Friday, June 3, 2011

Seven fatherhood lessons from the Battle of Midway

Miracle at MidwayDad U doesn't get much free time to read, but since I had "accidentally" ordered "Miracle at Midway" (Gordon Prange, Donald Goldstein and Katherine Dillon, 1982) for my sons history essay (he ended writing on the Berlin airlift), I felt obliged to sneak a quick indulgence in a favorite topic: strategy and outcome in major battles. If I had not become a boring and slightly deluded scientist, I fancy that I might just have instead become an equally boring and slightly more deluded military historian.
Hence, we have the first ever Dad U book review!

Midway was without doubt, the turning point of the Pacific theater during WWII. The Japanese Imperial Navy had swept all before it, until a hard fought but inconclusive stalemate at the Coral Sea first displayed the gritty doggedness that would drive the US to the inevitable victory in 1945. What was on the line at Midway, an otherwise inconsequential pair of islands in the middle of the Pacific? Yamamoto, an over calculating strategist, had correctly deduced that the remainder of the core power of the US fleet, the carriers that escaped so fortuitously at Pearl Harbor, could be lured into the open and obliterated. By targeting Midway for seaborne invasion, he knew that the airfield it held was critical for the security of Hawaii (and therefore by default the entire west coast of the US), and would be defended with the strongest possible response the US Navy could muster. The Japanese plan was complex, but in a nutshell it had two major and conflicting objectives. The first was to take Midway by a seaborne assault, and the second (which should have been first) was to lure out the US fleet from Pearl and destroy it. A minor objective sent a diversionary assault force to the Alaskan chain of Aleutian Islands, a poorly conceived concept. A massive Japanese force was assembled against Midway, a monster with a fatal flaw: it had too many moving parts. An assault fleet sailed with forces to storm the beaches, and an attack fleet with four carriers sallied against both the Midway defenders and to deliver the coup-de-grace to the US fleet when they were drawn into the trap. A final fleet of battleships, including the massive Yamato, followed in the rear, far removed from the action and as time would tell, irrelevant in the decisive carrier vs carrier battle. The Japanese were supremely confident and on paper, were the substantially stronger force. But the US had a new commander in the Pacific, Admiral Chester Nimitz, and he had an ace up his sleeve......

Fatherhood lessons from the Battle of Midway

  • KNOW YOUR ENEMY.  To his enduring credit and against the grain of starched Washington ideologues, Nimitz fostered and supported an abstract group of geniuses, math wiz geeks who had cracked the Japanese Naval codes. Tucked away in a nondescript building in Pearl Harbor, they provided the target, the timing and the scale of the coming Japanese wave. This time, there would be no sleeping while the dive bombers swung over. Nimitz did all in his power to bolster the land based defenses on Midway, and plotted a brilliant flanking strike on the Japanese fleet. He cobbled together two fleets, with the carriers Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown, got them to sea before a screening picket of Japanese subs arrived, and stalked. His parting message to his well over matched fleet said in part: "...you will have the opportunities to deal the enemy heavy blows...I have great confidence in your courage, skill and ability ... Good hunting and good luck".
  • IN TIMES OF CRISIS YOU CAN DO INCREDIBLE THINGS.  Floyd D. Adkins was a slightly built young man, a gunner in the back seat of a dive bomber with a 175-pound gun with which to defend himself and his pilot. The gun, which usually took three men to handle, broke loose of it's housing during a dive. When attacked by a Japanese fighter, Adkins tapped into a superhuman burst of strength, braced it against the fuselage and shot down the attacker. Back aboard Enterprise, he couldn't shift if off the deck.  Don't scoff, you hear of adrenaline driven heroism in many, many, accounts of life and death moments.
  • ARROGANCE LEADS TO DISASTER.  Japanese confidence, bolstered by success after Naval success, had swung completely to arrogance. With their own culture so disdaining ingenuity and flexibility at the personal level, they failed to plan for these great American attributes. All they modeled was a proscribed American reaction to the assault, with the US obliging by sending their fleet into a snapping trap. This condition was a critical blind spot, and recognized later by many in their chain of command. Prange writes "Thus perished on the altar of dogma the Japanese opportunity..." They would reap what they sowed: four sunken carriers and a Navy thereafter restricted to the defensive until the biter end. One commander said: "Men full of hope and in high spirit are apt to be reckless. Such was fate. The final doom was written on the wall. Only there were no eyes to read them". 
  • KEEP FIGHTING.  Wave after wave of American planes, both from Midway and the carriers, essentially failed to touch the Japanese fleet. US planes were hopelessly outdated and easy pickings for the defending zeros. Entire flights of slow torpedo bombers were shot out of the sky. But the leaders of the US carrier fleets, Admirals Spruance and Fletcher, kept pressing. In a miraculous half hour, a combination of tired defenders, Japanese indecision and conflicting battle priorities (attack Midway or the US ships?), and the simultaneous, almost accidental, arrival of multiple flights of dive bombers, left the heart of the Japanese carrier force in flames. Three carriers were doomed within moments, and the fourth followed soon after. 
  • DONT SPILL THE BEANS (your team is still in the fight).   Even so, the Japanese had no clear idea of the forces arrayed against them, even after the US fleet had been observed by several scout planes. That is, until a flyer from Yorktown was shot down, captured and interrogated. He must have known his fate was sealed regardless, and was summarily executed, but not before he readily divulged what he knew. The sole remaining Japanese carrier at that time launched an assault based in part on that information, leading to the sinking of the Yorktown. 
  • SOMETIMES YOU MIGHT REALIZE YOU ARE ON THE WRONG SIDE (or at least on the wrong track).   Kenichi Ishikawa, a third class fireman, was a 21 year old Japanese prisoner from the heavy cruiser Mikuma, one of only two survivors after sinking. "Nonchalant and most content with his lot as a prisoner of the United States", he had no particular desire to return to Japan, knowing his family and friends would never forgive him for being captured alive. 
  • VICTORY DEPENDS ON A CLEAR, RATIONAL AND FLEXIBLE PLAN, CARRIED OUT WITH PURPOSE.   When the Japanese and American battle plans were dissected, and the outcomes stacked against objectives, it was clear that one side not only failed to plan, but they essentially planned to fail. The US Naval War College taught a frame work for battle based on the following formula: O2S4MEC. (1) Objective, (2) Offensive, (3) Superiority at point of contact, (4) Surprise, (5) Security, (6) Simplicity, (7) Movement/Mobility, (8) Economy of force, (9) Cooperation. Prange states that Yamamoto almost "...deliberately set out to prove just how many of the principles of was one admiral could violate in one campaign..." 
Miracle at Midway is a great book, an easy ready, packed with information on both sides, but not weighed down with unnecessary detail.  Tale after fascinating tale pops out as the battle germinates, buds, and blooms. Some of the fatherhood lessons draw above are equally applicable to management and leadership. We are all in a battle of sorts, and while the "enemies" we face are all different, so common themes emerge. 

Dad U





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