TEN

Five Minutes of Glory

Ensign Bill Pittman had been concentrating on flying wing on Wade McClusky when he noticed the CEAG gesturing. Looking out, Pittman could see many types of ships—at first just wakes on the surface some thirty-five miles away. Soon he saw the distinctive shape of aircraft carriers steaming in a southerly formation. For Pittman and the other rookie SBD pilots of the Enterprise Air Group, the trying hours of the hunt had come to an end. It was now time to attack.1

“Adkins, there they are,” Pittman called back to his gunner. Floyd Adkins had joined Scouting Six in January 1940, and he felt the squadron was like his second home. He looked over his right shoulder to where his pilot was pointing and counted approximately twenty Japanese ships.2

Tony Schneider of Bombing Six was at first relieved. We’ve made it back to our fleet, and just in time! Schneider’s engine sputtered; his last fuel tank ran dry as he spotted the ships far below. But he quickly realized it was not the U.S. carrier fleet. Division leader Joe Penland watched his wingman’s prop windmill to a halt. Schneider nosed over for a gentle power glide toward the wave tops.3

Tony switched through each of his fuel tanks in desperation, managing to keep his SBD aloft a few more minutes by sucking up the last of the fumes from each tank. My mission has changed, he thought. I can’t make an attack without gas. My mission now is to make a safe water landing and hope for the best.

Schneider jettisoned his thousand-pound bomb and yelled back to Glenn Holden to throw his twin .30-caliber machine guns overboard. He turned his Dauntless away from the Japanese fleet toward the direction he believed Midway to be. His final glance toward the enemy carriers was rewarding, as Tony saw explosions in the distance. The last of his fumes were gone now. His prop locked up again and his dive-bomber became a powerless glider. Tony used full flaps and pushed on the stick to level his plane’s nose into the waves. His 6-B-8 bounced once off the Pacific surface and then slammed hard into the ocean, coming to an abrupt halt.4

Gunner Holden had not followed his pilot’s orders. He had merely hooked his twin machine guns into place instead of jettisoning them, and then turned to face forward for the impact. “His decision cost him,” said Schneider. The heavy guns slammed into the back of Holden’s head as their Dauntless skidded into the ocean, smashing his face into the front of his rear cockpit and knocking the man unconscious. Tony moved quickly to release himself from his straps and parachute in the front cockpit. He jumped out on the starboard wing in his haste to escape their sinking aircraft.

Tony gathered his senses quickly and moved to the port wing to retrieve the two-man life raft from its compartment. He worked fast, inflating the raft and then holding on to one of its cords to keep from losing it. He inflated his own Mae West and then reached into the rear cockpit to pull the toggles on Holden’s vest. His gunner was out cold and bleeding heavily as Tony unbuckled him and shoved him out of his rear seat. He climbed into the raft and wrestled his senseless radioman in as well.

He watched the weight of the heavy Wright Cyclone engine pull their SBD’s nose under the water. Holden lay moaning in the bottom of the raft as their three-ton Dauntless bubbled under the waves and sank to a resting place nearly three miles below the Pacific surface. Schneider hoped that Enterprise’s dive-bombers had plastered the Kido Butai. He had seen explosions in that direction before he crash-landed, and felt a certain pride that his friends had likely exacted some revenge on their enemy. Tony was equally “chagrined that I had not managed my fuel better and was unable to add my weight to the attack.”5

• • •

Wade McClusky was now left with thirty-one Dauntlesses to carry out an attack. As he examined the Japanese ships through his binoculars, the CEAG saw that the carriers were dispersed in a circular formation. Each flattop was maneuvering independently in the formation’s center, as if dodging a torpedo attack. McClusky could plainly see two carriers. A third was out toward the east and a fourth was up north. Two battleships and various cruisers and destroyers were stacked close to the carriers. An outer warship ring, about twelve to fifteen miles from the carriers, appeared to be cruisers or destroyers.6

McClusky broke radio silence to inform Enterprise of his find. “Figuring that possibly the Hornet group commander would make the same decision that I had, it seemed best to concentrate my two squadrons on two carriers,” McClusky said. Any greater division of the bomb load his squadrons had might spread out the damage, but he firmly believed it would not sink or completely put out of action more than two carriers.7

Dick Dickinson, leading the second division of Scouting Six, took in the sight below. He saw fighter planes on the deck of each carrier, and also noticed that the flight decks were undamaged, in perfect condition to launch aircraft. He called back to his gunner, Joe DeLuca, to keep a sharp eye out for enemy fighters.8

Dickinson correctly believed the northernmost carrier to be Hiryu, and he identified one of the closer flattops to be her sister carrier, Soryu. He was correct in noting that the Hiryu and Soryu were smaller carriers, while the forty-two-thousand-ton Kaga and Akagi were more prominent. He believed that McClusky had singled out Kaga for his target.9

For Scouting Six, it was retribution time. Their war had started suddenly and violently over Pearl Harbor six months earlier. Scouting Six had lost many good pilots and gunners since that day. As fate would have it, most of the Enterprise dive-bombers were lining up on the mighty Kaga. On December 7, her Zeros had destroyed the Dauntless of Scouting Six’s Johnny Vogt over Pearl Harbor, thus inflicting the first wartime casualties for Enterprise. It was payback time for Kaga now.

