158: Midway with Craig Symonds

There are multiple movies that cover the Battle of Midway during World War II. Today, we’ll be talking about the 2019 movie directed by Roland Emmerich that stars Woody Harrison, Dennis Quaid and Nick Jonas.

To help us separate fact from fiction, I’m joined by Craig Symonds. Craig is the Earnest J. King Professor of Maritime History at the Naval War College as well as Professor Emeritus of History at the U.S. Naval Academy. He also has a great book called The Battle of Midway that dives into the true history behind the battle.

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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.


Dan LeFebvre: [00:02:40] The movie opens with some events leading up to the American’s involvement in world war II, starting with a meeting between Edwin Layton and his Heroku Yamamoto in December of 1937 and during this meeting, Yamamoto tells Leighton that Japan is both emboldened by their invasion of China and also eager to become a world power.

They get 80% of their oil from the United States. So he tells Layton that if that supply were threatened, they’d be forced to take drastic measures soon after this. The movie, fast forward to the attack on Pearl Harbor. So as I was watching this, it gave me the idea that Japan’s oil supply did end up being threatened after all, and that tension eventually led to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Was that one of the reasons behind the surprise attack on Pearl?

Craig Symonds: [00:03:35] It’s pretty much the reason. The thing to keep in mind here is that for the Japanese, the war in China was existential. They had gotten involved in Manchuria in 1931 invaded China proper in 1937 and found that they had bitten off maybe a bit more than they could comfortably chew.

The war extended into this morass combat that lasted for a decade. And. They were just pretty much in over their heads. They would win all the battles, but maintaining their control of China was so difficult. They recognize they need to do something to break out of this terrible situation. And so the key for them was oil.

Oil is the central cause of the Pacific war. They did get 80% of it from the United States. And recognize that the United States was in a position to leverage that and make the Japanese behave the way Americans wanted them to behave. And the Japanese are very uncomfortable with that. They wanted an independent source of oil.

The army in particular, and the army was a political power in Japan. The army saw that the Dutch East Indies, now mostly Indonesia, Java Sumatra Borneo had one of the world’s greatest known oil fields at the time. The middle East was pretty much not yet developed or discovered. So they were eager to access to that.

And with the fall of pollens to the Germans in 1940 their colonies in South Asia were pretty much orphans. So their goal was to go down there to the Dutch East Indies and capture them for Japan, use the oil that was there and carry it back to Japan. So Japan would become what a later generation would call energy independent.

The problem for them was that the American owned Philippines sat directly a stride, that line of communication from the Dutch East Indies back to the Homeland in Japan. So either way, either because the Americans would leverage their export of oil to Japan. In exchange for what the Americans considered good behavior or the American possession of the Philippines.

A stride. That line of communication to the Dutch East Indies meant that somehow to break out of this dependency, the Japanese would have to knock the Americans off their base so that they could become energy independent and finally win that war in China. Now, the problem with, the scene in the movie.

Is the, well, Eddie Layton was in fact the a an assistant Naval attache in Tokyo in 1937 it’s unlikely that they had that actual conversation because Leighton of course would know that Japan got 80% of its oil from me, and I’d say that conversation is presented to us. So that we, the audience know it and understand why the Japanese felt compelled and to taking on this superpower with the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:06:33] It makes you assume that Layton doesn’t really know a lot of that stuff. Strategy going on there as well.

Craig Symonds: [00:06:38] Right. And he’s an intelligence officer, so of course he already knows that.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:06:43] Well, I guess that makes sense for the filmmakers to explain that to us as the audience.

Craig Symonds: [00:06:48] Yes. So I think it does. It’s probably necessary.

I think one of the problems that filmmakers had, and they handled it pretty well, I think, is that it’s such a sprawling complex story to get into a two hour time slot, they had to. And to leave stuff out and they had to give the audience background information in the context as it was developing. For the most part, they do a pretty good job of that, but of course there are missing elements as well.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:07:15] That makes sense. And one thing that they show when we see the attack on Pearl is that the carriers are not at Pearl during that attack. It doesn’t, but the movie doesn’t really explain why they were ordered to stay out of Pearl. What were the American carriers doing during the attack?

Craig Symonds: [00:07:31] Okay. That’s a great question.

There would have been, should have been perhaps for American carriers, large deck carriers in the Pacific ocean during this time. One of them. The Yorktown had been sent from Hawaii around to the Atlantic, where in 1940 41 the United States was engaged in D and a clandestine war with German U boats protecting convoys across the ocean, carrying Lend-Lease goods to Britain and so on.

And Roosevelt pulled the Yorktown out of the Pacific to beef up the Atlantic squadron. So that goes from four down to three. The Saratoga. Another one of those four carriers was in Bremerton. Naval shipyard, undergoing a, a scheduled routine refit, but not left to, well, where were those two on the 27th of November.

In other words, just the couple of weeks before the Japanese attack, reading the Japanese diplomatic codes, and we can talk more about that later. Reading the Japanese diplomatic coats indicated to decision makers in Washington. That war with Japan was eminent. And a war warrant sent out by the chief of Naval operations and the army chief of staff to Pacific command saying war could begin at any moment, be prepared, be ready, and in order to be ready, husband Kimmel, the American Admiral in Pearl Harbor decided he needed to beef up two of his outlying outposts midway, which was 1100 miles to the North end.

Wake Island, which is 1200 miles to the West. And so with his two remaining carriers, he loaded him up with Marine fighters and sent them out to replenish the air squadrons at both midway and wake. And that’s where they were on the 7th of December. So although Yamamotos gold is primary goal, really . Knock the American fleet back on its heels in such a way that it couldn’t interfere with their conquest of the Dutch East Indies.

He really wanted to get those carriers, but they were off on other business delivering planes to midway, delivering things to wake, and that’s why on December 7th there were no American carriers in Pearl Harbor. Now, there are some people who are inclined to be suspicious about such. Things who saw a conspiracy theory or here, ah, you see somebody new, the Japanese was going to attack and we got the carriers out of the way on purpose.

I’ve investigated that great detail. There seems to be absolutely nothing to that. It was just a stroke of good fortune for the United States, or maybe good planning that their carriers were off on other business on December 7th, 1941.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:10:10] Yeah, I guess I could see that, but I could also see the other side of it.

if they knew something was going on, why only take the carriers out? Why not avoid the catastrophe that did happen and send more ships out of Pearl if they knew it was going to be attacked.

