The Deadly Flights Home

The Dauntless aviators had wrecked three enemy flattops in a five-minute span, and now, as they raced back to their own carriers, they could only hope that the Japanese aviators had not played equal hell in their absence.

Max Leslie’s Bombing Three had an easier escape than any of the other units that attacked Nagumo’s Kido Butai. Leslie was unaware of any Japanese planes following him as he flew toward Yorktown. Some sources would later claim that another strike from Hiryu followed VB-3 toward home, but postwar analysis would show that Hiryu’s strike did not launch until nearly 1100—a full half hour after Bombing Three pushed over.1

Lefty Holmberg led the procession back toward Yorktown. In his excitement, he began pulling ahead at a fast clip. Lieutenant Syd Bottomley opened up on the radio and snapped at him, “Dammit, slow down!”2

Holmberg had reason to hurry. Fluid was spilling into his cockpit from shrapnel damage he had incurred during his dive. Oil splattered on his goggles and around the cockpit, causing him concern that a broken oil line would soon cause his engine to seize up. He was elated at getting a bomb hit, but felt like a football player who breaks his leg scoring the winning touchdown in a big game. He called back to George LaPlant to assess the damage. LaPlant guessed that it must be hydraulic fluid, as their oil pressure was remaining steady.3

Ensign Bob Elder spotted a Japanese floatplane after completing his dive and momentarily began a pursuit to attack, but his better sense took over with one sobering realization: I don’t know the way home. Elder turned about and chased after his squadron mates, who were retiring to the northeastward. Bud Merrill, flying tail-end Charlie with Dave Shumway’s third division, was unable to locate any Yorktown aviators. He found comfort in a small group of Enterprise SBDs making their return flight. Any port in a storm! he thought.4

Bill Esders and Harry Corl were the only Torpedo Three pilots to survive the slashing Zeros and deadly AA fire from the Hiryu. Corl’s engine was spewing oil badly, and his throttle functioned only at the cruising speed of 2,100 rpm. Mike Brazier in Esders’s rear seat was critically wounded. Corl’s gunner, Lloyd Childers, had also been hit several times by Japanese bullets. In spite of his wounds, Childers had fired twice at Zeros with his .45 Colt pistol after his .30-caliber machine gun froze up. It would be a trying flight home for both TBD pilots as they hoped to haul their wounded radiomen to safety.

Unknown to these four VT-3 survivors, one more of their own was still alive. Ensign Wesley Osmus was spotted bobbing in the ocean that afternoon by the Japanese destroyer Arashi. The destroyer lowered a boat and brought the American swimmer aboard. At first he was treated well, yet his captors felt less gracious when Commander Watanabe Yasumasa brought Arashi within sight of the three blazing, wrecked carriers. He had his prisoner interrogated and managed to extract the composition of Task Forces 16 and 17, including the names of the three U.S. carriers. Yasumasa then ordered the VT-3 pilot’s disposal. Osmus was thrown over Arashi’s stern, but he managed to hang on to a chain railing. A crewman struck him in the neck with a fire ax, and his body plunged into the ocean.5

• • •

Enterprise’s SBDs did not have an easy departure from the Kido Butai. It was a 175-mile return flight the aviators would never forget.

Dusty Kleiss of Scouting Six had escaped one Zero already. He circled wide around the carrier task force after his drop, but found another fighter coming in to make a pass. Gunner Johnny Snowden managed to chase it off. Kleiss cleared the fleet and tried to join a section of newer VS-6 pilots. “They thought I was a Jap, poured on the soup, and pulled away,” he said. Kleiss decided the protection wasn’t worth the waste of gas, so he throttled back to a hundred knots and chugged toward Midway.6

Scouting Six skipper Earl Gallaher was joined by Reid Stone during his retirement from Kaga. One Zero made a halfhearted firing pass on their SBDs but gave up because of how low to the water they were flying. Gallaher then saw heavy black bursts of AA fire ahead, followed by splashes in the water. He realized he was heading directly for a destroyer, and executed a radical ninety-degree turn to port to dodge the hailstorm.7

Wade McClusky was contemplating the most direct route home. As he looked over his navigation, he suddenly heard a stream of tracer bullets chopping the water around his plane. Chocalousek in the rear cockpit alertly opened fire on the Zeros that had closed on them. One of the fighters overshot McClusky’s SBD as it pulled out of a high-speed dive. Another Zero was about a thousand feet above, to the left and astern, about to make another attack run.8

McClusky, a former fighter pilot, knew just what to do. He remained about twenty feet above the water until the Zero was committed to his firing run, then wrapped his Dauntless in a steep turn to port to allow Chocalousek to open fire again. A five-minute chase ensued. First one Zero attacked from the right, then the second from the left. As each Mitsubishi made its approach, McClusky maneuvered his bomber like a fighter plane to put Chocalousek in firing position.9

A burst from one of the Zeros riddled the port side of the Dauntless, and bullets ripped into McClusky. The left side of my cockpit is shattered. My left shoulder feels like it has been hit with a sledgehammer. This must be the end. Surely we are goners.10

McClusky, his wounds throbbing, heard nothing but the noise of his own engine for several seconds. He grabbed the inner phone and yelled to Chocalousek, but heard no answer. The pain in his left shoulder and arm was intense, but he finally managed to turn around. There sat Chocalousek, facing aft with his guns at the ready, and unharmed. “He had shot down one of the Zeros—probably the one that had got the big burst in on us—and the other decided to call it quits,” McClusky remembered. He climbed to a thousand feet and set course for Enterprise. The Zeros had put three large 20mm holes and more than fifty bullets through his fuselage and wings.

Bill Pittman, McClusky’s wingman, escaped the Japanese screen with a 20mm shell through his starboard fuel tank. Gunner Floyd Adkins was still clinging to his broken .30-caliber twin mount. They headed east in retirement, uncertain of which direction their task force lay. Adkins did not help his pilot’s stress by describing their plane’s damage over the intercom. “There’s a hole at the right wing root big enough to put my leg through,” he announced. Fortunately, this tank had been depleted of fuel, and the Dauntless flew stubbornly on. Pittman soon spotted some SBDs ahead. He slipped into position on skipper Gallaher and his wingman, Reid Stone. Ensign Dick Jaccard joined the little formation during their return, followed sometime later by the arrival of Jim Dexter.11

Dexter had dodged the heavy AA fire with violent maneuvers as he cleared the Japanese fleet. Gunner Don Hoff spotted a Zero low on the water crossing behind his aircraft. The fighter began a wide sweeping turn to attack the Dauntless from the rear. Fear gripped young Hoff. He waited until the Zero was just coming out of its turn before he opened up. He felt certain that his .30-calibers struck home. The Zero flipped its wing and dropped out of sight below Dexter’s SBD. Hoff was not concerned whether he had made the kill or not. All that matters is that I scared him away, he thought. That’s all I wanted.12

