From dirt-poor Eastern Montana to Midway

Muri, the second-oldest son of a cattle rancher and farmer, grew up in Depression-era Eastern Montana and achieved lasting renown not for breaking broncs but for his daring bomber flight at the Battle of Midway. Piloting a B-26 Martin Marauder, he buzzed the deck of a Japanese carrier in the opening hours of the Battle of Midway. He flew so low across the Akagi that he locked eyes with the Japanese fleet commander, standing on the deck, forcing him to duck to avoid death.

His flight, in which his plane was riddled with bullets, ended with a crash-landing on Midway Island. He brought his entire crew, several of them wounded, to relative safety, although they and other Americans on the island had to hunker down in trenches on the night of June 4, 1942, because they were being shelled by a nearby Japanese submarine.

The surprise and confusion sown by Muri’s flight now gets credit for helping repel the Japanese fleet steaming towards Midway Island — possibly the largest armada in world history — and turn the tide of battle in favor of the U.S.

Muri got the flight bug, the dream to someday pilot an airplane, as he watched early commercial planes carrying passengers and mail along the Yellowstone River valley towards Billings, flying over his family’s place in Cartersville, Montana, according to a research report written by Air Force Major Robert B. Copes, who interviewed Muri in 2007 in Billings. Copes wrote that Muri got a lesson in how to improvise while in the air as a track athlete at Custer County High School in Miles City. There, while pole vaulting, his new birch pole broke as he crossed the bar, making him think for an instant he would skewer himself, but somehow he avoided the sharp, splintered end of the pole and fell safely to the ground.

Years later, at the Battle of Midway, Muri avoided catastrophe again while at the controls of a B-26 fitted, or better put, jury-rigged, with a torpedo on its belly. After the torpedo failed to launch, Muri piloted the Marauder through a barrage of fire from Japanese naval vessels and Zero fighter planes. After he escaped the Akagi’s guns and pursuing enemy pilots, Muri gained altitude and used the smoke from Midway Island, which the Japanese had already struck, as a navigation guide and safely returned the plane and crew members to their base. His plane was so shot up — crew members stopped counting at 500 bullet holes — that it could never have been flown again. The Susie-Q was bulldozed into the Pacific Ocean.