A Special Feature of the
Battle of Midway Roundtable
The following brief article gives a good
account of the Battle of Midway as fought by the defenders of the atoll
itself—the Marine defense battalion and the Marine, Navy, and Army air groups
based on the island.
Midway Islands' Undaunted Defenders
By William B. Allmon
Outclassed 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.
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-Guam-Manila
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
of the 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.
War Comes to Midway
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
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.
his code-breakers that the Japanese planned to seize Midway, Admiral Chester W.
Nimitz, commander in chief, Pacific Command, flew to the atoll on May 2, 1942,
to make a personal inspection. Following his inspection, Nimitz took Simard and
Shannon aside and asked them what they needed to defend Midway. They told him
"If I get you all these things, can you hold Midway against a
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, praising their fine
work and promoting them to captain and full colonel, respectively. Then Nimitz
informed them that the Japanese were planning to attack Midway on May 28; he
outlined the Japanese strategy and promised all possible aid.
On May 22, a
sailor accidentally set off a demolition charge under Midway's gasoline supply.
The explosion destroyed 400,000 gallons of aviation fuel, and also damaged the
distribution system, forcing the defenders to refuel planes by hand from 55-gallon
while the Marines continued digging gun emplacements, laying sandbags and
preparing shelters on both islands.
Barbed wire sprouted along Midway's coral beaches. Shannon
believed that it would stop the Japanese as it had stopped the Germans in World
War I. He ordered so much strung that one Marine exclaimed: "Barbed wire,
barbed wire! Cripes, the old man thinks we can stop planes with barbed
wire!" The defenders also had a large supply of blasting gelatin, which
was used to make anti-boat mines and booby traps.
On May 25, while the work continued, Shannon and Simard got some
good news. The Japanese attack would come between June 3 and 5, giving them
another week to prepare. That same day, the light cruiser St. Louis arrived, to
deliver an eight-gun, 37mm anti-aircraft battery from the Marine 3rd Defense
Battalion and two rifle companies from 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--most of them fresh out of flight school, May 29 saw the
arrival of four 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 stationed on Midway.
Searching for the Enemy Fleet
Beginning on May 30, Midway's planes began searching for the
Japanese. Twenty-two PBYs from Lt. Cmdr. Robert Brixner's Patrol Squadron 44
(VP-44) and Commander Massie Hughes' VP-23 took off from Midway lagoon, then
headed out in an arc stretching 700 miles from Midway in search of the
Midway got further air reinforcement on June 1 when six new Grumman
TBF torpedo bombers, commanded by Lieutenant Langdon K. Fieberling, arrived.
None of the TBF pilots had ever been in combat, and only a few had ever flown
out of sight of land before. The TBF would later be named Avenger in honor of
its combat introduction at Midway.
By June 1, both Sand and Eastern islands were ringed with coastal
defenses. Six 5-inch guns, 22 3-inch guns and four old Navy 7-inch guns were
placed along the coasts of both islands for use as anti-aircraft and anti-boat
guns. As many as 1,500 mines and booby traps were laid underwater and along the
beaches. Ammunition dumps were placed all around the islands, along with caches
of food for pockets of resistance and an emergency supply of 250 55-gallon
Midway had practically everything it needed for its defense. Along
with the 121 aircraft crowding Eastern Island's runways, Midway had 11 PT-boats
in the lagoon to assist the ground forces with anti-aircraft fire. A yacht and
four converted tuna boats stood by for rescue operations, and 19 submarines
guarded Midway's approaches.
Even with those preparations, there were problems. The air
station's radar, an old SC-270 set installed on Sand Island, showed many blips
that were more often albatrosses than aircraft. Also, there was no plan for
coordinating Midway's air operations, which were dependent on a mixture of Army
Air Force, Navy and Marine pilots and crews.
With that in mind, Midway's commanders believed their only chance
was to attack the Japanese carriers as soon as they were located, in the hope
of catching them with their planes on deck. "This meant exquisitely
precise timing, a monumental dose of luck, or both," Admiral Nimitz
explained. "Balsa's [Midway's] air force must be employed to inflict prompt
and early damage to Jap carrier flight decks if recurring attacks are to be
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 defenders would be
supported by them. Midway's Navy pilots were told not to "expect any help
from the U.S. carriers; they're off defending Hawaii." Midway's only
chance was for Nimitz's carriers to take the Japanese by surprise.
