By Gale Fiege Herald Writer
OAK HARBOR — Harry Ferrier was 16 years old when his mother helped him forge the date on his Massachusetts birth certificate so he could enlist in the Navy.
By 17 he was among a group of young men, most no older than 21, who changed the course of World War II.
At a 70th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Midway on Monday in Oak Harbor, retired Navy Cmdr. Ferrier was the honored guest. Ferrier, who lives in town, is the remaining survivor of his torpedo squadron, a group of Navy airplanes equipped with torpedoes which took off from the Midway Atoll runway on June 4, 1942, and headed into battle with the undefeated Japanese Imperial Navy.
At the ceremony, Whidbey Island Naval Air Station commanding officer Capt. Jay Johnston told the story of Midway.
“This was about six months after Pearl Harbor. And it got worse. We lost Wake, Guam, Singapore, Manila and Bataan,” Johnston said. “This was while London was getting bombed every night and America had a Navy and an Army still emerging from boot camp. We were losing badly. Americans were preparing for invasion.”
Japan had a huge fleet and the Americans were limping along with the aircraft carriers that were left after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
U.S. code breakers began to intercept Japanese communications and found that the Japanese fleet and its aircraft were headed toward Midway.
Johnston recounted that the commander of the carrier USS Yorktown, Capt. Elliot Buckmaster, told Navy command that “if we don’t stop this enemy fleet today, there is nothing between here and San Francisco to keep them from going all the way.”
Losing Midway could have changed everything, Johnston said.
“At the very least, we would have had to defend the mainland from invasion. We wouldn’t have had troops to send to Europe. D-Day might never have happened.”
Many in Ferrier’s torpedo squadron had arrived at Midway only a few days before.
“Most of the pilots were going to fly out of sight of land for the first time, fly with a bomb for the first time and get shot at for the first time,” Johnston said. “They and their crews were just kids. But theirs is a story of heroism, tenacity and ferocity.”
Ferrier, a radioman and tail gunner, said he had no idea what they would find.
“We only knew that a Japanese task force had been sighted,” he said.
The low-flying torpedo squadron that included Grumman TBF-1 airplanes that took off that day kept the Japanese ships and planes so busy that U.S. dive bombers were able to sink three Japanese aircraft carriers in five minutes, and destroy others in the course of the next few days.
In the end, only seven of the torpedo planes made it back to Midway. Very few men had survived. Ferrier was wounded and the scar on his head is still red 70 years later.
“Our plane had 67 bullet hits, and nine 20-mm shell hits. My pilot made it back by using the position of the sun as his compass. One of those who gave up his life on my plane was a young guy from Marysville,” Ferrier said. “I always remember thanking my Lord that I could live and have a family of my own. It wasn’t until much later that I realized the battle was a turning point.”
For his service in the Battle of Midway, Ferrier earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart.
After World War II, Ferrier went on to serve with the Navy during the wars in Korea and Vietnam. His memories have been documented in publications, including National Geographic and scores of military history journals.
At age 87, Ferrier said he feels responsible to tell people about the importance of the Battle of Midway, primarily to remind them about those who died.
“We need to remember the sacrifices. We’re still losing people, including, now, with our warriors in Afghanistan,” Ferrier said. “I wish we could stop going to war. Why can’t we settle these things?”
Commemorations of the battle were held at naval installations and museums around the country Monday, including at Pearl Harbor and the U.S. Naval Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Current Pacific Fleet commander, Adm. Cecil Haney and other officials flew 1,300 miles northwest from Hawaii to Midway to mark the anniversary.
At Whidbey Island’s ceremony Monday, Oak Harbor High School junior Brittany Rigby read her award-winning essay about the battle.
Brittany, 17, is the same age Ferrier was when he flew into that battle.
Members of the high school band played the national anthem and taps. A Navy squad fired a gun salute and Navy jets flew overhead.
At the conclusion, Ferrier and two base commanders laid a memorial wreath on the water off the Navy Seaplane Base marina.
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org.
To read more and watch a video about Harry Ferrier and the Battle of Midway, go to the U.S. Naval Institute’s Oral History project at tinyurl.com/USNIFerrierMidway.
The Navy History Center at Simard Hall at the Navy Seaplane Base in Oak Harbor also has a display about Midway.