Battle of Midway: Lessons learned

Earlier this week, we posted the blog “An Unexpected Victory” that discussed how the U.S. Navy won the Battle of Midway and shifted the power in the Pacific during WWII. In this blog, historian Robert J. Cressman details valuable lessons U.S. Navy leaders learned that they still use today.

Photo illustration of Battle of Midway with Department of Navy seal

Burning oil tanks on Sand Island, Midway, following the Japanese air attack, June 4, 1942. These tanks were located near what was then the southern shore of Sand Island.

Burning oil tanks on Sand Island, Midway, following the Japanese air attack, June 4, 1942. These tanks were located near what was then the southern shore of Sand Island.

Lesson One: Trust your intelligence.

When one compares the convoluted nature of Admiral Yamamoto’s plan to Admiral Nimitz’s, the latter emerges as simple and economical. Aware of the nature of the Japanese operation that ranged from the Aleutians to Midway, and involved aircraft carriers in both areas, Nimitz concentrated his forces at the most critical location, poised to attack the enemy when long-range flying boats operating from Midway would locate him. The actual sighting of the Japanese on June 3, heading for Midway, vindicated Nimitz’s trust in the intelligence information he possessed, information that had been vital to the formulation of his strategy.

Nimitz’s strategy was direct and to the point; the Japanese’ involved operations that were to divert American strength from the main battle. Nimitz’s knowledge of the Japanese intentions and deployment of forces, however, meant that he had no need to employ diversions to keep the enemy guessing. Nimitz knew where the enemy was to be and employed what forces he had to be there to meet him; he had faith in his commanders: Fletcher, victor of Coral Sea, enjoyed his confidence, and Spruance had come highly recommended by Vice Adm. William F. Halsey, Jr., his commander during the early eastern Pacific raids. When U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Harold F. Shannon, who was commanding U.S. Marine Corps garrison at Midway, declared he would hold Midway, Nimitz sent him what reinforcements he could, and provided them to Capt. Cyril T. Simard, who commanded the overall defense forces at Midway. Popular legend has made much of the Japanese having four carriers and the U.S. Navy three. Midway proved to be the equalizer, serving as base for long-ranged aircraft that could not be taken to sea – four-engine heavy bombers (B-17) and flying boats in sufficient quantity for reconnaissance and attack. Nimitz gave Midway “all the strengthening it could take,” exigencies of war dictating the numbers and types of planes employed.


Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu maneuvers during a high-level bombing attack by U.S. Army Air Forces B-17 bombers, June 4, 1942.

Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu maneuvers during a high-level bombing attack by U.S. Army Air Forces B-17 bombers, June 4, 1942.

Lesson Two: Trust your Sailors.

Admiral Yamamoto opted to go to sea to exercise direct control over Operation MI, embarking in the battleship Yamato. Admiral Nimitz, by contrast, exercised what control he did from Pearl Harbor, from his shore headquarters at the submarine base. Nimitz quite rightly chose to exercise command and control from an unsinkable flagship, and boasted far better communication and intelligence facilities than one could find at sea. Such an idea was, however, not novel; his predecessor, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, had moved his headquarters ashore in the spring of 1941, as had Admiral Thomas C. Hart, commander-in-chief, U.S. Asiatic Fleet, at Manila, P.I., around the same time.

Nimitz clearly possessed tremendous faith in his subordinates, who were nevertheless guided by very clear instructions. His principle of calculated risk is, perhaps, his most brilliant contribution to the battle, in that it precisely and economically conveyed his intentions to his task force commanders. There was no doubt about what they were supposed to do, how they were supposed to do it, and what level of risk was acceptable. Nimitz’s operations plan for the defense of Midway was a model for effective macro-management, spelling out essential tasks in general terms with a minimum of detail-specific requirements. Nimitz’s plan for the Battle of Midway avoided long-range micro-management and allowed the commanders on the battlefield to make key operational and tactical decisions.

Lesson Three: Be ready.

One can contrast the simplicity of Nimitz’s operations plan with the voluminous orders Yamamoto produced prior to the battle, many of which served little purpose in the final analysis. Nimitz, arguably a better strategist, possessed a clear vision of what he wanted to do – basically, to bring the Kido Butai to battle and to destroy it – and he clearly communicated those intentions to his operational commanders. Good strategy, however, is useless without quality operational commanders who thoroughly understand the plan and are able to put that strategy into action.

Although U.S. Naval War College analysts believed that plans needed to be formed in light of enemy capabilities and not intentions, something for which they castigated Yamamoto, Admiral Nimitz’s battle planning benefited enormously from having a very good notion of enemy intentions derived from excellent radio-intelligence. Such precise and economic employment of forces could not have occurred unless he possessed the ability to gather strategic intelligence on the enemy. Indeed, one can argue that the battle would never have taken place at all had Japanese intentions been cloaked in mystery.

Nimitz’s active preparations for the Battle of Midway indeed provided a momentous reception for the enemy, and once he had issued his operations orders, he entrusted the fighting of the battle to subordinates. Knowing your enemy is coming is one thing, but meeting him on the battlefield and defeating him, is altogether another. In the actions of June 4-6, 1942, those subordinates, from flag officer to fighter pilot, more than justified his faith in them. They had written, Nimitz declared afterward, “a glorious page in our history.”

To read the entire “Midway’s Lessons Learned,” visit the Naval History and Heritage Command’s website.

What do you think about these lessons? Would you add any others?

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Battle of Midway: Lessons learned