“Something Big Was in the Works”

“Same old thing,” Cleo Dobson noted in his diary for May 2, 1942. “The SBDs made their usual scouting hops and the fighters keep up inner air patrol.” Dobson had recently moved from being a regular pilot of Scouting Six into the position of Enterprise’s assistant LSO. His confidence received a hefty boost on May 4 when he used his wands for the first time to direct in the landing of fifteen scout bombers without cracking up a single one. “I got a big thrill from it,” Dobson wrote that night. “I felt just about the same as I did when I first flew a plane aboard.”1

Dobson’s plane-landing experience was the only excitement he would see in early May. His Enterprise task force was racing for the Coral Sea action that was beginning to brew. The Japanese navy had been unstoppable during April. On April 5, the carriers Akagi, Soryu, Hiryu, Shokaku, and Zuikaku launched attacks against the British bases of Colombo and Trincomalee on Ceylon. That afternoon, Admiral Nagumo’s carrier bombers destroyed the British heavy cruisers Dorsetshire and Cornwall, and four days later they sank the carrier Hermes and her escorting destroyer, Vampire.

Even as Nagumo’s Kido Butai returned to Japan in late April for a rest and refit, his boss was at work on new plans. Admiral Yamamoto was unquestionably the mastermind and driving force behind the IJN’s offensives. Yet Yamamoto had been stunned by the boldness of Jimmy Doolittle’s Army bombers when they made their Tokyo raid on April 17. It became clear to him that in order to rule the Pacific, he must first smash the American aircraft carriers that had escorted this strike and had conducted offensive assaults against Wake, Marcus, and the New Guinea areas of Lae and Salamaua. He allowed plans to proceed for an invasion of Port Moresby on New Guinea’s southern coast and Tulagi in the southeastern Solomon Islands. The invasion fleet was covered by the light carrier Shoho and two of the Pearl Harbor sneak attack fleet carriers, Shokaku and Zuikaku.

The U.S. learned of the invasion plans through signals intelligence. Admiral Chester Nimitz sent a joint carrier force under Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher to oppose the offensive. The Japanese forces invaded and occupied Tulagi during the first days of May, but their shipping came under assault on May 5 from Enterprise’s sister carrier Yorktown. In a series of dive-bombing and torpedo attacks, the Yorktown Air Group demolished a Japanese destroyer, sank three small minelayers, destroyed four seaplanes, and inflicted damage to several other ships.

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.

U.S. Navy

The Japanese fleet entered the Coral Sea intent upon destroying the Allied naval forces. The world’s first battle between opposing carrier forces—the ships never within sight of their enemy—played out during the next three days. Admiral Halsey caught only snatches of the action via messages he received daily from admirals Fletcher and Aubrey Fitch. On May 7, the Lexington and Yorktown aviators found the light carrier Shoho and put her under the waves. In the action that continued throughout the next day, the larger carrier Shokaku was damaged, but the Japanese managed to sink Lexington, a U.S. tanker, and a destroyer, and also heavily damaged the carrier Yorktown. The Americans suffered heavier losses in terms of shipping, but it was a strategic victory for the Allies, turning back the Port Moresby invasion and knocking the big carriers Zuikaku and Shokaku out of Admiral Yamamoto’s next big master plan.

Yamamoto decided against directly attacking the U.S. base at Pearl Harbor. He instead selected Midway Atoll—at the extreme northwest end of the Hawaiian Island chain—as the centerpiece for his scheme to draw the American carriers out into a showdown. Midway, located some thirteen hundred miles from Oahu, was America’s most vital forward base in the Pacific for staging bomber attacks and for refueling patrolling submarines. Yamamoto thus proposed a complex ploy to lure out the U.S. flattops into battle. He would send out a full invasion force, including two small carriers, to seize two of the Aleutian Islands, a chain of rocky isles that spread from Alaska across much of the North Pacific. At the same time, another invasion force supported by Vice Admiral Nagumo’s Kido Butai would assault Midway and seize the two little islands. When the American carrier task forces arrived to attack the Japanese forces, Yamamoto planned to position an invasion force under Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo to become the bait. Kondo’s group would consist of two battleships, four heavy cruisers, a light cruiser, eight destroyers, and the light carrier Zuiho.2

Yamamoto hoped that the U.S. fleet would move from Pearl Harbor and head north to ambush Kondo’s invasion force. Once the Americans were detected, two powerful Japanese forces would move in to assault the U.S. carriers. Nagumo’s main carrier force would be supported by another group, known as the main body, under Admiral Yamamoto himself. His forces included Japan’s largest battleships, two seaplane tenders, a light carrier, and various other warships. Between the Midway and Aleutians operations, Japan planned to send out nearly its entire navy, including all of its carriers and battleships.