The Enterprise SBDs approached the Japanese carriers and formed into diving positions, easing down from their higher altitude. John Snowden, rear gunner for Dusty Kleiss, had been on oxygen for about two hours during the group’s high-altitude flying. “For almost any reason, I was glad to be going down,” he said.10

Kleiss noted the enemy fleet’s longitude and latitude on his plotting board, and recorded the time and his altitude. He next ordered Snowden to change radio coils to the YE-ZB, and he logged the Morse code signal showing the exact course back to Enterprise. Kleiss then manually armed his five-hundred-pound bomb and his two hundred-pound wing bombs, not trusting the electric arming button.11

Wade McClusky opted to attack the two nearest carriers in his line of approach. He broke radio silence with, “Earl, you take the carrier on the left, and Best, you take the carrier on the right. Earl, you follow me down.”12

McClusky’s instructions never made it to Best, who was thousands of feet below the CEAG. The Bombing Six skipper was either flying in the blind spot of McClusky’s transmitting zone or he had opened up on his own radio at the same moment. In any event, Best sent a broadcast to VB-6 to attack the nearest carrier. There was never a question for Best regarding which carrier McClusky would attack. It’s clear to me what he’s going to do, he thought. Navy doctrine for dive-bombing or horizontal bombing says that the leading element of the attack group attacks the far target; the trailing element attacks the near target. This way you go in simultaneously. All get the same degree of surprise.13

Such doctrine was apparently unknown to Enterprise’s new air group commander, whose background was that of a fighter pilot. Seeing a beautiful carrier target below, he was thrilled with the lack of enemy fighters or even AA fire at this point. The fact that McClusky would do anything but follow Navy doctrine never crossed Lieutenant Best’s mind.

Just as Dick Best never heard McClusky’s direction to take the carrier on the right, Best’s own transmission, “CAG Six, I’m attacking according to doctrine,” was likewise never received by McClusky. Best turned toward the nearest target, Kaga, and signaled his other divisions out to his right and left.14

One remarkable fact stood out to McClusky as he approached the diving point: Not a single Japanese fighter plane was there to molest his dive-bombers. At 1022, the lieutenant commander abruptly pushed his stick and rudder and drew a bead on the rectangular enemy flight deck nearly four miles below. Behind the CAG section, Earl Gallaher had time to observe the two other carriers in the near vicinity. None of the three has suffered any apparent damage, he thought.15

Bill Pittman was startled by his leader’s sudden descent. He assumed that since he was to take pictures, McClusky would remain and be last to dive. To his astonishment, the CEAG dived first. Scared, nervous, and a little uncertain of himself, Pittman was late in pushing over. Number three pilot Dick Jaccard promptly took his place and followed McClusky down. In his own nervousness, Jaccard accidentally pushed the selector lever marked “W” and extended his landing gear instead of his flaps. “It was funny to see Dick push over and let his wheels down instead of opening his dive flaps,” said Pittman.16

Pittman remembered to flip the switch to turn on his camera, but never thought of the equipment again. The camera apparently recorded nothing but horizon and sky as he went down in his dive. Behind the lead trio, Earl Gallaher and the rest of Scouting Six pushed over as well.

As he nosed in, McClusky had a grand view of his carrier target. He believed that her flight deck was filled with dozens of planes and she was steaming upwind, preparing to launch them. In reality, only some CAP fighters were warming up on deck. McClusky was halfway down before the Japanese spotted his Dauntless. Some scattered AA fire finally rose toward him, but it was too late. He released at eighteen hundred feet and pulled in his flaps to recover as low as he dared. McClusky’s bomb landed in the ocean barely ten yards from the carrier’s bridge. Pittman and Jaccard also achieved only near misses that exploded close enough to throw water onto Kaga’s deck but left her undamaged.17

Floyd Adkins’s twin .30-caliber gun mount came loose from its rack in the rear cockpit during Pittman’s dive. His older-model mount fit into the gun ring, fastened by a nut that screwed onto the mount. “The nut had either been left off on installation or came off in flight!” said Adkins. He quickly unfastened his regular seat belt so that he could stand up, while keeping his gunner’s belt fastened. Adkins—a man of slight build—wrestled mightily with the heavy guns against the intense g-forces asserted by their descent.18

He tried jamming the gun back into its mount but the slipstream was too strong. He couldn’t do it. About that time, Adkins looked up and saw a Japanese fighter getting ready to make a run on his plane. Christ, this is all we need! he thought. Picking up the mike, he told Pittman, “We have a fighter on our tail! You’d better take evasive action. He’s getting ready to fire and my guns are all screwed up!”19

Pittman pulled out of his dive low on the water, passing between two escorting warships that were putting up heavy fire. Adkins managed to hold the 175-pound guns steady enough to fire at the Zero as they recovered. He believed the Japanese pilot looked like he would break to his right after he completed his firing run on their SBD. Adkins stood up and rested the guns on the right side of the fuselage, his left side. Sure enough, the Zero broke to his right. He immediately opened fire. “I must have hit him, because he crashed into the ocean in flames,” Adkins said.20

Later, upon landing, Adkins struggled to lift the heavy guns, but could not. Earl Gallaher wrote him up for a promotion and the Distinguished Flying Cross. The Zero attack had damaged Pittman’s 6-S-8, including one 20mm hit that blew a soccer ball–size hole in his nearly empty starboard inboard fuel tank. “[Adkins] was a great gunner and radioman and I was fortunate to have him as my partner,” Pittman later said. In the heat of combat, however, the young pilot felt he would never get out of range and was unaware that his aircraft had sustained damage.21

Wade McClusky leveled off at masthead height after dropping his bomb. He was well through the screen of warships before he noted any bursting shells creeping up from behind. McClusky kept his throttle practically pushed through the instrument panel as he jinked left and right through the gunfire to escape.22