Dick Best recovered from his dive on Akagi with wingman Fred Weber on his tail. He spotted several TBDs retiring about a mile ahead of him and decided to join them. A pair of Zeros suddenly flashed past the SBDs, apparently intent on hitting the Torpedo Three survivors. Too much unfavorable attention, Best thought. He opted to move out of their way. Jim Murray in his rear seat found another Zero closing in on them from behind. He feared hitting his own vertical stabilizer and rudder, but Murray was able to rake the Zero’s starboard wing with his Browning. To his relief, the fighter fell off out of sight.13

As Ensign Weber straggled behind as much as six hundred yards during the encounter, a Nakajima E8N2 Type 95 floatplane attacked him, making two firing passes. This fighter, operating from one of the Japanese battleships, was less nimble than the dreaded Zeros, and Weber was able to escape. He quickly closed formation on Lieutenant Best’s 6-B-1 and later swore to his skipper back on board ship he would never be caught straggling again.14

Jim Murray saw a Japanese floatplane approaching his Dauntless, closing to within firing range as they retired from the Japanese force. A few bursts from his twin .30s sent the enemy aircraft on its way. I’ll bet he finds a few bullet holes when he returns to his cruiser, thought Murray. As they cleared the area, Best and Weber were joined by Bud Kroeger in 6-B-2, who flashed the “okay” sign to Murray. The trio had survived and claimed three hits on Akagi for the only three planes to attack her. What a bombing feat! Murray thought.15

Departing, Best caught sight of Soryu being smothered by bombs from Max Leslie’s VB-3 unit. “Best bombing I ever saw,” he said. “They were hitting from stem to stern, a mass of smoke and flame.” Best’s section was lucky to escape the wrath of the Japanese CAP, but many of their shipmates were less fortunate.

Lieutenant Dickinson came under heavy fire from a Japanese destroyer during his pullout, but the shells were bursting a thousand yards ahead. He glanced at his airspeed indicator. He realized he was making only ninety-five knots, since he had accidentally dropped his landing gear instead of closing his dive flaps after pullout. Dickinson frantically pulled up and then dived down toward the water to spoil their aim. He also did some grabbing at handles to correct his landing-flaps problem. “Some of our people who were still around told me later it seemed as if I were demonstrating my Douglas dive-bomber,” he said. “Landing flaps were opening; diving flaps were opening; my wheels were up and down; and my activity was like a three-ring circus.”16

By the time Dickinson sorted out all of his controls, another Zero had passed to his right and drew slowly ahead toward another group of SBDs. He moved in behind and triggered about forty rounds from his twin .50s, two armor-piercing bullets for each visible tracer. The fighter fell off on its port wing and spun into the water.17

Dickinson proudly noted three carriers burning fiercely and exploding as he moved away. He witnessed an enormous orange-black explosion on his own target Kaga that he estimated to be twelve hundred feet above the water. Kaga appeared to erupt from her middle in a ball of fire that mushroomed up through the lower clouds as aviation fuel exploded. The fireball, also witnessed by Dusty Kleiss, came just moments after the first Enterprise bomb hits. This was followed by six more powerful blasts.18

Dickinson’s thoughts immediately turned to his dire fuel situation. The only planes he could see ahead of him were streaking away. I can’t afford the gasoline to go wide-open trying to catch up with them. My inboard tanks each register thirty gallons. If we have to go no more than 150 or 175 miles on the return flight, sixty gallons ought to be enough, if I am careful. It might not get me aboard but it will get me back.

After Lieutenant Joe Penland pulled out from diving on Kaga, ARM2c Harold Heard informed him that their dive flaps were still open. Penland cranked his flaps closed, and his airspeed fell off enough to allow a Zero to slide in behind him. He pushed his throttle forward but found three Zeros locked onto his tail. They had blasted his 6-B-7 and punctured its fuel tanks by the time he reached the safety of a cloud formation.19

Penland emerged from the cloud bank spewing gasoline into his slipstream. He was relieved to see a friendly SBD moving to catch up with him. It was John Van Buren, leader of VB-6’s third division, who slid up alongside with his 6-B-13. Van Buren signaled that he would remain with Penland, whose fuel was being rapidly depleted.

He made it only thirty miles away. Penland’s engine coughed and sputtered as his tanks ran dry, and he began his descent toward the ocean. He turned into the wind to ease his landing and noted that Van Buren flashed past him as he was about a hundred feet over the water. Van Buren gave a final wave before disappearing, leaving Penland and Heard to scramble out of their rapidly sinking SBD and into their life raft.

Ensign Mac McCarthy.

U.S. Navy

• • •

Mac McCarthy was on his own. He had become separated from his division leader when Lieutenant Dickinson lost airspeed while trying to retract his landing gear. McCarthy found it was impossible to stay behind him without stalling his own SBD. He gave up efforts to slow down when gunner Earl Howell suddenly called out from the rear cockpit. “Mr. McCarthy, there’s a Zero climbing onto our tail!”20

McCarthy dived for the deck with the Zero well placed on his tail. Howell alertly called out the Zero’s position and urged his pilot to bank to port. There was a chattering burst of Browning .30-caliber machine-gun fire from the rear seat and Howell yelled, “I think I got him.” Howell would later receive credit for two kills plus an assist during VS-6’s return flight. McCarthy caught a fleeting glimpse of the Zero erupting in flames and dropping toward the ocean surface. He felt a brief sense of relief. His first brush with Zeros at Pearl Harbor had not turned out so well. It had cost him his aircraft, the life of his rear gunner, and a broken leg.21

McCarthy sought the company of other SBDs for mutual firepower. He came upon Charlie Ware, who was grouping with Carl Peiffer and Jim Shelton. McCarthy, next in experience and seniority behind Ware, slid into the little group with two other VS-6 pilots, ensigns Frank O’Flaherty and Johnny Lough. Ware had drilled division defensive tactics into his VS-6 pilots, valuable skills he had learned early in the war from Lieutenant Commander Bill Burch while serving under him in VS-5. McCarthy’s trio had just taken station above Ware’s section when more Zeros buzzed in to attack.22

Twelve .30-caliber free gun mounts were able to bear on each fighter that came within range. McCarthy thought the tracer display was very impressive as well as effective. The Zeros made singular attacks, failing to press home their runs in groups. Ware dropped his SBD formation close to the water in order to deny the Zeros the chance to recover under their unprotected bellies. He wisely cut the speed of his group to 115 knots, or about 133 miles per hour, in order to conserve their scant fuel supplies. From an altitude of ten thousand feet, the Japanese fighters could plunge in at speeds exceeding three hundred miles per hour.23

