The first US Marines land on Midway

In early 1939, surveys of the defence requirements of Midway, Wake and Johnston Islands were undertaken by the US Navy. These surveys led to the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Harold W. Stark, directing in December 1939 that a US Marine detachment be established as a garrison on Midway as soon as practicable. On 31 May 1940, the Commandant of the Fourteenth Naval District (Hawaii), Rear Admiral Claude Bloch, ordered to Midway an advance reconnaissance party of two Marine officers, eight enlisted Marines, and two US Navy hospital corpsmen. Their primary tasks on arrival were to conduct detailed reconnaissance of the ground on both islands; to propose defensive plans and dispositions for a Marine defense battalion; and to carry out the exacting surveys required for accurate artillery fire. The senior officer of this advance party was Captain Samuel G. Taxis, then commanding the 5-inch seacoast gun batteries of the 3rd Defense Battalion.

On 11 June 1940, Lieutenant Commander Julian Love, USN, the 3rd Defense Battalion medical officer, arrived on Midway to carry out a sanitary and medical survey. He found the islands to be "very pleasant and beautiful", and noted the abundant bird life which he described as "a great source of amusement". It may be doubted whether the Marines who arrived later and laboured with hand tools to dig out gun emplacements and bunkers in the hot sun would agree with these enthusiastic descriptions of Midway.

The Brewster F2A-3 (Buffalo)
Marine Fighting Squadron 221 (VMF-221) on Midway was equipped with twenty-one of these fighters and only seven of the newer Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats. The Brewster F2As were obsolescent even before they reached Navy and Marine squadrons. On the morning of 4 June 1942, these elderly fighters fought a gallant but hopeless battle against the fast and nimble Japanese Zeros escorting Vice Admiral Nagumo's carrier-launched air strike against Midway Atoll. Only ten Marine fighter pilots returned to Midway. Only two of the Marine fighters were still airworthy.

In mid-July 1940, Captain Taxis and his party were relieved by Captain Kenneth W. Benner who commanded the 3-inch anti-aircraft gun batteries of the 3rd Defense Battalion. The tasks assigned to Captain Benner and his small party included surveys related to the anti-aircraft defence of Midway.

After these preliminary surveys had been completed, an advance echelon of the 3rd Defense Battalion sailed for Midway on 23 September 1940. The Midway Detachment, Fleet Marine Force, was commanded by Major C. Roberts and comprised nine officers, 168 enlisted men, and equipment that included one 5-inch battery (two guns). The Midway Detachment was landed on Midway by barges on 29 September 1940, and immediately set to work establishing a camp and setting up the atoll's defences. During the six months that followed, the Marines toiled at emplacing heavy weapons and fire control equipment, and digging holes in the sand for machine-gun bunkers, command posts, underground sleeping quarters, and ammunition magazines. The excavated sand was deposited in thick layers over the roof of each dugout, and the dugout was then camouflaged with brush removed when constructing the airfield.

Most of this arduous work was done with hand tools and no protection from the hot sun. Lieutenant Colonel Stuart M. Charlesworth recalls:

"Considerable effort was expended in filling and manhandling sandbags from the beach areas to the gun positions. This was necessary to preserve the limited camouflage furnished by the scaevola (indigenous brush). Much sweat and ingenuity was required to install the 5-inch guns on top of the 20-foot sand dune fringing Sand Island".

In addition to strictly military activities, the Marines were also required to load and unload cargo from military vessels visiting Midway. The ubiquitous "gooney birds", actually albatrosses, were found by the Marines to be more of a nuisance than "a great source of amusement". The tame birds would often fall into gun pits and then lack the intelligence to find their way out. For the Marines, there was little to relieve the monotony of garrison life on Midway. Recreation was mostly limited to swimming, some boating and fishing, and the occasional outdoor movie which proved an irresistible attraction to the island's teeming bird life. The sooty terns and moaning birds contributed their mournful accompaniment to the film's soundtrack.

Increasing tensions in relations between Japan and the United States during the early days of 1941 caused the Chief of Naval Operations to direct that the rest of the 3rd Defense Battalion be moved to Midway. Admiral Stark also directed that the 6th Defense Battalion, then undergoing training at San Diego, be transferred to Pearl Harbor as a rotational replacement pool for Marine garrisons on Hawaii's sentinal outposts of Midway Atoll, Johnston Island (715 miles or 1,150 km) south-west of Honolulu) and Palmyra Atoll (1,000 miles or 1,600 km south-west of Honolulu). The order was quickly implemented, and the rest of the 3rd Defense Battalion disembarked on Midway on 14 February 1941.

