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Midway Islands' Undaunted Defenders - May '96: World War II Feature

Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: August 19, 1996 
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Midway Islands' Undaunted DefendersOutclassed by the approaching Japanese carrier task force, the American airmen at Midway prepared to do their best–unaware that a U.S. Navy carrier force was coming to their aid.By William B. Allmon

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National Geographic Link
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, torpedo planes 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. 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 ofthe 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 Nicaragua, 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 p.m., leaving four Midway defenders dead and 10 wounded.

On December 23, 1941, Midway's air defenses were reinforced by 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 Marine Fighter 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. 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 seizeMidway, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander in chief, PacificCommand, flew to the atoll on May 2, 1942, to make a personalinspection. Following his inspection, Nimitz took Simard and Shannonaside and asked them what they needed to defend Midway. They toldhim their requirements.

"If I get you all these things, can you hold Midway againsta major amphibious assault?" Nimitz asked the two officers."Yes, sir!" Shannon replied.

It was good enough for Nimitz, who returned to Oahu. On May 20,Shannon and Simard received a letter from Admiral Nimitz, praisingtheir fine work and promoting them to captain and full colonel,respectively. Then Nimitz informed them that the Japanese wereplanning to attack Midway on May 28; he outlined the Japanesestrategy and promised all possible aid.

On May 22, a sailor accidentally set off a demolition charge underMidway's gasoline supply. The explosion destroyed 400,000gallons of aviation fuel, and also damaged the distribution system,forcing the defenders to refuel planes by hand from 55-gallondrums.

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. Shannonbelieved that it would stop the Japanese as it had stopped theGermans in World War I. He ordered so much strung that one Marineexclaimed: "Barbed wire, barbed wire! Cripes, the old manthinks we can stop planes with barbed wire!" The defendersalso had a large supply of blasting gelatin, which was used tomake anti-boat mines and booby traps.

On May 25, while the work continued, Shannon and Simard got somegood news. The Japanese attack would come between June 3 and 5,giving them another week to prepare. That same day, the lightcruiser St. Louis arrived, to deliver an eight-gun, 37mm anti-aircraftbattery from the Marine 3rd Defense Battalion and two rifle companiesfrom 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–mostof them fresh out of flight school, May 29 saw the arrival offour Martin B-26 Marauder medium bombers from the 22nd Bomb Group,specially rigged to carry torpedoes and led by Captain James Collins.That same day, 12 Navy PBY-5A Catalinas joined the 12 PBY-5s stationedon Midway.

Beginning on May 30, Midway's planes began searching forthe Japanese. Twenty-two PBYs from Lt. Cmdr. Robert Brixner'sPatrol Squadron 44 (VP-44) and Commander Massie Hughes'VP-23 took off from Midway lagoon, then headed out in an arc stretching700 miles from Midway in search of the Japanese.

Midway got further air reinforcement on June 1 when six new GrummanTBF torpedo bombers, commanded by Lieutenant Langdon K. Fieberling,arrived. None of the TBF pilots had ever been in combat, and onlya few had ever flown out of sight of land before. The TBF wouldlater be named Avenger in honor of its combat introduction atMidway.

By June 1, both Sand and Eastern islands were ringed with coastaldefenses. Six 5-inch guns, 22 3-inch guns and four old Navy 7-inchguns were placed along the coasts of both islands for use as anti-aircraftand anti-boat guns. As many as 1,500 mines and booby traps werelaid underwater and along the beaches. Ammunition dumps were placedall around the islands, along with caches of food for pocketsof resistance and an emergency supply of 250 55-gallon gasolinedrums.

Midway had practically everything it needed for its defense. Alongwith the 121 aircraft crowding Eastern Island's runways,Midway had 11 PT-boats in the lagoon to assist the ground forceswith anti-aircraft fire. A yacht and four converted tuna boatsstood by for rescue operations, and 19 submarines guarded Midway'sapproaches.

Even with those preparations, there were problems. The air station'sradar, an old SC-270 set installed on Sand Island, showed manyblips that were more often albatrosses than aircraft. Also, therewas no plan for coordinating Midway's air operations, whichwere dependent on a mixture of Army Air Force, Navy and Marinepilots and crews.

With that in mind, Midway's commanders believed their onlychance was to attack the Japanese carriers as soon as they werelocated, in the hope of catching them with their planes on deck."This meant exquisitely precise timing, a monumental doseof luck, or both," Admiral Nimitz explained. "Balsa's[Midway's] air force must be employed to inflict promptand early damage to Jap carrier flight decks if recurring attacksare 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 defenderswould be supported by them. Midway's Navy pilots were toldnot to "expect any help from the U.S. carriers; they'reoff defending Hawaii." Midway's only chance was forNimitz's carriers to take the Japanese by surprise.

Early on the morning of June 3, the PBYs of VP-44 and VP-23 tookoff on their 700-mile search missions, joined by B-17 Flying Fortresseson their own search and attack missions. The remaining aircrafton Midway were armed, fueled and waiting for orders to take tothe air once the Japanese carriers were located.

At 9:04 a.m., Ensign Charles R. Eaton, patrolling 470 miles fromMidway, sighted three ships and got a burst of anti-aircraft firefor his trouble. Eaton quickly radioed Midway with the first enemyship contact report of the battle.

Seven hundred miles west of Midway, Ensign Jack Reid flew hisPBY-5A across a largely empty ocean, nearing the end of the outwardleg of his patrol. He found nothing of interest and started toturn back. Just as he did, Reid saw some specks on the horizon30 miles ahead. At first he thought they were dirt spots on thewindshield. 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.

At 9:25 a.m., Reid radioed, "Sighted main body,"to Midway and began tracking the Japanese ships. Midway orderedReid to amplify his report, and at 9:27 he radioed, "Bearing262 degrees, distance 700." At 10:40 he reported, "Sixlarge ships in column…." At 11 a.m., "Eleven ships,course 090 degrees, speed 19." At 11:30, Reid was orderedto return to Midway.

At 12:30, a flight of nine B-17 bombers, each armed with four600-pound bombs and led by Lt. Col. Walter C. Sweeney, took off.Three-and-a-half hours later, the B-17s found the Japanese ships570 miles from Midway and attacked from out of the sun. Sweeneyreported seeing two ships burning after the strike.

In reality, Sweeney's B-17s scored no hits on the Japaneseships, and the return flight to Midway proved every bit as harrowingas the attack itself. With their fuel almost exhausted, the B-17scame within sight of Eastern Island at 8:30 p.m. The last FlyingFortress landed at 9:45 p.m.

While Sweeney's B-17s returned from their attack, anotherstrike of four PBY Catalinas, each armed with a torpedo and ledby Lieutenant W.L. Richards, left Midway at 9:15 p.m. to attackthe Japanese. All four PBYs returned safely, claiming three torpedohits. One torpedo hit the bow of the tanker Akebono Maru, killing13 sailors and wounding 11; the transport Kiosumi Maru lost afew crewmen to strafing.

June 4 began for Midway's defenders at 3 a.m. with reveille.All gun positions on both islands were manned as pilots and aircrewsstood by their planes. At 4 a.m., six F4F Wildcats from MajorFloyd B. "Red" Parks' VMF-221 took off oncombat air patrol. They were followed by 11 PBYs from VP-44, searchingfor the Japanese carriers, and 16 B-17s led by Sweeney that wereto attempt another attack on the Japanese transports.

At 4:30 a.m., the carriers of Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo'sFirst Striking Force–Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu–launchedtheir aircraft. Fifteen minutes later, 36 Nakajima B5N2 Kate torpedobombers, 36 Aichi D3A1 Val dive bombers and 36 Mitsubishi A6M2Zero fighters were on their way to Midway.

At 5:30, Lieutenant Howard P. Ady emerged from a cloud bank andspotted Nagumo's carriers. Ady radioed Midway, "Carrierbearing 320 degrees, distance 180." Ady ducked back intothe clouds and circled the Japanese fleet, radioing again, "0553,Two carriers and main body of ships, carriers in front, course135 degrees, speed 34."

