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The Unknown Battle of Midway

This half-memoir half-history is one of those bleak books that seem designed to confirm Sartre’s claim that a victory described in detail is indistinguishable from a defeat. On June 4, 1942, US Navy dive-bombers sank four Japanese aircraft carriers – all of which had been present at the attack on Pearl Harbor seven months prior – in one of the most spectacular naval revenges in history. But at other points of the battle, the American “Wildcat” fighters were found to be useless against the Japanese Zero, and the three squadrons of “Devastator” torpedo bombers were obliterated – 41 planes took off, 6 returned, and none scored a single hit on a Japanese ship. The crews of the Devastators flew obsolete aircraft, carried faulty torpedoes, and used terrible tactics: they flew straight at the Japanese carriers, low and slow, in tight formation; many were shot down by Japanese fighters before they could release, and those that did release “belly-flopped” their torpedoes into the waves, which probably damaged the delicate propulsion and guidance innards. The destruction of the torpedo squadrons is always justified by the fact that their attacks kept the Japanese fighters off the American dive-bombers (the real hit men, lurking high above), and disrupted flight operations so much that the Japanese were unable to launch their own planned strike, and so hundreds of veteran Japanese pilots, waiting to take off, were incinerated in their cockpits.

Kernan, author of the completely engrossing memoir Crossing the Line: A Bluejacket’s Odyssey in WWII, was a member of one of those torpedo squadrons, not a flier but an eighteen-year-old ordinance trundler and torpedo-attacher aboard the carrier USS Enterprise. He reminds us that accidents and snafus complicate victories, that the early clashes of any war are fought by clumsy combatants desperately trying to learn their business while under fire. (The fighter and dive-bomber squadrons from the USS Hornet, nearly one-third of the American strike force, flew away from the battle, on a mistaken heading, under a commander whose navigation was rusty, and played no part.) I thought of Shiloh, in 1862, another momentous battle early in a long war, whose victor made fewer mistakes than the vanquished, where Grant and Sherman, future war masters, didn’t even think to have their troops entrench, and were surprised and nearly routed when the rebels attacked out of the dawn mist.

As in Crossing the Line, Kernan is here a great military sociologist. Later in the war enlisted service personnel like young Kernan were permanently assigned to a carrier or a naval air station; early on, however, they were members of the squadrons, which moved about like the old baggage-laden British infantry regiments, microcosmic households with aristocrats (the pilots), scullions (junior grease monkeys like young Kernan), and several grades of variously skilled, variously privileged technicians (radiomen, armorers, metal smiths, parachute-riggers) falling in between. This household quality made the aftermath of Midway eerie for the torpedo bomber squadrons: they remained, but most of the planes were destroyed and most of the pilots dead. I dated this girl whose father was a deeply traumatized Vietnam vet, but he wasn’t the former grunt you always picture – he had been ground crew at an Air Force fighter-bomber base in Thailand, and he spoke of the horror of having to witness the steady attrition of the aircrew, week in and week out, each rotation of fresh faces containing a statistically inevitable – and often predictable – number of dead men.

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Pilots of the Hornet‘s Torpedo Squadron 8. (Each plane carried two other crew members, a gunner and a bombardier.) Ensign Gay, kneeling forth from the right, was the sole survivor of Midway.

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