McCarthy realized that few of his companions had enough fuel to survive this flight. We are not all going to make it back to the carrier we came from, he thought. Charlie Ware had chosen to comply with the original directions to retire toward Midway, and he led his little formation away from the blazing carriers. The Zero activity tapered off after about eight miles of action, and Ware’s group was able to begin their return leg toward Enterprise. The six SBDs gradually climbed to twelve hundred feet and adjusted their advance to save fuel. McCarthy experimented a little further with the mixture by selecting a control setting just ahead of “idle cutoff.”24

Mac began carefully sweating out the details necessary for making it home. He had already been airborne more than four hours. If I can just keep my engine from crapping out, I might be able to squeeze out another twenty gallons of fuel. That pocket fuel will be above my division’s average. McCarthy figured he just might get his old war-weary SBD back after all. His calculations were interrupted as he caught sight of Lieutenant Ware’s lead three planes suddenly diving toward the water.25

He followed and quickly spotted the reason for Ware’s action—another group of Japanese aircraft were on their tails and climbing from two thousand feet altitude. The formation was the attack group from Hiryu that was destined to assault Yorktown. From this group, another Zero contingent appeared red-hot to fight, according to McCarthy.26

Ware snugged up his SBDs to again allow the rear gunners to bunch their firepower. McCarthy and his companions resumed defensive tactics, sliding and weaving as tracers laced the sky about them. Within five minutes, Frank O’Flaherty’s Dauntless was exhausted of fuel and he headed for the water. His fuel tanks had been pierced during the earlier Zero battle. To his right, McCarthy watched his wingman ditch, noting that O’Flaherty’s propeller blades bent over the cowl as his SBD hit the ocean. From his rear seat, Earl Howell reported that O’Flaherty and Gaido escaped their Dauntless and scrambled safely into their rubber raft.27

Ensign Frank O'Flaherty.

U.S. Navy

Ware brilliantly led his remaining five SBDs through the long encounter with the Zeros without further loss. In hindsight, Ensign McCarthy felt that Ware did one of the most remarkable jobs of flying under all combat problems known during the first six months of World War II. He had led his squadron mates through multiple Zero attacks while conserving their fuel as best as the situation allowed.28

Once the Zeros departed, McCarthy felt that it was anybody’s best guess as to where the Big E might be. Still, his own calculations went against the course that Lieutenant Ware was determined to fly. Charlie is heading too far north. By my best guess, he’s twenty-five degrees off course. McCarthy simply could not maintain his position in good faith. He throttled up beside Ware’s lead SBD to confer.29

Radio silence was a strict order, so McCarthy gestured his intentions with hand motions. He pointed in the direction that he felt Point Option would be found and held up two fingers to indicate that Ware should turn at least twenty degrees.

Ware only waved his hand straight ahead. We’re going straight.

McCarthy repeated his hand-signal appeal in hopes of convincing his flight leader of the better option. Ware acknowledged his junior pilot’s intentions with a hand-to-the-head break-off signal. The meaning was clear. You’re on your own, Ensign. Good luck. Kiss off.

With that, Charlie Ware continued on his course with Shelton and Lough in tow. McCarthy veered onto his own course and but found that his wingman, Carl Peiffer, had plans of his own. Peiffer decided he had a better intuition on the course, so he broke to starboard on another fifteen- to twenty-degree course differential. Ware’s three planes and Peiffer became mere specks in the distance within fifteen minutes. Young Mac and his gunner were on their own.30

Their eight comrades would never be seen again.

Peiffer, Ware, Lough, and Shelton all took courses that led them only to empty ocean. At some point, they were all forced to ditch and take their chances on the open seas in their life rafts. Neither these four pilots nor their gunners—ARM3c Frederick Jeck, ARM1c Bill Stambaugh, RM3c Lou “Speed” Hansen, and RM3c Dave Craig—had the good fortune to be recovered by friendly search planes in the days that followed.

• • •

Dusty Kleiss and his gunner, John Snowden, proceeded toward home. About forty miles from Midway, Kleiss climbed to pick up the homing signal. He suddenly spotted a Japanese fighter ahead, poking out of the clouds and heading directly toward him. He prepared to open fire, but the Zero changed course into a cloud bank when still one mile out. Dusty changed course to the right, and headed after him. In the cloud formation, however, the opponents lost each other, and Kleiss finally turned back toward Midway.31

Bombing Six was also hounded during its retirement. The last section to attack Kaga had been that of Lieutenant (j.g.) Bill Roberts and Ensign Pete Halsey. They were jumped by Zeros before they could catch another group of retiring SBDs in the distance, and Halsey’s fuel tanks were perforated.32

The pair soon caught up to Ensign Norm Vandivier. He had retired low on the water, but turned in to each attacker to allow rear gunner Lee Keaney a chance to open fire. Roberts, technically the senior pilot of the trio, was content to have himself and Halsey fall in behind Vandivier because of the deep respect he had for Vandivier’s flying ability. Moments later a fourth SBD was spotted coming up from their starboard, and Vandivier turned the group to allow it to catch up.33

It was 6-B-15, piloted by George Goldsmith. His rear gunner, Jim Patterson, saw his best friend in VB-6, Keaney, still seated at his guns in the rear of Vandivier’s SBD. The little group was almost immediately jumped by a group of Japanese fighters. They were flying right down on the water, and the Japanese made many passes on them. From his cockpit, Goldsmith could see the bullets hitting the water ahead of him. Other rounds quickly began finding their mark, however.34

Goldsmith’s Dauntless was already riddled. Fighters had been waiting for his plane as he pulled out of his dive on Kaga. As he joined with Vandivier, Goldsmith’s bomber was ripped by both 7.7mm and 20mm fire. He felt the Zeros had so much speed on his little group that they flew circles around the Americans. “We were pulled into tight formation. They would climb above us, dive, make their firing run, go on past and underneath us,” said Goldsmith. “Then they would pull up in front of us in a sheer zoom.”35

His SBD was shot to pieces. “We just had to sit there and take it,” Goldsmith said. His tail was chewed up, and the elevator trim tab was shot completely away. He wound up flying by holding the stick with both hands to keep the nose down. Another 20mm round punched a fist-size hole through Goldsmith’s right inboard fuel tank, but the self-sealing tank functioned as advertised. In addition, his right wing and after cockpit were holed, and his radio and ZB homing equipment were destroyed.

