The Capital of Annapolis

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — After 25 books, writing projects should come easy for Craig Symonds.

But the historian admits to being nervous when he was approached to write about Midway. After all, much of his career has been devoted to the study of the Civil War, not World War II. And Symonds didn’t think he could uncover any fresh tidbits on the pivotal Pacific naval battle of June 1942.

“I’m a 19th century scholar, not a 20th century scholar,” he said. “I thought I’d find nothing new, I’d just try to retell the
story in a compelling way.”

Symonds was ready for a change, but thought a book on Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his admirals was more the way to go. After all, Symonds had written a similar book called “Lincoln and His Admirals.”

But Oxford University Press wanted the Midway book, he said, so he pressed ahead. He did already have more than passing familiarity with the subject, given his long years teaching at the Naval Academy and a previous book which included Midway as one of the naval battles that shaped American history.

Still, an entire volume on Midway was daunting.

The more he delved into the research, though, the more he found himself caught up in the project and welcomed by the community of World War II scholars. His eyes lit up and he smiled last week when he started talking about digging into oral histories of the men who fought the battle.

“What I tried to do is put together the oral histories to recreate a moment” to make readers feel like they’re there,
Symonds said.

He also attempts to bring key figures in the battle to life, such as Adm. Chester Nimitz. “It allows us to put ourselves in
their place,” he said.

Symonds spoke at the academy, which has a Midway monument and where he’s back teaching after a six-year retirement.

He taught there 29 years before returning this academic year as the Class of 1957 Distinguished Professor of American Naval Heritage.

The book took three years to complete, with time off for other projects such as last fall’s “The New Times Complete Civil War 1861-1865.”

“The Battle of Midway,” which was released last week, is part of Oxford’s Pivotal Moments in American History series and Symonds said the battle certainly fits the bill.

In the introduction, he writes: “In a series that focuses on historical contingency, it is appropriate, perhaps even essential, to include the Battle of Midway, for there are few moments in American history in which the course of events tipped so suddenly and dramatically as it did on June 4, 1942. At ten o’clock that morning, the Axis powers were
winning the Second World War… An hour later, the balance had shifted the other way. By 11 a.m., three Japanese aircraft carriers were on fire and sinking. A fourth was launching a counterstrike, yet before the day was over, it too would be located and mortally wounded. The Japanese thrust was turned back. Though the war had three more years to run, the Imperial Japanese Navy would never again initiate a strategic offensive…”

If Midway hadn’t happened, Symonds said, the war may have dragged on longer and cost tens of thousands more lives.

Symonds said he doesn’t have any “smoking guns” in the book, but he does take pride in his research. “I put together pieces and connect the dots,” he said. “If I made a contribution, it’s connecting the dots in new ways.”

This applies to his conclusion about the amount of information provided by code breakers about the Japanese plans. It wasn’t as complete as previously thought, he said, and success in the battle was attributable to decisive decision-making, not luck.

“We knew a little bit,” he said. “Decision-makers had to deal with the intelligence.”

Mark Weber, curator of the United States Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C. had high praise for Symonds’ approach.

“He’s taken away some of the thought this was a big piece of luck,” Weber said.

Symonds also reaches his own conclusion about the so-called “Flight to Nowhere” where planes searched in vain for two
“missing” Japanese carriers.

Midway expert Ronald Russell calls Symonds’ book “more accurate, more thorough and more expertly crafted than anything we’ve seen so far.”

“It’s the book people focused on the battle of Midway have been waiting for decades,” said Russell, who lives in California, has written about the battle himself and runs The Battle of Midway Roundtable.

Those who want to hear Symonds speak about Midway should head to the Navy memorial Oct. 25. He’s scheduled to give a free talk and book signing. “He’s a masterful, captivating speaker and amazing historian,” Weber said.

Information from: The Capital of Annapolis, Md.,

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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