Midway 74 Years Later and the Dauntless on My Desk


In every battle there is a moment when the combatants, and the world, seem to catch their breath. It is a fleeting moment, lost in the blink of an eye. But in that same blink, everything changes. Such moments are borne of desperation, of courage, of plain dumb luck. But they are pivotal —  for what was before is forever changed afterwards.  – SJS

SDB-3Of the 200-some odd models that populate my study and other places around the house, there is but one on my desk. It isn’t a plane that I have flown (though not for a lack of desire), nor is it even one I have had a working relationship with when I was on active duty. Indeed, it is one I have yet to even see in person except in a museum. That plane? It is an SBD-3 Dauntless but not just any Dauntless. It is in the colors and markings of the VB-5 “Black B1″ Dauntless flown by LT Dick Best at Midway. The reasons I have it there are manifold and it serves as a daily reminder thereto, some of which are gathered and summed below.

“As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”
– Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, December 2004

The Navy in 1942 was very much that kind of Navy — the one you have (had). Ships and aircraft that were in transition from an earlier age of technology and warfighting that hadn’t quite got the kinks worked out, whose replacements that did were still on the drafting boards or just now beginning construction and were months, if not years away from combat. Tactics that had been developed by “disruptive” innovators that had, as yet, to be fully tested in battle. A command structure that suddenly found itself engaged in worldwide fleet and joint operations. In light of these conditions, several actions had to occur prior to 4 June 1942 to enable the American victory at Midway.

Command and Planning. A theater commander, not a remote staff in Washington, needed to run the war in his theater at the operational level and below. Nimitz understood his forces and his commanders. He knew the thin line by which they hung and yet he trusted his task force commanders and their subordinates to be both aggressive and calculating in carrying the fight to the enemy, as epitomized in his OPORD for the coming battle:

In carrying out the task assigned, you will be governed by the principle of calculated risk, which you shall interpret to mean the avoidance of exposure of our forces without good prospect on inflicting, as a result of such exposure, greater damage on the enemy.

In studied contrast to the run-up for the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese planning for Midway was poorly thought out, egregiously evaluated, gamed and haphazardly executed (cf: the entire submarine picket plan). Indeed, it was put together and executed in such a toxic atmosphere of arrogance and bluster that even when one of the final wargame sessions showed American forces gaining an upper-hand because of gaps in the air search pattern, referees for the wargame manipulated the environment and other factors to bring about a successful conclusion for Kido Butai. As for dealing with changing factors at sea, commanders were loath to step outside the boundaries of the plan and demonstrate initiative. In studied contrast were the actions of the Americans from Nimitz’s orders based on calculated risk to Dick Best’s last minute change in targets. Curiously, the Japanese in planning a double prong approach with the diversionary strike at the Aleutians also broke one of their founding principles – that of concentration of forces. By diverting forces on a mission of questionable value and success for territory that would prove to be exceptionally harsh on man and machine they gained little, if any strategic value outside of propaganda for an over-wrought plan of entrapment.

One other, not inconsiderable item was the quality of intelligence and analysis provided, especially that of the cryptological staff hand-picked and led by CDR Joe Rochefort and LCDR Ed Layton. Much is made of the means by which they tricked the Japanese into revealing Midway as the intended target, thereby allowing Nimitz and Spruance to position the numerically smaller US forces to gain maximum advantage in the coming fight. Yet, again, one doesn’t just snap the fingers and wish this into existence. Rochefort and Layton were in this position because of recognition by their leaders, early in their respective careers as JOs possessing a particular or unique set of skills that needed to be developed and nurtured; skills that didn’t conform to what passed for the “traditional” career path and so incurred some risk on the part of the two officers in embarking on the same, especially in the fiscally austere climate of the late 20’s and 30’s in a Service not given to iconoclasts (or at least advancig their careers). Key to this discussion was the fact both officers spent time in country learning their Japanese language skills, underscoring the concept of understanding a culture and its nuances in addition to learning a language. In time, this understanding paid dividends as Nimitz encouraged Rochefort to think like the Japanese commander. All too often in the “modern” Navy we find such persons are marginalized and squirreled away in a niche many times as terminal O-4/O-5s because their utility and talents are poorly understood, ineffectually applied and careers haphazardly managed. So much so that when an intelligence gap is revealed, the system goes overboard and fills numerical gaps while papering over the quality ones. I have to wonder, even today, how many “analysts” are given over to a full, deep study of Chinese language, history and culture, to arrive at a fuller appreciation of Chinese strategic thought and execution, not unlike  their Russian cohorts (who, once the Cold War was over, were widely purged as being “unnecessary in the new peace” – Reset anyone? – SJS). My answer of late seems to be — not much as it seems individuals, groups and whole organizations are caught up in the wonderment of bright shiny objects (niche weapons) without an understanding of their purpose, application and the human factors behind them.

