In the dim light of early dawn, the Navy Patrol thunders away into the blushing sky. The gray light still clings to the dew on the sand, as the tops of the tall water towers reflect the warm rays of the rising sun.
High above the drifting clouds, the Navy flier closes his eyes, blinks and looks again. He glances at his wrist watch—0858—-adjusts his binoculars, makes a long steady search. The far edge of the flat blue plane stretching away below him, is disturbed by blurred gray spots on the shimmering horizon. Clouds sweep like gossamer across his vision, clear, obscure, and remain open. Then he sees the faint blur of smoke. It seems a large number of ships, as he speeds toward them, his radio flashing the information through the ether. Bearing 261º—Distance 700 miles to Midway—Course 090º—Speed 10 knots. He is flying west by south, and they are dead ahead. Our planes, ships and islands then know from that moment where the enemy bears. Closer, he counts eleven ships, trailing their white wakes astern. Another Navy plane sights several smaller groups of vessels, apparently converging on a rendezvous for the final advance on Midway. Out of the air comes another message, “I have just fired on a strange cargo vessel.”
In mid afternoon a striking unit of Flying Fortresses contacts and roars over the large group, attacking them heavily. Each plane sends four 6oo pound demolition bombs screaming down on the plodding vessels. They sweep over five battleships or heavy cruisers—it’s hard to tell—the red ball easily discernible on the turret tops. Through the bright flashes and puffs of dark smoke of the bursting shells they see forty other ships, transports, cargo vessels and swerving destroyers.
A transport falls out of line, burning fiercely, and sends up her tall inky cloud that suddenly spreads into a dreary canopy. A heavy cruiser keeps her station in the slowly moving column, trailing heavy smoke that blinds her following sister. A cargo vessel moves stoically in line, dark brown ugly plumes drifting aft in place of lacy white. The course made good since their first sighting this morning is 081 degrees, the exact bearing of Midway. At the close of day, several PBY’s, Navy patrol bombers, armed with torpedoes on Midway’s busy runway, are en route to launch their tin fish at this ponderous force. The sun moves westward to enlighten Japan, and night shrouds the advancing ships in darkness, save for the faint fire of phosphorescence and the dull glow from the forsaken ships astern.
Midnight, 0000, the zero hour. A second ticks and another day is born in darkness. The Navy patrol bombers sweep on seaward, streaming through the night, bearing their adopted loads of deadly torpedoes. Above the pilots’ heads the big twin engines protrude beyond the wings, drone hoarsely in the sky. In the long narrow bodies abaft the wings, the blisters bulge like insects’ eyes. There, cramped on small stools, the machine-gunners squat, or stand for stretching. The slim tunnel of the metal fuselage is dark and filled with noise. Officers and crew are alert at their dim stations. The leading ship rises on an air wave, dips down, as the following PBY’s rise and fall in turn. Monotonously the unseen swells undulate through the formation, as the waning moon casts her cold pale light on the stiff and rigid wings. The mysterious rays weakly, indistinctly touch the dark obscure sea—a detached, unreal world below.
The planes now are slowly turning north to intercept the eastward moving enemy. Two hours before dawn they find the same force, a dusky line, stretching below across their path. Unobserved, the leader peels off and drops stealthily down like a hawk from the sky, followed at once by the others in turn. Down they swoop on the unsuspecting prey. Ten big ships in two columns rush up out of the darkness, growing bigger, blacker, fast. Six enlarging destroyers divulge their curving trails. “Let go ! “—and the first torpedo dives into the sea, aimed toward the big ship that will pass ahead. The second plane launches her long tube at the next ship, and another plane dives in for a shot at the second column. Alarm sounds throughout the surprised Jap force as the planes zoom up, over, and away into the sky. Above the racket of the ships’ guns come the two shuddering thumps, the bright columns of fire and white water, as the tin fish explode in their targets. Circling in her climb aloft, the last plane sees the sinking transport’s stern rise up—the heavy list of the big cargo ship, dead in the dark water. She also gets indications of another large force nearby, all still bearing 261º from Midway—distance 500 miles.
This attack at night by the Catalinas was a daring and historic feat. For two of the planes to be able to press home their attacks unobserved was a stunning exploit.
The ships were apparently riding a weather front, bearing down on Midway from the northwest under the protecting clouds. One carrier had been reported yesterday among the ships west of Midway, but this contact was not verified.
Sand and Bombs
The triumphant PBY’s are still on their way back to Midway, when the other Navy patrol bombers arise before dawn from the dark island, continuing their invaluable scouting that contributes so greatly to the success of this day. Very early in the morning the most important contact of the battle is made. A Navy PBY reports many planes heading for Midway, 150 miles distant on bearing 320. Seven minutes later another PBY sights two of the enemy’s carriers and many other ships on the same bearing, 180 miles distant, coming in at 25 knots on course 135. The Commanding Officer-Midway, a Navy Captain, sits at his table in the long low room under the domed sand. He has already dispatched a group of Flying Fortresses to attack the enemy Transport Force to the westward. His long fingers rub the stubble on his chin, as he quietly gives his clear orders.
All serviceable planes at Midway are in the air at break of day. Like a stream of thundering express trains, twenty-seven Marine dive bombers roar down the runway and shoot to seaward. Someone shouts enthusiastically, “There go the Marines!” Four Army B26’s armed with torpedoes, and six Navy TBF’s are flying with them to strike the oncoming enemy carriers.