The one thing Isoroku Yamamoto had not taken into account in his detailed planning was the fact that Chester Nimitz’s cryptanalysts had broken the Japanese navy’s secret code. Commander Joseph Rochefort and his analyst team at Station Hypo in Hawaii managed to confirm that Midway Atoll was the main target of an impending Japanese strike. Rochefort’s team determined that the date of the attack would be either June 4 or June 5, while additionally providing Nimitz with a complete Japanese order of battle. The intelligence teams continued to unravel the complex enemy plans during May.

It soon became clear to Texas-born Nimitz that his only hope of averting this latest Japanese threat rested primarily with his carrier aviators.

• • •

As Yorktown retreated from the Coral Sea to lick her wounds, Admiral Halsey carried out his assigned mission of delivering Marine Fighter Squadron 212 to Efate Island east of Australia on May 11. New Enterprise Air Group Commander Wade McClusky and Cleo Dobson in two SBDs, plus a Marine in an SNJ training plane, flew to Efate to check out the airstrip. After Dobson had photographed the harbor, village, and landing field, the group landed and met with the local Marine detachment. “We found the field too small for the Marine fighters to land and so we reported to the ship,” Dobson wrote. “I would like to have spent two weeks there. It really looked good for a short vacation.” Enterprise instead flew off the twenty-one Marine Wildcats to Noumea in New Caledonia that day.3

Task Force 16 remained south of Efate for several days while Halsey sent out scouts in hopes of catching some of the retiring Japanese carrier forces. Dick Best rotated his pilots equally into scouting flights each day at sea. He also flew usual rotation, opting as always to never use his rank to skip out on an assigned flight. SBD pilots served as carrier pigeons, dropping or landing various messages to help keep their task force’s location a secret from Japanese searchers.

Enterprise finally headed north on May 13. Two of her scouts failed to return that afternoon from a two-hundred-mile search mission. Ensign Tom Durkin in 6-S-9 reported at 1725 that he and his gunner, AM2c Erwin Bailey, were making a water landing as darkness fell. Nothing at all was heard from the lost Bombing Six plane, 6-B-16, which was manned by Ensign Bucky Walters and ARM2c Parham Johnson Jr. Lieutenant Best felt responsible for Walters’s loss. He had refused to accept the ensign’s attempt to resign from aviation in late 1941. Walters had received transfer orders soon after he had survived his hair-raising night landing at Pearl Harbor on December 7. Best consulted with skipper Holly Hollingsworth on the matter, and decided that Walters was more valuable as a pilot than he realized. He was a popular member of VB-6 and served as the unit’s gym instructor, maintaining physical fitness among the pilots. Best tore up Walters’s discharge papers and threw them over the side of the ship.4

Enterprise launched twenty-one SBDs at dawn on May 14 to search the sectors where Durkin and Walters were believed to have been lost. No signs of Walters or Johnson were ever found. Ensign Durkin and Bailey had gone down northeast of the New Hebrides. The pair began to lose hope after five days of drifting on the open ocean in their rubber raft. Durkin tried to inject humor by removing $220 from his wallet that he had won in poker the night before they were lost. He amused himself by counting it in front of Bailey and estimating how many milk shakes it would buy at fifteen cents per shake.5

Durkin was tough—a former boxer during his first two years at Notre Dame—but watching search planes twice pass them by without seeing them was brutal. The VS-6 crew consumed the last of their water after ten days adrift. Fortunately, they spotted the island of Espiritu Santo the following day and regained hope. Durkin and Bailey finally reached shore after fourteen days in the ocean, and Bailey killed an eel for their first meal. They survived on coconut milk and shellfish for three more days until friendly natives found them and helped effect their return to the nearest Navy base. Long written off as lost, Tom Durkin and Erwin Bailey would finally make their return to Pearl Harbor suffering from sun exposure three weeks after their loss at sea. A devout Catholic, Durkin told a buddy that he had made so many vows saying his rosary during the fourteen days bobbing in the Pacific that he would have a tough time living up to them the rest of his life.6

Enterprise’s string of bad luck continued. Ensign Bill Pittman put another dive-bomber in the drink on May 15. He was taking off with a VS-6 inner-air patrol group that morning, but he struggled to get his 6-S-16 above the waves. There was only a single knot of wind to aid with lift, and it wasn’t enough. Pittman crashed off the port bow, but both he and gunner Floyd Adkins were picked up by the plane guard destroyer Ellet.