Goldsmith estimated that the Zeros made about six passes against his group of planes. Another bullet made a direct hit on gunner Jim Patterson’s twin-mount Browning machine gun, striking the bolt mechanism. Patterson opened his safety belt, stood up, and leaned out to fix his mount. At this inopportune moment, another Zero unleashed a torrent of 7.7mm fire toward Goldsmith’s SBD. Patterson was winged in the arm and in his hip by three bullets. He fastened his lap belt again. Although his wounds stung badly, he found that he could at least return fire with only one shot at a time. The last Zero finally pulled up on the port side, very close to his dive-bomber. Patterson felt the Zero was out of ammo, for the pilot just stared at him for a few seconds, and then broke away.36

Two more Bombing Six Dauntlesses—those of Andy Anderson and Ensign Bert Varian—joined Vandivier’s group just as the Zeros hit. On its first firing pass on Anderson’s SBD, one of the Zeros ripped bullets into the rear cockpit, damaging the radio, destroying the interphone, and shredding fabric. Some of the enemy’s ammunition was incendiary type, and Anderson considered himself lucky indeed that none went through his fuel tanks. The explosions sent shrapnel ripping through the flesh of gunner Stuart Mason, who began bleeding severely.37

“My goggles were covered with blood and I couldn’t see, so I had to take them off,” he said. “Then my eyes filled with blood.” He had been hit in the face and legs with shrapnel. Nonetheless, Mason doggedly fought back against his opponents. He burned through a hundred-round can of .30-caliber ammunition and then swiftly loaded the next. Mason finished another ammo can, tossed the empties over the side of his cockpit, and loaded one after another.38

The Zeros took their toll on Anderson’s wingmates in the heated dogfight. Varian’s 6-B-18 had its fuel tanks punctured, as did Pete Halsey’s 6-B-6, which began sputtering as his fuel ran dry shortly before the Zeros departed. Halsey announced over the radio that he was making a forced landing. Anderson and Varian continued on with their crippled SBDs, while Vandivier, Goldsmith, and Roberts circled once to watch the ensign make a perfect, powerless water landing. Halsey and his gunner, RM3c Jay Jenkins, were last seen climbing into their rubber raft.39

Andy Anderson’s Dauntless hung on in spite of the damage it had suffered. Radioman Mason was shooting from ammunition cans seven and eight—a separate can for each .30-caliber gun—by the time their battered dive-bomber escaped the nest of Zeros.40

Mason, bloodied and dazed, now found that his plane was all alone. He realized later that he was in a slight state of shock from serious blood loss. His radio gear was badly shot up, and their plane’s intercom was not functioning. Andy Anderson finally got his attention by giving his control stick a good shake and then passing back a note asking whether Mason could get their ZB direction finder working. His pilot also passed him his dirty windshield rag to use to wipe off his face, a little event Mason later found to be quite amusing. At the time, however, he was more than happy to use the dirty rag to blot some of the heavy bleeding from his face.41

There were other light moments in the deadly scrap. AMM1c Bill Steinman called his pilot, Bill Roberts, on the interphone in the heat of the shooting, saying that he’d been badly hit. Roberts tried to talk to his radioman, but received no reply. He must be dead, he thought. Soon after the Zeros departed, Steinman got back on the intercom, chipper as could be.42

“Say, Mr. Roberts, wouldn’t you like me to take a picture of number fifteen there with all the holes in it?” Steinman asked.

It was like hearing a voice from the grave, Roberts thought. He glanced over to wingman Goldsmith’s 6-B-15, and found it to be amazingly shot up. Roberts advised Steinman to snap away with his camera, which he did.

Steinman’s wound had not been as deadly as Roberts thought. One of the Zero’s bullets had ricocheted through the rear cockpit, finally passing through Steinman’s lower lip. The spent piece of warm lead literally came to rest in his mouth. “The bleeding of his lip and his confusion caused him at first to think he was badly hurt,” Roberts said. “Luckily, he wasn’t at all.” Their plane had taken eight bullets but sustained no heavy damage. Steinman was able to maintain his composure to use their SBD’s Zed Baker to home in on the Big E for the return flight.43

Norm Vandivier continued his retirement in company with Goldsmith and Roberts. They were soon joined by John Van Buren, who had recently lost Joe Penland to a water landing. Van Buren took the lead of the quartet, with Vandivier on his wing and Goldsmith forming up on Roberts. The four VB-6 pilots, free of the deadly Zeros, began climbing slowly in the direction of the Big E.

• • •

Hornet’s luckless fighters and dive-bombers escaped the wrath of the Japanese Zeros but still lost many planes en route home. Pat Mitchell’s ten Wildcats approached Task Force 16 shortly after 1000, but began running out of fuel before they could find a flight deck on which to land. Singly and in groups, all ten Hornet strike group F4Fs were forced to ditch in the ocean by 1045.

The Hornet SBDs had better luck in preserving their planes. They were picked up by Hornet’s radar around 1100, and their carrier quickly cleared her decks of CAP fighters in order to land the fuel-starved Dauntlesses. CHAG Stan Ring was first to land on Hornet, followed by sixteen of Walt Rodee’s Scouting Eight SBDs and Bombing Eight’s Clay Fisher of the CHAG section.

Rodee had relied on his YE-ZB homing equipment for VS-8, which took him right back to the carrier. Ensign Fisher trailed Scouting Eight back to Hornet and was the first from his unit to land. He made his way to the squadron ready room, and was greeted by the stay-behind junior pilots of VB-8. Ensign Frank Christofferson, quite upset, exclaimed, “Fisher, you’re the only one who’s returned from our squadron. None of the fighter or torpedo pilots have gotten back yet.”44

Lieutenant Gus Widhelm made it on board but was sick at the losses his air group had suffered. Commander Ring immediately retired to his cabin, leaving Walt Rodee to report alone to the bridge on what had gone wrong. The only other planes of Hornet’s strike group to appear around 1145 were Lieutenant Abbie Tucker of VB-8 and his two wingmen, Gus Bebas and Don Adams. Four planes from Bombing Eight had returned, but another fourteen dive-bombers were absent. Tucker could offer little explanation of their whereabouts. Fortunately for Captain Pete Mitscher, Hornet soon received word from Midway around 1200 that eleven SBDs had landed safely.45

Troy Guillory faced a sudden crisis around 1030. He was flying the dud VB-8 Dauntless that a senior pilot had refused to fly. The reduction gear in his engine came apart and his propeller flew off with a big bang. Guillory’s SBD, still some 150 miles from Midway, plunged for the waves, where he made a good water landing. He and ARM2c Billy Cotrell scrambled into their life raft without injury and waited out the day. John Lynch, Guillory’s section leader, watched his wingman go in and waited to see that he was safe. Lynch carefully noted the position to help effect a rescue if possible.46

Lieutenant Commander Ruff Johnson had a plan. He made contact with a retiring PBY patrol plane and learned the course to Midway, so he decided to take his thirteen remaining SBDs there to refuel. Their fuel situation was critical. As Bombing Eight approached the atoll, Ensign Tom Wood was the next to go down, his tanks empty. That morning, he had boasted to his squadron mates that he would personally sink the flagship Akagi. I know I’ll have to eat my words, he thought as he put his Dauntless in the drink near Midway. Ensign Jim Riner watched his fellow pilot go down and circled around long enough to see Wood and his gunner, ARM3c George Martz, climb into their rubber raft.47

