main story image for facebook sharing

History and Heritage

Memories From That Tiny Atoll 73 Years Later

The Battle of Midway

Only six months had passed, yet it felt like an eternity. This, after all, had been Teddy Roosevelt's America: unstoppable.

Still, the unthinkable did happen. And it happened as most of America slept that distant Sunday December morning.

As Sailors busied themselves in preparation for liberty, the Hawaiian tranquility suddenly exploded in the inferno of a sneak attack.

We were at war.

In a matter of hours it was over. Nine ships sunk, 21 severely damaged. The United States Pacific Fleet was near ruins. Almost 2,500 American lives were lost that day - 1,177 from the USS Arizona (BB 39) alone.

The following months would see the imperial Japanese juggernaut's expansive domination of the Pacific: Wake Island, Dutch East Indies, the Solomon Islands, Corregidor, the Philippines ...
If Australia, and possible Pearl Harbor were to be spared from future attacks, the fight would have to be brought to the enemy.
If ever there was an underdog for just such a fight, the U.S. Pacific Fleet was it.

Navy Photo

Listen to the recorded first-hand accounts in May 2012 from the Sailors that took part in the turning point of the war in the Pacific: the Battle of Midway. "Voices of Midway" features the narratives from those that were there - from the code-breaking efforts that changed the course of history to the decks of the aircraft carriers which delivered victory.
Navy Photo

Coral Sea
The first swing took place when Lt. Col Jimmy Doolittle and his Raiders launched from the deck of the mighty USS Hornet (CV 8) in April 1942. Less than one month later U.S. and Japanese naval forces engaged in what would be a history-making battle: Coral Sea. The battle, fought mostly in the skies above the aircraft carriers, marked the first time in history that a naval engagement took place without the ships ever seeing each other. Deadly torpedo raids claimed USS Lexington (CV 2) leaving the carriers USS Hornet (CV 8), USS Yorktown (CV 5), and USS Enterprise (CV 6) to fight another day.
Navy Photo

Objective 'AF'

They listened. The static-filled beeps, discernable to only a few, crackled across weak signals into the earpieces of a determined group of codebreakers - ironically positioned deep inside the bombed out basements of the same Pearl Harbor headquarters attacked six months earlier.

They listened. Embedded deep within the hours of sound lay the battle plan of the mighty Japanese fleet: Objective "AF" would be the next target. But where, or even what, exactly was "AF"? It was a long shot, thought U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Chester Nimitz, but the gamble's rewards would be worth it. Waiting was not an option.

The tiny atoll of Midway, that lonely, isolated speck of a runway in the vast Pacific Ocean, must be the location. Since the fall of Wake, it marked the furthest western military outpost - a sure prize to the Japanese, thought Nimitz. An ingenious solution was presented to Nimitz by his codebreakers to prove this. Puzzled looks must have crossed the radio operators' faces at the isolated outpost when they received the order to broadcast the message: "Distilling plant suffered serious casualties. Midway is running low on fresh water."

Back in Pearl they listened. "Objective 'AF' is running low on water" crackled across the airwaves.
Navy Photo

The intelligence had confirmed it: the Japanese were going to attack Midway. An ambush would certainly give the U.S. the tactical advantage so desperately needed, but it in no way guaranteed a victory - let alone the military superiority needed to hold off the massive, battle-tested Japanese fleet.

Nimitz realized he had only one shot to pull this off. The Pacific Fleet's remaining carriers and all available ships needed to be ready.
Navy Photo

Coral Sea showed just what they were up against: a much larger fleet, including four carriers, each loaded with the same deadly Japanese aircraft that had delivered the crippling blow to Pearl Harbor. The Zeros, which dominated the Pacific skies, were piloted by the fiercest warriors any American aviator had ever faced.

Suffering a heavy beating and Coral Sea, USS Yorktown (CV 5) limped into Pearl Harbor and entered dry dock. Fifteen-hundred yard workers toiled around the clock to repair the damage to Yorktown's flight deck. Repairs that would normally take weeks to achieve were completed in a miraculous three days.
Navy Photo

Confident she was ready to fight, Nimitz ordered Yorktown to rejoin USS Hornet (CV 8) and USS Enterprise (CV 6) positioned to the northeast of Midway. There they assembled undetected.

Timing would be everything. Launch an attack too early, and the ships' locations would be revealed to the enemy. Attack too late and it would be impossible to wrestle control of the captured island from the enemy while fighting the Japanese fleet at the same time.

The plan was to draw the Japanese fleet out to attack the island and then catch them completely off guard with coordinated attacks from the assembled carriers. With no protection from above, the Japanese carriers would be at the mercy of U.S. torpedo squadrons from Midway and the carriers Hornet and Yorktown as well as Midway-based bombers.

Ensign George Gay, like the rest of Hornet's Torpedo Squadron 8, was more than eager to deliver Pearl's revenge. He joined the rest of his crew topside and prepared to launch.
Navy Photo

An eerie quiet blanketed the atoll as the sun rose June 4. That silence was only broken by the sound of crashing waves. They were out there. The Marines manning the island's small coastal artillery defenses could sense it. The gentle ocean breeze seemed to sharpen the gazes that quietly scanned the Pacific sky and horizon for any sign of the enemy's silhouette. Seventeen-year-old Radioman 3rd Class Harry Ferrier waited with his pilot and turret gunner near their Grumman TBF-1 "Avenger" aircraft.
Navy Photo

"Enemy forces detected - 150 miles out."

