The First Battle of Midway on December 7, 1941

If you’ve studied World War II at all then you’ve heard about the famous Battle of Midway, one of the turning points of the war in the Pacific. Barely six months after Pearl Harbor, following a nearly uninterrupted string of Japanese victories, the US Navy sank four Japanese Aircraft Carriers and a heavy cruiser for the cost of one US Aircraft Carrier and one Destroyer. From that point on the Allied forces had most of the initiative in the Pacific War as they slowly drove back the Japanese until their surrender in 1945. However, this famous battle was not the first time US and Japanese forces fought at Midway Island in World War II. On the same day that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they also sent a naval force to attack Midway Island. This small battle is interesting for a variety of reasons and worth examination. 

Midway Island, originally named the Brook Islands after their discoverer Captain N.C. Middlebrooks, was first sighted by his ship the Gambia in 1859. The island group was uninhabited by humans although it was (and is) an important nesting area for millions of seabirds such as the Albatross. The islands consist of a large roughly circular reef and several islands, the two largest being Sand Island and Eastern Island, totaling approximately 2.4 square miles. The climate is subtropical and it is the second most northerly atoll (after Kure Atoll just slightly west and north of Midway). In 1867 the islands were officially taken into the possession of the US and at some point after this, the name changed to Midway Island due to its location almost exactly midway between Asia and the West Coast of the US. This was the first Pacific Island annexed by the United States. Although part of the Hawaiian archipelago, Midway is not part of the Hawaiian Islands. By the early 1900s US Marines were stationed on the island to ensure US sovereignty. By the 1930s, Midway was operating as a station for Pan American. Midway served as the stop between Hawaii and Wake as the Clipper Flying Boats crossed the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco to China.

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As World War II approached, Midway Island increased in importance. It’s location at the northeastern edge of the Hawaiian Archipelago (about 1/3 of the way from Honolulu to Tokyo) made it an important refueling station for aircraft and ships as well as a key component of the defense of Hawaii. The 3rd Marine Defense Battalion was sent to Midway starting in June 1940 and began building up the island’s defenses with the help of civilian contractors. They were eventually equipped with six 5” Naval Guns, twelve 3” Anti-Aircraft Guns, thirty .50 caliber and thirty .30 caliber machine which were dug in around the island. Unfortunately, these positions were not proper gun emplacements but instead were in pits protected by sandbags manually dug by the Marines. Some had wood roofs which were most useful in allowing some rudimentary camouflage by pouring sand on top. This was because the civilian contractors on the island were focused on construction of the airfield and supporting buildings such as hangers.

In April 1941, Midway was officially commissioned as a Naval Air Station under Commander Cyril T. Simard (who would receive the Navy Distinguished Service Medal for his leadership during the June 1942 Battle of Midway). Commander Simard was an experienced Naval Aviator, having served in the Navy since 1918. Lieutenant Colonel Harold D. Shannon (US Marines) arrived in September 1941 as the commander of the Marines. He was a Marine veteran, having served since 1914 in places like Mexico, France (World War I), Nicaragua and Panama. He also went on to win the Distinguished Service Medal for his efforts in the Battle of Midway in June 1942. In September 1941, the 6th Marine Defense Battalion relieved the 3rd with a total complement of 33 officers and 810 enlisted men. Arriving with the 6th was 1st Lieutenant George H. Cannon who had joined the Marines in 1938 (after resigning his army commission) and who had served at Quantico, Pearl Harbor and on the CL USS Boise before arriving in Midway. In November 1941, Patrol Squadron 21 (VP-21) was assigned to Wake Island with its 12 PBY Catalinas. On its way to Wake Island VP-21 stopped at Midway Island on December 1st and was supporting fleet operations with the US Carriers by conducting Anti-Submarine patrols and never made it to Wake Island. They were still on Midway Island on December 7th, 1941. 

