Jim Muri, a Montanan whose legendary flying prowess saved his stricken bomber and crew during the Battle of Midway in World War II, died Sunday at age 93.
Muri earned national recognition and became the subject of a popular song for his exploits during the battle, June 4-6, 1942. He piloted a twin-engine B-26 bomber, one of dozens of land-based aircraft that attacked a massive Japanese invasion fleet on the opening morning of the battle.
Muri’s plane endured withering attacks from Japanese fighters and anti-aircraft fire during the harrowing flight. After completing a torpedo attack against the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi, Muri probably saved his plane and his crew by flying lower than treetop level above the deck of the massive ship. He reasoned that skimming the flight deck, end to end, gave him the best chance to survive.
“The guns were all pointing out. That was the safest place to be,” Muri explained in a 2002 interview. “I always said we could have touched down if we had lowered the gear.”
After Muri crash-landed back on Midway Island, officials counted more than 500 bullet holes in the bomber.
Muri and his crewmen, three of whom were wounded, were later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. In 2003, Muri received the Jimmy Doolittle Award for outstanding service to the U.S. Army Air Corps in a ceremony in Washington, D.C.
Singer and radio host Lonnie Bell paid tribute to the flight in his song “Midway,” which he wrote in 1976. Years later, after performing the song hundreds of times, Bell was in for a pleasant surprise.
“When I wrote the song, I didn’t know the pilot’s name,” Bell said. “Then I heard that the pilot lived in Billings.”
After meeting, the two World War II veterans became close friends. Bell was in the U.S. Navy.
“He was a great guy,” Bell said Monday. “I went and had dinner with him back in December.” Muri had moved to an assisted-living facility in Laurel recently.
Roger Nelson, another longtime friend of Muri, said he received the best history lesson of his life when he accompanied Muri to Washington, D.C., to be honored.