The first draft of history – reporting the Battle of Midway in June 1942

An old saying declares that newspapers write the first draft of history – and history books years and decades later tell a different story. That rings true when one reads accounts of the four B-26 bombers’ role in the Battle of Midway.

For example, here’s how an Associated Press dispatch published in the Billings (Montana) Gazette on June 14, 1942 (ten days after Miles City’s Jim Muri made his famous flight) summarized what the four Martin Marauders accomplished in the waters off Midway Island on the first morning of the battle. The first paragraph quoted Captain Jim Collins, who headed the attacking group:

“We just dodged between two cruisers, played leap frog over the ack-ack (antiaircraft fire), went close into the Jap (sic) carriers and laid our torpedoes on her deck. It was all cut and dried.”

The article stated that Muri, who held the rank of lieutenant, and Collins accomplished a first in American history when they dropped torpedoes against an enemy ship. Collins and Muri navigated their shot-up B-26s back to Midway and crash landed, but the other two pilots in the diamond formation and their crews succumbed to heavy fire and perished in the Pacific Ocean.

The account says one of the planes torpedoed a Japanese carrier, one of four in the massive attack fleet, its name not mentioned or known, before the American plane crashed into the sea. The implication then is that Collins or Muri, or both, also succeeded in launching torpedoes that struck Japanese ships.

Over succeeding decades, however, histories of the battle as well as reminisces by Collins and Muri – both now deceased – have cast doubt on the notion that any torpedoes (“fish” in the parlance of both Army Air Corps and Navy flyers) actually were released, let alone whether they struck targets.

The B-26s had been converted to torpedo planes just days before action. Collins, Muri, William Watson and Herb Mayes received little or no torpedo training. Symbolic of how the U.S. was scrambling to respond to Japan’s perceived upper hand in the weeks and months after Pearl Harbor, ground crews latched torpedoes to the bellies of planes that were not designed to carry them. The torpedoes reportedly hung so low beneath the B-26s that the planes only had inches of clearance above the Midway runways.

Afterwards, Collins revealed how his group improvised in the thick of fire. “The whole thing was just cut and dried. Anybody can do it. We just did what we had practiced,” he said. Asked, though, how much practice he got, Collins said, “This was the first time I dropped a live torpedo.”

Two of Muri’s men were severely wounded by fire from Japanese defenders, especially Zero fighter planes, according to the AP article. Muri’s plane lacked protection until his co-pilot, Lieutenant P.L. Moore, of El Centro, California, “crawled through the plane, tended the wounded men and manned the tail gun.”

Ensign George H. Gay, of Houston, witnessed the attacks by Collins’ squad from the wreckage of his plane. Gay said he saw Collin’ “third plane” attack the Japanese carrier, now known to be the Akagi, amidst heavy anti aircraft fire.

This plane’s torpedo “crashed squartely” into the carrier, but the American plane apparently was so heavily damaged and out of control that it cartwheeled over the carrier’s deck and tumbled into the ocean. The plane narrowly missed the bridge of the Akagi; if it had, it would have killed Vice-Admiral Chukchi Nagumo and his senior staff, who were standing on the deck. Mayes piloted this plane, according to other accounts.