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The Carthage Press
  • Local hero, Les Strait, passes at 95

  • Born just prior to the end of World War I, Carthaginian Leslie Strait saw more history in the first 27 years of his life than most people will ever experience.
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  • Born just prior to the end of World War I, Carthaginian Leslie Strait saw more history in the first 27 years of his life than most people will ever experience.
    Strait, who died at home with his family at his bedside on July 22, is known locally as a long-time plumber and a man who attended Carthage Lions Club meetings for more than 55 years without missing one, among other things.
    Before he settled down in Carthage, he served as a United States Marine on an isolated coral atoll in the Pacific Ocean that became the center of the single most pivotal battle in World War II.
    Strait talked with The Carthage Press about that battle in an interview in November 2010.
    Strait had joined the Marine Corps in early 1941 and in October, 1941 had found himself posted to Midway Island, a coral atoll made up of three smaller islands about 1,300 miles west of Pearl Harbor.
    Midway had an airfield where several U.S. Navy and Marine Corps patrol planes and fighter planes were based. It also had a small harbor that was being developed into a refueling base for submarines headed deep into the Pacific to attack Japanese merchant shipping.
    “I arrived on Midway the 29th of October (1941) and on Dec. 7 the war started,” Strait said. “I didn’t think a lot about that island but the men there were preparing for war already. They were building gun positions and sandbag parapets and stuff like that.”
    The Japanese first attacked the island on the same day Pearl Harbor was hit when two Japanese destroyers raked the islands with artillery fire, killing four men, injuring 10 and destroying a patrol plane.
    “I was stationed on the powerhouse about 60 feet above the ground,” Strait said. “It was a bombproof building. It was made to be bombproof because it had a 10-foot space between the roof and the top over the powerhouse and we were down in there. They zeroed in on us at the powerhouse and hit the side of it and around it and we were in a gun position on top of it. It was frightening.”
    The men on Midway listened to the radio and on a communications cable that ran through Midway as the American defenders on tiny Wake Island, about 1,200 miles west of Midway, fought off one Japanese invasion.
    “We listened to the radio when Wake Island was attacked and the boys there fought them off for 21 days,” Strait said. “A handful of men, 240 men, fought off the Japanese invasion.”
    Wake fell two days before Christmas when a second Japanese invasion force, overwhelmed the defenders.
    Strait and his fellow soldiers feared they were next, but nothing happened other than an occasional shelling from a Japanese submarine.
    Page 2 of 4 - “We got shelled five times,” Strait said. “Sometimes submarines would come out and shell us. Midway was the furthest west place we had after Wake fell.”
    Buildup to battle
    Then in April 1942, U.S. Army Airmen, commanded by Col. Jimmy Doolittle, took off in 16 twin-engine bombers from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet and bombed the Japanese homeland on April 18, 1942.
    The Japanese didn't know where the attack had come from.
    They made plans to draw the remnants of the U.S. Pacific Fleet into a decisive battle, and Strait's station at Midway Island became the target.
    In May, 1942, American and Japanese naval task forces met in the Coral Sea, just north of Australia for the first ever naval battle where the ships themselves never sighted each other. The entire battle was fought by aircraft from the American carriers Yorktown and Lexington and the Japanese carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku.
    The U.S. Navy forced the Japanese to retire, but lost the Lexington, in the battle. The Yorktown was damaged, but thanks to heroic work by shipyard workers at Pearl Harbor, it was put back into service in time for the coming battle near Strait’s station. Neither of the Japanese carriers that participated in the Battle of the Coral Sea were available for Midway.
    “We knew about the Battle of the Coral Sea,” Strait said. “They told us they were coming. Our patrol planes would go out and search for the Japanese and pass the planes at Wake.”
    In the meantime, American intelligence officers had broken the Japanese radio code and uncovered the enemy plan to invade Midway.
    The American commander, Admiral Chester Nimitz, decided to throw every ship he had to stop the Japanese, 26 ships, including three aircraft carriers. He also moved as many planes as he could spare and all the available troops, to Midway.
    “They had a whole line of ships bringing us stuff,” Strait said. “They were all loaded with troops and guns and everything. They sent a lot of guys out to get them war conditioned and they would just send them out on the island. We had barracks but we were living at our gun positions by then. We had underground parapets. We had four machine guns protecting the powerhouse and we had three-inch anti aircraft guns around it too.”
