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Victory at Sea

The Battle of Midway at 70.

Jun 11, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 37 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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And what if the commander of one of those American squadrons—Torpedo 8, off the USS Hornet—had not been an aggressive junior officer willing to disobey a direct order and risk court-martial in order to fly a course he knew would take him to the Japanese fleet while the rest of his ship’s air group spent the day over empty ocean with none of its planes engaging the enemy and many of them splashing into the Pacific, out of gas?

The story of the last flight of Torpedo 8, the bravery of the attack and the death of all but one pilot and every radio gunner—15 planes down, 29 of 30 men dead—has been told many times. But in Craig L. Symonds’s The Battle of Midway, the most recent and, by far, most satisfying account of the battle yet, readers learn just how badly handled the Hornet’s air group was that day and how insubordinate John Waldron, Torpedo 8’s commander, had been when he broke off formation to fly his own course, which he believed (correctly it turned out) would take him to the Japanese fleet.

When his commander ordered him not to break formation and go out on his own, Waldron replied, “Well, the hell with you. I know where they are, and I’m going to them.”

Had he lived, Waldron would have been court-martialed. He was, instead, awarded the Navy Cross, posthumously.

His squadron flew directly to the Japanese fleet and attacked without scoring a hit. But the raid of the torpedo planes brought the Zeros down low, leaving the sky above open to McClusky and the dive-bombers. In five minutes, three of the Japanese carriers were in flames, so badly damaged that they eventually sank. The fourth, now heavily outnumbered by the Americans, was attacked and sunk later that afternoon.

The Japanese lost the initiative in the Pacific in five minutes. And, of course, eventually lost the war. Which, from this distance, seems inevitable.

Not so, however, early on June 4, 1942, when the loss of Midway seemed likely, the loss of Hawaii seemed probable, and attacks on the West Coast of the United States or the Panama Canal seemed all too possible.

One can read the accounts and conclude that the fortunes of war (read: luck) went the Americans’ way. Or one can read more closely and see that while the Americans may have gotten some breaks, they made the most of them. What John Keegan has called “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare” was, above all, a victory of spirit.

Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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