By 10:20 AM on the morning of June 4th, 1942 the United States Navy was in danger of losing the Battle of Midway, despite the tactical advantage that had been provided by the code breakers of the intelligence staff on Hawaii, who had accurately predicted the timing and direction of the Japanese carrier attack on Midway atoll.
Here is the background:
As the Greeks at Salamis stemmed the tide of Persian expansion into the civilized lands of Greece the Battle of Midway marked the high tide of expansion by the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan in WW II.
Since the fall of France and the 1940 Tripartite Treaty of Germany, Italy and Japan there had been discussions between the Germans and the Japanese about linking up in the Middle East. Success of such a plan would affect the war in North Africa and the Caucasus, cutting Lend Lease to Russia, supplies to the British army in Egypt and the Chinese through India and Burma.1
In the spring of 1942 as the Wehrmacht was driving into Russia and Rommel drove across North Africa toward Suez, the Japanese forces had defeated all opponents from the Philippines down to the East Indies. The Mediterranean supply to the Middle East was severed by German U Boats and Stuka dive bombers based in Sicily and Crete.
The successful Japanese aircraft carrier attacks in the Indian Ocean also threatened Allied lifelines to the Middle East oilfields, Suez, China, Burma and India. If unchecked the southern Lend Lease arteries supporting Russia would have been severed.
In 1946 Winston Churchill marked this period in the spring of 1942 as the most dangerous moment of the entire war. 6 The Vichy French on Madagascar, and the Nationalists movements in India and Egypt were preparing a welcome for the Japanese and Germans, as were the Arabs. In a recent Newsweek article Attorney General Richard Morgenthau expresses the view that the State of Israel could not have been established had the United States lost the Battle of Midway.
After the Battle of Midway the tide turned against the Axis powers. Each successive wave of attacks thereafter for the next three years broke against the Allied forces and the tides of Axis fortunes receded. The attack waves grew ever weaker after the tide turned at Midway.
The story of how a small force of U. S. Navy carrier based dive bombers changed the course of the war for the United States and its Allies is one of the most dramatic exploits ever achieved by a small group of men in any war. It was a victory at the Battle of Midway where courage and sacrifice at the lowest level of command overcame errors made at staff levels.
The dive bombers delivered a visually thrilling high-speed blow against the Japanese aircraft carriers in a matter of five minutes, and it saved a battle that had threatened disaster for the U.S. Navy and the Allies.
Twenty years ago at a reunion of the survivors of our WW II Pacific war dive bombing squadron the question was raised about the lack of a TV or Hollywood film about dive bombing. It seemed that every weapon system since the dawn of time had been reviewed by the History Channel, The Learning Channel or the Discovery Channel, but never a film about the dive bombers that played such an important role in defeating the Japanese Empire.
What began in 1989 as a casual interest of mine has evolved over the intervening years, progressing through months of curiosity, intense research, disappointment, frustration, quixotic persistence, anger and finally an obsession to have the true story of the dive bombers published in my lifetime.
My investigations took me to the Smithsonian in Washington, the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, Hollywood, and the Naval War College Museum up in Newport. I obtained a number of oral histories from the United States Naval Institute in Annapolis. I spent many hours visiting pertinent web sites and built an extensive library of books on the Pacific War.
As years passed it began to appear to me that the United States Navy had neglected the full dramatic story of the dive bombers and I began to look for the reasons. From the time of the main Nimitz Action Report issued on June 28th, 1942 attention has been focussed on the sacrifice of the torpedo bombers.
In looking back on decisions made years ago it is unfair not to take into consideration the conditions of that time and the factors that influenced decisions. Look at this list of problems inherited by Admiral Nimitz when he assumed command at Pearl Harbor.
He was newly arrived from the States to take over a demolished and demoralized United States Pacific Fleet. Outside his office the sight and stench of death emanated from the sunken wrecks of our battleships. The harbor was littered with debris and oil slicks. Battered hangars and bodies of aircraft were still in evidence. His predecessor faced disgrace, investigation and court martial.
In the May 8th Battle of the Coral Sea, Admiral Nimitz and his staff had been introduced to a new type of naval warfare. For the first time fleets fought one another unseen, aircraft carrier against aircraft carrier. He learned of the Zero, a superior type of fighter plane, and Long Lance, a devastating Japanese torpedo.
In Washington President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill announced the “Germany first” policy relegating Nimitz’s Pacific war to a holding action, with limited call on the nation’s resources. General Marshall demanded manpower and production resources be devoted to building up the Army. General “Hap” Arnold was promoting a vastly expanded long range Air Force that would absorb Naval Aviation, following the model of the RAF in Britain.
