Film, History Class, Uncategorized, World War 2

The Battle of Midway Part I: On the Screen and in History

“”Sinking Sun”: painting by Griffith Baily Coale, oil on canvas, 1942. Description: A U.S. Marine stands at parade rest on the bow of a PT boat as she moves slowly out to sea from Midway to give decent burial to Japanese fliers shot down on the islands during the battle. The red ball of the rising sun is prophetically repeated by the round disc and spreading rays of the sinking sun.” Text and picture courtesy of Wikimeddia Commons

 

Hollywood’s at it again. This Veteran’s Day weekend will see the release of another film depicting events from the Second World War: Midway.

 

The Battle of Midway- a major turning point for the United States in the Pacific Theater- has already been made into at least one motion picture. Released in 1976, the last movie named Midway boasted a John Williams score and big names like Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda and Toshiro Mifune. The 2019 iteration also has names that must be big (because I actually recognize them): Woody Harrelson, Luke Evans and Mandy Moore.

Of course, I’m really more curious what’s going to be in it, rather than who.

Will Midway be a film that tells the real, fascinating history of a major WWII battle? Or will it be the sort of film that banks on a love story between pretty people with a few battle scenes thrown in (because otherwise the title wouldn’t make sense?)

I suppose I’ll have to wait and see, but, conveniently, the Battle of Midway was the next WWII history topic that I planned to write about!

So, whether you plan to see the film or not, if you’d like an idea of just what this battle was all about, read on…

Aerial photograph of Midway Atoll on 24 November 1941 (80-G-451086).jpg
“Aerial photograph of Midway Atoll, looking just south of west across the southern side of the atoll, 24 November 1941. Eastern Island, then the site of Midway’s airfield, is in the foreground. Sand Island, location of most other base facilities, is across the entrance channel.” (Public Domain, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The tiny, 2.4 square mile Midway Atoll was annexed by the United States in 1867. The descriptively (if somewhat unimaginatively) named “Eastern” and “Sand” islands weren’t inhabited, and weren’t useful for resources.

Their allure lay in their strategic location- about halfway between Asia and the U.S., and close to Hawaii.

The islands were given to the U.S. Navy by President Teddy Roosevelt back in 1903, and in 1940 work began on air and submarine facilities.

The famous Battle of Midway was not the first time in WWII that the island came under fire. On December 7, 1941, shortly after attacking Pearl Harbor and before the following conquest of Allied forces in the Philippines, Singapore, and across Asia, Japanese forces also attacked Midway Island.

The goal of the attack was to disable the forces on Midway and ensure that the Japanese force that had attacked Pearl Harbor could sail past unscathed. The engagement was short and the casualties relatively light- though some still gave their lives, notably Lt. George H. Cannon, who became the first U.S. Marine to earn a Medal of Honor in WWII.

In May of 1942, the Japanese goals were more ambitious.

The navy of Japan had been moving aggressively through the Pacific, perhaps pressed forward by the shock of the successful bombing of the Japanese mainland (the Doolittle raid.) The first clash with the U.S. navy- the battle at The Coral Sea – had been claimed as a victory by both the Japanese and the U.S.

Now Admiral Yamamoto had his eyes set on Midway. The destruction of Midway’s defenses and the occupation of the atoll by Japanese forces would give them easy access to the naval base at Pearl Harbor, crippling the U.S.’s operations in the Pacific.

He set the date for the attack- June 4th, with Midway occupied by the 7th- exactly six months after Pearl Harbor.

Yamamoto’s plan revolved around the American Commander, Admiral Nimitz, falling for a carefully planned trick.*

The Japanese forces would split up. Yamamoto sent a smaller force to attack Alaska’s Aleutian islands just before the main attack on Midway. He hoped that Nimitz would send his forces north, leaving Midway vulnerable. (The diversionary attacks against Alaska also ended up being the only battles of WWII fought on U.S. mainland soil- more on them here.)

Thankfully for the U.S., their Intellegence services were in better shape than pre-Pearl Harbor. American cryptanalysts had broken Japanese naval codes. With the information they provided, Nimitz planned a surprise of his own.

Yamamoto had four aircraft carriers to bring to the battle- Akagi, Kaga, Hiru and Soryu. Nimitz only had two- the Hornet and the Enterprise. The Yorktown was in Pearl Harbor following damage in the Coral Sea, with an estimated repair time of three months. Nimitz said he’d need her in three days. The workers at Pearl Harbor made it happen.

The Yorktown under repair at Pearl Harbor

Midway itself became almost a fourth aircraft carrier; its defenses were strengthened as much as possible.

The commanders in charge- Rear Adm. Frank Fletcher aboard the Yorktown (to whom Nimitz gave overall tactical command) and Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance aboard the Enterprise- moved their ships into position to quietly await the anticipated attack.

(Hopefully) Yamamoto would never see them coming.

