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Battle of Midway: Black Shoe Admirals in a Brown Shoe Battle

One of the great ironies of the Battle of Midway is that the most pivotal naval air battle in history was led on both sides by “black shoe admirals,” surface warship men who had no training in the weapons they were to wield. But such was the case when the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN)’s powerful Kidō Butai (Carrier Strike Force) under Vice Adm. Chūichi Nagumo confronted the U.S. Navy’s small Task Force 16 under Rear Adm. Raymond Spruance and Task Force 17 under Rear Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher on June 4, 1942.

Logic suggested that command of Kidō Butai should go to an admiral with a background in air power – a “brown shoe admiral.”

“[Vice Adm. Chūichi Nagumo] was wholly unfitted by training, experience, and interest for a major role in Japan’s naval air arm.”

—Adm. Tsukahara Nishizō, Commander in Chief Eleventh Air Fleet

But the dictates of seniority and protocol in the IJN demanded that it go to the most senior admiral available. That was Nagumo, president of the Naval War College in Tokyo when the Kidō Butai was formed in April 1941.

Unlike his new boss, airpower champion Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, Nagumo had a “gun club” career, commanding surface ships from destroyers to battleships.

Adm. Chuichi Nagumo

A worrier rather than a gambler, Adm. Chuichi Nagumo’s string of victories early in the war masked the abundance of caution and lack of decisiveness that would doom him at Midway. National Archives photo

Also, Nagumo was a worrier, not a gambler. Yamamoto’s chief of staff, Rear Adm. Matome Ugaki, confided in his diary that Nagumo lacked the boldness necessary for a senior commander. Even so, from December 1941 to May 1942, Nagumo achieved major victories in carrier operations from Hawaii to India.

As for the American admirals he would face during the Battle of Midway, one had fought a Japanese fleet to a draw at the Battle of the Coral Sea, and the other was leading a carrier task force for the first time.

“I consider [Rear Adm. Raymond Spruance] fully and superbly qualified to take command of a force comprising mixed types and to conduct protracted independent operations in the combat theater in war time.”

— Vice Adm. William Halsey, commander Task Force 16

Most of Rear Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher’s thirty-six years in the Navy had been spent aboard destroyers and cruisers. When Fletcher was given command of Task Force 17 in January 1942, he wanted the heavy cruiser Louisville as his flagship. But Nimitz ordered task force commanders to break their flags on carriers. Fletcher’s decision-making during the Battle of the Coral Sea dissatisfied Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Ernest King, and caused him to question Fletcher’s suitability as a carrier commander, but Nimitz stuck by Fletcher.

For Rear Adm. Raymond Spruance, command of Task Force 16 came as a complete surprise – he didn’t even know that his boss, Vice Adm. William “Bull” Halsey, was sick! Spruance commanded Cruiser Division Five within Task Force 16, whose cruisers and destroyers protected Halsey’s carriers Enterprise and Hornet. Unlike the energetic, outgoing, and colorful aviator Halsey, Spruance was reserved to the point of being ascetic. Despite, or possibly because of, their differences the two bonded. Halsey’s respect of Spruance was so great that when Halsey came down with severe dermatitis in May 1942, he recommended that for the Midway battle Spruance replace him as temporary commander of Task Force 16.

Vice Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher

Frank Jack Fletcher, seen here with the rank of vice admiral. The pipe smoking Fletcher would have corncob pipes shipped to him a dozen at a time. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his action in the Vera Cruz Expedition in 1914. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

It was with trepidation that Halsey’s staff on the Enterprise greeted their new commander. Their first admiral’s mess with Spruance started out quiet and tense. Then, as coffee was being served, Spruance looked around, and with a sparkle in his eyes, he raised his voice so that every member of the staff could hear him and said, “Gentlemen, I want you to know that I do not have the slightest concern about any of you. If you were not good, Bill Halsey would not have you.” That broke the ice.

“Gentlemen, I want you to know that I do not have the slightest concern about any of you. If you were not good, Bill Halsey would not have you.”

Spruance, a passionate walker, then began to walk the legs off them. With only a week to learn everything he could about carrier operations, during the voyage to Midway and in fair weather or foul, Spruance could be found on the Enterprise’s flight deck, pacing back and forth picking the brains of a staff member. Possessing a brilliant mind that quickly absorbed information, as soon as he finished with one “victim” he’d signal to another, and the process would commence anew.

USS Astoria (CA 34)

When the Yorktown was damaged, Fletcher transferred his flag to the USS Astoria (CA 34). Here he is seen boarding the cruiser. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

At the Battle of Midway, Spruance proved a quick study, Fletcher repaid Nimitz’s confidence, and Nagumo’s character disastrously caught up with him. When the sun set on June 4, 1942, Nagumo’s four fleet carriers were at the bottom of the Pacific or soon to be there, and with them went Imperial Japanese naval dominance of the Pacific.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...