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Chapter 2: War Comes to Midway

On the morning of 7 December, Midway's patrol planes were out early and on schedule. Five of VP-21's PBYs were droning along prescribed routine searches, and two more patrol bombers, enroute for ultimate delivery to the Netherlands East Indies, had taken off for Wake at first light. On the Sand Island seaplane ramp, two PBYs warmed up to rendezvous with and guide in the expected Marine dive-bombing squadron, VMSB-231.[1]

At 0630 (0900 Pearl Harbor time), a Navy radio operator's "Z"-signal from Oahu broke through to Midway with an inkling of the disaster at Pearl Harbor; a few minutes later, just as the Army Signal Corps detachment was receiving the same word from Hickam Field, an official despatch from the Commandant, Fourteenth Naval District, confirmed the news and directed that current war plans be placed in effect.

After recalling the Dutch PBYs (which were forthwith commandeered for VP-21) and establishing additional patrol sectors for the remaining aircraft, the Island Commander at 0918 directed that the 6th Defense Battalion--which had at 0900 already acted in anticipation of such orders--go to general quarters.

The remainder of the day was spent in much the same type of activity as was frantically going ahead on other outlying United States Islands: preparations for blackout, issue of additional ammunition, digging of foxholes, and check of communications. All lights and navigational aids were extinguished.

By nightfall, with defenses still manned, Midway--which now was not to receive VMSB-231, due to the Lexington's diversion to an attempt to locate the Japanese Pearl Harbor striking force--was buttoned up, and all search planes had returned with negative reports.

At 1842, however, just after evening twilight, a Marine lookout observed a flashing light some distance to the southwest of Sand Island. Although this soon disappeared, it was, undoubtedly, a visual signal among the Japanese ships of the Midway Neutralization Unit. Although lights were not again seen, the one operational radar on Sand Island began picking up what seemed to be surface targets southwest of Sand Island about 2130. At almost the same time, observers in two searchlight positions, which were equipped with powerful 8X56 night glasses, reported "shapes" to seaward in the same area as the radar contacts just mentioned. The commanding officer of the searchlight battery (Battery G, First Lieutenant Alfred L. Booth) immediately requested permission to illuminate, but this was refused on the ground that it might disclose our positions prematurely. Further, at this time it was erroneously believed that friendly ships were in the vicinity, and this doubt had resulted in issuance of strict orders against any firing or illumination except on specific orders from the battalion commander.[2]

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JAPANESE DESTROYER, USHIO, which shelled Midway on the night of 7 December 1941, rides at her last anchorage, after the end of the war. Of all the enemy vessels which participated in the Pearl Harbor attack, this lone destroyer was the only one afloat on VJ-day.

Akebono and Ushio, the two enemy destroyers whose mission was to bombard Midway, made their landfall about 2130, having left the tanker, Shiriya, at a rendezvous some 15 miles to southwestward. Within a few minutes they were on station southwest of Sand Island for the first firing run, and their twin 5-inch mounts were already trained toward Midway.

At 2135, the first salvo cracked out, and war had come to Midway.

During the first part of his run, Captain Konishi's shells landed short: just between Sand Island's west beach and the reef. Then, as the Japanese destroyers steamed slowly northeastward, closing the range somewhat, the salvos walked onto target, first hitting near Battery A, the 5-inch seacoast unit at the south end of Sand Island, and then bracketing the Sand Island power plant, a reinforced-concrete structure also in use as a command post by one platoon of Battery H (.50-caliber antiaircraft machine-gun).

At this juncture, not having yet received return fire, and seemingly not having inflicted damage, Captain Konishi ceased firing while his ships closed the range and took station for a second run.

Ashore, meanwhile, Condition One had been immediately resumed by the defense battalion, and the telephone lines leading to and from Colonel Shannon's headquarters were jammed with excited reports.