Flexibility and Adaptation to Changing Conditions. American plans for coordinated/supporting attacks on the Japanese were quite literally shot to hell with missed rendezvous, difficulty in locating the CVs and key elements (e.g., the torpedo attack) failing, as it was cut to pieces by Kido Butai‘s protective cover offered by fighters and AA. Even for the few that got off an attack before meeting the eternal deep, the torpedoes failed to properly arm and detonate; a reflection in no small measure of pre-war testing precepts and assumptions. Carefully crafted, scripted and geographically limited tests that ensured success in peacetime testing utterly failed the Fleet when it came time to put the weapon to the test in war, and at tremendous cost in lives and equipment.

All stop.

In case you passed lightly over that last, let me pause to re-emphasize that point — Carefully crafted, scripted and geographically limited tests that ensured success in peacetime testing utterly failed the Fleet when it came time to put the weapon to the test in war, and at tremendous cost in lives and equipment. By the way, this does cut both ways as adversaries then and now were and are prone to the same shortcoming.

In contrast, the Navy’s carrier-based dive bombers on the decks of Enterprise, Yorktown and Hornet represented a challenging, evolutionary process grounded in revolutionary views of naval warfare.

From 1923 to 1940, the US Navy conducted 21 Fleet Problems as it sought to understand, exploit and incorporate new technologies and capabilities while developing the tactics, training and procedures to employ the same should war present itself which, by the 1930s, was beginning to look more and more likely to the discerning observer. Conducted in all the major waters adjacent to the US, these problems covered the gamut of naval warfare from convoy duty, ASW, strike warfare and sea control. Most important, at least to this writer, was that this was the laboratory that tested the emerging idea of putting tactical aircraft at sea on board aircraft carriers. In doing so, the inherent flexibility of aviation across a broad span of warfare areas became apparent as the Navy’s leadership, rather, the Navy’s emerging leadership as epitomized by innovators from task force commanders, ship CO’s and down to squadron and section leaders, looked at naval aviation as something more than just a scouting force for the main battery of the fleet extant, namely the battleline.


12 May 1938 Three Army Air Corps B-17s intercept the Italian liner Rex (inbound to the US).


June 1942 IJN carrier Hiryu successfully evades high-altitude B-17 bombing attack.


“Midway – The Turning Point” by Stan Stokes (http://www.stanstokes.net/#!blank/csac)

It was in this laboratory that the Navy developed the techniques and identified the requirements for long-range patrol aircraft and for carrier-based dive bombers, so different from the big, lumbering land-based bombers that the Air Corps’ advocates were saying would make ships obsolete by high altitude, “precision” bombing. Indeed, certain air power advocates in the military and in Congress were of a persuasion that no ship could stand to survive what these long-range, precision strike aircraft could deliver and moved to shift funds and support accordingly (Indeed, today we hear many of those same arguments ressurected against the carrier because of new classes and types of weapons whose unproven technical capabilites similarly trump what carriers could offer in defense. – SJS) Proof, however, would come at Midway when both forces were employed; the B-17s dropping their bombs from on high hit nothing but water because the fixed or cooperative targets they had practiced against in peacetime suddenly “discovered” maneuverabilty. But dive bombers from Enterprise and Yorktown ripped the heart out of the Kido Butai. And as the thousand-pounder from Lt Dick Best’s SBD Dauntless smashed through the Akagi‘s flight deck, a battle was turned and the course to winning a war was set. But it took visionaries to set the wheels in motion.

