Skip to main content

Return To Midway

June 2024
15min read


As 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.

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.

The American commanders figured that the Japanese carriers would now be refueling their planes and thus vulnerable, with aircraft, bombs, and gasoline all on deck. The Enterprise , Hornet , and Yorktown launched every available plane, hurtling them in batches at the incredulous Japanese. Wave after wave went in, and each was repelled, until at ten twenty-six that morning, dive-bombers from the U.S. fleet screamed down on the carriers Kaga , Akagi , and Soryu . Their decks were strewn with planes and fuel and bombs, and within five minutes, all three Japanese carriers were blazing and on their way to the bottom. At about noon, planes from the remaining Japanese carrier, the Hiryu , found the Yorktown and scored direct hits; the call to abandon ship went out. At five that afternoon, American dive-bombers would find and sink the Hiryu .

Rear Admiral Yamaguchi—the father of Munetoshi and Hiroko, who were with me on Midway—was a Princeton man whose “temper was matched only by his courage,” in the words of the historian John Toland. Yamaguchi chose to go down with the Hiryu . By the end of the day, the Japanese had lost all their four carriers. Stunned, the invincible fleet withdrew, leaving Midway unconquered. Although the war in the Pacific was far from over, after the Battle of Midway the Japanese were at best fighting a holding action. It was a dazzling victory for the Americans and one of the most astonishing reversals in the history of warfare.

When the U.S. Navy finally left, in 1997, the atoll transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the Miday Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. As the rangers like to say, they traded “guns for gooneys,” gooney being the name for the albatross. The atoll is the world’s largest breeding ground for the Laysan albatross and contains the world’s second-largest black-footed albatross colony. It also serves as home base for such magnificent seabirds as the red-footed booby and the great frigate bird. More than 250 species of fish inhabit the lagoon, along with endangered green sea turtles and Hawaiian monk seals and a colony of 300 spinner dolphins that leap and frolic almost every morning. Midway is the American Galápagos.


“Midway has a changing cast of characters,” Ron Anglin, the manager of the refuge, told me, referring to the 17 species of seabird that nest there. Starting in November, the albatross return to do their distinctive mating dances, dipping and preening and stretching in a rhythmic, ornithological version of the macarena. Soon albatross babies, some 400,000 of them, are everywhere, perched on sandy little mounds in every field and open space, waiting for their parents to come feed them. Visitors spend their days weaving among the unperturbed chicks, then go to sleep at night listening to the soft lowing and clacking noises of a million albatross.

Late in the spring, the young birds begin to stretch their wings. They try to get their big feet flapping and run to get aloft. It is comic to watch: The juvenile birds fall on their faces, pick themselves up, and try again. The laughter stops when some fall into the water and become prey to the sharks that enter the lagoon only at that time of year. Ultimately, most of the young albatross take to the air to spend years at sea before returning.


In the summer, white terns nest on the island. One afternoon, I ducked under a flowering tree to read a historical marker; suddenly a tern was beating its wings in my face and screeching at me. I glanced up to see a fluffy chick perched on a branch only inches away. I backed off and watched wide-eyed as the mother tern crammed a fish, perhaps three inches long, down the baby’s throat.

The Navy left behind an impressive infrastructure, including a row of precisely designed officer’s houses, barracks, a mess hall, a movie theater where Betty Hutton once entertained troops, a bowling alley, and a gymnasium. During the war, three or four movies a day were shown. While this “Midway Mall” remains the center of activity, and an occasional war documentary is still shown in the barnlike theater, it is hard to imagine 4,000 people on the island. The waters, long off-limits to commerial fishing, teem with deep-sea fish. The diving is wondrous, and so is the snorkeling, revealing exotic species seen nowhere else. The coral sand beaches are beyond beautiful, swimming is a joy in the calm, clear waters, and the bird watching is spellbinding. It would seem a shame to exclude humans altogether, especially history buffs and those with ecotravel sensibilities.

Fish and Wildlife is handling them through a relationship with a private company, Midway Phoenix, which was created to bring tourists to the island, no more than 100 at a time. The total population never exceeds 250, including staff and an international work force imported from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Thailand. Midway Phoenix has forged alliances with an outfit that handles diving and deep-sea fishing, as well as with the Oceanic Society, which offers “working vacations” involving such activities as spinner dolphin research, beach cleanups, and building restoration.

