Sea History 102 - Autumn 2002

Page 10

The Battle of Midway: America's First by H. P. Willmott, PhD

few wars see naval matters of greater sig- by successive offensive efforts based upon nificance than those on land, yet in chis war local superiority, possession of the initiaIn his new book The War with Japan: The Japan was comprehensively defeated by tive, and surprise, though in truth what Period of Balance, May 1942-0ctober naval power proj ected across an emire gripped Japan 's various enemies was not so 1943, H. P. Willmott presents highly de- ocean. This aspect of the war was nor much surprise as amazement. Few offensives tailed and readable accounts ofthe battles unique-Spain's conquest of Cemral and march} a pan's war against weak, uncoordiin the Pacific interwoven with an exami- Sourh America in the 1500s is an example nated enem ies that were defensively denation ofthe political military, and other of such a conquest-bur it does represem a ployed. Defeat followed defeat for the Amerifactors that drove participants, as well as most uncommon sec of evems. T hird, the analysis ofthe historiography ofthis period Pacific war is unusual in that its greatest cans, British and Durch rhroughom the of World War II To commemorate the single battle, the battle for Leyte Gulf in western Pacific and so utheast Asia between sixtieth anniversary ofthe critical Battle of 1944, was fought after the decision of the December 194 1 and May 1942, defeats char were abj ect and humiliating. Bm if Midway (4-6 June 1942), we present war had been reached. Willmott's introduction to the battle, writWhen did the Japanese cause pass re- Japan secured "the southern resources area" ten for Sea History, followed by excerpts call? It is hard to resist the idea that it was for which she wem to war, and without describing the dramatic events of the first at Pearl Harbor that Japan, in going to war which she could not survive as a great against the US, demonstrated a fundamen- power, she nonetheless had to face the day of the engagement. tal misreading of the nature of the war it problem of forcing a negotiated peace on he term "Second World War" is initiated and the nature of its main enemy. an enemy char, even in the midst of defeat, one most Americans understand as This, of course, would suggest that Japan's scared their determination never to treat a war char began with the Japanese defeat was inevitable. If Japan's defeat was bur to wage total war to either victory or arrack on the US Pacific Fleer at its Pearl indeed inevitabl e, then could any defeat defeat. H arbor base on the first Sunday of Decem- along the way represent "the decisive battle" Japan had no reasoned national strategy ber 194 1 and ended, almost three months or "a turning point"? with whi ch to wage such a war. It so ught to These confl icting views may be resolved protect its gains by creating a defensive after the final defeat of Germany, with the signing of the insrrumem of Japa n's un- by noting simply char victo ry might be perimeter around itself, with garrisons and conditi onal surrender aboard USS Mis- inevitable but it sti ll has to be fought for, air units supported by the fleet. On this souri in Tokyo Bay on 2 September 1945. and losses must be taken as its price. T his is perimeter th ey would fight the An1ericans But such a sraremem belies the complexity the significance of the battle between Japan to exhaustio n. But the perimeter was mostly of evems. and the US at Midway sixty years ago. gaps, the garrisons and air units were too T he Seco nd Wo rld War was in effect The opening phase of the war was really weak to sustain themselves in protracted two quire separa te wars largely unrelated to without precedem in the modern world. operations, and there could never be a one another except for rhe fact that Ger- Japan opened hostilities with an arrack on guarantee that the fl eer would be avail able many and Japan faced common enemies. the Pacific Fleer some 4, 100 miles from the to support threatened bases and garrisons. H ence, in early spring 1942, the JapaT he Japanese war was much more than a base the strike force sailed from-roughly the equivalem of a British fleer leaving nese decided to sweep into the southwest war fought in the Pacific between 1941 and 1945; it was a war fought throughout Portsmouth to strike at an American fl eer and cemral Pacific. Bm in undertaking so utheast Asia and in Manchuria and China gathered off Norfolk, Virginia. Moreover, these efforts in May 1942 the advamage of chat can be dated if not from September the open ing Japanese arrack ranged across surpri se had largely been spem, and the 1931 then certainly Jul y 1937. And, al- 112 degrees oflongi mde and was followed operational and administrative margins on though the eve nts on the mainland were which rhe fleer worked in moving against vital in shaping what passed for peace Midway Islands were marginal at very Crew aboard USS Yorktown repair bomb damage after 1945, th e outcome of this co nflict best -and theAmericans possessed foreon 4 June 1942. (All images are US Navy photos, was decided in rhe Pacific. warning char was beyond price. courtesy the National Archives) T he Pacifi c war commands historical artemion on any number of co unts, Mr. Willmott is a senior research fellow at bur three matters relating to the war as the Institute for the Study of War and a whol e and one char deals with its Society, De Montfort University, and a visiting lecturer at Greenwich Maritime opening phase should give cause for reflection. First, scares as mismatched as Institute, University of Greenwich, EnJapan and the Un ited Scares-in terms gland, who has written extensively on of geographical and demographic size, modern naval and military subjects. The namral resources, and industrial and War with Japan (Scholarly Resources, Wilmington DE, 2002, l 80pp, maps, financial strength-very seldom fi ght o ne another, and even more seldom do biblio, index, ISBN 0-8420-5033-7; they fight wars initiated by rhe weaker $17.95pb) is available ftom major bookstores or ftom the publisher at www side; they usually resolve their differences by means other than war. Second, or 1 888 712-1811.