Electronic Design
More Midway Stuff

More Midway Stuff

After my column on the Battle of Midway , one of my readers questioned my implication that Charles Lindbergh’s very good experiments were applicable to helping the P-38 long-range attack on Admiral M. Yamamoto. I was wrong. He was correct. Lindbergh’s service in the Pacific started many months after the Yamamoto interception. Thanks for correcting my fluff!

Note that any plane trying to achieve maximum range will use slightly different mixtures and pitch than for maximum patrol time. To attack Yamamoto, the P-38s flew at wave-top height. This also helped them avoid detection. But any plane flying at such low levels cannot do a proper patrol and watch for enemy danger in the far distance.


Dear RAP,
I enjoyed reading your column about Midway. I am a history buff, and I am always looking for the unusual situations that make victory or defeat in a battle. (Well, there certainly were enough of those at Midway! /rap) I have a few questions relating to this famous battle. Admiral Spuance sent in the torpedo bombers first, which were wiped out. Only one of our pilots survived.

A very short while later, our dive bombers arrived and had no opposition from the Japanese zeroes, because they were down near the surface to drive off the torpedo bombers. Did Admiral Spruance consciously send in the torpedo bombers first, just to open up the way for the dive bombers?

(I don’t recall ever reading about that, yes or no. You’ll have to read better books than I have. I think there are a couple full-detail books. But while the Japanese usually did a lot of things right, it was poor discipline and bad planning to not keep some of the Zeroes held back, up high... even for watching! /rap)

Why did the Japanese commander order a rearming of his planes? (The Japanese wanted to make their attack perfect and well-coordinated. This you can read even on Wikipedia. /rap) They could have gone off to attack the American carriers with the anti-ground bombs they were carrying .

(True, but the Japanese admirals liked to have a perfectly organized attack. “The Perfect is the enemy of the Good.” I have read that, several times, when we discovered a Japanese fleet, we hit them with what we could to get the best early surprise. Our guys often decided to not wait until their attack was perfect. “Hit ’em with what you got, and don’t wait for a perfectly coordinated attack. Hit ’em early and knock them off balance.” /rap)

They still could have done a lot of damage even with less than optimum ordnance. (Yup. Those Japanese pilots (in those days) were very good attackers. But by screwing up, they soon ran out of their best pilots. /rap) Thank God the Japanese made that grave error.

John S.

Hi John S.,
Uh, yes! If they had made any proper attack on our carriers, that would have been just one hell of a fight.

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I also heard that some of the Zeroes were roughly prepared to take off from the carriers, with the engines revving over. But the engines on the Zeroes were supposed to warm up for 10 minutes. Apparently for best reliability? So they were idling and warming up. Again, “perfect is the enemy of very good.” It was very lucky that we hit them right in that 10 minutes.

Thanks for writing.


Good afternoon, RAP:
Your Yamamoto story was interesting, though the part on Lindbergh might be a bit short on detail accuracy. Lindbergh wasn’t a captain. He was a civilian under contract with United Aircraft and later with Chance Vought. His charge was to improve range on the aircraft in the field for improvements on later versions of those planes, particularly the F4U. He held a reserve commission as a colonel earlier, but he resigned that in 1940.

Beast rgrds,
Ken Merrill

Hi Bob,
A couple of trivia associated with your column on Midway: Pearl Harbor wasn’t intended to be a sneak attack, but the Embassy couldn’t let low-level clerks see the highly classified message and had to translate and transcribe the message by hand. And our staff had most of the information in hand before the actual attack, but the military communications were down and they didn’t put a high priority on the Western Union message (source: PBS Codebreakers show).

JL (Larry) McClellan

Hi, Larry,
We also know that President Roosevelt suppressed many warnings that could have gone to warn our forces on Hawaii to watch out for trouble. Warnings were sent to every commander in the Pacific, but not to Admiral Husband Kimmel in Hawaii. Kimmel was made the scapegoat. He knew he’d been screwed.

Beast regrds,

Hi Bob,
I’m not sure how well we know that. Part of this is based on stories that are still labeled “Top Secret” even after 68 years. But the documentation is pretty firm. Roosevelt and his buddies really were in a conspiracy. There can be no doubt that it was the intent of the U.S. to push Japan into initiating the war, but as to foreknowledge of the actual 12/7 attack, the evidence really doesn’t seem to be there.