Although the Japanese commander did not realize it, his initial shelling had put a round through an air port into the reinforced concrete

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power plant just mentioned. This station was manned by First Lieutenant George. Cannon and three enlisted assistants, all of whom were either wounded or stunned. Cannon himself was mortally injured; his communication chief, Corporal Harold R. Hazelwood, sustained a fractured leg; and Platoon Sergeant William A. Barbour had an ankle smashed. Despite his own wound, a crushed pelvis accompanied by profuse bleeding, Cannon remained conscious and refused evacuation, directing re-establishment of communications and the evacuation of others from the structure, the interior of which had been scarred and raked by blast and fragments. Finally, after Hazelwood, despite his own wound, had managed to get the damaged switchboard back into operation, Cannon was removed forcibly from his post, to die a few minutes later at the battalion aid station.[3]

At 2148, as Konishi's destroyers reopened fire at closer range, Commander Simard gave Colonel Shannon permission to engage enemy targets as disclosed. The Japanese ships were now steaming northeast, firing up the long axis of Sand Island. Although they were being tracked visually by the crews of Lieutenant Booth's searchlights, the congestion of communications still prevented the latter from gaining permission to illuminate.[4]

Already, Japanese shells had hit the new Sand Island seaplane hangar, the roof of which burst into flame while the Marine antiaircraft machine-gunners thereon concentrated, despite the enemy fire, on lowering their weapons and ammunition to the ground before the flames could consume them. With the blazing hangar as a beacon, the Japanese shifted fire to other structures on the island, including the Pan Air radio beacon, the laundry, and adjacent shops.[5]

1ST LT. GEORGE H. CANON, posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic refusal to be evacuated from his post, despite mortal wounds, until his unit's communications had been re-established during the Japanese bombardment of 7 December 1941.

At 2153, orders finally reached the searchlights to illuminate enemy ships. By now, only Searchlight 2, on the south end of Sand Island, would bear, and this promptly flashed on, silhouetting the Akebono approximately 2,500 yards south of the position. A moment later, an enemy salvo fell within a few yards, and concussion knocked the light's feed mechanism out of position, thus extinguishing the beam. Acting in a split second, one of the crewmen, trained for just such an emergency, readjusted the delicate (and red-hot) mechanism in the dark, and the light was back in action and on target.[6]

A few minutes earlier, just at the instant when word was being passed to commence firing, an enemy shell hit and burst within 18 inches of the plotting room on the 5-inch battery (A) on the south end of Sand Island, and severed all telephone lines of the battery's interior and exterior communications. This was particularly unfortunate since Battery A was the unit under whose guns the enemy destroyers were about to be illuminated, and the loss of interior communication prevented firing data or any fire commands from reaching the guns themselves.[7]

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Only one battery could now bear effectively. This was a 3-inch antiaircraft unit (Battery D, Captain Jean H. Buckner) on the southeast shore of Sand Island, from which Buckner could even discern the large Japanese battle-flag flying from the Akebono's foremast.

As soon as the enemy target had been illuminated, Buckner ordered his battery into action, taking care, however, to direct gun captains to make sure that their fire would not endanger adjacent sections. Each gun captain checked his line of fire, and then, in Buckner's words,

Sergeant Lefert on Gun 2 loaded his gun but upon checking for safety * * * discovered that it was pointed directly at the pit occupied by Gunnery Sergeant Pulliman and me. He informed Pulliman of this fact over the gun control phone and wisely held his fire. * * *

Battery D's other guns, however, commenced firing as Buckner and his fire controlmen prepared to spot when the splashes appeared. none could be made out, however, despite the excellent illumination, which seemed to indicate that the shells were either passing through the superstructure or into the hull.

Meanwhile, Battery B, a 5-inch unit on Eastern Island (first Lieutenant Rodney M. Handley), made preparations to open fire, and .50-caliber antiaircraft machine-guns, well within range. peppered the enemy ships, arching solid tracer streams toward their targets.