That afternoon, one of VF-6’s Wildcats crashed overboard while landing after CAP duty. The pilot was recovered, but yet another crash occurred a quarter hour later. Ensign Walter Hiebert of Fighting Six attempted to land, but his Wildcat’s tail hook failed to snag an arresting wire. Radioman Ed Anderson was walking aft on the starboard side of the flight deck at the time. He and others ducked as the F4F’s wings sailed over their heads. Hiebert’s fighter plowed into the crash barrier, damaging other planes and injuring sailors in the process. “I am surely living on borrowed time,” Anderson wrote in his diary.7

Enterprise and Hornet feinted a run toward Tulagi in the Solomons to confuse Japanese snoopers. The anticipation for real action grew when Admiral Halsey received orders from his boss, Admiral Nimitz, to expedite the return of Task Force 16 to Hawaii. Once Enterprise was recalled to Pearl Harbor, Lew Hopkins of VB-6 found that their scouting flights were conducted under strict radio silence. For Hopkins, hitting the flight deck with the beanbag messages proved to be quite a challenge. “You were going a lot faster than the ship and you had to drop the beanbag before you got over the ship. Everybody usually missed on their first try. The deck crew began to keep score of our drops.”8

Task Force 16’s SBD loss jinx continued on May 18 as Hornet’s air group conducted the two-hundred-mile searches. Ensign Roy Gee of Bombing Eight made a forced landing alongside Hornet, but both he and gunner Donald Canfield were recovered by a destroyer. It was Enterprise’s turn next on May 20, as a group of sixteen SBDs was cued up for a scout mission.

Dick Best was first to launch. He quickly realized that the SBDs were being sent off without sufficient airspeed. When he got to the bow, instead of lifting off, his left wing dropped. I’m stalling, Best thought. He managed to fight his aircraft up over the waves and gain altitude before he opened up on his radio and called to the carrier to cease launching at her reduced speed.9

Best’s warning came too late, for other SBDs were already rolling down the deck. Willie West of Scouting Six failed to get airborne. His 6-S-2 smacked into the ocean just off the Big E’s port bow at 0530. West, who had survived the Pearl Harbor attack and was wounded during the Marshalls strike, struggled to get free of his sinking Dauntless. Cleo Dobson saw West’s head and shoulders finally pop up close to the tail of the plane. Then a wave dashed over the SBD and West, and they both disappeared. The destroyer Conyngham picked up West’s rear gunner, AMM2c Milton Clark, uninjured. Dusty Kleiss considered the loss of his buddy Willie West “one of the greatest shocks of the war. I was on deck, about two hundred feet away, when the sinking aircraft dragged him down. A very special friend.”10

For Dobson and Mac McCarthy, this loss was very painful. All three pilots had survived rough experiences over Pearl Harbor on December 7 and had become close. As he and McCarthy surveyed West’s personal effects, Dobson found “it was one of the hardest jobs I have had since I came into the Navy. It doesn’t seem right for a man whose every idea and thought was so pure and good should have to go as he did. I guess when your number is up, you have to go.”11

Enterprise had lost four SBDs and three men in only a week’s time. The following day, May 21, Ensign Louis John Muery of Hornet’s Bombing Eight failed to return from a scouting mission. No contact was made and subsequent searches conducted by other Hornet aviators failed to find any trace of Muery or his gunner, ARM3c Walter Max John Richter.12

Much later, it was learned that Muery’s engine had failed while he was on the extreme end of his search leg. The VB-8 airmen drifted and sailed for twenty-three days before reaching a small island. Their boat capsized in the rough barrier reef surf, and Richter drowned. Muery used the boat’s paddle to dig a grave for his gunner. Natives found Muery and helped nurse him back to health until Navy ships could come rescue him. The Texan returned home and immediately married his girlfriend.13

Task Force 16 made seventeen knots on a steady return course to the Hawaiian Islands. Fighting Six pilot Gayle Hermann, who had survived being shot down on December 7, was killed in a takeoff crash from Enterprise just one day short of making port. “This makes the trip a most unhappy one,” Dusty Kleiss wrote in his diary of the loss of Hermann and Willie West. “Two of my best friends.”14

The Hornet and Enterprise air groups flew into Oahu on Tuesday, May 26, shortly ahead of the task force warships. The Enterprise Air Group landed on Ford Island and received the welcome word from Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky that the air group could enjoy thirty-six hours of R & R at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. In contrast, Hornet’s air group settled at Ewa Field, but the fifty-mile flight took two hours “due to eternal circling necessary to rendezvous and stagger in behind the CHAG and the torpedo planes,” recalled VF-8’s Ensign Elisha “Smokey” Stover. The CHAG, Commander Stan Ring, then told his pilots that they would not be getting two days’ liberty at the Royal Hawaiian like the Enterprise pilots. Instead, they would remain on continual alert at the base until their ship sailed again.15