Fourth down on Kaga was Scouting Six skipper Earl Gallaher. Normal dive-bombing doctrine called for the pilots to dive vertical at ninety degrees and then ease back to a seventy-degree angle in order to safely toggle their bombs. In this case, Gallaher’s initial dive ended up at an angle exceeding vertical. “The dive was steeper than I would have liked it to be, but was steady enough that I knew my bomb would hit,” he said. Gallaher released at low altitude and had to pull out sharply to avoid the waves. He had the pleasure of looking back to see his five-hundred-pound bomb crash into the tightly packed planes waiting to launch. From the rear seat Tom Merritt howled, “That was a beaut, Cap’n!” Back on December 7, Gallaher had seen the destruction of the battleship Arizona, the first vessel he had served upon after graduation from the academy. Through his brain flashed the satisfying thought, Arizona, I remember you!23

Gallaher’s bomb hit Kaga’s flight deck aft near the third aircraft elevator, detonating in the crew spaces adjacent to the hangar deck and setting the compartments ablaze. Kaga’s woes were only beginning, but her antiaircraft gunners quickly attained some vengeance in downing one of the American dive-bombers.24

Reid Stone, fifth in dive order, missed to port with his bomb. Following him was John Roberts, who had sworn that he would score a hit even if he had to take it aboard. Squadron mate Rodey Rodenburg remembered that Roberts “often mentioned he would dive down the stack of a Jap carrier if he ever had the chance. We all believe he kept his word.” Roberts’s Dauntless was damaged by flak and, although he managed to release his bomb, his 6-S-3 was seen to slam into the water several hundred yards to starboard of Kaga. He and AOM1c Thurman Swindell died instantly.25

• • •

Three planes behind Gallaher was Dusty Kleiss. He decided to aim for the undamaged forward portion of the deck, making the big red circle on the flight deck his aiming point. “You don’t aim where it is,” he explained. “You aim where it is going to be.” As he prepared to drop, he noted flames fifty feet high from Gallaher’s hit. Kleiss released his big bomb and then dropped another five hundred feet before toggling his pair of hundred-pound wing bombs. To ensure a hit, he pulled out of his dive at a mere one thousand feet—a nine-g pullout that barely missed hitting the ocean. Kleiss looked back and saw an explosion bursting out on the big red circle.26

The antiaircraft fire was intense. Kleiss’s gunner, Johnny Snowden, could see tracers streaking past their plane as he faced astern. His SBD was hit several times, but remained airworthy. He and Kleiss were attacked by a fighter as they pulled away from Kaga. Snowden attacked with his guns to chase away the Zero. “We remained low on the water,” he remembered, “dodging through minor units of the fleet.” After pulling away, the young gunner was struck with a wave of relief. It’s warm and sunny, our airplane is apparently all in one piece, and we’ve come through it alive.27

Kleiss’s bomb was devastating—it smashed through the forward elevator into its well and detonated in the fighter stowage spaces below. The concussion from the blast blew out all of Kaga’s bridge windows. Captain Jisaku Okada and his helmsman lost visibility to steer their carrier due to the ensuing heavy smoke, so the captain ordered emergency steering to shift to the engine spaces.28

The remaining Dauntlesses screamed down, releasing on the carrier as she began to turn to starboard. But it was too late for Kaga. Eighth to dive was Jim Dexter, who narrowly avoided colliding with the wild mix of planes jockeying to pounce on Kaga. He ended up in a much steeper dive than was customary. “Rather than angling down in a seventy-degree dive, he ended up over on his back, so he was over ninety degrees,” said his rear gunner, Don Hoff.29

Hoff was pinned to the back of his seat as the angle exceeded vertical and his ammunition belts began to fall out of his rear cockpit. “They started to come out of the can like a big old snake,” he said. “I couldn’t do anything with the guns because you didn’t want to have a fouled-around ammunition belt hanging out the back of the plane while you’re diving.” Dexter made his drop and pulled up sharply as Hoff struggled to retrieve his ammunition belts. Scouting Six aviators credited Dexter with landing his bomb beside a refueling cart parked in front of Kaga’s island. Yet more recent analysis of Scouting Six’s pounding of Kaga indicates that Dexter’s bomb more likely struck the carrier’s bridge structure. Captain Okada and four of his senior officers were killed by the terrible blast that literally shredded Kaga’s command center.30

Dexter made a sharp turn to port as he roared away from Kaga in order to avoid a Japanese cruiser in his path. As he retired low on the water, Hoff found a new threat in their path. “Suddenly there were these big columns of water that were exploding and coming up in front of us,” Hoff said. The warships fired into the water near the retiring SBDs to throw up deadly waterspouts that could knock the planes down. Dexter weaved and jinked his Dauntless violently to avoid each spout. A collision with one of these water plumes would be like flying into a concrete wall. “About that time, one of those shells hit in the water right below us and it exploded,” said Hoff. “It lifted us right straight up in the air about forty or fifty feet.”31

• • •

Dick Dickinson was still stunned by the gift lying below him. He had dreamed of catching Japanese carriers. But he had never imagined a situation like this, where he could prepare for his dive without a trace of fighter opposition. As the skipper’s division nosed into its dives, Dickinson kicked his rudders back and forth, creating a ducklike twitching of his SBD’s tail to signal his division to attack.32

He was the ninth pilot from Enterprise’s strike group to dive on Kaga. In peacetime, Dickinson had been accustomed to releasing at around twenty-seven hundred feet. Now that it really mattered, his squadron was making their drops at lower altitudes of sixteen hundred to eighteen hundred feet—this to help ensure “that the brand-new boys [could] obtain hits.” Ahead, he saw the carrier’s flight deck splinter from the first two bomb hits. “The target was utterly satisfying,” Dickinson said. “This was the absolute.”33

