Monday, August 25, 2008

George Walsh's Reply

“Citing veteran dive bomber pilot Lt. Cdr. George J. Walsh, USNR (Ret.), Peter Smith’s recent book Midway Dauntless Victory declared in an extensive discussion (pp. 51-56, 292-94) that Adm. Chester W. Nimitz had specified “an ambush position” or “waiting area” located 200 miles north of Midway.”
This is the opening of John Lundstrom’s 4 page essay, published July 4th, which questioned the validity of my opinions included in Peter Smith’s recent book, Midway, Dauntless Victory. He goes on to challenge my comments about a plan for Admiral Fletcher’s initial placement of his Task Forces 200 miles north of Midway at dawn on the morning of June 4th, 1942. Let’s look at the facts.

At 0532 on the morning of June 4th, 1942 Lt. Howard Ady radioed his contact report after sighting the van of the Japanese forces attacking the islands of Midway atoll. As Lt. Cmdr. Rochefort and his group of code breakers had exactly predicted, the Japanese were approaching from the Northwest into the prevailing wind in order to expedite the early launching of the Midway attack forces, and to enable them to launch and recover their CAP Zero fighters without changing course. This also served to close on Midway and reduce the distance their returning attack planes would have to fly.

The Japanese were just where Lt. Cmdr. Rochefort had been predicting they would be, 135 miles northwest of Midway. The inexperienced pilot navigators of our various Navy and Marine Corps groups readily located the Japanese carriers over 100 miles distant over the trackless sea. The submarine Nautilus located the Nagumo Force. Even the B-17 and B-26 Army pilots found the enemy far at sea.

If all these separate groups of young Army, Navy and Marine pilots from Midway could readily find the Japanese carriers why was it so complicated for the experienced open sea navigators of our carrier Air Groups?

At 0710, as the land based planes launched from Midway Island were actually engaging the enemy, far to east the first of our carrier planes were just being launched at that late hour. They were beyond effective range and they were too late.

When Lt. Cmdr. Ring, leader of the ill fated Hornet Air Group reached the point where he expected to intercept the Japanese fleet they were not there. He was almost two hours too late. The Japanese had changed course to close our carriers. They may have been just over the horizon but his remaining Dauntless dive bombers did not have sufficient fuel to continue with a proper search. Wade McClusky had a similar problem but continued his search despite being low on fuel. Then he sighted the destroyer Arashi racing northeast to rejoin the Japanese fleet.

This is not the place to review again all the tragic fates that befell our various Midway based and carrier aviators. I must address the question raised by John Lundstrom about the selection of a point 200 miles north of Midway as the optimum launch position for Admiral Fletcher at dawn that morning.

The optimum ambush location 200 miles north of Midway at dawn would have placed our carrier air groups in proper position to strike the Japanese with an overwhelming surprise attack, with full forces of fighters, torpedo planes and dive bombers employing coordinated tactics

Just because hard evidence has not been found that Admiral Fletcher was ordered to position his fleet 200 miles north of Midway at dawn does not mean that it did not or does not exist. Many documents relating to the Battle of Midway are still classified by the Navy. Early this year, after publication of Midway, Dauntless Victory additional documents were reclassified, making them unavailable to the public.

The fact that a dawn position 200 miles north of Midway was the proposed ambush point is so logical, and has been so much referred to, that it may have been generally accepted and unchallenged over the years. Let me review these referrals as listed in my blog, “A Dive Bomber’s Critical Review of the Battle of Midway”:

The First Team by J. Lundstrom, Opening Chapter 15
The Barrier and the Javelin by H. P. Wilmot, Page 364
Morison, Vol. IV, Page 102
Incredible Victory, Walter Lord, Page 83
Miracle at Midway, Gordon Prange, Page 170

In his essay Mr. Lundstrom disparages these sources from years ago.

However, below are quotes from his previous books. His own published words strongly contradict his latest conclusions.

"As Wednesday turned into Thursday, 4 June, Fletcher's Striking Force steamed southward at an economical 13.5 knots, the two carrier task forces remaining about 10 miles apart. First light (around 0430) was to see Striking Force at a point bearing 013 degrees, 202 miles from Midway. This constituted the famous flank ambush position planned by Nimitz, Fletcher, and Spruance. They expected the Japanese carriers to roar down on Midway from the northwest and launch a massive air strike at dawn to pummel the island's defenses." The First Team,Opening Chapter 15

"Replying on 26 May, Davis warned Nimitz that “unless early, and preferably advance, serious damage is done to the enemy CV’s” Midway’s aircraft will have little effect.
Davis stressed it was “particularly important that the carriers be able to take action at the earliest possible moment.” “Bellinger’s search plan should make it practicable for our carriers to be reasonably close to Midway and thus in position for early action when opportunity arises.” Black Shoe Carrier Admiral Page 228, 2nd paragraph

"That morning he (Nimitz) sent the following dispatch to Fletcher [message 022205 of June 1942 CINCPAC to CTF-17, info CTF 4, 7, 9, 16, COMINCH]: “Suggest for your consideration making initial area of operations northerly rather than northeasterly from Midway in order to insure being within early striking distance of objectives. No additional information to change estimate of enemy plans which include a Northwesterly approach for Striking Force.”
(Message sequence number suggests this was sent late May?) Roundtable, July 4th

“After sundown Fletcher swung southwest intending to be 200 miles north of Midway at dawn on 4 June, and again ready to fight according to plan.” Black Shoe Carrier Admiral Page 239, top paragraph

