The World War II Pacific Theater is an especially interesting field of military history because of the strong role of naval warfare in its prosecution, an aspect not lost on documentary makers as well as movie producers. And, no battle or campaign has been more compelling than Midway, one of four major carrier air battles in 1942. With non-fiction works and documentaries, historical accuracy is always a concern, and even today new viewpoints are emerging as researchers dig into previously unexplored sources.

With fiction, of course, there are additional hazards: the choices content creators select to present, which must have both dramatic value and some chance of financial viability.  This is compounded by the potentially diverging expectations of a very varied audience. Thus, conflicting reception is usually built in.  The movie Midway (2019) has garnered a huge number of reviews, some of them highly critical.  In the latter case, sticklers for historical accuracy have mainly criticized certain liberties taken with the known course of the battle and its participants.  These fictionalizations sometimes trace to the time limits imposed by a commercial movie format and sometimes to the need to interject personal drama where perhaps none existed in real life.

The first response to many of the highly negative takes on Midway 2019 is that in essence all of the criticisms have a degree of accuracy. In fact, I can add a few glaring examples to those already enumerated, among them the outrageously bizarre video game CGI, the through-the-mountains fight during Enterprise’s attack on the Marshalls -- an island archipelago barely above sea level -- and the failure to fully portray the vital role of LCDR John Waldron’s Torpedo 8 attack, the first of three TBD Devastator attacks (not the second as shown in the movie; more in a moment).

Where we perhaps diverge is the weight given to those criticisms relative to the positives – and there surely are plenty of those.  It is also helpful in evaluating Midway 2019 to understand that the movie focuses on Enterprise (CV-6); thus many other important historical aspects get minimal attention -- including the contribution of Torpedo 8's attack mentioned above.

What Midway 2019 Got Right

One would hope for historical accuracy in war movies, at least at the big picture level. And, I personally dislike distracting plot fillers that spend excessive time on unrelated and made-up personal life stories that do not advance the war fighting history storyline, a defect that plagued the otherwise excellent 1976 production. Seen in this light, Midway 2019 is in many respects, and despite the evident flaws, a worthwhile portrayal of one of the most significant naval battles in history. In order to illustrate, let’s see what the movie got right, using as source material the many historical accounts of the battle, including Shattered Sword, (Parshall and Tully, 2005), The Battle of Midway (Craig Symonds, 2011)  as well as the Battle of Midway Roundtable web site, and especially BOMRT moderator Ronald W. Russell’s No Right to Win. The BOMRT is a gold mine of information regarding Midway since it reflects participation by many, many Midway and WWII veterans. Russell’s book well captures the accumulated wisdom and history of those individuals.

Here then are some of the fascinating and often decisive historical aspects that Midway 2019 incorporates:

  • The assignment of Edwin Layton to study in Japan in the interwar years, which led to his role as Pacific Fleet chief intelligence officer, followed by Nimitz's direction for Layton to give him the best possible insight into Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) strategy and tactics.

  • The origin, goals and complexity of the IJN battle plan, including the Japanese high command’s rigging of the pre-sortie war game,

  • The fly-in to Pearl Harbor by Enterprise aircraft just after the Japanese raid and the resulting ground fire against Enterprise aircraft by jumpy Pearl Harbor AA gunners,

  • The critical role of Station HYPO’s code breaking, including the initial refusal of Washington to accept Midway as the target of the IJN operation, resolved by the clever faux water treatment plant message,

    • Midway 2019 even includes VADM Nimitz's well known comment to chief intelligence officer Edwin Layton, that the intelligence on the Japanese battle plan was off by only "five miles, five minutes and five degrees.",

  • The exploits of AMM1/c Burno Gaido, both during the Marshalls raid and his subsequent capture and execution by the Japanese at Midway (admittedly, the details were a little different in real life, a case of inserting drama to enhance viewer interest),

  • The launching of Jimmy Doolittle's B-25 raid on Japan from the deck of the carrier Hornet in April 1942 and the subsequent atrocities committed by the Japanese against Chinese civilians who helped bomber crews escape to safety,

  • Nimitz’s eyes only message to Halsey near Coral Sea directing him to reveal Enterprise’s presence to the IJN, thus leading the Japanese to believe that Enterprise was still in the South Pacific,

  • The absolutely essential role of submarine Nautilus commander William Brockman and IJN destroyer Arashi in eventually leading LCDR Wade McClusky’s Dauntlesses to Kido Butai,

  • The multiple sequential attacks on Kido Butai by both Midway and USN carrier air assets, leading to fatal disruption of Japanese air ops,

    • Closely related is Admiral Yamaguchi’s urging Nagumo to launch an immediate strike once Yorktown was spotted, and his subsequent decision to go down with Hiryu,

  • The skill, courage and sacrifice of the USN pilots, air crews and sailors who fought at Midway -- as well as the situation of the doomed Japanese participants in the battle. And perhaps parenthetically, the presence of movie director John Ford on Midway Atoll during the attack.