Craig Symonds: [00:10:25] Okay. That’s a good question. First, they did not know if it was going to be attacked. What they knew was the Japanese were probably going to declare war.

They were probably going to invade South Asia, Malaysia, Sumatra, Borneo, Java, maybe even the Philippines, but the idea of bringing a major strike force, six aircraft carriers all the way across the Pacific ocean, 2,500 miles. Undetected to attack the American state and Pearl Harbor was just absolutely impossible logistically in terms of intelligence and recognition.

It’s just was out of the question. It’s not that we didn’t expect the Japanese attack, we didn’t expect the Japanese attack on Hawaii. The Hilo daily newspaper on the big Island in real life. A week before, the attack had a banner headline and letters two inches high that said, Japan may attack this weekend.

And of course, they did what nobody knew was where they would attack.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:11:31] According to the movie after the attack on Pearl, there’s a little bit of dialogue with Admiral Chester Nimitz and he sets up the situation for how bad things are for the Americans in the Pacific in the wake of Pearl. He says the U S has three carriers, while the Japanese have 10 and the Japanese also have more battleships, cruisers, bombers, fighters.

Their equipment is all newer than the Americans equipment. Basically, the implication here is that the Imperial Japanese Navy has the American Navy heavily outnumbered. Can you give us some historical insight into how things looked for the Americans after Pearl Harbor?

Craig Symonds: [00:12:16] First of all, things were bad.

There’s no doubt about it. The American battle, sleet, and really this is kind of a pivot point in the character of Naval warfare because up to 1940 or so. The battleship was the queen of Naval worker. The assumption was that lines of heavy battleships firing 1516 inch guns, would dominate any kind of Naval combat in the future.

And carriers, we’re only beginning to emerge as the principal strike force of modern Navy’s. So the destruction of the American battles leave even a temporary destruction for ships on, for others, badly damaged. It would take months for them to repair it. The Japanese goal was to secure for themselves, control of the Western Pacific ocean for at least a six month period long enough for them to acquire that resource base in the South Pacific and the Dutch East Indies in particular, and then to fortify and solidify it and defy the United States to come and take it back.

Eventually, their assumption was the Americans would give up on this. The Japanese would get to keep their new conquest. They become energy independent and all would be well. It was a foolish assumption, of course. but we can revisit that question later. From Nimitz’s point of view, actually it wasn’t quite as bad as it looked because they had not.

Attacked the carriers. They had not hit the submarine pens in Pearl Harbor or the oil tanks that kept both the carriers and the submarines operational. So if the battleship force was taken out, that turned out to be not as disastrous as it looked in the horrible photographs that came out of Pearl Harbor because the carriers and the taskforce rounding, the carriers survived.

And the submarines survived and they had enough fuel to operate, but that is included in the movie, I think, to show something that is absolutely true and that is the American psychology that my gosh, I can’t believe these people when we have underestimated for many years, we’re able to carry this off.

That was a remarkable accomplishment. The steam that strike force all the way across specific wipe out the American battle line. My Lord, what are we confronting here? There was, I think, a psychological blow to the United States at the time. Even though underlying it, American capabilities had been weakened less than it looked at first.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:14:43] That makes sense that, like you were saying earlier, it was not expected, and so just that aspect of it by itself is going to have an effect on morale across the board.

Craig Symonds: [00:14:54] Absolutely. And not only was it not expected, the ability of the Japanese to carry it off, I think surprised a lot of Americans, a lot of Americans flipped immediately from, well, these are, a race of small, but to people with who are near sighted, who really can’t do much to, Oh my God, there’s Superman who can do anything.

So that psychological trigger, I think was critical too.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:15:17] Yeah. Going back to the movie, there’s, there’s a, well, I’ll call this a Hollywood moment, I call it that when it just shows something that seems too crazy to be true. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not true, but that’s why when I ask you about in this one, it’s the attack on the Marshall Islands and according to the movie, Dick best and his dive bombers take out most of the Japanese bombers on the Island.

Not all of them. We see some Japanese bombers dropping their bombs on the American carrier enterprise, but nothing hits. But one of the bombers is hit by an American anti aircraft and the bomber turned itself around. Crash into the enterprise, and this is when a character named Bruno Guidos hops into one of the airplanes, machine guns on the deck of the enterprise and shoots the bomber just enough to make a change trajectory and graze the enterprise.

Now, as soon as I saw that, I thought, surely that was made up for the movie, or maybe I’m wrong. Did something like that really happen.

Craig Symonds: [00:16:23] Not only did something like that happen, it happened almost exactly the way it was portrayed. That wasn’t very wonderful portrayal of an event that took place. Pretty much.

Exactly. It’s shown, and I have to really credit the producers of the movies with the CGI, but the electronic, computer generated imagery. That was able to produce that scene. It was absolutely perfectly done. Just as you saw it, even the conversation that takes place afterwards where Hall’s, he asks that this sailor come up to the flag bridge and he tells him, what’s your rating?

He says, a machine is second class. Well, now your machine is first-class. That’s almost word for word. On the fly bridge that day.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:17:03] Wow. Well, earlier you talked about the effect that the attack on Pearl happened in. That leads into the next aspect because there’s a bit of retaliation from the American side.

The movie gives us a date of April 18th, 1942 and this is when we see a bunch of army bombers on an aircraft carrier leading the mission of this as Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle. And about 650 miles East of Japan. Admiral Halsy decides not to get any closer to D to Japan with the carriers. He doesn’t want to risk losing them.

So do little and as men take off knowing that they won’t have enough gas to make the return trip. Now in his speech to the pilots before taking off in the movie, we see, do little mention that if they’re successful, it will be the first time in Japan’s history that they’ve been hit on their home territory and.

According to the movie, they are successful. They take off in a storm, there’s wind and rain whipping around, but then we see Doolittle’s bombers dropping bombs over Tokyo, and the movie then follows after the raids to where they’re forced to parachute from their planes. They run out of gas, they don’t really know where they, according to the dialogue in the movie, they don’t know what’s below them.

They just know the planes have run out of gas and they have to jump out. So they jump out. And then later on we find out there must’ve been over China cause they’re helped with some Chinese men that we assume they jumped out over China somewhere. But how well did the movie do showing the Doolittle raid?

Craig Symonds: [00:18:37] Pretty good. A couple of things about your question there. first of all, the idea, Is never that the planes will come back to the carriers to land there. The problem that the Americans had with this is that army bombers could take off from Macquarie. They actually had practiced that off Norfolk before they began this, so they knew bombers could take off.

Into a nice window at carriers always turn into the wind a launch. So the relative wind across the deck is increased. That allows them to get up with a relatively short takeoff distance, but there’s absolutely no way any of them could then land on a carrier. So the solution to this was that they would get to about 400 450 miles from Japan, fly over Japan, drop bombs, not just on Tokyo, but on a half.

Dozen Japanese cities and then continue on fly over the sea of Japan and land on friendly airfields in China. This had all been set up beforehand. But the difficulty was that the Japanese had directed a picket line of a radio equipped fishing trawlers essentially a some 600 miles off the coast, and those trawlers recognize the carrier capable airplane flying over them reported the presence of American carrier force that so that.

Causey’s decision was not, well, this is as far as I want to go. Having been discovered, this had all been preplanned beforehand, having been discovered, they had two choices. They could turn around and call it off, or they had launched immediately knowing that it was unlikely they could get all the way to those airfields, but at least they could perhaps get over the part of China, not yet occupied by the Japanese bail out over that area and maybe make it.

To some friendlies who would help him get back in the United States. So it raised the risk level dramatically on the flight and do little did give everybody a chance to back out if anybody doesn’t want to go. And of course everybody said, no, no, we want to go. So that’s why they launched from further out than the original plan called for.

So they knew they weren’t going to be able to get back, but they never intended to get back. They also knew now that they weren’t probably going to get to a friendly airfield, but perhaps they could get the China. Most of them did. Some of the planes crashed just getting to the China coast. The Japanese captured a couple of crews executed.

Some of the pilots held the others in prison until the end of the war. Few of whom actually survived. One plane landed at a lot of ASOP in the Soviet union, but remember, the Soviet union is still neutral in this war. The Soviet union stays neutral in the Pacific war, right up until August of 1945. So the Russians kind of said, well, okay, you’ve landed here but there, why don’t you leave?

And eventually they got out through Aranda, but most of what is depicted in the film comes straight from Jimmy Doolittle, his memoir, which is called, I could never be so lucky again. And tells the tale almost exactly the way Doolittle told that he landed in a, in a field that had recently been fertilized and was all stinky and the local farmers had stolen his discarded parachute because it was silk and they wanted to use it.

They did finally run into a Chinese patrol who got them to safety and eventually back to the United States. So the movie handles that quite well and does it particularly from Doolittle’s point of view, the point to make historically, I suppose about that, is that. None of this, the Doolittle rate did really not have a significant strategic impact on the war.

It was a morale boosting stunk, and everybody knew it, but boy did it boost morale. It does exactly what Roosevelt and Ernest King, the American chief of Naval operation hope that it would do, and that is the race, American morale, and made Americans feel like we struck back even though four bombs per airplane.

Dropped randomly over a handful of cities, did almost no of strategically important damage to the Japanese. It embarrassed them. And that led Yamamoto in particular to believe he had let down the emperor because protecting the life of the emperor was the first job of every Naval officer and the Imperial Japanese Navy, and they had failed to do that.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:22:50] Well, that leads to my next question because in the movie it suggests that because of the Doolittle raid that led the Japanese to believe that they need to focus on taking out the American carriers. Almost similar to what you were saying earlier, where. The attack on Pearl made the Americans believe that they need to take Japan seriously as a threat.

Now, the Doolittle rate almost flips that, at least according to the movie and where the Japanese are. Oh, we need to focus on taking out the American carriers. Now, was that part of the raid true?

Craig Symonds: [00:23:25] Well, yes or no, but mostly no, I’m afraid. Yamamoto had already decided he needed to take out the American carriers.

He was very disappointed to have missed them. Pearl Harbor, as successful as Pearl Harbor was, it wa it failed in that it did not get the American carriers and he put together the plan to attack midway. Not so much because he wanted midway, but because midway would be the bait, it would be the trigger that would cause Americans to send their two carriers out so that they would become.

Vulnerable to an attack and could be sunk in deep water where they could not be recovered. And getting rid of the American carriers was the primary motive of the entire midway campaign. He had already sold that campaign to the Japanese Naval general staff, so it had already been decided they were going to do this.

What the Doolittle raid did was convinced the army, which in Japanese politics is an entirely different entity from the Navy. They were almost. They were on the same side but barely spoke with one another, but it did convince the army that they would participate, that they would allow some of their resources to be involved in this campaign.

The midway campaign had already been written up, had already been approved. It was already in process before the Doolittle raid struck. It did convince the army to come on board.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:24:46] Okay. I think I remember some scenes where there’s dialogue between Yamamoto and the army and he’s trying to convince them to focus on the carriers, but the impression I got was that was almost the entire military.

Like LA Yamamoto is trying to convince everybody in the Japanese military across the board that this is what we need to focus on. Not necessarily just to get the army to help the Navy.

Craig Symonds: [00:25:12] Yeah. I think that’s true. It’s hard for Americans to understand. We, especially in the modern day, when joint operations are so common in the army, Navy and air force officers all get along.

Well, more or less get along together, except on football Saturdays. But in Japan, the army and the Navy were, were very distinct entities and very much at loggerheads. One another to the point where they would actually assassinate one another. It was. As severe a rivalries, not a strong enough word for it.

So Yamamotos effort to convince the high command, the general staff to go along with his plans was often an uphill battle for him.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:25:50] Well, yeah, that is a very different mindset than I would’ve thought. The next dates that we see in the movie is May 8th, 1942 and this is, it doesn’t really show the battle, but we see the aftermath of the battle of the coral sea and we find out that the Americans have lost a carrier there.

And there’s some dialogue that implies that only leaves two carriers left enterprise and Hornet. Now, since the movie kind of glosses over this a little bit, can you give us a little more of an insight into the battle of the coral sea and how it affected the overall war in the Pacific?

Craig Symonds: [00:26:30] Yeah, the curl C is really a milestone in the Naval warfare.