This resulted in a near mutiny against the Hornet group commander. Several SBD pilots got into trouble for excessive griping and for expressing their opinions of CHAG to his face. The unpopular Sea Hag even grounded Lieutenant George Ellenburg of VB-8 from flying at Midway for his part in the vocal outbursts.16

The Hornet fliers turned to several bottles of whiskey to pass the night ashore. Some of the pilots became inebriated and ended up in semifriendly fistfights and wrestling matches on the beach. Clay Fisher of Bombing Eight found that no one was seriously hurt, but the next morning he spotted some lacerated faces and black eyes among the pilots. No hard feelings existed among the aviators. Instead, they shared an increased camaraderie after having unleashed some of their frustrations with the Sea Hag.17

• • •

Yorktown was still trailing fuel oil from her bomb-damaged fuel bunkers when her TF-17 sortied from the port of Tongatabu in the Tonga Islands on May 19. There would be no stateside rest for her crew and most of her air group. The carrier was instead ordered to Pearl Harbor to refuel and repair. Admiral Fletcher congratulated his crew on the fine spirit they had displayed during a hundred straight days of battle cruising.18

When Yorktown made port on May 27, Fletcher went ashore for a conference with Admiral Nimitz. He was told that Yorktown would be sent back to sea almost immediately to defend Midway Atoll. Further shocking news came when he learned that Admiral Halsey, his senior, had been sent ashore for treatment of a skin ailment. Command of the Hornet and Enterprise carrier TF-16 would instead fall upon the shoulders of Rear Admiral Raymond Ames Spruance—the previous TF-16 cruiser commander—at the recommendation of Halsey. Admiral Fletcher of Yorktown’s TF-17 would remain the senior carrier task force commander and overall carrier commander.

Spruance and his carrier aviators faced steep odds. He was briefed that a major Japanese force intended to occupy Midway Atoll, located about thirteen hundred miles northwest of Pearl Harbor. If they succeeded, the Hawaiian Islands would become an easier next target for Japanese occupation in the Pacific. The Americans scrambled to ready forces on Midway and at sea around the atoll; the Japanese war machine was already in motion.

Two powerful armadas sortied from the Japanese island toward the two strategic assault areas of Midway and the Aleutians. The Aleutians force was divided into a number of concentrated groupings of warships, landing ships, and submarines. It total, it comprised the smaller carriers Ryujo and Junyo, four battleships, ten cruisers, twenty-four destroyers, six submarines, three oilers, three supply ships, four support vessels, three minesweepers, and two minelayers. The larger force being dispatched toward Midway was similarly divided into distinct tactical formations. Admiral Yamamoto’s main body included the light carrier Hosho, three heavy battleships, one light cruiser, nine destroyers, an oiler, two tenders, and a supply ship. Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s close support group was comprised of four cruisers, two destroyers, and an oiler. Vice Admiral Kondo’s Midway invasion force included the light carrier Zuiho, two battleships, five cruisers, eight destroyers, four oilers, and a supply ship. Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka’s transport group numbered one light cruiser, ten destroyers, and thirteen transport and supply ships. Fifteen submarines were deployed to the area from five divisions.19

Finally, there was Vice Admiral Nagumo’s deadly first carrier strike force, the Kido Butai. His main striking force was built around the fleet carriers Akagi (his flagship), Kaga, Hiryu, and Soryu—four of the perpetrators of the December 7 surprise attack on America at Pearl Harbor. The Kido Butai also included two battleships, three cruisers, twelve destroyers, and five small oilers to refuel the fleet. Nagumo’s carriers sortied for Midway on May 27 with great confidence. It was Navy Day, the thirty-seventh anniversary of Admiral Heihachiro Togo’s great 1905 victory over the Russians at Tsushima. Sailors lined the rails of their ships in the Hashirajima anchorage in Japan’s Inland Sea to cheer and wave their caps.20

In contrast, the U.S. Navy would do well to scrape together three aircraft carriers, eight cruisers, seventeen destroyers, three oilers, and nineteen strategically placed submarines. Counting all of the invasion force and battle groups steaming from Japan toward Midway and the Aleutians, Nimitz’s thirty-one surface vessels and nineteen submarines faced 168 enemy vessels. On paper, it would be no contest.

