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"The Battle of Midway" painting by John Hamilton. Naval History and Heritage Command

“[Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo] was wholly unfitted by training, experience, and interest for a major role in Japan’s naval air arm.”—Admiral Tsukahara Nishizō, Commander in Chief Eleventh Air Fleet.

“I consider [Rear Admiral 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 Admiral William Halsey, commander Task Force 16

One of 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 background or training in the aircraft weapons they were to wield. But such was the case when the Imperial Japanese Navy’s (IJN’s) powerful Kidō Butai( Carrier Strike Force) under Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo confronted the U.S. Navy’s smaller Task Force 16 under Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance and Task Force 17 under Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher on June 4, 1942.

For both sides, the command anomaly was no small thing. For the U.S. Navy, the “divide,” for that is what it became during World War II, between “brown shoe” and “black shoe” admirals had its origins in the Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell air force controversy following the end of World War I. During that war, Mitchell had been the commander of the U.S. Army’s air forces. Following the war he became the leading advocate of making the aviation arm a separate military branch arguing that as the U.S. Army was responsible for land operations and the U.S. Navy was responsible for operations on sea, a U.S. Air Force should be responsible for all warfare conducted in the air. Crucially, as far as the U.S. Navy was concerned, was his advocacy that seaborn aircraft carriers would be part of this new U.S. Air Force. The idea that a military branch other than that of the U.S. Navy would have command of warships was heresy that, putting it politely, didn’t sit well with even the most hidebound of “Big Gun” admirals skeptical of the value of Naval Aviation. And so it could be argued that Naval Aviation was not so much founded by the “Father of Naval Aviation” (Rear Admiral William Moffett), but rather by threats from a “crazy uncle” in the form of Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell.

In the early 1920s, during the build-up of Naval Aviation, pilots were authorized to wear brown shoes, signifying their identity as aviators. Battleship, cruiser, destroyer, and other surface warship officers wore black shoes. Over the years this small sartorial difference began to assume greater and greater significance as naval aviation advanced. With the success of the Japanese Navy’s air operations at Pearl Harbor and elsewhere in the opening weeks and months of World War II, pre-war philosophical and doctrinal differences that had been academic and theoretical, now, having been tested in blood through hard combat, became fist pounding on the desktop real. The clash between the two would reach its apogee in 1944.

But, in 1942, the U.S. Navy grappled with a more stark reality: how to stop the Imperial Japanese Navy from seizing Midway Island. And, to command the fleet that would hopefully do that, Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC) Admiral Chester Nimitz, had few options. In fact, one fewer than the few men otherwise available, because his first choice, Vice Admiral William Halsey, was out of action, hospitalized for severe psoriasis.

On the Japanese side, before the war began and with the opening attack plan centered on a strike at U.S. Navy facilities at Pearl Harbor and nearby Army Air Corps bases on Oahu by aircraft carriers, logic suggested that command of Kidō Butai should go to an admiral with a background in air power—a “brown shoe admiral” (even though the IJN didn’t have a similar uniform distinction). But the rigid dictates of seniority and protocol in the IJN demanded that the position go to the most senior admiral available, regardless of qualification. That was Nagumo, president of the Naval War College in Tokyo when the Kidō Butai was formed in April 1941.

Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo. Naval History and Heritage Command

Unlike his new boss, airpower champion Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Nagumo had a gunship career, commanding surface ships from destroyers to battleships. Also, Nagumo was a worrier, not a gambler. Yamamoto’s chief of staff, Rear Admiral 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. Yet, as an indicator of his reluctance for risk-taking, he refused to authorize a third air strike on Pearl Harbor that, had he done so, would have destroyed the fuel depots and maintenance facilities, and crippled any U.S. Navy counterstrike for months and arguably would have negated the assault on Guadalcanal in August 1942.

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

Frank Jack Fletcher, shown in this photograph with the rank of vice admiral, and with his ever-present pipe. Naval History and Heritage Command

Most of Rear Admiral Frank 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, Fletcher wanted the heavy cruiser Louisville as his flagship. But Nimitz ordered task force commanders to have their flags on carriers. Fletcher’s decision-making during the Battle of the Coral Sea dissatisfied Commander in Chief, United States Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King and caused him to question Fletcher’s suitability as a carrier commander, but Nimitz stuck by Fletcher.

From left to right: Admiral Chester Nimitz, Admiral Erest King, and Admiral Raymond Spruance. This is a photo of them in 1944 following the conquest of the Mariana Islands. Naval History and Heritage Command

For Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, command of Task Force 16 came as a complete surprise—he didn’t even know that his boss, Vice Admiral William 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 psoriasis in May 1942, he recommended that for the Midway battle Spruance replace him as temporary commander of Task Force 16.

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.

Spruance, a passionate walker, then began to walk the legs off them as part of a crash course in learning how to wage war in the air. 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.

At 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, and with them Imperial Japanese naval dominance of the Pacific.

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