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Q&A with author Craig L. Symonds

There are a number of mysteries surrounding the Battle of Midway, and a breadth of new information has recently been uncovered about the four day struggle. We sat down with naval historian Craig L. Symonds, author of The Battle of Midway, newly released in paperback, to answer some questions about the iconic World War II battle.

There has been a lot written on the Battle of Midway over the years. What prompted your interest in this battle?

My editor at Oxford University Press, Tim Bent, urged me to take it on. Oxford has a series on “Pivotal Moments in American History” and Tim thought that Midway belonged on that list. I certainly did not disagree with him, but I told him that there were already several fine books on the battle—notably Walter Lord’s and Gordon Prange’s—plus an excellent recent book (by Anthony Tully and Jon Parshall) on the Japanese side of the battle.

Tim, however, wanted a book on Midway in the Oxford series, and he wanted one that would appeal to a broad general audience—an audience that, 70 years after the fact, did not know a lot about Midway and its importance. I am afraid that I also succumbed to his blatant flattery when he told me that however many books there were on Midway, none of them were written by me! There is no limit to an author’s willingness to be flattered.

Research is a key to writing any good history. More and more information has surfaced over the years. What information had come to light that provided you with a unique take on the battle? Or to put it another way, did any research lead to significant new information that could add to other views of the battle?

I think of all the sources I consulted, the oral histories left behind by the participants made the greatest impression on me and significantly influenced my narrative. When I read the transcripts of those oral histories I felt like I was in communication with the men who were there. Individually, each of them offers only a small glimpse into the overall story, but collectively they merge to form a dramatic narrative. In addition to the oral histories in the Naval Institute’s Collection, I found a rich trove of interviews at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, that I do not believe anyone else had researched. While I am at it, let me put in a plug for this museum which, because of its out-of-the-way location, too often gets overlooked. It is worth a visit.

You have referenced other works and other comments made on the battle. Most prevalent has been the idea that this battle was won because of some “incredible” luck or the result of a “miracle.” You argue that the battle was less a result of good fortune and more a result of the men and leaders present at the time. Could you elaborate a little?

Sure. I do not mean to discredit the idea that luck and fortune—even Providence—played a role in the battle. But I did want to emphasize that it was not all luck and chance. By asserting that the American victory at Midway was all, or even predominately, the result of luck, it demeans the bold decisions and brave actions of the participants. To some extent it was the Japanese, and especially Mitsuo Fuchida in his widely-read and influential book, who argued that the outcome of the battle was due to luck. He emphasizes how amazing it was that the one search plane assigned to the sector where the American carriers lurked was the very one that had engine trouble; he emphasizes the curious timing of the early arrival of the American torpedo planes that brought the Japanese CAP down to low levels; he writes about Nagumo’s fateful decision to delay a launch until he rearmed his strike planes; he notes the timing of the arrival of the Enterprise and Yorktown bombers. Those events allowed Fuchida to claim that the Americans did not beat the Japanese, they were just lucky! Parshall and Tully have shown how Fuchida was simply wrong on many of these issues, and I tried to show how some of those events (the engine trouble on the search plane, for example) were actually strokes of luck for the Japanese. Luck plays a role in all battles, but in the end, it is the men who win and lose them.

When researching particular parts of the battle, and trying to answer some of the mysteries, did you find answers? Did you find that your research led you to other questions you didn’t expect, and if so, did you find answers to those, or do some of them remain unresolved?

Well, I found answers, to be sure, whether they are the final answers is another question. I suppose that to some extent there will always be issues that are left unresolved. There is, and always will be, a veil of uncertainty about what happened to the Air Group from the USS Hornet that morning. Researching was a real adventure for me because I found that one issue often led to another, and I felt like I was following a trail of clues. This is the way it is supposed to work, of course, but it was especially true in this project.

