In every battle there is a moment when the combatants, and the world, seem to catch their breath. It is a fleeting moment, lost in the blink of an eye. But in that same blink, everything changes. Such moments are borne of desperation, of courage, of plain dumb luck. But they are pivotal – for what was before is forever changed afterwards. – SJS

Of the 200-some odd models that populate my study and other places around the house, there is but one on my desk. It isn’t a plane that I have flown (though not for a lack of desire), nor is it even one I have had a working relationship with when I was on active duty. Indeed, it is one I have yet to even see in person except in a museum. That plane? It is an SBD-3 Dauntless – but not just any Dauntless. It is in the colors and markings of the VB-5 “Black B1” Dauntless flown by LT Dick Best at Midway. The reasons I have it there are manifold and it serves as a daily reminder thereto and are compiled and summed below.

“As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” – Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, December 2004

The Navy in 1942 was very much that kind of Navy — the one “you have.” Ships and aircraft that were in transition from an earlier age of technology and warfighting that hadn’t quite got the kinks worked out, whose replacements that did were still on the drafting boards or just now beginning construction and were months, if not years away from combat. Tactics that had been developed by “disruptive” innovators that had, as yet, to be fully tested in battle. A command structure that suddenly found itself engaged in worldwide fleet and joint operations. In light of these conditions, several actions had to occur prior to 4 June 1942 to enable the American victory at Midway.

Command and Planning. A theater commander, not a remote staff in Washington, needed to run the war in his theater at the operational level and below. Nimitz understood his forces and his commanders. He knew what kind of a thin line by which they hung and yet he trusted his task force commanders and their subordinates to be both aggressive and calculating in carrying the fight to the enemy, as epitomized in his OPORD for the coming battle:

“In carrying out the task assigned … you will be governed by the principle of calculated risk, which you shall interpret to mean the avoidance of exposure of our forces without good prospect on inflicting, as a result of such exposure, greater damage on the enemy.”

In studied contrast to the run-up for the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese planning for Midway was poorly thought out, egregiously evaluated and gamed and haphazardly executed (cf: the entire submarine picket plan). Indeed, it was put together and executed in such a toxic atmosphere of arrogance and bluster that even when one of the final wargame sessions showed American forces gaining an upper-hand because of gaps in the air search pattern, referees for the wargame manipulated the environment and other factors to bring about a successful conclusion for Kido Butai. As for dealing with changing factors at sea, commanders were loath to step outside the boundaries of the plan and demonstrate initiative. In studied contrast were the actions of the Americans from Nimitz’s orders based on calculated risk to Dick Best’s last minute change in targets. Curiously, the Japanese in planning a double prong approach with the diversionary strike at the Aleutians also broke one of their founding principles of concentration of forces. By diverting forces on a mission of questionable value and success for territory that would prove to be exceptionally harsh on man and machine they gained little, if any strategic value outside of propaganda for an overly wrought plan of entrapment.

One other, not inconsiderable item was the quality of intelligence and analysis provided, especially that of the cryptological staff hand-picked and led by CDR Joe Rochefort and LCDR Ed Layton. Much is made of the means by which they tricked the Japanese into revealing Midway as the intended target, thereby allowing Nimitz and Spruance to position the numerically smaller US forces to gain maximum advantage in the coming fight. Yet, again, one doesn’t just snap the fingers and wish this into existence. Rochefort and Layton were in this position because of recognition by their leaders, early in their respective careers as JOs of a particular or unique set of skills that needed to be developed and nurtured – skills that didn’t conform to what passed for the “traditional” career path and so incurred some risk on the part of the two officers in embarking on the same – especially in the fiscally austere climate of the late 20’s and 30’s. Additionally, both officers spent time in country learning their Japanese language skills, underscoring the concept of understanding a culture and its nuances in addition to learning a language. In time, this understanding paid dividends as Nimitz encouraged Rochefort to think like the Japanese commander. All too often in the “modern” Navy we find such persons are marginalized and squirreled away in a niche – many times as terminal O-4/O-5s because their utility and talents are poorly understood, ineffectually applied and careers haphazardly managed. So much so that when an intelligence gap is revealed, the system goes overboard and fills numerical gaps while papering over the quality ones. I have to wonder, even today, how many are given over to a full, deep study of China – language, history and culture, to arrive at a fuller appreciation of Chinese strategic thought and execution.