General MacArthur was demanding that portions of our dwindling Navy be assigned to his command in the Southwest Pacific. The British Admiralty had turned down Admiral King’s request for immediate help in the Pacific.
The Washington based communications intelligence officers were feuding with the Admiral’s trusted Pearl Harbor staff over Japanese intentions. Admiral King, Nimitz’s boss in Washington, was concerned about possible Japanese strikes against Hawaii, the West Coast of America or the Panama Canal. The Pearl Harbor code breakers believed an invasion of the island of Midway was imminent.
What a load this was for a man to take up! With all the forces arrayed against him and limited resources how did Admiral Nimitz cope with these problems? What had prepared him, Admirals Spruance, Fletcher and Halsey to assume these heavy leadership responsibilities when their country needed them so desperately? Their naval careers had spanned peacetime years when the military forces were ridiculed and maligned. Budgets were tight during the Depression years and advancement slow. Prospects were dim. Where did these patriots come from?
They were the product of disciplines and traditions that were first instilled in them at Annapolis and nurtured during years of sea duty, testing, staff work, and education. Their entire naval careers were a continuing selection process that weeded out the weak and incompetent, and tempered the strong.
My search for the full story of the dive bombers is not meant to diminish in any way the great contributions of these dedicated men. At the same time we have to recognize that they were human, and some of their well intentioned decisions do not look as wise now as they may have then.
The first step of my long search was to look up dive bombing in the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. The only full article about dive bombing appeared in a November 1942 issue of Life Magazine. One of the many inaccuracies in the article was the statement, “To date in this war no capital ship has been sunk by dive bombers”. This was five months after our Navy’s dive bombers had accounted for all the damage done to the four Japanese carriers at the Battle Of Midway and ignores the successes of the German Stuka and Japanese Val dive bombers against capital ships of Russia and Britain.
I ran through microfilm files of the New York Times. In the week after the Midway Battle the Times ran a front page headline, “ARMY FLIERS BLASTED TWO JAP FLEETS AT MIDWAY.”
The Times editorialized on June 9: “So far as we can now learn, the main damage to the Japanese fleet off Midway was inflicted by our land-based airplanes. The battle shows what land-based air power can do to naval and air power attacking from the open sea when that land-based air power is alert, well-trained, courageous, and exists in sufficient quantity…”
Secretary of War Henry Stimson recorded complacently “our big bombers have played a decisive part in the battle and the facility with which they have hit and injured capital ships of the enemy marks a great change in the previous view of high altitude bombing. The Navy also got into it with its carriers. They had rather a hard time with the enemy carriers who outnumbered them.”2
In Japan the survivors of the battle were isolated to keep secret the defeat suffered by the Imperial Navy. Only the emperor was informed and he chose not to inform the Army. Army planners, inaccurately briefed about pilot and carrier losses at Coral Sea and Midway, continued to believe that the Imperial Combined Fleet was healthy and secure.3
Admiral Nimitz declined to challenge Army Air Force claims for the B-17s or other published stories about the Battle of Midway. There was no point in letting the Japanese Navy or the American public know how serious were our losses or how close to disaster we had come.4
Admiral Nimitz was right in classifying the decisive details of the battle, and not only as it concerned the Japanese. Under conditions existing at that time he had to avoid media criticism of his carrier fleet’s leaders, and unnecessary grief for the families of so many pilots and crewmen who had lost their lives in futile attacks during the battle. The loss of so many of our first line pilots and crews was staggering. At that stage of the war in 1942 the U.S. Navy needed comforting, not more controversy.
As I investigated further a puzzling picture began to unfold:
The wartime movie about the Battle of Midway, Wing and a Prayer, with Don Ameche (1943) was produced in cooperation with the Navy. All the Japanese carriers shown in that movie were sunk by our torpedo bombers! Dive bombers were not even mentioned.
The film Task Force starring Gary Cooper (1949) included dive bombers but showed the torpedo bombers blowing up the Japanese carriers. By this time the film’s naval advisors should have known that the scenes depicted were not historically accurate.
The dramatic wing camera film shot by a few of our dive bombers in actual combat late in the war have never surfaced. These were the dive bombers equivalent of the gun camera films taken by the fighters.
In the 1950's the TV documentary films Victory at Sea and Crusade in the Pacific continued to show torpedo bombers sinking all four of the Japanese carriers at Midway.
The documentaries could not have made simple errors. It would have taken time and planning for a studio to produce the simulated torpedo attacks.
Finally the 1976 film, Midway, gave qualified credit to the dive bombers but did nothing to explain dive bombing as a weapon or why it was so successful. Actors playing the American and Japanese officers emphasized inaccurately that the dive bombers were just lucky that the Japanese fighters were down at sea level fighting off the torpedo bombers.
I could not understand why the story of the dive bombers dramatic victory at the Battle of Midway, and the dive bombers important role throughout the Pacific War, was so neglected. There seemed to be more concern about justifying the sacrifice of the torpedo plane squadrons. The dive bomber prevailed because it was the superior weapon, not because the Japanese fighter planes were drawn down to sea level slaughtering Torpedo Squadron 8, an event that occured over an hour earlier.
As World War II began in the Pacific, the weapons the Japanese Navy brought into battle outclassed the United States Navy in every category except one. The SBD Dauntless dive bomber surpassed Japan’s Val dive bomber in speed, range, bomb load, and diving characteristics.
At that time the newest Japanese 40,000-ton battleships, Yamato and Musashi, were the mightiest warships afloat. They boasted 18-inch main batteries, heavy armor, high speeds and long range. Japan had eleven aircraft carriers against our seven, and their expert pilots and crews were battle experienced from years of combat against China and the Soviet Union. Japan’s cruisers and destroyers had superior firepower and speed. Submarines and ships were equipped with the powerful Long Lance torpedo whereas our torpedoes were not reliable until September 1943, almost two years after Pearl Harbor.5 During the decisive years of WW II, 1942 and 1943, the dive bomber was our only effective weapon with which our carriers could attack the Japanese. The Zero fighters outperformed our Wildcat and Buffalo fighters. Their Kate torpedo planes were more effective than our TBD Devastators. The SBD Dauntless, the only American weapon that was superior to its Japanese equivalent proved decisive at the Battle of Midway.
The Japanese had already advanced south and west through the South Pacific and Indian Oceans. The combined American, British and Dutch Asiatic Fleet was destroyed off Malaysia and Indonesia, along with our carrier Langley. Japanese aircraft had sunk the British warships Prince of Wales and the Repulse in the China Sea, and had driven the Dutch, American and the British navies out of the Indian Ocean, sinking the aircraft carrier Hermes and its escorts. The Japanese navy raided as far west as Ceylon and Madagascar.
Were the enemy to capture Ceylon they could imperil the sea communications not only to Australia and India but also to the Middle East, where Rommel was forcing the 8th Army back towards the Egyptian frontier. A blockade of Lend Lease to Russia and China threatened. With Malta under incessant attack and a new German offensive likely in Russia this was a desperate time, and after the war Churchill was to call the prospect of a Japanese assault on Ceylon “the most dangerous moment of the war”.
“Few officers at this time recognized aviation as the mighty weapon of destruction it later proved to be. The battleship, most non-aviation officers still believed, was the dominant factor in naval warfare. Our carrier aircraft had made many surprise attacks in practice exercises, on ships at sea as well as on the Pearl Harbor base, and even on the Panama Canal. But these were “dry runs.” No actual bombs or torpedoes were dropped and no actual shots were fired by the defending antiaircraft guns. The battleship admirals doubted that planes could accomplish any serious damage in the face of real antiaircraft fire. They admitted that the Navy’s aircraft were a valuable adjunct of the fleet, but considered their primary usefulness to be for scouting and observation. Planes were generously described by the top-echelon officers of that time, who claimed in fact to be “air-minded,” as “the eyes of the fleet.” They failed completely to realize that air power was destined to become the dominant weapon in fighting at sea, that the long rule of the battleship as the mistress of the seas was over, that in the coming war, planes would sink the mightiest battleships afloat without assistance from any surface ships, and that soon no vessels except submarines would dare to move during daylight in a combat area without air cover. A new era in naval warfare was about to dawn.” 7
With information provided well in advance by our Navy code breakers Admiral Nimitz knew the details of the Japanese plans for the air attacks and invasion of Midway Island. Although his three carriers and their escorts was a meager force with which to engage the vast Japanese fleet of 200 ships, Nimitz set up a bold ambush with Admiral Fletcher taking up a position 200 miles north of Midway Island at dawn on the morning of June 4th.8
Details were worked out with Nimitz’s experienced aviation advisors, Admiral Patrick Bellinger and Captain Arthur Davis. Both had experienced Fleet Exercises XVIII and XIX of 1936 and 1938 and knew the importance of getting in the first blows against the enemy carriers. Doctrine would call for our carriers to strike early and hard to incapacitate the enemy carriers’ flight decks so they could neither launch planes nor recover the planes in the air returning from the Midway attack.
