Return To Midway

PrintPrintEmailEmailAs we approached, the pilot came on the 737’s PA systern to announce that he would be swinging around the coral atoll before landing so everyone would get a good first look at our destination, one of the most remote in the Pacific Ocean. A murmur lifted and echoed through the cabin as those on one side and then the other strained to glimpse the wide lagoon, a luminescent aquamarine circle surrounded by the deep blue of the encompassing sea. Inside the lagoon we could see the precise green of Sand Island, Midway’s main island, where we would land, only one mile wide and two miles long, a mote in the boundless expanse of water.

Close by was the ghostly specter of uninhabited Eastern Island. From this altitude you could still make out the shadows of the airstrips there where fighter planes took off and landed more than half a century ago. Midway is 1,136 miles northwest of Honolulu, about halfway between California and Japan. A few hundred miles from the tiny atoll, a crippled American fleet, still reeling from the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor only six months before, vanquished a vastly superior Japanese fleet. In all the annals of war, there is no more astounding a chapter than the Battle of Midway, waged in a new era of combat by aircraft launched from carriers. The historian Walter Lord wrote of the Americans there: “By any ordinary standard, they were hopelessly outclassed. … They had no right to win. Yet they did, and in doing so they changed the course of a war.” The battle played out over four brutal days in the first week of June 1942. When it was over, 349 Americans were dead, and so were 3,000 Japanese.

Almost half the passengers on my flight to Midway late last summer were Japanese citizens traveling there for a ceremony to honor the memory of a father, a grandfather, or an old friend who had fought and died in the battle and who, as one of them put it, “now sleeps three miles deep in the ocean.” Also with us that day were six men who knew the history of the struggle even more intimately: They were survivors of aircraft carriers that had gone down —two Americans from the Yorktown and four Japanese from the Hiryu . All had been in their teens and early twenties at the time; now in their late seventies and eighties, they were returning to confront memories that would prove to be vivid and tormenting still.


In that spring of 1942, the weeks leading up to the battle were an excruciating brew of choices made, of the vagaries of weather, of luck and fate and timing. The Japanese had a huge advantage in size with an armada of 162 warships and auxiliaries steaming toward Midway, 4 of them aircraft carriers. The Americans had only 26 ships, most of what was left in the Pacific, including 3 carriers. But they also had a critical edge in intelligence.

In a basement at the Pearl Harbor Naval Yard, U.S. cryptanalysts had managed to crack the Japanese code. They had discovered the elaborate Japanese plan to invade and occupy Midway to gain a springboard to all of the Pacific and in the process draw out and annihilate the American fleet. “Our hearts burn with the conviction of sure victory,” the commander of a Japanese destroyer wrote in his diary. The Japanese were convinced that the Americans had neither the will nor the strength to survive their juggernaut, and their intelligence told them that no American aircraft carrier was anywhere near Midway.


Had I elected to go to Midway some weeks earlier, I would have made the weekly flight from Honolulu with the usual assortment of deep-sea fishermen, snorkelers and divers, bird watchers, and ecotourists eager to take part in one of the research projects of the Oceanic Society, a nonprofit conservation organization. One earlier flight had carried a reunion group of people who had lived on Midway in the fifties and sixties, when the atoll was a U.S. naval base and part of the Cold War’s Distant Early Warning, or DEW, line. My flight included Munetoshi Yamaguchi and his sister Hiroko Takahashi, who were traveling to honor their father, Rear Adm. Tamon Yamaguchi, who had commanded the carriers Soryu and Hiryu . They were part of a small group that was creating a memorial to the Japanese who had perished in the battle, and a Tokyo film crew was along to record the occasion. On the atoll, they would rendezvous with two Japanese Navy training ships making a call at Midway so their crews could take part in the ceremonies. I had expected my visit to the remote atoll, so long off-limits to the public, to be permeated with remembrances of its World War II history; I had not expected to have a frontrow seat in an emotional historical addendum to that tid-turning battle.