“Early on 4 June Fletcher steered Task Force 17 and Task Force 16 (225 operational planes) southwest at 13.5 knots to be 200 miles north of Midway at dawn." Black Shoe Carrier Admiral Page 239, last paragraph

“In fact, as has been shown in the action reports, Fletcher himself selected the point roughly 200 miles north of Midway as a convenient starting position for operations on 4 June."
Roundtable, July 4th

“The plain facts are that the Yorktown was out of effective range of Nagumo until after 0830 and that Fletcher attacked as soon as he reasonably could." Black Shoe Carrier Admiral Page 249, opening sentence

One reason Task Force 17 and Task Force 16 were so far from an optimum ambush location was the fact that Admiral Fletcher decided to send out a 100 mile search of ten SBD’s as a precaution against a possible two Japanese carriers north of his position. Launching these planes at 0430 meant sailing southeast into the wind instead of closing the Japanese. He kept Admiral Spruance and Task Force 16 tethered to his movements.

Finding no enemy to the north he had to sail southeast again, at high speed because of the light wind, to recover his search planes. He was too late in waiting until 0600 before turning Admiral Spruance loose. Another hour was lost as Spruance raced southwest trying to get into effective range. Spruance had to launch Commander Ring and the Hornet’s Air Group too late at 0710, and at extreme range. We all know the tragic results.

According to Admiral Donald A. Showers, then an ensign in the Combat Intelligence Unit in Hawaii, this dawn search was initiated despite specific orders from Admiral Nimitz to Fletcher not to launch carrier based searches in order not to divulge the presence of our carriers to the Japanese, thus losing the advantage of surprise for our attacking forces.

"The orders to Admiral Fletcher were not to launch any searches against the Japanese fleet or any attacks until we had an attack on Midway."
Admiral Donald A. Showers appearing on the TV Documentary, POINT LUCK.

The search function had been assigned to Admiral Bellinger’s PBY’s fanning out as far as 700 miles. Fletcher's 100 mile search with his SBD’s found nothing, but delayed our opening attacks and extended the extreme range our pilots had to fly.

Now let’s examine Admiral Fletcher’s decision to launch a 100 mile search to the north at dawn that same morning while he was still well east of Midway.

I am reluctant to propose a “what if” scenario but let me suggest using your own imagination to answer this question. “What if Admiral Fletcher’s dawn search plane had discovered two Japanese carriers bearing down on him from 100 miles to the north?” The element of surprise would have been lost and Task Forces 16 and 17 would have been sandwiched between two alert and powerful Japanese foes.

Lundstrom's Black Shoe Carrier Admiral refers to Cincpac Op-Plan 29-42 where Admiral Nimitz anticipates such a possible two pronged attack by the Japanese. Page 236

The Nimitz strategy, as described by Lundstrom, was based on our task forces being within range to mount a surprise attack on the first two Japanese carriers attacking Midway, to knock them out of action early. Then our carrier forces would turn to meet the second two Japanese carriers. However, at 0700 both of our forces were too far to the east for such a plan to succeed.


“In the evening of May 27, the CinCPac and task force staffs held a joint conference under the direction of Admiral Draemel to hammer out battle plans. Present, among others, were Admirals Fletcher and Spruance, Commander Layton, and the operations officers: Captain McMorris from CinCPac, Commander William H. Buracker from Task Force 16, and Commander Walter G. Schindler from Task Force 17.
The guiding principles were that the Americans, with inferior forces but presumably better information concerning the opposition, must achieve surprise, must get the jump on the enemy, and must catch the enemy carriers in a vulnerable state. It was assumed that the Japanese Striking Force would begin launching at dawn - attack planes south-ward toward Midway, search planes north, east, and south.
At that hour the American task forces, on course southwest through the night, should be 200 miles north of Midway, ready to launch on receiving the first report from U.S. search planes of the location, course, and speed of the enemy. With good timing and good luck they would catch the Japanese carriers with half their planes away attacking Midway. With better timing and better luck they might catch the enemy carriers while they were recovering the Midway attack group. That the Americans might catch the Japanese carriers in the highly vulnerable state of rearming and refueling the recovered planes was almost too much to hope for. “ NIMITZ, by E.B Potter, Pages 86-87

Fortunately the northern search found nothing. But the delay it caused by pulling our fleet so far to the east came close to having disastrous results. It was the persistence and self sacrificing efforts of men like Wade McClusky, Max Leslie and Dick Best that saved the day with their dive bombers. My efforts are directed toward the awarding of posthumous Medals of Honor for both McClusky and Leslie.

Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher was a respected, patriotic and hard working officer. However, in my opinion 60 years later he did not deserve to be glorified as a “Black Shoe” officer at the expense of equally respected and patriotic “brown shoe” Navy, Marine and Army officers who went on to win the Battle of Midway and the war.

Just the title of the book, Black Shoe Carrier Admiral, throws down the gauntlet to loyal naval aviators who recall the trials endured by Admiral John H. Towers to have aviation officers accepted as equals by the black shoe battleship admirals of the United States Navy. Black Shoe officers dominated the preparing of the history of the Battle of Midway even before the days of the Bates Commission and apparently still do.

I suggest readers review the biography of Admiral John H. Towers, The Struggle for Naval Air Supremacy by Clark Reynolds, and my lengthy blog, “A Dive Bomber’s Critical Review of the Battle of Midway”:

There has never been a film or documentary made about our Navy’s WW II dive bombers. Why?

Lt. Cmdr. George J. Walsh, USNR (ret)
July 2008