What is the story behind my recently published WWII short story “A Memory at Midway“? Here it is:
Back in the fall of 2001, I was stuck in Rochester, Minnesota, due to events worthy of stories all their own. “Escape” reading was the norm for me down there courtesy of books from the Rochester Public Library. One of those books was John Toland’s masterful But Not In Shame: The Six Months After Pearl Harbor. A non-fiction narrative that spanned the war in the Pacific from Pearl Harbor to Midway.
The following passages in his Midway chapter caught my eye:
“[Earl] Gallaher sighted on the flaming Rising Sun at the forward edge of the flight deck. From the day he saw the Arizona lying at her berth in Pearl Harbor, smoldering and smashed, he had dreamed of making a dive-bombing attack on a Japanese carrier. There was little anti-aircraft fire and no fighter resistance as he swept low. At about 1800 feet he released his bomb, then pulled up into a steep climb and kicked his plane around so he could watch the progress of the bomb…A moment later he saw it explode in the middle of planes parked on the after part of Akagi’s [actually Kaga’s] flight deck. It was a moment of exultation. He thought, “Arizona, I remember you!” 1.
Powerful stuff; made doubly so by the fact that the USS Arizona is the historic ship closest to my heart thanks to a childhood friend ship with one of her survivors, Guy S. Flanagan Jr.
Fast-forward to 2011; with the 70th anniversaries of Pearl Harbor and Midway fast approaching, I decided to dramatically depict this incredible “little story” from WWII in the form of a short story; one whose tone and feel was best described as The Killer Angels Pacific. After two years of writing, submitting, re-writing, and re-submitting, it is finally published on the eve of Midway’s 71st anniversary.
What is fact?
Further research eventually revealed that Gallaher’s feelings about the Arizona‘s loss were not idle ones: he had reported aboard her in the early 1930s fresh out of Annapolis. That is real; all his actions during the battle are real; the fact the Enterprise dive bomber squadrons followed a Japanese ship to Admrial Chuichi Nagumo’s carrier task force is real (it was a destroyer named the Arashi, incidentally); his radioman in his SBD was even a real person, Tom Merritt. However, I did not mention his name because all I needed Merritt to be in my story was Gallaher’s radioman; naming him would have been a tad cloying. However, his exclamation to Gallaher after Kaga suffers a direct hit from Gallaher’s bomb comes right from a postwar interview with Gallaher. 2. And of course Gallaher’s closing thought comes right from Toland’s book.
I also took pains to make sure that the technical details were as right as possible. SBD pilots really did seek a “sweet spot” where G-forces did not pin themselves into their seat nor left them dangling forward in their cockpit; SBD pilots really did yank the manual release after punching the automatic; and they really did keep their cockpits open. If they did not, their bomb sights would fog up and spoil their aim. 3.
The general description of the Kaga is also accurate, derived from artwork which depicts how she looked at Midway contained in an appendix to Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully’s book about the battle. 4.
What is fiction?
Very little. Frankly, I despise people like Michael Bay and James Cameron who mangle historical fact in brain-dead “historical” movies claiming historical accuracy is impossible; an argument that is pure nonsense.
It is true I ran into one semi-gray area and one definitely gray area in writing “A Memory at Midway.” The semi-one involves a confusing factual detail that I ultimately left out pending further research: apparently Gallaher’s Scouting Squadron Six got mixed-up with planes from Lt. Dick Bests’ Bombing Squadron Six due to a snafu in communications between Group Commander Wade McClusky and Best. 5. Instead, I went with how Gallaher laid out the sequence of events in his after action report, which does not mention this. 6. Perhaps Gallaher did not see this as he made his run on Kaga?
The completely gray area I ran into during the research for this story involves the state of the flight deck on Kaga when Gallaher attacked it. For decades, most historians agreed that the Japanese flight decks were packed with aircraft awaiting takeoff against the American carriers. However, recent historians such as Parshall and Tully argue such was not the case, that only combat air patrol fighters were on the decks of the carriers Kaga, Akagi, Soryu, and Hiryu at the time three of the four carriers under Admiral Nagumo’s command were knocked out by American dive bombers at the climax of the morning phase of the battle. 7. I hedged in this depiction by going with the theory that the Kaga hand landed all her CAP fighters and was beginning the process of spotting planes for the attack on the US Navy flattops when calamity struck.
The only “fiction” in this story is the reconstructed conversations between Gallaher and Merritt; along with a reconstructed order given by Enterprise carrier air group skipper Wade McClusky to Best and Gallaher before the attack is launched. Finally, most of Gallaher’s thoughts and feelings are reconstructed from the mentions he made of them in the interview I consulted while researching this story.
The latter are a literary technique I learned from Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels and all of his son Jeff’s historical novels. They may be permanently in a gray area as to whether or not they are literally true, but I believe they are emotionally true. What is more, they also teach readers that those who were at Pearl Harbor, Midway, and other clashes of arms throughout history were human beings. People like you or me who found their lives caught up in momentous events.
1. John Toland, But Not In Shame: The Six Months After Pearl Harbor (Random House, 1961), 389-390.
2. “Earl Gallaher Interview 4 Jun 1992”, accessed on May 27th, 2013, http://ww2db.com/doc.php?q=403
4. Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully, Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Potomac Books, 2005), 468-469.
5. This mix-up is mentioned in Gordon W. Prange, Miracle At Midway (McGraw-Hill, 1982), 261
6. Scouting Squadron Six after-action report, June 20th, 1942, electronic copy accessed May 26th, 2013, http://www.cv6.org/ship/logs/action19420604-vs6.htm
7. See for example Shattered Sword, 229-231.