Today’s contribution is from LCDR George J. Walsh, USN-Ret., an SB2C Helldiver pilot with significant time and experience in the Pacific campaign post-Midway. George has been on a campaign to place the proper emphasis on the part of the sentence that runs “the dive bombers at Midway were successful, but only because…” and we are in full agreement. The whole concept of dive-bombing and the attendant success the US Navy enjoyed at Midway and elsewhere in the Pacific has tended to be glossed over or assumed away as the fortunate happenstance of other external factors. Nothing could be further from the truth. To underscore this view, the following perspective is provided by LCDR Walsh. – SJS
Some mythic reasons date from the Navy’s Communiqué #97 of July 14, 1942, the 1948 Bate’s Report issued by the Naval War College, the official history of Samuel Morison, and every historian since that time. Here are some of the reasons suggested:
1. The torpedo bombers drew all the Zeros down to sea level. It would take a Zero 7 minutes to climb from sea level to 15,000 feet.
2. The Japanese fleet had lost its cohesion as a result of the early attacks. The carriers were widely separated from one another and the ships of the screen, weakening anti-aircraft protection.
3. The Zero fighters ran out of ammunition downing the torpedo bombers. They carried only 60 rounds for their cannon and thirty seconds of ammunition for their machine guns.
4. Exposed torpedoes, bombs and fuel lines were left unprotected on the decks because of the confusion created by the attacks from Midway.
5. The Japanese carriers were not well constructed for defense with little armor and compartmenting. They had poor damage control making them easy prey for the dive bombers.
6. Japanese tacticians were more afraid of torpedoes than bombs and deployed their fighters accordingly.
7. The Japanese lookouts that should have spotted the high level dive bombers were distracted by the action at sea level fighting off the torpedo bombers.
8. The smoke created to foil the torpedo bombers’ attacks led the dive bombers to the Japanese carriers. Without the smoke from the torpedo defense the dive bombers would not have located the Japanese fleet.
While every historian has parroted one or more of these reasons, some of which are debatable, none has ever considered the features of dive bombing as a weapon system that would explain the decisive success of the dive bombers in snatching victory from defeat at the Battle of Midway. There has been more concern about finding some justification for the appalling losses of the Midway based airmen and the torpedo bombing crews in the uncoordinated attacks of that morning.
That afternoon, of all the planes with which our Navy had started the day, only 25 dive bombers were available for the final attack on Hiryu, the fourth Japanese carrier. Unescorted by fighters the dive bombers of the Enterprise finished off the Hiryu with the loss of only three planes despite being intercepted at high altitude and harassed by the Japanese Zeros’ combat air patrol before and during their dives. This victory negates the theory that the dive bombers succeeded in the morning only as a result of the diversion caused by the torpedo planes, a theory dismissed in Shattered Sword as a myth.
The dive bomber prevailed in the battle of Midway because it was the superior weapon. Post war historians not only failed to examine the superior qualities of dive bombing as a weapon, they even displayed an ignorance of the technique. Their emphasis was on what happened, ignoring details of how and why the dive bombers succeeded. This attitude is reflected throughout the war even though the dive bomber was our Navy’s most potent weapon after the submarine. During the war 175 Japanese warships were sunk by aircraft, primarily dive bombers. Submarines sank 143 warships and 39 were destroyed by the surface navy. (1)
Here are some facts about dive bombing I would like to make part of this record.
The dive bomber was the predecessor of today’s guided missile. They were programmed in the ready room aboard the carrier. They were launched from the deck and directed over sea and land to targets. Once over the target they tipped over from 10,000 feet and visually locked in on the target. In a plane diving at 300 knots the two-mile dive took 30 seconds with the image of the target growing ever larger in the pilot’s windscreen. Early in the war at Midway pilots followed pre-war doctrine and released their bombs at 2,000 feet or more. As the war progressed bombs were released at 1,000 feet (2) before pulling out. At 506 feet per second this was only two seconds before impact.
In other words the only difference between the WW II dive bomber and the Tomahawk missile was these two seconds. The only difference between our Navy’s dive bombers and the Japanese Kamikaze was these two seconds. Dive bombers were the first “Smart Bombs”, and the Japanese were the first to employ aircraft as suicide weapons
At the Battle of Midway the Japanese had no radar and maintained radio silence. Their fighters were vectored to intercept targets by bursts of anti aircraft fire. By the time dive bombers were in range of anti-aircraft fire they were almost at the push over point of their attacks.
Once the Dauntless dive bombers were committed to the vertical dive with dive flaps deployed it was almost impossible for the speedy Zeros to maneuver into an effective firing position. This was demonstrated in the afternoon attack on the Hiryu. Unescorted by fighters the dive bombers of the Enterprise finished off the Hiryu with the loss of only three planes despite being intercepted and harassed by the Japanese Zeros’ combat air patrol before, during and after their dives.
The bomb dropped at high speed by a dive bomber reached its terminal velocity and impacted the target vertically. This combination of mass and momentum helped make the Midway dive bombers effective against the Japanese carriers.