One aspect of the battle has been endlessly debated, and is referred to as “The Flight to Nowhere.” You make a convincing argument for the final and best analysis of the mystery. Plus you also had many actual participants that were on that flight support your conclusions. Can we ever be sure that this will conclude the mystery or are there still unresolved aspects that we will never know, for instance where all the After Action reports went?

Well, first, I am gratified that you find my explanation convincing. I actually resisted the argument that I eventually presented. Indeed, I fought pretty hard against it. I simply could not imagine why Mitscher would conceal the actual events, and how so many men would conspire to keep them secret for so long. And of course, there were always some who insisted until the day they died (Clay Fisher, for one) that the Hornet Air Group did not go on a “Flight to Nowhere.” I set out at first to argue that Fisher was right, but in the end, I was compelled by the evidence to conclude otherwise. Mitscher, I think, did what he believed was best for the country and for the service: first by seeking to find and destroy the supposed “second” group of Japanese carriers, and then by concealing events that would have cast the Navy in a poor light. It is hard to argue, even now, that he made the wrong decision.

As for the missing After Action Reports, one possibility is that Mitscher simply told the Squadron Commanders not to submit one; that he debriefed each of them orally, and then wrote—or ordered his staff to write—the only report we have from the Hornet. The other possibility is that the reports were submitted and that Mitscher had them destroyed, but that seems much less likely to me.

What was the hardest part of writing the book? Many of the key participants were not around any more. Did other people help in your research? Were other authors who did interview key witnesses helpful?

The hardest part was solving the puzzles you refer to above. This was much harder than doing the research or writing the book itself.

As to receiving help from others: I am very beholden to both those who went before me and to those still working in the field. Both Walter Lord and Gordon Prange left copies of all their interviews in their papers (Lord’s are at the Naval History and Heritage Command Library in the Washington Navy Yard; and Prange’s are in the Hornbake Library at the University of Maryland). In addition to interviews of American participants, they each commissioned Japanese-speaking researchers to interview the Japanese participants and then to transcribe those interviews into English. Those interviews, too, are in their papers.

In addition, contemporary scholars were very generous with their time and expertise. Two in particular, both of whom are acknowledged in the book, went well beyond normal collegiality and read the entire manuscript, offered insights and suggestions, and led me to sources I would otherwise have missed. These two worthies are John B. Lundstrom and Jonathan Parshall. I owe them much.

As I said before, many of the veterans of the battle are not around anymore to interview, but there are some still with us. Did any of them help shed light on missing facts? 

I must acknowledge that among the very first people I talked to after my editor at Oxford were William Hauser and John “Jack” Crawford, both veterans of Midway and avid champions of its memory. They actually came to see me at the Naval Academy where I was teaching, and urged me to do the book. Bill was on the cruiser Nashville up near the Aleutians, and Jack was on the Yorktown when it went down. (I tell the story of Jack’s role on the Yorktown in the book.) ther veterans, including Dusty Kleiss, provided information by e-mail. I had a very pleasant and lengthy lunch with Donald “Mac” Showers, who worked in Hypo during the battle and who helped me understand some of the details (and the tedium) of code breaking. Most of my “interviews,” however, were second hand in that I depended on the oral histories and typed interviews now in various archives.

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5) being abandoned by her crew after she was hit by two Japanese Type 91 aerial torpedoes, 4 June 1942.
The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5) being abandoned by her crew after she was hit by two Japanese Type 91 aerial torpedoes, 4 June 1942. Photo by US Navy. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Something about the Battle of Midway that is particularly interesting is the story of what happened to key participants after the battle. Why do you think that’s so important?

Since I argue that “people make history,” it seemed only right to follow those people—or at least some of them—into their lives after the battle to see what became of them. I was astonished to learn that Miles Browning, who was about as humorless a person as anyone, turned out to be the grandfather of a famous comedian. (If you don’t know who it is, buy the book! For that matter, buy it anyway.)

You are familiar with more than just the battle itself; you go into detail about events beforehand, including naval doctrine, and earlier carrier battles. Why did you do this?

