The following is an exclusive excerpt from the book “Never Call Me a Hero: A Legendary American Dive-Bomber Pilot Remembers the Battle of Midway” by N. Jack “Dusty” Kleiss.- Desiree
The Battle of Midway, Part 1
The Morning Attack, June 4, 1942
At 2:00 a.m. on June 4, a messenger tapped my arm.*
I was completely adorned, an aerial warrior ready for action. I walked aft to Scouting Six’s office and checked the assignments. I was assigned to my usual plane with my typical bomb load. My SBD-3 carried three bombs: a 500-pound general-purpose bomb and two wing-mounted 100-pound incendiaries. Walking through a passageway, I reached a ladder and descended to Enterprise’s hangar deck. Parked planes cluttered the back half. Mechanics feverishly tinkered, making last-minute alterations. The Dauntlesses from Scouting Six and Bombing Six were already on the flight deck, spotted for takeoff. On the hangar deck, where I was, the crews had pushed the Devastators and Wildcats to the rear elevator. I could tell they intended to launch these planes once our SBDs had cleared the deck.
Something caught my eye. I noticed that all fourteen of Torpedo Six’s TBD-1 Devastators were fitted with a torpedo attached to their bellies. I was aghast. Why were they armed with the Mark-13s? For a full year, all I had ever heard about these torpedoes was how they malfunctioned. I had seen it with my own eyes during the gunnery test in July 1941. After the Marshalls strikes, the pilots from Torpedo Six had cursed those torpedoes for failing them so spectacularly. Months earlier, I even heard VADM Halsey barking to subordinates, telling them how he didn’t want any torpedo-laden TBDs ever to leave the hangar deck. Clearly someone—the admirals, perhaps—intended to launch Torpedo Six and send the TBDs into the fray alongside Bombing Six and Scouting Six. I knew that when the launch came, the flight deck would be cluttered with planes. With all three squadrons launching at once, those of us in the first division of Scouting Six had only 165 feet for takeoff. Of course, I had launched my SBD with only 165 feet of deck before— and done it in complete darkness—but I worried about all the new pilots in our squadron who had never launched off such a short deck with a bomb-laden plane.
I saw my best friend on Enterprise, Tom Eversole. He was standing at the aft end of the hangar deck, supervising the sailors as they shoved a Devastator onto the rear elevator. I approached Tom and pointed to one of the planes. I asked him, “Tom, why the hell are the TBDs armed with torpedoes? Do the admirals expect them to go into battle?” He nodded and looked worried. He told me that his unit, Torpedo Six, had orders to accompany the air strike. I asked if any of the SBDs had been equipped with smoke bombs to provide cover for the low-flying torpedo planes as they went in. Tom shook his head and looked away.
I was baffled. From our experience in the Marshalls, at Wake, and at Marcus, I thought our fleet had learned its lessons. We could not send the TBDs into action unless they had adequate smoke protection and torpedoes that exploded more than 10 percent of the time. I never learned who was responsible for ordering the TBDs into action or why they did it. Perhaps the Torpedo Six pilots failed to complain loudly enough. Perhaps no one ever told Admirals Fletcher and Spruance about the deficiencies of the Mark-13s. In any event, the decision set the stage for one of the greatest tragedies of the battle.
I had little time to discuss tactics with Tom. We shook hands and bid each other “good luck.” It was a gut-wrenching goodbye. I knew this was likely farewell forever. As we shook hands, a strange thing happened. Tom’s image started to blur. I was on the verge of tears! As a young man, I always did my best to hold my emotions in check. I vowed never to show sadness or grief. This was the one moment during the war when I just couldn’t hold it back. A flood of memories washed through me as I recalled the wonderful times Tom and I had shared together. I remembered all the high jinx we’d perpetrated at the Naval Academy. I thought of the days we’d spent together as aviation students at Pensacola. Most especially, I remembered our cross-country trip to Kansas City. Even today, it is hard for me to recall that tearful parting. There is nothing quite so dark and terrifying as knowing your friend is about to be killed and being utterly unable to help him. All we could do was put on a brave face and try not to think about it. Oh how I miss Tom.
