nagumo had to order the removal of the explosive and shrapnel bombs, which were almost finished being attached to the second wave of aircraft, and the loading of armor-piercing bombs and torpedoes. Only that type of weaponry was capable of damaging an armored carrier and its escorts. But the change would take at least an hour. This was not part of the plan he had been given by Admiral Yamamoto. Nagumo’s orders did not tell him what to do in this situation because the confident Japanese had never considered that the U.S. Navy would not react how and when they expected. And with radio silence, Nagumo could not even radio Yamanoto and ask him what to do.

So Admiral Nagumo, whose strength was carrying out the plans of his brilliant superior, had to take the unusual step of deciding for himself. Did he disobey the orders for the invasion to go for the carrier and risk allowing the Midway air base to be repaired and perhaps new defending aircraft flown in from Hawaii? Or did he ignore the carrier and obey his original orders as written? And here is the mistake that changed the war forever: For a number of minutes, Nagumo did nothing. This hesitation, his inability to decisively disobey an order, even when the situation he was in was unforeseen, changed the entire war in the Pacific.

Doing nothing in war is often a mistake, and in this case the loss of all four carriers and the initiative resulted. If Nagumo had launched the aircraft against the atoll or had gotten them rearmed in time and launched against the Hornet, the war’s history would be very different today.

While only one had been spotted, there were actually three American carriers in range to attack the Kido Butai. So eventually Admiral Nagumo made what was likely the best decision for the new circumstances and ordered a rapid change of the armaments on all of his aircraft to antiship weapons. But the time spent deciding what to do and the chaos of the weapons change meant that not only were the aircraft almost all still on the decks of all four carriers fueled and armed when the American aircraft attacked, but that the land attack bombs, which had been removed, were also still stacked near them. As a result, when the IJN fighters were off chasing the few survivors of two American torpedo groups, aircraft from two groups of U.S. Navy dive bombers were able to hit three of the highly vulnerable Japanese aircraft carriers. The bombs and fuel in the aircraft on the decks of the three ships exploded and greatly increased the damage. Within minutes all three carriers were beyond repair and covered in flames.

Nagumo continued to fight with the remaining carrier, sinking the Yorktown just as his last carrier too was lost. Then his last carrier was sunk, and the entire IJN force had to retreat. The powerful battleship fleet and Admiral Yamamoto never even got close to the island. Midway was saved. Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s hesitation and a lot of luck on the American side meant that the massive IJN superiority in carriers in the Pacific was lost in a matter of hours.

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