The following speech was presented on 3 June 2012 by Dr. Craig Symonds at the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Midway Commemoration Dinner at the Army-Navy Country Club, Arlington, Virginia. You can watch a video of the presentation here.
Admiral Greenert, distinguished guests, and especially veterans of the Battle of Midway … don’t we all look great tonight? Why don’t we dress like this all the time? I have to confess that I was a bit dubious about wearing my solitary National Defense Medal tonight—it makes me feel a little conspicuous among those of you who are wearing four, or five, or six rows of medals. But I’m proud to wear it just the same, and I am greatly honored to have been invited to talk to you about a number of milestones in the history of the U.S. Navy that we observe this evening.
First of all, of course, it is the 70th anniversary of the pivotal Battle of Midway—a battle that turned the tide, not only of the Pacific War, but of the Second World War, and, in fact, of history itself. I will have much more to say about this in a few minutes.
But we also observe this month the anniversary of another war that, for many Americans, first brought the U.S. Navy to the forefront of the national consciousness, and that is, The War of 1812—or, as Theodore Roosevelt titled it in his book, The NAVAL War of 1812. That war began 200 years ago this month on June 18, 1812 when the United States Congress declared war on the Empire of Great Britain, which in 1812 was a pretty bold, not to say reckless, thing to do.
And, in addition to that, if this is the BI-centennial of the War of 1812, it is also the SESQUI-centennial (that is, the 150th anniversary) of the American Civil War, and in particular the epochal battle between the ironclad CSS Virginia, formerly the Merrimack, and the USS Monitor, a confrontation that took place in Hampton Roads, Virginia in March of 1862, and, like the Battle of Midway, it helped re-define the nature of war at sea in the application of new technology.
All of these events rightfully command our attention, for all three of them marked important turning points in America’s history. If the American Revolution created us as a nation, the War of 1812 confirmed it. Indeed, many modern textbooks refer to the War of 1812 it as the SECOND War of American Independence.
And if that war confirmed our independence, the American Civil War proved—as Lincoln so aptly put it at Gettysburg—that a nation conceived in, and dedicated to, the proposition that all men are created equal could long endure. One war confirmed our independence, the other confirmed our nationhood … as one nation indivisible.
And the Battle of Midway, which took place 130 years after 1812 and, ironically perhaps, precisely four score years after the clash of ironclads in the Civil War … Midway marked the moment when the United States became not only a world power, but the greatest power on earth, a status which we have learned since, sometimes ruefully, that carries with it burdens and responsibilities, as well as security and comfort.
Obviously, I cannot begin to do justice to all of these historic events tonight, but let me try to suggest a few lessons that they offer by drawing a comparison between the most strategically important naval battle of the War of 1812, and the most strategically important naval battle of the Second World War—that is, between the Battle of Lake Erie, and the Battle of Midway.
One characteristic of both battles was the sheer audacity of the Americans. The American declaration of war against England, 200 years ago this month, was so audacious as to be foolhardy—even suicidal. Britain at the time was the greatest naval power on the planet, possessing nearly a thousand warships, including several hundred multi-decked battleships known as ships-of-the-line. The United States, by comparison, had no ships-of-the-line, only what one British observer referred to scornfully as “a handful of fir-built frigates.” To be sure, Britain was at the time engaged in a war to the death with Napoleonic France so that she could not concentrate all of her overwhelming naval power against us, but even her Halifax Squadron—by itself—was larger than the whole U.S. Navy in 1812.
So what were we thinking?
We had been provoked, to be sure—the British impressments of Americans into the Royal Navy constituted a flagrant violation of our nationhood. Then, too, some Americans thought that while Britain was preoccupied with France, we could march up to Canada and seize it as a hostage to compel the British to behave themselves. That, by the way, did not quite work out.
Nevertheless, there were memorable moments in this war: There was, in particular, the astounding series of frigate duels in which American ships one-after-another, battered and defeated their British counterparts. This was unprecedented in the history of the Royal Navy. British superiority was so accepted as to be routine. But, as an article in the current issue of NAVAL HISTORY magazine points out, “American frigates were bigger, had thicker hulls, carried larger crews, and were outfitted with more guns than the standard frigates of the day.” (I stole that line, by the way, from one of our guests tonight: the author of that article was Admiral Greenert.) It was due to this combat superiority, and to some bold ship-handling, that the illusion of British naval superiority was shattered.
The most famous of the frigate duels in 1812 was the one between USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere, a battle that is recalled today in part because a British officer, observing the fall of shot aimed at the Constitution, was astonished to see some of the British ordnance bounce off the Constitution’s sturdy hull and exclaimed “My God, she’s made of iron.” It wasn’t of course; it was made of thick planks of Georgia live oak. And, as all of you know, Old Ironsides remains in commission today.
