I Was There! - What the Americans Told Me About Midway

The War Illustrated, Volume 6, No. 132, Page 61-62, July 10, 1942.

These first eye witness stories of the Japanese defeat in the sea and air battles off Midway Island on June 3 and 4 were told to Reuter's correspondent by American participants in the action.

It was on June 3 (said General Willis Hale, Commander of the U.S. Bombardment Command) that two Japanese fleets were first reported to be approaching Midway Island. One of the fleets, composed mainly of transports, was coming from the west. The other the battle fleet was coming from another direction. Orders were flashed to U.S. Army bombers tuned up and waiting for just such an opportunity.

That afternoon the Army bombers made their first contact with the enemy far west of Midway. They sent their bomb loads screaming down from a medium altitude, damaging a cruiser or a battleship, one transport and a destroyer.

The Japanese air attack on Midway on the following day was anticipated. U.S. Army and Navy planes were in the air when the enemy arrived. Flying Fortresses were attacking the Japanese battle fleet from a high altitude. Colonel Walter Sweeney, who led the Fortresses, said:

"We first made contact with the enemy far out in the Pacific on the afternoon of June 3. There were over twenty ships in columns with the big ships in the centre. We circled westward and came in with the sun at our backs. When the Japs sighted us they immediately deployed, each ship turning individually and trying frantically to avoid attack. We were at medium altitude owing to the clouds, and we found the anti-aircraft fire more accurate than we had anticipated. We picked out the biggest ships as targets and laid our bombs in a pattern."

"At dawn the next day we hopped off for another attack on the same force, but soon got orders to attack another and larger force. We found them."

"There was a big battle line with destroyers outside them, cruisers, then battleships, and away at the back, carriers. The ships started frantic manoeuvres, but our pattern of bombs blanketed a carrier. A few Zeros who came up showed faint-heartedness."

"We returned to Midway, reloaded, and were over the enemy again at 4 p.m., when we found a carrier and a capital ship lying dead without headway and burning. We then got a heavy cruiser. High-level bombing is effective in attacks like these. Nothing can escape us since we can lay bombs in patterns which no ship can avoid."

Another vivid eye witness story of the sea and air battle was told me by Ensign Gay, 25-year-old torpedo-plane pilot. On June 4 he came upon three Japanese carriers with less than ten miles between the first and last, protected by a great screen of destroyers and cruisers. Two of the carriers were of the Kaga-class the only two known to exist of these massive 26,900-ton giants which carry 50 to 60 planes. One of the carriers was blazing fiercely as Gay arrived, and the other two were taking on their planes.

Gay launched a torpedo at a Kaga carrier before being shot down at 11 a.m.; his machine-gunner and wireless operator were killed, but he managed to "pancake" his plane on the sea and extricate himself from the wreckage. He recovered a rubber life-raft, and from this he saw something of the terrific battle.

U.S. bombers screamed into action, hurling bomb after bomb at the vulnerable Japanese ships. Gay saw the other two carriers squarely hit. Tremendous fires burst from the vessels, and great billows of smoke churned up, with flames shooting out from the tips of the black columns. Every few minutes explosions inside the burning carriers sent new gushes of smoke belching upwards. One of the Kaga class ships was certainly a total loss, while the last he saw of the other carriers was as they were being pursued by U.S. forces.

As the afternoon drew to a close the Japanese made frantic efforts to help the remaining giant carrier. A cruiser tried to come alongside, but seemed unable to get close enough, so she opened up with her big guns, presumably to scuttle her. Some time later a destroyer managed to get close enough to take off survivors still on board.

All this time Japanese planes were hovering in the air above, with nowhere to land but in the sea or on the blazing decks of their smashed carrier. They would pass over the carrier, soar out of sight, and then come back again in a sort of hopeless desperation. Night fell, and the stranded planes were swallowed up in darkness.

Crouched in his rubber boat, Gay saw great glowing patches in the sky which he guessed to be searchlights of Japanese rescue ships looking for survivors from the wrecked carriers. Three times he heard violent explosions which he believed may have been demolition charges.

Then, several hours after the sun rose, a U.S. navy patrol plane rescued him. As he flew back to the base, Gay told me, the sea could be seen covered with patches of oil and littered with empty Japanese rafts.

The whole story is one of the cool courage and firm determination of young Americans who fought until dizzy from lack of sleep and did things with their planes that the machines had never been built to do.

Articles in the I Was There! category