• • •

That the Americans would even put three carriers to sea was not a certainty on May 27. Yorktown was rushed into a dry dock at Pearl Harbor for emergency repairs to her Coral Sea bomb damage. Admiral Nimitz, sloshing through the water with Captain Elliott Buckmaster and Admiral Fletcher to inspect the hull, said that he must have the carrier back in operation in three days’ time. More than a thousand yard workers swarmed over the battle-damaged ship around the clock to meet the deadline.21

The most troubling news for Fletcher and Buckmaster was that their Yorktown air group would be broken up to help fill out other newly forming squadrons. Her Fighting Forty-two, Torpedo Five, and Scouting Five squadrons were ordered to remain ashore when Yorktown completed her repairs. Only Lieutenant Wally Short’s Bombing Five would be retained for the upcoming action. Three-quarters of the Yorktown Air Group would be replaced by squadrons from Saratoga’s displaced air group: Lieutenant Commander Max Leslie’s Bombing Three, Lieutenant Commander John Smith “Jimmy” Thach’s Fighting Three, and Lieutenant Commander Lem Massey’s Torpedo Three.

Bombing Five mechanics scrambled to organize combat-ready Dauntlesses. They had only five of their own but drew two spares from the Hawaii fleet aircraft pool, six from VS-5, and another five from the Lex’s orphaned VS-2. Most of the SBDs still had to be hurriedly equipped with the dual .30-caliber machine-gun mounts. “We were all refitted at a most feverish pace,” said rear gunner Lynn Forshee.22

Wally Short was equally strained to assemble his flight personnel for VB-5 in just a few days. Ten of his veteran pilots stayed on. One other veteran was added to Short’s mix in the form of Lieutenant Charlie “Tex” Conatser, who had been sidelined from Bombing Five in January to undergo stomach surgery for an umbilical hernia. He had arrived at Hawaii weeks before Yorktown—a “naval officer without a navel”—and had spent his time living with Jimmy Thach learning fighter tactics. Lieutenant Short was pleased to welcome Conatser and his experience back into his squadron for the impending battle.23

To this lot of veteran VB-5 pilots were added an equal mix of untested young ensigns: Carl Horenberger, John Bridgers, John Ammen, Bob Gibson, Larry Comer, Ray Kline, Dick Wolfe, Jerry Richey, Ray Miligi, and Spike Conzett. Of these “new boys,” only Comer and Bridgers had flown temporary duty with VS-6 on Enterprise since the end of March.

The second Dauntless group to operate on Yorktown for the coming battle was up to the task. Max Leslie’s VB-3 had spelled Scouting Six for the Doolittle raid. The Enterprise air group was by far the most combat-blooded unit to prepare for action off Midway. Dick Best, who had flown with the squadron since the Pearl Harbor attack, retained command of Bombing Six. He had a mix of veteran pilots and many new replacement pilots, some of whom had flown with other carriers. Best’s gunner, Jim Murray, found that Ford Island was “a beehive of activity” as all types of aircraft were hastily prepared for action.24

Lieutenant Harvey Lanham, gunnery officer for Bombing Six, had a little more insight than others. His shipboard roommate was Lieutenant Gilvin M. Slonim, a Japanese-language interpreter assigned to the admiral’s staff. “Although Gil was very closemouthed, in true intelligence officer fashion, I wormed enough from him to know that the Japanese fleet was putting to sea and we were planning to meet them,” Lanham said.25

Earl Gallaher still led Scouting Six. He had been there since the start of the war, and he had inherited the unit early on when his skipper went down. Now he and his number two man, Dick Dickinson, had their hands full. They received new planes at Pearl Harbor to make good on the recent losses. Many of their new pilots had no combat experience. Old-timers like Charlie Ware were golden in teaching the new boys about sectional and divisional tactics.26

The newer ACTG pilots of Scouting Six stuck together. On board ship, they spent more time in the ready room than did the seasoned veterans. One of VS-6’s untested young pilots, Bill Pittman, had no real idea what type of battle he was heading into. “Rumors were always plentiful and we believed anything,” he said. He and buddy Dick Jaccard talked at length with the “old-timers,” pilots who had two or three island raids under their belts. They learned how they could dive away from a trailing Zero by not opening their dive flaps. Pittman respected his section leader, Pat Patriarca. He said that Patriarca “always appeared cool to anything (including rumors) but was nervous until he became airborne. Then he was steady and like having the Rock of Gibraltar guiding the section.”27

New air group commander Wade McClusky had been a fighter pilot during the previous months. Now flying an SBD as CEAG, McClusky had had little time to practice his dive-bombing doctrine. His handiwork as a fighter pilot was acknowledged during a brief awards ceremony on the flight deck of Enterprise on May 27. McClusky received a Navy Cross for his actions as VF-6 skipper during the Marshalls strike. Dusty Kleiss and Cleo Dobson of Scouting Six also received Distinguished Flying Crosses. Kleiss was not notified until that morning that he was being given the DFC for his direct hit on a ship at the Marshalls.