Flexibility and Adaptation to Changing Conditions. American plans for coordinated/supporting attacks on the Japanese were quite literally shot to hell with missed rendezvous, difficulty in locating the CVs and key elements (e.g., the torpedo attack) failing as it was cut to pieces by Kido Butai’s protective cover offered by fighters and AA. Even for the few that got off an attack before meeting the eternal deep, the torpedoes failed to properly arm and detonate – a reflection in no small measure of pre-war testing precepts and assumptions. Carefully crafted and geographically limited tests that ensured success in peacetime testing utterly failed the Fleet when it came time to put the weapon to the test in war, and at tremendous cost in lives and equipment.
In contrast, the Navy’s carrier-based dive bombers on the decks of Enterprise, Yorktown and Hornet represented an challenging, evolutionary process grounded in revolutionary views of naval warfare.

From 1923 to 1940, the US Navy conducted 21 “Fleet Problems” as it sought to understand, exploit and incorporate new technologies and capabilities while developing the tactics, training and procedures to employ the same should war present itself – which by the 1930s was beginning to look more and more likely to the discerning observer. Conducted in all the major waters adjacent to the US, these problems covered the gamut of naval warfare from convoy duty, ASW, strike warfare and sea control. Most important, at least to this observer, was that this was the laboratory that tested the emerging idea of putting tactical aircraft at sea on board aircraft carriers. In doing so, the inherent flexibility of aviation across a broad span of warfare areas became apparent as the Navy’s leadership, rather, the Navy’s emerging leadership as epitomized by innovators from task force commanders, ship CO’s and down to squadron and section leaders, looked at naval aviation as something more than just a scouting force for the main battery of the fleet extant — namely the battleline.

It was in this laboratory that the Navy developed the techniques and identified the requirements for long-range patrol aircraft and for carrier-based dive bombers, so different from the big, lumbering land-based bombers that the Air Corps’ advocates were saying would make ships obsolete by high altitude, “precision” bombing. Indeed, certain air power advocates in the military and in Congress were of a persuasion that no ship could stand to survive what these long-range, precision strike aircraft could deliver and moved to shift funds and support accordingly. Proof, however, would come at Midway when both forces were employed — the B-17′s dropping their bombs from on high hit nothing but water. But dive bombers from Enterprise and Yorktown ripped the heart out of the Kido Butai. And as the thousand-pounder from Lt Dick Best’s SBD Dauntless smashed through the Akagi’s flight deck, a battle was turned and the course to winning a war was set. But it took visionaries to set the wheels in motion.

While the Japanese were the first to employ massed striking power using carriers and the strike at Pearl (and subsequent actions through SE Asia and the IO) validated the philosophy, they also failed to comprehend the inherent flexibility of carrier-based air and thus eschewed opportunities to utilize it in other scenarios, such as scouting, which in turn, led to less than robust search plans and reliance on out-dated search aircraft and methodologies. The American practice of armed scouts for one, developed during the previously mentioned series of war games would prove time and again to be a critical discriminator – allowing a quick first strike while alerting and enabling the larger force to disable and destroy as demonstrated in Lexington’s strike on both Saratoga and Langley during Fleet Problem X (and replicated in Fleet Problem XI the following year), foreshadowing the American strikes on the Japanese CVs at Midway.

Training: The contrast between USN and USMC effectiveness in employing dive bombers at Midway was signatory. Using the same platform (SBD-3′s) USN pilots scored major hits while minimizing losses to AA fire and fighters, whereas the Marines suffered significant losses for little, if any gain. The difference? Tactics, training and procedures or TTP – the Navy employed steep, usually greater than 70-degree, dives on the target whereas the Marines used much shallower, gliding approaches. The former minimizes your exposure time and profile to AA and challenges fighters which typically are not equipped for high angle dives, while increasing the likelihood of a hit. However, it requires considerable practice at obtaining the proper dive angle, avoiding target fixation and knowing how/when to pullout of the dive and to avoid over-stressing the airframe. Techniques and skills developed over time and encouraged and employed by informed and forward thinking leaders – and lots of practice, underscoring the maxim about training like you are going to fight…