As his altimeter wound down rapidly, Dickinson kept the pipper at the middle of his optical sight to point his plane. As he was almost at the dropping point, he saw Dexter’s bomb hit right behind where he was aiming—the center of the red disk forward. Dickinson saw the deck rippling, curling back in all directions, exposing a great section of the hangar below. He then released his own five-hundred-pound load and pulled out. Dickinson immediately kicked his rudder and put his plane into a stall in order to see the effects of his beautiful dive. He was certain that his big bomb hit right abreast of the island and that his smaller wing bombs struck in a group of parked planes.34

Dickinson felt, and his fellow pilots later agreed, that he made the best dive he had ever attempted. As he pulled away from Kaga, he spotted three Japanese fighters below him and to his right. In his excitement in trying to close his diving flaps, he grabbed the wrong handle and dropped his landing flaps. One of the three Zeros was seen to climb rapidly astern of his SBD. Radioman Joe DeLuca opened up with his machine gun when the Japanese came within seven hundred yards. Then the Zero made a steep turn to his left. As he was turning, DeLuca fired his guns again. And then the Zero was gone.35

Mac McCarthy, following Dickinson in dive order, noted his target carrier’s island structure to starboard, one Zero just behind the forward elevator, and only a few other aircraft spotted aft. McCarthy made a good dive, but judged his bomb a near miss.36

Dick Best had deployed his squadron for attack just as Gallaher’s VS-6 prepared to dive. He noted that each section and division was correctly spaced—each SBD no more than 150 feet apart. Second section leader Bill Roberts was amazed by two sights. First, he had never seen so many ships in one group before. Second, his skipper had suddenly fishtailed his Dauntless to signal their division to string out in a column formation.37

From a column formation, we can dive independently without worrying about colliding with one another. On the other hand, a column makes us more vulnerable to fighter attacks.

After these thoughts raced through Roberts’s mind, they were replaced by another. I have never known Dick Best to make a bad decision.38

Roberts soon realized his skipper was correct. There were no Zeros at their altitude. Therefore, the concentrated firepower advantage of their tightly bunched rear gunners would not be needed. Best’s lead section was almost over his target carrier Kaga when he pushed his nose over to go into his vertical dive. Bombing Six’s skipper had just split open his dive flaps when he was suddenly shocked by a mass of blue-gray streaks plunging vertically in front of him. “Here came McClusky with Gallaher from Scouting Six pouring neutral, belting right in front of me,” he said. “They had jumped my target!”39

Gunner Jim Murray felt that the three-plane CAG section narrowly missed VB-6’s first division as they dived. “Only a blur was visible as the diving SBDs blanked out our forward view,” he said. This caused Best to scramble out of the way before his section became victims of a large midair collision.40

Twelfth to dive on Kaga was Norm West. His second section of Dickinson’s second division included two other pilots who were making their first combat dives. Wingman Mike Micheel had set the arming switches on his bombs as he noted West salute him, signaling to dive. Just before nosing over, Micheel saluted flight school buddy John Lough just off his starboard wing.41

They dived lengthwise along the target. “How nice it was to have a big red dot in the center of the flight deck for an aiming point!” Micheel said. During his dive, he saw two fires burning on the carrier, one forward and one on the starboard quarter. He could also see aircraft on deck and sailors scurrying about. A barrage of ack-ack had been bursting in his vicinity, but now red tracers were zipping past his cockpit from smaller-caliber weapons. Those guys are shooting at me! Micheel thought as the combat suddenly became more personal.42

“Three thousand feet!” John Dance called from his rear seat. Micheel waited a second longer before yanking the bomb release and pulling out of his dive to the right. He had no time to look back to see the result of his attack, for Micheel quickly realized that his Dauntless was acting sluggishly to his controls. In his excitement, he had failed to release his two hundred-pound wing bombs. Micheel spotted a cruiser cutting directly across his path below and corrected his error by releasing both small bombs as he passed the ship broadside. He was sure that he missed his target, as he was jinking so much trying to avoid AA fire. Micheel never saw an enemy fighter.43

On the tail of the West/Micheel/Lough section was Charlie Ware with ensigns Frank O’Flaherty and Jim Shelton. The situation over the Japanese carrier was horribly confused. Two-thirds of Bombing Six carried out their original plans and joined suit with Scouting Six in diving on Kaga. Lieutenant Joe Penland, leading Bombing Six’s second division, delayed his attack momentarily.

Penland knew that his VB-6 planes packed a more lethal punch with thousand-pound bombs, as opposed to the five-hundred-pounders being dropped by the scouts. He observed several misses on Kaga, and decided to lead his division down. He considered Dick Best to be the best dive-bomber pilot in the fleet and was certain his men would take care of Akagi. Penland noted one or more hits on the carrier from planes ahead of him. He made a good dive and felt confident that he added another direct hit. His gunner, Harold Heard, excitedly agreed that they had scored. Penland viewed heavy flames on the flight deck of Kaga as he looked back during retirement.44

Lew Hopkins was the fourth to dive from Penland’s division. He put the crosshairs of his gunsight on Kaga’s deck and kept the carrier in his sights the whole way down. Ed Anderson in the rear seat could see that the carrier had already been hit. “You couldn’t see aft of the island structure because of the black smoke pouring out of it,” he said. Anderson called out the altitude down to twenty-five hundred feet. At that instant, he hollered, “Twenty-five hundred and Zero coming from the right!”45

Hopkins released his thousand-pound bomb, then immediately turned into the Zero in a defensive maneuver while retiring low on the water. Anderson found himself glued to his seat by the heavy g-forces during the pullout. Hopkins did not have the opportunity to look back to determine the outcome of their bomb drop. His primary focus was escaping the pursuing Zero and clearing the Japanese task force.

“Let’s get the hell out of here!” Anderson implored his pilot.