“VT-6 TBD-1 aircraft are prepared for launching on USS Enterprise (CV-6), 4 June 1942”

Flights from Midway made daily searches, scanning the seas for the Japanese fleet.

On June 3rd patrols spotted Japanese ships- transports, destroyers, cargo vessels- and some American B-17s and torpedo planes attacked. The results were uncertain- they may have scored some hits.

However, the aircraft carriers and the main body of the force remained undiscovered.

At 5:45 am on June 4th, a patrol plane called in- enemy planes had been spotted. Shortly thereafter, a PBY spotted the main body of Japanese ships, including some carriers.

Midway’s defending planes took off, not to be caught grounded this time. The Japanese planes met them. Records show that the American planes were swarmed- each pilot trying to shake from one to five Japanese fighters apiece.

By 6:30 am, the first bombs were falling on Midway.

“Burning oil tanks on Sand Island”

While many Japanese planes fell, they took a heavy toll. Of 27 American planes that defended the atoll, 15 were missing after the battle, and 7 were severely damaged. All of the above-ground structures were destroyed or damaged- the powerhouse, hangers, and the gasoline system for fueling planes were all hit.

The American forces were simultaneously working on an offensive attack. Group after group of planes were launched from Midway’s runways, only to meet heavy anti-aircraft fire and swarms of Japanese Zeroes (which had the double advantage of more maneuverability and more seasoned pilots- one of Midway’s groups had only had a week of training in their planes.)

Perhaps the numbers say it best:

Of the first group of four planes, two returned.

Of the second group of six, one returned.

Of sixteen, eight returned, with only six fit for continued duty.

And so it went.

Admiral Nimitz summed up the situation as the last of the forces on Midway finished their attack in his report.

“The Midway forces had struck with full strength, but the Japanese were not as yet checked. About 10 ships had been damaged, of which 1 or 2 AP or AK may have been sunk. But this was hardly an impression on the great force of about 80 ships converging on Midway. Most of Midway’s fighters, torpedo planes, and dive bombers—the only types capable of making a high percentage of hits on ships—were gone, and 3 of the Japanese carriers were still either undamaged or insufficiently so to hamper operations. This was the situation when our carrier attack began.” (Midway Combat Narrative, pgs 20-21)

The forces gathered at Midway had fought hard, and made a start. Now it was time for the planes from the Enterprise, the Hornet and the Yorktown, still waiting quietly out of sight, to have their say.

 

If you’d like to learn more about the history of the Battle of Midway, please feel free to check out my other two posts:

The Battle of Midway Part II: The U.S. Aircraft Carriers Enter the Battle

The Battle of Midway Part III: The Sinking of the Yorktown

What do you think, history lovers? Are you interested in the upcoming film? Apprehensive? Excited? Indifferent? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Thank you for visiting!

 

*Since posting this, another writer shared that in at least one source- Shattered Sword by Jonathan Parshnall- cited historical evidence that the attack against the Aleutians was not so much a trick as a real attempt by Japan to take both the prize of Midway, and a foothold in the Americas. As I haven’t found evidence (at least not yet :)) that the Aleutian attack wasn’t timed to distract from the main force’s attack at Midway, I have not changed the wording of the post, but I wanted to include this additional info!

Interested in more information about the Battle of Midway? The Naval History and Heritage Command website has a downloadable combat narrative of the battle, (which is where my quote from Admiral Nimitz came from) and links to articles on the history surrounding Midway, biographies of several people who were there, (if you REALLY want to see if they do the movie right!) and first-hand accounts of the battle.

If you’re interested in more of my writing, click here to check out the WWII historical fiction novel that I released in June, 2019.  

Whom Shall I fear mini ad 4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Resources:

The Naval History and Heritage Command website has a downloadable combat narrative of the battle, links to articles on this history surrounding Midway, biographies of several people who were there (if you REALLY want to see if they do the movie right!) and first-hand accounts of the battle.

20 thoughts on “The Battle of Midway Part I: On the Screen and in History”

  1. I’m still amazed that none of our aircraft carriers were at Pearl Harbor when it was attacked! Uncle Don Wilson was on the CV-5, had to abandon ship twice because he was part of the volunteer crew who tried to salvage the Yorktown when it didn’t sink right away. Citation signed by Adm. Nimitz.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Now, have you written about your Uncle Don’s experiences online, or am I just remembering from the book? If the ARE online, would you mind sharing a link? I’d love to add it in when I make it to the Yorktown to send readers over for a first-hand account (otherwise I’ll just have to advise that they all buy the book. Of course I’d advise that anyway… 😁)

      Looking back at Peal Harbor, in spite of the losses, there are so many things that just seem Providential.

      Like

    1. Thank you so much for sharing this detailed, fascinating account! I hope others will check it out.
      Even trying to do a “broad strokes” summary, I keep finding so many stories of bravery and sacrifice and so many details- I don’t know how a movie can do it justice, really. (Especially since it looks to be going into Pearl Harbor and some of the earlier events, too.)
      I guess we’ll see…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I, for one, lost interest in watching Hollyweird releases involving war. I realize they are for entertainment but Hollyweird is using them to espouse their own beliefs knowing many “less intelligent” folks would see it as factual. There’s been a few relatively “accurate” movies (e.g., Tora! Tora! Tora!) but the last Pearl Harbor was a love story.

