Origins: Midway


When I heard there was going to be a movie about Midway, I thought, “Cool!” It’s not a topic that’s been delved into much in Hollywood, probably because it wasn’t as high-profile as Pearl Harbor or Iwo Jima, although it was extremely important to the Pacific theater. My dad’s stepdad was at Midway–he was a radioman on a PB-Y Catalina and was part of the reconnaissance fleet that patroled the island. Once their job was done, he and his buddies watched some of the battle from a foxhole. More on that later.

My elation turned to reservation when I saw the trailer, though:

Nick Jonas and Mandi Moore are in this? Not that they can’t act, but it feels like a lineup of early 2000s pop stars. If Avril Lavigne shows up, I will not be shocked.


But I digress.

I am sort of glad that Roland Emmerich is at the helm; I was afraid it was going to be Michael Bay. He did direct Pearl Harbor, after all. Emmerich isn’t the most competent director, but he does know how to bring out genuine emotion and humor in his actors, not to mention stuff isn’t exploding every five seconds in his films. So yeah, that means the movie has a shot at being decent or at least quieter.

However, I still have big reservations. I don’t usually do this for Origins posts, but this time you all are getting two trailers:

Those who know about the war and the 1940s probably know where I’m going already. There’s a major possibility that Midway will make the same mistake a lot of current historical films do: They get some facts right but miss the point entirely.

The Denver Post

For one thing, no one thought the United States Navy was a joke after Pearl Harbor. People were scared, they were uncertain, they were mourning relatives and friends, they wanted revenge, but they certainly weren’t laughing. This is a massive mistake on the part of the filmmakers, because it changes the trajectory of the story and the motivation of the characters.

In fact, Time reported that in the week following Pearl Harbor, recruitment offices in all branches were chock-full of enlistees. Here is Time’s weekly radio show, The March of Time detailing America’s response to the attack:

Like I said, people were definitely not laughing.

Why was Midway important? And some may be asking, “What is Midway?”

New Battle Of Midway
Midway Island in 2002. (The Japan Times)

Midway Island is a tiny atoll in the Pacific at the almost-exact halfway point between America and Asia. It was used as a refueling station for Pan American Clippers and as a Naval base. The island had been bombarded two hours after Pearl Harbor, and its strategic importance was not lost on the powers that were. If it had been taken by the Japanese, it would have made it much easier for them to not only hold the Pacific but to attack the continental United States.

This brings us to the film’s second bit of needless idiocy. America’s Federal government was well-aware of what would happen if the Japanese took Midway; there was no lone Prophet of Doom sounding the alarm. What was unknown was when the attack would take place.

The crew of VP-23, which spotted the Japanese heading for Midway at the start of the battle. (World War II Database)

According to the History Channel, the United States was on the way to cracking Japanese code as soon as early 1942. Radio communication was vital to the Japanese navy because their forces were spread very thin, and American codebreakers had plenty of chances to analyze the enemy’s radio lingo. They suspected that “AF” in Japanese code stood for Midway and that the attack would take place around June fourth or fifth.

It wasn’t long before the Navy’s suspicions were confirmed. A decoy message was sent out from the island complaining about the lack of fresh water. When Japanese communications also mentioned AF lacking fresh water, that was all the Navy needed to know.

The Catalina in action. (Coast Guard Aviation History)

Admiral Chester Nimitz dispatched four aircraft carriers to the island, one just off it and three more farther away, all laden with Navy planes. He also conscripted PB-Y squadrons to patrol the island in all four directions.

That’s where my adoptive grandpa comes in–he was in the VP-72 Patrol Squadron from 1941 until 1942. I remember him telling me that preparations lasted about a month before the actual battle, so he was busy. Again, his ship was a PB-Y Catalina and he manned both radio and radar. While Grandpa’s squadron didn’t spy the approaching Japanese forces, they did take part in what were called “Dumbo flights,” or sea-to-air rescues, during and after the battle.

The Yorktown in flames during the battle. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Midway was narrowly won by the Americans, The carrier stationed closest to the island, the Yorktown, sank from heavy damage and entire squadrons were almost wiped out. However, Nimitz had an ace up his sleeve, or rather, three: the remaining carrier vessels were still secretly stationed nearby and sending planes out to take down the Japanese, who couldn’t figure out where the additional fighters were coming from. In the end, the Japanese forces lost four carriers, and as they didn’t have many ships to spare, this was a big blow to their hold on the Pacific.

The Battle of Midway was a turning point in the Pacific war. It was America’s way of saying, “Thus far, no farther,” to the Japanese, sobering enemy forces who believed they were invincible. It was also a morale builder for a disheartened American public in desperate need of good news.

My step-grandpa with my grandma and my dad in late 1943. Grandpa’s nickname throughout his Naval career was “Sport.”

Today, Midway is still controlled by the United States. Decommissioned decades ago, it is now run by Fish and Wildlife, caring for the albatross that inhabit the island. Currently, Midway is not open to the public, and many historic buildings have been allowed to fall into disrepair and have been subsequently demolished.

A bill was introduced in the House of Representatives last year to establish a Board of Governors on the island, partially privatize it, and let tourism resume, but it hasn’t been voted on as of this writing. I believe this atoll should be made into a national monument and the public should be allowed to see it. As the step-granddaughter of a Midway veteran, I would jump at the chance. I know my dad would love it.

This seaplane hanger on Midway was attacked by the Japanese twice–once on December 7th and the other time during the battle in 1942. (Elston Hill)

It’s sad and irksome that the makers of Midway missed a golden opportunity to truly honor what these brave men did in June of 1942. Drawing attention to the atoll’s current plight wouldn’t have been a bad thing either. Instead, the men who fought are apparently being portrayed as bratty and butthurt, at least the officers are, which is absolutely ludicrous. These filmmakers seem to either be ignorant of the time period or are deliberately misleading the public.

Hollywood’s ham-fisted revision of Second World War history (or any history) is going to be more problematic as the number of surviving vets keeps dwindling. Not only is the world’s personal connection to the war disappearing, but there will be fewer and fewer witnesses to call out bad faith interpretations such as this one.

Something delectable is coming tomorrow, and it just might make you hungry. Thanks for reading, all…

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