Concealment, no finger-pointing
The Battle of Midway ended with tremendous sacrifices on Japan’s side. But the Navy did not clarify who should be held responsible and did not learn any lessons from the defeat.
After receiving the report on the loss of four aircraft carriers and the cancellation of the operation, the Naval General Staff decided not to let the real situation be known to the public in case doing so might hurt the morale of the Navy and public. The June 11, 1942, morning edition of the Yomiuri Shimbun reported on the battle based on briefings from the Navy Department of the Imperial Headquarters. According to the report, there was “dramatic, intensive fighting in the Eastern Pacific.” Totally different from what actually happened, the report said that “powerful assaults on Midway Island resulted in the sinking of two enemy aircraft carriers.”
At the same time, the Naval General Staff imposed gag orders on those who participated in the Midway operation and restricted access to, and the distribution of, related reports so that the truth would not leak out.
Recollecting the decision, Fukutome said, “We were forced to make such an announcement because the damage we sustained was so grave. But in retrospect, it was not appropriate because the way we tried to hide the truth was too extreme.”
Those false announcements not only invited misunderstanding about the war situation but also created roadblocks to people understanding the “Navy’s desperate demand to increase the production of airplanes.” The biggest problem lay with the Navy’s failure to clarify whether the command of the Combined Fleet should be held responsible. No punishment was meted out to Nagumo, his Strike Force Chief of Staff Ryunosuke Kusaka, or anyone else.
On June 10, 1942, Yamamoto told staff officers who gathered on the bridge of the flagship Yamato: “Don’t blame Nagumo or Kusaka. I bear the responsibility for the defeat.”
Kusaka, who came to the flagship Yamato to report, begged Yamamoto for another chance saying, “Even though I made that huge blunder, I returned only because I am driven by a soul determined to retaliate. Please give me another chance to go to the front line.”
Kuroshima, Senior Staff Officer of the Combined Fleet, later commented on why nobody was held responsible for the Midway defeat. “If we pursue a probe of the matter, we will find it full of blunders. Everybody involved has sufficiently reflected on his actions and admitted that he was to blame. We thought it was unnecessary to speak ill of the dead .”
Teiji Nakamura, who was in charge of torpedo operations aboard the destroyer Yudachi and later became the postwar Maritime Self-Defense Force Chief of Staff, said the Navy should have studied lessons from the battle, particularly as it lost.
“The Navy swept the problem under the rug because the blame would eventually be placed on Yamamoto and staff officers of the Combined Fleet,” Nakamura said.
This represents a sharp contrast to the actions taken by the U.S. Navy. After the Pearl Harbor attack, the U.S. Navy set up an inquiry commission, which found Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, to be responsible for the disastrous damage sustained at Pearl Harbor. He was dismissed from his post.
The Japanese Navy, after having lost four aircraft carriers and 285 ship-borne airplanes, meanwhile, was desperate trying to build aircraft carriers and airplanes. On June 30, the Naval General Staff compiled post-defeat plans putting priority on beefing up naval aviation power. According to the plan, the Navy would:
However, as it neglected to study the factors behind the Midway debacle, the Navy was never able to overcome the weakness of its aircraft carriers which became evident in the Battle of Midway.
The U.S. Navy, on the other hand, formed a fleet centered around aircraft carriers, having learned lessons from the Pearl Harbor attack and the Battle of Malaya. In the Battle of Midway, the U.S. Navy made sure that aircraft carriers were protected by many cruisers and destroyers which circled and screened them.
Furthermore, the U.S. Navy added six Essex-class aircraft carriers and nine small aircraft carriers converted from cruisers—vessels that were constructed after the Pearl Harbor attack—to the Pacific Fleet in the summer of 1943, one year after the Battle of Midway.
In 1943, the U.S. Navy began replacing older ship-borne planes with the state-of-the-art Grumman F6Fs and devised a defense system to protect aircraft carriers.
On the other hand, most of the aircraft carriers built by the Japanese Navy after the Battle of Midway were small ones converted from merchant ships. Three full-scale aircraft carriers, including the Unryu, were built before the war ended, but none of them had an opportunity to engage in battle.
Also in the Battle of Midway, the Japanese Navy lost its most valuable asset—elite pilots who had “the skills to hit almost every target.” The instant loss of superb human resources was indeed a decisive factor in this war. Sadatoshi Tomioka, chief of the Operations Section of the Naval General Staff, deeply regretted what happened. “It was a shattering defeat. What was more important than anything else was crew members—and their skills.” The Combined Fleet no longer had the ability to win back control over the air or the sea. It ceased to be a formidable enemy for the greatly enhanced U.S. Navy and lost every time it fought. Inside the Navy, there had been growing calls for “tokko” (special attack) suicide tactics in the face of the huge battle power of the U.S. Navy. In June 1943, the Emperor’s senior Naval Aide Captain Eiichiro Jo, acting independently of his primary duty, proposed to Chief of the General Affairs Section of the Naval Aeronautics Department Takijiro Onishi that a special air unit be created for attacking enemy targets with crashing aircraft.
Onishi assumed the post of Commander of the First Air Fleet in October 1944, ahead of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. During that battle Onishi ordered attacks by airplanes crashing themselves into enemy targets, a practice which he had originally described as a “heresy” of command.