Midway: Victory and scandal

Seventy-eight years ago (on June 4–7, 1942), the United States Navy fought and won the Battle of Midway.  Courageous American warriors defeated a powerful Japanese invasion fleet and, in the process, sank of four of Japan's six largest aircraft carriers for the loss of one American carrier. 

One of the tragic features of this battle is that, in the early stages of the fighting, wave after wave of attacking American aircraft were shot from the sky, their valiant pilots and gunners slaughtered, in what some have compared to the charge of the Light Brigade and the famous poem written about it.  How ironic it must have been — the many American pilots who died that day, mostly well educated, had surely read that poem, without premonition that it would someday serve as their symbolic epitaph.

Significant to this commentary's theme, that poem includes these words:

"Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.

Indeed, on the American side, despite the brilliant victory, "someone had blundered," and more than one person.  That fact is rarely given prominent mention, but those mistakes yield important lessons that remain valuable today.

After the battle had ended, and the victory was won, American leadership chose not to mar the accounts of triumph by censuring those whose blunders had added many avoidable deaths to the casualty list.  That is why you may never have heard of the dark clouds that, to this day, still hover over the "Incredible Victory."

Mistakes in war are inevitable.  Both the Japanese and the Americans certainly made many of them in that battle, and the fog of war is a valid excuse for most of them.

All that having been said, not every mistake on the American side was excusable.  That is because some of them were made not on the basis of tactics and prudent risks, but on the basis of personal, and sometimes petty, motives.

Perhaps the most consequential of the failures is alleged, by many who have studied the battle, to have been brought about by Commander Stanhope Ring, leader of the USS Hornet's Air Group.  Here are some of those allegations.

Ring rejected the advice of Lieutenant Commander John Waldron, the leader of the Hornet's torpedo-bomber Squadron 8.  Waldron accurately predicted the location of the enemy fleet and, disobeying the orders of Ring, turned off course and led his flight to it.  The pilots who instead followed Ring flew to the wrong location, found empty ocean, and therefore played no further role in the actions of that day.  Two of them died when they ran out of fuel and ditched in the water.  Waldron's entire squadron, attacking alone, without support from Ring, was annihilated but for one survivor.  The Valley of Death had been reprised.

Waldron and his men died, but not in vain.  Their attack was one of several that kept the Japanese fleet dodging and weaving, thereby delaying its attack on the American aircraft carriers.  The resulting inability of the Japanese to follow the battle doctrine of "strike first" doomed them.

Had the Hornet's air group followed Waldron, according to one historian, "all 4 Jap carriers would most likely have been sunk [or disabled] in the morning and the last surviving carrier, Imperial Japanese Ship Hiryu, would not have been able to launch a fatal air strike on the USS Yorktown in the afternoon."

Waldron was part American Indian, and his race is thought to have been a factor in the decision made by his commander to discredit his advice.  In any case, Ring reportedly had a reputation among his men for disdaining the advice of his subordinates.  His orders, right or wrong, were not to be questioned.

In Ring's defense, his boss, Admiral Marc Mitscher, may have misdirected the Hornet's air group, but Mitscher's records are not clear on this.

As the historian says, there "are still questions that need to be answered.  Many good men died because of this.  Their service and sacrifice need to be emphasized and honored.  And perhaps the bureaucratic, careerist mentality of the Navy needs to be re-examined."

Only with such brutal honesty can we avoid future blunders that will otherwise create American widows and orphans.

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