By Mike Bennighof, PhD
Located roughly halfway between Tokyo and San Francisco,
the aptly-named Midway Atoll became the focus of the Second
World War in the summer of 1942. “Midway acts as a sentry
for Hawaii,” Admiral Chuichi Nagumo pointed out; any
Japanese invasion of the Hawaiian Islands would have to be
preceded by capture of the tiny islands. And any such operation
would surely bring out the American fleet to oppose it.
The Japanese attempted to take Midway in 1942, in an effort
to lure the Americans into battle rather than as a step toward
Hawaii's conquest. They got what they wanted, though not their
preferred result, and the climactic battle is the focus of
World War at Sea: Midway Deluxe Edition game.
Midway consists of two small islands, prosaically named Sand
and Eastern. The larger of the two, Sand is about 2200 meters
long by abut 1500 wide, while Eastern is about a 1800 meters
long and 1100 meters wide. The two islands are on the southern
edge of the coral reef, which is about five miles in diameter
and encloses a lagoon that gets as deep as 25 to 50 feet in
its center. Geologically, some claim is not actually part
of the Hawaiian chain though it lies along the progression
Both islands were typical sandy desert isles when discovered,
but in the past century and a half shrubs, grass and trees
have been planted on both. Midway was apparently not discovered
until 1859, when Capt. N.C. Brooks of the bark Gambia laid
claim to them in the name of the United States. As Gambia was a Hawaiian-flagged vessel, it's very likely that Brooks
sighted the islands some weeks before his purported discovery
and sold the information to the North Pacific Mail and Steamship
The United States finally took possession in 1867, and in
1870 a naval construction crew spent seven months trying to
blast a channel through the reefs into the lagoon so a coaling
station could be established. They eventually gave up the
effort and Midway became the preserve of shipwrecked sailors
and naturalists, plus huge numbers of albatrosses and other
sea birds and the Japanese egg poachers who preyed on them.
A naval “governor” was assigned to oversee the
atoll, but he was billeted in Honolulu and given other duties,
and so rarely visited his province. One of the early governors,
Cdr. Hugh Rodman (who would later command the American Sixth
Battle Squadron attached to the Grand Fleet during World War
One), sailed to the islands to investigate tales of bird poaching.
He found a Japanese schooner anchored in the lagoon, its crew
having dug huge pits in the sand into which they drove the
albatrosses, who could not take off without a running start.
The birds died slow and miserable deaths, and then the poachers
harvested their feathers. Other teams would walk along the
shore, one man whacking the bird with a stock, the second
chopping off its wings and the third packing the severed wings
in crates. The live, wingless albatross was then left to expire
on the sand.
Rodman, infuriated at the sights, boarded the schooner waving
his sword and pistol in the air and screaming long strings of
powerful sailors’ oaths - the commander knew how the sea gods
punish those who harm an albatross. The poachers did not speak
English, but quickly packed up and sailed away to escape the
madman. Though Rodman later held that he had chased them away
for good, poachers would return a few years later. The atoll
gained brief international notoriety in 1892, when Robert Louis
Stevenson set his novel The
Wrecker on Midway, based on the shipwreck of the Wandering
Minstrel three years before. But otherwise, few had any interest
in the isolated islands.
A cable station opened in 1903, and the manager began importing
trees, birds and topsoil to ease the post’s loneliness. He
also reported the egg poachers, and the next year 21 Marines
with two six-pounder cannon arrived to drive off “the
marauders.” The tiny garrison remained for four years.
Afterwards the island remained forgotten by most until 1935,
when Pan American Airways established a seaplane base for
its Manila Clipper air service. Pan Am built a power plant,
service buildings and a hotel on Sand Island.
On 1938 Rear Admiral Arthur J. Hepburn chaired a committee
that recommended Midway be permanently occupied. “From
a strategic point of view,” he wrote, “an air base
at Midway Island is second in importance only to Pearl Harbor.”
Following that recommendation, serious work began on the
islands by the end of 1939, progressing slowly as funding
allowed. Dredges opened a channel into the lagoon, with an
eye toward building a submarine base on Sand Island. Construction
crews began putting up barracks and workshops.