“What do you think I’m trying to do?” Hopkins snapped.

John Van Buren and wingman Norm Vandivier followed Penland’s division. Ensign George Goldsmith, third in Van Buren’s division, peered down at Kaga. He saw hits and near hits with almost every drop. As James Patterson called off the altitude during their plunge, the rear gunner found the antiaircraft fire to be of little consequence. His larger concern was in keeping a heads-up for fighters.46

Goldsmith observed Kaga to be in a hard turn. He forced his bomber into a corkscrew spin as he followed the flattop all the way down. Patterson was used to Goldsmith releasing their bomb at about twenty-two hundred feet during dive-bombing practice, but now he watched the altimeter spin past two thousand feet. Finally, he howled, “Fifteen hundred feet!” and Goldsmith released their bomb and pulled out hard. Their Dauntless was pulling so many g’s that Patterson could not even raise his hands up to his guns to strafe a destroyer that flashed past his plane during their recovery. “He had been the world’s worst dive-bomber pilot during the practice hops I’d flown with him previously,” said Patterson. “But that day Ensign Goldsmith earned every dime invested in him as he put our bomb right through the flight deck, just aft of amidships.”47

Second to last to dive on Kaga was Andy Anderson. His rear gunner, Stuart Mason, could see two carriers ablaze from the bow back to the stern as they pulled out. He could see another squadron in the distance attacking a third carrier, which suddenly erupted with a direct bomb hit.48

Kaga was doomed. When the U.S. planes came roaring in, her hangar deck crews had been busy loading strike aircraft with bombs and torpedoes to make another attack against the Americans, and her planes were fully fueled. The bomb blasts mowed down scores of mechanics, plane handlers, armorers, and damage-control men while also destroying the fire mains. Water was unavailable now to fight the flames that raged everywhere. More than eighty thousand pounds of explosives were scattered throughout the hangar deck in addition to the thousands of gallons of aviation fuel in the parked aircraft and in the shredded fuel lines. It was just a matter of time before the roaring fires in Kaga’s hangar would touch off a tremendous explosion.49

• • •

Dick Best quickly recovered from his shock. McClusky and VS-6 had flashed past him down onto Kaga, so he closed his dive flaps. Wingmen Bud Kroeger and Fred Weber hung tight to their skipper as he proceeded at full throttle toward the next carrier, Akagi. Best was pleased that his SBDs were still encountering neither AA fire nor fighters. Some twelve to fifteen miles distant, he could see a third carrier, Hiryu.

Best found the math was not in his favor now. Lieutenants Penland and Van Buren had taken their divisions down on Kaga in the confusion, leaving VB-6’s skipper with only three SBDs to disable one of Japan’s largest aircraft carriers. At the moment, he believed he still had all five planes of his first division and would not find out until much later that he had actually lost his second section.50

Best led his wingmen up to fourteen thousand feet. He opened his flaps as they approached Akagi downwind from slightly abaft her port beam. With dive flaps fully employed, his airspeed during descent would be around 240 knots. The carrier still appeared to be steaming blissfully along into the wind without a hint of danger, preparing to launch aircraft. There was no time to question his good fortune. He radioed to his remaining pilots, “Don’t let this carrier escape!”51

Many years later, Best learned that his second section had become mixed-up in the confusion over Kaga. Bill Roberts and his wingman, Pete Halsey, missed their skipper’s shift and they ended up piling onto Kaga with the tail-end VB-6 division of Joe Penland. Roberts was certain as he went into his dive that his target carrier’s island structure was to port because of how unusual this seemed to him in comparison to American carriers. He felt that his bomb was a near miss off Kaga’s starboard bow. Rear gunner Bill Steinman snapped photos of their target, which Roberts said were “later confiscated by Commander Murr Arnold.” Roberts saw when the water-damaged film was developed “in the centers of several frames there were images of the three burning carriers.”52

Commander Takahisa Amagai, the air officer on Kaga, stated in 1945 that there were “four hits on the Kaga. The first bomb hit the forward elevator. The second bomb went through the deck at the starboard side of the after elevator. The third bomb went through the deck on the port side abreast of the island. The fourth bomb hit the port side aft.” Amagai also stated that Kaga had some thirty loaded and fueled aircraft on her hangar deck, while other planes were still spotted on deck for launch.53

Kaga’s bridge crew accurately assessed the four hits and five misses from the first nine Enterprise dive-bombers to attack the carrier before the bridge was evacuated and they quit logging the attacks. At least several thousand-pounders also ripped Kaga after the first four hits made by Gallaher, Kleiss, Dexter, and Dickinson.

Lieutenant Best wasted no time in attacking Akagi. His section pushed over about 1025, just minutes after Wade McClusky had abruptly plunged down on Kaga. The Japanese—whose estimates of how many dive-bombers hit each of their ships this day would prove to be very accurate—counted only three American dive-bombers that attacked Akagi.54

Jim Murray, facing aft behind his twin .30s, was well aware that Bud Kroeger and Fred Weber were the only VB-6 pilots still clinging to the skipper’s tail. He felt his 6-B-1 slow down, so Murray stowed his guns and faced forward as his SBD went into its dive.55

Dick Best was determined not to miss as he looked at what he believed to be the carrier’s island structure to the starboard side of the flight deck. Akagi’s island was actually to port, which would eventually lead to much confusion in who attacked which carrier. Years later, when presented with a model of the Akagi that he could stand above as if dive-bombing the ship, he was shown that what he had believed to be her island structure was actually Akagi’s large, downward-facing starboard-side stack structure.56

At six thousand feet, Murray began calling off the altitude over the intercom in descending thousand-foot increments. All the while, he could see shells passing over and beyond their port wing. At thirty-five hundred feet, Best put his sights just forward of Akagi’s bridge and saw a Zero run through on the deck. He thought to himself, Best, if you’re a real hero, when you’ve dropped your bomb you’ll aileron around and shoot that son of a bitch down.57

At two thousand feet—their normal release point—Murray began excitedly calling off the altitude in one-hundred-foot intervals.