On 4 April 1941, Rear Admiral Bloch issued an operational plan for the defence of outlying Hawaiian islands. Premised upon the possible outbreak of hostilities (with Japan), the admiral emphasised the restricted status of the sea areas around these garrisoned islands and ordered US defence forces on these islands, without parleying, to fire on suspicious and unidentified aircraft, and to stop unidentified and suspicious vessels, if necessary, by firing a shot across the bow. Being aware of Japan's history of military aggression without a formal declaration of war, the admiral warned that air, submarine, or surface raids might precede a declaration of hostilities.

Throughout the summer of 1941, the Marines laboured to construct on Midway's tiny islands the infrastructure required to support a battalion-strength Marine garrison as well as the naval and civil airline populations.

The Marine 6th Defense Battalion arrives on Midway

In early August 1941, an advance detail of the Marine 6th Defense Battalion arrived on Midway to prepare for the relief of the 3rd Defense Battalion. This relief was effected on 11 September 1941, when the main body of the 6th Defense Battalion arrived on Midway.

Forty years after the Battle of Midway, John V. Gardner returned to visit Midway in 1992 with a number of his old comrades from the Sixth Defense Battalion, Fleet Marine Force. He was the Telephone Specialist for the 5-inch guns of Battery C, and stands beside one of the large guns that has been relocated from its emplacement and established as a monument to the most important battle of the Pacific War.

The monotonous routine of garrison life was interrupted for the men of the 6th Defense Battalion in November when the Pan American Clipper delivered to Midway one Saburu Kurusu, Japan's special "peace" envoy to the United States. Kurusu was later to become infamous as a member of the Japanese diplomatic team whose function was to keep the American government distracted by the prospect of peace in the Pacific while Japanese aircraft carriers were positioned off Hawaii for the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Bad weather prevented his seaplane resuming its flight to the United States, and Kurusu was forced to remain on Midway for three days as a resident of the Pan Air hotel. To prevent Kurusu becoming aware of how small the Marine garrison was, even cooks and messmen were armed and required to participate in a deceptive show of strength for the Japanese envoy.

The absence of "hardened" defences on Midway

Although Midway now appeared to bristle with defensive firepower, none of the gun emplacements or machine-gun bunkers were "hardened" with reinforced concrete. The large calibre gun emplacements, machine-gun bunkers, command posts, communication facilities, and underground sleeping quarters had all been simply dug out of the sand. The seacoast guns and anti-aircraft guns were protected against strafing, and air and off-shore naval bombardment only by sandbag walls. The machine-gun bunkers, command posts, and underground sleeping quarters were protected by sandbags and roofing comprised of slabs of wood supporting thick layers of sand.

The beaches were guarded against amphibious landings by machine-gun bunkers with overlapping fields of fire, but Sand and Eastern Islands were too small to provide defence in depth behind the beach defences. If a Japanese amphibious landing force breached the line of beach defences, there was little to stop them pouring more troops through that gap.

The establishment of a Marine Air Group on Midway

The Marine Corps concept of rounded defence of advanced bases required ground forces to be supported by Marine air units. A major step towards achieving that air support had occurred on 1 August 1941 when the Naval Air Station, Midway, was commissioned under the command of Commander Cyril T. Simard. Simard was a veteran naval aviator who would later play a key role in the defence of Midway against the Japanese attack on 4 June 1942. As soon as the airfield on Eastern Island was completed, Marine Air Group 21 would be transferred from Ewa Field on Oahu to Midway. On 19 November 1941, a Marine aviation advance detail arrived on Eastern Island to prepare the airfield for use by Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 241 (VMSB-241).

With the Japanese indicating no willingness to halt their brutal and unprovoked war against China, and the United States unwilling to raise trade embargoes on war-related exports to Japan until that happened, Washington was now preparing for the very real possibility of armed conflict with the Japanese. On 5 December 1941, the USS Lexington took aboard the aircraft of VMSB-241 for delivery to Midway. The young Marine pilots lacked combat experience, and had only received the bare minimum of training for war. These aircraft were scheduled to land on Eastern Island on 7 December 1941.

