Pilots at the Battle of Midway
Jack Reid - PBY Catalina - VPB-44,
Wade McClusky - SBD Dauntless - Enterprise CAG,
John Waldron - TBD Devastator - VT-8,
Marion Carl - F4F Wildcat - VMF-221,
Scott McCuskey - F4F - VF-5
By Stephen Sherman, June 2000. Updated June 27, 2011.
At the Battle of Midway, June 3-6, 1942, United States naval air forces blunted the Japanese offensive thrust of the Pacific War. Starting with the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Imperial Japanese Navy, led by Admiral Nagumo's carriers, had rampaged all over the Western Pacific: Wake Island, the Philippines, Singapore, Dutch East Indies, and even into the Indian Ocean, sinking three British warships off Ceylon. Their momentum had been slowed by the tactical draw at the Coral Sea; although that was clearer in hindsight.
When Admiral Yamamoto determined to invade Midway, as a way of drawing out the U.S. Navy into the "Great All-out Battle," he deployed dozens of warships in the most far-flung naval operation ever attempted to that date. A diversionary force would head for the Aleutians. Nagumo's four carriers, Kaga, Akagi, Hiryu, and Soryu with their attendant cruisers and destroyers formed one group. The Midway invasion force formed another group. And the "Sunday punch," the so-called "Main Body," including the super-battleship Yamato and other battleships would carry Yamamoto and his staff. A complex operation indeed.
But the Americans had broken the Japanese code, JN25, and knew all about it, down to the order of battle of the various naval task forces, as well as the dates involved. Reacting quickly, Admiral Nimitz bolstered the ground defenses of Midway Island itself, and committed his three remaining operational carriers Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown to the battle. In one aspect, Yamamoto's plan was correct: Midway was a target that the U.S. Navy was obligated to defend.
I won't relate the entire story of Midway here. For that, I recommend Walter Lord's Incredible Victory or Miracle at Midway by Prange et al. Here are a few paragraphs about some of the aviators involved in critical moments of the battle.
Jack Reid - PBY Catalina - VPB-44
On the night of May 22-23, even before the Japanese fleet sortied from Hashirajima, American PBY-5A's of Patrol Squadron 44 (VP-44) arrived at Midway. They began to fly exhausting 700-mile, all day searches, covering a semicircular area extending from due North through West, to the South of Midway. On the morning of June 3, 1942, Ens. Jack Reid was piloting his Catalina on a west/southwestern search leg. In this area, other PBY's had run into Japanese patrol bombers from Wake Island, at the extreme northeastern ends of their searches. The previous night Reid's crew had "requisitioned" some blue-tipped 50 caliber bullets that the B-17 crews swore would tear apart the Japanese patrol bombers. Reid and his navigator, Ens. Robert Swan, decided to push their search a little farther. Suddenly, far out to the west, Reid spotted some small specks in the distance. He asked his co-pilot, Ens.Gerald Hardeman, to have a look. "Do you see what I see?" Ens. Hardeman looked out and said, "You're damn right I do." A large number of Japanese ships were heading for Midway. It was the Japanese invasion force: transports, destroyers, and cruisers. An impressive looking fleet to a PBY pilot, but not Nagumo's powerful carriers. Of course, lowly Ensign Reid was not privileged to share in all the confidential information from the broken Japanese code. He saw a lot of ships, and promptly radioed Midway " Sighted Main Body. Bearing 262 Distance 700."
A significant and dramatic message, if not very precise. Midway radioed back "Amplify." Reid dove down low, as quickly as the lumbering Catalina would allow. He assumed this large enemy force would include air cover - Zeroes that would cut his flying boat to pieces (blue-tipped shells or not). He turned north, flying that way for about fifteen minutes. Staying low, he continued flying west 25 miles, until he figured he was safely behind the Japanese ships. Then he flew south, and while taking advantage of scarce cloud cover, gained enough altitude to spot the naval task force below. This time he identified two small carriers and other ships. (This was actually a different group from the one he had first sighted, but he didn't realize that.) After radioing this information to Midway, they called him home, two hours after his initial contact report. Even though he hadn't sighted Nagumo's four big carriers, he had made the first sighting of Japanese ships attacking Midway. The commanders at Midway soon dispatched some B-17's to bomb the invasion force, and the battle was joined.
Nimitz' headquarters at Pearl Harbor and Fletcher's carriers also received Reid's "Main Body" message. Since they expected Nagumo to be coming from the northwest, not west/southwest, this message briefly posed a problem. But Nimitz stuck with his intelligence forecast, and radioed back to the carriers "The force sighted is not, repeat not, the Main Body."