In the evening of May 27, the CinCPac and task force staffs held a joint conference under the direction of Admiral Draemel to hammer out battle plans. Present, among others, were Admirals Fletcher and Spruance, Commander Layton, and the operations officers: Captain McMorris from CinCPac, Commander William H. Buracker from Task Force 16, and Commander Walter G. Schindler from Task Force 17. The guiding principles were that the Americans, with inferior forces but presumably better information concerning the opposition, must achieve surprise, must get the jump on the enemy, and must catch the enemy carriers in a vulnerable state. It was assumed that the Japanese Striking Force would begin launching at dawn - attack planes southward toward Midway, search planes north, east, and south. At that hour the American task forces, on course southwest through the night, should be 200 miles north of Midway, ready to launch on receiving the first report from U.S. search planes of the location, course, and speed of the enemy. With good timing and good luck they would catch the Japanese carriers with half their planes away attacking Midway. With better timing and better luck they might catch the enemy carriers while they were recovering the Midway attack group. That the Americans might catch the Japanese carriers in the highly vulnerable state of rearming and refueling the recovered planes was almost too much to hope for.
On May 28th the Enterprise and Hornet carrying Air Groups 6 and 8 departed for optimistically named Point Luck northeast of Midway. They were joined a few days later by the hastily repaired Yorktown with portions of Air Groups 3 and 5.
At dawn, 0450 on the morning of June 4, 1942, the day’s battle opened as predicted by the code breakers. The Japanese invasion fleet of troopships and their escorts was one day’s sailing west of Midway. The four carriers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu were perfectly positioned northwest of Midway, sailing into a southeast wind which allowed them to close the target while launching and retrieving the attack aircraft.
If all these separate groups of young Army, Navy and Marine pilots from Midway could readily find the Japanese carriers why was it so complicated for the experienced open sea navigators of our carrier Air Groups?
At 0710, as the land based planes launched from Midway were actually engaging the enemy, far to the east the first of our carrier planes were just being launched at that late hour. They were beyond effective range and they were too late!
When Lt. Cmdr. Ring, leader of the ill fated Hornet Air Group, reached the point where he expected to intercept the Japanese fleet they were not there. He was two hours too late. The Japanese had changed course northeast to close our carriers. They may have been just over the horizon but his remaining Dauntless dive bombers did not have sufficient fuel to continue with a proper search.
Instead of closing the Nimitz trap on the Japanese Admiral Fletcher abandoned the dawn ambush north of Midway to launch defensive 100 mile searches to his north. At 0710 as the land base Midway aircraft were attacking the Japanese carriers, the American carriers were racing southeastward at high speed away from the enemy. Because of a light 4 knot wind a heavily loaded plane would require a 28 knot speed from the carrier. Admiral Fletcher was recovering the planes launched at dawn in his defensive search.
This placed the enemy at the extreme range of our aircraft, lengthening the distances our attacking and returning pilots had to navigate. Japanese carrier aircraft had longer ranges than the American planes. The distancing of the forces did nothing to protect the U.S Fleet from the long range Japanese attack forces but handicapped our pilots by forcing them to operate at their extreme ranges in uncoordinated attacks.
At 0900 Admiral Fletcher was still 260 miles northeast of Midway when he launched the Yorktown squadrons. Fortunately at 0917 the Japanese carriers turned to a northeast course at high speed to close the American fleet. This course change shortened the distance the Yorktown pilots had to fly to deliver their attack and return without exhausting their fuel.
Lt. Cmdr. Jimmy Thatch, skipper of the Yorktown fighting squadron, was highly critical of the fact that Admirals Frank Jack Fletcher and Raymond Spruance were not aviators. Other high ranking officers agreed.
“Neither Fletcher nor Spruance were naval aviators – they had not grown up in carrier-based squadrons or had command of an aircraft carrier, where all the experience and knowledge is absorbed which would qualify one to command a carrier task force.”10
As the Japanese carrier planes attacked Midway that morning, the Navy, Marine and Army Air Force aircraft based on Midway counterattacked. In five uncoordinated efforts, they fed small vulnerable groups of pilots and planes piecemeal into the savage trap of the Japanese fighters and antiaircraft fire. They were annihilated without any loss to the Japanese.
Admiral Fletcher and his carrier-based squadrons were scheduled to launch a surprise attack from the Japanese flank. Pre-war doctrine detailed in USF-74, the 1941 Manual of Fleet Doctrine, called for a coordinated strike by Hornet’s Air Group 8 and Enterprise’s Air Group 6. They would rendezvous and deliver simultaneous attacks, with the dive bombers dropping first from the sky, diverting attention from the torpedo bombers as they skimmed in low over the ocean and the F4F fighters engaged the Zero’s combat air patrol. This followed the ages old warfare doctrine of concentrating maximum force against the point of attack.
