D. Spencer Hines
2005-11-29 18:05:16 UTC
Richard Boone were shipmates.
Kernan got his Ph.D. on the G.I. Bill and became a Professor of English at
Yale. He went on to senior academic administrative positions at both Yale
He is a superb writer and a stellar teacher.
_Crossing The Line_ is indeed a Naval Classic and it looks as if this book
will become one too.
"The Ultimate--and Unnecessary -- Sacrifice"
"The Navy learned from its mistakes at the Battle of Midway."
BY ROBERT MESSENGER
Tuesday, November 29, 2005
The Wall Street Journal
"We're not very good at celebrating our military heroes. Memorial Day and
Veterans Day pass with less and less public acknowledgment, beyond a general
holiday feeling. Around June 6, when the president goes to France to observe
the anniversary of D-Day, there will be some notice of Normandy veterans.
But no one will even pause to contemplate the anniversary two days
before -- Midway Day, the official commemorative day of the U.S. Navy. It
marks one of our nation's most dazzling feats of arms, just six months after
the disastrous surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Battle of Midway on June 4, 1942, was a close-run thing. The U.S. Navy
was inferior to its enemy in almost every way--particularly in quality of
aircraft and knowledge of carrier tactics. Luck and daring carried the day.
Alvin Kernan saw this at first-hand. He was an 18-year-old aviation
ordnanceman assigned to the torpedo squadron on the carrier Enterprise. He
had joined the Navy in March 1941, when the Depression had left him few
options after high school.
Mr. Kernan's "Crossing the Line" (1994), a memoir about his five years of
service in the Pacific carrier fleet, is one of the classic books about
World War II. "The Unknown Battle of Midway" is a memoir and more: It
examines the horrific casualties suffered by the four U.S. torpedo squadrons
at Midway. Of 51 planes, only seven returned, and 98 of the 127 crewmen were
killed--and they scored no hits on Japanese ships. History has it that the
torpedo planes' sacrifice cleared the way for the success of the U.S. dive
bombers: And indeed, the dive bombers sank four Japanese carriers. But it
was an unnecessary sacrifice, Mr. Kernan argues, brought on by mistakes and
Adm. Chester Nimitz knew that the Japanese were sailing on Midway and sent
out all his carriers--Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown--to lay an ambush.
They were to rendezvous, scout out the Japanese carriers and hit them with
every plane they could get into the air. Carrier tactics called for a
combined strike by three air groups. Fighters would engage the enemy's
combat air patrol; the dive bombers would attack a ship directly, engaging
its defenses; and the slow torpedo planes would slip in at sea level to
finish it off.
The Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber was a superb plane, but the Grumman
F4F Wildcat shipboard fighter was slower and far less maneuverable than the
Japanese Zero--and guzzled gas at a rate that limited its range. The Douglas
TBD-1 Devastator torpedo bomber was even worse and was already being
replaced by the time of Midway. Torpedo pilots, moreover, had to deal with
the fact that their torpedoes generally failed in use--either to swim at all
or, if a hit was made by chance, to explode. The "tin fish" were also in
such short supply that none of the 51 torpedo pilots who flew into battle on
June 4 had ever dropped a live torpedo in practice.
The Yorktown, with its experience from the Battle of the Coral Sea, managed
to get its squadrons off in an organized manner, but Hornet's dive bombers
and fighters were led on a mistaken heading and completely missed the
Japanese fleet. Only the torpedo planes under the command of Lt. Cmdr. John
Waldron--the hero of Mr. Kernan's book--found the enemy. Waldron had argued
with his superiors about the heading and in the end flew his squadron alone
to the Japanese fleet.
Every one of the 15 undefended planes was shot down. The Enterprise's
torpedo planes suffered a similar fate: Ten of 14 were lost. In the aerial
confusion of launch, the Enterprise's fighters actually flew to the Japanese
fleet with Waldron's squadron but were awaiting a signal to engage from a
squadron that didn't know what signal to send. The fighters flew above the
battle until they ran low on gas and returned to their carrier.
The Yorktown's organized squadrons and the Enterprise's dive bombers arrived
at about the same moment. Lt. Cmdr. John Thach's six fighters managed to
engage more than a dozen Zeros while trying to defend Yorktown's Devastators
on their attack run, but the results were the same for the torpedo planes:
10 of 12 lost. The dive bombers, though, did their work magnificently, and
within minutes the Akagi, Kaga and Soryu were in flames. (The Hiryu escaped
and sent her planes off to do near-mortal damage to the Yorktown before she
too was sunk by dive bombers.)
Mr. Kernan brings this maritime battle superbly to life. He explains the
whole history of the U.S. carriers and their arsenal and the commanders and
pilots who were trying to learn on the job. And he narrates the air assault
in gripping detail. Mr. Kernan makes it clear how it came to pass that U.S.
admirals sent a large group of brave but poorly equipped and undertrained
men to fight with outmoded tactics. He is less clear on why. One obvious
explanation: At the beginning of a war, you fight with whatever is at hand
and learn from your mistakes. Adm. Nimitz would have happily accepted double
the casualty rate to get what he got: four sunk Japanese carriers.
Midway was a great victory, but the Navy still had miles to go to figure out
how to use and defend its carriers--as the costly mistakes in the sea
battles around Guadalcanal in late 1942 proved. Mr. Kernan has done us a
real service by bringing this all to light in a compact and elegant book. He
has done his shipmates on the "Big E" proud."
"Mr. Messenger is senior editor of The New York Sun. You can buy "The
Unknown Battle of Midway" from the OpinionJournal bookstore."