Background: In the course of writing for my home blog I’ve had occasion to meet up with a number of folks who’ve “been there/done that” in a historical context. By default many have been from Vietnam, a few from Korea andsome of whom have been by proxy from WWII, but late last year I had the occasion to (virtually) join up on the wing of a Helldiver naval aviator who flew from Ticonderoga. The genesis of the join-up was a post on Tailhook’s page about the “Grey Books” associated with Midway being de-classified after a review mandated by the Kyl-Lott amendment to the Defense Appropriations Act of 1999 and 2000 (which had forced the re-classification of the previously declassified documents…). A couple of queries later and LCDR George Walsh, USNR-Ret was vectored my way and offline discussions ensued. Two items became evident – that at 88 yrs of age George is still a passionate and articulate writer (would that I be the same 35-years hence…) and that he is committed to correcting what he and some others from that era consider to be shortcomings in the historical record. One is the continued downplay of the role of dive bombers as attested to here in a review he recently wrote on A Dawn Like Thunder by Robert J. Mrazek:
Mr. Mrazek has produced a wonderful book full of great human interest stories about the crews of the fated Torpedo Squadron 8 but it perpetuates some inaccuracies long discounted by historians as follows:
At 7 AM on the morning of June 4th, 1942 a variety of aircraft based on the Islands of Midway located a Japanese carrier force and commenced a series of sporadic attacks that were easily repulsed by the Japanese.
Two and a half hours later, at 9:30 AM, Torpedo Squadron 8 attacked and all planes were easily shot down with no damage to the Japanese. One man survived, Ensign Gay.
After this attack the Japanese fleet turned northeast at high speed to close the American carriers.
It was 10:25 AM when our dive bombers made their successful attacks. How then could the attack of Torpedo Squadron 8 almost an hour earlier have had the effect of drawing the Zeros down to low altitude and clearing the way for the fortunate dive bombers?
How could Ensign Gay have been eyewitness to the crucial dive bombing attacks an hour after he was shot down? Standing up in a life raft visibility at sea level would be 2.8 miles to the horizon. Under a seat cushion?
The myth of Torpedo Squadron 8 was first introduced in Admiral Nimitz’s main Action Report of the Battle of Midway issued on June 28th, 1942. This delayed report was prepared by Commander Ernest Eller, a public relations expert, in close consultation with Admiral Nimitz. In addition James Forrestal, then Under Secretary of the Navy, flew out from Washington to consult. Forrestal was formerly a journalist and public relations expert.
There were many weighty matters to be considered before releasing the Nimitz Action Report, too many for me to go into here, but foremost was the need to maintain secrecy concerning the code breaking.
The story of Ensign Gay and Torpedo Squadron 8 were a welcome public relations tool for the Navy at an opportune time, and it was brilliantly employed. By glorifying the mutinous John Waldron and the glamorous George Gay attention was diverted from the staggering losses of our pilots and the inept way in which Admiral Fletcher had executed Admiral Nimitz’s inspired plan to ambush the Japanese as they were attacking Midway (for reference, the Battle of Midway roundtable has an excellent summary and list of counter-arguments here. – SJS).
Ensign Gay was dispatched on a highly publicized bond raising tour. He was lionized by Hollywood. He made the cover of Life Magazine while Admiral Fletcher was wafted to obscurity on the Northwest Sea Frontier, as far from the Washington press corps as Admiral King could send him.
Robert Mrazek’s engrossing book is a great addition to the many books and films devoted to Torpedo Squadron 8 and the 15 pilots and crewmen shot down at Midway in unsuccessful attacks.
But there also were 16 SBD Dauntless dive bombers and their crews that were lost that day, nobody knowing how many were shot down and how many were lost at sea after pursuing the Japanese beyond the SBD’s point of no return.
Why has there been not a single book about Wade McClusky, Max Leslie, Dick Best and their stories? No TV film about our WW II dive bombing?
Where Torpedo 8’s attacks were futile, the dive bombers succeeded in saving the United States Navy from a looming disaster. It’s a better story but the myth seems to have a life of its own. Focusing on the successful dive bombers at the time of the battle might have invited awkward questions.
I am an 88 year old former dive bomber pilot myself. Too old to start writing books myself, but I have spent the last twenty years searching for the truth about the Battle of Midway as told in my blog.
Everyone who participated in the Battle of Midway 66 years ago deserves our respect and admiration but the U.S. Navy needs to be challenged over its persistence in withholding the true story of the battle all these years.
Let’s open up the old classified files at the Naval Historical Center as well as the Midway files that were reclassified last year after the publication of Peter C. Smith’s controversial book, Midway: Dauntless Victory.
Lots to chew on there for those with a historical bent. I know as I carry out research on another project that spans the WWII through Cold War span, that the access to original materials has been and remains critical in conducting analyses and that falling into well worn traps of publically held mythos all too easy. Putting that same material in context with those who were there is also important and as the WWII generation dwindles, opportunities in that regard follow suite – all the more reason to open (or, as the case may be, re-open) the books. I am encouraged that the Naval History and Heritage Command (neĂ¨ Naval Historical Center) has taken a round turn on the important role they play in educating and promoting naval heritage in the Fleet and other communities.
There’s more to come as George and I are working on an interesting project, some of which will be seen here – after I finish the first book project later this month.