Johnson realized his planes lacked the proper identification as they approached Midway. Lieutenant Moe Vose recalled that it was an even-numbered day and that the identification procedure was to make left turns and dip their left wing twice. He fully expected the Marine gunners to fire at his bombers even with the proper signal. In order to show that his aircraft were friendly, Johnson ordered his pilots to jettison their bombs off the reef. Vose found this only increased the friendly fire from shore. He realized the bomb explosions gave them the impression that they were Japanese planes trying to blast a channel through the coral reef.48

Midway sounded the air raid alarm at 1115 as the Hornet bombs exploded in the water, and its gunners immediately opened fire. Three VB-8 SBDs were hit before they could be properly identified by the Marines. John Lynch’s Dauntless was struck by shrapnel behind the cockpit. Bullets clattered off the canopy right behind the head of ARM2c Slim Moore in Ensign Doug Carter’s rear seat. “A piece of shrapnel took out our hydraulic gear, something very important,” said Moore. “Doug had the wheels down, so we were able to land.”49

A third Bombing Eight Dauntless was unable to reach the airstrip. Ensign Forrester “Joe” Auman exhausted his gas and was forced to ditch in Midway’s lagoon. PT-28 was dispatched at 1141 to effect the rescue of Auman and his gunner, ARM3c Samuel McLean. Eleven VB-8 planes did manage to land on Midway in order to refuel and head back to Hornet as soon as possible.50

Ensign Ken White was the last of his tail-end VB-8 division to land after three of his comrades had ditched. He went straight in, low on gas, without attempting to dodge any flak. White’s gunner, ARM3c Lee Quillen, talked with a B-17 crew and learned that Torpedo Eight had found the Japanese carriers and pressed home their attacks. Quillen surveyed his surroundings on Midway, and saw hangars and gasoline tanks still burning from the Japanese strike.51

Moe Vose found some of the local command was relieved by the presence of U.S. carrier aircraft only a short while after the Japanese had pounded their installations. John Lynch quickly alerted the air/sea rescue group as to the position where Troy Guillory had gone in. Lynch then ran into two old friends, now Marine aviators. When Lynch asked one of his buddies for a drink of water, he was handed a canteen filled with straight bourbon.52

Ensign Roy Gee watched as ground crews worked to refuel their planes. The Marines used gasoline drums, since their fuel trucks had been disabled by the attack. Hornet’s air group was effectively out of the carrier battle on June 4, badly scattered and half of its number in the ocean.53

• • •

Ensign Mike Micheel of VS-6 was unsure of the way home. He cleared the Japanese task force without being attacked but found no other SBDs waiting at the squadron’s rendezvous spot. Micheel took a guess as to the course back to the Big E and departed. He was low on fuel and all alone, and was “starting to pucker.”54

Minutes later, John Dance called out from the backseat. Two dive-bombers were coming up on their starboard quarter. They zoomed by in front of Micheel’s SBD and he recognized them as Tom Ramsay and Lew Hopkins of VB-6. I’ll tag along with them, he thought. Three together is better than being alone. Ramsay’s group was moving faster than Micheel wanted to go in order to preserve fuel, but he applied just enough throttle to keep them within eyesight in the distance. They look like they know where they’re going.

Lew Hopkins had encountered a Zero that closed on his port beam shortly after he had pulled out of his dive. Rear gunner Ed Anderson did not see the fighter until it started zooming away. Hopkins was jinking and weaving about, and once Anderson swung his guns around to line up on the fighter, it was gone. Hopkins then went to work on his plotting board to figure out just where in the hell he was. He caught up to Ramsay and moments later they were joined by Ensign Gene Greene, also of Bombing Six. Hopkins spent the balance of his flight closely monitoring his low-fuel situation. He, Ramsay, and Green throttled back to a slower speed to maximize their distance toward the task force.55

The Enterprise SBDs still airborne were widely scattered. One of the larger clusters was that of Bombing Six’s Van Buren, Vandivier, Roberts, and Goldsmith. Ten minutes after the Zeros had finally left them, Vandivier signaled that he was heading down, his riddled plane finally out of fuel. Jim Patterson in George Goldsmith’s rear seat felt a great sense of loss as he watched one of his best friends, Lee Keaney, go into the ocean with Vandivier’s 6-B-14. It is a very helpless feeling not to be able to do anything for them, Goldsmith thought as he circled above Vandivier’s crew manning their life raft.56

Five minutes later, Van Buren dropped out of formation. He glided down toward the ocean and made an effective splash landing. Radioman Patterson watched as Van Buren and his gunner, ARM1c Harry Nelson, climbed out of their sinking Dauntless and manned their life raft. Patterson’s pilot did not opt to circle over this second downed crew. We can do nothing to help and gas is critical, thought Goldsmith. He was blindly following Bill Roberts, as his own plane’s radio and antenna post had been shot out of commission. Goldsmith learned through an exchange of hand signals that Roberts’s radio and homing device were also not working.57

The Bombing Six section of Andy Anderson and Bert Varian was also struggling toward home. Varian’s damaged fuel tanks ran dry about fifty miles northeast of the Japanese fleet. He signaled Anderson that he was making a water landing. Anderson saw Varian land but did not have the fuel to loiter and check his condition. Varian and his gunner, ARM3c Charles Young, were seen to climb into their life raft.58

Mac McCarthy was still hoping to make it home. He had opted to leave his VS-6 squadron mates, and climbed to thirty-five hundred feet to turn on his YE-ZB very high-frequency homing beacon. His two outboard fuel tanks were exhausted and he was working on the remnants of his two smaller inboard tanks. McCarthy and Howell discussed their situation and agreed that removing excess weight was most important for conserving fuel. Howell shot his remaining .30-caliber ammunition and tossed the spent cans overboard while his pilot emptied his two forward .50-caliber guns. At this point, it’s been five hours since we launched, and a lot can happen to home base in that time in a carrier duel, thought McCarthy.59

McCarthy then asked Howell to try tuning their YE-ZB in to the Yorktown frequency. Howell announced in minutes that he had Yorktown loud and clear. What a radioman I have on board, McCarthy thought. He then lowered his altitude and made a beeline for Yorktown. Spotting a TBD floating in the water to his left as he approached Task Force 17, he flew over the downed Devastator crew, waggling his wings before heading for the nearest destroyer. About halfway to the tin can, McCarthy’s luck—and his remaining fuel—finally gave out.60

His engine quit with only 150 feet of altitude. McCarthy dropped his plane’s nose, leveled off above the wave tops, and waited for the impact. But his plane was too light for an easy landing. His tanks were dry, all extra weight having been emptied en route home, so McCarthy struggled to put his SBD in the drink. He flared his plane to try to mush softly into the water, but he found that it would not sink down. His engine quit with a final sputter, and his dive-bomber then dropped like a rock. In his excitement, McCarthy allowed one of his wings to drop. As it caught a wave top, his Dauntless cartwheeled—wingtop to wingtip—and plowed into the ocean.