“Nineteen hundred! Eighteen hundred!”

Best plunged close to fifteen hundred feet before Murray felt the skipper toggle their big bomb free. Best’s number two wingman, Bud Kroeger, wondered whether the skipper would ever pull out, and finally released his own bomb first while Best was still in his bombsight ahead of him. Bombing Six’s skipper had ditched his thoughts of attacking the just-launched Zero. Instead, he opted to watch the results of his own drop. Murray resumed his aft-facing position as their 6-B-1 started to pull out of its dive. He saw Kroeger’s bomb splash in the sea alongside the Japanese carrier just as Best flipped B-1 on its side. Best and Murray both watched as their bomb hit dead center in the forward group of planes.58

“The first bomb hit near the forward elevator and the bridge, amidships,” Best said. “I had the whole vision laid out twelve hundred feet below me,” during pull-out.59

Kroeger’s first bomb hit the ocean just yards to port and slightly forward of Akagi’s island structure. The explosion sent a geyser of water towering high over the bridge, drenching everyone there with seawater. Best’s bomb—a thousand-pounder with a one-one-hundredth-second- delay fuse that allowed the weapon to penetrate a flight deck before exploding—created havoc on Akagi’s hangar deck. As Best hauled clear of Akagi, he believed that he saw Weber’s bomb explode beside the lead fighter of a half dozen that were preparing to launch back on the fantail. The resulting explosions from the armed and fueled aircraft were tremendous. “Akagi didn’t get a gun firing before the first three bombs hit,” said Best.60

Although Weber’s bomb appeared to some on Akagi to have hit the after portion of the flight deck, Japanese cameraman Makishima Teiuchi was standing on the flight deck with his camera. He said the third thousand-pounder dropped by VB-6 almost grazed the deck’s edge before landing in the water alongside the stern. The upward force of its blast bent the edge of the flight deck upward. The concussion also damaged Akagi’s rudder such that when she attempted a starboard turn moments later it locked in position and forced the carrier into an eternal thirty-degree circle. After moments of helpless circling, Akagi’s crew was forced to kill her engines.61

The effects of Dick Best’s solitary direct hit were far more devastating, exploding among eighteen Kate torpedo planes on the hangar deck. Fires spread quickly to other ordnance lying on the racks along the bulkhead. Internal explosions would continue to eat up the once-proud flagship for hours as her crew fought to save the doomed vessel.62

Lieutenant Best headed out of the immediate area, noting smoke and flames from one of the other carriers. He realized that another SBD squadron had wrecked another carrier at the same time he was making his attack.

• • •

In the same five-minute span that Scouting Six and Bombing Six were wreaking havoc with the Kido Butai, Yorktown’s Bombing Three also made its presence known to Admiral Nagumo’s carrier force.

Max Leslie glanced at his instrument panel clock. It showed 1023 as he looked over at his wingmen, Lefty Holmberg and Ensign Paul Schlegel, to check their spacing. Leslie was still unaware that Wally Short’s Bombing Five had not been launched behind his group. He had attempted to direct VB-5 to attack the smaller carrier to the west, but heard nothing in reply. Leslie figured he had done all he could to carry out the attack as planned. It was time to dive.63

Leslie patted the top of his head to signal, “I’ve got the lead,” and rolled into his dive at 1025—just as Dick Best was pushing over on Akagi. Leslie’s rear gunner, Bill Gallagher, noticed a Zero closing on their tail as they prepared to push over. He quickly cleared his twin .30s and trained his sights on the incoming fighter. Gallagher was so intent on aiming his fire that he did not observe his bullets hitting his target. But when he looked up again, the Zero was on fire and circling down.64

Dave Shumway, leading Bombing Three’s third division, thought the Japanese formation below appeared scattered. Soryu had just turned to starboard at 1024 to begin launching fighters. Lookouts spotted the first SBDs of Leslie and Holmberg plunging down, and the order was passed to commence firing on them. Soryu immediately began swinging back to port as her 25mm gun mounts blazed to life.65

Having earlier accidentally jettisoned his bomb, Leslie dived anyway from fourteen thousand feet. He opened up with his .50-caliber guns, hoping to suppress antiaircraft fire for his following pilots. He believed his target to be the carrier Kaga, with a starboard-side superstructure, which fit the latest model he had seen of that carrier. He fired for six thousand feet, aiming at the carrier’s bridge, until his guns jammed. “This was the climax of a sad moment for me, because I thought I was in a perfect dive,” he said. When he finally pulled out, he could not see damage to the other two carriers in the area.66

Leslie flew from aft to bow over Soryu, allowing Bill Gallagher ample time to rake the carrier’s side with his twin .30s. As he faced rearward, he had the satisfaction of seeing Bombing Three’s first bomb, dropped by the number two pilot, hit amidships.