Fifteen minutes after Ady's sighting, Lt. j.g. WilliamChase, flying south of Ady's sector, saw a formation ofJapanese fighters and bombers. Chase quickly radioed: "Manyenemy planes heading Midway bearing 320 degrees, distance 150."On Midway, radar on Sand Island picked up the approaching Japaneseplanes at 5:53. Air raid sirens wailed, and all personnel racedto their dugouts and gun positions.

Major Parks' 21 Buffaloes and six Wildcats scrambled intothe air, followed by Lieutenant Fieberling's six TBFs andCaptain Collins' four B-26s. Major Henderson's divebombers were last to take off. By 6:16, all 66 of Midway'saircraft were airborne.

While the bombers headed toward the Japanese carriers, Parks ledsix Buffaloes and three Wildcats to intercept the 108 oncomingJapanese planes. Captain John Carey, leading the three Wildcatsin Parks' flight, was first to sight the Japanese. "Tallyho!Hawks at angels twelve!" Carey radioed. The Japanese bombersflew in a large V formation, trailed by gaggles of Zeros. Careyrolled his Wildcat and screamed into the V, blowing a Kate apartwith his four .50-caliber machine guns, then zoomed up for anotherattack. Japanese rear gunners raked his Wildcat, riddling Carey'slegs. Second Lieutenant Clayton M. Canfield followed Carey intohis attack, destroying a Kate. Canfield saw Zeros diving on him.A 20mm cannon shell damaged his Wildcat, and he pulled up intothe clouds and lost his pursuers. Coming out of the clouds, Canfieldjoined Carey and led him back to Midway. Captain Marion E. Carl,flying the third Wildcat, was jumped by several Zeros after attackingthe Kates and was forced to break off his attack.

While the Wildcats fought for their lives, Parks led his six Buffaloesin an attack on the Kates. The Marines managed one pass beforethey were overwhelmed by the Zeros. Parks and four other Marineswere killed. Only Lieutenant Daniel J. Irwin survived. He managedto fly his damaged Buffalo back to Midway with Zeros after himall the way. "Their gunnery was very good," Irwinreported, "and I doubt if on any run they missed hittingmy plane."

VMF-221's 12 reserve fighters, led by Captains Daniel J.Hennessy and Kirk Armstead, also attacked the Japanese planes.Hennessy's six Buffaloes smashed into the bombers and werejumped by the escorting Zeros, which destroyed four of them. Onlytwo of Hennessy's men survived. Armstead's Buffaloesintercepted the Japanese a few miles from Midway and downed threeKates before the rampaging Zeros destroyed three of them. Observingthe dogfight from the ground, Lieutenant Charles Hughes said thatthe Buffaloes "looked like they were tied to a string whilethe Zeros made passes at them."

The Japanese pushed relentlessly toward Midway. To Marine PfcPhillip Clark at D Battery on Sand Island, the Japanese formationslooked like "three wisps of clouds far out on the horizon."On Sand and Eastern, the Marines and sailors waited for the attack.An observer marveled at the "very calm…lackadaisicalair" with which the defenders waited for the strike, "asthough they had been living through this sort of thing all theirlives."

"Open fire when targets are in range," 6th Battalionheadquarters notified all guns at 6:30 a.m. One minute later,Midway's guns opened fire. A Kate erupted into flames anddove straight down. A second Kate crashed into the lagoon, missingthe PT-boats. The remaining Kates struck Sand Island, destroyingthree oil tanks and setting fire to a seaplane hangar.

The attack on Eastern Island began with an unforgettable incident."Suddenly the leading Jap plane peeled off," an eyewitnesswrote. "He dove down about 100 feet from the ground, turnedover on his back and proceeded leisurely flying upside down overthe ramp." The Marines watched for a few seconds, then openedfire and shot him down.

Val dive bombers struck VMF-221's arming pit, killing fourmechanics and exploding eight 100-pound bombs and 10,000 roundsof .50-caliber machine-gun ammunition. Another Val demolishedEastern's powerhouse, disrupting Midway's electricityand water distillation plant. Japanese efforts to render Eastern'srunways useless were unsuccessful; only two small craters wereleft on the landing strips.

