Archive for the 'Midway' Tag

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 (June 2007)

Three years ago I wrote that at the end of a series of posts (which are collected here) that began on the 65th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea, and culminated on the anniversary of Midway with some modern day observations and what we might take away. For even today, with all our technological sophistication there are still things we can learn at all levels, be it at the Fleet or in the cockpit or on the bridge. One of those lessons is the role of the individual and seizing the initiative when everything else seems to be going to hell in a handbasket around you. That was something impressed upon me as a young LTJG E-2C Mission Commander and I found resonance and inspiration from the JO’s and petty officer’s actions that pivotal day.

And sometimes it means pressing ahead into a situation from which you know there is no way out — but to do otherwise would result in a greater loss.

There aren’t too many of them left — the original Midway vets that is. Same for the Doolittle Raiders. Ditto Medal of Honor awardees from that era. These modern day Samuel’s raised their Ebenezer in our darkest hours – and what was before was forever changed.

The job wasn’t finished yet though, and the way ahead was still perilous — Guadalcanal, Savo Island, Bloody Tarawa (can it ever be though of as just Tarawa?), Iwo Jima, Anzio, Normandy, Bastogne and the Meuse — Okinawa; all lay in the future. But it was a future made possible by the fighting spirit of the Navy, Marines and Army Air Corps in a far flung theater whose battlefield was but a featureless, sun-dappled sea of blue. Still, more would come and follow in their footsteps. And you and I today carry their proud heritage forward.

The far horizon is difficult to discern these days and it may well indeed hide gathering storm clouds – from whence direction I can not say for certain. But it would do us well to heed their lessons and remember their deeds when the warning flags are broken and we are called to battlestations once again.

— SJS, June 2010

VB-8From the Midway Roundtable comes word that another veteran of that battle has folded his wings. CAPT Roy Gee, USN-Ret. who flew from USS Hornet (CV 8 ) with Bombing EIGHT quietly passed on 28 Dec 2009. Details of his life may be found at the Roundtable’s site. Also there is a first person account of Midway:

Suddenly, “Pilots Man Your Planes” was announced. We all wished each other good luck as we left the ready room for the climb to the flight deck and our SBDs. (And by the way, climbing up and down the ship ladders many times a day will get you in great physical condition! Carriers didn’t have escalators in those days.)

I met my R/G, Radioman First Class Canfield at our assigned SBD and went over our mission and recognition charts with him. I don’t know which particular aircraft (side number) we flew that day—my only record of that went down with the Hornet at the Battle of Santa Cruz.

After completing an inspection of the aircraft and its bomb, Canfield and I climbed into the cockpits. As I sat there waiting for the signal to start engines, I suddenly got the same feeling of apprehension and butterflies in the stomach that I got before the start of competition in high school and collegiate athletics. The butterflies left after takeoff as I focused on navigating and flying formation. Our two squadrons (VB-8 and VS-8) rendezvoused in two close-knit, stepped-down formations on each side of CHAG’s section, which consisted of CHAG and VS-8 wingman ENS Ben Tappman and VB-8 wingman ENS Clayton Fisher. CHAG’s section was flying above and somewhat separated from VB-8/VS-8 and was escorted by 10 VF-8 F4Fs. As we proceeded to climb to 19,000 ft, we soon lost visual contact with VT-8. We were maintaining absolute radio silence and were on oxygen, and our engines were on high blower. I eased my fuel mixture control back to a leaner blend in order to conserve fuel as we leveled out at 19,000 feet and proceeded on our assigned course.Read the rest here.

Rest in peace CAPT Gee with the thanks of those who honor your courage and action on that fateful day when so much hung in the balance.


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

66sbdMany reasons have been offered to explain the success of the dive bomber squadrons in destroying all four of the Japanese aircraft carriers at the Battle of Midway on June 4th, 1942.

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.

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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. (Extract from CINCPAC Operational Order to TF 17 Commander)

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.

Until 1019 on the morning of 4/5 June 1942, things had gone badly for the US and its allies. With few exceptions, the Allies were fighting a losing battle in the Pacific. Indeed, as events unfolded that morning, it appeared as if the rout was on. The attacks by land-based air forces from Midway had utterly failed culminating in the loss of many aircraft. The strikes by the torpedo aircraft were decimated – an entire squadron of TBDs shot down with only a sole survivor to claim witness. An entire air group missed the Japanese carriers and the battle altogether and of the remaining forces, they were scattered and disorganized. The future was looking grim. At 1019, Hiryu’s senior lookout shouted he had spotted dive bombers attacking Kaga from overhead. Despite being thrown into a hard turn, Kaga was struck by a 500 lb bomb and then successive strikes utterly crushed her…

At 1024 Soryu was struck a mighty series of blows…

At 1026, LT Dick Best led a flight of two other SBDs away from Kaga in an attack on Akagi. Attacking in a “V” formation from a right-hand turn, history held its breath as the first bomb missed and the third narrowly missed the carrier. But the second bomb, a 1,000 pounder from LT Best’s aircraft tore through the aft edge of the elevator and exploded in the upper reaches of the Akagi’s hangar bay, in the midst of the refueled/rearming aircraft parked there. In the blink of an eye, fate turned and three carriers lay burning.

