Star-Bulletin Features

Sunday, June 2, 2002



One of James Clair Nolan's paintings of air combat over the South Pacific. This is a Japanese "Zero" attacking a Navy PB4Y patrol bomber.

The Midway diary
of a naval aviator

6 minutes off Midway

By burl burlingame

Kailua resident James Clair Nolan kept a secret most of his life. A Navy pilot during World War II, he kept a detailed diary and drew pictures throughout the conflict, a practice frowned upon by security-minded authorities. When he died in the early 1990s, he entrusted the pages to his friend and military historian Burl Burlingame of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

Trained as a navy bomber pilot, Nolan was in the Dutch East Indies when war broke out and returned to Pearl Harbor, where he was pressed into service flying PBY "Catalina" flying boats on patrol. All available forces were rushed to Midway, including Nolan and his crew, when his 1942 diary entries pick up below.

Later, Nolan served with distinction on Guadalcanal and became the personal pilot for Vice Adm. Aubrey Fitch. Nolan said his proudest moment came when in the summer of '43 he discovered the slowly sinking bow of the USS Helena, sheared off by a Japanese torpedo several days before and covered with desperate survivors. He stuck with the ship until help arrived.

After the war, Nolan joined the US Air Force and continued to fly. In civilian life, he was a historian at Hickam Air Force Base.

On the cover


Pilot James Clair Nolan, pictured above with a wrecked Japanese floatplane at Guadalcanal, snapped the backdrop photo of Midway Island on fire - note the smoke over the horizon - from his bomber, kept at sea level to prevent detection by the Japanese. Photo composite by Dean Sensui /

June 2, Tuesday

On alert almost all day today. Had my monthly allotment to my bank changed from $105 to $160 in view of the increase in pay with my new rank.

I'm going to Midway tomorrow morning! Hope to see a little action. A few patrol boats have dribbled in here in the last few days from Midway with holes (bullets) in both boats and personnel. There are rumors of running battles (just like the old frigates) with Jap patrol planes -- each plane firing away broadside until one gives up or gets shot down. The Japs are flying out of wake.

June 5, Friday

My God -- the last three days have really been something! This evening's dinner is my first real meal in 3 days -- since last Tuesday night. The interim was filled in with one regular plane meal on the way to Midway, a steak and some corn at Midway, 5 or 6 soda crackers (2 with peanut butter, 4 with some tuna) and one small fried egg sandwich -- not much to keep a person ticking over. Also, since Tuesday night, I've had a total of about 5 hours sleep.This damned jaw of mine damn near drove me crazy -- it's become infected in the cavity left by the wisdom tooth, so what I lacked in food, the jaw made up in pus! The last two days the infection seems to be effecting my left ear as it aches fiercely at times. Well, to get on with what happened.

Left here Wednesday morning about 6 a.m. in company with three other patrol planes bound for Midway. Pulled into Midway to find everyone excited about a Jap task force that the morning patrols had picked up and that six Army B-17Es were already out giving the works to. Talked to some of the pilots that had been flying the regular patrols, about their skirmishes with the Jap patrols out of Wake. Seems the Japs were flying two-engine land planes, rather than patrol boats, as I had first heard. As the respective patrols overlapped by a matter of some 300 miles, fights were a daily occurrence. The Japs use a 7.7 mm machine gun (approx. 27 caliber) which uses a bullet having a fairly low muzzle velocity -- in other words it lacks "poop." The bullets would enter one side of the plane and fail to pass through the other side in many cases! Of course they had the usual 20mm cannon in the tail. In the fights they would attempt to bring this tail gun to bear, but any halfway decent pilot could out-maneuver them by simply turning in the opposite direction each time.

My old friend Lyons (of old VP 42 in Seattle -- 1940) got into a scrap out there and had his starboard waist hatch 50-caliber machine gun jam on him -- a fact that the Jap quickly perceived. As the two waist hatch 50 calibers are a PBYs main armament, he was seriously crippled and the Jap started making runs on his starboard side only. He radioed in his enemy contact report and the plane from the next sector came over to help him. As he flitted from cloud to cloud with the Jap right after him, his compatriot from the next sector arrived just as Lyons was well concealed in a good sized cloud. The Jap mistook the new arrival for Lyons and closed in on his starboard side. They let him come right up to formation distance, then let fly with the .50, and emptied a whole canister into him. He (the Jap) wobbled away in a pretty sad state -- his belly literally "full." I doubt if he made it back to Wake. The Japs are quite afraid of our .50 caliber guns -- and I don't blame them, as they pack a terrific wallop.

This is a Navy PBY flying boat at Midway -- the type flown by Nolan -- with pilots Douglas Davis, Allan Rothenberg, William Richards and Gaylord Propst.

Midway is a large coral reef mostly submerged. There are, however, two small islands (composed of coral and coral sand) called Sand and Eastern Islands. Sand Island, the larger, contains most of the buildings and pre-war construction of Pan-American Airways -- it is the naval base. The really important unit, though, is Eastern island, which is the land plane field and naval air station. Both islands are inhabited by thousands of birds of three main species -- goonies, bosun birds, and terns. These birds make every landing and take-off a hazard for planes and a sure death for at least two or three birds. We hit three. The goonies, which in many ways resemble an albatross and most certainly belong to the same family, are undoubtedly the "clowns" of the bird kingdom.

