An Incredible Story

by John Delach

James Muri passed away on February 3, 2013 and his obituary ran in the NY Times on Feb. 10. Ninety-four at the time of his death, 71 years earlier, when Mr. Muri was only 23, he was part of a failed attempt to sink the Japanese fleet at the battle of Midway on June 4, 1942.

The battle of Midway was the major battle that turned the tide of the war in the Pacific. It was fought over three days that early June. Prior to the battle, American cryptologists had broken the Imperial Japanese Naval Code, but only in part. They knew the next invasion would come at a location designated, Area AF. But great controversy evolved about where AF was located. The brass at the Pentagon were sure it was the Aleutian Islands, but the code breakers at Pearl Harbor were sure it was MidwayIsland. They won the day when they sent a message to Midway via a secure underwater telephone cable that the island garrison was running out of water and told the commander in charge of Midway to broadcast it back to Pearl in plain, un-coded language. Sure enough, The Japanese intelligence operatives advised Tokyo that AF was running out of water.

Every force available was geared up for action. The navy only had three carriers operating in the Pacific; the Yorktown, the Enterprise and the Hornet. Despite the enormous risk of loss, all were committed to the battle. But the islands that comprised Midway itself, one named Sand, another Eastern constituted a fourth and an unsinkable aircraft carrier from which to launch strikes against the Japanese fleet. A ragtag and eclectic collection of airplanes and crews were dispatched to Midway to go into harm’s way.

First Lieutenant James Muri of the Army Air Corps piloted a B-26 Marauder light bomber. The AAC had designated the airplane as Hull No. 1391, but Muri had named it after his wife, Susie Q. He and his crew were at Hickam Field in Oahu, awaiting orders to join other bombers from his squadron in Australia when he and three other B-26 captains still at Hickam were ordered to fly their airplanes to Midway and report to the navy. On arrival, they were informed that their bombers were going to be used as torpedo attack planes. One can only imagine the look and feeling of incongruity on their behalf they received their orders. Army Air Corp pilots have as much idea as to how to attack a ship as they do attacking an iceberg and the use of torpedoes was completely alien to them. Nevertheless, an order is an order no matter how insane it is. To make matters worse, the launching system for the torpedo was jury-rigged under the bomb bay.

For the record, crews never trained in naval warfare were ordered to make torpedo attacks against a superior enemy in airplanes never designed to fly in this manner without any real practice. Brilliant! Only the military could have come up with such a mission, even granted the critical nature of the battle.

Lt. Muri and his crew took off at dawn on the morning of June 4 and joined the other aircraft flying toward the reported position of the Japanese fleet. As they drew close, they were attacked by a number of the excellent Japanese fighters, the Zero, whose pilots were protecting their prize possessions, the four aircraft carriers that they called home. All three crewmen, the gunners in the rear of, Susie Q, were wounded during the flight to the fleet. Shot up, Muri pressed on and tried to launch the torpedo. It jammed, but somewhere in the attack, it fell into the water.

The captain of the carrier Muri attacked saw the danger and ordered an emergency turn into the wake of the torpedo speeding toward it. This presented Muri with the choice of flying down the carrier’s deck, front to back which is precisely what he did.  His obituary included his description of this experience, “The guns were all pointing out. It was the safest place to be. I always said we could have touched down if we lowered the gear.”

Without the weight of the torpedo, the B-26 finally outran the pursuing Zeros and made it back to Midway, shot up with a badly wounded crew. They say that any landing you can walk away from is a good landing and the wreck that landed at Midway that afternoon tested that theory. The crew counted over 500 bullet holes before they gave up with half the airplane to go. Every man survived; a miracle into itself.

Of the sixty-two airplanes that took off from Midway on June 4, 1942, thirty-three were lost, all without scoring even one hit on any ship in the Japanese fleet. Then, in the blink of an eye, dive bombers from the Navy’s carriers found the fleet and sank three of the four Japanese carriers. The war in the Pacific turned just like that. The last Japanese carrier succumbed two days later. Midway was a victory in spite of all of the things that went wrong that could have prevented it from being so. Walter Lord called it in his book, Incredible Victory.

Martin Caidin, an American World War II aviation historian included the exploits of Lt. Muri in his book called, The Rugged, Ragged Warriors. He ended the book with an affectionate description of what was left of Susie Q: “On the side of the Midway airstrip, several men swathed in bandages, went out for a long look at Old 1391. The Marauder stood at an ungainly angle, her skin punctured and blackened. She was a wreck. They say it is possible for an airplane to look tired. This one looked it.”

RIP James Muri