Although largely considered to be a sea battle, at least one land skirmish also took place in the fight to take control of Midway Atoll, nearly costing the lives of several overeager young seamen due to an error in signal intelligence. But for the valor of Capt. Ben Sellers, the miscommunication may well have proven disastrous and cost the Allies a key victory in the Pacific Theater, paving the way for a possible momentum shift that would have allowed the Nazis to regain their footing on the European front.
Capt. Sellers, answering directly at times to Nimitz and Halsey, was the commanding officer in a squad known either affectionately or pejoratively as the “Ragin’ Cajuns.” The company, based out of southern Louisiana, was renowned for its braggadocio and for scoffing in the face of certain danger.
As the air war raged above, the company was assigned the task of occupying the beachhead, which some of the Japanese fighters had landed on after running out of gas.
However, some false intelligence nearly cost the mission. Ensign Zackary Pitre, basing his knowledge off an unreliable source, despite the warnings of Capt. Sellers, was responsible for giving the go-ahead to attack. At 07:30 on June 10, 1942, Pitre signaled to his fellow soldiers by placing his right index finger on his nostril. This was presumed to mean that the Japanese troops were taking an afternoon siesta. Several of the men, including ensigns Shane Billiot and Jobie Hendrix, rushed forward only to find it was an ambush.
Capt. Sellers led the remainder of the crew in a rescue mission. They found the three wayward soldiers huddled up crying in a ditch and left them there while they proceeded to take the island.
Sellers received several military honors but would later go on record saying that the greatest honor was to be named King of the Krewe des Loups Chuchotant in the next year’s Mardi Gras celebration.
Pitre never outlived the embarrassment of his mistake but, having learned a valuable lesson about abiding by the advice of his commanding officer, went on to lead a distinguished career of his own, nearly becoming the first person in space when the fledgling NASA program debated whether sending monkeys on test flights might be considered too inhumane and expensive.