Duluth native returns to site of Midway battleDULUTH, Minn. — John Miniclier remembers how, as a young Marine on Midway Atoll, he watched helplessly as a Japanese fighter pilot machine gunned an American dangling beneath a parachute.
By: Steve Kuchera, Forum Communications, The Jamestown Sun
DULUTH, Minn. — John Miniclier remembers how, as a young Marine on Midway Atoll, he watched helplessly as a Japanese fighter pilot machine gunned an American dangling beneath a parachute.
After that, “I made up my mind I was going to make it,” the Duluth native remembers thinking.
Make it he did, surviving the historic 1942 Battle of Midway, the rest of World War II, and a Marine career stretching 35 years. But he never returned to Midway — until a month ago.
Miniclier was among the dignitaries, military brass and guests attending June 4 ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of the American victory. The Morgan Park native was one of only two of the battle’s veterans who attended the commemoration.
“It was really great to have them out here,” said Pete Leary, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist stationed on Midway. He helped cover the commemoration.
“There are so many individual stories about Midway that we don’t hear,” Leary said. “Just to get the chance to talk to anybody who has been out here, especially who saw the battle, is really great for those of us who work on the island.”
Miniclier joined the Marines in August 1940.
“Some of my friends were going to Canada to get involved in the Canadian army to help the British out” in the war, he said. “I thought there were bigger things in the world than just Morgan Park.”
Thirteen months later, a 20-year-old Miniclier found himself on tiny Midway Atoll. Located 1,250 miles northwest of Honolulu and just 150 miles east of the International Dateline, Midway’s three named islands cover less than 1,550 acres.
“It was sand and a lot of birds,” Miniclier said. “We were moved in there in anticipation of things to happen, I guess.”
Things happened sooner than American military planners anticipated. On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and shelled Midway.
“They put one lucky shot in an aperture (of a command post) and a young lieutenant by the name of Cannon was killed,” Miniclier said. “He got the Medal of Honor for taking care of his troops before taking care of himself.”
Lt. George Ham Cannon, 26, was the first Marine to receive the nation’s highest military award in World War II. He died of blood loss after refusing treatment until his men were cared for and his command post was back in action.
In June 1942 the Japanese returned to Midway in force, planning to capture the atoll.
On the morning of June 4, Japanese carriers launched 72 bombers and 36 fighters to soften up the islands. As they approached, the Americans went to battle stations. Carrying a five-shot, bolt-operated rifle, Miniclier climbed to his station atop a 30-foot-tall wooden searchlight control tower. From the tower on Sand Island, he watched American fighters taking off from nearby Eastern Island.
“We knew they were going off to do battle in some of the oldest planes the service had going,” he said.
In the tower, Miniclier watched the approaching bombers through binoculars.
“When they released their bombs, you could see them coming down,” he said. “They hit an oil tank, which started a real smoky fire. The next one looked like it was going to land right in our laps. It went right over our heads and landed between our tower and the power plant and destroyed a brand-new laundry. There was a lot of stuff flying around.”
As the attack ended, what was left of the American fighters returned to Eastern Island.
“There were a hell of a lot less of them in the flight coming back” than had gone out, Miniclier said.
According to the U.S. Navy, 17 of the 26 American fighters sent up were lost.
“I saw one of them go into the drink,” Miniclier said. “I also saw this poor guy hanging by his parachute; I could put my binoculars right on the poor guy. A Zero strafed and killed him in the air.”
Nearby, filming the attack, was Oscar-winning film producer/director and Navy Reserve Cmdr. John Ford. Miniclier and Ford had shared lodgings in the island’s power plant. Ford later recounted the attack for a recorded Navy history.
“The Marines with me — I took one look at them and I said, ‘Well this war was won.’ They were kids, oh, I would say from 18 to 22. None of them were older. They were the calmest people I have ever seen.
“They were up there popping away with rifles (Marines at that time were armed with bolt-action M1903 .30-caliber rifles), having a swell time, and none of them were alarmed. I mean, the thing (a Japanese bomb) would drop through; they would laugh and say: ‘My God, that one was close.’ I figured then, ‘Well, if these kids are American kids, I mean this war is practically won.’”
After the Japanese planes left, the islands’ defenders braced for another attack. But beyond the horizon, planes from three American carriers soon would attack the Japanese. When the battle was over, the Americans had sunk the four Japanese carriers at the cost of one American carrier.
Miniclier recalls the feelings on Midway to the news of the victory
“We hadn’t known what was coming in the way of Japanese ships and battlewagons and everything else,” he said. “We were very much relieved that we weren’t going to get shelled by big ships. It was a big sigh of relief that we had a few more days.”
Miniclier wasn’t the only Duluth native on Midway for the battle. The late Leon Gagne was another young Marine there. A few days after the battle, their families received identical cables from the military: “O.K. — LOVE,” was all they read.
Saved from invasion, Midway became an important base for American submarines that would devastate the Japanese Navy and merchant marine fleets.
Miniclier saw only part of that.
In 1943 he was shipped to the States for additional training that resulted in his commissioning as an officer. Unlike most young men and women who served during the war, he made the military a career, rising to the rank of colonel. He lives in Mount Dora, Fla.
Returning to Midway “was a moving experience,” Miniclier said. “The powerhouse is still there, in bad shape, but still there. The tower was gone, but I knew where that had been.”
The commemoration was sponsored by the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which took over responsibility for Midway’s wildlife in 1988, managing the area as the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. The Navy flew two planeloads of guests — including veterans and their families — to Midway for the day.
“This morning, as we pay tribute to the greatest generation, we pray that this time of memorial rightly distinguishes their honorable service and their courageous sacrifice,” Adm. Cecil D. Haney, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, told the guests. “We think about the thousands of young men who over the course of a few short hours paid the ultimate sacrifice.”
Following the ceremony, Miniclier and the other battle veteran in attendance, retired Marine Sgt. Edgar Fox, cut the ribbon for a new visitors center exhibit memorializing the battle. And Miniclier donated an item for the exhibit — the helmet he wore that morning 70 years ago.
“I’ve been hanging it on my wall,” he said. “I thought: ‘I’ll take it back out there, and if they don’t have one in their little museum I’ll give it to them.’ “
The donation was a hit.
“Everyone wanted their picture taken with that helmet on,” Miniclier said.
Steve Kuchera is a reporter
at the Duluth News Tribune, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.