Nothing distinguished the dawn of June 2, 1942, from countless other dawns that had fallen over tiny Midway atoll in the North Pacific. Nothing, that is, except the tension, the electric tension of men waiting for an enemy to make his move. On Midway’s two main islands, Sand and Eastern, 3,632 United States Navy and Marine Corps personnel, along with a few Army Air Force aircrews, stood at battle stations in and near their fighters, bombers, and seaplanes, waiting for the Japanese attack they had been expecting for weeks. The carrier battle of Midway, one of the decisive naval battles in history, is well documented.
But the role played by the Midway garrison, which manned the naval air station on the atoll during the battle, is not as well known. Midway lies 1,135 miles west-northwest of Pearl Harbor, Oahu. The entire atoll is barely six miles in diameter and consists of Sand and Eastern islands surrounded by a coral reef enclosing a shallow lagoon. Midway was discovered in 1859 and annexed by the United States in August 1867. Between 1903 and 1940, it served both as a cable station on the Honolulu GuamManila underwater telegraph line and as an airport for the Pan American Airways China Clipper (Miracle 5).
In March 1940, after a report on U. S. Navy Pacific bases declared Midway second only to Pearl Harbor in importance, construction of a formal naval air station began. Midway Naval Air Station was placed in commission in August 1941. By that time, Midway’s facilities included a large seaplane hangar and ramps, artificial harbor, fuel storage tanks and several buildings. Sand Island was populated by hundreds of civilian construction workers and a defense battalion of the Fleet Marine Force, while Eastern Island boasted a 5,300-foot airstrip.
Commander Cyril T. Simard, a veteran naval pilot who had served as air officer on the carrier USS Langley and as executive officer at the San Diego Air Station, was designated the atoll’s commanding officer. Along with the naval personnel manning the air station was a detachment of Marines. The first detachment was from the Marine 3rd Defense Battalion; it was relieved on September 11, 1941, by 34 officers and 750 men from the 6th Defense Battalion under the command of Lt. Col. Harold D. Shannon, a veteran of World War I and duty in Panama and Hawaii.
Shannon and Simard meshed into an effective team right away. World War II began for Midway at 6:30 a. m. December 7, 1941, when the garrison received word of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At 6:42 p. m. , a Marine sentry sighted a flashing light out at sea and alerted the garrison. Three hours later, the Japanese destroyers Sazanami and Ushio opened fire, damaging a seaplane hangar, knocking out the Pan American direction finder and destroying a consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat.
The Japanese retired at 10:00 p. m. , leaving four Midway defenders dead and 10 wounded. On December 23, 1941, Midway’s air defenses were reinforced with 17 SB2U-3 Vought Vindicator dive bombers, 14 Brewster F2A-3 Buffalo fighters, and pilots and aircrews originally intended for the relief of Wake Island. The Buffaloes and Vindicators were cast-off aircraft, having been replaced by the Douglas SBD-2 Dauntless dive bombers and Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat fighters on U. S. aircraft carriers.
The Buffaloes became part of MarineFighter Squadron 221 (VMF-221), while the Vindicators were put into Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 241 (VMSB-241), both making up Marine Air Group 22 (MAG-22) under Lt. Col. Ira B. Kimes. Midway settled into a routine of training and anti-submarine flights, with little else to do except play endless games of cards and cribbage, and watch Midway’s famous albatrosses, nicknamed gooney birds, in action (Stevens 56). Then, in May 1942, Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, commander in chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, came up with a plan, called Operation Mi, to draw out the U. S. Pacific Fleet by attacking Midway. Using Midway as bait and gathering a vast naval armada of eight aircraft carriers, 11 battleships, 23 cruisers, 65 destroyers and several hundred fighters, bombers and torpedo planes, Yamamoto planned to crush the Pacific Fleet once and for all. Alerted by his code-breakers that the Japanese planned to seize Midway, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander in chief, Pacific Command, flew to the atoll on May 2, 1942, to make a personal inspection. Following his inspection, Nimitz took Simard and Shannon aside and asked them what they needed to defend Midway.
They told him their requirements. “If I get you all these things, can you hold Midway against a major amphibious assault? ” Nimitz asked the two officers. “Yes, sir! ” Shannon replied. It was good enough for Nimitz, who returned to Oahu (Robertson 58). On May 20, Shannon and Simard received a letter from Admiral Nimitz, praising their fine work and promoting them to captain and full colonel, respectively. Then Nimitz informed them that the Japanese were planning to attack Midway on May 28; he outlined the Japanese strategy and promised all possible aid.