Damage Control: Had the crew of the Yorktown not been so proficient in DC, particularly something as seemingly mundane as draining the avgas lines and filling them with inert gas prior to the battle of Coral Sea, the Yorktown may very well have been lost, leaving CINCPAC with only two carriers facing four, forcing a different battle plan. Conversely, the almost lackadaisical approach the Japanese took in repairing Shokaku’s damage or replenishing Zuikaku’s air wing and repairing her light damage from Coral Sea’s action ensured their unavailability for Midway, keeping the balance of forces on a razor’s edge and enabling the Americans.

Over the course of a twenty-six year career in the cockpit, on the bridge and ashore, each of these elements influenced and guided me – whether through self-study and actualization or in the form of guidance, direction and to use an overworked term, mentoring from others more experienced. As I progressed through studying and practicing my trade from the tactical to operational levels of war the lessons of Midway gained traction – more so in my latter years with the availability of new material and perspectives. In that time I’ve lived the difficulty of mustering and executing long-range war at sea strikes, even when aided by the (relatively) modern enablers of radar, UHF and SATCOM communications and networked datalinks. Of sorting friend from foe and assessing BDA and re-strike requirements. Of the difficulty in turning disparate bits of data into actionable intelligence. Of providing reasoned discourse and advice to senior leaders who are bent on a particular agenda. Of building the “whole cloth” picture of a threat (or collection thereof) while eschewing the false certitude of a “slam dunk” in assessing the same and developing counters that may provide short term mitigation and buy time for more effective measures in the pipeline.

And along the way, even today in my present job, I wonder if and from whence the next Dick Best, Joe Rochefort, Chester Nimitz and Ernest J. King will come. My earnest hope is that they are out there and when the time comes, when the battle hangs in the balance, when that moment of despair, courage or plain dumb luck offers the opportunity to turn events on their ear and gain the upper hand, that they will seize it with vigor and in the traditions of our Service.

As was done 70 years ago at Midway.

crossposted at

Posted by SteelJaw in Aviation, History, Navy

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  • Byron

    Well said, SJS, well said! I don’t fault you for having Dick Bests Dauntless on your desk as a reminder, either.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    “…I wonder if and from whence the next Dick Best, Joe Rochefort, Chester Nimitz and Ernest J. King will come.”

    Me too. I do hope they haven’t been drummed out of our Navy for a remark someone decided to take offense to, or for failing to develop a risk matrix for liberty, or for speaking his mind about “doing more with less”.

  • Nice piece–thank you. (Defaulting to Editor Mode, Dick Best was CO VB-6 rather than 5.) He sulked for many years about his wartime medical retirement because he fully intended to see VJ Day from the cockpit. But eventually he came to terms with the latent TB activated by the oxygen bottle. Dick used to say, “The last day I touched a stick I sank two carriers!”

  • Byron

    Dick Best had a damn good day 😉

  • Pags

    Great writeup…reposted over at

  • Andy (JADAA)

    Yet another brilliant post. I have been struck in recent years by the now obvious differences in strike force coordination. In essence, each US Air Wing proceeded and prosecuted their attacks, when able, independently of one another. The IJN, however, had planned, trained and were used to operating their CARDIV’s as a whole. One can only imagine how the US forces, both land and sea-based, would have fared if they had this capability.

    I have one of R. G. Smith’s great works in artist’s proof with Dick Best’s autograph. One of my prized pieces of art. It is perhaps apocryphal, but he is widely attributed as the originator of one of the classic lines of all time about Naval Aviation: “I’d rather be lucky than good.” He was both.

  • ADM J. C. Harvey, Jr USN

    SJS, you’ve highlighted some of the reasons for success on one of the best days our Navy ever had, 4 June 1942, at the Battle of Midway.

    I find it very instructive to recall that only two months later, 8 August 1942, came one of the worst nights our Navy ever had – the Battle of Savo Island.

    The lessons-learned from 21 Fleet problems conducted between 1923 and 1940 didn’t seem to amount to much on that dark night and just as we had tactical and operational leaders who stepped forward in that “fleeting moment” and did the right things, courageously, in the “blink of an eye” at Midway, at Savo Island we had commanders and COs from the very same Navy who did just about everything wrong in their “fleeting moments” of decision.

