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Midway’s Terrible Toll

May 2024
1min read

Despite America’s triumph, mistakes doomed nearly an entire navy unit

Every military triumph also contains tragedy—think of the thousands of men who weren’t moving inland at the end of June 6, 1944—and the Battle of Midway, decisive as any victory ever gained by American arms, holds one that Alvin Kernan feels should be better remembered.

Kernan’s new book, The Unknown Battle of Midway: The Destruction of the American Torpedo Squadrons (Yale, 181 pages, $26.00), has elements of autobiography—during the fight he was a member of Torpedo Squadron Six aboard the carrier Enterprise —but his aim is to tell about a series of bad choices and mistakes that stretched back across years and ended in a needless slaughter of our airmen. The ingredients ranged from poor training to class friction, from flawed equipment to equally flawed theories of how to deploy it.

Four U.S. torpedo groups fought at Midway in 1942, writes Kernan. “They went in, separately, one squadron after another, on the morning of June 4, and in all, 51 planes tried to hit the Japanese ships with torpedoes that day. Only 7 landed back at base. This comes to an aircraft loss rate of over 86 percent. Out of 128 pilots and crew who were in the torpedo planes that day, 29 survived, and 99 died. And not one torpedo exploded against the hull of a Japanese ship.”

That record is, as Kernan says, “known and honored,” but his book assembles “all the pieces for the first time to reveal the total picture and expose the cover-up that concealed what actually happened.” This he does with eloquence and economy, telling a complex story with such clarity, verve, and brevity that you can easily read it in a single sitting—and almost certainly will.

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