James Muri survived the first half of June 4, 1942, on the strength of his Army Air Forces pilot training. That was the day of his first combat mission, and the first day of the Battle of Midway. He piloted an unwieldy B-26 twin-engine bomber through heavy anti-aircraft fire, maneuvered it close to a Japanese aircraft carrier, dropped a torpedo and pulled away into a sky filled with enemy shells just as his bomb detonated.
He survived the second half of the day — getting back to base with three wounded crewmen on board — on the strength of a hunch.
Muri, who died on Feb. 3 in Laurel, Mont., at 94, first had to evade the hail of anti-aircraft fire still coming from the carrier he had just attacked. His inspiration, which saved the lives of his crew as well as his own, was to swing around, go in low and fly straight over the carrier’s deck to avoid its guns.
“The guns were all pointing out. That was the safest place to be," he said, explaining his reasoning in a 2002 interview with The Billings Gazette. “I always said we could have touched down if we had lowered the gear."
Muri’s return to his base on Midway Island was dogged by Zero fighter planes. After his two gunners were wounded, he sent his co-pilot to man the plane’s anti-aircraft cannons during the long flight back.
He and his crewmen, all of whom survived, were among 42 members of the Army Air Forces awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for valor in the Battle of Midway, which was considered the decisive contest for control of the Pacific in World War II. Fourteen of the members killed in the battle received the medal posthumously.
Muri stayed in the Army Air Forces after the war, when it became the Air Force. He trained other pilots and served in several command posts around the world, including Japan, before retiring in 1959. He later became a real estate investor. But his combat mission in the Battle of Midway was his first and last.
“I don’t think he minded one bit not flying another mission," said Muri’s son, who is also named James Muri. “It always surprised him a little that people even wanted to talk about it at all. I don’t think he realized it was as big a deal as it turned out to be."
James Perry Muri was born on Oct. 19, 1918, in Cartersville, Mont., the second of nine children of Rasmus and Nelle Muri, who were rancher-farmers. Soon after graduating from Custer County High School in Miles City, he joined the Army in 1936 and was a lieutenant in the Army Air Forces at the outbreak of the war. A younger brother, Robert, who died last year, also became an Army pilot and spent 15 months in a German prison camp after his plane was shot down.
Besides his son, Muri’s survivors include a daughter, Sylvia Saadati; four brothers, William, Buck, Karl and Pete; a sister, Marie Ansoms; and seven grandchildren.