A major unasked question about the Battle of Midway is why Admiral Fletcher selected so distant a launch position on the morning of June 4th.
The original plan ordered by Admiral Nimitz was to take a dawn position 200 miles north of Midway. Instead both task forces were 260 miles northeast of Midway. When the Japanese carriers were sighted Spruance had to turn further away from the enemy into a light southeast wind to launch. Fletcher had to run southeast away from the enemy to retrieve search planes dispatched to the north at dawn as a precaution.
The search function was assigned to the PBYs fanning out as far as 700 miles. Fletcher's 100 mile search with his SBDs accomplished nothing, but delayed our attacks and opened the extreme range our pilots had to fly.
With days to prepare and knowledge that the Japanese fleet would be attacking from the north west into the prevailing wind why did Admiral Fletcher take up such a poor opening position?
Much has been written about the argument between Admiral Spruance and Miles Browning about the 0700 launch from Task Force 16 but no one has raised the question of why they were so far out of position hours after dawn.
Under cover of darkness they could easily have moved 50-75 miles closer to Midway and the anticipated track of the Japanese, at least to reach the planned position 200 miles directly north of Midway Island.
This would have resulted in properly coordinated attacks by our Air Groups, shorter range to the targets and an increase of their impact. Earlier arrivals would have allowed time for searches. Losses that occurred in combat and from ditching after fuel exhaustion would have been minimized.
If Nimitz's admonition "Don’t lose my carriers" dictated Admiral Fletcher's positioning this was another error. The extra 50 or 75 miles meant nothing to the Japanese with their longer ranging aircraft. This applies equally to the rationilazion attributed to his concern about a second group of carriers to the north.
His best defense for his carriers was an early knockout of the Japanese carriers and their offensive power. This had been demonstrated in the war games of the 1930s.
I would suggest that much of the confusion and misfortunes that plagued our carriers' attacking squadrons at the Battle of Midway evolved from this first error of taking a position too far northeast at the birth of day of June 4th, 1942.
Our forces were fragmented in five different groups, dispatched at different times on four different headings, at extreme range, and without an accurate fix on the location of the Japanese fleet.12
The Hornet Air Group 8’s mission was a disaster caused by the launch delays and the necessity to use a “running rendezvous”. The VF-8 fighter squadron was forced down at sea after running out of fuel without ever reaching the Japanese fleet. The 34 VB-8 dive bombers from the Hornet also failed to locate the target and gave up, some flying to Midway to refuel and others returning to the carrier. In the process eight more planes were lost. So the most powerful strike force from the Hornet failed to engage the enemy that morning while losing 40% of its strength. And the Hornet was not in position to assist in the defense of the Yorktown when it was attacked in the afternoon. It is as if the Battle was fought by only two American carriers, Enterprise and Yorktown.
The Enterprise VF-6 fighter squadron also failed to rendezvous with their torpedo squadron and returned to the carrier without engaging the enemy, leaving their doomed comrades in Torpedo Squadron VT-6 to attack without supporting cover.
Lt. Cmdr. John Waldron, leading the Hornet’s VT-8 torpedo squadron, found the Japanese fleet and attacked at 0930 hours without the cover of the dive bombers and fighters ignoring the warning of USF-74’s prewar doctrine that such an attack would be futile.
“Torpedo planes are extremely vulnerable just before launching a torpedo attack. The success of an unsupported torpedo attack upon the enemy main body th good visibility is considered doubtful, especially if there is a protecting screen. ”13
All 15 planes of Waldron’s command were shot down without scoring a single hit. Of 30 men in the crews only one man survived. At 1000 hours the Enterprise’s VT-6 torpedo squadron of 14 planes was expended in the same useless way with no cover from the dive bombers or fighters. Four survived.
I find it strange that in recent years historians and authors chose to ignore this well documented criticism of the ‘black shoe’ admirals by LT. Harold Buell in favor of their own unsupported creative scenarios critical of the aviation contingent.
After three hours of intermittent attacks none of the American carrier F4F Wildcat fighter planes had engaged the enemy. This changed about 1005 when the Yorktown Air Group 3 attempted to make a coordinated attack covered by only six Wildcats of Lt. Cmdr. Jimmy Thatch’s VF 3. Unfortunately the torpedo bombers arrived before the dive bombers and all of the torpedo bombers were shot down just as the dive bombers commenced their attack. Three crewmen were saved. Two of the six Wildcats were lost downing five Zeros.