However, the lack of armor piercing aerial bombs limited the effectiveness of the dive bombers on follow up attacks against the heavy cruisers Mogami and Mikuma on June 7th. It took hits by 6 bombs to sink the Mikuma, and the Mogami escaped with severe damage after 6 bomb hits.
Pre-war attack doctrine allocated the dive bombers role to flak suppression so the torpedo bombers could deliver the killing blows. This meant that the bombs that struck the Mikuma and Mogami had impact fuses that shredded the superstructure of the heavily armored decks of the cruisers but failed to penetrate to the vitals of the ships.(3)
After Midway, as the effectiveness of the dive bomber was recognized, armor piercing bombs were soon added to the carriers’ arsenals.
The dive was always under control. With dive flaps deployed the aircraft would quickly reach a constant speed (terminal velocity). This could not be achieved with an aerodynamically clean plane like the Zero that would continue to accelerate in a vertical dive. This near vertical dive had another defensive advantage. Japanese ships had few HA (high angle) anti-aircraft guns. The targeted ship could not elevate most of its anti-aircraft guns to fire straight up. Even then the Dauntless presented a slim head-on target profile to enemy gunners. Screening ships had very difficult deflection shots at a deceptive flight path and only 30 seconds to adjust aim and range.
On the other hand torpedo planes flew low over the water at slow speed through the entire enemy fleet. Fighters and the screening ships’ anti-aircraft fire picked them up as far as twenty miles out and tracked them all the way in under constant fire to their drop point 800 yards from the target. To launch their torpedoes the planes maneuvered slowly for beam shots on the Japanese carriers and flew directly into the broadside barrage of all the target’s AA guns.
In fanning out to attack torpedo squadrons lost the massed defensive firepower of their gunners’ machine guns while in stepped down V of V formations. Each torpedo plane became a one on one target for the Zero fighter’s machine guns and cannon, a terribly uneven match.
Lt. Cmdr. John Waldron, leading the Hornet’s VT-8 torpedo squadron, found the Japanese fleet and attacked at 0930 hours without the cover of the dive bombers and fighters ignoring the warning of USF-74’s prewar doctrine that such an attack would be futile. Waldron was an experienced naval officer and should have known it was suicidal when he led his men to attack.
“Torpedo planes are extremely vulnerable just before launching a torpedo attack. The success of an unsupported torpedo attack upon the enemy main body with good visibility is considered doubtful, especially if there is a protecting screen. ”(4)
All 15 planes of Waldron’s command were shot down without scoring a single hit. Of 30 men in the crews only one man survived. At 1000 hours the Enterprise’s VT-6 torpedo squadron of 14 planes was expended in the same useless way with no cover from the dive bombers or fighters. Four survived.
The dive bomber squadrons maintained the mutually supporting defensive strength of their V of V formations right up to the push over into their dives. The rear cockpit gunners rode the dives looking backwards while manning their machine guns for immediate defense on pull out.
Even pilots of other services have a minimal understanding of dive bombing. All military pilots have put aircraft in vertical dives, and many have dropped bombs from a diving plane, but our Navy’s dive bombing was different from the diving attacks of conventional aircraft.
The unique features engineered into the Dauntless SBD enabled the pilot to fly a controlled vertical flight from 10,000 feet or more to sea level, tracking a moving target ship as small as 40 feet wide which was taking evasive action. Of these features most important were the split wing trailing edge perforated dive flaps or “brakes” to retard diving speed and allow more abrupt pullouts. Wings were strengthened to withstand the high G forces at pull out. A yoke was designed to throw the bomb clear of the aircraft’s propeller when the bomb was dropped in a vertical dive.
Ideally the dive bombing aircraft, in a vertical 90 degree attitude, plunged at a 70 degree flight path because of the remaining lift on the wings. The target, at 24 knots would travel 1,214 feet while a plane dived from a two mile altitude. Wind was also a factor. The aircraft was literally flown down the dive path at constant speed, using ailerons and elevators to continually adjust the point of impact until bomb release and pull out. Neither the Stuka nor the Val was designed for bombing with extremely high dive paths.(5) Instead of trailing edge split wing dive flaps their device was a flap that dropped vertically from the center of the wing spar. This also affected lift and the trim of the aircraft. As a result they were not as accurate as our Navy’s dive bombers without descending to lower altitudes.
It was not the screaming power dive of some historians. The image of the screaming dive bombers was created by the German Stukas, which used sirens activated by air pressure as a terror weapon against troops. Actually our pilots retarded the throttle and put the propeller in high pitch while arming the bomb and deploying the dive brakes.
Of 223 aircraft of all types embarked on the three American carriers at the Battle of Midway and 114 land based on Midway atoll, only the carrier based dive bombers inflicted any serious damage on the Japanese carriers and that damage was the devastating margin of victory. Previously the dive bombers had incapacitated the Japanese carrier Shokaku with three bomb hits at the Battle of Coral Sea preventing Shokaku from participating in the Battle of Midway.