Pearl Harbor and the first Japanese attack on Midway - 7 December 1941

At 0630 hours (Midway Time), the first news of Japan's treacherous sneak attack on the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor reached Midway. Midway was immediately placed on a war footing. The 6th Defense Battalion went to general quarters - ammunition was issued, foxholes were dug, communications were checked, and a total blackout was imposed. The arrival of VMSB-241 on Eastern airfield was postponed because Lexington had been diverted to search for the Japanese carrier strike force that had devastated the fleet at Pearl Harbor.

At 1842, with night closing in on the atoll, an alert Marine lookout on the south-west of Sand Island spotted lights flashing out to sea. The lights were almost certainly communications between the Japanese destroyers Ushio and Sazanami. These two destroyers had been designated the Midway Destruction Unit. Their mission was to neutralise the Naval Air Station on Midway.

At 2130 radar contact was made with moving surface objects to seaward and to the south-west of Sand Island. Lookouts with binoculars were able to discern dark shapes to seaward in the vicinity of the radar contacts. With their twin 5-inch guns trained on Midway, the two Japanese destroyers began their first firing run. At 2135, the first Japanese salvo shattered the silence and carried the war to Midway. Initially, the Japanese shells fell short of Sand Island, but as the range closed, the firing patterns began to creep up Sand Island towards the seaplane hangar and the power house. The 5-inch seacoast battery on the south-western end of Sand Island (Battery A) survived a close strike by one salvo.

A posthumous Medal of Honor awarded to First Lieutenant George H. Cannon, 6th Defense Battalion

A shell from another salvo hit the command post of Battery H. The Battery Commander, Marine 1st Lieutenant George H. Cannon, suffered grave injuries. Despite the seriousness of his condition, and continuing heavy loss of blood, Lieutenant Cannon refused medical evacuation. He remained at his post until his injured men had been evacuated and communications had been restored. Cannon was finally removed forcibly, but the gallant Marine died shortly afterwards at the battalion aid station from loss of blood. He was posthumously awarded the first Medal of Honor awarded to a Marine in World War II.

A Posthumous Medal of Honor

First Lieutenant George H. Cannon

First Lieutenant George H. Cannon, was mortally wounded when a shell from a Japanese destroyer scored a direct hit on his command post on the night of 7 December 1941. He refused medical evacuation until his wounded men had been evacuated and communications restored. He was then forcibly removed from his post, but died shortly afterwards from massive blood loss. He was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.

The Japanese destroyers now commenced their second firing run, moving in a north-easterly direction up the long axis of Sand Island. The seaplane hangar was hit, and the resulting flames illuminated fresh targets for the Japanese. Ashore, some confusion reigned. Telephone lines were jammed, and it was not until 2148 that Lieutenant Colonel Shannon was given permission to engage the enemy with his Marine shore batteries.

At 2153, orders were received by the Marine searchlight batteries to illuminate the Japanese ships. One Japanese destroyer was immediately illuminated under the guns of Battery A, but the 5-inch guns of this battery had been rendered ineffectual by an earlier salvo that had disrupted firing data and fire command communications. It is doubtful whether any incident on this night demonstrated more clearly the extreme vulnerability of the gun emplacements on Midway to damage from flat trajectory naval bombardment.

At this point only Battery D, located on the south-eastern shore of Sand Island, was able to bring its 3-inch anti-aircraft guns to bear on the Japanese destroyers. The destroyers were now close enough to the reef for Captain Jean H. Buckner to see the Japanese Navy battle flag flying from the foremast of the lead destroyer. Buckner ordered his gunners to fire. Battery D was then joined by the 5-inch guns of Battery B on Eastern Island. By 2158, as Marine fire intensified and became better coordinated, the Japanese destroyers ceased firing and withdrew under cover of their own smoke screen.

The very skilful Japanese night attack caused serious damage to the seaplane hangar, and damaged the power house and other buildings on Sand Island. The 6th Defense Battalion lost two killed and ten wounded. The Naval Air Station lost two killed.

This first Japanese attack on Midway provided the Marines with a foretaste of the well-honed night warfare skills of the Imperial Japanese Navy, and its willingness to carry out important naval activities during the hours of darkness.