Return To Midway

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The first buildings on the island, five concrete-and-steel structures that housed the Pacific Cable Company, are clustered together near the beach, shielded by banyan trees. Close by stands the brandnew Clipper House Restaurant, linked by a wooden boardwalk to the equally new Captain Brooks Tavern, where music is strictly World War II vintage—“Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.” The stylish restaurant was built by Midway Phoenix, which brought in a French chef to give visitors an alternative to the food at the mess, which offers ethnic dishes prepared by cooks from Southeast Asia. Meals at the Clipper House are formal and excellent; at the mess they’re more prosaic but also more convivial. People move easily from table to table, swapping fishing and diving stories. After dinner, everyone wanders outside to take in the star-filled splendor of a sky as far from any city lights as you can get.

Once or twice a week the Fish and Wildlife Service cranks out an old landing craft left by the Navy and takes anyone who wants over to Eastern Island, ordinarily out-of-bounds for guests. The ride takes 20 minutes, often with a dolphin escort. On the day I went, some 60,000 sooty terns were in residence, along with red-footed boobies and great frigate birds. Low shrubs have broken through the crumbling wartime runways where Brewster Buffalos and Grumman Wildcats once took off. An ancient gun, recently scraped and painted by an Oceanic Society crew, marks the landing pier.

Jennifer Schramm explained that we would need to walk in zigzags to avoid the birds nesting in the bushes and their chicks. Eastern Island, where so many American planes were launched during World War II, and to which so few returned, is now given over entirely to wildlife. The air is filled with the seemingly perpetual cries of birds wheeling overhead.

One afternoon I drove my golf cart all around Sand Island, with Bill Surgi riding shotgun, and we searched out the old ramp where seaplanes were launched beginning in 1940. It’s now a favorite haul-out site for monk seals. We found one of the “instant” pillboxes that were made by sinking World War I-era tank turrets into the sand. The Marines defending Midway had dug two 30-foot-long hidden tunnels for access to the turret and had manned it with two machine guns. Had the Japanese landed, Marines would have crawled into half a dozen pillboxes like that one scattered around Sand and Eastern Islands and swung the turrets with a hand crank. These innovative if archaic emplacements were to be used only as a last act of defense. The old Submarine Base Support Building stands derelict, still pocked from the pounding it took on that long-ago June 4. In the old power plant, huge, antiquated generators stand silent. It is not hard to imagine the thunder they would have unleashed. The quiet of the island is deceiving; the whisper of war is everywhere.

Rolling south along the Waldron Trail, we stopped at an overlook to peer at a beach pillbox where Marines once scanned the ocean in search of approaching commandos. They missed the enemy submarine that was circling the atoll in the days before the battle, periscope up, watching and reporting back to the Japanese fleet. By the time we reached the West Beach trails, I had grown accustomed to spotting evidence of the battle. Sandy mounds with air vents on top signaled underground shelters. We had to pick our way carefully around the birds’ nests to reach a shelter where now only empty concrete rooms remained.

Bill Surgi invited me to an afternoon reception he had arranged for the Japanese contingent at Midway House, once the commanding officer’s quarters. Today the ground floor, where in 1969 President Nixon met in secret with President Thieu of South Vietnam, serves as a library and is open to all guests. We stood around with the Japanese, drinking Cokes or beers, smiling across the language barrier. Then, almost spontaneously, the survivors began to speak, and the television crew pushed in close. When it was Norman Ulmer’s turn, he cleared his throat and said, “To me, this place is sacred ground.” The soundman thrust a mike toward him. “I want you to know that I bear no rancor,” Ulmer told the Japanese. “Too many young men lost their lives here, Japanese and American alike. Their blood saturates this place, these waters. We are survivors of the Battle of Midway, but they were the heroes.” The 80-year-old paused, then added almost as an afterthought, “Soon all of our voices will be silenced.”

The elderly Japanese survivors and their families listened carefully as Ulmer’s words were translated. For a long moment no one spoke. Then Hisao Mandai, who had been on the carrier Hiryu , tall and straight at 79, softly said: “I will be always grateful to the captain of the American ship Ballard , which took us from the ocean. He held a burial service at sea for my officer and my three shipmates. Before he died, one young boy thanked his parents, his country, and praised his emperor.” The man’s face was solemn, almost inert; the only signs of emotion were the tears sliding down his cheeks.