Kleiss felt great honor as he stepped forward to be pinned with the cross by Admiral Nimitz. The moment was also uplifting for Dobson, who had spent the morning helping Nancy West secure transportation back to the United States. Her husband, Willie, had been killed the previous week when his SBD crashed on takeoff. Dobson and Mac McCarthy had done their best to comfort the grieving widow. “What burns me up is that none of the officers in the squadron called on her while we were in there,” he confided in his diary.28

The Enterprise Air Group received word their carrier and Hornet would be getting under way on the morning of May 28. The enlisted men heard plenty of scuttlebutt about what the fleet was setting out to meet, but little specific intelligence had been given to them. “We all knew something big was in the works,” VB-6 gunner Stuart Mason said.29

The three carriers sported 112 total Dauntlesses as they headed for Midway. The Hornet Air Group was the least experienced group in terms of previous Pacific combat. Lieutenant William “Gus” Widhelm, XO of Scouting Eight, was almost left behind when the big fly-out took place on May 28. Air group commander Stan Ring could not get his SBD to launch due to fouled plugs, so he commandeered Widhelm’s bird and took off.

Gus was able to get the Dauntless to fire up but the engine was missing badly. He finally left the errant SBD behind. Ensign George “Tex” Gay from Texas was preparing to take off in the last Devastator of Torpedo Eight. Widhelm jumped into the middle seat of Gay’s TBD and narrowly made it out to the carrier.30

The Enterprise air group suffered a plane loss during its carrier landings when Lieutenant Commander Gene Lindsey’s TBD stalled and slammed into the ocean near the carrier. The torpedo bomber crew was quickly rescued, but skipper Lindsey suffered serious injuries to his face and chest.

Task Force 16 headed for Midway. Admiral Spruance planned to rendezvous with Yorktown’s TF-17 on June 2 some 350 miles northeast of the atoll. Hornet’s Scouting Eight suffered another plane loss on May 29, when Ensign Richard Milliman and ARM3c Tony Roger Pleto failed to return from a scouting mission. Ensigns Gus Devoe and Joe Auman circled the scene but saw nothing more than a floating cushion and a fuel tank. Coupled with the CHAG plane that was left at Pearl Harbor, the carriers were thus down to 110 SBDs before they even reached Midway.31

• • •

The Enterprise Air Group commanders held a conference on the morning of May 29. Wade McClusky, Earl Gallaher, Dick Best, Jim Gray, and Gene Lindsey gathered in Admiral Spruance’s cabin as Captain Browning detailed the intelligence of how the Japanese were planning to attack. Best thought the intelligence was phony. They can’t tell us where the Japanese are going, he thought. They sure as hell don’t know that the attack on Midway planned for the third of June isn’t a diversionary attack. Best, of course, wasn’t informed enough to know that intelligence specialists had broken the Japanese code.32

Best still held no good feelings toward Miles Browning, the staff officer he had long considered to be a bully. At the conclusion of the briefing, Browning asked if there were any questions. Best, thinking of his wife and daughter back in Honolulu, replied, “Suppose they don’t attack Midway? Suppose they keep going east and hit Pearl again and maybe Honolulu?”33

Browning narrowed his eyes and stared coldly at the young lieutenant for almost a full minute. He finally said, “Well, we just hope they don’t.”

The hastily patched Yorktown slipped out of dry dock on May 29. When her squadrons flew out to the carrier the next day, nearly half the VB-5 pilots were making their first carrier landings. The air group still had no idea what exactly they were in for. Lieutenant Syd Bottomley, flight officer for VB-3, knew something must be in the wind, but he knew nothing about the Japanese designs on Midway. “It was a well-guarded secret up to then,” he said.34

Bombing Three’s enlisted men did not have time to worry. They had been tapped at the last hour to replace Scouting Five on Yorktown, and they were kept busy. There had been plenty of scuttlebutt, but rear gunner Joe Godfrey said, “Few of us paid much attention to it.”35

The Dauntless landings on Yorktown went smoothly on the first day out from Pearl. One of the VF-3 rookies, however, bounced upon touchdown and smashed into the back of another Wildcat. His propeller chopped through the cockpit of Lieutenant Don Lovelace’s F4F, killing the fighter squadron executive officer. Ensign Charlie Lane of Bombing Three felt Lovelace’s loss had “a sobering effect” that calmed some of the nervous tension felt by everyone rushing toward combat with the Japanese. Lane had been in a group with Lovelace swimming at Waikiki only the day before.36

Yorktown’s Bombing Five and Bombing Three quickly became an issue for air staff, pilots, radiomen, and deck personnel. Orders to “spot bombers for launch” were confusing. Loudspeaker announcements for bomber pilots to proceed to their ready room left Max Leslie and Wally Short’s men wondering which group was being summoned. To settle the matter, Captain Buckmaster temporarily designated Bombing Five as Scouting Five for this cruise, a move that did not sit well with the VB-5 aviators.37

Earl Gallaher, having been briefed by Spruance’s staff on the upcoming operation, decided to enlighten his senior pilots on the pending showdown off Midway. He called together division leaders Dick Dickinson and Charlie Ware; section leaders Dusty Kleiss, Norm West, and Pat Patriarca; and trusted combat veterans Mac McCarthy and Reid Stone. Once they entered the Scouting Six ready room, Lieutenant Gallaher locked the door behind them.38

“You must not give what I say to anyone!” he demanded. “There are only two exceptions.”