    While Yamamoto was on a battleship for Midway, he was far back of the Japanese fleet. He would be handicapped by the timid Admiral Nagumo who simply did not follow the battle orders. Of course, as you pointed out, the US had pretty much broken JN-25. Won’t ruin your next part! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. HA- “Hollyweird” is the perfect name! 🙂 Honestly, we see very few movies- between babysitting costs and tickets, it’s a big investment for my family- especially if it ends up being a dud! And if it’s like Pearl Harbor….uf. I hope they do a decent job this time around…

      Admiral Nagumo’s decisions certainly don’t seem to have gone well in the next part of the story… It’s been an interesting battle to research- thanks for adding insights, and for stopping by!

      Like

  3. Oooooo, a cliffhanger! I love it. 🙂 And this does pique my curiosity about the movie, too. Is this going to be another Pearl Harbor? Blech. I mean, okay…having “human stories” is good, but they have to be balanced, you know? Because in the end, people don’t go to movies like this to watch a few people, just like people don’t go to Godzilla to see how people survive in the city. They want to see the battles! They want to see the giant monsters! ACTIOOOOON!
    Ahem. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I finally saw Pearl Harbor one night when I was the only one awake. Well, saw some of it. There was a lot of fast forwarding. Uf.
      Oh dear, thats not what the new Godzilla was, was it?
      Oh the bright side, the cast list looks like theyre focusing on the Actual stories of Real people who were there, and just from reading up on the battle that seems like the right call- there’s an awful lot there without the need for Hollwood creativity. But we shall see…
      Glad this piqued your interest- we’re not even to the “major” parts that made it into my history books.😁

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Uf is right. Yeah, that’s what the new Godzilla did.Soooo irritating. Yup, I can’t wait to see what Hollywood will try to pull…if it’ll let the story tell itself (gasp!) or will….ugh…meddle.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve been meaning to read your Midway posts for awhile – as you know. Apart from its significance, I only have a passing knowledge of the details of the battle so I’m looking forward to learning more. I will probably see the movie and do think it’s amazing what they can do with computer graphics in even the worst movies. Frankly, the best bits about Pearl Harbor, the movie, were actually Kate Beckinsale, and Hans Zimmer’s music.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you’ve had a chance to check them out! We had a sitter lined up and everything to see Midway, and then the kids got sick. Still, though the critics have been…well, critical…everyone I know who’s seen it has enjoyed it, so here’s hoping! I finally gave in and watched Pearl Harbor this year. I think I’d agree with your assessment!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I just found this site, very nice!
    Terrific intro to the Battle of Midway. An American Epic; complex enough to keep one reading thousands of pages worth (and I second the recommendation for “Shattered Sword”, terrific book and I’m very pleased to see your update/correction), yet also simple enough in overview to easily grasp the key points.
    Of course the recent movie is now over a year old, time flies. I would say I enjoyed it with the qualification it was “entertainment”. At least they avoided the convention of adding fictional characters! It was more accurately about the first six months of the War centered on the USS Enterprise. Many story elements were skipped or abbreviated to fit so much into a little over two hours. I would say the 3-D modeling was extraordinary, they really brought to life moments that simply could never be reproduced in live action. Seriously, whole squadrons of TBDs, a type that doesn’t have a single intact representative today. But that modeling also led to a big limitation, and I mean apart from how lurid some detail was presented, that is they couldn’t model everything involved in the whole story. We never saw a single Wildcat, Buffalo or Catalina (obviously they were never rendered) and every Japanese battleship was the Yamato (again, obviously the only Japanese battleship class rendered).
    I am excited to think of future movie possibilities involving things that can not be physically filmed. More than just dragons! Real historic things that are gone.
    Of course, at the same time I have never been more wary of the Hollywood agenda. So exciting possibilities viewed with a big dose of caution.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words, and for stopping by!
      Yes! My favorite parts of the movie were the choice to focus on some of the real heroes of Midway rather than going with fictional characters, and watching the dive bombing “in action-” I thought the CGI came off pretty well, too. Even just watching the bombers take off from the Hornet- though all of the details weren’t quite on- was great fun!
      Ahhhh Hollywood. Yes. It’s hard to get too excited about the big-budget stuff. We don’t bother with many of them, and when we do, I’m always waiting to see what they’re going to do to the stories. Here’s hoping they use their powers for good and tell some more of these stories well!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There seems to be at least a small number of filmmakers who try to do it right. Of course there were a number of errors, but it gives me some hope on what might be accomplished in the future.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. No kidding! All of these streaming services kind of make me miss the days of just having 3 or 4 tv channels! It has to come out on a disc someday…I hope…

        Like

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