Nothing could have prepared the Dauntless aviators for the shock of December 7. Yet each pilot had already proven that he possessed “the stuff” needed to be a naval aviator. Some had considerable flight hours under their belts, whereas others had but recently been pinned with their coveted gold wings. But each man had survived his grueling flight school elimination training to make it into carrier aviation. Now all of their skills would be tested in the weeks to come as America entered World War II.
Twenty-four-year-old Lieutenant (j.g.) Jack Kleiss had held a desire to fly since age fifteen, when he was a cavalryman in the Kansas National Guard. During a mock battle in 1934, Army Air Corps biplanes swooped down on the guardsmen. Young Kleiss, caught staring in awe at one of the incoming planes, was quickly declared “dead” by one of the battle’s referees.1
He decided right then and there that he would never be caught so helpless again; he would become a pilot. Kleiss mustered out of the Kansas National Guard, and was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.
Many of his classmates, such as Ralph Weymouth, had turned to the military to escape the Depression. Weymouth was the oldest of three brothers forced to become more independent when their mother had to get a job to help support the family. Weymouth passed the entrance exam in 1934 and joined Kleiss for four years of military schooling.
Kleiss and Weymouth graduated Annapolis in 1938 and commenced two required years of surface duty, joining the ranks of the “black shoe” Navy. Surface officers wore traditional double-breasted blue uniforms with gold stripes and black leather shoes. In contrast were the “brown shoe” officers—naval aviators—whose attire was markedly different. Their uniforms were forest green with black stripes while grounded, their shoes brown leather. Brown-shoe aviators donned fleece-lined leather jackets while aloft to protect them from the bitter cold faced in their open-air cockpits.
The role of aircraft carriers in the old battleship Navy was just coming to the forefront, and Kleiss and Weymouth both developed a strong desire to become a brown shoe. Weymouth, who had been interested in flying since he first hitched a ride in an Army aircraft as a youngster, served as a catapult officer in 1939, launching SOC biplanes from his cruiser. Some of the pilots appreciated his key position enough to have him ride rear seat in their floatplanes as they were fired into the sky. “I was bitten by the bug,” Weymouth said.
Jack Kleiss’s first assignment out of the academy was as a junior gunnery officer on board the heavy cruiser Vincennes (CA-44). While his ship was stationed at Long Beach, California, he ran into a friend from his hometown of Coffeyville. His buddy described Kleiss to a young woman he knew, telling her about a lonely sailor who needed some attention.
Jean Mochon, a tall, striking brunette who worked in Los Angeles as a stenotypist, agreed to go on a date with the young officer, who was immediately taken by her beauty and warm personality. “The first time I saw her, I said, ‘She’s the one for me,’” he remembered.
As a new ensign, Kleiss pulled in only $125 per month, barely enough to cover his room, board, uniforms, and other expenses. For only ten dollars he purchased a used car that he managed to tinker into working condition. Deciding to impress Jean by taking her on a drive up to Los Angeles, he was flustered when his left rear tire blew out, forcing him to struggle with changing the flat in the midst of busy L.A. traffic. He figured he had lost her interest.
Fortunately for Jack, Jean was equally smitten with him. He forged an immediate connection with her French-Canadian family and was encouraged that Jean’s father took a liking to him. Jack had studied French at the Naval Academy, and even subscribed to a Quebec newspaper so he could practice reading. The Mochon family was impressed that he knew a little of their language.
Jack’s developing relationship with Jean was soon tested. Vincennes was moved from her home port in Long Beach to the other side of the country in Norfolk, Virginia. The couple began writing to each other every week or two, a correspondence that would continue during the next two years as Kleiss served on his cruiser and two subsequent destroyer assignments. One day, his skipper on the destroyer Yarnall (DD-143) noticed Kleiss eyeing a photo of Jean. “Boy, she’s pretty,” he said. “Marry her before she gets away!”
That very thought had entered Jack’s mind. But the Navy restricted academy graduates from marrying for two years after Annapolis. Complicating matters was that Jean’s devotion to Jack had become equally strong. “I can’t help but feel a little on the low side,” she wrote to him after his departure. “For the first time in my life I’m sure of my feelings and then something like this has to happen.”2
After two frustrating years in the surface Navy, Jack Kleiss’s aviation dreams finally became reality when he commenced flight school in Miami in May 1940. Training began with three months of primary instruction in land-based aircraft. While at NAS Miami, Kleiss would pass through three separate squadrons, advancing from basic to advanced levels. His early training was in a three-hundred-horsepower-engined acrobatic biplane, the N3N “Yellow Peril,” named not only for its bright shade of yellow paint but also for the high number of new aviation cadets (AvCads) who washed out of the program.
