The Inadequate Role of Chance in the Battle of Midway

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Though Japan appeared to be the probable victor during the first six hours at the battle at Midway, pivotal decisions made by Americans altered the fate of Midway, influencing the course and outcome of the Second World War. The victory for the United States of America in the battle of Midway has often been attributable to God’s will; a miracle (Symonds, 4). June 4, 1942, was a battle over the Pacific Ocean which favored the victory of the Imperial Japanese combined fleet: the Kidō Butai. The Kidō Butai, translated as a mobile striking force, was the powerful concentration of aircraft carriers which Japan would rely on for the battle of Midway (Symonds, 25). The Battle of Midway, written by Craig L. Symonds, offers a compelling argument on the role of chance at the battle of Midway, both before and during this crucial battle. The outcome at the Battle of Midway was the result of the American leadership superiority over Imperial Japan's overconfident and dismissive leaders and American intelligence. In this decisive battle, the role of chance was inadequate in determining the outcome, rather it should be commemorated as the result of the people, decisions, and war strategies involved at the Pacific battle.

American naval-aerial leadership was a crucial component in the outcome of the battle of Midway. The Pacific American fleet was under the command of an aggressive and calculating leader, Admiral Chester Nimitz (Symonds, 6-8). Nimitz not only recognized the advantages and weaknesses of the American fleet and Kidō Butai, he also acknowledged the American Carrier, but CV-5 Yorktown was also an essential factor in withstanding the Japanese combined fleet at Midway (Symonds, 188, 191, 452). Yorktown under the command of Frank Fletcher had been moderately damaged at the battle of the Coral Sea between May seventh and eighth, 1942, a confrontation off the coast of northeast Australia between the Kidō Butai and American carriers of Task Force 17, though unlike Japanese leaders, Nimitz made it a priority to fix the Yorktown in time for Midway, a seemingly impossible task (Symonds, 152-153,157,170-172, 191). He also allowed commanders of the fleet to make independent choices, while cautioning them to be patient and prepare for the Kidō Butai to change plans unexpectedly (Symonds, 214, 258). This leadership exhibited by Nimitz was crucial in ensuring the complete potential of the American fleet presented itself in the battle of Midway; with Nimitz calculating mindset, the officers on the American fleets became more resilient to unanticipated circumstances during the battle of Midway. Nimitz also assigned a dozen submarines to the Midway operations but clarified that the only submarine that would be used to attack would be Nautilus, controlled by Lieutenant Commander William Brockman (Symonds, 288-289). Brockman played a crucial role in helping the commander of the Enterprise air force, Lieutenant Commander Clarence Wade McClusky in locating the Kidō Butai (Symonds, 296-297). From 0800 to 1000 hours on June fourth, Brockman and Japan’s destroyer, Arashi, commanded by Watanabe Yasumasa were in pursuit of one another, causing the Arashi to delay behind the Kidō Butai, leading McClusky directly to the Kidō Butai (Symonds, 291, 294-295).

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It is plausible that without Brockman’s interference with Watanabe’s Arashi, McClusky would have struggled to locate the Kidō Butai, potentially altering the outcome of this battle. A final notable leader in Midway was Frank Fletcher. Fletcher was the Midway commander of American carrier forces and like Nimitz, made calculated choices at Midway resulting in a success (Symonds, 361). Fletcher weighed the advantages the Americans had while continuing to consider the consequences of the choices he made, valuing the element of surprise (Symonds, 229). The decisions made by these leaders all influenced the outcome of the Midway battle with the consequences they prompted. The American commanders at the Battle of Midway were exceptionally decisive and calculated which, contributed to the American victory, whereas the Japanese leaders were excellent contrasts to the leadership presented by American commanders.

Japan’s leadership was inefficient as opposed to their American adversary due to their overconfidence and dismissive attitude. Following Pearl Harbour and several other victories over the course of four months, Japan struggled with a 'victory disease' (Symonds, 42) of overconfidence that remained evident in the subsequent planning for the Midway operation. Japan’s operational admirals and veterans met on the evening before Midway intending to refine the weaknesses of their operational battleplans, this gathering hosted by Rear Admiral Ugaki Matome (Symonds, 176). Ugaki was expected to make judgments on the strategy’s potential weaknesses; however, Ugaki was dismissive on several scenarios he ruled improbable, which contradicted the purpose of strategizing war-games as though Americans had obtained the battle operation plans (Symonds, 177-178). Another distinguished leader that was in attendance at this meeting was the Kidō Butai commander, Nagumo Chūchi, who remained quiet throughout the strategizing though he should have been challenging the consequences of the improbable circumstances that Ugaki dismissed (Symonds, 177). This dismissive attitude displayed by the leaders of the Kidō Butai later played a key role in the outcome of Midway.

Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku was the commander in chief of Imperial Japan's combined fleet, usually recognized as a confident show-off that enjoyed gambling, even against fate (Symonds, 26-27). Unlike Nimitz and Fletcher, who carefully considered each decision, Yamamoto chose to impose his bets on everyone, including his fleets (Symonds, 26-27). The Japanese carrier Shōkaku was damaged at the battle of the Coral Sea, though the damage was not irreparable it was kept out of the Midway operation, as well as the undamaged carrier Zuikaku which lost many pilots and aircraft's (Symonds, 174). This decision made by Yamamoto proved fatal because it limited the Kidō Butai to only four carriers and contrasts his prioritization to Nimitz who ordered the carrier Yorktown to be fixed in a seemingly impossible amount of time. Consequently, this dismissive attitude displayed by the Kidō Butai’s leaders and the gambling addiction of the chief commander Yamamoto both contributed to the American victory at the Battle of Midway by creating an incapability to adapt in unforeseen circumstances that transpired in the battle.

Though the Imperial Japanese combined fleet had a higher quality of aircraft, the Americans had a significant advantage over Japan, the American codebreaker intelligence.
Ensign Joseph J. Rochefort, was assigned to breaking admiral codes of the Japanese navy (Symonds, 135-136). Rochefort contributed greatly to the outcome of Midway with his successful code-breaking career, helping to increase the American intelligence of the Pacific fleet. Japan often changed their codes to ensure that adversaries were unable to break their codes (Symonds, 139). It was on the eve of the battle of Midway that Rochefort along with several junior code breakers was able to decrypt Japanese messages confirming the target, key elements of the Kidō Butai, and a confident estimate of the number of carriers that the enemies would approach with (Symonds, 187). Though the decrypted messages did not lay out the sequence of events in Japan’s battleplan, this information was pivotal in the preparation for American fleets. It was the American tactical intelligence that set up the opportunity for victory at the Battle of Midway.

Though America had this significant advantage, the Kidō Butai appeared to be winning during the first six hours at the battle of Midway up until the crucial turning point for the Americans. The turning point in the battle of Midway should be credited to the resilience of the American soldiers. After several attempts of dividing the Kidō Butai, resulting in the annihilation of John Waldron’s torpedo squad, the resilience and perseverance of the American fleets began to pay off (Symonds, 276). It was between 1020 and 1030 hours that the divided Kido Butai would recognize the mistake of disregarding improbabilities in preparation for the decisive Pacific battle.

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