Official newsletter of the Battle of Midway Roundtable

"To promote awareness and understanding of the great battle,
and to honor the men who fought and won it."

18 JULY 2008..........ISSUE NO. 2008-27..........OUR 11th YEAR

=============== AROUND THE TABLE ===============

Members' topics in this issue:

1.  Were the U.S. Carriers Out of Position as the BOM Began?

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July 2008
Jon Parshall
(co-author, Shattered Sword)


I, too, read John Lundstrom's analysis of the initial placement of the American carriers with great interest.  [Ed. note: see the “Image Board” page on our web site, Link #5.]  One of John's foremost talents, as those of us who have worked with him know, is his impeccable knowledge and usage of the primary sources.  Few people have the ability to go back to the original source documents and comb them the way he does.  That's why his arguments carry such weight.


Now, as Tony Tully and I discovered during the creation of Shattered Sword, utilization of secondary sources such as Willmott, Prange, and Lord can be very useful.  In particular, Willmott’s book is a very insightful analyst of "the big picture," and has a tremendous grasp of the strategic flow of the battle.  But neither he nor Lord nor Prange can necessarily be relied upon for the details.  One must also corroborate their points with the primary sources.  Frankly, Peter Smith's Midway: Dauntless Victory falls into the same boat.  Thus, Lundstrom's approach of using such items as CINCPAC communications logs, the Grey Book, the HYPO intercept logs, and other such primary sources is vital to understanding the actual information that was in the hands of the high-level commanders at the time of the battle.


Given this, I see no reason to disagree with Lundstrom's assessment of the particulars of Fletcher's placement of his carriers.  It's clear in retrospect that the Americans’ understanding of the Japanese carriers' initial placement, and their enemy's likely operational method, was far from clear.  No one on the American side, HYPO and Rochefort's brilliant work notwithstanding, had a crystal ball revealing the exact time and place the Japanese were going to show up off of Midway.  Would the Japanese be operating one carrier group, or two?  No one knew.  What the Americans had was a sense that the Japanese carriers would approach from the northwest, probably sometime during 2-4 June.


Mind you, even that level of specificity was extremely valuable and, given the means by which it was derived, represented a near-miracle of scientific and cryptographic know-how.  It was certainly actionable information, and good enough to build a general operational plan (as events showed).  But it's hardly the sort of information wherein someone can sit back at their leisure 60 years hence and build a detailed "what-if” or “should have” operational plan for the American carriers that somehow would have maximized their hypothetical damage output against the Japanese.  That's clearly second-guessing.


In the vast expanses of the Pacific, just getting your own carriers within a couple hundred miles of the enemy's on roughly the same day was doing well.  Likewise, in 1942, no one had the ability to gauge their own or the enemy's movements down to a granularity measured in single-digit miles.  Not only that, but given the slow transit speed of the flattop itself in relation to the aircraft it carried, depending on the carrier to be in exactly the optimal position to launch its aircraft at such-and-such a time was a fool's hope anyway.  Any errors of timing, navigation, initial placement, or faulty reconnaissance were going to have to be made good by aircraft.  Those of us sitting here in the age of modern satellite surveillance, near-instant telecommunications, and smart weapons whose circular error probability is measured in single-digit feet would do well to remember (1) just how inexact naval warfare during WWII actually was, and (2) how slow the WWII carrier weapon system was to react to changed circumstances.


Furthermore, one can just as easily construct a very likely counterfactual scenario based on Fletcher's movements the day before the battle, in combination with Nagumo perhaps having sailed as scheduled on 26 May (Tokyo time), and therefore showing up off of Midway when he was supposed to, i.e. on 3 June.  What would have happened then?  It's difficult to say, but it's not unlikely that Fletcher would have found himself, through no real fault of his own, in an even worse position than he was on the 4th.  He certainly would have begun a battle on 3 June with his carriers placed much further north than they were the following morning.  Looked at in this way, from a macro, rather than micro point of view, we quite possibly got lucky that Fletcher was approximately where he was, given that Nagumo showed up where and when he actually did.  In other words, "bad" luck can cut both ways, so be careful what you wish for in the way of counterfactuals.


Similarly, one can say that the American aircraft losses at Midway were outsized, and possibly preventable.  But I would argue strongly that many of the American aircraft losses were due less to a "faulty" initial positioning of the American carriers than they were to the fact that (1) American flight deck operations were not yet at the level of sophistication they needed to be, and (2) the Americans still had no concept of how to operate their task forces or flight decks in such a way as to create cohesive multi-carrier strike groups.  Those deficiencies would not be remedied until late 1943.  Expecting a tweak to Fletcher's initial positioning to somehow magically alleviate those other glaring shortcomings is highly questionable, to say the least.
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=============== NOW HEAR THIS! ===============

News & info in this issue:

-  Remembering Lew Hopkins
-  Photo of the Week

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With deep regret, I announce the passing of one of our stalwart BOM vet members on the Roundtable, RADM Lewis A. Hopkins, USN-Retired, from a heart attack on June 24th.  Lew was a VB-6 SBD pilot on the Enterprise at Midway, flying with Roundtable member Ed Anderson as his radioman-gunner.  He made the historic June 4th sortie with Wade McClusky, diving with VS-6 and most of VB-6 upon Kaga.  Upon pullout from the dive, Lew found that his aircraft was mysteriously alone except for a single Zero bent upon shooting him down.  Through a combination of skillful maneuvering and Anderson’s aggressive defense, the Zero gave up the effort after causing minor damage to the SBD.  On the following day, June 5th, Lew also dove on the Tanikaze.


Lew was indeed a key member of this Roundtable, as a primary source for matters concerning the flight of VB-6 and VS-6 as the air battle began, including the controversy concerning target assignment and the near-calamity that was avoided through quick thinking by his skipper, Dick Best.  I was especially appreciative of his many generous contributions of insight and detail during the development of No Right to Win.  He is also deserving of heartfelt thanks and a snappy salute for the many occasions in which he helped young students with the preparation of history papers and contest entries.  With profound thanks for his service at Midway, to our nation, and to our Roundtable, I have added his name to the Remembrance section of the veterans roster on our web site (click “BOMRT Vets List” on the home page).


Lew’s cremated remains will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery on October 14th, with the formal military funeral scheduled at 1:00 PM.  For his obituary, see...


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For an excellent photo of Lew Hopkins in recent times, see this shot of him at the 2005 BOM anniversary observance in San Francisco.  To his right is RADM Winston Copeland, USN-Retired, the host committee chairman, and to his left is ADM Timothy J. Keating, USN, then-commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command at Colorado Springs:



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