Another iconic moment in the War of 1812 occurred on the fresh water of Lake Erie a year later when an American squadron under Oliver Hazard Perry fought a rare—indeed, virtually unique—battle with an entire British squadron. What most of us remember about this battle is:
First, Perry’s decision to transfer his command from his battered flagship USS Lawrence, named in honor of his friend James Lawrence killed only months before, to his other large ship, the sloop Niagara. Perry is famously depicted in paintings standing up in the small ship’s boat that carried him across the open water while British gunners fired shot and shell at him—and, in that era of grand gestures, he may well have done so—at least part of the way, though I suspect that sometime during that harrowing passage, the bo’sun at the tiller probably told him to “get down” before he overturned the boat.
The other thing we remember about this battle is that afterward, Perry wrote a note to his army counterpart, William Henry Harrison, telling him, rather mater-of-factly: “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.” This was later re-written by the cartoonist Walt Kelly into, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Clever, no doubt, and perhaps true as well. But it is unfortunate, in my view, that this rendering has somehow eclipsed the original in the public memory. I suspect that even though they’ve probably never heard of Walt Kelly or his comic strip, Pogo, more American high school age students have heard the Kelly version of this passage than Oliver Hazard Perry’s original. For that matter, I wonder how many have heard of Perry … or of the War of 1812?
I want to spend a minute or two talking about that battle on Lake Erie, for aside from these two memorable moments, the battle also presented Oliver Hazard Perry with a professional dilemma.
The reason Perry had to transfer his flag from the Lawrence to the Niagara in the first place was that up until then the Niagara had stayed out of range and declined to enter the fight. Consequently, Perry’s flagship, Lawrence, took the brunt of fire from the whole English squadron while the Niagara remained unharmed. There is a lot of speculation as to WHY this happened. The dominant one is that the Niagara’s commander, LT Jesse Elliott, was hoping that Perry would be defeated—even killed—in the fight, and that this would enable Elliott to sail in afterward to win the battle and reap the laurels.
That’s a pretty dark picture, but Elliot’s behavior, both at the time and subsequently, suggests that this was, in fact, what was going on.
In the end, of course, it all worked out: Perry was rowed over to the Niagara, took command of her, ordered her took her into the fight, and won the battle himself. His victory was so complete that he captured the entire British squadron—the only time that had ever happened in the history of the Royal Navy. His triumph was not only tactically decisive, it was strategically decisive as well, for it secured American command of Lake Erie, and arguably, at least, American control of the entire Northwest Territory.
But in the aftermath of that astonishing triumph, Perry faced a dilemma: what to do about Elliott? Should Perry file charges against him for staying out of the battle? Everyone in the fleet had seen what he did, and almost all of them were furious. Officers discussed it in hushed tones in the wardroom, and the sailors talked about it more openly, and much more profanely, on the mess decks. The consensus of both was that Elliott should be shot, or hanged, or both.
But Perry wondered what was to be gained by filing court martial charges against Elliott in the wake of such an astounding victory. Wouldn’t a messy public court martial merely distract from the celebration of a great victory, even undermine support for the war?
So in view of those considerations, Perry decided to say nothing at all about Elliott’s behavior. When he HAD to say something, in his official report, he wrote this: “Of Captain Elliott, already so well known to the Government, it would be almost superfluous to speak.” He went on to write: “In this action he evinced his characteristic bravery and judgment.” It wasn’t exactly a lie, but it certainly obscured the truth, and when the report was published in the papers, the officers and men who had survived the battle were livid. They knew the true story, and they shared it with their families and friends. Soon enough those stories leaked back to Elliott, who insisted that Perry write a public letter saying that he had performed well in the battle.
And Perry did it! Here’s what he wrote: “It affords me great pleasure that I have it in my power to assure you that the conduct of yourself, officers, and crew, was such as to meet my warmest approbation.” It was everything Elliott could have wanted. But Elliott’s problem was that too many people knew the truth … and they continued to talk.
So Elliott, maddened by this, insisted that Perry now declare that he, Elliott, had been mainly responsible for the victory. Perhaps Perry was now regretting that he hadn’t simply told the truth in the first place. In any case, he rejected Elliott’s demand, to which Elliott responded by challenging Perry to a duel. Perhaps with a sigh, Perry now—finally—filed court martial charges against Elliott.
It never came to that because at this point President Madison intervened. He told BOTH of them to shut up. No court martial; no duel. Get back to work.
One lesson here, surely, is that it is better to tell the whole truth at once rather than try to put the best face on a botched job. Because sooner or later the truth will out.
And all of that, in a round about sort of way, brings me back to the Battle of Midway.
