MIDWAY ATOLL – Holding their hands over their hearts, six veterans of the Battle of Midway stood as a Navy band played the national anthem to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the fight that marked a turning point in World War II.
About 1,800 people ventured to this remote atoll Monday to honor those who served in the U.S. victory on the atoll 1,300 miles northwest of Honolulu, including other veterans and relatives of those who died.
“We salute the fallen warriors of the Battle of Midway. We remember their great victory and tremendous sacrifice,” said Adm. Robert F. Willard, the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander. “We honor them with our eternal vigilance and combat readiness.”
William Tunstall, 87, an aviation machinist mate 2nd class on the USS Hornet on June 4, 1942, said he felt lonesome as he remembered those who died.
“I lost a lot of good friends,” said Tunstall, of Portland.
The observance drew World War II veterans and their families, who sailed to Midway on a Princess Cruise Lines ship from Los Angeles. Another 100 or so were flying on a chartered plane from Honolulu.
Only a few dozen people live on the island now – mostly wildlife researchers and support staff at the U.S. Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Endangered Hawaiian monk seals and threatened green sea turtles frequent the clear, blue waters of the atoll’s lagoon, and hundreds of thousands of Laysan albatross nest where bombs once fell.
On June 4, 1942, the Japanese Imperial Navy descended on the atoll with four aircraft carriers and the world’s most modern and agile fighter plane, the Zero.
Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto’s plan called for sending planes to bomb U.S. Marines and soldiers defending the island. Then he would send in his amphibious invasion force to overrun the atoll, hoping to gain control over a patrol plane base and possibly pave the way for an invasion of the Hawaiian islands.
But Navy intelligence staff were able to decode Japanese communications and provide Adm. Chester Nimitz, the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, with details of the attack. U.S. forces were able to ambush and overwhelm Japanese forces during the three-day battle, putting them on the defensive for the rest of the war.
The U.S. saw 307 men perish and one aircraft carrier sink. It lost 145 planes. Japan’s casualties were even higher, with 4,800 men dying. All four of the aircraft carriers Tokyo sent to Midway sank, along with a heavy cruiser and three destroyers. Japan also suffered the loss of 291 planes.
“After that (Japan) didn’t have enough aircraft or pilots to effectively continue the war effort,” said Douglas Smith, a professor of strategy and policy at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. “After that they were not in a position to recover.”
Tunstall recalled helping the pilot and gunner of the torpedo plane he maintained climb aboard for their mission to bomb Japanese carriers approaching Midway.
But neither the pilot, Bill Abercrombie, nor the gunner, Bernie Phelps, ever returned. Of the 30 men in Torpedo Squadron 8 who took off on June 4, only one survived.
“From the time they left the carrier to today, I have no way of knowing what happened to them,” Tunstall said.