Veterans, historians mark 60th anniversary of Midway

Tuesday, June 4, 2002

HONOLULU -- Sixty years after the Battle of Midway, ceremonies across the nation and on the tiny atoll itself will commemorate the day U.S. forces sunk four Japanese aircraft carriers and turned the tide of World War II.

Though today it is home only to birds, turtles, seals and other wildlife, Midway's role in World War II was critical.

"Unless you were alive, I think Midway may be something that some people have heard about but maybe can't comprehend," said Col. Lee Wyatt, a history professor from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Despite the importance of the June 4-6, 1942 battle, some veterans and historians are disappointed that it does not receive the same attention as other key events of the war, such as Pearl Harbor or V-J Day.

For three days, American dive bombers and fighter pilots fended off the Japanese naval fleet's attempt to gain Midway as an outpost. After Midway, the crippled Japanese fleet withdrew, never again to gain the offensive.

"It's a huge moment for American military history and American naval history," Wyatt said. "The Pacific war was extremely important to our emergence as a superpower."

The victory also provided the United States with a strategic military installation.

"It brought submarines four days closer to the patrol stations in Asia," said retired Navy Capt. Bill Dozier, 83, of Honolulu.

Many squadrons suffered heavy losses, like Torpedo Squadron 8, whose sacrifice has become part of Navy lore. The squadron's 15 aging TBD Devastators, too slow and poorly armored to tangle with the famed Japanese Zeros, were picked off one by one when they took to the skies on June 4, 1942, without inflicting any damage to Japanese ships.

But Torpedo 8 drew enemy fighters nearly down to sea level, leaving the Japanese ships unprotected from high-flying American SBD Dauntless dive bombers.

Only one of the squadron's 30 pilots and gunners survived.

Voted on rescue

Ensign George Gay was rescued when a sea plane piloted by S.O. "Pappy" Cole spotted him floating in the water the day after the battle. Cole took a vote of his eight fellow crew members before attempting the risky rescue.

"He said 'I've never made an open-sea landing; we might not make it, but I'd like to try,"' recalled Jack Bohner, a radio operator aboard the PBY-5A Catalina.

The vote was unanimous, the landing a success and Gay, who had spent 30 hours in the water, lived to tell his story hundreds of times and write a book titled "Sole Survivor."

Events planned to mark the battle include a symposium in Honolulu on the war in the Pacific, "Midway Night" dinners planned in cities across the nation and a wreath-laying ceremony at the island on Wednesday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

For more than 90 years, Midway -- about 1,200 miles northwest of Hawaii -- was under the jurisdiction of the Navy. The Naval Air Facility on Midway was closed in the early 1990s, and the atoll was turned over in 1996 to the federal Interior Department to be managed as a National Wildlife Refuge.

In 2000, the atoll, which is part of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, was designated the Battle of Midway National Memorial, as authorized by Congress.

Like most veterans, Bill Surgi places increasingly greater emphasis on anniversaries from the conflict.

"I just found out a good buddy of mine had just passed away," said Surgi, 78, of Rockville, Md. "They're going by the board, so I'm saluting my buddies who have gone ahead of me -- honoring them and letting everyone know that war is hell."

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