Midway was a battle with consequences every bit as historic as Perry’s victory on Lake Erie. Just as the Royal Navy had never been defeated, the Japanese Mobile Strike Force—the Kido Butai—had never been tasted defeat, indeed, was never seriously challenged, during its six month’s rampage across the Pacific and Indian Oceans following Pearl Harbor. Its assault on Midway in June of 1942 was intended primarily to lure the few remaining American carriers out to their doom and mark the culmination of the Japanese conquest of nearly a third of the planet.
It didn’t work out that way.
Instead, on the morning of June 4, 1942, the brownshoe Navy of the United States effectively duplicated—even surpassed—what Perry had accomplished on Lake Erie.
There are other parallels between the two battles. Just as Perry’s Lawrence was hammered by the British fleet in the first several hours of the fight on Lake Erie, the first several hours of the Battle of Midway also went badly for the Americans. From eight to ten o’clock in the morning, the Americans sent more than ninety aircraft to attack the Japanese carriers—half of them from the Eastern Island Airfield at Midway, and half of them torpedo bombers from the three American carriers. Despite heroic efforts by pilots who were willing to sacrifice their lives to strike a blow for their country, none of those 94 aircraft managed to lay a single piece of ordnance on a Japanese ship. And worse, most of the attacking planes were shot down by the circling Zeroes of the Japanese Combat Air Patrol, or they were so badly damaged as never to fly again. At ten o’clock on the morning of that June 4, the Japanese were winning not just the Battle of Midway, they were winning the Pacific War.
But just as Perry snatched victory from defeat by changing ships and taking the Niagara into the battle at a crucial moment on Lake Erie, so too did the dive bomber pilots of Wade McClusky’s Enterprise group, and Max Leslie’s Yorktown group arrive over the Japanese carriers at a crucial moment—at 10:22 a.m., to be precise—to completely reverse the course of the battle … the direction of the war … and the trajectory of history itself.
The list of heroes at Midway is a long one. Chester Nimitz made the bold decision to trust the intelligence analysis of the codebreakers in Station Hypo led by Commander Joe Rochefort; Frank Jack Fletcher and Raymond Spruance made the equally bold decision to launch not merely a strike force, but virtually their entire air arsenal at the enemy; squadron commanders like Wade McClusky continued the search for the enemy carriers even after it was evident that none of his planes would have sufficient fuel to get back afterward; and pilots like Dick Best and Dusty Kleiss each of whom landed bombs on not one, but two carriers that day, delivered the blows that turned the tide of war.
There were others, of course, the back-seat gunners, the plane pushers, the ship drivers, the radiomen, and the phone talkers. All of them deserve every accolade we can give them.
But at this remove of 70 years, it is not inappropriate to wonder, where, on that remarkable June 4, was the air group from the newest of the three American carriers at Midway: the USS Hornet?
Here is an historical mystery that we may never be able to resolve with certainty. But this is some of what we know:
First, we know that the fifty-nine planes of the Hornet Air Group: two squadrons of dive bombers, one of torpedo bombers, and one fighter squadron, took off at the same time as Wade McClusky’s group from the Enterprise—between seven and eight o’clock that morning.
Second, it is pretty clear now, after more than half a century of analysis, that those planes from the Hornet flew NOT southwest toward the Kido Butai on the reported course of 239 degrees True, but almost due west on a course of 265 degrees.
It is less certain WHY they did this. Circumstantial evidence—though no smoking gun—suggests that it was because American intelligence had hinted to the force commanders that the Japanese would very likely be operating their carriers in two groups (as the Americans did in Task Forces 16 and 17); and that one group of Japanese carriers would operate about 80 miles behind the other. And, indeed, the initial sightings of the Japanese carriers that morning reported only two carriers and two battleships at the target coordinates. Presumably, then, the two “missing” enemy carriers were operating 80 miles behind this first group.
Captain Marc “Pete” Mitscher, who commanded the Hornet that morning, and who was the senior aviation officer afloat, may well have decided that it was his responsibility to find and destroy those two missing carriers. If you extrapolate the presumed location of a force 80 miles behind the leading Japanese carriers, the course to that target would be 265 degrees, which was the course flown that morning by the Hornet’s Air Group.
The problem, of course, was that these assumptions were incorrect. All four Japanese carriers were, in fact, operating together that day, something Mitscher did not learn until much later in the day. Nor, by the way, did any other senior American officer know this. Nimitz and Fletcher, too, believed the Japanese were deployed in two groups of two carriers each. So while the Enterprise and Yorktown planes found and sank three of the four Japanese carriers—the Kaga, Akagi, and the Soryu—in a furious and decisive five minute strike at 10:22 a.m., the planes from the Hornet engaged in what has gone down in history as “the flight to nowhere.”
Well, not all of them. As I’m sure you already know, the Torpedo Squadron from Hornet, led by the maverick LCDR Jack Waldron, broke off from the rest of the Hornet air group, and Waldron took his fifteen planes to the southwest, where his unit was the first carrier-based squadron to find the Kido Butai. In consequence of that, he and all but one man of his squadron were killed.
