Midway: The Beginning of the Modern American Sailor

By E.J.A. Prevoznak LT, CHC, USN, NMAS Volunteer

The Pacific theatre of World War II was the first large scale naval war of consequence for the American sailor since the Spanish-American War in 1898. Ships were mainly crewed by enlistees and draftees who had never been to sea, let alone in major naval combat. Journalist Malcom Gladwell in his book Bomber Mafia writes that the U.S. and Japan knew less of each other than any other combatants in history.1  He further argues that as the sea war evolved into an air war the vastness of the Pacific “made it the kind of air war that no one had fought before.”2 The Battle of Midway was the first step for the U.S. Navy becoming the dominant world sea power, and doing so forever changed the American sailor from the 19th century seafarer trimming sails into a modern naval warrior forged by the fires of aerial combat. 

Admirals Nimitz, Fletcher, Spruance, and other officers receive a lion’s share of credit for Midway’s success. They dedicated their entire professional life to naval warfare studying the great battles of the sea. In this light, scholars have called Midway “America’s Trafalgar.”3 Trafalgar fit the mold of how a naval battle was fought for thousands of years and it was a major turning point for the British Empire becoming the dominant sea power. These naval officers must have studied every moment thoroughly and took the lessons with them into Midway. Trafalgar was fought using similar tactics and technology from the previous decades and centuries; however, Midway would break the mold of naval conflicts of the previous 2,000 years, because it was the first time where the sky, not the sea, became the primary battle space.  Even though Nimitz accurately predicted Midway was the Japanese target, and the officers adapted their strategy accordingly, it was the enlisted American sailor that carried the day. 

Commander-in-Chief, Pacific With other flag and general officers, at CinCPac Headquarters, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, circa 1944. Those present are (left to right): Admiral Nimitz; Lieutenant General Delos C. Emmons, U.S. Army; Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, USN; Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, USN and Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner, U.S. Army. Collection of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. NHHC Photograph-NH 62679.

Despite their actions to deny the Japanese Imperial Navy a deeper advance into the Pacific, the enlisted sailors that manned the ships and crewed the planes throughout the 3-day mêlée often don’t receive the credit they deserve. Very few of the enlisted stories are recorded. However, the few enlisted stories that are documented shine light on the thousands of untold stories that may never be told. Four generations have passed between Midway and today making it more imperative we tell their stories so that today’s sailor can be ready for the next unforeseen change in war.

Many of the enlisted stories from Midway are re-constituted from memory since countless records are lost.4  One such story is Torpedoman First Class B.M. Kimbrel on the USS Hamman (DE 131). The Hamman came alongside the USS Yorktown (CVS 10) for salvage and rescue efforts when she was struck by a torpedo.5 He immediately understood the need to keep the onboard ordinance safe, by securing depth charges that were in danger of exploding.6 He then continued to help the crew abandon ship when an explosion destroyed the ship, further sinking it completely. It is believed Kimbrel went down with the ship, but his acts of heroism did not. 

Chief Steward Andrew Mills was aboard the USS Yorktown while it was taking heavy fire. The crew abandoned ship and were rescued by the Hamman. However, the Yorktown never sank. A salvage party was hastily convened to recover the payroll, silver, and other important documents.7 Mills volunteered to accompany the paymaster to go below decks to search for the safe. When they found it, the paymaster was unable to open the safe who then turned to Mills. He quickly cracked it open and began grabbing all the money and documents he could. They returned to the flight deck to transfer their salvage to safety when the Hamman and Yorktown were hit by Japanese torpedoes. Mills once again abandoned ship and was rescued by another destroyer.8

Oil painting depicting the USS Yorktown under heavy fire. Painting, Oil On Wood; by John Hamilton; C. 1975. NHHC- 80-142-V.

Aviation Machinist’s Mate 1st Class Bruno Gaido was reintroduced to a new generation in 2019 in the movie “Midway” when he was portrayed by singer and actor Nick Jonas. At Midway, Gaido, who was instantly meritoriously promoted four months earlier for shooting down a Japanese fighter attempting to crash into the USS Enterprise (CV 6), was captured by the Japanese after his own plane ran out of fuel while on a bombing run. It is thought he was interrogated, tortured, and thrown overboard a week after capture.9

Scene on the Enterprise’s flight deck, 1 February 1942. The aircrafts in the background are Douglass SBD-3 Dauntless scout/dive bombers of which Gaido would later jump into during the attack, to open fire. NHHC photograph-NH 50941.

Midway was an aerial battle fought over the ocean with practically no surface ships engaging in combat. This is one the first major naval engagements of its kind against a well-trained, equipped, and disciplined enemy. Despite the odds, when the smoke cleared, the modern American sailor was forged into a fearsome warrior. There are many more, largely untold, stories of sailors from the Battle of Midway, and more must be done to tell these stories. Their history is invaluable to today’s sailor as they see yet another new type of warfare emerging on the horizon. A Japanese commander at Midway, Commander Masatake Okumiya declared “the war was started by men who didn’t understand the sea and fought by men who didn’t understand the air.”10 Midway proved the American sailor eminently understood both, more so than their enemy. They held the line amidst raging warfare never seen before. The greatest strategies are meaningless if those charged with execution do not perform. The American sailor at Midway excelled and transformed what it meant to be a sailor in the 20th century, standing at the crossroads of war and technology. The sailor of the 21st century is called to carry on this legacy as they now stand at this very same crossroads. 


Works Cited

  1. Malcom Gladwell, The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2021), Kindle loc. 1183.
  2. Gladwell, The Bomber Mafia, Kindle loc.1183.
  3. Commander Brian Fort, U.S. Navy, Midway Is Our Trafalgar, Proceedings Vol. 132/6/1,240, June 2006. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2006/june/midway-our-trafalgar (accessed March 1, 2022).
  4. Naval History and Heritage Command. USS Hammann (DD-412) Action Report, June 16,1942.  https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/nhhc/research/archives/digital-exhibits-highlights/action-reports/wwii-battle-of-midway/uss-hammann-action-report.html (accessed March 11, 2022).
  5. Rear Admiral Joseph M. Worthington, U.S. Navy (Retired), Rescuing Survivors at the Battle of Midway, Naval History Magazine Volume 35, Number 3, June 2021.https://www.usni.org/magazines/naval-history-magazine/2021/june/rescuing-survivors-battle-midway (accessed March 10, 2022).
  6. Naval History and Heritage Command, Battle of Midway, June 3-6, 1942, https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/nhhc/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/b/battle-of-midway-3-6-june-1942-combat-narrative.html (accessed March 10, 2022).
  7. John Wilkens, Andy Mills, Battle of Midway survivor, dies at 103, Chicago Tribune, May 24th, 2018,  https://www.chicagotribune.com/sd-me-obit-mills-20180523-story.html (accessed March 8, 2022).
  8. Julie Watson, Navy honors 102-year-old vet, black pioneer, Navy Times, The Associated Press, Aug 10, 2017, https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2017/08/10/navy-honors-102-year-old-vet-black-pioneer/ (accessed March 8, 2022).
  9. Naval History and Heritage Command, Aviation Machinist’s Mate 1st Class Bruno Gaido, Oct 21, 2019, https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/nhhc/browse-by-topic/wars-conflicts-and-operations/world-war-ii/world-war-ii-profiles/gaido-bruno.html (accessed March 7, 2022).
  10. Admiral James Stravridis, U.S. Navy, Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans (New York: Penguin Press, 2017), 33.

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