Midway's defenders fought back with everything they had.Major Dorn E. Arnold of the 6th Defense Battalion fired a BrowningAutomatic Rifle at the enemy; a sailor on Sand Island used a Colt.45. Second Lieutenant Elmer Thompson and another Marine fireda .30-caliber machine gun from a crippled SB2U.

The Japanese attack ended at 6:48 a.m. The all-clear sounded onMidway at 7:15, and the process of picking up the pieces began.Kimes ordered VMF-221's fighters to land. Six Buffaloesstaggered in. Including four aircraft that landed during the raid,only 20 U.S. fighters had survived. Of those, only one Wildcatand a single Buffalo were fit to fly. Fifteen Buffaloes and twoWildcats were shot down, and 13 pilots were killed. Eleven Japaneseaircraft were downed by the fighters and anti-aircraft fire, while53 were damaged.

Colonel Shannon's trenches, bunkers and revetments provedeffective. Only 11 of Midway's ground defenders were killedand 18 wounded. None of Midway's planes were caught onthe ground except for an old utility biplane and a decoy planemade of crates and tin roofing called the "JFU" (Japfouler-upper).

While Midway repaired its damage and its defenders licked theirwounds, the aircraft that were sent out to attack the Japanesecarriers made contact. Lieutenant Langdon Fieberling'ssix TBFs reached the Japanese fleet at 7:10, dropped to low altitudeand bore on toward the carriers. So many Zeros swarmed aroundthe vulnerable torpedo planes that the fighters got in each other'sway. Two TBFs were destroyed in the first attack, followed bythree more.

Realizing that he could not reach the carriers, Ensign AlbertK. Earnest loosed his torpedo at a cruiser, then broke away withtwo Zeros after him. Earnest flew his shot-up TBF back to Midway,navigating "by guess and by God."

Close behind the TBFs, Captain James Collins led his fourB-26 Marauders into a gauntlet of anti-aircraft fire and six Zeros. Collins led his planes down to 200 feet above the water and,followed by Lieutenant James P. Muri, pressed on toward the carrierAkagi. Collins released his torpedo 850 yards from the carrierand pulled away. Muri released his torpedo at 450 yards, thenturned and flew down the middle of Akagi's flight deck.

Once Muri's B-26 was clear of Akagi, the Zeros attackedwith a vengeance, wounding two crewmen and riddling the landinggear, fuel tanks, propeller blades, radio and the top of one wing.Despite that punishment, Muri and Collins were the only survivorsof the four-plane B-26 group. Then, at 7:48, the TBF and B-26attacks were followed by VMSB-241's 16 Dauntless and Vindicatordive bombers led by Major Lofton Henderson. Henderson had dividedthe squadron into two flights, leading the SBDs himself whileMajor Benjamin W. Norris led the Vindicators. As Henderson ledthe squadron northwest, the faster Dauntlesses soon left the Vindicatorsbehind. Henderson's SBDs got their first look at the Japanesecarriers at 7:25, and he radioed his Dauntless pilots, "Attackthe two enemy CV on the port bow."

Henderson had led his squadron down to 4,000 feet when the Japanesecombat air patrol attacked. The Dauntlesses also met with heavyanti-aircraft fire from the Japanese ships. Henderson'splane was hit, and his port wing caught fire. He tried to keephis burning Dauntless in the lead, but finally lost control andplunged into the sea. Captain Elmer C. Glidden quickly took commandof the Dauntlesses. "Fighter attacks were heavy,"he wrote, "so I led the squadron down through a protectinglayer of clouds." The Zeros followed the Marines into theclouds.

Glidden came out of the clouds and found two Japanese carriers,Kaga and Hiryu, 2,000 feet below. The 10 remaining Dauntlessesdived to 500 feet or lower before releasing their bombs, thensped away at full throttle, hounded by Zeros. Three SBDs crashedat sea near Midway. Their crews were later rescued. The remainingsix, some badly shot up, reached Midway. Eight SBDs, includingHenderson's, were lost, with the Japanese sustaining nodamage.