Midway's installations, June 1942.
Looming international tension caused Midway to be designated
a “National Defense Area” in February 1941. The pace
of work increased and the 3rd Marine Defense Battalion was assigned
to garrison the islands. By August the Naval Air Station was
operational, with runways covering most of Eastern Island. At
first, only a squadron of Navy PBY Catalina seaplanes was present,
as the airfield lacked the service infrastructure to support
more aircraft. Marines installed a variety of three-inch naval
and anti-aircraft guns and five-inch coast defense guns as well
as four antiquated seven-inch guns.
War came to Midway on the night of 7 December 1941. The Air
Station had been expecting its first land-based planes, a squadron
of Marine dive bombers to be delivered by the carrier Lexington.
The carrier instead was diverted to search for the Japanese
fleet, and the Marine garrison went to full alert.
At 2135 two Japanese destroyers commenced a bombardment of
the islands, damaging a hangar and the main fire control center.
The Americans suffered four dead and 10 wounded, and while
they claimed three hits on one of the destroyers this result
On 17 December the combat planes finally arrived, a squadron
of SB2U dive bombers. A squadron of F2A Buffalo fighters followed
later in the month. In March 1942, both squadrons were reinforced
and split into two squadrons, and a Marine Air Group command
was set up to coordinate them.
In early May, Admiral Chester Nimitz inspected the island's
defenses, aware that Col. Jimmy Doolittle’s raid on Japan
had provoked the Japanese to seize Midway, the base from which
they believed the raid had been initiated. Nimitz allotted
the Marine and Navy commanders on the island all the reinforcements
they requested: additional anti-aircraft and coast-defense
guns, two companies of Marine Raiders, five light tanks, 16
SBD dive bombers and seven F4F Wildcat fighters. The Army
Air Force contributed a squadron of B-17 bombers and a handful
of B-26 attack planes, while the Navy added six TBF torpedo
seaplane hangar burns, 8 December 1941.
By the time the Japanese launched their "Midway Operation,"
the atoll had as large a garrison as could be sustained on
the two small islands - four companies of infantry, half of
them elite Raiders, a handful of tanks, six coast-defense batteries, and
large numbers of anti-aircraft guns.
The Japanese landing force consisted of one oversized battalion
of Special Naval Landing Force troops (5th Yokosuka) and the
Army's battalion-sized Ichiki Detachment, which would later
be wiped out on Guadalcanal. Two construction battalions (11th
and 12th) would follow up, to restore the airfield to operation
as quickly as possible and install coast-defense guns (these were American
weapons captured on Wake Island - Japan faced a serious shortage
of heavy guns). The Japanese planned to land across the southern
beaches, the SNLF troops on Sand Island and the Army on Eastern.
Success in capturing the atoll would have depended on outside
assistance: would the Japanese carriers be able to lend support
with their aircraft, or would the Americans be able to provide
air support to the defenders and reinforce them? The Japanese
needed such support more than did the Americans, and once
the carriers had been destroyed there would be no point in
executing the landing. But that's another story.
Had the Japanese wished to capture Midway, their best chance
came on December 7th. Though alerted, the Marine garrison did
not yet include combat aircraft and the coastal artillery was
limited. But the entire mission of the “Midway Neutralization
Unit” was typical of the overwrought planning of the Imperial
Japanese Navy. Two destroyers had little chance of inflicting
serious harm on the island's defenses, and placing another task
force at sea only raised the chances of premature discovery
of the Pearl Harbor operation. Adding three or four destroyer-transports
with an SNLF battalion aboard would have given the Japanese
a good chance of seizing the atoll, and in the shock that followed
Pearl Harbor they would have had an equally good chance of holding it. But
one always sees more clearly in hindsight, and the Japanese
had little information on the garrison's abilities.
After the Battle of Midway, the island became an important
submarine base. Midway would serve as a Distant Early Warning
station during the early years of the Cold War, and finally
lose this function in the 1970’s. In 1997 the Navy abandoned
the atoll for good, handing over jurisdiction to the Fish
and Wildlife Service.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, two turkeys and his dog, Leopold.