On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, the Japanese prepared their strike on Pearl Harbor. One of the concerns of the mission was that long range patrol aircraft from Midway would spot the retreating Japanese ships and allow them to be attacked. It was determined that this base needed to be suppressed (at least its aircraft) to ensure the successful escape of the Pearl Harbor Strike Force. To this end, 2 Japanese destroyers, the Sazanami and the Ushio (along with the Tanker Shiriya) formed the “Konishi Midway Neutralization Force” and sailed separately from the Pearl Harbor Strike Force with the mission to shell Midway Island on the night of December 7th, to destroy the patrol aircraft on the island and render the airfield unusable. The Sazanami and the Ushio were the 19th and 20th Fubuki class destroyers built after World War I and both were launched in the early 1930s. This class of destroyer was considered among the best in the world when launched and were still considered very modern during World War II. This was during an era when destroyers were growing larger and more heavily armed. They had six 5” guns in three twin mounts, two 0.5” Anti-aircraft machine-guns and nine torpedo tubes. Their top speed was thirty-eight knots. Both ships and crews were veterans of the war with China.

As the attack on Pearl Harbor began, the USS Lexington was on its way to Midway island to drop off Marine Scouting Bombing Squadron Two Thirty One (VMSB-231), escorted by 4 Heavy Cruisers and 5 Destroyers. Like the USS Enterprise, which had delivered planes to Wake Island, this was very fortunate because it meant the Carriers were not at Pearl Harbor. The defenders of Midway Island went to general quarters as soon as they heard of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and prepared to resist any attack by distributing ammunition, going to blackout conditions and testing their equipment. Five PBY Catalinas were in the air on normal patrol missions and additional planes were launched to search the area but the Japanese ships were not spotted. 

Midway Atoll from the air.

As night was falling over Midway Island at about 6:30 pm, a lookout on Sand Island spotted lights flashing out on the sea to the southwest. This was probably the two Japanese destroyers signaling each other although this hasn’t been confirmed. At 9:30 pm, the radar station on Midway picked up a contact with ships moving in the same area that the lights were spotted earlier. Thus alerted, the defenders scanned the water in that direction and were able to see two ships through binoculars, far out over the water and too far away to engage. At 9:35 the two Japanese destroyers began steaming towards the island and opening up with their 5” guns on the defenders on Sand Island. The defenders of the island did not immediately respond because they believed that American ships might be in the area and if they were enemy ships, they did not want to reveal the positions of their weapons too early.

Over the next few minutes, shells landed near A Battery (a 5” gun), damaging it enough so that it wasn’t able to fire during the engagement. The Command Post of Battery H was also hit, injuring several men and knocking out its communications. It was here that Lieutenant George H Cannon earned his Medal of Honor (the first awarded to a Marine in World War II) This is the citation for his Medal of Honor: For distinguished conduct in the line of his profession, extraordinary courage, and disregard of his own condition during the bombardment of Sand Island, Midway Islands, by Japanese forces on December 7th, 1941. Lieutenant Cannon, Battery Commander of Battery “H”, Sixth Defense Battalion, Fleet Marine Force, U.S. Marine Corps, was at his Command Post when he was mortally wounded by enemy shellfire. He refused to be evacuated from his post until after his men, who had been wounded by the same shell were evacuated, and directed the reorganization of his Command Post until forcibly removed, and as a result of his utter disregard of his own condition he died from loss of blood. Corporal Harold Hazlwood, who served under Cannon, re-established communications and for his actions he received a Navy Cross. 

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At this point the Japanese ships swung around and started their second attack from even closer range. Due to communication issues and confusion, Colonel Shannon hadn’t received orders to return fire yet. This time the Destroyers hit their main target, the Seaplane hanger as well as the power house and hospital. One PBY Catalina was destroyed outright and the flames threatened more. Ensign John M. Eaton Jr. was a ground crewman for VP-21 and he organized a group of men to help pull the rest of the Seaplanes from the burning hanger and to organize as many as possible to launch while the attack was still underway. All of the other PBYs were saved. For his quick thinking and courage, Ensign Eaton was also awarded the Navy Cross. 