The group of Army Flying Fortresses, while droning westward to engage the Occupation Force, receive word to change course and fly northward to attack the carriers. The twenty-seven available fighting planes are zooming straight toward the approaching enemy’s big flying force. Three quarters of an hour later fourteen of them make contact thirty miles distant from Midway. The sky is filled with the oncoming horde, the air vibrates with their motors’ roar. Gallantly the nearer fourteen dive in for the fight with eighty dive bombers and fifty swift enemy fighters. Blazing away they loop and turn, fighting like demons as long as they are in the air, which is not long for most of them. Against these overwhelming odds, with all the speed and power they can muster, their maneuverability is pathetically slow against the far faster Jap Zero fighters that zip at them, an aluminum flash spurting streaming steel. As the seconds flash by amid the spitting fire, the other thirteen Americans dash in, fighting like furies. Fifteen of our planes fall screaming down into the placid sea. Seven stagger smoking away, too damaged to fight. Eleven of the surviving pilots eventually get back, and nine of them are able to give the stark score. The Jap formation roars on toward Midway, leaving eight Zeros and twenty-five dive bombers silenced beneath the quiet Pacific.
In the sand holes the gunners poise alert, trigger fingers itching, as out of the serene sky comes the distant hum of the approaching menace. A few seconds, and at 0633 the first bomb falls, flinging the white sand in a blinding cloud of black smoke from the sudden orange burst. The Jap Squadron Leader whines down like silver lightning, barrels over and flies low, upside down across the runway. The stolid Marine gunners, mouths open in amazement at this showing off, drop the plane flat on its back with a smack on the concrete apron. The dive bomber skids on its round back, sparks flying, its wheels in the air, spins as a wing shears off and bursts into flame. Suicidal inspiration for his men diving after him!
For seventeen minutes the air is filled with the Islands’ hot answering fire, bursting shells and the tracers’ curving bright arc. The oil tanks, filled with useless sludge, burst into flames and send their black smoke rolling up like a smaller Pearl Harbor. The roar of the planes, their diving screech, the quick rattle of the rapid fire from below and aloft, the slower boom of the big guns, the shattering blasts of the falling bombs, leave the thousands of wheeling crying birds in silent flight, here dark against the light or flickering white against black smoke, confused by man’s mighty violence.
The word of the Japanese approach had come so early in the morning, that at the height of the battle, men walk calmly out carrying the colors to the base of the tall pole, bend the halyards to the head and foot of the hoist, and the National Emblem rises up, its fly fluttering colorfully against the dark smoke.
A large bomb tears through the hospital roof, bursting inside the empty building, sending a section of the roof bearing the Red Cross of mercy, momentarily flying in the air, far below the round red ball of Japan. The long one-story building becomes a furnace on a concrete base, the iron beds silhouetting against the fire, the lengthy rows of steel girders festooning dark between the uprights. The “brig” nearby is torn open, exposing the bars of the cages, as empty as before they were hit. The storehouse, the big hangar and other buildings are hit and burning. The massive concrete power house is pock-marked with machine gun bullets. High up on the top of the outside staircase, a Naval Reserve Commander, his back to the wall, is holding his whirring camera, making colored movies of the “Battle of Midway,” as a bomb meant for the power house explodes in a building across the road. A flying shell fragment cuts his arm. His assistant binds it up, as he continues shooting. The pictures will show the shaking and knocking about that he is getting from staggering concussions—diving plane and bursting bomb—they’ll be real!
On little Eastern Island across the lagoon, the same fierce strafing and bombing is taking place. A large bomb falls directly in the center of their power house, leaving all four walls untouched but gutting the interior. On the brightly colored waters of the lagoon, the PT’s are skimming about, darting here and dodging there, maneuvering swiftly between the rows of machine gun splashes, their twin pairs of fifty calibers keeping up an incessant fire. A wounded Navy patrol bomber comes gliding in low over the water, two Zeros on her tail. The PT’s, their round bows sticking up between two rolling billows of foam, roar to the rescue. One Zero makes a falling arch of fire and smoke, plummeting into the harbor. The other curves off to seaward. Machine gunners in the sand fort riddle another Zero, it wavers, and becomes a flaming comet shooting down across the sky, ending with a sudden splash.
The lower sides of the fair clouds are turning green with the brilliant reefs’ reflecting, the dirty bursts of smoke besmudge their bright purity. High up against the blue, a Marine is in a dog fight with a bomber. Two Zeros swoop down on him, catching him off guard. He zooms down in a fast curve to dodge them, but his plane bursts into streaming flames, turns over, pivoting in its fall. The Marine crawls out, jumps and shoots down, five hundred —a thousand—two thousand feet—a small speck whizzing earthward. Suddenly a puff of white above his head, then the spreading umbrella dangles him, swinging like a pendulum; descending slowly to the water and safety—the PT’s will pick him up. Like avenging devils, the Zeros drop down in pursuit, the guns’ quick flashes—his drooping body slumps into the sea and is buried beneath the white pall of his chute. Plain murder this, in the eyes of the Marines, peering over their sandbags, their faces livid with anger—”The little bastards will pay for this!” The guns blaze with renewed fury, and a Jap plane thuds into the sands, scattering blazing gas about.
A bomber belching flame aims straight for the runway, meets a direct hit and disintegrates in mid-air. The withering fire is telling, and drives the planes up, where they turn, form, and drone away in defeat. Firing ceases, and at 6:50 A.M. it’s all over but the crackling flames of burning buildings and the hiss of the streams of water. Once more the high cry of the birds transcends just as it has for the thousands of years before man with his ways, invaded these coral sands.