Reawakening Midway

By Gorman, Stephen | The World and I, September 1998 | Go to article overview
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Reawakening Midway

Gorman, Stephen, The World and I


Twenty-foot rollers rush toward us from across the open ocean. From their peaks I can see Midway Atoll's sugary white beaches lying on the blue horizon. Up in the steering console of the Yorktown, a 38-foot sport fishing boat, Capt. John Bone wrestles with the wheel as the vessel smashes through the heavy seas. The Yorktown lifts skyward as the waves roll under the hull, then slams down into the deep troughs. The boat is brave enough. It's named for the World War II aircraft carrier that sank somewhere in these waters after taking three bombs and two torpedoes on a June day 55 years ago.

On that day in 1942, the Imperial Navy of Japan launched a Kido Butai--a carrier strike force--against Midway in a bold attempt to seize the atoll as a stepping-stone for attacks against Hawaii and the U.S. mainland. For the Americans, the situation was desperate. But the Yanks held one secret advantage: They had cracked the Japanese code and that made all the difference.

The Japanese steamed into an ambush. In one if the greatest battles in history. American aircraft flew desperate sorties from airfields on Midway and from three aircraft carriers, the Yorktown, Enterprise, and Hornet. Uncertain if they even had enough fuel to return to base, American fliers nonetheless crippled the Japanese fleet, sending four carriers, a heavy cruiser, 253 planes, and 3,500 pilots and sailors to the bottom. The Battle of Midway was Japan's last offensive, marking the turning point of the war in the Pacific.

Suddenly, there's an explosion like a depth charge aster, where the plastic squid had been skipping across the water just a moment before. One of the trolling rigs jerks with a crash, then doubles over violently, like a divining rod straining toward an artesian mother lode.

"Fish on!" yells crewman Mike Straight. With practiced motions he grabs the rod and leans back once, twice, striking hard to set the hook. "Big ahi. Steve, put on the belt!" I buckle on the fighting belt and Mike hands me the rod, then clears the five other trolling lines in a hurry. I jam the butt nock into the belt's gimbal cup just as the fish takes a hard run.

The ahi pulls me to my toes as the Yorktown slams into a roller. I almost go over the rail. I start to tighten the drag to slow the fish but catch myself. That's how big ones are lost. "Let him run," Mike orders as the reel sizzles. "Let him take all the line he wants. There's nothing you can do to stop him."

The line shears through the water like a jigsaw, and for the next half hour the ahi, or yellowfin tuna--a torpedo of a fish, one of the fastest swimmers in the sea--takes run after blistering run. From time to time we catch a glimpse of something white flashing through the water like a tracer bullet, easily ripping off whatever line I had struggled to reel in. When the beautiful fish finally rises like a phantom from the depths and is gaffed aboard, my biceps are burning.

If the infinitely vast Pacific is like the universe, its myriad islands like the stars burning bright in the midnight sky, then Midway Atoll is the tiny constellation at the far edge of the cosmos. It's an apt comparison, for flying to Midway is as close to space travel as I've ever come.

The little nineteen-passenger Gulfstream turboprop jumped off the tarmac at Kauai's Lihue Airport at sunset, then gained altitude above the fluted cliffs of the Na Pali coast. The sheer ramparts were aflame in the last light of day. Through the large, oval window I watched Niihau, and then the little rock outcrop called Nihoa, slide by under the wings as the sky turned a deep indigo. The powerful Rolls-Royce engines hummed through the night as the little plane worked its way up the Leeward Islands, traveling from star to star.

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