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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 of the men waiting for the enemy to make their 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 the battle stations in or near fighters, bombers, torpedo planes, and sea planes, waiting for the Japanese attack they had been waiting for weeks. The carrier battle of Midway, one of the decisive naval battles in history, 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 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 sea plane hanger and ramps, artificial harbor, fuel storage tanks and several buildings. Hundreds of civilian construction workers and a defense battalion of the Fleet Marine Force populated Sand Island, while Eastern Island boasted a 5,300-foot airstrip. Commander Cyril T. Simard, a Veteran naval pilot who had served as a air officer on the carrier USS Langley and as executive officer at the San Diego air Station, was designated the atoll’, 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 755 men from the 6th defense Battalion under the command of Lt. Col. Harold D. Shannon, a veteran of W.W.I and duty in Nicaragua, Panama and Hawaii. Shannon and Simarad meshed into an effective team right away.
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 Brewsters 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 the Marine fighter Squadron 221, while the Vindicators were put into Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 241, both making up Marine Air Group 22 under Lt. Col. Ira B. Kimes
On May 20, Shannon and Simard received a letter from Admiral Nimitz, praising their fine work and promoting them to captain and full colonel. Then Nimitz informed them that the Japanese were planning to attack Midway on May 28. He then outlined the Japanese strategy and promised all possible aid.
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.
By June 1, both Sand and Eastern Island were ringed with coastal defenses. Six 5-inch guns, 22 3-inch guns and four Old Navy 7-inch guns were placed along both coasts of both islands for use as anti air craft and anti boat guns. As many as 1,500 mines and booby traps were laid under water and along the beaches. Ammunition dumps were placed all along the islands, along with caches of food for pockets of resistance and an emergency supply of 250 55-gallon gasoline drums.
Midway had practically every thing it needed for its defense. Along with the 121 aircraft crowding the eastern Islands 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 Midways approaches.
By June 2, the pacific fleets three aircraft carriers the Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown were in position northeast of Midway, but only a few key officers were aware that Midways defenders would be supported them. Midways Navy pilots were told not to expect any help from the U.S. carriers they’re off defending Hawaii. Midways only chance was for Nimitz’s carriers were located.
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 fortress on their on their own search and attack missions. The remaining aircraft on Midway were armed, fueled and waiting with the first enemy ship contact report of the battle.
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 largely empty ocean, nearing the end of the outward leg of his patrol. He found nothing of interest and started back. Reid saw some specs on the horizon 30 miles ahead. At first he thought it was dirt on his windshield. Then he looked again and shouted to his co pilot ” Ensign Gerald Hardeman, “Do you see what I see?” “You’re Dammed right I do.”
At 9:25 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 Midway.
“Open fire when targets are in range,” 6th Battalion headquarters notified all guns. One-minute later guns opened fire. A Kate erupted into flames and drove straight down. A second Kate landed in the lagoon, missing the PT boats. The remaining Kates struck Sand Island, destroying three oil tanks and setting fire to a seaplane hanger.
Colonel Shannon’s Trenches, bunkers and revetments proved effective. Only 11 of Midways ground defenders were killed and 18 wounded. None of midway planes were caught on the ground except for an old utility biplane and a decoy plane made of tin roofing called the “JFU” (Jap fouler-upper).
While Midway repaired its damages and its defenders licked their wounds, the aircraft that were sent out to attack the Japanese carriers made contact. Lieutenant Langdon Ferberling’s six TBFs reached the Japanese fleet, dropped to a low altitude and bore on toward the carriers. So many Zeros swarmed around the vulnerable torpedo planes that the fighters got in each others way. Two TBFs were destroyed in the first attack, followed by three more.
Close behind the TBFs, Captain James Collins led his four B-26 Marauders into a gantlet of anti-aircraft fire and six Zeros. Collins led his planes down 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.
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 barley touched the B-17s,” Captain Paul Gregory Reported. “Enemy pursuit appeared to have no desire to close on the B-17E modified.” The B-17s finished their attack and returned to Midway.
Minutes later 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 Flemmings flight, saw Flemmings engine smoking during his dive. As Flemming pulled out, his Vindicator burst into flames. Flemming either by accident or design crashed his blazing plane into Mikuma’s aft 8-inch gun turret. The crash started a fire that was sucked into the cruiser’s starboard engine room air in takes, suffocating the engineers.
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 the thought was a Japanese ship. The pilots reported they hit a cruiser, which sank in seconds. It was actually the submarine USS Grayling, which submerged when the flying Fortresses and dropped their bombs.
By June 7, it had become apparent that Midway was secure. The islands garrison, for all the damage it suffered, contributed its fair share to the victory over the Japanese.
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