I mentioned earlier, we were talking about the ship. We can battle ship confrontation and carrier strikes and, and this is where it really comes to the, for you, it’s almost a pivot point. Here in the coral seat. This is the first Naval battle in history where the opposing forces never visually cited one another.

All of the confrontations took place from carrier, launched airplanes attacking one another. and it’s kind of a tactical draw. The Japanese, sunk the, our biggest aircraft carrier, the Lexington, and they suck a fleet oiler which was in the logistical difficulties of operating in the great expanses in the Pacific is also a severe blow and a destroyer.

The American sunk a small Japanese carrier and did severe damage to one of the two large Japanese carriers, but also shot down more of the Japanese aircraft. So on balance, you could say it looks pretty even, but strategically it’s an American victory because the confrontation in the coral seat convinced the Japanese to turn around their invasion convoy, which was headed for port Moresby on the South coast of new Guinea.

And surrender that initiative. This is the first time in the war that something they try to do had to be recalled because of something the Americans did. So the battle of the coral sea is an important moment. In hindsight, we now see it as a precursor to midwife, but at the moment, it’s a pretty significant event in its own right.

And you say there are only two carriers left, and that’s kind of true. There are only two fully operational carriers, left enterprise and Hornet, and those are the two carriers after all that conducted the Doolittle raid. So not only are they the only two fully operational terriers left, they’re coming back.

From that long voyage out to the, almost to the coast of Japan. So they’re not immediately available. But there’s an asterisk there with a footnote, which is that a third carrier, these Yorktown, which had been damaged in the coral sea, was still afloat. And of course, the big question is, could it be repaired in time and put the Hornet and enterprise get back in time for the United States to have three carriers available to confront the attack on midway.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:28:49] Well, that leads directly into the actual battle at midway. Now after the, the coral sea in the movie, we see that the Americans believe the Japanese are planning something big, and the codename is a F. the problem seems to be that they don’t know exactly where aF  is supposed to be. And so we see Leighton and a Navy Codebreaker find out a way to learn.

That destination, the way that they do this, and they say, according to the movie, and this is something that was actually not to get too far away from the 2019 movie, but they mimic this similarly in the 1976 movie midway as well, where they talk about AAF has lost their fresh water supply. That’s something that they intercept into Japanese message.

And then in this movie, Layton says something to the effect of. Well, that’s interesting because midway accidentally sent out an unencrypted message that their water plant was broken. Of course, it’s not broken, but that’s how the Americans are able to determine that codename  from the Japanese communications was actually midway.

Is that really how they found out that midway was the target.

Craig Symonds: [00:30:05] again, I have to say yes and no. Let me back this up a little bit by saying code breaking is absolutely central to the middle of midway. It’s central to the battle of the coral sea as well. By the way, the American carriers are in the curl sea because the Codebreakers had determined that the Japanese were making an attempt on Fort Moresby, and similarly, the Codebreakers informed Nimitz.

That the Japanese intended to attack midway. The code breakers themselves, and particularly Joe Rochefort, who led that group, have always depicted as being very eccentric mathematicians and some band members from the old battleship California and others for trying their best to break down these very difficult to crack Jap operational codes.

Now, this is very different from the diplomatic code. Which had been being read for some time. The operational code is much trickier and much more complicated and we never were reading all of it, but we were getting just bits of it just to, not to get pretty good hints. Roshe for for his part, know darn well what a F was.

He knew what was midway. He told Nimitz and he told Linton, we’re sure it’s a app. The problem is the national intelligence officers in Washington DC. we’re not so sure they knew the Japanese were building up their forces. They weren’t sure what the next attack would be. Maybe they’d try for port bores B again, or American Samoa or new Caledonia, or maybe that even go after the Panama canal or the West coast of the United States.

We just did with no. So this gambit, which was suggested actually by a game guy named Jasper homes for worked down in the code breaking area. They called the dungeon, suggested it to Roche. Rick, why don’t we use our submarine cable? We actually have a direct connection with midway by submarine cable.

Tell them to send us a message radio. In the clear that their salt water evaporators have broken down, and then we’ll wait. And if the Japanese intercept that in your report, that AFP short of water, that will show those doubters in Washington that we know what we’re talking about. And that’s how it came about.

Sure enough, Japanese intercepted. It reported that AAF was short of fresh water, and Washington said, okay, yeah, we agree. It’s midway. No doubt about it now. But Roche for kind of knew that from the beginning, so it wasn’t to find out. It was to prove that midway was the target. One more quick story about this.

It’s kind of fun that people tend to overlook. The Japanese on the supply ships that they were sending on this midway invasion strike. If you look now, once a war is over at the cargo manifests, one of the things they carried with them in their cargo ships was a new salt water evaporator to replace the broken one on midway.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:32:52] I mean, I guess it makes me wonder how many times somebody would know something, but they still had to prove it in order to find out. I wonder how much of that uncertainty came from the attack on Pearl. Throw into question a lot of, or I would assume, make a lot of the Americans doubt their strategies up until that point.

Craig Symonds: [00:33:10] Oh, sure. Absolutely. Well, the answer is because we work with this 20 hours a day. We’re working our selves blind and and reading all these codes, and we can tell, but that’s not going to satisfy. Somebody said, well, how come you couldn’t tell last December?

Dan LeFebvre: [00:33:27] Well, you mentioned earlier Yorktown, and according to the movie, after the coral sea, of course there were two carriers left, but then we also do see Yorktown getting repaired.

The dates according to the movie is May 29th, 1942. And at that time we see Nimitz and he goes to where Yorktown is being repaired and there’s still a huge hole in the deck. He says, I don’t care how it happens, but we need her to sail in 72 hours. Then later on, we see the sailors and pilots on enterprise cheer.

As they see Yorktown arrive. They call it a miracle that she got out of dry dock in time for the battle. Can you give us an overview of how your town was damaged at Pearl and how she was repaired in time for the battle at midway, like the movie shows.

Craig Symonds: [00:34:15] Okay. She wasn’t damaged at Pearl. This is damage, of course, from the battle of the coral sea.

And then Japanese did in fact put a bomb right through the flight deck on the York town, but they also landed several bombs close alongside in the underwater concussion, and those bombs did severe damage to her hole. She had bent whole plates, big crack openings in the hole, so they had to close down the watertight compartments to keep it from flooding.