On May 22, a sailor accidentally set off a demolition charge under Midway’s gasoline supply. The explosion destroyed 400,000 gallons of aviation fuel, and also damaged the distribution system, forcing the defenders to refuel planes by hand from 55-gallon drums. All the while the Marines continued digging gun emplacements, laying sandbags and preparing shelters on both islands. Barbed wire sprouted along Midway’s coral beaches. Shannon believed that it would stop the Japanese as it had stopped the Germans in World War I. He ordered so much strung that one Marine exclaimed: “Barbed wire, barbed wire!
Cripes, the old man thinks we can stop planes with barbed wire” (Miracle 27)! The defenders also had a large supply of blasting gelatin, which was used to make anti-boat mines and booby traps. On May 25, while the work continued, Shannon and Simard got some good news. The Japanese attack would come between June 3 and 5, giving them another week to prepare. That same day, the light cruiser St. Louis arrived, to deliver an eight-gun, 37mm anti-aircraft battery from the Marine 3rd Defense Battalion and two rifle companies from the 2nd Raider Battalion.
On May 26, the ferry USS Kittyhawk arrived with 12 3-inch guns, 5 M-3 Stuart light tanks, 16 Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive bombers, and 7 Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters, along with 22 pilots–most of them fresh out of flight school, May 29 saw the arrival of four Martin B-26 Marauder medium bombers from the 22nd Bomb Group. These planes were specially rigged to carry torpedoes and led by Captain James Collins. That same day, 12 Navy PBY-5A Catalinas joined the 12 PBY-5s stationed on Midway. Beginning on May 30, Midway’s planes began searching for the Japanese. Twenty-two PBYs from Lt. Cmdr. Robert Brixner’s Patrol Squadron 44 (VP-44) and Commander Massie Hughes’ VP-23 took off from Midway lagoon, then headed out in an arc stretching 700 miles from Midway in search of the Japanese. Midway got further air reinforcement on June 1 when six new Grumman TBF torpedo bombers, commanded by Lieutenant Langdon K. Fieberling, arrived. None of the TBF pilots had ever been in combat, and only a few had ever flown out of sight of land before. The TBF would later be named Avenger in honor of its combat introduction at Midway. By June 1, both Sand and Eastern islands were ringed with coastal defenses.
Six 5-inch guns, 22 3-inch guns and four old Navy 7-inch guns were placed along the coasts of both islands for use as anti-aircraft and anti-boat guns. As many as 1,500 mines and booby traps were laid underwater and along the beaches. Ammunition dumps were placed all around the islands, along with caches of food for pockets of resistance and an emergency supply of 250 55-gallon gasoline drums. Midway had practically everything it needed for its defense. Along with the 121 aircraft crowding Eastern Island’s runways, Midway had 11 PT-boats in the lagoon to assist the ground forces with anti-aircraft fire.
A yacht and four converted tuna boats stood by for rescue operations, and 19 submarines guarded Midway’s approaches. Even with those preparations, there were problems. The air station’s radar, an old SC-270 set installed on Sand Island, showed many blips that were more often albatrosses than aircraft. Also, there was no plan for coordinating Midway’s air operations, which were dependent on a mixture of Army Air Force, Navy and Marine pilots and crews.
With that in mind, Midway’s commanders believed their only chance was to attack the Japanese carriers when they were located, in the hope of catching them with their planes on deck. This meant exquisitely precise timing, a monumental dose of luck, or both,” Admiral Nimitz explained. “Balsa’s [Midway’s] air force must be employed to inflict prompt and early damage to Jap carrier flight decks if recurring attacks are to be stopped…. ” By June 2, the Pacific Fleet’s three aircraft carriers–Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown–were in position northeast of Midway, but only a few key officers were aware that Midway’s defenders would be supported by them.
Midway’s Navy pilots were told not to “expect any help from the U. S. carriers; they’re off defending Hawaii. Midway’s only chance was for Nimitz’s carriers to take the Japanese by surprise. Early on the morning of June 3, the PBYs of VP-44 and VP-23 took off on their 700-mile search missions, joined by B-17 Flying Fortresses on their own search and attack missions. The remaining aircraft on Midway were armed, fueled and waiting for orders to take to the air once the Japanese carriers were located. At 9:04 a. m. , Ensign Charles R. Eaton, patrolling 470 miles from Midway, sighted three ships and got a burst of anti-aircraft fire for his trouble. Eaton quickly radioed Midway with the first enemy ship contact report of the battle.
Seven hundred miles west of Midway, Ensign Jack Reid flew his PBY-5A across a largely empty ocean, nearing the end of the outward leg of his patrol. He found nothing of interest and started to turn back. Just as he did, Reid saw some specks on the horizon 30 miles ahead. At first he thought they were dirt spots on the windshield. Then he looked again and shouted to his co-pilot, Ensign Gerald Hardeman, “Do you see what I see? ” “You’re damned right I do,” Hardeman replied (Miracle 49). At 9:25 a. m. , Reid radioed, “Sighted main body,” to Midway and began tracking the Japanese ships.
