Walter Lord's Incredible Victory (first published in 1967) is a sequel, in a way, of his Pearl Harbor epic Day of Infamy. Just as Gordon W. Prange, Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon followed up At Dawn We Slept with Miracle at Midway, Lord takes readers to those early June days in 1942 when the U.S. Pacific Fleet won its "incredible victory" against a vastly superior Japanese fleet.
Although Lord and Prange's team cover the same battle and Miracle at Midway attempts to put the Midway battle in a context for contemporary readers to grasp (the anger and resolution of the American public and media are characterized as taking place in a "period [which] was unique in the American experience. A brief echo of it sounded in the 1980 hostage crisis with Iran. But in volume and intensity, that incident cannot truly compare with those few months following Pearl Harbor...." The 1982 book is impressively well researched and equally well written, but in some ways, Lord's narrative style is somehow more appealing.
Lord takes the reader back in time and into both the American and Japanese participants' many vantage points. In a natural, easy-to-digest narrative, Lord (whose best known work is A Night to Remember, about the sinking of RMS Titanic) describes the complex sequence of events of the Battle of Midway.
Because Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's plan was complicated -- full of diversionary raids, multiple approaches by various fleets, and all based on the assumption of American "complicity," Lord wisely avoids bogging down the reader with military jargon or technical analysis. Instead, he uses an almost novelistic style, telling the story from the perspective of the participants.
"Petty Officer Heijiro Omi didn't have a word to say in excuse," Lord writes at the beginning of Chapter One. "As the Admiral's chief steward, he was responsible for the food at this party -- and that included the tai, a carefully selected sea bream cooked whole. It had been a happy inspiration, for tai broiled in salt meant good luck in Japan. But this time the chef had broiled it in bean paste -- miso, to be exact -- and as every superstitious Japanese knew, that extra touch meant crowning good luck with bad."
A seemingly trivial start, one might say, but up to June of 1942 the Japanese had had nothing but good luck. In six months Japan had overrun Allied territories from Hong Kong, Malaya, Burma, Singapore, the Netherlands East Indies, the Philippines, New Guinea, and on to the Solomon Islands. Even the April Doolitle Raid on Japan and the strategic loss of the Battle of the Coral Sea seemed to the Japanese to be a few minor setbacks. Yamamoto's grand scheme, to capture the tiny atoll of Midway and lure the remnants of the United States Pacific Fleet to a final battle, was, in the minds of the Japanese, a sure recipe for victory.
The Americans, Lord writes in the foreword, "were hopelessly outclassed." Outnumbered in almost every category of warship and depending on obsolete equipment, the defenders of Midway were seemingly doomed. Yet, with the help of naval code breakers, the quiet yet determined leadership of Admirals Chester W. Nimitz and Raymond A. Spruance (who had replaced the war weary and temporarily sidelined William F. Halsey as a task force commander), and the raw courage of Midway's motley crew of sea- and land-based defenders, the Americans won the Battle of Midway and stopped Japan's advances in the Pacific.
Lord points out that the biggest reason Midway was such a disaster was the Japanese overconfident mindset. The plan, impressive on maps (with all the arrows depicting Japanese fleets converging on one spot from various directions), was far too complex for its own good. Too many ships were scattered on different missions, violating the military principle of concentration of force. Worse, everything depended on the Americans reacting exactly the way the Japanese expected them to. The plan did not allow for any unplanned contingencies, and even though the Japanese gave the U.S. Navy a bloody nose with the sinking of USS Yorktown and a destroyer (in addition to shooting down many American aircraft), Nimitz and Spruance won an incredible victory over a formidable foe.