Return To Midway


There is an almost savage linear intensity to the atoll seascape, with its luminous aqua color inside the lagoon, thin white line of demarcation far out, where the waves crash into the reef, and deep blue beyond. Clouds billow in the sky, and white terns wheel in twos and threes, their undersides reflecting the pale aqua of the water. Soft trade winds rattle the ironwood tree branches, and the only sound is of bird cries. A rosy hue seems to wash over it all. It would be hard to imagine a place with a more primeval beauty or a more ferocious past.

For most of Midway’s human history, Americans have been in charge of this lonely but strategic outpost; officially, it remains a U.S. possession. In 1903 Sand Island became a relay station for the Commercial Pacific Cable Company’s transpacific cable, enabling Theodore Roosevelt to send the first electronic message around the world. In the 1930s, the atoll served as a seaplane base for the Pan American Clippers that flew to the Orient.

Midway was a forward naval observation post when it was bombed on December 7, 1941, the day the Japanese decimated the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. Early in May 1942, Adm. Chester Nimitz, mindful of Japan’s invasion plans, made a quick trip to Midway. He poked into every building and every bunker and took note of the turn-of-the-century guns and leftover World War I equipment that had accumulated. Within two weeks, men and supplies began to pour in: antiaircraft and shore defense guns, mortars, tanks, torpedoes, and massive amounts of barbed wire. Dive-bombers, fighter planes, and B-17s and B-26s were flown in to beef up the antique fleet of Navy PBYs, Vindicators, and Brewster Buffalos already on the base. Pilots came too, most of them just out of flight school with no more than four hours of flying time. It was an island of very young men, with a few veterans of the First World War and the Spanish Civil War to point the way.

The defenders of Midway—3,632 strong—had just two weeks to prepare for the invasion. Some 120 planes jammed Eastern Island, 11 PT boats moved into the lagoon, 1,500 booby traps were set up on the beaches, barbed wire enmeshed the islands, and sandbags were piled everywhere. The whole garrison went underground, with the Navy and Marine command posts in dugouts in the middle of Sand Island. Gun emplacements lined the beaches. MoIotov cocktails, made from old whiskey bottles, were stockpiled. By the end of May, everything that could be done was done.


What most of the atoll’s defenders, along with the entire Japanese armada, did not know was that help was on the way. Three aircraft carriers—the Hornet , Enterprise , and Yorktown , the latter still limping from wounds inflicted during the Battle of the Coral Sea—were steaming toward a rendezvous at a spot aptly called Point Luck, 350 miles northeast of Midway. The carriers, with their 234 planes, were surrounded by what was left of the fleet, 23 cruisers and destroyers. Surprise was what they had going for them. The Japanese were proceeding in all their oblivious glory: 4 carriers surrounded by 7 battleships, 10 cruisers, 16 submarines, 45 destroyers, and supporting craft, including 5,000 troops to take Midway.

Before dawn on June 4, 108 Japanese warplanes set off toward Midway; at six thirty-four their bombs began raining down on Sand and Eastern. The movie director John Ford, who had been enlisted to make documentaries for the Navy, made his way to the upper deck of a powerhouse and filmed as the bombs fell. One of the huge seaplane hangars was hit and burst into flame, and oil tanks exploded as the Japanese fighters came in low to bomb and strafe. Ford took shrapnel in his shoulder but continued filming. Midway’s defenders blasted away furiously; the air filled with black smoke and flames. That initial assault was over in twenty minutes; the toll on Midway itself was just 11 dead and 18 wounded. The Japanese pilot leading the attack, surprised at the intensity of the defense, radioed that another bomb run was needed.


All this while, pilots from Midway had been flinging their antiquated planes against the Japanese armada in courageous and futile attacks; none scored a hit, and most fell prey to the superior Zeros. In one wave of 25 American planes, 23 were shot down. The Japanese could almost smell success. While their pilots were pounding the atoll, their carriers were arming fighters to attack the American fleet, which they expected to be close by. Certain that wherever it was it included no carriers, the Japanese commander decided to hit Midway again before sending in troops.