The force of the crash slammed McCarthy into his control panel. Salt water flooding his cockpit brought him back to his senses. His face was spewing blood from deep lacerations and a broken nose. He knew he had only seconds before his Dauntless would bubble under the waves and drag him to the bottom of the Pacific. He heard Howell yelling from the wing, “Mac, you’re hurt!”61

Howell extracted their life raft as water filled the cockpit. McCarthy’s facial injuries would require some work. His broken nose would leave him with two badly blackened eyes, and the gashes in his face would require seventeen stitches. The pair managed to clamber aboard their life raft with both of their parachutes. They jettisoned one parachute, found the oars, and McCarthy tied a scarf around his forehead to keep the blood out of his eyes. They began paddling “Indian fashion” before McCarthy thought to use the Very signal pistol he had salvaged. It fired as designed, and he watched in awe as the beautiful red star shot skyward.62

Commander Arnold True’s destroyer Hammann moved in. His sailors were throwing lines to Howell and McCarthy’s life raft within five minutes. Once McCarthy was stitched and bandaged, he hurried to check on the recovery of the downed TBD crew he had spotted. It was that of Chief Bill Esders and radioman Mike Brazier of Yorktown’s Torpedo Three. Esders had successfully ditched his Devastator around 1305, but young Brazier soon bled to death while in their life raft.

His last two hours of life had been truly heroic. Brazier had been hit at least seven times with 7.7mm ammo and twice with 20mm explosive projectiles. “As if the small-caliber wounds were not enough, the 20mms exploded, blowing away all the flesh on his legs between the knees and ankles,” said Esders. “However, despite his enormous wounds, Mike somehow managed to change the coils in the radio receiver and helped me steer closer to the task force, where we ditched.”63

Esders was nearly killed when a Hiryu plane circled to make a strafing run on his raft. Fortunately, Lieutenant (j.g.) Art Brassfield of VF-3 arrived in time to shoot down the Japanese plane. Guided in by circling SBDs, Hammann hauled aboard Chief Esders and Brazier. McCarthy thought that Brazier was still alive, in a rigid state of shock on the wardroom table. He soon learned, however, that the gallant VT-3 gunner had already expired from his terrible wounds.64

McCarthy and Howell spent the remainder of the day on Hammann, helping to tend to other wounded men who were pulled from the sea. Howell found friends in the CPO quarters, while his pilot took Commander True’s invitation to rest in the skipper’s cabin. They both found comfort in their sleep but would be troubled later to learn of their good fortune. Of the six SBDs that had retired together from the carrier strike, they were the only VS-6 crew to survive. Ware, Shelton, O’Flaherty, Peiffer, and Lough had all been lost with their gunners.65

• • •

The Enterprise SBDs dropped into the Pacific at an alarming rate between the Japanese task force and their own fleet. Some very nearly made it home.

Radioman Ed Anderson of Bombing Six knew it would be close. His pilot, Lew Hopkins, was wisely conserving their precious fuel as they kept company with VB-6 squadron mates Gene Greene and Tom Ramsay. During the return, Anderson hand-signaled back and forth with RM3c Sammy Muntean, a young man of Portuguese ancestry who had attained flight status back in April at the same time. From Greene’s rear seat, Muntean kept Anderson apprised of their fuel status.

Muntean signaled to Anderson that they were making an ocean landing near the task force. Their fuel was gone. Anderson watched Ensign Greene peel off and head for the water. He followed him all the way down and saw their blue-gray SBD make a splash landing. Both men were seen to climb into their yellow rubber life raft. “There wasn’t anything we could do but continue on,” Anderson said. “They were never recovered. That’s just the way it was.”

Hopkins climbed to higher altitude to help determine whether he was on the proper heading. Anderson worked intently in the rear seat with his head down, tuning the little ZB black box. After much careful tuning, he finally announced that he had the proper heading.

Ensign Ramsay made it even closer to Enterprise. He and Hopkins had just spotted their own fleet about twenty miles away when Ramsay’s rear gunner, AMM2c Sherman Duncan, signaled his buddy Ed Anderson that they were out of gas at that moment. Ramsay’s engine gasped and died. He made a forced landing some fifteen miles short of home base. Hopkins and Anderson watched both Ramsay and Duncan climb safely into their life raft. Their own fuel situation was so dire, however, that they could do nothing but press on.

Dick Dickinson of Scouting Six also nearly made it back to Enterprise. His starboard tank ran dry when the gauge still read seventeen gallons. I felt as if the devil had just stolen seventeen gallons from me, Dickinson thought. He switched to his port tank and warned DeLuca to prepare for a water landing. Minutes later, he was surprised to see Norm West coming up on his tail rapidly. West took formation on his XO and the pair soon sighted their own fleet, fifty miles away.66

Twenty miles short of the task force, Dickinson’s engine began to miss as the last of its fuel was consumed. He called for a ship to pick him up, but there was no acknowledgment. On his second call, he received a reply as West kept close watch on him. Dick’s fuel gauge was stuck on zero, so he nursed his sputtering Dauntless toward a destroyer that was tailing the fleet. He and DeLuca braced themselves for the crash. Their SBD went into the drink at eighty miles per hour, the force of the impact throwing Dickinson’s cheek into the bombsight. DeLuca was facing forward for the landing, and the brunt tore the frame holding his twin machine guns. The aviators climbed out onto either wing and tried to haul out their rubber boat. Dickinson saw the destroyer coming and shouted to DeLuca to jump clear to avoid being pulled down by the Dauntless’s tail section. Their plane sank nose-first in less than forty-five seconds.67

“I’m glad we’re back,” the gunner said. “Just enough gasoline.”

“Gasoline! DeLuca, I prayed that plane back the last twenty miles.”

The destroyer Phelps approached and cut her engines. Dickinson told DeLuca not to inflate the raft but to swim to the destroyer now stopped in the water. Two life rings landed near the aviators and they were hauled to the side to crawl up a cargo net. “This was just like getting home,” said Dickinson. “She was my old ship. I had lived in her for much of the two years and four months before I went to Pensacola to learn how to fly.”68

Phelps’s doctor bandaged a cut below Dickinson’s black eye and tended to his cut lip. The tin can sent a message to Enterprise that the two Scouting Six aviators had been picked up. Her transmission that Dickinson had a “slightly scarred face” was received as “scared face.” He thought, Even so, that was close to the truth.69

Of the thirty-three Enterprise SBDs launched against the Japanese carriers, sixteen planes failed to return. Tony Schneider of VB-6 had been the first to go into the drink prior to the attacks on Kaga and Akagi. Seven others from his squadron—Halsey, Penland, Greene, Ramsay, Van Buren, Vandivier, and Varian—had also gone down. From Scouting Six, another eight crews—those of Dickinson, J. Q. Roberts, McCarthy, Peiffer, Lough, Ware, O’Flaherty, and Shelton—never arrived back. More SBDs might have returned except for a discrepancy in the position of Point Option. Enterprise was sixty miles from the briefed coordinates, and even with the aid of the new ZB homing beacon, some pilots did not have enough fuel to make it.