Early on the morning of June 3, the PBYs of VP-44 and VP-23 took
off on their 700-mile search missions, joined by B-17 Flying Fortresses on
their own search and attack missions. The remaining aircraft on Midway were
armed, fueled and waiting for orders to take to the air once the Japanese
carriers were located.
At 9:04 a.m., Ensign Charles R. Eaton, patrolling 470 miles from
Midway, sighted three ships and got a burst of anti-aircraft fire for his
trouble. Eaton quickly radioed Midway with the first enemy ship contact report
of the battle.
Seven hundred miles west of Midway, Ensign Jack Reid flew his
PBY-5A across a largely empty ocean, nearing the end of the outward leg of his
patrol. He found nothing of interest and started to turn back. Just as he did,
Reid saw some specks on the horizon 30 miles ahead. At first he thought they
were dirt spots on the windshield. 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.
a.m., Reid radioed, "Sighted main body," to Midway and began tracking
the Japanese ships. Midway ordered Reid to amplify his report, and at 9:27 he
radioed, "Bearing 262 degrees, distance 700." At 10:40 he reported,
"Six large ships in column...." At 11 a.m., "Eleven ships,
course 090 degrees, speed 19." At 11:30, Reid was ordered to return to
At 12:30, a flight of nine B-17 bombers, each armed with four
600-pound bombs and led by Lt. Col. Walter C. Sweeney, took off.
Three-and-a-half hours later, the B-17s found the Japanese ships 570 miles from
Midway and attacked from out of the sun. Sweeney reported seeing two ships
burning after the strike.
In reality, Sweeney's B-17s scored no hits on the Japanese ships,
and the return flight to Midway proved every bit as harrowing as the attack
itself. With their fuel almost exhausted, the B-17s came within sight of
Eastern Island at 8:30 p.m. The last Flying Fortress landed at 9:45 p.m.
Sweeney's B-17s returned from their attack, another strike of four PBY
Catalinas, each armed with a torpedo and led by Lieutenant W.L. Richards, left
Midway at 9:15 p.m. to attack the Japanese. All four PBYs returned safely,
claiming three torpedo hits. One torpedo hit the bow of the tanker Akebono
Maru, killing 13 sailors and wounding 11; the transport Kiosumi Maru lost a few
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 aircrews stood by their
planes. At 4 a.m., six F4F Wildcats from Major Floyd B. "Red" Parks'
VMF-221 took off on combat air patrol. They were followed by 11 PBYs from
VP-44, searching for the Japanese carriers, and 16 B-17s led by Sweeney that
were to attempt another attack on the Japanese transports.
At 4:30 a.m., the carriers of Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo's First
Striking Force--Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu--launched their aircraft. Fifteen
minutes later, 36 Nakajima B5N2 Kate torpedo bombers, 36 Aichi D3A1 Val dive
bombers and 36 Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighters were on their way to Midway.
At 5:30, Lieutenant Howard P. Ady emerged from a cloud bank and
spotted Nagumo's carriers. Ady radioed Midway, "Carrier bearing 320
degrees, distance 180." Ady ducked back into the clouds and circled the
Japanese fleet, radioing again, "0553, Two carriers and main body of
ships, carriers in front, course 135 degrees, speed 34."
Fifteen minutes after Ady's sighting, Lt. j.g. William Chase,
flying south of Ady's sector, saw a formation of Japanese fighters and bombers.
Chase quickly radioed: "Many enemy planes heading Midway bearing 320
degrees, distance 150." On Midway, radar on Sand Island picked up the
approaching Japanese planes at 5:53. Air raid sirens wailed, and all personnel
raced to their dugouts and gun positions.
Major Parks' 21 Buffaloes and six Wildcats scrambled into the air,
followed by Lieutenant Fieberling's six TBFs and Captain Collins' four B-26s.
Major Henderson's dive bombers were last to take off. By 6:16, all 66 of Midway's
aircraft were airborne.
While the bombers headed toward the Japanese carriers, Parks led
six Buffaloes and three Wildcats to intercept the 108 oncoming Japanese planes.
Captain John Carey, leading the three Wildcats in Parks' flight, was first to
sight the Japanese. "Tallyho! Hawks at angels twelve!" Carey radioed.
The Japanese bombers flew in a large V formation, trailed by gaggles of Zeros.
Carey rolled his Wildcat and screamed into the V, blowing a Kate apart with his
four .50-caliber machine guns, then zoomed up for another attack. Japanese rear
gunners raked his Wildcat, riddling Carey's legs. Second Lieutenant Clayton M.