(As I said, a lot of these secrets are still tied up, but I have no doubt they are real. The evidence is still blocked and hidden. The book about Kimmel is quite convincing. /rap)

I have read that all (All except Pearl Harbor. /rap) of our Pacific bases had been placed on high alert in November, but that no one had anticipated the kind and scale of attack that far east. The general expectation seems to have been that the attack would be aimed at the Philippines, where the U.S. forces were under orders to be ready to abandon the islands. The scale of the attack was such that very few of them had that option.

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The alert status at Pearl was why the aircraft were parked cheek-by-jowl. The intent was to make them easier to guard against sabotage. (That’s still pretty stupid. This was long after 1939, and many people know that you space out the aircraft in revetments. /rap)

The effect, of course, was to make them much more vulnerable to air attack, but virtually no one at that time believed that that scale of air attack could be mounted against Hawaii. (I guess underestimating your enemy’s capabilities can cause problems. /rap) Yamamoto was simply a better tactician than anyone we had trying to outguess him. (Yeah, up until Midway,  i.e., seven months. /rap).

The alert status was also the reason that the carriers were at sea, with them spending only minimum time in port, and then only one at a time. That seems to be the result of the planning and efforts of Halsey and Nimitz. (And the battleships were chopped liver? /rap)

There can be no doubt that Kimmell and Hart were scapegoated. The intention to throw them under the bus to get the public to buy into the war may well have been made in advance, but that seems to have been more after the fact than before it. The cost of Pearl Harbor was much higher than would have been considered acceptable. But then again the raid was much larger than virtually anyone in the West at the time believed could be mounted by a seaborne striking force. Perceptions changed over the next four years and most of the postwar analyses have been filtered through that hindsight. (Fair enough. /rap)

As to the internment camps (I forgot to mention it on the first note), 60 Minutes (not the most reliable source, but entertaining) did a story some 20 years ago detailing how the roundup idea originated in the offices of the Presidio, supposedly at the behest of some large landowners in the Sacramento Delta area who coveted the extensive lands owned there by Japanese-Americans.

(No doubt. Along those lines, I was just reading yesterday that the Chinatowns and Chinese slums in every damn town up and down California and the rest of the West Coast just happened to burn down. Was that 1908? Such a coincidence... /rap)

Thanks for the reply. I know how big your fan club is and how much a timesink this kind of correspondence can be. Be well, and happy trekking.

Larry McClellan

Hi Larry,
Yeah, but it’s darned educational. Thanks for writing.  

Beast regrds.

Hi Bob,
The Japanese lost the war before it started. The naval flight school accepted 120 cadets three times a year and failed out half of them. (Did that not change after 1941? My God, that’s stupid. (See below). We know that the Japanese (fortunately for us) did run out of good pilots pretty fast. Like, starting at Midway. Wow. That reminds me of the U.S. Senator who said “Aeroplanes? We’ve got one, haven’t we?” But that was 1908. See below. /rap) Read Samurai, the biography of Saburo Sato, Japan’s leading ace.

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The admiral who made the decisions at Midway was Admiral Genda, according to the biography Yamamoto. Admiral Genda had other black stars both before and after Midway. In 1937, war with America was discussed but put down by Yamamoto, et al, with the question, “How do you plan to conquer Washington, D.C.?” (Even the Republicans are finding this a problem! /rap)

The political scene changed and turkeys took over (same source). Japan lacked transport ships when the war started, a mistake they magnified by having transport ships give their estimated position in a broken code. (I don’t remember the crypto book.) If Japan had taken Midway, the supply losses would have been devastating.

What mystifies me is why Japan didn’t change sides in the fall of 1941. The Japanese fleet and the U.S. Pacific fleet would have ensured England, and free access to Vladivostok would have greatly aided the Russians when they were in doubt so they could have gotten one hell of a deal. (Well, that is a good question. But supplying Stalingrad by way of Vladivostok would have been a beast! /rap)

As a result of one of the NSC talks you gave, I invented a non-dissipating back-terminated line driver for both analog and digital application.

Ernie Richars

Hi Ernie,
There are many ways to back-terminate a line, though I’m not an expert.

About 1940, the Brits realized they had to greatly expand their navy and signed contracts for many destroyers and ships. Then they realized that each ship would need a navigator. At that time, a gentleman could enter a four-year school and emerge as a navigator—about the time the war was over. They decided to institute some good crash schools to educate navigators in six months, and when the ships started coming out, the navigators were ready.

Thanks for writing.