Finally at 9:48, almost 15 minutes after the attack started, orders were finally given to fire back at the Japanese. Searchlights were turned on and first a 3” battery and then a 5” battery and finally even some of the .50 caliber machine-guns started firing at the Japanese ships. Both sides fired for some time back and forth. Reports differ but at least one hit seems to have been scored on one of the Japanese destroyers, most likely a 3” shell. As the fire intensified and grew more accurate the Japanese destroyers decided the risks outweighed any more possible benefits and they generated a smoke screen and fled. All in all the battle lasted just under an hour and the Japanese destroyers fired over 200 rounds. Four men were killed and nineteen wounded at Midway. The Japanese did not suffer any casualties. A claim has been made that this was the first “victory” in the Pacific for the Allied forces since the objective of the attack (destruction of the PBY Catalinas) was not achieved. Interestingly enough, Admiral Yamato had suggested to Admiral Nagumo that he should use his Pearl Harbor Strike Force to conduct a follow up attack on Midway to finish off the base but Nagumo refused, saying bad weather prevented the attack. There is speculation that Nagumo felt that attack on Midway was beneath him since it was such a minor target. This disagreement was part of a larger issue between the two Japanese commanders around strategy and tactics, including the conduct of the Pearl Harbor strike itself.

After the battle, the Japanese returned three different times to shell Midway Island prior to the big battle in June of 1942. In these attacks, they used submarines that surfaced near the island to bombard the defenders. Having learned from the first attack and each subsequent one, the Marine response was faster and better each time. Finally the Japanese gave up on this tactic after the third submarine attack was almost immediately met with strafing Buffalo aircraft.

Meanwhile, Midway Island was heavily reinforced and developed leading up to the battle in June. A second airfield was built and other installations added. By June of 1942, twenty-eight fighter aircraft, sixty-seven bombers and thirty-one patrol aircraft were based on Midway in addition to ten PT boats and two patrol boats on station there. Over 3,600 Marines and other personnel were dug in behind barbed wire awaiting the expected Japanese landing that never occurred. After this battle Midway stayed in use for the rest of the war and was primarily used as a major submarine staging base with a submarine tender on station.

Commander Simard eventually moved to Naval Air Station Whidbey in Washington and was made an admiral after he retired from the navy in 1947. Colonel Shannon was eventually transferred back to Pearl Harbor and then to San Diego. Sadly he died in 1943 from pneumonia. VP-21 returned to Pearl Harbor on December 13th and served there until March 1942 when they were sent to Australia. Ultimately the unit was disbanded and incorporated into other units. 

The Japanese destroyers Sazanami and Ushio were heavily engaged as the Pacific war went on. Both destroyers served together in the Dutch East Indies, the Battle of Coral Sea and in the Solomons, including in the Battle of Eastern Solomons and as part of several Tokyo Express convoys from Rabaul to Guadalcanal. Sazanami then began serving as an escort to and from the Japanese base at Truk Island until torpedoed and sunk by the USS Albacore on January 1st, 1944. Ushio participated in the Aleutians campaign and the Battle of Leyte Gulf where it was damaged. Returning to home waters, Ushio spent the rest of the war there and was one of only two ships of the original Pearl Harbor attack force to survive the entire war. The Tanker Shiriya was sunk by the USS Trigger near Taiwan on September 22nd, 1943. 

While the 1st Battle of Midway was a relatively minor engagement and buried by the bigger news of the day of severe losses at Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines, this battle does have some interesting elements making it worth remembering. Among other things, this battle delivered the first Marine Corps Medal of Honor of World War II (and a few Navy Crosses),  the first night naval action against the Japanese (if anyone was paying attention the Allies would have understood how well trained the Japanese Navy was in night fighting), some combat experience for the two Commanders on Midway, a wake-up call for the need to reinforce the far flung island bases (this didn’t occur in time for Wake but it did for Midway) and depending on your perspective, the first victory against Japanese forces (even this was overshadowed by the victory against the first attempted landing at Wake Island on December 11th by the Japanese). All in all this was a moment in World War II history worth noting.

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