The rest of the Hornet’s planes, including all of the dive bombers, not only failed to find the enemy, but many of them—including ALL of the fighters—ran out of gas trying to get back afterward, and splashed in the sea. Worse, perhaps, from a professional point of view, all four squadron commanders, beginning with Waldron, but later followed by the fighter commander, the scouting commander, and the bombing commander, all of them one-by-one abandoned their group leader and sought either to return to the Hornet, or to find the enemy on their own. The whole flight simply disintegrated.
This is not, however, what Mitscher reported.
And here we have the last, the most curious, and the most perplexing similarity with Perry’s battle on Lake Erie: the jarring discrepancy between known facts and what was stated in the official report.
The big difference, of course, is that at Midway there was no villain—no Jesse Elliott. On Lake Erie, Elliott let his personal ambition outweigh his sense of duty. At Midway, Pete Mitscher sought to do his full duty: to find the enemy and ensure his complete destruction by sending his air group to find them.
But Mitscher’s dilemma afterward WAS similar to Perry’s. What to report?
By the time Mitscher sat down to write his report—on June 13—two things had become evident: First, the Japanese carriers had NOT been operating in two groups after all—all four of them had been present at the coordinates initially reported that morning; and second, the Americans had won the greatest victory in the history of the U.S. Navy. For Mitscher to reveal now that he had misjudged the tactical circumstances, and that his whole air group, in its first ever combat mission, had utterly fallen apart … to report such news would take much of the glow off the victory. Even more worrisome was the fact that if Mitscher faithfully reported the behavior of the several squadron commanders who had abandoned the mission during the flight to nowhere, Mitscher might have to file court martial charges against each of them—including the martyred Jack Waldron. Would that serve the national interest?
So what to do?
Exactly what thought process Mitscher used to make his decision is unknown. It is significant that none of his squadron commanders, not even his air group commander, wrote an after action reports for June 4th, even though such reports were mandatory. Instead, the ONLY report submitted by the USS Hornet was the one written by—or at least signed by—Pete Mitscher.
And it was incorrect. Or at least it was incomplete. There was nothing about sending the air group west to find the two “missing” enemy carriers, nothing about Waldron’s defiant decision to fly off on his own; nothing about the subsequent decision by the other squadron commanders to abandon the group and seek their own course. In Mitscher’s report, Waldron, and the others, were all heroes—as indeed they were. And so, in Mitscher’s mind, perhaps, nothing more need said be said about it.
Raymond Spruance, the commander of Task Force 16, and therefore the man to whom Mitscher sent his report, probably understood. After reading it, he forwarded the report to Nimitz with this endorsement: “Where discrepancies exist between Enterprise and Hornet reports, the Enterprise report should be taken as more accurate.”
Unlike the scuttlebutt that eventually undermined Perry’s report on Elliott’s role in the Battle of Lake Erie, the full story of the “flight to nowhere” remained a mystery, both at the time and for half a century afterward. Even today, there is a certain amount of uncertainty that surrounds it. Clay Fisher, who flew as the group commander’s wingman on that flight, insisted until the day he died, just this last January, only four months ago, that the air group did NOT fly a course of 265 degrees that day, but rather that it flew to the southwest, just like those of the Enterprise and Yorktown, and just as Mitscher said in his report. So for that reason, if for no other, we can never be absolutely certain about what happened that morning.
But we know this: Both Perry and Mitscher participated in brilliant American victories—victories so profound that they literally changed the course of history—and both of them sought to protect those victories by leaving unreported … aspects of the battle that might cast a shadow over the gleam of victory.
In that, Perry failed – mainly because he was dealing with an egoist and a charlatan. Mitscher largely succeeded. There were no courts martial, no finger-pointing or second-guessing, no whiff of controversy or scandal, in the aftermath of the Battle of Midway. Throughout his abbreviated lifetime (he died in 1947 at the age of sixty) and for many years afterward, the official story of the Battle of Midway was exactly what Mitscher had reported it to be.
Should we now, 70 years after fact, reassess our view of Pete Mitscher because of what he wrote in his report? Should be change our judgment of Oliver Hazard Perry because of his attempt to shield Jesse Elliott—and more particularly the Navy itself—from criticism?
Perry calculated that the Battle of Lake Erie should be remembered, not for the cowardice and ambition of one man, but for the heroism, bravery, and sacrifice of the officers and men who fought it. Similarly, Pete Mitscher may well have calculated that the Battle of Midway should be remembered not for the confusion and misunderstanding of the “flight to nowhere,” but for the courage, commitment, dedication, and heroism of those who fought and won the most consequential naval battle of World War II.
I can’t say that either man was wrong.
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Peter C Smith
Peter C Smith