During the eleven-month training regimen, nearly forty percent of the cadets were killed in accidents or dropped out for physical or flight inabilities. Sunday memorial services were not uncommon. In order to progress to the second squadron, the AvCads were given tests or “checks” at twenty, forty, and sixty hours of flight time by instructors known as “check pilots,” often recent AvCads who had drawn the less desirable instructor duties versus fleet squadron duty. They were hard to please.
For a “down” check, a cadet was assigned additional study time before being given a second chance to pass the flight test. If he failed, he washed out of the program. Jack received an “up” from his instructor and progressed to the second squadron for intermediate training. Along the way, AvCads advanced to flying the six-hundred-horsepower North American SNJ Texan single-wing trainer.
Jack learned instrument flying, aerial gunnery, dive-bombing techniques, fighter tactics, and formation flying during the more advanced third squadron training. He knew that he would leave the Florida flight training program in only one of three ways: with the coveted gold aviator wings on his uniform; washed out and disgraced because he did not possess “the stuff” to advance; or in a pine box shipped home to his family.
After eleven months of intense training, Kleiss was pinned with his naval aviator’s gold wings in the spring of 1941 and ordered to California to join Scouting Six for service on the carrier Enterprise. While his ship was in San Diego, he had time to continue his courtship of Jean Mochon. On occasion, they would visit the home of Kleiss’s shipboard roommate, Perry Teaff.
Unlike academy graduate Kleiss, Teaff was a reservist, and not bound by the two-year marriage rules. Teaff’s wife, Maggie, kept their home in San Diego, where their family was already blossoming. When Jean and Jack visited for dinner parties, they found that Perry and Maggie Teaff were super pranksters. They enjoyed amusing their guests by asking them to check out their new shower. Upon pulling back the shower curtains in the bathtub, Jack was startled to see a baby alligator crawling about. “They kept it like a pet,” he said. “It never bothered anyone.”
When Enterprise and Scouting Six put to sea, Jack and Perry spent many hours talking about their significant others back in San Diego. In their stateroom, Jack took the top bunk. It was only three feet below the hangar deck. Planes rolled over his head both day and night, but he slept soundly. Kleiss noticed in the logbook that one of the duty petty officers once scribbled about him, “Hard to awaken.”
Jack and Jean exchanged letters frequently when Enterprise was away from port. Jack shared his pleasant but grueling life as a pilot of Scouting Six. In one letter during the summer of 1941, he wrote that they flew so frequently “we’ve been considering putting coffeepots in the planes and bunks in the ready room.”3
Kleiss found that squadron exec Earl Gallaher was a taskmaster. Skipper Hal Hopping gave Gallaher free rein to work their men into an efficient fighting unit. Instead of liberty, the XO doled out extra time on gunnery practices, night flying, and every maneuver possible. Kleiss felt that Gallaher kept Scouting Six busier than any other squadron in the Navy.4
During qualifying training off Hawaii in June 1941, Kleiss earned a new nickname. He had been assigned to pull a gunnery tow sleeve off Barbers Point. In order to have his rear gunner John Snowden pack the target sleeve, Kleiss decided to land at nearby Ewa Field. Although the tower did not respond to his transmission, Kleiss took its displayed green landing light as an invitation to land. As his SBD approached the runway, he spotted Marine fighter planes lining up behind him for their own landing.5
Kleiss touched down and taxied off into a hard-packed red clay dirt field. As he tried to make room for the fighters, his prop blast sent up a huge cloud of red dust. The ensuing mushroom cloud covered the landing strip and rose a mile into the air, preventing the Marines from landing. Kleiss had Snowden quickly haul in their tow sleeve as the Ewa Field tower operator bellowed, “Unknown dust cloud, who the hell are you?”
Kleiss quickly returned to the paved runway and cleared the landing strip as Marine pilots swore at him over their radios. His air base “dusting” incident would not be quickly forgotten. Once back on board Enterprise, fellow pilot Cleo Dobson—who had seen everything from his SBD—greeted him with, “Hello, Dusty.” And so, “Dusty” he became. The nickname would stick with him for life among his fellow aviators.
