Chapter 1 - Mystery Mission
A bugle sounded. A Marine raised the American flag. The stars-and-stripes fluttered in the gentle breeze rolling in from the Pacific. Reveille roused Jim Muri at 3 a.m. on a day in early June 1942 that shaped his life.
He sat up, stretched, rubbed the sleep from his eyes and brushed sand off his Army Air Force uniform. Then the lanky young pilot stood up to his full 6-foot-4 stature, bending a bit under the wing of his B-26 bomber, beneath which he had slept a few hours. His eyes adjusted to pitch-dark surroundings.
Accustomed to quiet nights at his parents' ranch on Montana’s Great Plains, Muri had had his sleep interrupted by the clattering of albatrosses. It was mating time for "gooney birds," the term servicemen gave the white, ocean-going birds. Day and night, they grunted, moaned, screamed, whistled and scraped their bills in an awkward-looking mating dance. It took some getting used to hearing and seeing a courtship show performed by thousands of albatrosses. As it had for millennia, the ritual took place on scrub grass near the sandy beach of Eastern Island, a 336-acre dot of land in the central Pacific. It was several hours before dawn.
Other members of Muri’s crew heard the wake-up call and now stood nearby, stretching and rubbing sleep from their eyes. They, too, had slept as best they could outdoors, sheltered by their plane on a balmy tropical night. The group included co-pilot P.L “Pren” Moore and five other men ready for duty in the early months of World War II. Six days earlier, they flew the twin-engine medium bomber 1,100 miles from Hickman Field on Hawaii's Oahu island to an atoll at the far north end of the Hawaiian chain. Their destination, Midway, comprised four islands clustered around a coral reef; Eastern Island, the second-largest, was where the Navy had constructed three runways to serve Army, Marine and Navy planes in 1941. Barracks and a mess hall, built at the same time, completed the atoll’s conversion into a naval air station.
Why are we here? Muri wondered. The other young fliers, ranging in age from 21-year-old tail gunner Earl Ashley to 23-year-old Muri and 24-year-old P.L. Moore to the “old men” of the group, William Moore and John Gogoj, 26 and 33, respectively, asked the same question. They and all Americans knew the U.S. was at war with the Axis powers — Japan, Germany, and Italy. America's efforts to stay neutral ended on December 7, 1941, when Japan accomplished its devastating, surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, prompting the U.S. to declare war on Japan. Germany and Italy seized that declaration as justification to declare war on the U.S., which joined Great Britain and the Soviet Union as the Allied powers battling Germany and Italy, the Axis combatants in Europe and North Africa. The English and the U.S. now led the war effort in the Pacific against Japan, after the Dutch surrendered.
Six months after Pearl Harbor, Muri and his crew were among thousands of American sailors, soldiers, and fliers stationed in the Pacific. All knew or sensed that combat against Japan's juggernaut was inevitable. How Midway fit into the strategic puzzle, though, was a mystery, the details kept from Muri and his fellow servicemen. Promoted that spring to first lieutenant — he expressed surprise at the the bump in rank in a letter to his wife, Alice — Muri felt like a pawn in an oceanic chess game. U.S. Admiral Chester Nimitz and Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commanders of opposing naval forces in the Pacific, moved the pieces in this life-and-death contest.
Completely untested in battle — they had never fired a shot in combat — Muri and his crew shared a mixture of excitement and unease as they stood, walked, ate and slept on Midway. They waited for daylight on June 4, 1942, and the possibility that this day would bring orders for their first wartime mission.
Confusion reigned. Overnight, Navy PBY scout planes hastily outfitted with torpedos carried out a mission. They spotted Japanese shipping and dropped torpedos. The strike damaged a tanker, but the vessels the American fliers saw were not the prized carriers.
At 4 a.m. on the 4th, Muri and his crew, and the pilots and crews of the three other B-26s parked along the airstrip, heard the rumble of Navy scout planes starting up. Eleven Catalina PBYs took to the air, searching for the approaching Japanese fleet.
Midway buzzed with activity in the predawn darkness. Telephones started ringing. A siren wailed. Man your stations! Officers barked orders to those not already at assigned defensive posts.
“It was still dark but we could hear the big bombers warming up,” a Marine recalled later. He was referring to the 16 B-17 Flying Fortresses launched in an unsuccessful attempt to hit the Japanese from high altitude.
Then came electrifying news, a 5:45 a.m. radio message from a Catalina scout plane that it had spotted two Japanese carriers sailing about 200 miles northwest of Midway. The main body of the fleet finally was in range.
The pilot of another Navy scout plane saw dozens of Japanese fighters and bombers, launched from the carriers, speeding towards the American base. He had no time to encrypt his message. He radioed his alert in the clear but only to the Navy: “Many airplanes heading Midway, bearing 320, distance 150.”
Captain Jim Collins, a Louisianan who was commander of the B-26s, told his airmen to check their planes again. A few hurriedly gulped coffee.
Collins told what happened next.
“At 6:15, a messenger in a speeding Jeep brought me a note giving the position of our target and its distance.” The message was delivered by Joe Warner, a Navy officer serving as a liaison between Nimitiz’s command and the Army fliers on temporary duty at the atoll.
“Japanese planes are inbound. The enemy fleet’s been spotted,” Warner said.
Now, as light began to break over the Pacific, the top brass at Midway and on two U.S. carriers out to sea off Midway harbored no doubt that beyond the horizon lay Japanese carriers. That was the prize Americans had sought since breaking Japan’s code and learning of the island nation’s plans to invade Midway. Yet low-ranking officers like Muri had been left in the dark about the foe they would confront. All they were given was a vague hint of Japanese shipping to be hit in the Pacific.
“Your target’s at 320 degrees, 150 miles out,” Warner shouted
The din of dozens of warplanes warming up grew louder. Six Navy Avenger torpedo planes took off first. Then four B-26 bombers raced down the runway and thundered into the sky. The B-26s at Midway carried torpedoes as did 10 B-26s defending the Aleutians against a diversionary attack by the Japanese on the same day. It was the only time planes flown by the Army Air Force, or by its successor, the Air Force, ever used torpedoes in combat.
Jim Muri, as pilot of Susie-Q, the nickname of his bomber as well as his young wife back in Southern California, joined a wave of 10 Army and Navy planes that took off from Midway from 6 a.m.-6:15 a.m. Disadvantaged by overwhelming odds, they carried out the initial U.S. attack against Japan’s massive fleet in what would become one of the greatest naval battles in world history. His bravery that day would earn Muri the Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor in prestige among Army combat awards.
Muri, a dark-haired Montana with an Erroll Flynn-inspired mustache that he and the other B-26 pilots had grown to distinguish themselves from Navy pilots, hoped six years in the military had prepared him for whatever test lay ahead. He graduated from high school in Miles City, Montana, in the spring of 1936 and enlisted in the Army that fall. Now he was literally and figuratively half a world away from his roots as the second oldest son of a first-generation Norwegian immigrant and his second-generation German-Swedish immigrant wife.
As teens, Muri and his six brothers and two sisters helped their parents work a combined cattle ranch-farm in drought-stricken, Depression-era Eastern Montana. There, catch broncs running wild in the Big Open, the vast high plains region between the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers, and breaking them represented high-adrenaline danger.
Muri never brushed with death in rural Montana, but everything changed on a morning in June 1942 when he piloted his bomber across the Pacific, running a gauntlet of dozens of Japanese fighter planes and ships blasting a barrage of bullets, cannon shells and antiaircraft flak at Susie-Q.