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Thursday, April 13, 2017

“Return to Midway: The quest to find the Yorktown and the other lost ships from the pivotal battle of the Pacific War”, by Robert D. Ballard and Rick Archbold, illustrated by Ken Marschall


192 pages, National Geographic, ISBN-13: 978-0792275008

Midway was the one battle on which hinged the future of whom would dominate the Pacific Ocean. The Empire of Japan was, at the time, seemingly unstoppable, while the American Pacific fleet was on the ropes with only three operational carriers, as opposed to the Imperial Japanese Navy’s half-dozen fleet carriers. Fortunately, two were under repair in Japan in early June 1942, and the last four were sent to Midway in what was supposed to be a pivotal battle for her navy to extend their territory eastwards. However, U.S. codebreakers had cracked the Imperial Navy’s communications only recently and learned of their intentions. Only two American carriers remained undamaged, while the third, Yorktown, was repaired at Pearl Harbor in a Herculean effort following the recent Battle of the Coral Sea. What followed over a three day period, from June 4th to 7th 1942, the three American carriers inflicted irreparable damage to Japan’s carrier force, sinking all four of its carriers and a heavy cruiser with the loss of Yorktown and a single destroyer. It has been called “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare”.

Return to Midway by Robert D. Ballard and Rick Archbold provides a great insight into the battle, the harrowing firsthand accounts of survivors from both sides, and the strenuous search for the wrecks of the five carriers in the 1998 expedition. The USS Yorktown was the only one found, but illustrations by Ken Marschall of the wreck are breathtaking, giving you an idea of how surprisingly good a condition it’s in after over the half a century after she was sunk. The book is set out as a day-by-day narrative of both the actual battle and the search, covering everything from the recollections of veterans from both sides, to the searches for the six carriers lost during the battle, to the eventual discovery of the elusive Yorktown. Return to Midway does not attempt to tell the entire story of the battle of Midway (something that would be impossible in a mere 190 pages, which are themselves at least half illustrations), but Ballard, Archbold and the rest do sketch out the background: Pearl Harbor and the Kido Butai, Coral Sea, and the cryptography which put the Americans in position to intercept Nagumo’s fleet. The hour-by-hour narration of the battle is well done, and Ballard uses the presence of the four veterans (three of them aviators) to personalize the air battles from both sides’ perspectives.

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