    Strait and his fellow soldiers prepared to defend their island home.
    “They sent out a bunch of planes,” Strait said. “They had over a hundred planes on the island, some times they had to fly around the island it was so crowded.”
    Battle begins
    On June 4, 1942, planes from four Japanese aircraft carriers hit Midway with the heaviest attack it had taken since the war began.
    Page 3 of 4 - “I had been transferred on the breakwater,” Strait said. “There were four three-inch guns down close to the dock and the road came right down to the dock from the whole island and the Japanese planes came down along the road strafing. Then they would get to the end of the island and they pulled up and disappeared, they were so danged fast.”
    Strait said the crews on the island got their bombers, fighters and torpedo planes off the tiny airfield at Midway. The fighters rose to challenge the Japanese planes while the bombers and torpedo planes flew off to attack the Japanese carriers.
    The American fighters were slaughtered by their more experienced and faster Japanese opponents and the Japanese planes struck the island’s defenses.
    Strait recalled watching a particularly odd fight between U.S. Navy PT boats and Japanese planes in Midway’s lagoon during the attack.
    “We had 11 PT boats out there in the lagoon,” Strait said. “They went out and cruised around and when the Japanese attacked, a plane came down between two PT boats and they shot him down. I saw the airplane and I’ve got a piece of that airplane, made of balsa wood. They drug it out of the bay and put it on the dock. There were Japanese bodies in it too.”
    Strait still had that piece of the airplane, preserved in a glass case with his medals and other awards he earned during World War II.
    The outnumbers U.S. Navy won the Battle of Midway, sinking four Japanese aircraft carriers while losing only one, the previously damaged Yorktown.
    A turning point
    How pivotal was this battle?
    On June 4, 2013, a ceremony was held on the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, a ship named for the one that was lost at the Coral Sea and is now a museum in Corpus Christi, Texas, to remember the 71st anniversary of the Battle of Midway.
    U.S. Navy Admiral Mark Leavitt, Chief of Naval Air Training at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, was the keynote speaker at the ceremony.
    Leavitt spoke about the importance of the battle as a turning point to the more than 100 veterans and dignitaries who came to the event.
    “It was really viewed as the turning point in the Pacific,” Leavitt said. “Prior to that we had suffered Pearl Harbor, a short time, really, before that. We had just gone through the battle of the Coral Sea where we had just lost the (first aircraft carrier) Lexington and there was grave concern within the higher levels of the Navy and the government about committing our carriers. Nimitz, through some intelligence, had determined that the Japanese were probably going to try to attack Midway and he saw an opportunity to surprise the Japanese.”
    Page 4 of 4 - Leavitt spoke about the sacrifice of one particular group of naval airmen, Torpedo Squadron 8 from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet.
    Of 45 crew members on those planes, only one was fished out of the water after the battle and survived.
    The torpedo planes didn't get any hits, but they drew Japanese fighter planes to low altitudes, leaving the skies at 19,000 feet clear for American dive bombers to strike. Bombers from the Enterprise and Yorktown hit and badly damaged three of the four Japanese carriers in this morning strike. Those carriers eventually sank after burning for hours.
    The fourth Japanese carrier managed to launch two air strikes on the American fleet, both of which found the Yorktown and crippled her with three bombs and two torpedos, but that carrier was found later that day and sunk by American dive bombers.
    The Yorktown survived for two more days and was being towed back to Pearl Harbor when a Japanese submarine found her and sank her and an attending destroyer.
    “Due to a confluence of a number of things, we were able to break through their defenses and hit them with a very heavy blow,' Leavitt said on Tuesday. “They lost the majority of their experienced naval aviators, a loss they never really recovered from for the rest of the war.”
    Les Strait continued to serve on Midway Island for several months after the battle, then he returned home to marry Eunice Emma Hill Strait while on leave in 1943. He was sent back to the Pacific to serve out the remainder of the war.
    He returned home and operated a plumbing business in Carthage for many years and joined the Lions Club where he had perfect attendance at meetings for more than 55 years. His funeral was Friday and he was laid to rest in the Park Cemetery in Carthage.

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