While the Japanese were the first to employ massed striking power using carriers and the strike at Pearl (and subsequent actions through SE Asia and the IO) validated the philosophy, they also failed to comprehend the inherent flexibility of carrier-based air and thus eschewed opportunities to utilize it in other scenarios, such as armed scouting, which in turn, led to less than robust search plans and reliance on out-dated search aircraft and methodologies.  They failed, in modern parlance, at C2ISR. The American practice of armed scouts for one, developed during the previously mentioned series of war games would prove time and again to be a critical discriminator allowing a quick first strike while alerting and enabling the larger force to disable and destroy as demonstrated in Lexington‘s strike on both Saratoga and Langley during Fleet Problem X (and replicated in Fleet Problem XI the following year), foreshadowing the American strikes on the Japanese CVs at Midway.

Training: The contrast between USN and USMC effectiveness in employing dive bombers at Midway was signatory. Using the same platform (SBD-3s) USN pilots scored major hits while minimizing losses to AA fire and fighters, whereas the Marines suffered significant losses for little, if any gain. The difference? Tactics, training and procedures or TTP. The Navy employed steep, usually greater than 70-degree, dives on the target whereas the Marines used much shallower, gliding approaches. The former minimizes your exposure time and profile to AA and challenges fighters which typically are not equipped for high angle dives, while increasing the likelihood of a hit.  Conversely, the shallower approaches employed by the Marines were more fitting to the requirements of close air support (as would be demonstrated time and again in the next few years in the Pacific island-hopping campaign). However, the anti-shipping approach requires considerable practice at obtaining the proper dive angle, avoiding target fixation and knowing how/when to pull out of the dive while avoiding over-stressing the airframe. Techniques and skills developed over time and encouraged and employed by informed and forward thinking leaders with lots of practice — underscoring the maxim about “training like you are going to fight” isn’t just a nice bulkhead slogan or Facebook meme.

Damage Control: Had the crew of the Yorktown not been so proficient in DC, particularly something as seemingly mundane as draining the avgas lines and filling them with inert gas prior to the battle of Coral Sea, the Yorktown may very well have been lost, leaving CINCPAC with only two carriers facing four, and forcing a different battle plan. Conversely, the almost lackadaisical approach the Japanese took in repairing Shokaku‘s damage or replenishing Zuikaku‘s air wing and repairing her light damage from Coral Sea’s action ensured their unavailability for Midway, keeping the balance of forces on a razor’s edge and enabling the Americans.  Damage control skills would be increasingly called upon as American forces pushed back across the Pacific in  the wake of Midway’s success.Slide1

Over the course of a twenty-six year career in the cockpit, on the bridge and ashore, each of these elements influenced and guided me; whether through self-study and actualization or in the form of guidance, direction and to use an overworked term, mentoring from others more experienced. As I progressed through studying and practicing my trade from the tactical to operational levels of war the lessons of Midway gained traction — more so in my latter years with the availability of new material and perspectives. In that time I have lived the difficulty of mustering and executing long-range war at sea strikes, even when aided by the (relatively) modern enablers of radar, UHF and SATCOM communications and networked datalinks. Of sorting friend from foe and assessing BDA and re-strike requirements. Of the difficulty in turning disparate bits of data into actionable intelligence and at the same time, understanding what we today call “left of launch” and “kill chains” – and how to defeat them through counter-ISR and -targeting efforts through operational and tactical maneuver and schemes.  Of providing reasoned discourse and advice to senior leaders who are bent on a particular agenda. Of building the “whole cloth” picture of a threat (or collection thereof) while eschewing the false certitude of a “slam dunk” in assessing the same and developing counters that may provide short term mitigation and while buying time for more effective measures in the pipeline or emerging on a thousand-plus whiteboards.

And along the way, even today in my present job, I wonder if and from whence the next Dick Best, Wade McClusky. Joe Rochefort, Ray Spruance, Chester Nimitz and Ernest J. King will come.

My earnest hope is that they are out there and when the time comes, when the battle hangs in the balance, when that moment of despair, courage or plain dumb luck offers the opportunity to turn events on their ear and gain the upper hand, that they will seize it with vigor and exploit it in the traditions of our Service.

As was done 74 years ago at Midway.