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Archival footage relives Battle of Midway

We have toured the USS Midway Museum, tied up on San Diego’s waterfront, several times since it opened to visitors in 2004. Each time, there has been something new to investigate. One of the more recent additions is a short movie, “The Voices of Midway,” detailing the Battle of Midway.

This is not the epic full-length film filled with movie stars. Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, James Coburn, Glen Ford and other Hollywood luminaries were in the 1976 big-screen epic, called “Midway.” An ensign named George H. Gay and nearly 300 Americans, most of whom died in this pivotal battle, are the heroes of this one. True heroes.

The film, in the Midway Museum’s small theater, subtitled “Six Minutes that Changed History,” is a very moving quarter hour or so of mostly the real thing. While we enjoyed this new $2 million dollar production, so many in the audience were touched there did not appear to be many dry eyes in the room.

Tears began at the opening sequence. A single survivor of one of the many torpedo and bomber squadrons that started the attack appears as the film opens. The video work is done so well it seems as if the viewer is there in person.

Gay, who died in 1994, was the only survivor in his Torpedo 8 squadron of more than 30 men that attacked the Japanese armada. The plane Gay was piloting was shot down while attempting to sink a Japanese aircraft carrier. Gay managed to stay alive in the water for nearly 30 hours until he was rescued.

It isn’t the remarkable video technique that is the point, however. This mid-1942 battle is described by some as a significant turning point in the war in the Pacific. The focus of the film is a six-minute attack that, after enormous U.S. losses, changed the course of the war and eventually led to the failure of Japan to sustain its aggression.

The website “eyewitnesstohistory” describes it this way: “The Americans had surprise on their side, and luck. On June 4, they discovered the Japanese fleet northeast of Midway. An air battle quickly developed. The turning point came at midmorning. The Japanese fighters were drawn down to sea level by attacking American torpedo bombers, the vast majority of which were destroyed. Their sacrifice cleared the skies above for the American dive-bombers.

“Within minutes, three Japanese carriers were ablaze. Hiryu, the fourth Japanese carrier, retaliated with an air attack sinking the Yorktown. That afternoon American aircraft caught the Hiryu, inflicting serious damage. The Japanese fleet retreated. The one-day battle reversed the tide of war in the Pacific, six months after Pearl Harbor. From that point on, Japan would be on the defensive.”

The Americans also had cryptologists on their side. It wasn’t just surprise and luck. The technical guys had penetrated the Japanese codes and had at least some idea of where and when the Japanese would attack. It was their skill and the unwavering belief in it that, according to this film, gave Admiral Chester Nimitz the confidence to act on that intelligence and position his fighting ships and planes to trap the enemy’s ships and planes.

The Americans lost wave after wave of planes. Still, they continued the fight, some likely knowing how bad it was going to be. They persisted.

All of this is clearly depicted in this combination of archival battle film with unassuming actors filling in some of the action details. It is a striking film. It is something anyone interested in how the tide turned in the Pacific during World War II should take the time to see. There is no extra charge for this. The price of admission to the museum gets you in, though, as popular as it seems to be, there might be a short wait. It is a small theater.

Museums help us preserve our past. The curators of the Midway Museum have gone well beyond what might be expected by having this film created. Nice job, guys.

Hawkins is retired after 35 years as a construction industry association manager. He was a broadcast reporter and news anchor in Denver. As a Navy officer, he saw action in Vietnam in the River Assault Squadrons and is the recipient of a Silver Star and Purple Heart.

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