To be sure the battle was not over and a dreadful price remained to be extracted from the American carriers. Likewise, Kido Butai had not seen the last of the Americans either and would pay the final price later in that day.

Across a seaborne canvass that stretched over 176,000 sq nm, larger than the country of Sweden the battle see-sawed back and forth. No other naval engagment has seen such breath-taking distances involved and few, short of a Trafalgar, have seen such a decisive turn of events. We honor today those who fought and gave their all in this signatory battle.- SJS

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ALASKA: In an attempt to divert forces from the Midway area, a Japanese carrier-based bombers and fighters bomb and strafe Ft Mears and Dutch Harbor in several waves inflicting little damage but killing 52 US personnel. P-40s from Cold Bay trying to intercept them arrive 10 minutes after the last attack wave departs. Other P-40s at Umnak are notified too late due to communication failure. 9 P-40s and 6 B-26s fly a patrol but cannot find the fleet-l80 miles (288 km) S of Dutch Harbor- but 2 of the P-40s engage 4 carrier-based aircraft, shoot down one and damage another. An A6M2 Zero fighter crashes in the Aleutian Islands and is discovered intact five weeks later. It is shipped to the United States for testing and evaluation. (ed. – this is the Zero that the urban legend about the design of the F6F sprang from; in fact, the F6F will fly for the first time in a little over 3 weeks from today’s date)

  • Alaska – Japanese occupy Kiska and Attu in the Aleutians.

CHINA-BURMA-INDIA (CBI) THEATER OF OPERATIONS: A flight of 6 B-25s of the 11th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 7th Bombardment Group (Heavy), earmarked for China, take off from Dinjan, India for China. They bomb Lashio, Burma en route to Kunming, but afterward 9 crashed into an overcast-hidden mountain at 10,000 feet (3,048 m) and another is abandoned when it runs out of fuel near Chan-i, China. The remaining 2 B-25’s reach Kunming, China, 1 with its radio operator killed by a fighter.

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Timeline: SUNDAY, 24 MAY 1942USN – Carriers Hornet and Enterprise move towards Pearl Harbor, where they will quickly be refitted and sent to Midway. The Japanese preparing to attack Midway mistakenly believe these carriers are in the Solomons.

Geography: Midway Atoll is part of a chain of volcanic islands, atolls, and sea mounts extending from Hawaii up to the tip of the Aleutian Islands and known as the Hawaii-Emperor chain. Formed 28 million years ago, the island’s volcanic mass subsided over the years, gradually being replaced by a coral reef that grew around the former volcanic island and was able to maintain itself near sea level by growing upwards. That reef is now over 516 feet (160 m) thick and comprised of mostly post-Miocene limestone with a layer of upper Miocene (Tertiary g) sediments and lower Miocene (Tertiary e) limestone at the bottom overlying the basalts. What remains today is a shallow water atoll about 10 kilometers across.

Location: As its name suggests, Midway lays nearly half-way between the continents of North America and Asia (and, coincidentally, it lies almost halfway around the Earth from Greenwich, England. Because of this strategic position, the humble outcrop of coral and sand became an important point in the journey by sea and later, air, between the US and Asia. The first attempt to establish Midway as a strategic outpost came in 1871, 12 years after their discovery and being claimed for the US, and four years after the island was formally taken possession of by Captain William Reynolds of the USS Lackawanna. The Pacific Mail and Steamship Company started a project to dredge a ship channel through the reef to establish a coaling station while avoiding the high-taxes imposed at ports controlled by the Hawaiians. The project was an utter failure, however, and while evacuating the last of the workers, the USS Saginaw ran aground on Kure Atoll – an inauspicious beginning to be sure…

The next occupying effort came as part of laying the trans-Pacific telegraph cable. In 1903, in response to complaints about incursions by Japanese poachers, President Teddy Roosevelt placed the island under the protection of the U.S. Navy which in turn, saw a 21-man Marine detachment posted to the island. In 1935, with the introduction of flying boat service to Asia via Pan Am’s famous clippers, Midway became an important refueling and stopover point until war intruded in 1941.

Beginning in 1940, facilities at Midway were steadily built-up as Midway was deemed second in importance only to Pearl Harbor. The Naval Air Station was completed as were the ship channel and island defenses.

Strategic importance: A casual glance at the chart on the right will make immediately apparent the strategic importance of Midway. Given its location, long-range patrol bombers and submarines operating from the base would assert effective control of shipping lanes throughout the central Pacific region, directly impacting the movement of forces and supplies either East- or Westward bound. Possession of Midway also entailed control of the Hawaiian Islands, even absent an occupying force. If Japan’s goal of Asian domination was to be complete, it had to eliminate Hawaii as a launching pad for American forces – likewise, if America was to remain a factor in the Pacific, it had to keep Hawaii operational and, by extension, Midway.

The die which had been cast 28 million years ago was now coming a cropper…

Posted by SteelJaw in Navy | 1 Comment

The following list of commemoration events is provided via the Battle of Midway Roundtable:

The organizers for the BOM commemorations at Pearl Harbor, Washington, Houston, and Chino are seeking BOM veterans, historians, authors, etc. who might be willing to serve as panelists or otherwise as participants. Additionally, BOM vets are especially welcome as honored guests at any of the commemoration events. Contact the editor for info on any event listed below.

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 (neè 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.

Posted by SteelJaw in Aviation | 29 Comments