A major unasked question about the Battle of Midway is why Admiral Fletcher selected so distant a launch position on the morning of June 4th.
The original plan ordered by Admiral Nimitz was to take a dawn position 200 miles north of Midway. Instead both task forces were 260 miles northeast of Midway two hours after dawn. When the Japanese carriers were sighted Spruance had to turn further away from the enemy into a light southeast wind to launch. Fletcher had to run southeast away from the enemy to retrieve search planes dispatched to the north at dawn as a precaution.
With days to prepare and knowledge that the Japanese fleet would be attacking from the north west into the prevailing wind why did Admiral Fletcher take up such a poor opening position?
Much has been written about the argument between Admiral Spruance and Miles Browning about the 0700 launch from Task Force 16 but no one has raised the question of why they were so far out of position three hours after dawn. Under cover of darkness they could easily have moved 50-75 miles closer to Midway and the anticipated track of the Japanese, to reach the planned 200 mile position north of the islands.
This would have resulted in properly coordinated attacks by our Air Groups, shorter range to the targets and an increase of their impact. Earlier arrivals would have allowed time for searches. Losses that occurred in combat and from ditching after fuel exhaustion would have been minimized.
By 1020 in the morning of June 4th at the Battle of Midway the Japanese had fought off eight separate attacks, defeating all the American forces sent against them. Admiral Chuichi Nagumo and his staff were jubilant. It seemed that their ships were invulnerable. The American pilots were brave but harmless. Midway was in flames and open to the invasion troops. The American fleet had been located and the four Japanese carriers were preparing to launch hundreds of planes against them. If they had succeeded the Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet would probably have joined our Pearl Harbor battleships at the bottom of the sea. At that point the U.S. Navy had lost the Battle of Midway.
Only the dive bombers were left as an effective strike force. The only thing that stood in the way of looming defeat that could change the course of the war for the Allied forces was the persistence of the three squadrons of American dive bombers searching the vast Pacific for the Japanese carriers. With Lt. Cmdr. Max Leslie leading, 17 Dauntless dive bombers of VB-3 from the Yorktown approached at high altitude from the southeast, trailing their lost torpedo squadron. Simultaneously 30 Dauntless of Lt. Cmdr. Wade McClusky’s VB-6 and VS-6 from the Enterprise approached from the opposite direction. McClusky continued on despite the fact that all of his pilots were low on fuel; some of the planes had reached the point of no return and never made it back to their carriers.
All of the squadron commanders were graduates of Annapolis. The United States Navy’s peacetime planning had not only provided us with inspired strategists like Admirals King and Nimitz. It had provided us with mid-rank tactical officers to take the lead in battle. All were experienced enough to know the odds against them. Without fighter support and running out of fuel, they pressed home their attacks, laying their lives on the line, matching the finest battle traditions of our Navy’s history.
At 1025, almost an hour after the futile attack of Torpedo Squadron 8, the dive bombers approached unseen at 15,000 feet and plunged into near vertical dives, pulling out low over the Japanese carriers seconds after dropping their bombs. 500 pound and 1000 pound bombs smashed into the flight decks of the Kaga, Akagi and Soryu. In minutes all three of these first line fleet carriers were in flames as the Dauntless dive bombers retracted their dive flaps and advanced throttles to take evasive action low over the sea, gunners fighting off the Zeros as the pilots headed back toward the American fleet.
16 of our dive bomber planes ran out of fuel and did not make it back to their carriers. It was another heroic effort similar to Torpedo Squadron 8’s sacrifice, but this time the sacrifice of these brave dive bomber crews paid off.
What had been shaping up to be another glorious victory for Admiral Nagumo in repelling 9 separate American attacks that morning was suddenly changed by the dive bombers into the first major defeat suffered by the Japanese Navy in 350 years!
At the conclusion of the film, MIDWAY, Henry Fonda as Admiral Nimitz looks up at a carrier and comments “Were we better than the Japanese or just luckier”? It was one of the better lines of the film; for Admirals Fletcher and Spruance were lucky…lucky to have the superb Dauntless dive bombing weapon and dedicated men like Max Leslie and Wade McClusky to lead their squadrons.
This essay has been written to assure that at least this short life of the dive bomber is given its proper place in history. It is dedicated to the men who fought and died flying this spectacular weapon, and to the few who still survive. The time has come to face the truth about the Battle of Midway and to portray the heroic story of the dive bombers without the well intentioned qualifying comments.
I suggest a good place to start would be with a movement to have Lt. Commanders Max Leslie and Wade McClusky awarded posthumous Medals of Honor.
George J. Walsh
Lt. Cmdr. USNR (ret)
(1) Warship Losses of WW II, by David Brown, Table Page 229
(2) Helldiver Squadron, by Robin Olds, Pages 141, 144, 188
(3) The Barrier and the Javelin by H. P. Willmott, Page 222
(4) USF-74, Section 2-407. (USF-74 was prepared under the direction of Admiral Halsey.)
(5) Destined For Glory, by Thomas Wildenberg, Page 234 Note 9
(Cross-posted at steeljawscribe.com)
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