Sweeney's 15 Flying Fortresses arrived over Nagumo'sfleet at 8:10, as the Dauntlesses finished their attacks. Seenfrom 20,000 feet, the Japanese fleet was "an astonishingsight," recalled B-17 pilot Don Kundinger. "A panoramicview of the greatest array of surface vessels any of us had everseen–they seemed to stretch endlessly from horizon to horizon."Each three-plane B-17 element attacked on its own. LieutenantColonel Brooke Allen's element unloaded its bombs on thecarrier Soryu, but all fell short. Sweeney targeted Kaga, bracketingher stern with, he believed, "one bomb hit…causingheavy smoke."

Three Zeros ganged up on Captain Cecil Faulkener's bomber,riddling its fuselage and wounding the tail gunner. Another Zerodueled with Captain Paul Payne's Fortress but never closedin. "The Zeros barely touched the B-17s," CaptainPaul Gregory reported. "Enemy pursuit appeared to haveno desire to close on B-17E modified." The B-17s finishedtheir attack by 8:20 and returned to Midway. Sweeney believedhis B-17s had hit at least one of the Japanese carriers. In reality,they had not.

Shortly after the B-17s left, Major Benjamin Norris' 11Vindicators arrived and Zeros swarmed over them. Norris, withno illusions about his old "Vibrators," decided notto press on toward the carriers. He led his men into some clouds.Coming out of the cloud cover, Norris discovered a battleshipbelow. It was Haruna, supposedly sunk in December 1941. "Attacktarget below," Norris radioed, and he led the Vindicatorsinto a high-speed glide. Anti-aircraft guns on Haruna opened firewith an "extremely heavy and troublesome but inaccuratebarrage." Only two of Major Norris' Vindicators werelost during the attack. Three ditched at sea near Midway becauseof battle damage. Despite reports that they had scored two directhits and three near-misses, the Vindicator pilots had not evenscratched Haruna.

If the Battle of Midway had ended with the return of VMSB-241'sVindicators, it would have been another victory for the Japanese.Midway had sent 52 aircraft against the Japanese and lost 19 withoutscoring a single hit.

"From the time of the attack and the known position ofthe enemy carriers, we estimated they would be back in three orfour hours," Kimes wrote. Only six Dauntlesses, seven Vindicators,one Buffalo and a single Wildcat were left to oppose the Japanese.The defenders of Midway steadied themselves for another air raid.Nothing happened. The only aircraft to show up were 11 Dauntlessesfrom the carrier Hornet at 11 a.m. Some Marine gunners, believingthey were Japanese planes, opened fire on the SBDs before recognizingtheir silhouettes. The Dauntlesses were refueled and back in theair by 2 p.m.

At 3:58, Midway's defenders received an indication thatthe Japanese were taking a beating when a PBY pilot reported "threeburning ships." At 5:45 he reported, "The three burningships are Jap carriers." The stricken vessels–Akagi,Kaga and Soryu–were the victims of SBD Dauntlesses fromthe American carriers Enterprise and Yorktown.

At the same time out at sea, B-17s from Midway, along with sixmore Flying Fortresses from Hawaii, attacked the Japanese carrierHiryu, which had been damaged and set afire by dive bombers fromEnterprise and Hornet. The B-17s claimed hitting the burning Hiryu,as well as a cruiser and battleship, and sinking a destroyer.In fact, the land-based bombers were no more successful in theafternoon than they had been in the morning.

With all four of Nagumo's carriers destroyed, Yamamotodecided he could not proceed with his plan to occupy Midway, and ordered his fleet to withdraw. Midway's defenders,however, still expected the Japanese to invade. Captain Simarddispersed his PBYs, evacuated nonessential personnel and warnedhis PT-boats to expect a night attack.

At 1:20 a.m., the Japanese submarineI-168 opened fire on Midway with its5-inch deck gun. Batteries B and E on Eastern Island, along withBattery D on Sand Island, returned fire with their 3- and 5-inchguns, lobbing 42 shells at I-168, which lobbed eight shells back.The brief exchange resulted in no damage to either side. Mostof I-168's shells fell in the lagoon. The submarine submergedat 1:28, the Marine gunners ceased firing and Midway settled backinto uneasy silence.

