On June 4, 1942, the Battle of Midway kicked off between the U.S. and Japan. When it was all over on June 7, it was hailed as a decisive American victory — and much of it was captured on film.
That's all because the Navy sent director John Ford to Midway atoll just days before it was attacked by the Japanese. Ford, already famous in Hollywood for such films as "Stage Coach" and "The Grapes of Wrath," was commissioned a Navy commander with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and thought he was just going to document a quaint island in the South Pacific.
"The next morning - that night we got back and evidently something was about to pop, great preparations were made," Ford told Navy historians after the battle. "I was called into Captain Semard's office, they were making up plans, and he said 'Well, now Ford, you are pretty senior here, and how about you getting up top of the power house, the power station, where the phones are?' He said, 'Do you mind?" I said 'No, it's a good place to take pictures.'
He said, 'Well, forget the pictures as much as you can, but I want a good accurate account of the bombing," he said, "We expect to be attacked tomorrow.'"
A thousand miles northwest of Honolulu, the strategic island of Midway became the focus of his scheme to smash U.S. resistance to Japan's imperial designs. Yamamoto's plan consisted of a feint toward Alaska followed by an invasion of Midway by a Japanese strike force. When the U.S. Pacific Fleet arrived at Midway to respond to the invasion, it would be destroyed by the superior Japanese fleet waiting unseen to the west. If successful, the plan would eliminate the U.S. Pacific Fleet and provide a forward outpost from which the Japanese could eliminate any future American threat in the Central Pacific. U.S. intelligence broke the Japanese naval code, however, and the Americans anticipated the surprise attack.
The three-day battle resulted in the loss of two U.S. ships and more than 300 men. The Japanese fared much worse, losing four carriers, three destroyers, 275 planes, and nearly 5,000 men.
Ford was wounded in the initial attack, but he continued to document the battle using his handheld 16mm camera. Here's how he described it:
"By this time the attack had started in earnest. There was some dive bombing at objectives like water towers, [they] got the hangar right away. I was close to the hangar and I was lined up on it with my camera, figuring it would be one of the first things they got. It wasn't any of the dive bombers [that got it]. A Zero flew about 50 feet over it and dropped a bomb and hit it, the whole thing went up. I was knocked unconscious. Just knocked me goofy for a bit, and I pulled myself out of it. I did manage to get the picture. You may have seen it in [the movie] "The Battle of Midway." It's where the plane flies over the hangar and everything goes up in smoke and debris, you can see one big chunk coming for the camera.
Everybody, of course, nearly everybody except the gun crews were under ground. The Marines did a great job. There was not much shooting but when they did it was evidently the first time these boys had been under fire but they were really well trained. Our bluejackets and our Marine gun crews seemed to me to be excellent. There was no spasmodic firing, there was no firing at nothing. They just waited until they got a shot and it usually counted."
Now see his 1942 film "The Battle of Midway," which won the Academy Award for best documentary: