Books: Midway Relived

  • Share
  • Read Later

INCREDIBLE VICTORY by Walter Lord. 331 pages. Harper & Row. $5.95.

You-are-there books are not present tense journalism or final history, but they are a demanding kind of literary specialty, and can be absorbing reading. Specific detail is summoned to flesh out the skeletal facts of history, the jumbled sequence of action is put in order. Walter Lord has the knack. A Night to Remember was his effective reconstruction of the Titanic disaster. Incredible

Victory is his replay of the 1942 Battle of Midway, in which seven Japanese and U.S. ships went down. Through these pages, the reader feels the dizzy tilt of every sinking.

Pearl Harbor was less than six months past when Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto set out to destroy what remained of American naval power in the Pacific. By invading Midway, a fueling station and airbase 1,136 miles west of Hawaii, Yamamoto hoped to draw the last U.S. carriers and cruisers out of Pearl and crush them with his superior firepower. What he did not know was that Admiral Chester W. Nimitz's Naval Intelligence experts had cracked the Japanese code and had pieced together the entire operation (including a diversionary thrust toward the Aleutians). When Yamamoto's striking force arrived northwest of Midway on June 4, 1942, U.S. carriers were waiting.

Reconstructed from the recollections of admirals and mess cooks, aviators and boatswain's mates—both Japanese and American—Lord's account of the two-day battle is supercharged with acts of individual courage. Marine "Gunny" Deacon Arnold concocts anti-invasion mines with blasting gelatin stuffed into lengths of sewer pipe. Movie Director John Ford, wounded during the first Japanese strike, keeps on shooting with his camera. Lieut. Rokuro Kikuchi, his "Betty" bathed in flame, waves goodbye to his fellow airmen.

Above the Smokestack. It was indecision that cost Japan the battle. Carrier Force Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo delayed too long before ordering up a strike on the American ships. While his carrier aircraft were loading up, Nimitz's admirals launched their own air strikes, and within hours, the carriers Akagi, Kaga and Soryu were sunk.

Infuriated, the Japanese struck back with their sole remaining carrier, the Hiryu. Diving through intense U.S. fire, the Japanese bombers and torpedo planes, far superior to then-existing American models, slammed three bombs through the carrier Yorktown. Among the casualties was Seaman George Weise, who was blown so high that he hit the wing of a passing plane—and survived the day.

Because of overconfidence and heavy cloud cover, the Japanese failed to spot and strike the carriers Hornet and Enterprise, whose planes ultimately hit and sank the Hiryu and the cruiser Mikuma. Though a Japanese submarine later finished off the York town, Yamamoto knew that he had lost and called off the invasion. Japan's main fleet never again sortied in full force.

Incredible Victory will not replace Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison's superb military analysis of Midway (Volume IV of History of United States Naval Operations in World War II), but as a you-are-there reconstruction it deserves shelf space alongside.