June 5, 1942, began for Midway's defenders at 4:15 a.m.,after Sand Island's radio picked up a report from the submarineUSS Tambor of a large enemy force possibly within striking distance.The Midway garrison still had every reason to believe that aninvasion was imminent. Within 15 minutes, eight B-17s took offfrom Eastern Island to counter the threat. The Army pilots couldnot locate the enemy ships in the early morning fog, and by 6a.m. the B-17s were circling nearby Kure Atoll waiting for information.

At 6:30, a Midway-based PBY reported, "Sighted 2 battleshipsbearing 256 degrees, distance 125 miles, course 268 degrees, speed15." Two minutes later the PBY added, "Ships damaged,streaming oil." The Japanese ships were retreating, andthe island's defenders breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Marine Aircraft Group 22 sent up two flights from VMSB-241, sixDauntlesses under Captain Marshall A. Tyler and six Vindicatorsled by Captain Richard E. Flemming, to attack the two "battleships"–actually the heavy cruisers Mikuma and Mogami, damaged in a collisionthe night before. Forty-five minutes later, the Marine pilotsspotted the oil slick left by the damaged cruisers and followedit to Mogami and Mikuma. Tyler led his six Dauntlesses into anattack on Mogami amid heavy anti-aircraft fire. The Marines droppedtheir bombs, scoring a few near-misses.

At 8:40, minutes after Tyler's attack, Flemming led hisVindicators out of the sun, through heavy flak from the Japaneseships, against Mikuma. Captain Leon M. Williamson, a pilot inFlemming's flight, saw Flemming's engine smokingduring his dive. As Flemming pulled out, his Vindicator burstinto flames. Flemming–either by accident or design–crashedhis blazing Vindicator into Mikuma's aft 8-inch gun turret.The crash started a fire that was sucked into the cruiser'sstarboard engine room air intakes, suffocating the engineers.

After the Marines finished their attacks, the eight B-17s fromMidway, led by Lt. Col. Brooke Allen, appeared and dropped theirbombs, scoring a near-miss on Mogami. The damaged cruisers continuedlimping westward, and Mikuma sank at sunset the next day afterattacks by aircraft from Enterprise and Hornet.

At 10:45 on June 6, 1942, Captain Simard dispatched 26 B-17s fromMidway in search of Japanese cruisers reported heading southwest.The bombers did not locate the cruisers, but six B-17s droppedtheir bombs on what they thought was a Japanese ship. The pilotsreported that they had hit a cruiser, which "sank in seconds."It was actually the submarine USS Grayling, which submerged whenthe Flying Fortresses dropped their bombs.

While Midway's bombers continued attacking the retreatingJapanese, Simard had his PBYs and PT-boats searching for downedpilots. Between June 4 and 9, Midway's PBYs picked up 27airmen.

By June 7, it had become apparent that Midway was secure. Theisland's garrison, for all the damage it had suffered,had contributed its fair share to the victory over the Japanese.


Author William B. Allmon writes from Jefferson City, Mo. For furtherreading: Incredible Victory, by Walter Lord; Miracle at Midway,by Gordon W. Prange; and History of United States Naval Operationsin World War II, Vol. IV, Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions,May 1942-August 1942, by Samuel Eliot Morison.


4 Responses to “Midway Islands' Undaunted Defenders - May '96: World War II Feature”


  1. 1
    Valerie says:

    My brother was stationed on Midway Island in WWII. He told me that he synchronized the machine guns on the planes so that the bullets would not shear off the propellers on the planes. Anyone with more information for me? He passed away in 1957. I wish that I knew more about it.

  2. 2
    Valerie says:

    I should add that (from his Discharge Paper, his Military Duty was Armorer Air, 911. He entered the Marines March 26, 1943 and was discharged March 1, 1946.

  3. 3

    [...] Battalions in World War II (Battalion Summaries) Found a reference to some other Marines at Midway: Midway Islands' Undaunted Defenders – May '96: World War II Feature On May 25, while the work continued, Shannon and Simard got somegood news. The Japanese attack [...]

  4. 4

    [...] ? My sources (SS, but also http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/usmchist/midway.txt and Midway Islands' Undaunted Defenders ? May '96: World War II Feature) say the contrary : "the extremely extensive system of obstacles, mines, and demolitions [...]



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