• • •
The Enterprise air group was filled with pilots who had long dreamed of becoming naval aviators. Ensign Tony Schneider of Bombing Six knew what was at stake. He had lost close friends in the Pearl Harbor attack.
Each first-time assignment in his relatively young career as a pilot had been a genuine rush. Tony had first become interested in flying as a teenager, although the opportunity to actually fly had never presented itself. He applied with his local congressman for an appointment to West Point and received an alternate appointment, but the principal appointee passed all his tests and was selected to attend. During his pursuit of a mathematics degree at Westminster College in Missouri, Tony first learned of the naval aviation program from his roommate and fraternity brother William Ross. After three years of college, Tony looked into the possibilities of joining the program. “I was advised by the Navy people to go back and finish college and that was a wise decision,” he said.6
After graduating from Westminster in 1939, Tony entered the Navy’s program while his friend William joined the Army Air Corps’ program. They would remain close friends, however, as Tony had been introduced to William’s beautiful sister Jean Ross. Tony’s relationship with Jean would progress, and in time he and William would become brothersin-law.
Thanks to the Naval Aviation Reserve Act of 1939, cadet aviators received both their gold wings insignia and commissions upon completion of flight training. Candidates had to be between the ages of nineteen and twenty-five and have an associate’s degree or at least two years of college under their belts. Tony’s training entailed three hundred flight hours and 465 hours of ground school in an eight-month period.
But to even have a chance at earning gold wings, aviation cadets like Tony Schneider had to get past “E-base”—elimination base training. His E-base took place in November 1939 at the U.S. Naval Reserve Aviation Base at Lambert Field in Robertson, Missouri. As a prospective aviation cadet, Tony was enlisted in the Navy Reserves as a seaman, second class petty officer. His dreams of flying would begin or end in the yellow, open-cockpit Stearman N3N biplane the pilots called the Yellow Peril. “The objective was to recruit promising young men to become naval aviators, give them ten hours of flight time leading up to a solo in a Yellow Peril,” he said. At that point, the instructors decided whether each young man had “the stuff” to progress into full-fledged flight training.
Tony’s initial flight with a regular Navy instructor was “thrilling” in that it was his first time to ever leave the ground. He progressed through his first nine hours of flight time, and on his tenth flight, he was able to solo successfully. One-third of his comrades had not been as fortunate.
After a short leave period back home, Schneider reported to Florida in March 1940 for the next step in his quest for gold wings at NAS Pensacola. In addition to the Stearman Yellow Perils, Tony now began flying other naval trainers, including the single-wing North American AT-6 Texan trainer plane. The students were cautioned repeatedly and strenuously about the dangers of flying a low-wing monoplane, as opposed to the biplanes they had started in. “So we were on our toes,” Tony said. “Every time I moved to a bigger and better airplane, it was a big thrill.”
The 150 future pilots progressed through different stages of flight training at Corry and Saufley fields around Pensacola. Those who passed from Squadron One training moved to Squadron Two at Chevalier Field, NAS Pensacola’s main field. There, Tony and his fellow students learned formation flying and instrument-controlled flying, both of which demanded coolness, sound judgment, and keen decision making by the pilots at all times.
Tony Schneider’s next big thrill came in December 1940, when he completed his flight training and was finally pinned with his golden aviator’s wings. Along with his new commission as an ensign in the U.S. Navy came a nice increase of pay (including a fifty percent flight pay bonus above the base pay rate), tripling the seventy-five dollars a month he had been making—and far above the thirty-six dollars a month he had been paid at E-base. He was assigned to Bombing Squadron Six at NAS North Island in San Diego, where he mastered the two-seat, single-engine Northrup BT-1 monoplane dive-bomber. It often leaked oil so badly that Tony flew with a rag to wipe the sludge off his windscreen. Bombing Six’s transition to the Dauntless SBD was a godsend.
• • •
The Dauntless proved hardy and maneuverable. “It was an easy airplane to fly and it was tailor-made for the job to which it was assigned,” said Tony. Lieutenant Dick Best, second in command of Tony’s Bombing Six, would later describe the SBD as being “rock steady in a vertical dive, completely responsive to the controls, and ready to absorb punishment and still get you home.”