At 2158, five minutes after Searchlight 2 had struck arc, just as it appeared to observers that Handley's opening salvos had hulled the Ushio, now visible astern of Akebono, the Japanese succeeded in shooting out the searchlight. Smoke appeared to be "pouring" from Ushio, and the enemy ships ceased fire, retiring to he southwest into their own smoke.[8]

What damage had actually been sustained by the Japanese ships remains a moot question. Battery D had fired 13 rounds of 3-inch, and

SAND ISLAND SEAPLANE HANGAR, A TWO-TIME LOSER under the enemy attacks of 7 December 1941 and 4 June 1942, smouldering as a result of its status as the most conspicuous target on Sand Island.

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COL. HAROLD D. SHANNON, sernior Marine officer at Midway during the battle, and commanding officer of the 6th Defense Battalion during the atoll's most critical period.

Battery B, nine rounds of 5-inch. Enemy records and logs are neither fully available nor specific with regard to this engagement. Midway observers agree that the 3-inch battery secured at least three hits, yet it is equally certain that both ships returned to Japan under their own power as planned.[9] Some light, however, is shed upon this question by the report of Capt. J.H. Hamilton, pilot of the Pan American aircraft, Philippine Clipper, which was in flight at this time from Wake to Midway.

The Philippine Clipper, flying at 10,000 feet in bright moonlight, saw below it an intense fire on the surface of the sea, by the light of which could also be discerned the wakes of two ships, apparently cruisers.[10] Their position was 35 miles west by south of Midway, and their apparent course was 240º magnetic, reported Hamilton. It seems at least probably that these were Akebono and Ushio, and, if so, that one of them was then on fire, which would indicate that the Marine batteries had left their mark upon the enemy.[11]

On Midway, meanwhile, all action centered on damage control, care for the casualties, and a not altogether successful attempt to send out PBYs to locate and attack the hostile force, a project further confused by a profusion of dubious radar reports which came in throughout the night. Several buildings had been hit or partially destroyed, and a considerable quantity of Navy stores lost, mainly incident to the burning of the hangar.

In casualties, the raid had cost the 6th Defense Battalion two killed and 10 wounded, while the Naval Air station had lost two killed.[12]


[1] These and subsequent details as to the day of 7 December on Midway are taken from War Diary, NAS, Midway, for that date, hereinafter cited as NAS Diary.

[2] Letter from Lieutenant Colonel Alfred L. Booth to CMC, 27 January 1948, hereinafter cited as Booth; and letter from Lieutenant Colonel Loren S. Fraser to CMC, hereinafter cited as Fraser.

[3] Letter from Col. Lewis A. Hohn to CMC, 30 January 1948, hereinafter cited as Hohn. For this devotion to duty, Lieutenant Cannon was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, being the first Marine to be so honored in World War II. Corporal Hazelwood received the Navy Cross.

[4] Booth.

[5] Hohn, p. 2.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Fraser.

[8] Some observers on Midway believed that this was a smoke screen and not the result of our fire. For a detailed account of Battery D's duel with Akebono, see Appendix IV.

[9] Campaigns, p. 20.

[10] In common with the defenders of Wake, Midway's men, unfamiliar with enemy vessels, mistook destroyers for cruisers. Further, in the confusion of the initial attack, Colonel Shannon believed that the enemy force had probably totaled four ships instead of two, as was actually the case. In this connection, Colonel Hohn comments:

"It is perhaps understandable why the report was made of four enemy ships made a firing run heading in general in a northerly direction, after which there was silence and darkness for some minutes; then two ships started a firing run from a position much further south. It was discussed and realized at the time by a number of people * * * that it was probably that the same two ships had made both runs, but it is seldom that conservatism wins out in reports of action against the enemy."

[11] Interview of Capt. J.H. Hamilton by Assistant Dio, 14th Naval District, 8 December 1941, p. 2, hereinafter cited as Hamilton.

[12] Statistics from Casualty Division, Marine Corps Headquarters, and Bureau of Naval Personnel.

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