Miracle at Midnight

Every kid has at least one glorious obsession. Dinosaurs (for boys) and racehorses (for girls) are the stereotypical examples, but by no means the only ones. I've also heard of kids who are nuts about Absolut ad posters, Pokemon, and Andre the Giant. The defining characteristics of these fixations include a willingness to absorb information from any available source (even one nominally targeted at obsessive adults), a mind-boggling ability to recall arbitrary facts related to the chosen field, and an utter lack of self-consciousness about one's interest. It may be that kids realize early on that one of the key features of being an adult is knowing lots of stuff, and thus that one of the early phases of self-education is the attempt to grow up by becoming an expert in something. Breadth, on this view, comes later in the Piaget progression.

In any case, my glorious obsession was Second World War naval aviation. If it took off from an aircraft carrier and had a propellor, I was into it. I didn't like battleships (although some carried float planes, which made them a little bit cool), and I didn't like jets (on some level, they felt like cheating to me). No, my interest was in the great carrier battles of the Pacific.

Compared with the long years of land warfare in Europe, in which every mile of ground was fought over, was bled upon by dogface GIs who literally walked from one end of the continent to the other, the sea war in the Pacific might as well have taken place in an alternate universe. Carrier task forces stalked each other in an uneasy symmetry, each trying to learn the other's location first. A few dozen pilots held the battle's outcome in their hands. Their jobs? To fly a few hundred miles for the purpose of giving an explosive-tipped piece of metal a very specific velocity and direction. I suppose the contest of nerves and wits involved in running these blindfold duels appealed to me more than the martial glory involved in shooting people and blowing things up. After all, I liked the codebreakers, too.

The great high point of my obsession, of course, was the battle of Midway in June of 1942, which I've always considered the turning point of the war. After Midway, the Japanese were permanently on the defensive; with the core of their carrier fleet at the bottom of the ocean, they could no longer keep American landing forces from reaching island after island. I should probably note that, in the context of the overall war, this claim is highly problematic. The importance of Russian victories in 1941 and 1942 are hard to overstate, and British success in holding Egypt and keeping shipping lanes open was also probably as significant, all in all, as the "miracle at Midway." (The phrase is the title of a book by Gordon Prange. My copy is dog-eared.) But, then again, Midway was settled in a matter of minutes, which makes it, on a per-unit-time basis, the most significant battle of the war.

In case it's not already clear, this whole piece is just an excuse for me to retell that story. If you're not interested, you may as well skip ahead to the next entry. That one's about Richard Powers, and it's much shorter.

In early 1942, when things were not at all cheerful for the United States Navy, the cryptographic wing in Hawaii managed to crack JN25, one of the most top-secret codes of the Japanese Navy, well enough to decrypt a fair amount of intercepted radio traffic. From these fragments, the crypto boys determined that a major operation was being planned for June, whose target was to be some location code named "AF."

Suspecting that "AF" was Midway Island, the crypto wing proposed a little experiment. The commander of the Marine base on Midway was instructed (by a suitably secure channel) to radio, using a junky low-level code, that the water filtration unit had broken down. The purifier was fine, but a Japanese signalling post dutifully reported back to Tokyo that "AF" was running short of water. On the strength of this information, Admiral Nimitz ordered everything he had available to Midway, in hopes of ambushing the Japanese carrier strike force.

It should be noted that at this point in the war, the Japanese had won every single engagement they entered, partly from having overwhelming force available, and partly from brilliant on-the-spot tactical decisions. As an ironic result, the naval planners were effectively insulated from any negative consequences of bad operational planning. Their plans had grown progressively more baroque. Pearl Harbor had been audacious, but simple: one task force with one mission launching one attack. The Midway operation involved five separate moving parts, including a wholly superfluous invasion of two obscure Aleutian Islands whose new garrisons then proceeded to wait out the war in complete obscurity. Although the Japanese had four carriers to the American three, they were all but tripping over their own feet in coordinating the operation.

In any event, the Americans knew the Japanese were out there somewhere, but not vice-versa. The U.S. carriers lurked to the north of Midway, expecting the Japanese to show up soon. On the 4th of June, they did, launching an airstrike to soften up Midway's not-very-substantial defenses. A ragtag chain of land-based planes from Midway carried out an ineffectual series of retaliatory attacks on the Japanese carriers through the morning. In the meantime, alerted to the Japanese location, the American carriers launched their own, more substantial strikes.