John Waldron - TBD Devastator - VT-8
By the next morning, June 4, 1942, the battle for Midway raged. At dawn the Japanese bombers struck Midway. Search planes from both sides' carriers groped out toward the areas where they suspected the enemy flattops might be. Midway's ground-based aircraft continued to lash out with ineffective attacks against the Japanese ships approaching them from the west and the northwest. "Ineffective" in the sense that no ships were sunk or seriously damaged; but they forced the ships to keep dodging, forced the Zeroes to keep flying CAP, and generally kept the Japanese off balance.
At 0600 hours, American scout planes found the Japanese carriers. Unhesitantly, Admirals Ray Spruance and Frank Jack Fletcher threw almost everything they had them. Three squadrons of torpedo bombers, five squadrons of dive bombers, and two squadrons of fighters headed west to find Kaga, Akagi, Hiryu, and Soryu.
Leading Hornet's Torpedo Squadron 8, Lt. Cdr. John Waldron had drilled his men relentlessly. Fully understanding his squadron's grim prospects, the night before the battle, Waldron distributed a mimeographed message, which concluded:
IF ... WORST COMES TO WORST, I WANT EACH ONE OF
US TO DO HIS UTMOST TO DESTROY OUR ENEMIES. IF
THERE IS ONLY ONE PLANE LEFT TO MAKE A FINAL
RUN-IN, I WANT THAT MAN TO GO IN AND GET A HIT.
MAY GOD BE WITH US ALL.
GOOD LUCK, HAPPY LANDINGS, AND GIVE 'EM HELL!
By 0800, they were in the air, heading west toward the 200-mile distant Japanese carriers. The plans for coordinated attacks by the different planes from the different carriers soon fell apart. Based on his instincts and his study of the Japanese, Waldron led his Devastators right for the enemy. At 0918, they flew over Chikuma, a cruiser screening the carriers. Within a few minutes, the Zeros and the Japanese anti-aircraft fire had shot down all the planes of Torpedo Squadron Eight, as the vulnerable "Devastators" flew into their attack run at low altitude. The only survivor, Ens. George Gay, saw Waldron try to escape from his doomed aircraft, but no one ever saw Waldron again. Gay's own plane was shot. With his gunner, Bob Huntington, most likely already dead, he ' ditched ' his TBD moments after dropping his torpedo. While floating in the water, Ens. Gay watched the battle develop and was rescued.
Wade McClusky - SBD Dauntless - Enterprise CAG
Leading the Enterprise Air Group, Lt. Cdr. Wade McClusky flew southwest to the projected position of the Japanese. Below was empty ocean. Limited fuel always constrained WW2 aerial operations, so McClusky couldn't just flail around the Pacific forever. He continued his prescribed course for a few minutes. Then he had to turn, but which way? If he turned southeast, he would head toward Midway, possibly the safe move (which choice Hornet's Air Group made). But it would have been hard for Nagumo's big task force to speed faster than the projected course. So McClusky headed northwest, roughly toward the last reported position. Then he got lucky. Down below, as single destroyer was heading northeast at a rapid clip, leaving a prominent wake behind. McClusky correctly figured that the lone warship must be heading back to the main Jap fleet. So he turned northeast. Not long afterwards, he found his quarry, the Japanese carriers.
That moment, 10:24AM on June 4, 1942, was one of the most pivotal and dramatic moments in the long annals of warfare. The Japanese carriers, after two changes in plans, were, at that instant, filled with exposed aircraft. Bombs and fuel lines lay out in the open. The carriers could not have been more vulnerable. As they had dodged and twisted to evade the torpedo attacks, their protective formation was dispersed. Their combat air patrol, their Zero fighters, were down at low altitude.
When McClusky's dive bombers screamed down onto Kaga and Akagi, these mighty ships were briefly defenseless and vulnerable. With all their own live ordance, loaded airplanes, and gas lines sitting out on their decks, they were literally floating bombs, waiting to be touched off. The American dive bombers scored several hits on both carriers, which set off chain explosions, one after the other. Soon both carriers, and Soryu (hit by Yorktown's Dauntlesses) were flaming wrecks. The dive bombing attacks on these carriers only lasted six minutes.
In those six minutes, the tide of the war in the Pacific shifted. Four Japanese carriers were sunk that day (Hiryu was dive bombed that afternoon). The stage was set for the long slog through the Solomons and the conquest of the Central Pacific by the new Essex class carriers.