THE UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND's Gordon W. Prange was a perfectionist's perfectionist. During World War II he began studying the opening phases of the war between the United States and Japan. After 37 years of poring over documents and interviewing participants on both sides of the Pacific, he still felt unready to publish his findings. He had by then completed more than 3,500 typescript pages on the Pearl Harbor attack and begun to condense these into material for a one-volume treatment. His health declining, he turned the work over to two of his former students, Goldstein and Dillon. Prange died in 1980, and the following year the condensed version appeared as the widely acclaimed At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor.

Now Goldstein and Dillon, basing their work mainly on Prange's research, offer Miracle at Midway as a sequel to the Pearl Harbor volume. More than a dozen books on the Battle of Midway have previously appeared, and little wonder. For the battle is endlessly fascinating. The Americans, thanks to codebreaking and sheer good luck, defeated a Japanese fleet of overwhelming strength that had advanced to attack and seize Midway atoll, where the U.S. Navy had an air station. The Navy's codebreakers, reading the enemy's secret radio messages, provided information that enabled America's three available aircraft carriers, Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown, on June 4, 1942, to get the jump on Admiral Nagume's four-carrier force spearheading the Japanese attack. After four hours of battle, it appeared the American were losing. They had made eight successive air attacks on the Nagumo force, five from Midway and three from their carriers, taking devastating losses and achieving only a little strafing damage on the enemy. Nagumo meanwhile had hurled a crushing air attack against Midway and was on the point of launching an equally powerful attack against the American carriers. At that moment dive-bombers from the Enterprise and Yorktown, after a long and frustrating search, found the enemy and dived, hitting three of Nagumo's carriers while they were in a state of utmost vulnerability -- with armed and fueled planes on their decks. All three carriers exploded like firecrackers. Planes from Nagumo's surviving carrier disabled the Yorktown, but before sunset the American dive-bombers had set the survivor fatally ablaze. The American victory turned the war completely around. The Japanese, after six months on the offensive, were thrown on the defensive and began the long retreat back to Tokyo.

While making use of Prange's copious notes, Goldstein and Dillon appear in this book to have done most of the final composition. The writing is not up to Prange's standard with respect to clarity, character portrayal, smoothness of transition, or skill in building to a climax. Moreover, Prange would have avoided, one suspects, such purple passages as one finds in the new book, e.g., "It might have been at the dawn of time, with the great reptiles bellowing to one another through the primeval mists. The melancholy blast of foghorns echoed hollowly."

The authors of the new volume salute such previous narratives as Fuchida and Okumiya, Midway: The Battle that Doomed Japan, the Japanese Navy's Story (1955), and Walter Lord, Incredible Victory (1967), stating that their own volume complements, rather than supplants, the earlier books. What Goldstein and Dillon have added, however, is mostly detail, often repetitious, that impedes the flow of the narrative without adding much to the reader's information or understanding. We are given, for example, a full description of the damages suffered by the Yorktown in the Battle of the Coral Sea and of the devices used to repair them. Apropos of nothing in particular, we are told that at 0940 on May 28 "the garbage lighter YG 17 nosed up to the Hornet and at 1015 cast off with its malodorous load."

There were available to the authors a number of relevant matters that have not been brought out in previous narratives. The fact, for example, that the Japanese tactics, over which so many historians have puzzled, were merely an updating of the Britsh tactics in the World War I battle of Jutland -- with Admiral Nagumo in the decoy role of Admiral Beatty, commanding Britain's battle cruisers, and Admiral Yamamoto, commander in chief of Japan's Combined Fleet, standing in for Admiral Jellicoe, commander in chief of Britain's Grand Fleet. Just as Beatty first exchanged fire with the German battle cruisers and then led the German High Seas Fleet under the guns of Jellicoe's dreadnoughts, so Nagumo was expected to strike the first blow at any opposing American forces afloat and then lead them under the guns of Yamamoto. Minoru Genda, Nagumo's operations officer, explained this plan to me in our one and only private conversation. He must have explained it in the score of interviews he granted Prange, and Prange must have recorded the explanation somewhere in his notes.

Goldstein and Dillon should have know better than to perpetuate the old boners that Admiral Nimitz knew that Midway was the Japanese target when he flew out to inspect the atoll on May 2 and that the American codebreakers in the night of May 24-25 cracked an intercept that laid out the Japanese plan in detail. Not until mid-May did the Americans uncover any clear evidence that the Japanese were planning to attack Midway. The Japanese never broadcast their attack plan by radio. The Americans became aware of the enemy's intentions through the astute detective work of Commander Joseph J. Rochefort, who headed the Pearl Harbor Combat Intelligence Unit, and Commander Edwin T. Layton, Pacific Fleet intelligence officer. These officers put together an outline of the enemy plan by studying mere hints found in fragments of Japanese radio messages decrypted between May 4 and 28. The cryptanalysts did indeed work all night on the 24th, but what they were doing was cracking the Japanese date-time cipher.

In the last couple of years all these facts have become available to researchers. The U.S. Navy Department after years of secrecy at last declassified the decrypted fragments. Since 1980 these have been available to all comers in the National Archives and in the Navy's Operational Archives. At the expense of a little extra legwork, the authors of Miracle at Midway could have corrected several oft-repeated errors and been the first to make public all the fascinating decryptions that made the American victory at Midway possible.