MIRACLE at MIDWAY
By Gordon W. Prange
By Walter R. Borneman
REVIEWER: William A. Glass
I recently read Miracle at Midway by Gordon W. Prange and got so caught up in the history of World War II in the Pacific that I next picked up The Admirals by Walter R. Borneman. These two books contain many revelations. I learned that famous American generals and admirals were often incompetent, that Japanese military leaders who prided themselves on their warrior spirit got cold feet at critical moments, and how vital FDR’s top military advisors were to the ultimate U.S. victory.
Incompetence among America’s top brass was evident from the first. In the days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, both Admiral Husband Kimmel, the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, and General Douglas MacArthur, who commanded our forces in the Philippines, were warned of a Japanese attack. Still, U.S. forces were not put on alert and the Japanese attacks on Hawaii and the Philippines had the advantage of surprise. Kimmel’s battleships were arrayed in a neat row and MacArthur had his airplanes parked wingtip to wingtip. Japanese bombers obliterated these easy targets.
Kimmel lost his command, but somehow McArthur kept his. He promptly led his army into a trap of his own making. MacArthur escaped capture by the enemy, but his troops were not so lucky. As they were led away on a death march, he was in Australia pledging to return to the Philippines. MacArthur looked and spoke like a great military leader and became a hero to the public despite his shortcomings.
Admiral “Bull” Halsey was another brass hat who looked and talked like he knew what he was doing. Early in the war, he commanded the carrier task force that ferried Lt. Colonel James Doolittle and his daring raiders close enough to Tokyo for them to drop bombs. This made Halsey a hero to the public, but afterward his story was one of bad luck, poor judgement, and sorry seamanship.
Fortunately for Halsey and MacArthur, the Japanese military leaders had worse faults that surfaced immediately. One more attack at Pearl Harbor to target U.S. dry docks, repair facilities, and oil storage tanks would have made Japan master of the Pacific indefinitely. But Admiral Yamamoto was anxious to head back to safer waters. So, the U.S. was able to rebound.
Next, Yamamoto messed up the plan for the Japanese attack on Midway Island by making the occupation of this American base the objective, rather than designating the U.S. Pacific Fleet as the target. So, while the Japanese were arming their carrier-based planes with bombs for another attack on the island, U.S. aircraft carriers launched dive bombers against the Japanese ships. Four Japanese aircraft carriers, thousands of sailors, close to three hundred planes, and an equal number of Japanese pilots paid the price.
Two years later, the Imperial Japanese high command decided to bet everything on one roll of the dice. The U.S. Navy was landing MacArthur’s army in the Philippines, and the Americans had to be stopped, or all was lost. Tokyo’s plan was to send a decoy fleet to draw Halsey away from his responsibility to protect MacArthur’s landing. Meanwhile, a powerful Japanese strike force would sneak through a passage between two Philippine Islands and destroy MacArthur’s troops and their transports. Naturally, Halsey fell for the Japanese ruse and took off after the decoy with all his ships. Incomprehensibly, he didn’t leave any to guard the strategic passage the Japanese strike force came through. The only thing that saved the Americans was the pusillanimity of the Japanese Admiral commanding the strike force. He skirmished with the few escort vessels guarding MacArthur’s landing, then retreated. Thus, Halsey was hailed in U.S. newspapers as the victor of The Battle of Leyte Gulf!
Back in Washington, Admiral William Leahy, General George Marshal, and Admiral Ernest King ran the war for President Franklin Roosevelt. Marshall was in overall command of the army, King was boss of the navy, but Leahy outranked them both. He was FDR’s chief of staff, plus his National Security Advisor. Leahy, King, and Marshall made all the strategic decisions during the war. They allowed guys like MacArthur and Halsey to get the headlines and be the heroes.
Historians are only now realizing how critical Leahy, King, and Marshall were to the U.S. victory. But congress knew. In 1944 they created the five-star rank. Leahy received it first, then Marshal and King. Guess who else got five stars? MacArthur and Halsey, of course! Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.
I highly recommend reading Miracle at Midway and The Admirals one after the other. This brief review contains only a few of the many revelations I gleaned from these magnificent works of history.