She was leaking oil all the way back from Pearl, from the coral sea. So Hawaii, she’s leaking oil as she goes. She limps into port and put in a dry dock. Now what they show in the film is this hole in the deck. That is not true, but I know why they did it. They did it to show how serious the damage was to the Yorktown.

But the real damage, the damage that mattered was the damage under water. That’s why she had to go into the dry dock. They drained out the water and Nimitz actually went down to dry dock number one. Pulled on some big, yeah, boots, like he’s going fly fishing, climbed down into the dry dock and sloshed around down there looking at the hole and that’s where he said, we have to have it back in 72 hours.

That’s a hard thing to film. The crew on the Yorktown had actually patched the hole in the deck before they got back to the Pearl Harbor. So at that time, there is no hole in the deck, but the damage was all underwater. And the question was, could they repair that damage. But enough so that she could become fully operational in time to get back out to sea.

And he looked it over and decided, yes, we can do it. He actually send a message to Ernie King back in Washington that he thought the damage could be repaired in 48 to 60 hours, and it pretty much was. But he did that by giving Liberty to the crew. Everybody get off the ship, the entire, repair force climbed all over.

That ship worked 24 hours around the clock. For two and a half days and got it repaired. They re flooded the dry dock, got her back out and off she went to confront the Japanese at midway. It’s a remarkable story, and the dock yard workers are as much heroes in the story as anybody else, but literally speaking, it wasn’t the hole in the deck.

It was the damage to the hole below the water.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:36:27] Oh, that’s a good point that you make that it’s difficult to visualize that the, the damage underneath, as much as you just see a big hall and as a moviegoer, you’re going to realize, Oh, this is not good. The movie suggests that Yorktown. Once it meets up with the other carriers.

So now there’s three carriers, and then there’s four Japanese carriers, but I don’t remember seeing a lot of indication about how many battleships, cruisers, destroyers, basically, who all was involved on each side. Can you give us an overview of the number of the ships that were involved in the battle of midway?

Craig Symonds: [00:37:04] Yeah, I can, and it’s interesting because Americans are often eagered for this confrontation as a David versus Goliath confrontation. The Japanese did have four carriers to our three. With those two carriers of choosing with those four carriers, two battleships, several heavy cruisers, and a span, a destroyer screen.

So the Japanese actually had 21 ships in that immediate group known as the mobile strike force, or in Japanese, the KIDO bootae. So there are 21 ships in the Quito bootae, but they are only part of a much larger effort by the Japanese. They invasion force is steaming separately. There’s a covering force.

There is something called the main force, which is actually the principal battleship group trailing behind. There’s another force headed up for Alaska to take two of the islands up there at two in Kiska. If you add together all of the ships, the Japanese had it see in the first week of June, 1942 it actually totals up to 159.

So a lot of times Americans who are eager to demonstrate just how much of a David versus Goliath confrontation it was. Well, he used that larger number. The Japanese had 159 ships. We had only 24 technically true, but at the point of contact at the battle between carrier forces on each side, the Japanese had 21.

The United States had 24 because we didn’t have all those other fleets out operationally doing other things. So at the point of contact, the odds were not quite as David versus Goliath as it seems. And of course, if you include the Island of midway and it’s airfield. You could argue that the Americans had a fourth landing platform.

It couldn’t steam around, but also couldn’t be sunk. So if you count midway and the three carriers, that’s four for the Americans, four for the Japanese. It’s pretty much a toss up.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:39:02] I’ve heard that bigger number before, and so I always assumed, yeah, that the Americans were just vastly outnumbered.

Craig Symonds: [00:39:08] They were overall, but they weren’t counted.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:39:11] According to the movie. We see the attack on midway begins at Dawn on June 4th, 1942 and it starts with Japanese planes strafing and bombing the Island. We see report to Nimitz from a scout plane that the Japanese fleet was cited 320 degrees, 180 miles Northwest of midway, and then he tells Layton, this is a little kind of a little bit of humor in there, that his intelligence was off by five minutes, five miles, and five degrees blatant jokes that he’ll try to do better next time, but they’re ready for the counter attack because of that intelligence where they’re able to determine where the Japanese are.

How well do you think the movie did showing the Americans being able to predict where the Japanese were going to be located.

Craig Symonds: [00:40:00] Remarkably well. That’s mostly true. Roche, Bert briefed Nimitz and his staff at a staff meeting on May 27th so this is just the a week, almost early. Exactly. A week before the attack.

And he told them they will come with four carriers. They will come from this direction, even named the four carriers. The Kaka Akagi story you and hear you. They will be about here. When they launched their planes, it was very specific. And so specific than a number of members of Nimitz, a staff kind of wrinkled their browsers.

That how, how can you be so specific? And of course, Rochefort and his team had spent the previous several days breaking down these little, this whole series of, of messages that the Japanese had in cautiously committed to the airwaves. and they. Piece those pieces of information together, like a giant puzzle and had just enough pieces to come up with this answer.

But I think it is true that because of that, Roche was able to tell, well, first lightened, but in this particular case, Nimitz personally, exactly where they’d be when they’d be, what they blonch and when it would happen.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:41:06] Wow. And I’m sure the ability for him to prove a F and prove that, okay, I know what I’m talking about helped in order to believe him this time around.

Craig Symonds: [00:41:16] It did. And you know, one of the reasons that became a little bit controversial is that technically, if you look at the chain of command. Rochefort as an intelligence officer reported to, Washington D C his boss was John Redmond and Washington, not late, but he enlightened, knew each other. They had been in Japan together.

That early scene where we see late and talking to Yamamoto, and just several years before that, Leighton and Roche for it had been the only two Americans who are over there on a attache purposes to learn Japanese, to study Japanese culture. So they became friends then and remained friends. So that they had telephone conversations almost every day, so that when Rochefort talked directly to Layton, who then of course talked directly to Nimitz, he was short circuiting the chain of command.

Technically, he was supposed to report to Washington. Washington would correlate his input with that from other intelligence gatherers, and then they would tell Layton what they thought the intelligence was saying. But. Nimitz learned to trust Layton and Layton, trusted Rochefort and Washington didn’t really like that relationship.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:42:23] One thing that we see in the movie I’m curious about is it goes out of the way to show. John Ford, legendary director on midway filming the footage as the attack begins. Was he actually there at the time of the attack?