They bow to each other by the hour -- it is some definite ritual. Two birds only -- I saw a third try to horn in on a pair, but he was given the cold shoulder. The bowing is accompanied by a shuffling dance, a clicking together of beaks, and a stretching of the head and neck straight up. They walk about in exactly the same manner that the big-footed circus clowns do. As they are slow to act, they may be easily caught by any quick movement.

They cannot take off down wind and if chased in that direction will run ahead, turn around into the wind, and then take a normal running take-off. They are known to land down-wind at times and have crashes. They also stall at times (if scared or excited) and go into a regular spin ending in a crack-up. They are truly most comical.

The bosun birds are as famous for a single long red feather extending back about 12 inches from their tails. This is used in flight as a help to control and can be seen switching from side to side violently during maneuvers. They, along with the other birds on the island, with the exception of the goonies, have achieved the art of hovering in the air like a humming bird. The red tail feather of the bosun is highly prized and is usually obtained by jerking it from the tail of some nesting bird, which despite the assault, remains on the nest. A radioman from my plane got me one -- I didn't have the heart to do it.

Met Dick Blaine (of my Pensacola class) and Dick Fleming in the mess that evening. Both are captains! Blaine has been one for about four months and Fleming was only recently made one (he was two or three classes behind me at Pensacola!). They've both been out at Midway for about four or five months -- pretty rough duty. Also saw my old instructor (the terror of Sqdrn. 3 at Pensacola) -- Fieberling.

The USS Yorktown reels under Japanese bombs at Midway.

Stood by our plane for the pre-sundown alert. Picked up a few shells, and played with the goonies.

Stood by our own plane for the pre-sundown alert. Picked up a few shells, and played with the goonies. Noticed two other birds -- one moans and cries exactly like a baby -- a horrible sound and said to be damned annoying at night. The other bird, pure white, with red beak and coal black eyes, is the prototype of a "made in Japan" Xmas tree ornament (with a spun glass tail) which has decorated our family tree for years and years. When I first noticed the bird, I thought, "By Gum, he sure looks familiar," -- then I realized where I'd seen him before.

After standby we went up to the dugouts that serve as quarters and took a look. I decided to sleep under the plane as the dugouts seemed pretty stuffy.

Had chow -- a steak and some corn -- jaw was bothering me. Wandered back in the dark to the plane and watched the B-17Es land from their attack on the Jap ships. They said they set one battleship afire and sank a tanker -- we were a bit disappointed that they hadn't been able to do more.

Just about ready to turn in when we got the word that the four of us PBYs (the "reserve striking force") were going out immediately on a night torpedo attack. The B-17s reported the Japs bearing 261, distance 572 miles at about three o'clock that afternoon. We were to go out and get as many as possible -- with PBYs!

Climbed in our planes and took off at 8:30 p.m. Got in the air and found that neither the Sperry Automatic Pilot nor the S.B.A.E. (Stabilized Bombing Approach Equipment) would work. We'd have to fly the whole trip manually -- some job! (As it turned out, I flew a full eight hours on instruments only, through some pretty rotten weather -- no mean achievement!) About 400 miles out we thought we saw anti-aircraft fire on our right-but due to the rotten weather we couldn't see anything on the water. Soon the moon started to show through the clouds once in a while. When we reached the 520-mile mark about 1:30 Thursday morning and started to turn around, the waist hatch gunners spotted a plane tailing us. It blinked a red identification light at us a few times, so we knew it was a Jap, as our planes don't carry red identification lights. Just as we were about to fire on him he disappeared.

Can't understand why he didn't fire at us. A few seconds later anti-aircraft fire started going off around us. We circled looking for some ships, but could see nothing -- pitch black. Thought we'd go back to where we saw the first anti-aircraft fire as the Japs should have been closer to Midway in 10 hours than 520 miles. (As it turned out later, this anti-aircraft fire came from one of the outlaying units of the bunch we were looking for -- why they had gone only 50 miles in 10 hours though, I don't know. Forgot to say that we lost contact with the other three planes immediately after take-off -- as they also did with each other.) Started back, hoping to run into the Japs at about the 400-mile mark -- but there was nothing we could see. The Eastern sky started to get light -- God, but we were getting tired! About 5:30 it turned light and about 6 the sun came up. About 6:30 our radio started to hum -- the morning patrols out of Midway were spotting Japs North, West and South.

Caught in a bombing attack in Java, Nolan painted the oddly camouflaged bomb shelters.