Ferrier climbed aboard his plane and took off with the five other Midway-based "Avengers" to engage the Japanese.

The approaching Zero pilots prepared to obliterate the island's inferior air defenses when suddenly attack aircraft from the undetected American carriers burst through the clouds.

The sky erupted in a hailstorm of bullets and flak. Out-maneuvered, and out-gunned, the "Avengers" fell from the sky one by one.

Riddled with bullet holes and suffering mechanical failure, Ferrier's "Avenger" crash-landed back on Midway. His was the only one to return. All 15 from Hornet were shot down - Gay was the squadron's only survivor. At the end of the first wave not a single piece of U.S. ordnance reached the Japanese.

Japanese Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo faced a decision. He could launch a partial assault on Midway with his remaining aircraft. The island's defenses, now surely weakened from the first assault, might still put up a fight. However, if his ships were to recover all the planes, refuel and re-arm them, he would easily crush any possible remaining opposition Midway could offer before defeating the Pacific Fleet once and for all. A successful capture of the island was guaranteed. Satisfied the American threat was now neutralized, Nagumo ordered all aircraft back to the carriers. The flight decks quickly filled with fuel and ammunition. One by one the Zeros landed. Pilots and crew members cheered as the planes prepared for the sure victory that awaited them.

It was a decision that changed everything.
Navy Photo

Against all odds

Not a single ship was in sight. The steady rumble of the SBD Dauntless' props churned through the calm Pacific clouds 15,000 feet above. All they could see was blue. Every break in the clouds revealed an enemy that wasn't there - nothing, no trace of whitecaps, a ship's trail - nothing. They had to be there, Squadron Commander Lt. Cmdr. Wade McClusky. Dive bombers, launched earlier from USS Enterprise (CV 6) and USS Yorktown (CV 5), evaded detection from the Japanese fleet - the chaos below consumed their complete attention.

The course headings received must be incorrect - the ocean below heaved and swayed as slowly as ever since time began. Nothing.

Fuel was running low. Something needed to be done, or the mission would have to be abandoned.

Trusting his gut, McClusky turned his squad North. Suddenly, there it was: a trail - the lonely foam wake of the Japanese destroyer Arashi as she raced to rejoin the rest of the Japanese fleet.

Within minutes, the Japanese ships Soryu, Akagi, Kaga and Hiryu were in sight. Their flight decks and hangars were packed with aircraft, fuel and ammunition - each was now a floating arsenal.
Navy Photo

Shocked eyes turned skyward as the bombers ripped through the clouds. Lt. Dick Best released his 1,000-pound bomb and watched as it tore through Nagumo's flagship Akagi. The blast ignited the fuel and ordnance which crowded the ship's flight deck and hangar bays, ripping Akagi in two. Simultaneous direct hits to Soryu and Kaga turned the Pacific blue into an orange inferno. Within a matterof minutes it was over. Neither side realized it at the time, but it marked the end of the Japanese offensive in the Pacific.

Yamamoto watched in horror as his once mighty fleet crumbled before him. Akagi, Soryu and Kaga were out of action. Hiryu, fighting in vain to remain formidable, immediately launched torpedo raids against any American carriers they could find. They zeroed in on the first carrier in sight: Yorktown. Three blasts rocked the mighty carrier, knocking out her boilers. Damage control efforts proved so successful that the second wave of Japanese torpedo planes mistook her for Enterprise.

The second strike proved fatal. Yorktown, dead in the water, began to list to port. As all hands prepared to abandon ship, Photographer's Mate 2nd Class William Roy clicked away. Sensing the historical significance of his images, he grabbed two life vests: one for himself and one for the rolls of film packed tightly in waterproof containers.

U.S. dive bombers returned later in the afternoon and delivered the knockout punch to Hiryu. By nightfall, both sides began to withdraw. Yorktown had absorbed two devastating attacks, yet remained afloat. Hiryu, a little more than a smoldering shell of its former glory, was scuttled the next day.
  • Navy Photo

  • Navy Photo

  • Navy Photo

Efforts to save the Yorktown began in earnest. USS Vireo (AT 144) prepared to take Yorktown under tow as USS Hammann (DD 412) pulled alongside to provide auxiliary power. Salvage efforts showed promise. Yorktown, it seemed, would live. Optimisn grew on the surface while the Japanese submarine I-168 approached undetected below. Seaman Jim Cunningham was finishing lunch on the Hammann's mess decks when something caught his eye. A picture was hanging there that he had never noticed before. It was a small drawing of a devil holding a pitchfork riding on a torpedo. Painted on the torpedo was the word "HAMMANN". A small chill went up his spine. Just then the alarm for General Quarters sounded. A torpedo fired from I-168 was spotted in the water and closing in fast. Cunningham barely made it to his GQ station on the fantail when it hit. The blast rocked the ship and Hammann disappeared beneath the waves only minutes later. Cunningham was lucky. He and the other survivors were picked up quickly. Moments later another torpedo was spotted heading directly towards Yorktown.

That final strike rendered all efforts to save her useless. She began to take on water much more quickly, and early the following morning, she slipped beneath the waves.

The battle's injured arrived to Pearl Harbor to receive treatment. Some rejoined the war effort immediately - three more years of hard fighting lay ahead before Japan finally and formally surrendered to Nimitz aboard the battleship USS Missouri (BB 63).

For some, the rehabilitation would continue years after the war ended. For all, the memories of those June days around a tiny atoll in the Pacific would never fade.
Navy Photo