Midway is also virtually unique for the decisive role played by a very few individuals in determining the outcome. Three individuals whose roles the movie accurately captured are 1) Nautilus commander William Brockman’s disruption of the IJN carrier formation 2} Wade McClusky’s decision to turn north in search of Kido Butai, leading to his discovery of Arashi rushing to rejoin Kido Butai after pinning down Nautilus, and 3) the split-second decision by Dick Best to pull up and attack Akagi when McClusky dove on Kaga, the first carrier encountered, contrary to doctrine.

What Midway 2019 Left Out

There was a fourth decisive individual, whose role was omitted in Midway 2019: the contribution of John Waldron, who led Torpedo Eight to the Japanese carriers, the first of three TBD squadrons to attack the Japanese carriers in sequence.  Ronald Russell highlights the importance of this first Devastator strike in “No Right to Win." Waldron’s attack caused the Japanese screening vessels to lay smoke to shield the carriers. Those columns of smoke led Enterprise’s VT-6 to Kido Butai, which in turn brought Yorktown’s VT-3 to the Japanese carriers, the latter spearheading the only coordinated USN attack of the day (TBDs, SBDs and Wildcats)

The disruption caused by these three sequential, and unfortunately suicidal torpedo bomber attacks, on the heels of several separate attacks from Midway, caused a continuing negative impact on Japanese air operations, with the launching and recovery of fighter aircraft being the main activity that took place leading up to the final SBD attack (Shattered Sword).  Note that in Midway 2019, Waldron's attack was shown out of sequence and thus the importance of his action was lost on viewers.

With the de-emphasis of Waldron's flight, an opportunity for real life drama was also missed: the enduring mystery of Hornet air group commander Stanhope Ring’s Flight to Nowhere with Hornet’s Dauntlesses and Wildcats. (See also Battle of Midway Roundtable discussion.)   If one is looking for real life conflict, look no further than the in-flight verbal tug of war between Waldron and Ring over the bearing of the IJN carriers from Hornet.  In direct defiance of Ring's orders, and in violation of radio silence, Waldron argued publically with Ring over the proper course within hearing of the entire command.

Eventually, Waldron banked away from Ring, Hornet's two SBD squadrons and their escorting Wildcats and found the Japanese fleet.  Ring, meanwhile flew on until the Wildcats, low on fuel turned away, all to be lost at sea without ever finding Hornet.  Finally, the SBDs followed, leaving Ring  to fly on alone in silence, until he too eventually gave up and flew back to Hornet.  A disgusted Spruance began his after-action report with the damning sentence, "Where discrepancies exist between Enterprise and Hornet reports, the Enterprise report should be taken as the more accurate."

Also missing from the movie was RADM Fletcher’s command of the Yorktown-centered Task Force 17.  Fletcher was in overall command of the USN assets at Midway, although one would never know this from the movie presentation.

In addition to the many significant events and personalities captured accurately by Midway 2019, the movie producers chose to fictionalize certain events and character traits in order to further the drama. Clearly not everyone agrees with their choices. (Actually, I don’t concur with every choice either.) Many who agree with those criticisms above all else will down rate the movie for that reason. Others may have a more balanced viewpoint. Perhaps the bottom line for me is that if one can ignore the insane CGI, the made-up cocky and abrasive personality of Dick Best and his fictional conflict with McClusky, the video game Marshalls mountain pursuit and a few other faux bon mots, Midway 2019 is a long overdue tribute to the USN and our greatest generation, capturing more of the critical, decisive aspects of the battle than anything that came before.

In Case You Didn't Believe. . .

One postscript: some may criticize as unreal the opening sequence where Dick Best cuts power and dead-stick lands his Dauntless on Enterprise. Leaving aside the artificial and melodramatic near dip in the sea and subsequent emergence from below the flight deck, this is in reality a standard pilot maneuver, called either a forward-slip or side-slip depending on particulars, and it is often taught to new pilots in order to prepare them for total power loss emergencies. Two commercial airline pilots have saved their aircraft, flight crews and passengers using this maneuver, the cases of the Gimli Glider and TACA Flight 110.

  © 2020 Michael W. Masters   Return to top