Canfield followed Carey into his attack, destroying a Kate. Canfield saw Zeros
diving on him. A 20mm cannon shell damaged his Wildcat, and he pulled up into
the clouds and lost his pursuers. Coming out of the clouds, Canfield joined
Carey and led him back to Midway. Captain Marion E. Carl, flying the third
Wildcat, was jumped by several Zeros after attacking the Kates and was forced
to break off his attack.
While the Wildcats fought for their lives, Parks led his six
Buffaloes in an attack on the Kates. The Marines managed one pass before they
were overwhelmed by the Zeros. Parks and four other Marines were killed. Only
Lieutenant Daniel J. Irwin survived. He managed to fly his damaged Buffalo back
to Midway with Zeros after him all the way. "Their gunnery was very
good," Irwin reported, "and I doubt if on any run they missed hitting
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 were jumped by the escorting Zeros, which destroyed four of them. Only two
of Hennessy's men survived. Armstead's Buffaloes intercepted the Japanese a few
miles from Midway and downed three Kates before the rampaging Zeros destroyed
three of them. Observing the dogfight from the ground, Lieutenant Charles
Hughes said that the Buffaloes "looked like they were tied to a string
while the Zeros made passes at them."
The Japanese pushed relentlessly toward Midway. To Marine Pfc
Phillip Clark at D Battery on Sand Island, the Japanese formations looked 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...lackadaisical air" with which the defenders waited for
the strike, "as though they had been living through this sort of thing all
"Open fire when targets are in range," 6th Battalion
headquarters notified all guns at 6:30 a.m. One minute later, Midway's guns
opened fire. A Kate erupted into flames and dove straight down. A second Kate
crashed into the lagoon, missing the PT-boats. The remaining Kates struck Sand
Island, destroying three oil tanks and setting fire to a seaplane hangar.
on Eastern Island began with an unforgettable incident. "Suddenly the
leading Jap plane peeled off," an eyewitness wrote. "He dove down
about 100 feet from the ground, turned over on his back and proceeded leisurely
flying upside down over the ramp." The Marines watched for a few seconds,
then opened fire and shot him down.
Val dive bombers struck VMF-221's arming pit, killing four
mechanics and exploding eight 100-pound bombs and 10,000 rounds of .50-caliber
machine-gun ammunition. Another Val demolished Eastern's powerhouse, disrupting
Midway's electricity and water distillation plant. Japanese efforts to render
Eastern's runways useless were unsuccessful; only two small craters were left
on the landing strips.
Midway's defenders fought back with everything they had. Major
Dorn E. Arnold of the 6th Defense Battalion fired a Browning Automatic Rifle at
the enemy; a sailor on Sand Island used a Colt .45. Second Lieutenant Elmer
Thompson and another Marine fired a .30-caliber machine gun from a crippled
The Japanese attack ended at 6:48 a.m. The all-clear sounded on
Midway at 7:15, and the process of picking up the pieces began. Kimes ordered VMF-221's
fighters to land. Six Buffaloes staggered in. Including four aircraft that
landed during the raid, only 20 U.S. fighters had survived. Of those, only one
Wildcat and a single Buffalo were fit to fly. Fifteen Buffaloes and two
Wildcats were shot down, and 13 pilots were killed. Eleven Japanese aircraft
were downed by the fighters and anti-aircraft fire, while 53 were damaged.
Colonel Shannon's trenches, bunkers and revetments proved
effective. Only 11 of Midway's ground defenders were killed and 18 wounded.
None of Midway's planes were caught on the ground except for an old utility
biplane and a decoy plane made of crates and tin roofing called the
"JFU" (Jap fouler-upper).
The Japanese Carriers
While Midway repaired its damage and its defenders licked their
wounds, the aircraft that were sent out to attack the Japanese carriers made
contact. Lieutenant Langdon Fieberling's six TBFs reached the Japanese fleet at
7:10, dropped to low altitude and bore on toward the carriers. So many Zeros swarmed
around the vulnerable torpedo planes that the fighters got in each other's way.
Two TBFs were destroyed in the first attack, followed by three more.
that he could not reach the carriers, Ensign Albert K. Earnest loosed his
torpedo at a cruiser, then broke away with two 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 four B-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 carrier Akagi. Collins released his torpedo 850
yards from the carrier and pulled away. Muri released his torpedo at 450 yards,
then turned and flew down the middle of Akagi's flight deck.