Lieutenant Earl Gallaher, second in command of Scouting Six, believed the stout construction of the Dauntless kept his pilots and gunners alive. “Each time one of our Douglas Dauntless dive-bombers returned to the ship after having been damaged by gunfire, there was always someone who marveled at how rugged this plane was,” Gallaher said. “It was always a comforting feeling to know how much they could take and still get us home.”7
Another of the first pilots to fly the SBD was Lieutenant Commander Max Leslie, who was serving as skipper of Saratoga’s Bombing Three at the start of the war. “The Douglas Dauntless dive-bomber, in my opinion, possessed the most perfect combination of ruggedness, stability, ease of maintenance, combination of performance, speed, and endurance of any aircraft before or since,” Leslie said. “Many other dive-bombers had been used by the Navy, but none was a close second to the Dauntless.”8
Lieutenant Stanley “Swede” Vejtasa of Yorktown’s Scouting Five was among the pilots who were immediately impressed with the Dauntless. “From the start it proved to be one awfully fine aircraft because it responded well,” he said. The SBD’s split flaps enabled the pilots to exercise a fair amount of control in their normal seventy-degree dives during attacks. “This plane was designed in all respects about as perfect as a dive-bomber could be,” Vejtasa added. Swede Vejtasa would put his Dauntless through radical maneuvers while using it to engage Japanese fighter planes during the first carrier battle in the Coral Sea in May 1942. “Every time I had an opportunity with a different plane, I didn’t give a damn what it was, I used that plane to dogfight something,” he said. Vejtasa’s aggressive nature was well suited for flying the SBD, for his plane withstood every maneuver he put it through. He accounted for at least one Japanese kill while flying an SBD at Coral Sea, and, as a fighter pilot during the Guadalcanal campaign, Vejtasa would score at least seven more confirmed aerial kills.
The Dauntless weighed more than four and a half tons when it was fully loaded for combat. It was capable of carrying a lethal thousand-pound bomb for attacking capital warships, or smaller loads for attacking land-based targets or enemy submarines at sea with depth bombs. The SBD was also more automated than the obsolete Curtiss SBC-4 biplanes that Tony and other aviation cadets flew at times. “The flaps took about sixty turns with a big crank to move them up and down,” said Ralph Weymouth of the SBC-4. “I think it was a hundred and twenty turns to get the wheels up and down.” In comparison, the Dauntless had a two-man tandem cockpit with dual flight controls and hydraulically actuated perforated split dive-brakes (or “flaps”).9
The young pilots had proven they had “the stuff” to make it into carrier aviation. Now they had the dive-bomber of choice to carry out their mission.
• • •
Tony Schneider’s big dream was of serving at sea as a carrier-qualified pilot. He had his chance as he rode Enterprise out to the Hawaiian Islands in 1941 for advanced training. At Ford Island, he and other rookie pilots went through touch-and-go landings. The LSOs ran them through field carrier landing practice, forcing them to learn how to land in very tight marked spaces. Then it was time to make real traps (arrested landings) by engaging a wire on the Big E’s flight deck with his SBD’s hydraulic tail hook.
“I really didn’t find that difficult to master,” Tony said. “It came pretty easy for me.” He fell right in with his new squadron and his fellow pilots. “I wanted to spend the rest of my life working with people like this,” he said.10
The thrills of flight training were but distant memories as Schneider lay in his Enterprise bunk on the night of December 7. America had been sucker punched in the heart of its Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Ten of his fellow airmen were gone, and others were wounded. Others from his air group were ashore, scattered among various air bases on the Hawaiian Islands.
“Most of us knew the war was coming,” he said. “The fact that they slammed Pearl first was a stunner, since all our preparations were for defending the Far East, not this sudden, bold strike in Hawaii.”
Tony found that his carrier’s crew and his fellow aviators reacted to the surprise attack with a mixture of shock and anger. His own reaction was a resolve to obtain vengeance.
While Schneider drifted off peacefully in his bunk, many of his Scouting Six comrades were far from comfortable. They tried to sleep in the new concrete Bachelor Officers’ Quarters on Ford Island, which was also packed with scared civilians and wounded battleship sailors. Jack Leaming, still shaken by the violent loss of the VF-6 pilots shot down by friendly fire, tossed fitfully on a rickety cot. The surprise attack brought out a mix of emotions for him—anger, fear, contempt, defiance, and retribution. No son of a bitch is going to deprive me of my freedom! he thought.