• • •

All seventeen of Max Leslie’s VB-3 pilots found their way home. Around 1130, they had reached the vicinity of Task Force 17 and were hoping to land. Yorktown instead signaled the SBDs to circle while she first brought on board her fuel-starved fighter planes.

Yorktown’s bombers had more fuel because they had been launched about an hour and a half after those of Enterprise. Lieutenant Commander Leslie’s dive-bombers orbited above TF-17 as their carrier cleared her deck. Ten Dauntlesses of Scouting Five were being prepared to scout in pairs to the north and northwest for the enemy carriers. Admiral Fletcher, still lacking knowledge of the morning strike’s results, was eager to find the remaining flattops. He had Yorktown turn into the wind at 1133 to begin launching the scouts.70

Scouting Five’s searchers were sent in pairs: Ensign Ben Preston and Lieutenant Johnny Neilsen, Lieutenant Sam Adams and Lieutenant (j.g.) Rockey Dickson, Lieutenant (j.g.) Bill Christie and Lieutenant (j.g.) Hank McDowell, Lieutenant (j.g.) Dave Berry and Lieutenant (j.g.) Duke Berger, and Lieutenant (j.g.) Carl Horenburger with Lieutenant Wally Short. Each plane, armed with a thousand-pound bomb, was sent to search two hundred miles from the ship in sectors ranging from 280 degrees to 020 degrees. Seven armed SBDs of VS-5 remained on the hangar deck for further use as Yorktown began landing the returning morning strike. John Bridgers was among those of the reserve strike group. He and his fellow pilots had taxied their planes onto the elevators, parked them on the hangar deck, and then retired to the ready room to wait.71

Leslie’s VB-3 strikers continued to circle above as Yorktown sent out her searchers and then launched and recovered Wildcats from her combat air patrols. Finally, at 1150, her flight deck was opened for business for the Dauntless crews. The first two SBDs to approach the landing circle were not from Yorktown but were instead two VB-6 pilots who had happened upon their sister ship while searching for Enterprise.

They were Bill Roberts and George Goldsmith. Both were desperately low on fuel. Their return flight had been tense. Jim Patterson had been unable to call the ship or even talk to other planes due to his shot-up radio gear.72

Roberts flew past Yorktown’s starboard side with his hook down and blipped his throttle to request a forced landing. Yet Goldsmith landed first, running out of gas in the arresting gear. Gunner Jim Patterson looked in his pilot’s cockpit after landing and noticed a chunk of metal missing out of the center of his right rudder pedal—obviously knocked away by a direct hit. “I think I was sitting on my feet while they were shooting at us,” the uninjured Goldsmith said to Patterson.73

Roberts made it on deck with only four gallons of fuel remaining. It was his hundred and eightieth carrier landing, and his would be the last SBD to ever land on the Yorktown flight deck. Roberts proceeded to the bridge to make a report to the air command while Goldsmith headed below, helping Patterson to sick bay to have the minor bullet wounds to his arm and rear end tended to. Scouting Five’s Tex Conatser noted that rear seat man Bill Steinman had been injured by a bullet. “His lip was bleeding, but he said it didn’t hurt much,” Conatser said.74

Goldsmith stuck around sick bay long enough to make sure that his squadron’s two wounded enlisted men were given proper attention. Before the ensign departed, Roberts’s gunner, Steinman, handed the officer the spent slug that had come to rest in his mouth. Goldsmith would carry the souvenir from their brush with Japanese Zeros for many years.75

Next into the landing pattern on Yorktown behind Roberts and Goldsmith were four of Jimmy Thach’s VF-3 fighters. Skipper Thach landed first and raced up to flag plot to offer Admiral Fletcher his first assessment of the success of the morning carrier strike. Thach stated that three carriers were burning furiously and were out of commission, while a fourth’s condition and location were unknown to him.76

Two more of Thach’s Wildcats landed in the meantime. The fourth, piloted by machinist Tom F. Cheek, came in with its tail high, missed the cables, and flipped over on its back. Deck crews struggled to hoist the inverted fighter onto dollies and cart it below to the hangar deck. Flight operations were temporarily put on hold and Max Leslie’s SBDs were told to continue circling.

• • •

Several miles away, the deck crews of Enterprise were also busy pulling in fuel-starved morning strike planes. Lieutenant Dick Best of Bombing Six was among the first. His section of Enterprise strikers arrived in his carrier’s landing pattern around 1145. Best was followed down by his wingmen Bud Kroeger and Fred Weber. Best taxied his 6-B-1 forward and his plane was lowered by the number one elevator. On the hangar deck, the lieutenant ordered Jim Murray to stay with their plane while he headed straight for the bridge to report to Admiral Spruance.77

Meanwhile, Murray exchanged his used .30-caliber ammunition cans for new ones. Maintenance crew swarmed over his Dauntless, refueling and arming it with another thousand-pound bomb. Murray was swamped by ship and air group personnel who wanted to know the results of their attack on the carriers. Their excitement dampened as he related how the Big E’s torpedo planes were decimated by the Zeros. He told them it would be lucky if any returned.78

Best was intercepted by Miles Browning upon reaching the flag bridge. He told the staff officer that three Japanese carriers were aflame, while a fourth remained untouched. Best informed Browning that he desired to be immediately refueled and sent back out to attack. Air group commander Wade McClusky appeared before the conversation was complete, ready to give his own report.79

McClusky had found no carrier at Point Option during his return. Climbing to four thousand feet to use his ZB homing device, he had broken radio silence to call Task Force 16’s communications officer, Lieutenant Commander Leonard “Ham” Dow. “Ham, have you changed Point Option?” he asked. Dow’s reply was only, “Wait.” Moments later, he offered McClusky a new Point Option that was sixty miles from the previous location.80

McClusky homed in at five thousand feet and dropped into the landing circle of the first carrier he saw. He was in his downwind leg when he realized it was Yorktown. He wanted to report to the admiral, so he pulled up and headed for Enterprise. His fuel gauge was flicking dangerously around the five-gallon mark as he bore in on the Big E some five miles away. Another SBD was in the landing circle and he was given a wave-off. McClusky thumbed his nose good-naturedly at the LSO and came on in anyhow. His battered SBD made it on board with three gallons of fuel remaining at 1150. He had been in the air almost five hours.81