Once Muri's B-26 was clear of Akagi, the Zeros attacked with a
vengeance, wounding two crewmen and riddling the landing gear, fuel tanks,
propeller blades, radio and the top of one wing. Despite that punishment, Muri
and Collins were the only survivors of the four-plane B-26 group. Then, at
7:48, the TBF and B-26 attacks were followed by VMSB-241's 16 Dauntless and
Vindicator dive bombers led by Major Lofton Henderson. Henderson had divided
the squadron into two flights, leading the SBDs himself while Major Benjamin W.
Norris led the Vindicators. As Henderson led the squadron northwest, the faster
Dauntlesses soon left the Vindicators behind. Henderson's SBDs got their first
look at the Japanese carriers at 7:25, and he radioed his Dauntless pilots,
"Attack the two enemy CV on the port bow."
Henderson had led his squadron down to 4,000 feet when the
Japanese combat air patrol attacked. The Dauntlesses also met with heavy
anti-aircraft fire from the Japanese ships. Henderson's plane was hit, and his
port wing caught fire. He tried to keep his burning Dauntless in the lead, but
finally lost control and plunged into the sea. Captain Elmer C. Glidden quickly
took command of the Dauntlesses. "Fighter attacks were heavy," he
wrote, "so I led the squadron down through a protecting layer of
clouds." The Zeros followed the Marines into the clouds. Glidden came out of the clouds and found two
Japanese carriers, Kaga and Hiryu, 2,000 feet below. The 10 remaining
Dauntlesses dived to 500 feet or lower before releasing their bombs, then sped
away at full throttle, hounded by Zeros. Three SBDs crashed at sea near Midway.
Their crews were later rescued. The remaining six, some badly shot up, reached
Midway. Eight SBDs, including Henderson's, were lost, with the Japanese
sustaining no damage.
Sweeney's 15 Flying Fortresses arrived over Nagumo's fleet at
8:10, as the Dauntlesses finished their attacks. Seen from 20,000 feet, the
Japanese fleet was "an astonishing sight," recalled B-17 pilot Don
Kundinger. "A panoramic view of the greatest array of surface vessels any
of us had ever seen--they seemed to stretch endlessly from horizon to
horizon." Each three-plane B-17 element attacked on its own. Lieutenant
Colonel Brooke Allen's element unloaded its bombs on the carrier Soryu, but all
fell short. Sweeney targeted Kaga, bracketing her stern with, he believed,
"one bomb hit...causing heavy smoke."
Three Zeros ganged up on Captain Cecil Faulkener's bomber,
riddling its fuselage and wounding the tail gunner. Another Zero dueled with
Captain Paul Payne's Fortress but never closed in. "The Zeros barely
touched the B-17s," Captain Paul Gregory reported. "Enemy pursuit
appeared to have no desire to close on a B-17E modified." The B-17s finished their attack by 8:20 and
returned to Midway. Sweeney believed his B-17s had hit at least one of the
Japanese carriers. In reality, they had
Shortly after the B-17s left, Major Benjamin Norris' 11
Vindicators arrived and Zeros swarmed over them. Norris, with no illusions
about his old "Vibrators," decided not to press on toward the
carriers. He led his men into some clouds. Coming out of the cloud cover,
Norris discovered a battleship below. It was Haruna, supposedly sunk in December
1941. "Attack target below," Norris radioed, and he led the
Vindicators into a high-speed glide. Anti-aircraft guns on Haruna opened fire
with an "extremely heavy and troublesome but inaccurate barrage."
Only two of Major Norris' Vindicators were lost during the attack. Three ditched at sea near Midway because of
battle damage. Despite reports that they had scored two direct hits and three
near-misses, the Vindicator pilots had not even scratched Haruna. If the Battle of Midway had ended with the return
of VMSB-241's Vindicators, it would have been another victory for the
Japanese. Midway had sent 52 aircraft
against the Japanese and lost 19 without scoring a single hit.
"From the time of the attack and the known position of the
enemy carriers, we estimated they would be back in three or four 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 Dauntlesses from the carrier Hornet at 11 a.m. Some Marine gunners,
believing they were Japanese planes, opened fire on the SBDs before recognizing
their silhouettes. The Dauntlesses were refueled and back in the air by 2 p.m.