No historical event exists in a vacuum, and it is always necessary to provide context and background, but I agree that this book provides more than usual. Still, I felt it was essential to provide this background to put the battle in its full doctrinal, strategic, and technological context. A complete account of the Battle of the Coral Sea, for example, explains the impact of that experience on Fletcher, Browning and Oscar (Pete) Pederson, among others. It also allowed me to introduce many of the characters early, to explain the role of swiftly changing technologies, and to explore the culture of each side that influenced the decision-making.

Intelligence played a key if not decisive role in the battle. How much was it an intelligence victory as well as a military victory?

For a while after the battle, the role of code-breaking remained a secret. Then when it was revealed, there was a tendency to exaggerate the role it played. From playing no role, it went (in some accounts) to explaining everything. The answer lies somewhere in the middle. While Joe Rochefort and his colleagues were absolutely essential to American victory, they did not provide Nimitz or anyone else with a complete blueprint of Japanese plans. That matters as we assess the battle, because if Nimitz had only small bits of intelligence available to him, his decision to act boldly takes on new importance. Rochefort could have been wrong, and another admiral besides Nimitz might have played it safe and waited to see. In the end, therefore, it was both an intelligence victory and a military victory.

Technology played a significant part as well. How much of the victory might be attributed to the technological advantage of things like radar?

The Japanese had a few technological advantages of their own: the longer range of their panes (mainly due to less armor), and especially their torpedoes—which actually worked! But the American possession of radar trumped them both. Being able to see the Japanese planes en route allowed the Americans time to prepare. If the Japanese had been able to do that at 10:20 on the morning June 4, the outcome might have been altogether different.

You write from a distinctly American perspective. Was there any reason you approached the subject from the American side rather than both sides?

I have two responses to this. The first is that I did try to include a lot of information about the Japanese: their culture, the political infighting among the various groups in the government and in the Navy, the personalities of the leading decision makers, and the emergence of their technology. Still, I focused more on the American side of the story because I felt the Japanese story had been told so well by Anthony Tully and Jonathan Parshall and did not think there was much that I could add to it. What I did include about the Japanese I included because I thought it was necessary to the narrative.

Why were some promoted and others not after the battle? Mitscher had already been selected for promotion to Rear Admiral. Did his performance at Midway affect his later assignments, and why was Joe Rochefort shelved afterward?

Spruance became Nimitz’s chief of staff after the battle, and almost certainly discussed the battle, and Mitscher’s role in it, with Nimitz privately. There is no evidence of this, but it is hardly likely in a close six month relationship between two men who literally lived together under the same roof, that the topic never came up. And Spruance knew that there was something fishy about Mitscher’s After Action report. He as much as said so in his own report. It is not impossible that Spruance or Nimitz, of both of them, actually confronted Mitscher about it afterward. In any case, they apparently agreed that there was nothing to be gained by dirtying the Navy’s laundry in public. But Nimitz did move Mitscher to a shore command, one that was not a step up from a carrier group commander. It was a kind of exile and it lasted for six months. After that “time out” Mitscher was restored to a sea command with the creation of the Fast Carrier Task Force under Spruance (TF 58).

Rochefort is a different story. He had never been popular in Washington where the Redmond brothers resented his independence and unwillingness to be a team player. Their views influenced Ernest King as well, and after Midway Rochefort was transferred to other duties. There has been a lot of discussion about Rochefort’s not getting the Distinguished Service Medal that Nimitz recommended for him. King disapproved the recommendation on the somewhat specious grounds that it was inappropriate to give one man a decoration to honor a whole command. Only years later, under President Reagan, did Rochefort’s descendants receive the medal.

Craig L. Symonds is Professor of History Emeritus at the United States Naval Academy. The Battle of Midway is now out in paperback. He is the author of many books on American naval history, including Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles That Shaped American History as well as Lincoln and His Admirals, co-winner of the Lincoln Prize in 2009.

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