Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward, all in the Valley of Death,
Rode the six hundred,
“Charge” was the captain’s cry:
Their’s not to reason why,
Their’s not to make reply,
Their’s but to do and die,
Into the Valley of Death
Rode the six hundred
Those familiar words begin Alfred Lord Tennyson’s narrative poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” The poem memorializes a charge of British light cavalry against Russian forces on October 25, 1854, in the Crimean War.
Ninety-three years later, as dawn broke on Midway Island, Tennyson’s words echoed in the mind of Jim Collins, commander of the four-plane B-26 squadron that was preparing to take off on a mission to torpedo attack Japanese shipping. The squadron revving engines early on June 4, 1942, included pilots Jim Muri, Herb Mayes and William Watson, plus five additional crew members per plane.
In an interview conducted about 50 years later and since posted to YouTube, Collins recalled a conversation he had with a Navy pilot just before the B-26s took off. The Navy aviator was part of a 12-plane group flying antiquated, fabric-covered Vindicator dive bombers.
“A young fellow,” as Collins called the Navy pilot, “knew full well this was going to be his last flight.” The pilot told Collins about “a story he read one time about the Charge of the Light Brigade. When this British horseman got on his horse, he reached down and shook hands with his lackey and said, here goes the last of the six hundred because he knew he wasn’t coming back.
“(For) half of the pilots on the aircraft carrier (USS Hornet), the vast majority did not have enough fuel to get back to the fleet,” Collins said. Sent out to find the Japanese fleet but unable to locate ships, some of the U.S. pilots turned around and flew to Midway, which was closer to the carrier from which they had taken off. Other pilots, however, kept on on flying.
“One whole squadron of fighters ditched. That was the best they could do. They knew when they left that carrier, they weren’t getting back.”
Later in the interview, Collins returned to the imagery of the legendary poem. “When (Tennyson) said, here goes the last of the six hundred … If you can imagine pilots taking off at Midway against overwhelming fighters opposition and with bombers coming in – even if they lived, they didn’t know if they’d have a runway to land on when they got back,” Collins said.
He posed a question: “How many planes ever took off from England to go bomb some place in Germany knowing they didn’t have enough fuel to get back to England?” His answer: “None.”
“But those guys (Navy pilots at Midway) took off and they knew they didn’t have enough fuel to get back. They were hoping those carriers could steam full bore ahead and make up the difference.” Collins’ word for that mission focus in a desperate hour: “commendable.”