At 5:30, I entered the ready room and sat down in my chair in the front row. Aside from my squadron commander, LT Gallaher, I was the first to reach the room. I opened a locked cabinet underneath my seat and pulled out my chart board. As the other pilots filtered in, I memorized our task force’s position and its bearing. We expected the Japanese carriers to approach Midway from the northwest, but we really had no idea from which direction they’d come. Thanks to the talented codebreaking team at Pacific Fleet Headquarters at Pearl Harbor, our commanders knew that the pride of the Japanese carrier force was headed for Midway. They knew the enemy fleet’s first move would be an air strike against Midway, an attack meant to knock out the runway and keep the atoll’s surviving aircraft on the ground.*
* Midway contained a mix of Navy, Marine, and Army Air Corps aircraft. It possessed thirty-one Catalina PBYs from Patrol Wing Two, a detachment of six
In the ready room, most of the pilots kept silent, listening to the yeoman relaying data, but some of the nervous aviators chattered away. ENS John Quincy Roberts, one of the new pilots, boasted how he intended to put a bomb on a Japanese carrier today even if he had to drag it aboard. My arch rival, LT Dickinson, also spoke out, complaining as usual. He reviewed the attack plan and realized that our SBDs would not have any fighter escorts. The F4F-4s had orders to shepherd the TBDs to their target, leaving Scouting Six and Bombing Six to fly high above, away from the protective cover of the Wildcats, alone.* Dickinson had registered similar complaints on previous occasions, and his gripes had gotten old, so I just tuned him out.
Meanwhile, Gallaher wore earphones, quietly printing Enterprise’s location on the chalkboard behind him. Our task force started turning east into the trade winds—which was necessary for launch—but it unintentionally took us away from where we expected to encounter the Japanese mobile carrier force. We pilots hoped we might launch about 120 nautical miles from the enemy fleet, but as events started to take shape, it looked as if we might have to launch 210 miles away. I attempted some quick arithmetic. Our SBDs carried 310 gallons of fuel. If we launched now, without closing the distance to the enemy fleet, it would require every drop in our tanks to fly outbound and return. I grimaced. If anything disrupted our outbound flight—if we did not find the enemy carriers at the expected intercept point and had to spend time perform- ing a box search—we might not have enough fuel to return to our carriers. It seemed as if Torpedo Six was not the only squadron set up for a suicide run. TBF Avenger torpedo bombers from Torpedo Eight, twenty-eight Marine Corps fighter planes from VMF-221, forty Marine Corps dive bombers from VMSB-241, four Army Air Corps B-26 Marauders from the 69th Bomber Squadron, and nineteen Army Air Corps B-17s from the 431st Bomber Squadron.
* In March 1942, Fighting Six received a new combat model F4F, the Dash-4, replacing the F4F-3. It had six machine guns instead of four, as well as folding wings. Some of the guys didn’t like this heavier version of the Wildcat.
I did not have long to ponder the dangers of fuel exhaustion. Suddenly, at 6:00, a lookout reported that a Japanese scout plane had passed overhead. I dashed outside to get a look. Looking out across the ocean, I noticed a faint wisp of fog and a solid bank of clouds from sea level to several thousand feet high. The gods of the weather smiled upon the American fleet, for the numerous low-hanging clouds made Task Force 16 nearly impossible to see from the air.* We pilots waited anxiously, eyeing a small, three-hundred-foot hole in the clouds, waiting to see if the scout plane appeared. Nothing happened, and everyone presumed the overcast had prevented it from seeing Enterprise.
I reentered the squadron ready room and sat down. Looking at my watch, I noted it was a few minutes past 6:00. That was when we received the critical news: our scout planes from Midway had made contact with the enemy. We stared at a telecast screen mounted at the front of the ready room that indicated enemy contact reports. Meanwhile, the yeoman began writing information on our chalk- board based on what he heard in his headphones. He now placed the enemy carrier task force at 175 miles away. I came to a quick realization: the admirals (and the codebreakers who informed them) were correct. The enemy was heading for Midway. We had our chance to strike a decisive blow. Gallaher told us that Spruance and his chief of staff, CAPT Miles Browning, planned to launch all four squadrons, one after another. Scouting Six and Bombing Six would go first, and once aloft, we would circle at cruising altitude until the other squadrons joined us. After that, Torpedo Six and Fighting Six would take off and cruise with us, albeit at a lower altitude. Meanwhile, the other two air groups—those from Hornet and Yorktown—would send up everything they had and we’d all proceed to the target together. It was an ambitious plan.
We expected to be ordered to head to our planes right away, but strangely the order did not come. Word soon trickled down to the ready room. We learned that USS Yorktown had paused to recover a scouting mission executed by Scouting Five. Enterprise had to wait for Yorktown, about twenty miles away, to close the distance. Until Yorktown reached us, we had to sit tight. To this day, I’ve never fully understood why we delayed our takeoff. We had a confirmed enemy contact report—albeit not terribly detailed—and that report placed it within range of our dive bombers. If they wanted, our commanders could have scrambled Scouting Six and Bombing Six right away, but they did not. Since the battle, historians have reminded readers how Fletcher sent a message to Spruance at 6:07, telling him to “attack [the] enemy carriers as soon as definitely located,” giving Enterprise and Hornet freedom to conduct their own launch operations without waiting for Yorktown. Of course, I didn’t learn that fact until after the battle. While I sat impatiently in the ready room, I wondered how long it would take for Yorktown to catch up. I also learned that Spruance had turned our task force to the southwest, intending to close the distance to the enemy fleet, hoping to reduce it to about 155 miles, but all the while, we held on to the assumption that, when we launched, we still had to coordinate with Yorktown’s air group.