Craig Symonds: [00:42:37] Yeah, he was, and that’s why it’s included. Then of course, John Ford is a bigger than life character, and I think the depiction of him saying, keep shooting, keep shooting, you feel for the poor.

Cameraman was supposed to stand out there and take these films, but that, that’s who John Ford was, and that’s pretty much the way that happened. The footage. That exists. Some of it and color actually shows mostly the buildings burning and billows of black smoke going up into the air immediately after the Japanese attack.

There is a lot of footage of the actual attack, but yes, John Ford was there and that footage survives. I think he can still see it on YouTube.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:43:11] Wow. Out to look for that. And it’s interesting that we knew that the attack was going to be there, but he was still there. I’m assuming he had to have flown there specifically to get some of that footage.

Craig Symonds: [00:43:22] Yeah, I guess so. And you wonder about that because this is all supposed to be a big secret. The idea that the Americans had broken enough of the Japanese code to tip them off, that this was coming was one of the most closely held secrets along with the Manhattan project for the entire war. So why would you tell John Ford, you know, that this was going to happen, but he clearly, somebody suggested him, well, you might get some good footage out there and who did that?

Whether there were consequences for saying so I do not know.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:43:51] Going back to the movie, the way it shows the Americans attacking the Japanese fleet starts with squadrons of torpedo planes. There’s a submarine that we see involve the Nautilus. But nothing really seems to hit the, there’s planes that are shot down.

The Japanese shoot down of a lot of the American planes. The Nautilus is pinned down by a destroyer. Then once the Japanese destroyer is sending depth charges on the Nautilus, once it’s done, it races back to the rest of the fleet, and that’s how the American dive bombers find the location of the Japanese fleet.

But even with the dive bombers, initially, at least according to the movie, nothing really seems to hit. Although we see some dialogue from the Japanese officers that even though they’re not taking any hits because they’re getting these constant attacks, they’re not able to get their own bombers off the decks because of these attacks.

And finally, we do see some hits. The Americans are able to get on the soar you, I believe that’s the first one that was set ablaze by bombs according to the movie. Can you give us an overview of how the battle progressed compared to what we see in the movie? I

Craig Symonds: [00:45:01] can remember that the first strikes on the Japanese, Quito, bootae, the carrier force come from the Island of midway.

Those go around. Because the , it doesn’t matter if the Japanese find out that their airplanes are midway, they know where midway is. They don’t yet know that the American carriers are out there North of them. That’s going to be a surprise, and we hold back that surprise until the critical moments. So the early strikes all come from the Island midway.

And these, this is an eclectic group of. Army bombers, Marine Corps bombers, a wayward Navy squadron that didn’t get hooked up with its own carrier. And, and because there are different types and they fly at different speeds and different altitudes, that early attacks are pretty much wasted. It’s really a sad thing.

The pilots and the. And the gunners are determined and they press the attack, but, they, they’re just savaged by the Japanese and not just the anti air fire, but particularly by the Japanese zeroes. Flank cap, combat air patrol over the carriers and some 80 or so airplanes Nimitz and sent everything he could out to midway to defend it.

But none of those strikes, managed to lay a glove on. The Japanese and the Japanese are feeling pretty smug about this. And then the next attack comes from the American torpedo bombers, and there’s a long story which we can get into if you want about why the torpedo bombers, which are the slowest of all the American Stripe planes are the ones that get there first, but they get there first without.

Fighters support and without ordination from the bombers, and they are all wiped out. In fact, we see the torpedo squadron eight from the Hornet is literally wiped out. All 15 planes are shot down. All the pilots and rear seat gunners are killed. Say one man and some George Gay, subsequently famous on the cover of life magazine.

So all the torpedo bombers are shot down and so up to now, the Japanese that really haven’t all their way, they’ve had no damage. They shut down everything the Americans have thrown at them near nearly a hundred American airplanes, and they’re almost ready to launch their own attack. When here come the dive bombers overhead, and this is one reason why the battle of midway is such an amazing sequence of events.

If someone wrote this in a novel, you’d say, well, that’s ridiculous. That could never happen. The coincidences are too great, but it’s true. At 10 25 in the morning, those dive bombers appear overhead. Now, you’ve suggested in your question that they too seem to miss it first, but in fact. Once the dive bombers arrive, once a Wade McCluskey is two squadrons, the bomber squadron and the fighter squadron from enterprise arrive over the Quito bootae.

Not only does the battle of midway flip, the Pacific war flips between 10 25 and 10 30 on the morning of June 4th. The course of the war is changed dramatically in a five minute moment. That happens so seldom in any human activity, and particularly in warfare, that it seems unlikely, but in fact, it’s true.

and one of the reasons it’s possible is that the Japanese fighter planes had all flown down to a relatively low level in order to shoot down those torpedo bombers, so that when the dive bombers arrive up at 20,000 feet, the skies are clear. No one interferes with them. They get to line up on the carriers, make a good ready as they used to say, and then tip over and conduct those screaming die bombing attacks, which are pretty much the way they’re portrayed in the movie down about 70 degrees, almost straight down.

The wind’s so strong, the GS for so great pilots can barely pull out at the end of it, and then they dropped their gravity guided bombs and. Almost immediately the cargo and the Ecobee are blanketed with bombs from McCluskey, squadrons and, they’re mortally wounded, both of them now. Best, who’s one of the characters, the producers and director decided to make a central story line is the one guy who recognizes that all of the American dive bombers were diving on the same carrier, and he and his two wing men pull out of that and say, no, no, no.

We can’t all dive on the same ship and those three planes, and this is depicted quite well in the movie, focus on the Ecobee, which is the Japanese flagship. And you wouldn’t think ordinarily the three planes. Attacking the flagship of the Japanese fleet would make a difference. But as depicted in the movie, and it’s very well done, the two wingman land bombs close alongside you see both of those.

They land just off the starboard and port beam. But Dick best balm and Dick best is carrying a 1000 pound bomb. Land square in the middle of the flight deck. It has a tiny little delay fuse on it. It goes down to the hangar deck where the Japanese are preparing all their strike planes, refueling them with ordinance piled up on both sides.