I don’t remember seeing anything about the Japanese Internment of 1942 being due to decrypted messages, but it does sound plausible. (I heard that just fairly recently. It is sorta believable. /rap) The Brits let Coventry get bombed because they didn’t want the
Luftwaffe knowing that they had decrypted Luftwaffe communications. (Exactly. /rap)

As for the battle of Midway, the best book I’ve read is Shattered Sword, which goes into detail about the operations of the Imperial Japanese Navy. In particular there was an explanation for why the IJN planes were sitting on the deck when the SBDs attacked. It had to do with the Japanese engines needing 10 minutes warm-up time before takeoff. The authors also went into great detail about why the IJN carriers burned as much as they did when hit by the dive bombers.

(Because there were gasoline hoses and bombs all over the place! They were in the middle of refueling. They could neaten things up later, after the attack was launched. But did he comment on why there were no pickets? /rap)

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On a more somber note, the book mentioned that several USN flyers were picked up by the IJN early in the course of the battle. They were tortured for information, and after the battle, their legs were tied to pails and they were tossed overboard. (Yeah, I heard that. Did the Japanese military ever figure out that the torture and the mistreatment and execution of POWs was not a good idea? I guess not. /rap)

One other surprising detail about the intelligence work prior to Midway was from Eddie Layton’s book on his experiences as Nimitz’s flag intelligence officer. He claimed that the ruse regarding the condenser on Midway was to convince Washington that Midway was “AF.” The crew in Hawaii was already convinced.

Take care,
Erik Magnuson

Hi Erik,
It’s important to get confirmation on things like that, when it is possible, without excessive risk.

I searched into several reasonably good and complete-looking stories about the Zero, and none of them mentioned this 10-minute delay. I guess the book you cited had done good research.

However, if the pickets had said “Dive bombers are here!” some of the Zeroes might have been able to take off and to hell with the 10-minute delay. The perfect is the enemy of the good.

Beast regrds.

Hi Bob:
I enjoyed your article on Midway. Having flown out of there on patrol missions during the Cold War, I am familiar with the real estate.

G. David Germeyer

Hi G. David,
Wasn’t it Midway where the pilots had to worry about the gooney birds on take-off? One B-24 was taking off, fully (over)loaded. It got a few yards off the runway, just barely above ground effect, and 200 yards ahead, the pilot was looking at a bird—and the bird was looking at him.

The pilot knew he had a problem, so he was hoping the bird would get smart and descend. Closer and closer. Finally, the pilot chickened out and descended a few yards. So did the bird! The bird had no better choice. The bird went through all the Plexiglass, and the bomber had to drop its bombs and fuel, but no GIs were killed.

Should the pilot have put in a 1/4-degree bank so the bird would hit the engine or wing? Not a big advantage! Anyhow, don’t assume the bird is smart enough to get out of the way. For sure, it’s not smart enough to do anything else!


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Dear Bob,
Thanks for the interesting article on Midway. While the U.S. had broken the Japanese code, the code word for “Midway” was still unknown. So knowing that the Japanese were aware that the Navy had only two water purification plants on Midway, they started a series of messages in the clear indicating trouble with one of the plants. Soon, Japanese intelligence started discussing the implications of a water supply failure, conveniently using the code word for Midway. I no longer have a copy of Kahn’s book, The Codebreakers, but I think that’s where I came across this story.

Best regards,
Ralph Gaze

Hi, Ralph G.,
Yeah, I heard that story too. Good story! Needless to say, there were many games to be played, like this, with codes sorta broken.


Terrific story. I’m very interested to know if the Japanese did or did not explode a prototype nuclear bomb in Korea just before giving up. Those who dismiss this without a sober response to the alleged evidence do not convince me.

Michael Wright

Hi Mike,
I have never heard any claim about the Japanese doing significant nuclear research. If you’ve searched, and couldn’t find anything, I doubt if I could find anything. I went over to Wikipedia at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_nuclear_weapon_program, but the statements there indicate that hardly anybody believed anything about those claims. Have you read that? Have you asked Snopes.com?

I certainly believe the Japanese could have built a dirty bomb. However, considering how little the whole U.S. and Manhattan Project knew, almost nobody knew the long-term effects of low-level nuclear radiation. If the Japanese would have blown up a dirty bomb in front of a big U.S. invasion of Honshu, it wouldn’t have slowed down the Marines one darn bit! And if they stormed ahead and got quickly through the nuclear crud, it probably wouldn’t do them a lot of harm. Worry about dirty bombs is a modern concern. I bet the whole invasion force wouldn’t even have one geiger counter!

I quit.


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