McClusky was rushing to the bridge ladder to report to Admiral Spruance when Enterprise’s XO, Commander Tom Jeter, noticed McClusky’s bloody flight suit and cut the CEAG short: “My God, Mac, you’ve been shot!” McClusky was rushed to sick bay to treat five shrapnel splinters in his left arm and shoulder. His part in the Battle of Midway was over.82

Next to land around noon was Earl Gallaher and his scout group of Reid Stone, Bill Pittman, Dick Jaccard, and Jim Dexter. They were followed by squadron mates Dusty Kleiss, Norm West, and Mike Micheel. “Each of us had fewer than ten gallons remaining of the original three hundred and ten,” said Kleiss. Three ordnancemen rushed under his Dauntless before he could climb out. They held up the three arming wires that proved that Kleiss’s bombs were armed to detonate when they were released over Kaga. “They immediately made those wires into the shape of an aircraft, and with a sharp end, bent them so that they could be easily attached to a uniform like a medal,” Kleiss said. “They gave one to each person who had put bombs, gasoline, or other services on my airplane. Of course, John Snowden and I also got one.”83

Ensign Micheel’s eighteenth carrier landing was a good one. En route home, he had seen the Bombing Six planes of Joe Penland and Tom Ramsay go into the drink and witnessed their crews climbing into life rafts. Micheel told John Dance to meet him in the ready room while he headed for the bridge to report their position from his plotting board. Before going below, Dance noted that their SBD had but four gallons of fuel remaining.84

The last Enterprise SBDs from her morning strike group to land made it into the groove around 1210. They were Lew Hopkins and Andy Anderson of Bombing Six. Anderson was unable to land on Yorktown, and doubted he had the fuel to reach his own flight deck. Hopkins was the only pilot of his division to touch down on the Big E. Radioman Ed Anderson attributed their safe return to Hopkins’s wise fuel consumption. “We got back with just a cupful of fuel,” he said. Only five planes from VB-6 had returned.85

Ed Anderson was distraught over his squadron’s losses. Sammy Muntean, Sherman Duncan, Harold Heard, Jay Jenkins, Glenn Holden, Harry Nelson, Lee Keaney, and Charles Young did not come back. Some he had witnessed in their life rafts. Others he had heard over the radio as they went into the Pacific. He knew that Bill Steinman and Jim Patterson had been in planes that survived the Zero attacks, but neither of their SBDs had returned to Enterprise. Many of Scouting Six’s enlisted men were gone, too, including Anderson’s good buddy Dave Craig. “I only hope that the majority of the men will be picked up by the patrol planes from Midway,” he wrote in his diary.86

Radioman Stuart Mason was in great pain and slight shock. Shrapnel wounds had ripped open his legs and face, yet he had remained calm enough to get their ZB equipment functioning during their return flight. His pilot, Andy Anderson, made his approach, and then proceeded to make a recognition turn to indicate his plane’s friendly status. To his chagrin, the carrier’s nervous gunners opened fire, forcing him to turn away and make another recognition run.87

Anderson was given a wave-off by the LSO on his second approach. He made a tight 360-degree turn, and then flew past the carrier’s island structure, giving the command staff the emergency landing signal—indicated by choppy increases and decreases of his throttle. This time, Enterprise turned right into the wind and accepted his battered Dauntless. He was the last of the Enterprise air group to land. Anderson considered himself to be “a very lucky young man.”88

His rear cockpit and tail section were bloodstained, Mason’s flight gear soaked. Their aircraft was a shambles, with machine-gun and 20mm holes all over and no fabric left on the elevators. A pharmacist’s mate helped Mason from his SBD and took him to a dressing station. Surgeons pulled shrapnel from his face and legs and grounded him from further action. It was of little consequence to him, as his Dauntless was deemed a wreck.89

Seaman First Class Eugene Braun, an untested VB-6 gunner not assigned to the morning strike, was shocked by the appearance of his buddy Mason, who returned with blood covering his face. “He said, ‘By God, I get a Purple Heart for this!’” recalled Braun.90

The cost was staggering for the Enterprise SBD airmen on June 4. Of the sixty-four Dauntless aviators who had reached the Japanese fleet, exactly half of them had been shot down or were forced to ditch their bombers. Five of those who had survived their water landings were injured to varying degrees. Of the thirty-two men who made it back to Enterprise or Yorktown, four had been wounded by bullets or shrapnel. The Enterprise staff was at the moment unaware that Roberts and Goldsmith of Bombing Six had managed to land on Yorktown.

The surviving Devastators of Torpedo Six were last to reach the landing pattern of Enterprise from her carrier strike force. Ten TBDs had been shot down or forced to ditch, but four VT-6 pilots landed on Enterprise shortly after 1215: Lieutenant (j.g.) Bob Laub, Ensign Irvin McPherson, Ensign Ed Heck, and Machinist Stephen Smith.

McPherson and Heck had to fight their way through friendly fire from jittery task force gunners as they closed in on their carrier. Their TBD took a few slugs through the wings but was otherwise undamaged. Smith’s TBF, sporting a “Scat Cat” logo he had painted on it, was also fired on by a task force destroyer. As he approached Enterprise, he was challenged with a signal light. Smith responded by making a tight right turn, the prearranged signal to indicate that he was a friendly plane, to which he received the okay to land.

As Smith entered the landing pattern about ten minutes ahead of his surviving comrades, a Wildcat pilot from his own carrier’s VF-6 attacked his plane. The F4F came in with all guns blazing, but had started firing too soon; all the slugs fortunately passed astern. “But it sure didn’t help my morale!” said Smith. When he landed, his TBD was so badly shot up that the deck crews considered tossing it overboard. Jim Murray recalled that Smith climbed out of his crippled Devastator “with fire in his eyes and a .45 on his hip.”91

Smith was “old Navy.” He had joined as an enlisted man and started his pilot training in 1927. Constant service had prevented him from seeing his wife and three kids for fourteen months. Now most of his squadron mates had been lost, he had made the return flight in a tattered plane with most of its instruments destroyed, and his own forces had nearly taken him down twice. He removed a handful of spent slugs from the seat of Scat Cat, which sported sixty-eight bullet holes.92

Smith reported to the bridge to alert the command staff on Torpedo Six’s attack, then stormed down to the fighter squadron ready room, fit to be tied. He confronted VF-6 skipper Jim Gray in an exchange that became so tense he had to be restrained by other pilots and squadron mates who had followed him. Smith told the fighter pilots exactly what he and the rest of the torpedo squadron thought of them, and invited any one of them outside. “Nobody said a word, so I left,” he said. Gunner Ron Graetz of Torpedo Six learned that Smitty had pulled out his .45 and laid it up on the podium in Fighting Six’s ready room. He then announced, “One of you sons of bitches made a firing run on me, and if I ever find out who he is, I’m going to shoot the son of a bitch!”93

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