That bomb goes off, cooks off all that ordinance, and with one bomb, the Ecobee is doomed. And again, in a novel, you’d say, not very likely, but in fact, that’s exactly how it happened.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:50:12] Well, you mentioned that the deputies fighters were flying low because of the torpedo bombers getting there first, but you also mentioned that the torpedo bombers getting there, being one of the slower planes, that that was not necessarily expected.

So I’m assuming that wasn’t the strategy too. Divert the Japanese planes lower so that then the dive bombers will be free and clear to, to bomb. That was that pretty much just good fortune that that happened that way.

Craig Symonds: [00:50:41] Well, it wasn’t good fortune for the pilots of the Turkey bombers. But you’re right, it was not planned.

This was not a strategy. Oh, we’ll lure them away and then the dive bombers will come in. This is a set of circumstances that develops at seven o’clock. Admiral Spruance launches the planes from the two carriers for which he is responsible. That’s the coordinate and the Yorktown. The Hornets planes fly off in the wrong direction and they’re out of the battle.

Notice they’re not even in the movie. Forget them there. They’re not involved. But the enterprise planes fly down to where the coordinates are supposed to be, and there’s nobody there. And as you suggested earlier, they see this one errant destroyer heading North. They think, ah, that must be where they are.

And they head North and they find them about 10 25. But what had happened during the launch sequence is that it was taking so long that Spruance ordered the bombers. You go ahead and go, don’t wait for the torpedo bombers. It’ll take too long. We’ll lose the element of surprise. Go now. So McCleskey flies off at the bombers, and then once the torpedo planes.

Get up in the air they had off, but they head in a slightly different direction. And of course, as we know, McClusky had to looked around before he found the would die and the torpedo bombers found them right away. So that’s how they arrived first. Not because it was planned, but because that’s the way it worked out.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:52:03] That sounds like pretty, the movie did a pretty good job of. Explaining, or at least showing that aspect of it. They’re rivals at different times.

Craig Symonds: [00:52:11] Yes, it did. I will say this, that it’s a much more complicated story explaining why the Yorktown planes went in the wrong direction and why the torpedo planes from the Hornet, not the Yorktown from the horn.

It went in the wrong direction, and then the Hornet torpedo bombers, there’s actually a bigger story there, but in order to get this immense. Story into a two hour timeframe. I can see the director saying, we can’t do that. What they do show is absolutely accurate, but there’s a lot that they don’t show that adds context and nuance to what does happen.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:52:46] That makes sense. Now in the movie, the way that they show the results of this, as you mentioned earlier, we see Dick best dropping a bomb and their carriers set a blaze. But then Yamamoto decides to withdraw from midway. Eventually he says, not going to gamble any further loss. One of the carriers, I believe it’s Yamaguchi and pneumo, decided to stay on board, but the rest of the ship is abandoned crew and they’re going to go down with the ship.

They’re going to scuttle the ship so it doesn’t fall into American hands. At the end, the movie shows four Japanese carriers sunk, and even though Americans lost a lot of pilots and planes, none of the American carriers were lost in the movie. Is that the end result of the battle of midway?

Craig Symonds: [00:53:34] Not quite the last of the Japanese ships to hear you, the fourth of them that launched the attacks to attacks against the Yorktown is the last one to be sunk.

It is true that Yamaguchi goes down with his. A ship along with his chief of staff. They just decided they would admire the moon together as the people at the time remembered them saying that, and that’s in the movie. It’s absolutely accurate. It’s not unusual, not only in the Imperial Japanese Navy, but in other navies.

For. Captain to believe that they have failed in their mission. That’s their duty to go down with the ship. That’s less true among Americans who are more pragmatic about those things. No, I’m going to go get another ship and come back. But, but that was not unusual and it’s certainly happened there. It is not true that the Americans did not lose a carrier.

the Yorktown, the planes of which sunk the soar you in that morning attack, was the recipient of two vicious. Counter attacks by the Japanese, both of them from the here you one from dive bombers, one from torpedo planes. She was hit by several bombs, several torpedoes. The captain had to order abandoned ship and then went back aboard to try to salvage her and bring her back.

She was being towed slowly about three knots back for Pearl Harbor. When a Japanese submarine put two more torpedoes into her. So the poor Yorktown was just beat to pieces and did sink early on the morning of June 7th. so the Japanese did think an American carrier, the York town. It’s kind of interesting too, because.

They believed that they had sunk to the Yorktown in the coral sea. You know, their official reports. I went back to, not only did we sing to Lexington, we also sang to Yorktown. Well, wait a minute, here’s the Yorktown again at Pearl Harbor. And the first group that came out, the bombers said, well, we sent the Yorktown, and then the torpedo planes came out and found this big carrier, which I thought was a different one.

And they sunk the Yorktown, and then the Japanese submarine can, and that’s something Yorktown. So that poor ship. What suck at least four times according to the Japanese records. And the bottom line to that is that one of the new carriers being built back in the United States that had been designated to be the bonum Rashard named an honor of John Paul Jones ship was rechristened that you Yorktown.

So not only did the Yorktown CV five seem to have multiple lives, but from the Japanese point of view, here comes another York town, this one CV 10 the fight. Again in the war and that ship, by the way, still floats and as a museum ship in Charleston Harbor and can be visited today.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:56:09] I imagine that had to have an effect on Japanese morale to be like thinking the same shit over and over and over.

I mean, that’s  it’s like it won’t go down.

Craig Symonds: [00:56:19] Yeah. It’s like a Hydra headed monster that you come up and said, and another one grows in its place.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:56:24] One thing I want to ask you about is throughout the movie we see a lot of aerial warfare. There’s the torpedo bombers, dive bombers, just dog fights in the skies between American and Japanese fighters.

How well do you think that movie did overall depicting the Navy pilots and their aerial combat strategies?

Craig Symonds: [00:56:45] I think the movie does a wonderful job using computer technology to demonstrate how that works. I have heard. People say that the star of the movie is not any of the characters. The star of the movie is the computer generated images, and I think that’s probably a fair statement.

I think they did a super job. There are four kinds of airplanes on each carrier. This is for the Japanese and the Americans as well. There are the dive bombers who usually carry larger bombs from the Americans case, a thousand pound bombs. Then there are the so-called scout bombers, often the same airplane, the dauntless, but carrying 500 pound bombs or two 100 pound bombs or both.