“Three Burning Ships”
At 3:58, Midway's defenders received an indication that the
Japanese were taking a beating when a PBY pilot reported "three burning
ships." At 5:45 he reported, "The three burning ships are Jap
carriers." The stricken vessels--Akagi, Kaga and Soryu--were the victims
of SBD Dauntlesses from the American carriers Enterprise and Yorktown.
At the same time out at sea, B-17s from Midway, along with six
more Flying Fortresses from Hawaii, attacked the Japanese carrier Hiryu, which
had been damaged and set afire by dive bombers from Enterprise 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 the afternoon than they had been
in the morning.
With all four of Nagumo's carriers destroyed, Yamamoto decided 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 Simard dispersed his PBYs, evacuated nonessential personnel and warned
his PT-boats to expect a night attack.
At 1:20 a.m., the Japanese submarine I-168 opened fire on Midway
with its 5-inch deck gun. Batteries B and E on Eastern Island, along with
Battery D on Sand Island, returned fire with their 3- and 5-inch guns, lobbing
42 shells at I-168, which lobbed eight shells back. The brief exchange resulted
in no damage to either side. Most of I-168's shells fell in the lagoon. The
submarine submerged at 1:28, the Marine gunners ceased firing and Midway
settled back into 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 submarine USS Tambor of a large
enemy force possibly within striking distance. The Midway garrison still had
every reason to believe that an invasion was imminent. Within 15 minutes, eight
B-17s took off from Eastern Island to counter the threat. The Army pilots could
not locate the enemy ships in the early morning fog, and by 6 a.m. the B-17s
were circling nearby Kure Atoll waiting for information.
Mogami and Mikuma
At 6:30, a Midway-based PBY reported, "Sighted 2 battleships
bearing 256 degrees, distance 125 miles, course 268 degrees, speed 15."
Two minutes later the PBY added, "Ships damaged, streaming oil." The
Japanese ships were retreating, and the island's defenders breathed a
collective sigh of relief.
Marine Aircraft Group 22 sent up two flights from VMSB-241, six
Dauntlesses under Captain Marshall A. Tyler and six Vindicators led by Captain
Richard E. Flemming, to attack the two "battleships"-- actually the
heavy cruisers Mikuma and Mogami, damaged in a collision the night before.
Forty-five minutes later, the Marine pilots spotted the oil slick left by the
damaged cruisers and followed it to Mogami and Mikuma. Tyler led his six
Dauntlesses into an attack on Mogami amid heavy anti-aircraft fire. The Marines
dropped their bombs, scoring a few near-misses.
At 8:40, minutes after Tyler's attack, Flemming led his
Vindicators out of the sun, through heavy flak from the Japanese ships, against
Mikuma. Captain Leon M. Williamson, a pilot in Flemming's flight, saw
Flemming's engine smoking during his dive. As Flemming pulled out, his
Vindicator burst into flames. Flemming--either by accident or design--crashed
his blazing Vindicator into Mikuma's aft 8-inch gun turret. The crash started a
fire that was sucked into the cruiser's starboard engine room air intakes,
suffocating the engineers.
After the Marines finished their attacks, the eight B-17s from
Midway, led by Lt. Col. Brooke Allen, appeared and dropped their bombs, scoring
a near-miss on Mogami. The damaged cruisers continued limping westward, and
Mikuma sank at sunset the next day after attacks by aircraft from Enterprise
At 10:45 on June 6, 1942, Captain Simard dispatched 26 B-17s from
Midway in search of Japanese cruisers reported heading southwest. The bombers did not locate the cruisers, but
six B-17s dropped their bombs on what they thought was a Japanese ship. The
pilots reported that they had hit a cruiser, which "sank in seconds."
It was actually the submarine USS Grayling, which submerged when the Flying
Fortresses dropped their bombs.
While Midway's bombers continued attacking the retreating
Japanese, Simard had his PBYs and PT-boats searching for downed pilots. Between
June 4 and 9, Midway's PBYs picked up 27 airmen.
By June 7, it had become apparent that Midway was secure. The
island's garrison, for all the damage it had suffered, had contributed its fair
share to the victory over the Japanese.
William B. Allmon writes from Jefferson City, Mo. For further reading:
Incredible Victory, by Walter Lord; Miracle at Midway, by Gordon W. Prange; and
History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Vol. IV, Coral Sea,
Midway and Submarine Actions, May 1942-August 1942, by Samuel Eliot Morison.