Gallaher’s two exceptions were more preparation-based necessities than they were intelligence-related issues. His key pilots were urged to practice with their regular radiomen on how to quickly switch out coils for the YE-ZB homing device in each SBD. Once the rear gunner had swapped the coils, each pilot was to immediately record the ZB’s Morse code signal that offered the distance and course back to Enterprise. This data could mean the difference between making it back or not from such a long-range mission. Once the information was quickly logged before the attack, the SBD crew was to switch back to the normal radio and gunnery coil.

The only other allowance Gallaher offered his key pilots involved their working with maintenance personnel on the homing equipment, the SBDs’ electrical controls, and any changes vital to the top performance of their dive-bombers. No other details of his briefing were to be shared with anyone. “There are no other exceptions!” he barked.39

Dusty Kleiss soaked up the fine points as his skipper began diagramming the area around Midway. Gallaher indicated where the Japanese carriers were expected to be approaching from and the approximate area where Midway’s scout planes would hopefully spot them. The carrier-based dive-bombers would then be launched from about 180 miles away. This extreme range would likely exceed the fuel limitations of both escorting Wildcat fighters and the lumbering Devastator torpedo planes. “We knew that only SBDs could be used for this plan,” Kleiss recalled.40

“None of what I have told you is to be given to others,” Gallaher warned again. “Not even to our own pilots.”

• • •

The three U.S. carriers rotated search duties each day en route to Midway. From the atoll, Marine and Navy scouts also flew out daily in search of the Japanese. The new pilots in each squadron were broken in during these two-hundred-mile scouting missions. Lieutenant (j.g.) Paul “Lefty” Holmberg of Yorktown’s VB-3, who had joined the squadron only in May at Kaneohe, was highly nervous. He was so apprehensive about his first long-range searches, about takeoffs and landings, and more, that he was too busy to fear the impending battle.41

Enterprise’s Scouting Six pilots just weeks before Midway: (seated, left to right) Lieutenant (j.g.) Norm West, Lieutenant Frank Patriarca, Lieutenant Charlie Ware (FO), Lieutenant Earl Gallaher (CO), Lieutenant Dick Dickinson (XO), Lieutenant (j.g.) Dusty Kleiss, and Ensign John McCarthy; (standing, left to right) Ensigns John Roberts, Carl Peiffer, Jim Shelton, Bill Pittman, John Lough, Vernon Micheel, Eldor Rodenburg, Tom Durkin, Jr., Dick Jaccard, Frank O’Flaherty, Clarence Vammen, Jr., Jim Dexter, Reid Stone, and Willie West.

U.S. Navy Photo, Mark Horan Collection

Enterprise’s Bombing Six pilots, photographed on June 3, 1942, at Midway: (seated, left to right) Lieutenant (j.g.) Andy Anderson, Lieutenant Harvey Lanham, Lieutenant Lloyd Smith (XO), Lieutenant Dick Best (CO), Lieutenant Joe Penland (FO), Lieutenant Horace Moorehead, Jr., and Lieutenant (j.g.) John Van Buren; (standing, left to right) Ensign Gene Greene, Ensign George Goldsmith, Ensign Stephen Hogan, Jr., Ensign Norm Vandivier, Ensign Don Ely, Lieutenant (j.g.) Bill Roberts, Ensign Lewis Hopkins, Lieutenant (j.g.) Ed Kroeger, Ensign Delbert Halsey, Ensign Fred Weber, Ensign Tom Ramsay, Ensign Tony Schneider, Ensign Bertram Varian, Ensign Arthur Rausch, and Ensign Harry Liffner.

Mark Horan Collection, courtesy of Captain John Goldsmith

The task forces built around Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown finally made a rendezvous on the afternoon of Tuesday, June 2. Admiral Spruance’s next anticipated rendezvous would be near Midway with Admiral Nagumo’s Imperial Japanese Navy. The Enterprise dive-bomber squadrons paused long enough in the afternoon to take squadron photos of both the pilots and gunners of each unit.42

On Hornet, Lieutenant John Lynch wrote a letter home to his wife that afternoon. Lynch, a graduate of Boston College, was a senior pilot of Bombing Eight. Sometime this week we expect to see some decisive action. I shall do my best, he wrote. Lynch could not tell Ginnie what the action was, but he did offer a hint. We believe that it should deal a telling blow in the outcome and length of the war.43

Yorktown handled the air search and CAP duties on June 3. Her twenty SBD searchers turned up nothing, but during the day a Midway-based PBY flying boat spotted the Japanese transport force some seven hundred miles west of Midway. The next morning was certain to bring combat.