Lefty Holmberg rode Leslie’s tail all the way down. Once the skipper had cleared the way, Holmberg finally had a good view of Soryu. He centered the crosshairs of his telescopic sight on the big red meatball painted on the flight deck. The flashes from guns firing along the edges of the flight deck reminded him of a birthday cake with lighted candles.67

Holmberg heard shrapnel clattering off his SBD like a handful of rocks thrown against a tin roof. Once gunner George LaPlant hollered, “Twenty-five hundred,” from the backseat, Holmberg held his SBD steady and pushed the electric bomb-release button on the top of his stick. Just to make sure, he held his dive further as he tugged on the manual release. His Dauntless pulled out level just as his thousand-pound bomb smashed through Soryu’s painted red disk. LaPlant shouted that it was a hit. Max Leslie looked back in time to see his wingman’s bomb create a terrific explosion on the flight deck.68

Holmberg glanced over his shoulder with satisfaction, but only for a split second. Shell splashes thrown up by ships’ gunfire forced him to maneuver his Dauntless quickly. Getting back home would be no walk in the park, but Holmberg was pleased. Even if none of us make it back to the Yorktown, we have accomplished our mission.69

Holmberg’s bomb exploded at the forward starboard edge of the carrier’s number one elevator, blowing Soryu’s executive officer, Commander Hisashi Ohara, across the bridge and burning him badly. The number one antiaircraft gun forward of the island structure was demolished, and great damage was inflicted below the flight deck.70

As Oley Hanson prepared to dive, his gunner, Joe Godfrey, noticed a Zero that passed his tail so close he felt he could have spit in the pilot’s eye. Godfrey found his plane’s dive was much steeper than usual and lower in duration than what he had been accustomed to. Hanson saw that Paul Schlegel and Bob Campbell ahead of him both missed with their bombs. Hanson then released at twenty-five hundred feet. Looking back upon pullout, he watched several bombs hit the flight deck, creating a blazing inferno.71

Hanson’s SBD retired low on the water on a course directly between two Japanese warships. “It seemed they were shooting every gun they had at us,” said Godfrey. “Fortunately, they were rather close abeam of each other, and we were so close to the water that they couldn’t get their guns to bear on us and were, as a result, shooting the hell out of each other.”72

Sixth to dive on Soryu was Ensign Bob Benson, a twenty-two-year-old graduate of San Francisco Junior College and son of a Marine major. His rear gunner was eighteen-year-old ARM3c Fred Bergeron from Texas. Like Earl Gallaher of Scouting Six, Bergeron had been ready to get revenge since he had first seen the smoldering wreckage of the battleship Arizona one week after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.73

Bergeron’s hopes of quickly fulfilling this wish had been dashed a month later, when his carrier Saratoga was hit by a torpedo. He had been shooting the breeze on the flight deck at the time with three other young men who also hailed from the Texas Gulf Coast town of Freeport. Among them was his older brother Dallas Bergeron, with whom he had enlisted in the Navy in December 1940. Dallas and Fred had both qualified for radio school, graduated, and were assigned together to Bombing Three. Saratoga’s torpedo damage had sidelined their war effort for several months. Now the siblings were both plunging down on Japanese warships in their respective rear cockpits.74

Fred Bergeron kept a sharp vigil astern of his Dauntless as Benson fishtailed in for his dive on Soryu. Black bursts of antiaircraft fire were peppering the sky around their plane. Bergeron suddenly felt something strike the back of his head. Oh, my God, they got me!75

He reached back and found a pair of goggles and helmet in his hand. They had ripped loose as his pilot glanced over into their slipstream. Bergeron realized he was not wounded and proceeded to call out the altitude as Benson plunged down on Soryu. Benson released at twenty-five hundred feet and pulled out low on the water. His gunner was uncertain whether their bomb hit home due to flames and smoke obscuring the Japanese flight deck beneath him. Benson effected a rendezvous with other VB-3 planes after clearing the enemy fleet and called for Bergeron to pass up his helmet for the return flight.

Several fighter planes were on Soryu’s flight deck as Lefty Holmberg’s bomb exploded. The SBDs following Holmberg added more direct hits and close near misses. Ensign Roy Isaman, flying in Gordon Sherwood’s second division, felt that no one wavered in his attack, whether he carried a bomb or not. Isaman, diving without a bomb, was “impressed by the unqualified courage exhibited by all.”76

Ensign Phil Cobb was ninth to dive. He saw chunks of flight deck and aircraft thrown into the air as he plummeted below three thousand feet. If I make it back to my own ship, he thought, this is one carrier we won’t have to worry about for the rest of the battle.77

Lieutenant Syd Bottomley was scared to death as he prepared to dive on Soryu. He was leading VB-3’s second section of the second division. At high altitude during his final approach, he was also freezing. He felt cold, compounded by shivers of dread and anticipation, that ran up and down his spine and made his teeth chatter.78

Bottomley saw Holmberg’s bomb explosion flip a Japanese airplane like a matchstick. Bottomley pulled the controls back into his gut as he passed through three thousand feet. Then he closed the dive brakes and jammed on full throttle as he pulled out low on the water. Let’s get the hell out of here! he thought as he banked his SBD toward open water. AMM2c David Johnson shouted into the intercom, “We got her!” Bottomley, unable to resist sneaking a look back at Soryu, saw his target enveloped in flames as bombs exploded among parked aircraft.79

By the time the bombless eleventh Dauntless of Ensign Charlie Lane had pulled out of its dive, the carrier was belching smoke and flames. Lane fired his fixed guns all the way down, sighting through the crosshairs while Jack Henning blazed away in the rear seat with his twin .30s on pullout. Dave Shumway noted the progress of the two VB-3 divisions ahead of his own. The pilots ahead of him each dived from the north along the fore and aft lines of Soryu. Shumway clearly saw Lefty Holmberg’s damaging hit and believed that his squadron landed four more direct hits and three very near misses.80

The second big bomb to strike Soryu landed in the middle of her flight deck. It penetrated deeply into the lower hangar, rupturing steam pipes in her boiler spaces. The third VB-3 bomb to land hit the after section of the flight deck dead center, between the second and third aircraft elevators, and detonated in the upper hangar. It exploded among Type 97 Kate torpedo bombers, destroying them and engulfing the rear of the hangar in fire.81

