THE CHARGE OF THE B-26 MIDWAY MARAUDERS
FIRST LIEUTENANT JIM MURI LEAVES AN UNWELCOME US ARMY CALLING CARD ON ADMIRAL NAGUMO'S FLAGSHIP
Captain James Collins and his Army aircrews had been sleeping beside their four B-26 Marauder bombers when the alert sounded at 0530 hours to signal the approach of a Japanese carrier force. The engines of the four B-26 bombers were being warmed up on the Eastern Island runway when the Army liaison officer arrived to deliver to Captain Collins the order to attack the Japanese carriers and provide him with details of bearing, distance, and speed of the carriers. First Lieutenant Jim Muri was sitting in the cockpit of his bomber "Susie-Q" wondering what this mission was all about. There had been no time for pre-flight briefing. He had no idea what his target was to be. All he knew was the location of the target.
"A Shot across the Bow" by Roy Grinnell
A powerful Japanese aircraft carrier strike force has just attacked America's Midway Atoll on the morning of 4 June 1942. This dramatic image by artist Roy Grinnell captures the moment when First Lieutenant Jim Muri, flying the B-26 bomber "Susie-Q", strikes back at the Japanese invaders. He has left an unwelcome US Army calling card by strafing the flight deck of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo's flagship Akagi. The bombing attacks from Midway Atoll contributed to the great American victory by scattering the Japanese carrier force and its Zero fighter screen, and thereby, rendering it more vulnerable to dive-bomber attack.
First Lieutenant Muri's first impression of the Japanese carrier fleet was the sighting of wisps of smoke on the horizon, and then he was over the destroyer screen and saw the vast array of the First Carrier Striking Force spread across the sea. This was certainly not going to be the easy mission that he had been expecting, and he reached for a cigarette in the can at his feet. He was still fumbling with a match to light it when the Zeros struck viciously at the small formation of Army bombers.
Jim Muri did his best to follow closely as Captain Collins swerved his bomber, first to the left and then to the right, looking for the clearest line of approach to one of the leading carriers. With his concentration focussed on the movements of his commander's B-26, Muri had no time to keep an eye on the B-26 bombers piloted by 1st Lieutenant Herbert C. Mayes and 1st Lieutenant William S. Watson on his left and right wings respectively. Facing a veritable storm of anti-aircraft fire from the Japanese warships, Collins alternately climbed and dropped his B-26 to throw off the aim of the gunners. Muri was still following closely as Collins dived close to sea level in an attempt to frustrate the swarming Zeros. Master story teller Walter Lord (see note below) vividly evokes the situation as Jim Muri piloted his B-26 into the boiling cauldron that was the First Carrier Striking Force:
"Now they were in the middle of the formation; as Muri's co-pilot Lieutenant Pete Moore glanced quickly around, every ship seemed a solid sheet of gunfire. The Japanese gunners would shoot at the water to see where the bullets hit. Using the splashes as tracers, they would "walk" their fire right into the B-26s.
"But they came on anyhow. Collins finally released at 800 yards and zoomed away to the right. Muri came hard behind, with the Zeros flying right into their own fleet's line of fire in a desperate effort to stop him. Bullets smashed the Plexiglas turret; a ricochet clipped Sergeant Gogoj's forehead. Muri shouted to Moore to release the torpedo. But the improvised switch was something that Rube Goldberg might have invented - a trigger, a cable, a plug with innumerable prongs. Moore frantically squeezed the trigger, twisted the plug, still couldn't tell whether the torpedo was gone. "Is it away?" Muri kept shouting. "How the hell do I know?" Moore answered."
They would find out later that the torpedo had indeed been released; but now looming in front of them was the vast bulk of the carrier at which they had been aiming. They would find out later that this carrier was none other than Vice Admiral Nagumo's own flagship Akagi. Walter Lord continues:
"Banking hard, Muri flew straight down the middle of the flight deck. His bombardier Lieutenant Russ Johnson grabbed the nose gun and strafed in all directions. They had a brief, vivid glimpse of white-clad sailors scattering for cover."
As he flew at low level down the length of the great carrier's flight deck, two things impressed themselves very clearly on Jim Muri's memory. First, was the large Japanese battle flag streaming from the mast. The second was the sudden cessation of heavy anti-aircraft fire produced by the need for the Japanese gunners to avoid hitting their own ship.
Speaking of this attack by Midway's B-26 bombers on his flagship, Vice Admiral Nagumo recorded in his Midway action report:
"Akagi notes that enemy planes loosed torpedoes. Counters with AA machine-gun fire. Enemy machine-gun strafing seriously injures two men manning the No.3 AA gun. Revolving mechanism of said gun damaged (repaired half an hour later. Both transmitting antennas cut."
What was missing from the admiral's report was the devastating psychological impact that this bold attack, pressed home resolutely by American Army bombers without fighter support, must have had on Japanese Navy officers taught to believe that Americans lacked courage, fighting skills, and discipline.
As he pulled out of his attack on Akagi, Jim Muri caught a fleeting glimpse of a B-26 that narrowly missed colliding with the island structure of Akagi before plunging into the sea. No one saw what happened to the fourth B-26. There was no time to look. As soon as they had cleared the flight deck of Akagi, the Zeros swooped again, riddling the B-26 with bullets in each firing pass. Once clear of the Japanese fleet, the Zeros disappeared, and Jim Muri now had time to assess the damage. His radio and hydraulic system had been knocked out. The leakproof fuel tanks of the B-26 had been repeatedly pierced by Zero bullets. Although wounded and bloodied himself, Corporal Frank L. Mello, Jr. crawled up to the cockpit from the waist gun turret to report that the plane was on fire and that all three gunners had been wounded. Lieutenant Moore left his co-pilot's seat and made his way quickly to the site of the fire. After putting it out, he treated the worst wounds, and then manned a gun.
Somehow Lieutenant Muri's heavily damaged B-26 held together, and having located the equally battered B-26 piloted by Captain Collins, the two Army pilots nursed their crippled bombers back to Midway. On the return flight, Jim Muri had time to wonder what had happened to the unlit cigarette that had been in his mouth when the Zeros struck. In the heat of the action, he had bitten it in half and swallowed the half in his mouth.
On landing, Muri found that his left tire had been shot off, all propellor blades had been damaged, and there were more than 500 holes in his plane. He complained in his report that his turret guns had jammed repeatedly during the action over the Japanese carrier fleet, and that he had missed opportunities to fire at Zeros owing to the the absence of fixed forward-firing guns.
Jim Muri's Battle of Midway aircrew
Back row, left to right: Corporal Frank L. Melo Jr, radio operator; 2nd Lt. Russell H. Johnson, bombardier.
Front row, left to right: 2nd Lt. Pren L. Moore, co-pilot; 1st Lt. James P. Muri, pilot; 2nd Lt. William W. Moore, navigator;
T/Sgt John J. Gogoj, engineer/turret gunner. PFC Earl D. Ashley, tail gunner, was still in hospital and is not in the photograph.
Lieutenant Muri was allowed to cut out the name "Susie-Q" from the riddled B-26 fuselage to keep as a souvenir.
This account of the Midway counter-attack on the First Carrier Striking Force on 4 June 1942 is necessarily a brief one in the context of a web-site that covers the first fifteen months of the Pacific War. Viewers with an interest in the Battle of Midway are strongly urged to read the vivid and gripping account of this great battle provided in Walter Lord's: "Midway - The incredible Victory" (1967) . Walter Lord interviewed many of the American and Japanese participants in the Battle of Midway, and his classic work is enriched by their contributions to the story as he tells it in his book.