Ensign John Bridgers of VS-5 made only his second flight over open ocean as part of the scouting force. What he remembered most about that particular flight was the thin parachute cushion on which he sat. Bridgers suffered such discomfort during that four-hour flight that he worried little over his pending second carrier landing in an SBD. “I just wanted to be able to stand up and ease the pain in the seat of my pants,” he said.44

Lefty Holmberg of Bombing Three flew the search as Max Leslie’s wingman. On the return leg of his flight, the rookie pilot was chagrined to not find Yorktown in the place he expected her to be. His confidence was further shattered when gunner George LaPlant announced that he could not get the “damned receiver” to work on their YE-ZB homing device. Holmberg attracted the attention of Lieutenant Commander Leslie and turned the lead back over to the skipper. During the course of his flight, Holmberg changed courses many times to avoid patches of fog and low clouds.45

Following supper back on board Yorktown that evening, Holmberg was given a lecture and a gentle scolding from Leslie for changing courses so many times. The skipper reminded his wingman that this was a sure way to get lost and that Bombing Three needed every aircraft for the battle expected the next day.

Admiral Fletcher decided to follow up on the PBY contact reports by sending out another ten of his SBDs in the afternoon. The morning search had gone two hundred miles; the afternoon search went on 175 miles in the same sector covered in the morning, but again found nothing.46

Fletcher swung Yorktown southwest in order to be about two hundred miles north of Midway at dawn on June 4. Wally Short’s newly designated Scouting Five drew the duty of flying the morning scouting missions again the next day. Orders were posted for new ensigns Jerry Richey, Bob Gibson, and John Bridgers to wake up the other pilots forty minutes before their flight time. Howard W. Johnson, plane captain for Wally Short, performed a special ritual that night. Although he would not be flying into combat, he stashed a twenty-dollar bill in each of VS-5’s SBDs, giving him special equity in each flight.47

This is really it, thought Charlie Lane of VB-3. We have been given the U.S.’s best naval equipment, all possible support of our country, and it is now up to us to do a vital job.48

On Hornet, Ensign Clay Fisher of Bombing Eight spent time talking with his roommate, Ken White, of their slim chances of surviving the looming battle. Fisher wrote letters to his wife, Annie, and to his mother, telling them, “I had resigned myself to whatever fate had in store for me. If we lost the battle and I died, I knew our country would eventually defeat the Japanese.”49

On Enterprise, many of the Dauntless aircrews were restless. Bill Roberts of Bombing Six had felt apprehension before each of the previous strikes against the Marshalls, Wake, and Marcus. But this time, as he waited for the confrontation with Japanese carriers off Midway, Roberts had a strange feeling of elation at the prospect of catching the Japanese off guard.50

Despite his initial doubts, Dick Best had gained confidence in the intelligence reports that he now believed would put his aviators in the right place at the right time for some good old-fashioned payback. It’s in the bag. Here we are, behind the garden gate with an ax in our hand, and the poor little innocent Jap is waltzing through with flowers in his hand and having lunch. We’re going to get square for Pearl, because Pearl was humiliating.51

“Every fresh word of information increased our tension,” wrote Dick Dickinson of Scouting Six. That night, many of the aviators struggled with their nervous energy. “It was difficult for any of us to take ourselves off to bed, important as we knew that night’s sleep to be,” remembered Dickinson. “All of us fully realized that we were getting a chance to change the whole character of the war in the Pacific.”52

Dusty Kleiss was another who still had visions of the carnage that Scouting Six had experienced on December 7. Tomorrow is likely to be a big day, he wrote in his diary that night.53

Kleiss and Dickinson’s skipper had the same feelings of anticipation. Earl Gallaher knew “that we were really gonna have the chance of paying them back for Pearl Harbor.” He had lost many pilots and enlisted men in the previous six months of the Pacific War. On the morning the war started, he had lost more than eleven hundred former shipmates when the battleship Arizona—his first ship to serve on—had been blown to the bottom of Pearl Harbor. With any luck, the following day would be his chance to settle a lot of old scores. With his resolutions thus set, Gallaher’s night before the battle was unlike most of his junior pilots’. He recalled, “I had no trouble whatsoever going to sleep that night.”54

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