    Why were those at Midway, from senior leaders like Spruance to the tactical leaders like McCluskey and Best, so ready for their moment of truth when it came and why were those at Savo Island seemingly so unready for theirs?

    Can part of the answer perhaps be found in the selection process that gave us King, Nimitz and Spruance in their respective positions in June, 1942?

    On 9 December, 1941, it was President Roosevelt who picked Nimitz to relieve Kimmel as CinCPacFlt – it appears the uniformed Navy was more than willing to leave Nimitz at BuNav where he had been serving since 1939. In fact, when asked by the President to identify the top 15 Admirals who were ready to lead the Navy in combat in WW II, a secret selection board convened by then-CNO ADM Stark did not see fit to even mention ADM Nimitz. Roosevelt obviously saw something the ADM Stark and the Navy’s senior leadership didn’t.

    ADM King had been passed over for CNO and was awaiting retirement in 1940 when President Roosevelt took him off the shelf at the General Board to command the Patrol Force, Atlantic (later re-designated as the Atlantic Fleet) as the threat of war with Germany grew larger. After Pearl Harbor, once he sent Nimitz to the Pacific, the President moved quickly to install King as CNO in place of Stark.

    In Hawaii as CinCPacFlt, Nimitz had selected Halsey to lead the Navy’s carrier task force for Midway, not Spruance. It was only after Halsey became ill in May that Spruance, not yet proven in carrier task group command, got the call to relieve him for the Midway operation.

    On the other side of the ledger, King and Nimitz selected VADM Ghormley to lead operations in the Southwest Pacific, to include the Guadalcanal campaign – Ghormley, on everyone’s “A” list before the war (and a primary selectee on the secret list of potential Navy combat leaders presented to the President), was a failure in operational command and was relieved by Halsey at the lowest point in the fight for Guadalcanal, after the severe losses at Savo Island and the overall loss of momentum in the campaign.

    From this brief recounting, it can be seen that a very unique set of decisions and circumstances brought certain leaders to the fore in both battles. Certainly there was no set process that led inexorably to the exactly right set of leaders being in absolutely the right place at precisely the right time.

    But the circumstances at Midway seemed to favor the abilities of those called upon to fight that battle while the circumstances at Savo Island seemed to, perversely, highlight the weaknesses of the commanders who were present for that fight. Why?

    I think the key factor was that the one group of leaders, however they were selected, and their forces at Midway were clearly ready for combat while the corresponding group at Savo Island, and their forces, just as clearly were not.
    An example of why I make that assertion – Naval aviation training in the mid-to-late 30s, in particular the development of carrier-based dive-bombing tactics, techniques and procedures, was realistic, hard-nosed and unforgiving. Surface ship and submarine tactical training during that same time period didn’t keep pace – while the people, officers and enlisted with “the right stuff”, were certainly there (as they proved decisively as the war went on), they and their leaders in higher echelons weren’t nearly as prepared, collectively, for the challenge of combat with the Japanese Navy the way our carrier forces were.

    The point of all this? You ask, where is the next generation of Navy combat leaders? I believe they are among us now.
    But history would seem to indicate that our institutional ability to identify them before the battle may be somewhat suspect.
    Given that we also can’t predict the circumstances those future combat leaders will encounter when their particular moment of truth arrives, it strikes me that the best we can do is to focus relentlessly on recruiting, developing and retaining the very best men and women we can find for our Navy while simultaneously providing them the rigorous training needed to encounter the most challenging combat situations with confidence – confidence in themselves, their shipmates, and their ships, submarines and aircraft.
    The combination of great people and effective training is our best insurance policy for the future – our best chance that, when the circumstances inevitably present themselves to the future combat leaders in our midst today, they will rise to the challenge and give the nation a result that is more like another Midway and less like another Savo Island. JCHjr

  • Byron

    Nicely put, ADM Harvey.

