Smithsonian Air and Space

Battle of Midway, Part Deux
Smithsonian Air and Space, November 2001

Few travelers realize Chicago’s Midway Airport was named after the Battle of Midway, long considered the turning point in the Pacific during World War II. So when the city announced plans to build a new terminal, everyone agreed they should include an exhibit honoring those who fought in the battle the airport’s name commemorates. But just how to suitably memorialize the heroic deeds of a generation fast disappearing has put people in warring camps, and it appears the victor may be virtual reality.

A group of veterans and aviation enthusiasts want to display an extremely rare Douglas SBD Dauntless, the dive-bomber credited with destroying the Japanese fleet during the crucial 1942 battle. The National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola agreed to loan the city a Dauntless, provided the city help fund restoration of a second Dauntless now sitting in the museum hangar. City officials balked, and after a year of negotiations dropped the idea and opted for a high tech, multi-media exhibit.

On the 59th anniversary of the battle the exhibit opened without the plane. While the band played the navy anthem, a handful of veterans wandered into the box-like structure covered with a montage of black and white images of the battle’s participants. Inside, brightly lit murals combined still images with computer-generated models, simulating scenes from the battle and producing a dizzying 3D effect.

“Its nice but it doesn’t have the strength and vigor of a real live airplane,” said Captain Chuck Downey who trained in a Dauntless and was decorated twice for valor in the Pacific. “It’s just not a live enough an exhibit.”

Officials within the Department of Aviation insist they haven’t closed the door on the project. Some point to a lack of funds, while others say there just wasn’t enough space. Those involved in the project claim the city didn’t listen to them and became enamored with the idea of a modern piece of art. They fear too much art and multimedia”fictionalizes” an event rapidly disappearing from modern memory.

Chicago’s other airport, O’Hare International, showcases a 4F4 Wildcat in honor of ace pilot Butch O’Hare who shot down five Japanese planes attacking his carrier, the USS Lexington. One city councilman involved with bringing the Wildcat to O’Hare has jumped into the fray and helped form a Committee to raise funds and otherwise overcome obstacles. Alderman Ed Burke brought a resolution into city council in 1998 instructing the Aviation Department to find room for the Dauntless in the new terminal.

“The Department of Aviation has been very unsupportive and looked for every reason to block it,” says Burke referring to the effort to bring the Wildcat to O’Hare. He blames it on a “bureaucratic mindset” and diminished interest in World War II, but notes the dramatic impact the Wildcat has at O’Hare. “People see that plane and it’s a remarkable visual reminder of what these men did for America.”
Captain Dave Truitt, who heads the Chicago Midway Memorial Committee, agrees. “High tech does a great job interpreting, but it is the presence of the real plane that inspires people. This is about individual and collective heroism – real people who did real things.”

Since the exhibit’s dedication last June, Department of Aviation officials agreed to resume discussions with “an open mind.” Virtual reality may have won the battle, but veterans say it’s not over yet.