Midway ordered Reid to amplify his report, and at 9:27 he radioed, “Bearing 262 degrees, distance 700. ” At 10:40 he reported, “Six large ships in column… ” At 11 a. m. , “Eleven ships, course 090 degrees, speed 19. ” At 11:30, Reid was ordered to return to Midway (Stevens 96). At 12:30, a flight of nine B-17 bombers, each armed with four 600-pound bombs and led by Lt. Col. Walter C. Sweeney, took off (Lucas 28). Three-and-a-half hours later, the B-17s found the Japanese ships 570 miles from Midway and attacked from out of the sun. Sweeney reported seeing two ships burning after the strike.
In reality, Sweeney’s B-17s scored no hits on the Japanese ships, and the return flight to Midway proved every bit as harrowing as the attack itself. With their fuel almost exhausted, the B-17s came within sight of Eastern Island at 8:30 p. m. The last Flying Fortress landed at 9:45 p. m. While Sweeney’s B-17s returned from their attack, another strike of four PBY Catalinas, each armed with a torpedo and led by Lieutenant W. L. Richards, left Midway at 9:15 p. m. to attack the Japanese. All four PBYs returned safely, claiming three torpedo hits.
One torpedo hit the bow of the tanker Akebono Maru, killing 13 sailors and wounding 11; the transport Kiosumi Maru lost a few crewmen to strafing. June 4 began for Midway’s defenders at 3:00 a. m. with reveille. All gun positions on both islands were manned as pilots and aircrews stood by their planes. At 4:00 a. m. , six F4F Wildcats from Major Floyd B. “Red” Parks’ VMF-221 took off on combat air patrol. They were followed by 11 PBYs from VP-44, searching for the Japanese carriers, and 16 B-17s led by Sweeney that were to attempt another attack on the Japanese transports. At 4:30 a. m. the carriers of Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo’s First Striking Force–Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu–launched their aircraft. Fifteen minutes later, 36 Nakajima B5N2 Kate torpedo bombers, 36 Aichi D3A1 Val dive bombers and 36 Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighters were on their way to Midway. At 5:30, Lieutenant Howard P. Ady emerged from a cloud bank and spotted Nagumo’s carriers.
Ady radioed Midway, “Carrier bearing 320 degrees, distance 180. ” Ady ducked back into the clouds and circled the Japanese fleet, radioing again, “0553, Two carriers and main body of ships, carriers in front, course 135 degrees, speed 34. Fifteen minutes after Ady’s sighting, Lt. j. g. William Chase, flying south of Ady’s sector, saw a formation of Japanese fighters and bombers. Chase quickly radioed: “Many enemy planes heading Midway bearing 320 degrees, distance 150. ” On Midway, radar on Sand Island picked up the approaching Japanese planes at 5:53. Air raid sirens wailed, and all personnel raced to their dugouts and gun positions. Major Parks’ 21 Buffaloes and six Wildcats scrambled into the air, followed by Lieutenant Fieberling’s six TBFs and Captain Collins’ four B-26s.
Major Henderson’s dive bombers were last to take off. By 6:16, all 66 of Midway’s aircraft were airborne. While the bombers headed toward the Japanese carriers, Parks led six Buffaloes and three Wildcats to intercept the 108 oncoming Japanese planes. Captain John Carey, leading the three Wildcats in Parks’ flight, was first to sight the Japanese. “Tallyho! Hawks at angels twelve! ” Carey radioed. The Japanese bombers flew in a large V formation, trailed by gaggles of Zeros. Carey rolled his Wildcat and screamed into the V, blowing a Kate apart with his four. 0-caliber machine guns, then zoomed up for another attack. Japanese rear gunners raked his Wildcat, riddling Carey’s legs. Second Lieutenant Clayton M. Canfield followed Carey into his attack, destroying a Kate. Canfield saw Zeros diving on him. A 20mm cannon shell damaged his Wildcat, and he pulled up into the clouds and lost his pursuers. Coming out of the clouds, Canfield joined Carey and led him back to Midway. Captain Marion E. Carl, flying the third Wildcat, was jumped by several Zeros after attacking the Kates and was forced to break off his attack.
While the Wildcats fought for their lives, Parks led his six Buffaloes in an attack on the Kates. The Marines managed one pass before they were overwhelmed by the Zeros. Parks and four other Marines were killed. Only Lieutenant Daniel J. Irwin survived. He managed to fly his damaged Buffalo back to Midway with Zeros after him all the way. “Their gunnery was very good,” Irwin reported, “and I doubt if on any run they missed hitting my plane. ” VMF-221’s 12 reserve fighters, led by Captains Daniel J. Hennessy and Kirk Armstead, also attacked the Japanese planes (Lucas 104).