Then there are the torpedo planes and this case, the so-called Devastator, low slow sluggish drives like a truck. That carried a very heavy torpedo. The sad thing about that, of course, is the American torpedoes. Lee did not work and certainly did not work well. None of them worked at midway. And then the fourth category are the fighter planes.

In this case, the Wildcat. Yeah. Four of six. And you F for a, for Wildcat, that were designed to protect the bombers and the torpedo planes as well as the task force. And I think without getting into a whole lot of technical detail, the producers did a really nice job of letting the audience see these different kinds of aircraft and how they worked.

I noticed that. Some of the images from under the planes show the dauntless dive bombers with the wheels tucked up into the little wheel. Well, I mean, the depictions are absolutely wonderful.

Dan LeFebvre: [00:58:22] You mentioned that the tide of the war in the Pacific change in five minutes and the movie does mention briefly, I think it’s actually in the American side.

They talk about, or maybe it was on the Japanese side, they talk about. Potentially why the Japanese picked midway as a target. The idea being that midway would then allow them to launch from there to attack Hawaii and then eventually the West coast of the United States. And then because of the movie doesn’t show much aftermath of, you know, the battle of midway.

It doesn’t continue on through the rest of the war, but it does imply that it was a turning point for the war. So the idea that I got there was perhaps it was a turning point for the war because we were able to stop the Japanese from. Advancing and potentially launching attacks on the West coast of the U S mainland.

Was that why it was such a turning point or was there a different strategical reason why the battle of midway was such a turning point for the war in the Pacific?

Craig Symonds: [00:59:24] No, that’s not it really. The Japanese really had no intention of invading the United States West coast. I mean, there was some talk about, would it be possible to put a bomb on one of the locks in the Panama canal to make it difficult for America to transfer forces from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

But by and large, the Japanese grand strategy was to knock the United States fleet off its pedestal. Take out the battleship fleet, which they did on December 7th. Sync the carriers, which they were trying to do at midway, and then consolidate their conquest in the Western Pacific, create a defensive barrier and let the Americans beat themselves up trying to take it back.

There was never a plan for the United States to invade California March to the Rocky mountain. None of that stuff. They didn’t not ever believe they could. Defeat the United States overall. What they believed they could do was wear out the will of the factless Americans to fight a long war in the Pacific.

Trying to take back what the Japanese conquered in that first six months, it was a resource war for what was available and the Dutch East Indies and the Americans would try to interfere, and the Japanese thought was that at some point the Americans would say, Oh, we’re not getting anywhere here. Let’s talk and in the negotiations have followed, the Japanese would use certain things they’d captured as bargaining chips.

Well, we’ll give you back Guam and wake and midway as bargaining chips in exchange for your recognition of our conquest of the Dutch East Indies. I think that was the kind of thing they had in mind. Midway had two purposes for them. One was to lure out the American carriers. The second was to conquer it and hold it as a bargaining chip for subsequent negotiation.

That was not a stepping stone to the conquest. Even a vote. Why much less of California or anything beyond?

Dan LeFebvre: [01:01:25] Yeah, that’s a little different than what I got from watching the movie, but I guess it makes sense that they couldn’t show all of that on top of what they were already showing in just a couple of hours.

Right. Is there anything that you wish was in the movie that they left out.

Craig Symonds: [01:01:40] Well as I say, they, there’s simply not room for a lot of the things that I found most interesting about the battle of midway. They do nothing with the fighter squadrons. Jimmy Fach, who invented a, what’d you call the defense? Deem maneuver, but always known as the FACHE.

We’ve are fighting against Japanese zeroes. He was a player, and I think this story would be almost as interesting as Dick bass. The flight to nowhere as it’s famously known, where the a strike force from the USS Hornet that played no role in the morning attack just flew off in the wrong direction entirely.

The whole story behind that is an interesting story, but here’s the thing. If I had been tasked with picking the main characters that I wanted to carry the story, I think, well, let’s see, who would I have? I’d have Nemetz because Nimitz makes the decision to accept the Japanese challenge. He’s going to defend midway because he’s got this intelligence advantage.

I picked late because the Leighton brought Roche Burt’s information to Nimitz so he could make that decision. I pick Wade Petoskey because he’s the one who sees that destroyer and flies North and finds the Quito bootae and I T Dick best, and by golly, that’s what they did. Now those four guys carry the story there.

A lot of their players here that could be talked about and, and their stories are absolutely fascinating. But it would be a 50 hour movie and nobody’s going to go see a 50 hour movie. I thought by and large, the decisions they made to use these four as their vehicles for explaining what happens makes a lot of sense.

I thought their technology display beautifully the way a lot of that stuff worked, and I think by and large, there’s nothing overtly misleading in the movie. It’s not complete, but it’s also not wrong, and that’s pretty good.

Dan LeFebvre: [01:03:32] Yeah. Well that leads right into somebody who wants to learn more about the real story.

And you do have a fantastic book called the battle of midway. Can you share some information about your book and where someone listening can pick up a copy?

Craig Symonds: [01:03:45] Oh, well, thank you. Yeah, sure. It should be just about any bookstores everywhere, as they say. Barnes and noble still has it on the shelves. Of course, Amazon sells it at a discount.

If you buy your books through Amazon. I think there’s a few hardback conditions still available, but mainly it’s selling the paperback. Now there is an audio book version which is available, and if you’re really keen on such things, it’s available in Chinese, Polish, German, and some other languages too. So, yeah, it’s, it’s pretty much available anywhere, I think.

I remember when I wrote this book, I was a little nervous about doing it because there are other good books on midway as well. Walter Lord wrote a wonderful book and of course, sound partial, and Anthony totally wrote one from the Japanese point of view called shattered sword that’s very good. And Gordon praying wrote a book called miracle at midway.

And I was nervous stepping onto this hollowed Brown because so many others that proceeded me. I think I did make a contribution and told the story fairly well. I strongly suspect the people who wrote the screenplay leaned heavily on it because there are some similarities, but of course it goes much deeper and much further than what is possible in the movie.

Dan LeFebvre: [01:04:57] Thank you so much for coming on to chat about the historical accuracy of midway.

Craig Symonds: [01:05:01] You’re very welcome. I enjoyed it.


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