While we waited for the takeoff order, the Japanese made the first move. At 4:30, when still unaware of our presence, the four enemy carriers launched 108 fighters and bombers, sending them to strike the two largest islands in the Midway Atoll: Eastern Island and Sand Island. Shortly after 6:00, the Japanese planes came in sight of their targets. They overwhelmed the twenty-six U.S. Marine Corps fighter planes that patrolled the skies, killing seventeen brave American pilots. After that, the Japanese had their way with the ground defenses. They destroyed the base’s power plant, the water lines, three oil storage tanks, three vehicles, and five other buildings. They killed eight men on the ground. However, the Japanese failed in their mission to render the runway inoperative, scoring only two minor hits on it. By 7:00, the Japanese planes— minus eleven that had been shot down—turned back to their fleet.
Our fleet’s first big move came next. At 6:56, after an hour of agonizing waiting, Enterprise turned into the wind. Someone on the bridge had decided it was time to turn us loose. The yeoman called out, “Pilots, man your planes!”
As if propelled by a spring, I hopped from my chair and ran out onto the flight deck. Sixteen other Scouting Six pilots followed me and we fanned out, mounting our SBDs. My plane, Sail-Seven, was parked near the amidships elevator. My dutiful gunner, John Snowden, greeted me. He was just as eager to get airborne as I was. I hopped into the cockpit, strapped myself in, and ran through my standard preflight check. Our plane was ready to go in less than a minute.
The dive bombers from Scouting Six and Bombing Six revved up, and what a sound they made, a chorus of thirty-three angry buzz saws chomping at the proverbial bit. The planes were packed tightly, with wingtips practically touching. The ordnance-men scampered in and out and underneath the fuselages, making last- minute adjustments and avoiding our precarious propellers, now churning furiously. Looking backward, I saw John strap himself into the rear seat. He looked at me, giving me his characteristically innocent smile and a jubilant thumbs-up. Behind us, I could see the rest of Scouting Six and Bombing Six ready to go, their blue-gray finish gleaming as the first rays of sunshine shot through the clouds. Behind them, the cigar-shaped TBDs crowded the rear of the flight deck. Every bit of available space was taken by an aircraft. I strained my eyes to see if I could get a last glimpse of Tom. But every TBD looks identical when you stare at its nose. I didn’t see him. Pulling my head back inside the cockpit, I adjusted my goggles and looked out ahead to the bow and our beckoning mission.
Enterprise’s signal officer gave the go-ahead. Ahead of us, eight F4F-4s took off first, taking position as Combat Air Patrol. Then, at 7:06, our new air group commander, Clarence Wade McClusky, launched in his SBD. McClusky had received the Distinguished Flying Cross standing alongside me eight days earlier. He now led Enterprise’s dive bombing group, an odd choice given that, until recently, McClusky had been a fighter pilot. He had logged plenty of flying time in SBDs, but he could not have known our tactics as well as one of our capable squadron commanders, Gallaher or Best. Because of McClusky’s seniority, someone on Enterprise’s bridge expected him to lead the dive bombers into battle.
After McClusky’s plane got airborne, the rest of the air group got underway. Two junior ensigns, Bill Pittman and Richard Alonzo Jaccard, took off next, piloting Sail-Eight and Sail-Eleven. Pittman and Jaccard served as McClusky’s wingmen. At 7:10, Scouting Six’s planes got airborne. LT Gallaher took off first, with his two wingmen—Ensigns Reid Stone and John Quincy Roberts— following him in order off the flight deck. Then it was my turn. Sail-Seven sped down the flight deck, and with a thunderous hum, it lofted into the air. Only one of my wingmen joined me. ENS Eldor E. Rodenburg’s SBD, Sail-Nine, experienced engine trouble at 8,000 feet and returned to the carrier to report a defective blower. My other wingman, ENS James Dexter, who piloted Sail-Eighteen, flew on my port side, for I had just begun circling the carrier. Together Dexter and I formed Scouting Six’s Section Two, or “Yellow Section.” Behind us, nine more Scouting Six SBDs took off, forming divisions two and three, and after that, fifteen Bombing Six SBDs launched, each carrying a 1,000-pound bomb.