Finally, a report came through of a large body of Jap planes headed for Midway -- we figured out they were only about 50 miles behind us. Would we beat them to Midway, or would they catch us and shoot us down? And, incidentally, where was the goddammed atoll called Kure Island, which we were supposed to pass over before approaching Midway? Our gas was getting low, the air and sea were swarming with Japs, and we weren't positive of our position, due to the impossibility of taking drift sights at night. Were beginning to feel desperate when I spotted Kure Island off to our right on the horizon. No one else could see it, even after flying toward it for 10 minutes.As we got to Kure (with sighs of relief from all hands) and turned toward Midway (about 30 miles away over the horizon) I got a jolt. -- There, rising from the island which was just below the horizon, were the initial columns of dirt and smoke indicating exploding bombs. Our base was being bombed! And now the smoke was rising in dense billows while new plumes of dust and sand continued to shoot skyward. We couldn't see the Jap planes however. How we had missed contacting each other I shall never know -- my luck was with me.

Got down about 10 feet off the water and started a detour (wide) around midway. Went aft and took a movie off the beam of Midway's plume of smoke. Dropped the $10,000 torpedo to save gas (it broke my heart to let it go without putting it into a Jap). Headed for Lisianski Island, where a YP boat was supposed to be available for fueling.

Got to where Lisianski should have been a few hours later, but could see nothing due to the heavy rain squalls. Circled around helplessly with an awful feeling in our hearts. Suddenly, below us, through the rain, I spotted the light blue water that indicates a submerged coral head. I knew then that we were right on top of the island. A few more circles and through a break we spotted the island -- about 100- -by-50 yards of coral covered by sand, with millions of birds flying about and a few seals sleeping on the sand. Circled looking for the YP boat and after 15 minutes of futile searching, decided to take our last chance and try for Laysan Island -- 120 miles away and we had only about 110 gallons of gas left -- it would be close.

An hour's flying brought us to Laysan and, thank God, there was a YP boat with a pair of planes already fueling from her. We had six gallons left.

Landed in the fairly rough water with a few nasty jolts, but luckily popped no rivets from the hull. Settled down to wait for our turn to fuel. I climbed up onto the top wing in the sun and, peeling off my shirt, went blissfully to sleep. After many hours of waiting we finally started fueling late in the afternoon. It continued 'til after dark. Decided to stay tied to YP tender overnight. Climbed up onto top wing about 9 p.m. and turned in.

About midnight I was awakened by a loud shout from the tender. Awoke in time to see a PBY taxi into the side of the tender with both engines turning up wildly. As soon as she hit, someone cut the engines, and as the roar subsided, the crunch of aluminum and ripping of fabric became audible. The pane's bow was split open and she was taking in water heavily. In a moment I saw that she was beginning to drift down upon us. Suddenly became wide awake, and jumping up, I climbed down to the bow and shouted and pounded on our hull to waken the crew sleeping inside.

Nolan's snapshot of a gooney bird on Midway.

Soon, two of them were up with me and I found myself shouting, "Start your engines and get the hell out of here! -- Goddammit, start your engines, I say!" The varied shouts and orders were now coming from all sides out of the darkness, however, they must have heard me, as they started an engine a few minutes later. In the meantime, they'd drifted back onto us. Their tail rose high on a wave and came smashing down on our starboard engine, completely shattering their port elevator.

Again she rose into the air and this time came down on our bow with a crash as we shoved at her with all our might. Again, up into the air, and this time down on the port engine with a horrible crunch. Now her engine was started and she moved along to port, knocking holes in our port wing on the way. Her final attack was made on our port wing tip float, while we sat on the leading edge and jabbed her viciously with our heels in an attempt to shove her off. As a last gesture, our wing dipped, her tail rose and swept across our wing tip missing our radioman, Spahr, by a fraction of an inch -- he saw it coming and gave a mighty jump -- and the elevator surfaces swished by under him. We were slightly damaged but free at last.

Off to our port the plane, which we knew to belong to our own squadron by now (PPC-Glanz) slowly listed to port and dipped her port wing under. I watched horrified, fully expecting her to roll over, but no, she only sank lower. Soon she was out of sight in the darkness, except for the flashing of a light now and then.

I fully believe that both pilots went to sleep in the cockpit from pure exhaustion (they'd been taxiing for over six hours already, with no place to tie up). They were undoubtedly asleep until the moment before she hit. So sank about $100,000 worth of airplane and equipment -- radar, IFF, radio, guns, Sperry gyro, SBAE, bomb sight, four 500-pound bombs, food, luggage, octant, binoculars, etc., -- most of which could have been saved with the proper handling. However, I'm not saying that any of the rest of us could have done better.

Back to sleep. Awoke in the morning. Took on another 100 gallons, giving us nine hundred in all. Radioed Midway for instructions. They ordered us to return to Pearl Harbor -- oh, happy message. We were by now exhausted and damn hungry. Got a greasy egg sandwich from the tender. Took Glanz, Jones, and Barnes (the three pilots from the sunken plane) aboard. Took off with a few mighty crashes on wave tops. Headed home and arrived at dusk. Washed up, ate (ravenously) and went down to have my jaw fixed up. Retired early -- exhausted.

June 6, Saturday

The newspapers are all howling over "our great victory at Midway." Seems as though the Japs got a good pasting. That's the first fight I've been in with them that my side won.

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