By 1020 in the morning the Japanese had fought off eight separate attacks, defeating all the American forces sent against them. Admiral Chuichi Nagumo and his staff were jubilant. It seemed that their ships were invulnerable. The American pilots were brave but harmless. Midway was in flames and open to the invasion troops. The American fleet had been located and the four Japanese carriers were preparing to launch hundreds of planes against them. If they had succeeded the Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet would probably have joined our Pearl Harbor battleships at the bottom of the sea. At 1020 that morning the U.S. Navy was facing a disaster.
Only the dive bombers were left as an effective strike force. The only thing that stood in the way of looming defeat that could change the course of the war for the Allied forces was the persistence of the three squadrons of American dive bombers searching the vast Pacific for the Japanese carriers. With Lt.Cmdr. Max Leslie leading, 17 Dauntless dive bombers of VB-3 from the Yorktown approached at high altitude from the northeast, trailing their torpedo squadron. Simultaneously 30 Dauntless of Lt. Cmdr. Wade McClusky’s VS-6 from the Enterprise approached from the opposite direction. They continued on despite the fact that all the pilots were low on fuel and many of the planes had reached the point of no return.
All of the squadron commanders were graduates of Annapolis. The United States Navy’s peacetime planning had not only provided us with inspired strategists like Nimitz and Spruance. It had provided us with mid rank tactical officers to take the lead in battle. All were experienced enough to know the odds against them, Without fighter support and running out of fuel, they pressed home their attacks, laying their lives on the line, matching the finest battle traditions of our Navy’s history or the annals of history.
The Japanese had no radar. With scattered cumulus clouds at lower altitude and without radar it is doubtful that the Japanese Zeros could have spotted our planes in time to divert the attack. At 1025, about an hour after the futile attack of Torpedo Squadron 8, the dive bombers approached unseen at 15,000 feet and plunged into near vertical dives, pulling out low over the Japanese carriers seconds after dropping their bombs. 500 pound and 1000 pound bombs smashed into the flight decks of the Kaga, Akagi and Soryu. In minutes all three of these first line fleet carriers were in flames as the Dauntless dive bombers took evasive action low over the sea, fighting off the Zeros and heading back toward the American fleet.
16 of our dive bomber planes ran out of fuel and did not make it back to their carriers. It was another heroic effort similar to Torpedo 8’s sacrifice, but this time the sacrifice of these brave dive bomber crews paid off. Books and films have immortalized John Waldron and the heroic but futile sacrifice of Torpedo Squadron 8, but nothing has been published about Wade McClusky and the dive bomber pilots who went beyond the point of no return and the 16 who lost their lives making successful attacks that saved the day.
That afternoon, of all the planes with which our Navy had started the day, only 25 dive bombers were available for the final attack on Hiryu, the fourth Japanese carrier. Unescorted by fighters the dive bombers of the Enterprise finished off the Hiryu with the loss of only three planes despite being intercepted and harassed by the Japanese Zeros’ combat air patrol before and during their dives. Another fact that negates the theory that the dive bombers succeeded in the morning only as a result of the diversion caused by the torpedo planes. (The planes from the Hornet arrived too late to attack the Hiryu).
Of 223 aircraft of all types embarked on the three American carriers and 114 land based on Midway atoll, only the dive bombers inflicted any serious damage on the Japanese carriers and that damage was the devastating margin of victory.
What had been shaping up to be another glorious victory for Admiral Yamamoto had suddenly been changed by the dive bombers into the first major defeat suffered by the Japanese Navy in 350 years!
At the conclusion of the film, MIDWAY, Henry Fonda as Admiral Nimitz looks up at a carrier and comments “Were we better than the Japanese or just luckier”? It was one of the better lines of the film for Admirals Fletcher and Spruance were lucky…lucky to have the superb Dauntless dive bombing weapon and dedicated men like Max Leslie and Wade McClusky to lead their squadrons.
The U.S. Navy lost the Yorktown that afternoon. Japanese Val dive bombers from the doomed Hiryu broke through the cordon of F4Fs that had been vectored to meet them thirty miles out. Three bomb hits on the Yorktown brought it to a standstill. It was finished off later by torpedo attacks. Fighter planes of the Enterprise and Hornet combat air patrols were unable to defend the Yorktown because they were operating independently at too great a distance for mutual support.
Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, who had tactical command of the U. S. Task Forces during the battle when all four of the Japanese carriers were destroyed, was not hailed by our Navy as a hero, nor was his picture placed on the cover of Time Magazine as the leader of the greatest victory of the Pacific War. He fell out of favor with Admiral Ernest King, chief of Naval Operations because of his handling of our carriers during the Coral Sea Battle and the Battle of Midway. After the Solomon campaign he was reassigned to a desk job running the Northwest Sea Frontier, the closest thing we had to Siberia. Captain Miles Browning, who had handled the air operations as Admiral Spruance’s Chief of staff, was eventually posted to the Gunnery School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. As they were removed from the eyes of the press and the public, so were the Dauntless dive bombers, and the dramatic story of their victory. Ensign Gay made the cover of Life Magazine!
With the truth obscured post war historians not only failed to examine the superior qualities of dive bombing as a weapon, they even displayed an ignorance of the technique. Their emphasis was on what happened, ignoring details of how and why the dive bombers succeeded. This attitude is reflected throughout the war even though the dive bomber was our Navy’s most potent weapon after the submarine. During the war 175 Japanese warships were sunk by aircraft, primarily dive bombers. Submarines sank 143 warships and 39 were destroyed by the surface navy.14
The historians were content to credit the dive bombers’ victory to the fact that the Japanese fighters were drawn down to sea level chasing the torpedo bombers, a sympathetic theory first advanced a month after the battle in Admiral Nimitz’s Communiqué #97,15 and picked up by all historians thereafter including the Japanese author Cmdr. Mitsuo Fuchida. This confused communiqué attempts to justify the sad sacrifice of all the torpedo bombers. It diminishes the power of the dive bombers, and does not stand examination of the retrospective timeline of the battle, or the fact that we had no torpedo bombers available for the successful afternoon attack on the Hiryu.
An exhaustive report issued by Admiral King to the Secretary of the Navy in April of 1944 still credited damage to the Japanese Fleet by the Midway based aircraft, Army B-17s, torpedo planes, and the submarine Nautilus. Again the role of the dive bombers was diminished. 16
As I continued my research, pondering the oral histories, first hand books, web sites, biographies and autobiographies, I began to sense more of the conditions that might have influenced our Navy’s public relations attitudes at that time. Under the circumstances the story of the dive bombers’ dramatic victory was easily overlooked.
Certainly the image of the Navy and its leadership were more important than the explanation of why the dive bomber aircraft was a superb weapon. I have been told that only 2000 pilots saw action against the Japanese as dive bombers. This does not deter me from now attempting to record the facts about dive bombing for historical purposes.
An investigation might start with Captain John Towers and his pre-war campaign to advance the place of aviation as a weapon of the Navy. Towers was the Navy’s equivalent of the Army’s Colonel Billy Mitchell. His controversy with the “battleship” admirals for recognition of aviation during the 1920s and 1930s continued well into WW II.
In the late 1930s, then-Commander John Towers, Naval Aviator #3, was passed over twice for promotion to Captain and almost left the service for private industry after a colorful career in both World Wars. (Early in WW II he served as liaison with the British and flew combat missions as an observer.)
Our Navy had personnel and leadership problems that originated with the growth of aviation in the 1920s and 1930s and came to a head in the early days of WW II as the aircraft carrier threatened to replace the battleship as the primary weapon of naval warfare. The number of aviation officers would soon exceed surface officers and they had not experienced the career postings normal for advancement in rank.
The promotion board consisted of nine senior battleship admirals and they had traditional methods for evaluating officers for promotion. It was not until June 1939, after the war in Europe had started, that an experienced naval aviator was promoted to flag rank.
In 1925 President Coolidge had convened the Morrow Board to establish a long-range aviation policy including the movement toward a unified Air Force, which would absorb naval aviation. Commander Towers was called to testify:
“They seem to be endeavoring to get me to make the main assault against Col. Mitchell…and to make the big attack against the older admirals in the Navy who are hampering progress in aviation. It is not quite fair to me, for it involves risks to my professional career.” 17
His testimony before Congress can be credited with defeating popular proposals to unify the Army, Navy, and Marine air services as had been done with the RAF in Britain and the Luftwaffe in Germany. In his testimony about the unification plan he exposed the weaknesses of Mitchell’s unified air force scheme and suggested solutions to strengthen naval aviation.
Unlike Billy Mitchell, Captain Towers worked within the system. He always placed the need of the Navy first while expressing his convictions. The New York World Telegram of August 2, 1940 quoted him using the analogy of football. He saw aviation as “the forward pass of warfare…the quick open play with the element of surprise. But you’ve got to have line play or you can’t get away with forward passes.”
He regarded the naval aviator as “part of a team. If he doesn’t practice with the team he can’t do his share: he doesn’t know the signals or the plays. Airplanes are as much a part of the navy as its guns”.
The Morrow Act passed by Congress in 1926 after lengthy hearings had decreed that only aviation officers should command aircraft carriers and naval air bases. To satisfy this law some senior naval officers of the day were given abbreviated flight training at Pensacola although they were 40 and 50 years of age. They earned their gold wings after 100 hours in the air as pilots or observers. The real active pilots referred to them as “Kiwis.” They wore wings but could not fly.