  • Admiral:
    Spot on sir, bloody spot on. I especially concur with the evaluation of leadership’s preparedness at Savo (for reference, 3 years ago a number of us here collaborated on a several months-long blog project on theSolomons Campaign and I would especially recommend Bill Bullard’s article on the action at Savo). I still find many lessons from these bookend actions and apply the same in executing my daily work in IAMD – in no small part because they are enduring truths of naval warfare through the ages.
    Your comment comes at a point where I am finishing up Walter Bourne’s “The Admirals” which provides a fairly thorough survey and comparative analysis of Halsey’s, Nimitz’s, King’s and Leahy’s careers from Mids to 5-stars. It provides some illuminating reading for career paths, the impact of evolutionary and revolutionary technology and how tactics were (or were not) adapted to account for the same. Also for us, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it also provides some illustration of the foundations being laid for TTP and capabilities that while not especially alluring, proved invaluable in the war (e.g, King’s work on long-range patrol aircraft).
    To your point about rigorous training – one can’t disagree with the notion that you train like you intend to fight. I look back on my own experiences with the likes of Jerry Tuttle and the way we conducted operations in the far North Atlantic, around the clock flight ops, all weather (nothing like going down the catapult with the fog horn going off), total EMCON, executing deceptive ops and conducting long-range AAW/ASuW and 1000nm strikes. It was hard, it was rigorous and we lost people and planes along the way – including some who just quit once we got back to the beach. Ditto later with unscripted MISSILEXs we conducted in NPROA with dual CVBG ops.
    I offer that perspective because as a young JO and E-2C mission commander, when not taking care of my troops and ground duties, my time was spent in the books or in CIC or in another RR working on tactics. That was our culture and it ran throughout our squadron, air wing and ship. I fear today we have lost or at least left to rust, that ethos based on discussions on these pages, my personal observations and (to be certain, apocryphal) events related by my fellow workers, active duty and civilian. The needs of an aging force, of which you are no doubt daily, if not hourly reminded of, drag and pull at available time — study and operational, sea and flight; and I still maintain simulators are a poor substitute. An austere fiscal climate only exacerbates the situation as does unchecked GCC appetites.
    We, and I mean this in all earnestness, we all who are engaged in one form or another of building, maintaining, operating, and training this force have to take as our daily personal charge to bring this ship about. We can’t wait on solutions from Washington or the magic bullet to appear from behind the green door. We have to take ownership and set the example at the individual and unit levels and at the same time, be granted some breathing space by ISICs to execute same.
    Finally, in combination with the preceding, honest appraisals of fleet readiness and realistic evaluations of procurement programs in the caldron of demanding and operationally realistic exercises and tests is absolutely necessary to ensure our people and equipment will have the confidence themselves, their ships, submarines and aircraft.

    v/r, SJS

  • @Pags — thanks, saw you put up the Marauder post too. Hope all is going well in your new job.
    w/r, SJS

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    Now I could be wrong, but I believe I remember reading that the Marine on scene commander elected to go with glide bombing vice dive bombing because the action caught his dive bomber squadron at a point in his training when the majority of his pilots were without proficiency at dive bombing tactics, due to personnel rotation and some other issues outside of his control. The Marines used the tactic more out of necessity than preference, but the contrast wasn’t as absolute as one might suggest.

    The Marines’ arrival at the target was not as exquisitely, if inadvertently, timed as the VB squadron’s was – by the VT squadrons’ solo attacks, which pulled down the IJN fighter defenses to the deck, just as the USN carrier dive bombers high approach the attack point was noticed by the Japanese lookouts.

    Which is why the sky lookouts screaming “Helldivers” overhead came with the SBD lead ship already in the dive, and the rest of the formation rolling in, flaps split into dive brakes, and coming down for the kill.

    I think it was Best who first said “Better lucky, than good…”

    At Midway, the USN was lucky. The right people were in the right spot to make a good attack, and were trained right at that moment for that moment. That takes luck after years of hard work.

    Lucky or good? You have to be both. Plus, you had to be courageous and persistent. You know, like Dick Best.

    The Marines were no less courageous, but luck was not with them, that day.

  • JAV

    Agree with your point, but disagree with how you made it. According to the official USMC history, the Marines on Midway did not receive their SBDs until a week before the battle, and flew them sparingly due to an avgas shortage. It is not fair to compare their efficiency to the Navy squadrons who had not only been flying SBDs since the beginning of the war, but also had combat experience in them.