A VP-17 short story from C-C-Cold War Syndrome
Midway. The Japanese set their sights on it only six months after attacking Pearl Harbor.
A U.S. possession since 1867, Midway was just a dot on the map in the middle of the North Pacific. It lay some 1,200 miles northwest of Hawaii, much nearer than Honolulu to the Japanese homeland. Logistically, it should have been easier pickings for them.
This time, however, the U.S. Navy was prepared and kicked their butts in the Battle of Midway.
The American victory in that battle, the second between opposing fleets of aircraft carriers,* turned the tide of World War Two in the Pacific and foretold the ultimate defeat of the Japanese. Although the Pacific Campaign would see another 38 months of heroic fighting, when the Navy sank four Japanese carriers at Midway—four of the six carriers that had launched the air attack on Pearl Harbor—the momentum shifted in America’s favor for good. To draw a football analogy, big MO changed sides only eight minutes into the game.
Thirty-something years later, we were flying P-3s out of Midway to keep an eye on the Russians. They’d staked out a chunk of ocean north of the atoll and were using it as a target area for test flights of their submarine launched ballistic missiles. Our job was to observe payload impact and collect intelligence on these weapons of mass destruction.
The extent to which technology had evolved in the few decades since the War was sobering. The Soviets already had more than 40 nuclear-powered submarines loaded with long-range ballistic missiles and were rapidly building more.
Each ship carried a dozen or more nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles aimed at cities or military targets in the United States. Just one of these submarines was capable of inflicting more death and destruction than was the entire Japanese fleet of World War II. Now it was the modern era and we’d been waging the Cold War for more than a quarter-century.
Still, you couldn’t go to Midway without experiencing a strong sense of the history that enshrouded the place. Along with their four aircraft carriers, the Japanese had lost a heavy cruiser, 322 airplanes and 3,500 lives in the Battle of Midway. The count on our side was one carrier (USS Yorktown), one destroyer, 150 planes and 307 lives lost.
Approaching Midway for landing, you were struck by the contrast between its great strategic value in the early stages of World War Two and its diminutive size. Only when you saw it did you realize just how small a dot on the map it really was.
It was actually two dots—two islets that comprised an atoll in the middle of nowhere. Nothing but ocean as far as you could see in every direction. While there was no indigenous population, roughly 500 Americans resided on Midway, which served as a refueling stop for aircraft crossing the Pacific as well as a base for watching the Russians.
There were some facilities—hangars next to the runway, singles quarters, family housing, a combination club and movie theater, a small Navy Exchange and commissary and even a nine-hole golf course. Except for a handful of official vehicles, bicycles were the only means of transportation. There were hundreds of those.
Midway’s nicest features were its beaches, some of the most beautiful in the world. Fine white sand, gentle surf, pristine water in progressively deepening shades of blue over a gradually sloping bottom and, surprisingly, even a smattering of attractive young ladies in bikinis. Not a bad place to wile away the hours between flights.
But without a doubt, the leading source of entertainment on Midway was not found on the beach or at the club or on the golf course, although you could do it at all of those places. You could do it anywhere, for that matter. It was watching the goofy gooney birds, technically referred to as albatrosses.
Observe albatrosses for even a few minutes and you’ll understand why they’re called gooney birds. With goose-sized bodies and wingspans stretching to ten feet or more, they glide through the air as gracefully as any birds. On the ground, however, they’re as clumsy and inept as the most sated of drunks.
Somewhere between the Creator and the species, instructions for the gooney mating ritual must have gotten scrambled in transmission. Facing each other, the male and female begin the ritual by slapping the sides of their hook-nosed beaks together for 15 or 20 seconds (or until the female gets a headache, whichever comes first). Then the male’s head disappears under one wing as if he were smelling his own “wingpit.” Finally, he thrusts his beak straight up in the air and lets out a boastful yawp. The procedure is repeated again and again. How could even the most hard-hearted female gooney resist that?
When an albatross decides to go flying, it can’t simply spring into the air as a smaller bird might. It requires a lengthy takeoff run in which to waddle up to speed with its giant wings undulating but never quite reaching a full-fledged flap. Apparently, it can waddle only straight ahead as it has a calamitous habit of crashing into anything that happens to be in its way. Often the bird on the takeoff waddle-run careens into a whole collection of other gooneys like a bowling ball striking a full set of pins.
Landings are just as exciting. At the end of a long, graceful approach, a gooney sticks out its feet, braces its legs, grimaces and waits for impact with the ground. The result is always a tumbling, head-over-webbed-foot crash landing.
Somewhere along the line, the U.S. Government established Midway as a National Wildlife Refuge to protect the albatross. Taking full advantage of their protected status and perfecting their odd mating ritual, albatrosses came to occupy every square foot of the atoll, habitable or not.
However, you would see them on Midway for only half of the year. When their offspring were roughly six months old, they all would fly south to Antarctica commencing a round-trip migration of 18 months in length.
When they returned, each female would attempt to nest within a two-foot circle of the spot on which she was born. It mattered little to the Gooney that a paved road or a building or a runway had been constructed over the site; she still tried to nest on it.
Every November, another batch of albatrosses would arrive in time-share fashion to begin this 24-month cycle. The clack-clack-clack of slapping beaks would be heard all over the atoll. But gooneys weren’t the only birds there making noise. The islets were also busy with thousands of little white terns fluttering about.
One day as my P-3 crew stood on the flight line awaiting word to launch to observe a Soviet missile test, we passed the time watching the gooney bird show. Eventually, someone observed: “You know, if you ever get bored with the gooneys, you could toss little pieces of lunchmeat into the air and watch the terns go for the wurst!”
But the punster’s humor couldn’t match that of the gooney show. One performer took center stage as we looked on.
He was on the roof of the hangar. Like us, he was preparing to go flying. Apparently, he decided that the area available for his takeoff waddle-run was too short. Eyeing it pensively, he retreated a few waddle steps. Then a few more. And a few more. Finally, he took one backward step too many and plummeted off the hangar. He was stunned momentarily by the fall and a little embarrassed, but was otherwise okay.
We were still roaring with laughter when our launch order came. As we headed for our aircraft, I wondered whether the gooney birds had been here doing their thing during the Battle of Midway as they were doing it now during the Cold War. And I wondered what sort of menu delicacy they might have become if the Japanese had won.
“It’s a good thing we have gravity, or else when birds died they’d just stay right up there.”
* History’s first engagement of carrier forces had occurred one month earlier at the Battle of Coral Sea, which was also the first naval battle in which opposing surface combatants never saw or fired a shot at each other. Coral Sea claimed the carrier Lexington and was a tactical win for the Japanese, but a strategic victory for the U.S. Navy, thwarting the Japanese threat to Australia and New Zealand. The subsequent success at Midway enabled U.S. forces to undertake their first major offensive operation in the Pacific, the bloody conquest of Guadalcanal (August 42 to February 43).
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