Last year, Aloha Airlines started regular weekly flights from Honolulu. It was at the Honolulu airport that I first spotted two men wearing navy blue caps emblazoned in gold with U.S.S. Yorktown . William Surgi of Rockville, Maryland, short and energetic, and Norman Ulmer of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, tall and athletic, had been aboard the doomed Yorktown . Surgi told me that he was going to Midway because “I got an e-mail from Gon-ichi Morimoto, a survivor from the carrier Hiryu , about the Japanese plans for a ceremony. We had met once before, and he wrote, ‘You come, I come. You no come, I no come.’” Surgi invited along Ulmer, who had been an enlisted man on the staff of Rear Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher, Task Force Seventeen’s commanding officer.

From the runway on Sand it was an easy 10-minute walk to our rooms in the nicely refurbished bachelor officers’ quarters called Charlie and Bravo. The Navy had cleaned up the atoll and cleared out, but it could not erase the essential form of the base, low and white and utilitarian. The sun was going down, and it was warm but the trade winds were blowing, rustling the leaves of the tall ironwood trees that have spread over the island. I fell in beside two women, one from Connecticut and one from Hawaii, who had come with a group of divers. Suddenly, a flock of pale yellow canaries lifted from the ground and fluttered around us like a swirl of leaves; they were descendants of 12 birds left behind in 1912 by one of the superintendents of the old cable station. A “Great Midway Canary Count” done last winter put them at more than 2,500 island-wide.


I checked out my golf cart—bicycles are the only other vehicles—and settled into a comfortable suite in Charlie Barracks. The island seemed empty and utterly quiet, almost haunted. That feeling would not leave me.

The first order of business for everyone, with no exceptions, was an orientation meeting at the Fish and Wildlife office, where the major message was: This is a refuge and not a resort. We were never to get too close to the chicks, which were all over the island. Mother terns do not build nests but lay their eggs almost anywhere, including on the wooden railing just outside the front door of the beach restaurant. The birds, for their part, were remarkably nonchalant about us.

Humans are restricted to one superb mile-long stretch of beach, always delightfully empty. Should one of the excessively solitary monk seals decide to haul up to take a long nap, we were to back off and give it plenty of room. Staying on trails at all times is especially important, we were told, since Bonin petrels and wedge-tailed shearwaters nest in underground burrows that twist and turn all over the place.

A ranger named Jennifer Schramm led us on a historic walking tour. We peered up at the concrete command post, scarred from the bombing during that long-ago air raid, and I thought of John Ford up top, filming as the bombs fell. Reminders of the war are emberMed all over the island as if in memory: The five-inch guns fired by Marines in defense of Midway serve as a memorial now, along with a scattering of plaques and markers and maps detailing the battle. A small cinder-block structure perches on one of the few rises on the otherwise flat island; underneath was hidden the radar room, home to a new technology for the Allies that let Midway’s defenders watch the Japanese planes approach. We wandered along Halsey Drive, passed a cricket pitch set up by the Sri Lankans and used only in the season when no birds inhabit the field, and continued on to Commodore and Nimitz Streets, past the old seaplane hangar and the empty field where Pan American’s hotel, nicknamed the Gooneyville Lodge, stood until it burned in 1957.


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.

At nine the next morning, I made my way to the tug pier to join Bill and Norm—we were on a first-name basis by now— and the Japanese contingent, to be on hand for the arrival of two Japan Marine Defense Force training ships. Before long, 170 trainees were spilling out onto the pier. The young men and a few women, all in dress whites, some carrying musical instruments, made their way across the island to gather at the site of the proposed Japanese memorial.

The ship’s officers appeared, several wearing ceremonial swords. The sailors stood at attention as best they could in the soft sand, and two of them presented a large wreath of tropical flowers. A warm sun shone down on us all, and several pairs of white terns slid on the breeze in the blue sky above. It seemed especially strange to me that this peaceful coral atoll’s destiny would be forever linked to a battle that had consumed the lives of thousands of young men not so different from those gathered here. We trailed after the sailors as they marched to the American memorial to lay a wreath. The band began to play a passable version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and Norm and Bill snapped to attention, saluting while the Japanese survivors stood very straight, focusing on the horizon.


Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.