Jack Towers was finally promoted to Rear Admiral December 29, 1939 only after personal intercession by President Roosevelt, who appointed him Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics in Washington. In this capacity he worked miracles in opening naval bases, expanding pilot training, supervising design and procurement of new aircraft and the Essex class of aircraft carriers.
When Admiral Nimitz placed Admirals Fletcher and Spruance in command of the Midway task forces he neglected the spirit of the Morrow Commission calling for aviators in these commands. Admiral Nimitz was a submarine expert, Fletcher battleships and Spruance cruisers. They were not aviators, not even of the “Kiwi” group. As late as the Marshall Islands campaign Admiral Spruance deployed his forces in anticipation of an old style Jutland gunnery duel between surface ships.
According to demoralized aviators in the fleet and high officers in Washington the carrier task forces were poorly employed by the fleet and resulted in the loss of the carriers Lexington, Yorktown and Hornet. It was only after the Marshall Islands campaign that the tactics recommended by the aviators were adopted.
During the intraservice maneuvering of the pre-war and early years of war Nimitz and Towers were antagonists. The word “enemies” was even employed to describe their relationship and harsh words were exchanged. However, in September 1942 Towers was appointed Commander Air Force Pacific Fleet (ComAirPac) and transferred to Pearl Harbor. Nimitz, no doubt reluctant to accept the man with whom he had clashed, could not deny his expertise.18
Criticism of the way aircraft carriers were employed by the battleship minded fleet admirals reached a crescendo after Admiral Spruance lost an opportunity to destroy the Japanese fleet during the first Battle of the Philippine Sea. After the famous Marianna’s Turkey Shoot eliminated the air power of the Japanese carriers, their fleet was open to attack by our Navy’s dive bombers and torpedo bombers. However, Admiral Spruance had tethered the U. S. carriers to a defensive line close to the Saipan amphibious landing forces, vetoing Admiral Mitscher’s recommendation of a more offensive employment of his carriers. In his autobiography Admiral Frederick Sherman stated:
He (Mitscher) reported to Spruance that he proposed to head west at high speed during the night to insure having the enemy flattops within range of our planes at daylight, and thus avoid giving them the advantage of using the islands as unsinkable carriers. Spruance disapproved this proposal in what quickly became famous among aviators as the “end run” message. He directed Mitscher to head east during the night and concluded his message with the words, “Beware of an end run.” It indicated that Spruance still was thinking in terms of a surface action. He did not grasp the tremendous power of our air weapons or their ability to strike in any direction at the limit of their fuel supply…It resulted in the escape of the bulk of the Japanese fleet to fight another day, when it might have been completely destroyed. 19
Evidently Admirals King and Nimitz concurred. After this debacle, a gag order seems to have been placed on the critics and an agreement was made that command of the task forces would be divided between the surface and aviation officers. This resulted in the creation of the dual teams consisting of Admirals Spruance and Mitscher for Task Force 58, and Admirals Halsey and McCain for Task Force 38, with aviators Mitscher and Halsey assuming tactical command of the carriers.
By 1944 Admiral Towers had gained Nimitz’s ear on all aviation matters, much to the chagrin of Sprunce. The Rabaul and Gilberts operations had proved the correctness of Tower’s thinking on the strategic use of carriers. 20
As recounted by Admiral Mitscher’s biographer, the rivalry continued at the invasion of Okinawa when the Japanese battleship Yamato and its escorts sortied from the Inland Sea on a suicide attempt to disrupt our landing forces. Spruance was determined to engage the Yamato to finally employ his fleet of battleships, but Mitscher, now having tactical command, raced ahead with his carriers and sank all the Japanese ships with his dive bombers and torpedo bombers.
This was accomplished with the loss of five pilots and eight aircrew men. A surface engagement between our battleships and the powerful 18-inch guns of the Yamato would have resulted in major damage to our ships and great loss of life. 21
Shortly after the Battle of Midway, Admiral Nimitz’s Official Battle Report was written by him with Commander Ernest Eller, a writer and public relations expert. James Forestall, Under Secretary of the Navy flew out from Washington to Pearl Harbor to consult. This was a carefully worded document. Release was delayed until June 28th allowing the Air Force to grab the early headlines claiming credit for the victory.
It was interesting to me that when we finished the analysis of the Battle of Midway, with its criticisms of the functioning of command, Rafe Bates had taken it upon himself to rewrite some of the history in order to extol Spruance all the more, Spruance rejected it. The three of us who were working there--two captains and myself, a commander--were very upset and objected strenuously to the final version.”
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