Friday, June 4, 2010

Listen to the Gooney

"The realization of a dream come true" is how I would describe my feelings as I stepped off the plane on the Sand Island runway of the Midway Atoll.  The other thing I felt right away was the heat, but at the moment I really didn't care.

As a historian with a great deal of interest in World War II I have always wanted to visit the place where The United States’ fortunes turned in 1942. I was struck by how beautiful the atoll was. I have seen it in pictures but never up close and personal. As we flew the three hours that it took to reach the island from Honolulu, I also stared out at the endless stretch of ocean and couldn’t help but contemplate how amazing it was that this tiny atoll would be a scene of such monumental events. Standing on the airstrip at Sand Island, I thought, “this is where it all went down.”  I tried to imagine the Japanese aircraft flying in and the American planes lifting off to meet them. I squinted my eyes a bit and wondered if I could imagine the smoke rising from the attack and listened for the voices of the Marines and Sailors who fought back.

And then there were the island’s most prominent residents -- the Layson Albatross, more popularly known by the less dignified name Gooney Birds. I had heard that there are a lot of these birds on Midway, but I was not prepared to have to avoid them with almost every step. When asked if I had taken any pictures of the birds I would respond, “How can you take a picture without them? They are everywhere.”

The ceremony commem-orating the Battle of Midway went off without a hitch and I would like to commend the members of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Military Historical Tours and the Pacific Aviation Museum who co-sponsored the event. They all did an outstanding job of not only honoring those who fought the battle, but taking care of their visitors who had come to be a part of this once in a lifetime experience.
I was especially moved to see the veterans from both sides meeting here sixty-eight years later. They all watched the ceremony unfold and later shook hands as they visited the memorial that had been erected at the site years before.
Kaname Harada was a Zero pilot assigned to the Hiryu on June 4, 1942. In an interview later in the day, the 93 year old Harada mentioned how beautiful the atoll looked today. He said it looked the same way those sixty-eight years ago. It’s interesting that he would think of the beauty of the islands as he winged his way into combat. He was a gentle man who seemed more interested in preserving a lasting peace than in relishing in the bygone glories of war. This is often the case with those who have seen first-hand what war can do.

Marine Sgt Crook, stationed on Midway’s Eastern Island that morning and responsible for servicing the obsolete F2 Brewster Buffalos that were mauled by the Japanese Zeros, remembers events in much the same way. “I knew many of those pilots,” he recalled.  “None of them came back.”  “There were 10,000 Japanese out there and they were coming to take Midway. That’s all we knew. We didn’t have anymore airplanes…they were all gone. They told us to dig in and take as many out as you could because they were coming in….it was three or four days before we had any information on the outcome of the battle.”

He went on to say how familiar the islands looked after all these years. “The buildings I remember are all gone but everything else looks the same. The runway is still there but it is grown over…it was all a long time ago.”

As I stood on the North Beach of Sand Island, I looked out to the north west wishing I could somehow see hundreds of miles past the horizon, and almost seventy years in the past to see the great carriers of the Japanese Empire and the U.S. Pacific Fleet sailing toward their epic clash. It was sobering to realize that five of them were still out there resting at the bottom of the sea.

Which brings me back to Midway’s winged residents. They are the one thing that remains constant on this far away outpost. The Layson albatross come and go year after year, completely unaware of the gigantic struggles of man. As I watched them soaring gracefully through the air and sitting perched on every available scrap of real estate in the atoll I felt a sense of awe that events here really do carry on much as they always have. Things are quiet on Midway now, and there is very little left to remind anyone of its historic past, but seeing the birds in flight, soaring seemingly effortlessly on the Pacific breeze, reminded me that because of our victory in the Battle of Midway, we remain free.

You can learn a lot from a Gooney bird.

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