While the Japanese didn't know that American carriers were in the area, they were taking haphazard precautions just in case, including a search of the area around them with float planes. One of these planes radioed back that it had spotted an American fleet. Admiral Nagumo, commanding the Japanese carrier strike force, had been planning to launch a second strike against Midway to further wear it down, but hearing this news, he ordered the strike force rearmed to deal with the American ships (which would require torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs, rather than the high explosives used for attacking land targets).

But then, the search plane clarified its description to note that the enemy task force didn't include any carriers. No threat there, so it was back to a second strike on Midway. But then, presently, the pilot changed his mind again: yes, there was a carrier after all. Which would be a threat, so it was back to the anti-naval armaments. With all of these sudden mind changes, the crews belowdecks were getting stressed and tired; rather than putting the unused bombs back carefully, they left them casually stacked in the middle of the hangar for later clean-up, once the attack force was away.

But they never got a chance for a later clean-up, because in the meantime, the American carrier-based attacks arrived. The torpedo bombers showed up first, without fighter protection, and were utterly cut to ribbons in a series of brave but futile attacks. One carrier's torpedo-bombing wing suffered 29 killed or missing out of 30 airmen. That said, it's possible to see in their bravery a crucial sacrifice; when the American dive bombers arrived, the Japanese fighter pilots had come down to sea level to engage the torpedo planes. Few eyes and fewer planes were left on the higher altitudes at which dive bombers start their dives. As a result, the dive bombers faced an easy situation: no fighter cover and enemy ships that barely had any idea what was coming. Only a few bombs hit home, but in the below-decks chaos of the rearming, a few was enough. Three of the four flattops were crippled in the space of those few minutes.

From there on in, things were more even-handed. The remaining Japanese carrier, the Hiryu, got off two sorties, enough to cripple the Yorktown, before the American follow-up strike took care of the Hiryu as well. The invasion of Midway was scrapped, but this fact was incidental compared to the destruction of the Japanese carriers. The net result was to leave the U.S. with a substantial absolute numerical superiority in naval aviation. The American invasion of Guadalcanal, in August, was made with carrier cover, a pattern that endured for the rest of the war.

Even in this version, I'm leaving out so many great episodes. The astonishing repair job on the Yorktown at the end of May, the equally astonishing sinking of the Yorktown by a submarine in the right place at the right time, the endless disputes over who sank which carrier, the ungratefulness with which Washington brushed aside Nimitz's plea for commendations for the cryptographers, the brilliance of some of the small-scale tactical decisions made by American pilots, the stupidity of inter-service rivalries, and the unbelievable arrogance of the Japanese Naval General Staff (the initial war-game simulation of the operation didn't come out right, so they refloated simulated Japanese ships until they got the result they wanted. Sound familiar?) There wasn't anyone who told me these things -- just books -- but they're part of my folkloric heritage, or it feels that way. I think that one of the first times I cussed was in imitation of my heroes, the pilots in the history books I gobbled up.

I suppose my particular obsession also explains part of my reaction to the Greatest Generation wave of nostalgia. Back at the half-instinctual childhood level at which anything we truly believe is absorbed, I believe in the remarkable heroism of these ordinary Americans. Prange's passage about the men of the Hornet's doomed torpedo bombing squadron is remarkable; their backgrounds were as diverse as anything Holywood ever crammed into a World War II movie.

At the same time, those movies ring false to me because they don't resonate with the particular images I associate with this heroism. My boys were steering tin cans around the wide and empty ocean, not crouching in foxholes. Which is to say, I think I can bring a bit of healthy skepticism to my Stephen Ambrose pap, but if you plop me down in front of something with flattops, I go all google-eyed. I played the Midway board game with my dad for years, even past the time when I knew just how many historical inaccuracies it contained (The Yorktown had more torpedo bombers than that! The search model is totally unrealistic!). And I know that Midway is an awful movie, but I love it nonetheless.

There's no point to this piece, but I already told you that. I just wanted to crawl inside my old obsession for a bit and see how well it fits. It's a useful exercise. There are senses in which my more recent obsessions operate the same way. I have to remind myself that not everyone is a law student or lawyer -- which means that not everyone finds cases fascinating the same way that I do. Collateral estoppel is not a miracle in whose reflected light we bask; the non-delegation doctrine is not an issue for the ages. It's helpful to go back a bit, to remember what it was like distinguishing TB-6 from TB-8 and the F4F from the F4U and to see whether I can remember the looks on people's faces when I told them the difference.