• • •

Bob Elder could see that Soryu was a wreck. The carrier was burning furiously as his third division of Bombing Three approached. He saw at least three direct hits and decided that his bomb would be better served against one of the carrier’s screening warships. He shifted to the destroyer Isokaze, operating off Soryu’s bow, and Ensign Randy Cooner followed him down. Elder and Cooner managed only near misses on the agile destroyer before pulling free of the carrier group.82

Lieutenant Ozzie Wiseman and Ensign Johnny Butler also switched targets, deciding to take on one of the battleships. Bombing Three’s action report would credit the duo with landing one direct hit on her stern and one near miss, although Japanese records do not bear out a hit. Dave Shumway, diving thirteenth, stayed in line on Soryu, hoping to finish off the carrier. He was later credited with making the fourth direct hit.83

Ensign Bud Merrill was frustrated. Here was his big chance to finally lay a bomb on an enemy flight deck, yet he had no payload to deliver. A graduate of the civilian pilot training program while attending Long Beach Junior College in California, he was one of Bombing Three’s more seasoned pilots. Much of his experience had come while serving as a loaner pilot with Enterprise’s Scouting Six after Saratoga had been torpedoed in January. Merrill had participated in the Wake and Marcus Island strikes. Now, as he brought up the rear of Bombing Three’s attack, he saw Dave Shumway’s bomb explode ahead of him. Merrill longed to claim his own hit as he dived his bombless SBD through the hailstorm of flak toward Soryu, but he could use only his forward guns to create damage.84

As Max Leslie made for the rendezvous point, he proudly noted his target carrier burning furiously. He felt that out of the nine pilots who had dropped their thousand-pound bombs on Soryu, four had scored direct hits, three had exploded close aboard the port beam, and two near-missed to starboard, wrecking the carrier. He had often described the accuracy of dive-bombing to others as “trying to hit a fast-moving Florida cockroach with a marble from eye height. It was clearly evident that the squadron had been remarkably accurate against that cockroach.”85

The Yorktown pilots correctly believed their target had a starboard- side island, thus eliminating Akagi as the carrier they hit. Leslie would forever believe that Bombing Three had struck Kaga, although he had clearly seen a starboard-side island structure. Junior pilot Bob Elder came away with a clear vision of having seen a plane blown over VB-3’s target carrier’s starboard side, ahead of the island.86

Aerial opposition had been low. One Zero attacked the VB-3 SBDs during their dives, and a floatplane made a pass on Roy Isaman as he was low on the water. Isaman’s gunner, Sidney Weaver, had no intentions of being its victim, however. He had been forced into the ocean just four days after the Pearl Harbor attack when his VB-3 Dauntless experienced engine failure. Weaver had been most impressed with skipper Max Leslie as he and his pilot bobbed in their life raft awaiting rescue from a destroyer. Leslie had circled overhead for two and a half hours until he was certain of their recovery.

Weaver trusted Lieutenant Commander Leslie to lead his squadron to safety again this day. The Japanese floatplane bearing in on his tail now was just a minor distraction. Weaver opened up with his Browning machine guns and put enough lead in the air to make the Japanese pilot turn tail. All seventeen of Leslie’s Dauntlesses had escaped during their attacks.

Leslie orbited at the rendezvous for some time, circling around in search of his pilots. Bill Gallagher in the rear seat became nervous about fighters. He called up, “Skipper, maybe we’d better leave here.” At length, only Ensign Oley Hanson managed to join him. The other VB-3 planes had withdrawn to the northeast, merging in three-plane sections before setting course for home.87

Leslie and Hanson banked around. Leslie, ignoring the gunfire from a nearby Japanese destroyer, saw two more carriers burning and exploding about twelve miles to the west. The American dive-bombers had certainly made their mark.

Thirty-nine bombs had been dropped on three carriers in less than five minutes, resulting in at least eleven direct hits and many close near misses. In the two years prior to America’s entry into World War II, the U.S. Navy had put its dive-bombers through rigorous attack exercises to improve the pilots’ skills. Dive-bombing was now considered the primary strike weapon of the carriers, and the Navy’s effort to perfect this doctrine paid big dividends on June 4 at Midway.88

Twenty eight SBDs had made dives on Kaga, landing as many as seven direct hits—a success rate that may have been as high as twenty-five percent. Dick Best’s three dive-bombers all scored either direct hits or damaging near misses on Akagi. Yorktown’s Bombing Three, with only fourteen of seventeen planes still carrying bombs, was equally effective. Four Dauntless pilots attacked other warships, leaving only nine bomb-toting SBDs to attack Soryu. No fewer than one-third of them landed direct hits. The hit ratio on Kaga and Soryu of between twenty-five and thirty-three percent was perfectly consistent with what Enterprise’s Bombing Six had achieved prewar in October 1940. The unit’s peacetime bombing drill had involved dropping water-filled practice bombs on a target sled towed by a destroyer. The fact that the Dauntless squadrons at Midway had achieved equal scores while under Zero attacks and antiaircraft fire was directly attributable to the stable performance of their rugged dive-bombers and the skill of the pilots.89

Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu were mortally damaged. Akagi had suffered 267 fatalities but would remain stubbornly afloat until Japanese destroyers scuttled her with torpedoes early the following morning. Kaga had suffered 811 men killed and was also finished off by two torpedoes from one of her escorting destroyers on the afternoon of June 4. Soryu suffered 711 of 1,103 crewmen lost, and she too was scuttled.90

Only Hiryu, off to the north, had escaped damage from the U.S. Dauntless dive-bombers during Midway’s glorious minutes.

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