Admiral Halsey’s Task Force 16 – carriers Hornet and Enterprise plus escorting cruisers and destroyers – having just missed the Coral Sea battle thanks to a PR operation called the Tokyo Raid, flys off its aircraft and returns to Pearl Harbor on May 26th. Clay Fisher, dive-bomber pilot with Hornet‘s VS-8, lands ashore and finds
all our pilots and aircrew restricted to station. Why? It’s hard to describe the mental pressure we are under….We know we are going into a battle; how many of us will survive? And now we find ourselves deprived of an opportunity for a little relaxation. It just doesn’t seem fair as I watch air station personnel going off base on liberty. That evening bottles of whiskey are given to the pilots to pacify us. After a few become inebriated, they end up wrestling on the lava cinders and having fist fights. No one seriously hurt, but next morning there are faces with skin abrasions and some black eyes. (1)
Led, sometimes mis-led by Hornet Air Group Commander Stanhope Ring, a martinet with frayed nerves and not the best of pilots, the men of VS/VB-8 are unhappy warriors. Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher’s TF-17, meanwhile, returns from Australian waters to Pearl on the 27th, minus carrier Lexington and with Yorktown heavily damaged.
In ordinary circumstances, three months repair in drydock might make her combat-worthy; with most of Japan’s navy now heading east, the Americans have 72 hours to get the job done. Bernard Petersen, aviation machinist and torpedo-plane gunner with Saratoga‘s Air Group 3, now coming aboard to replace Yorktown‘s decimated squadrons (only the superb and relatively intact Bombing 5 retained as a unit), helps
rush all of our support equipment from Kaneohe to Ford Island and begin hauling supplies, tools, and personal equipment aboard on our backs. This goes on around the clock…making our way a real obstacle course. Yard workers by the hundred swarm everywhere, performing miracles in battle-damage repair. Hoses, cables, ladders, acetylene torches…sparks light up the night and add to the tense eeriness of the moment. I talk to members of the Yorktown crew and they are really bent out of shape…promised liberty as soon as they hit Pearl. One hundred days plus at sea is a long stretch, but they accept it and pitch in when told they will be going stateside after this one.(2)
Crewman Bill Surgi finds himself
drilling wooden pegs of different shapes and sizes for all the shrapnel holes in the hull and fuel and water tanks, then we drive them in with sledgehammers to make her watertight. In the spaces below decks where bombs went off, we put in big timbers and weld cross-beams to shore up decks and bulkheads. We have shipyard workers on board and our working parties are going around the clock. Nobody gets shore leave…nobody sleeps. To fix bomb-holes in the flight-deck, they hoist aboard huge metal plates and we fasten them down with metal spikes. The ship isn’t what I’d call seaworthy, but the flight deck is operational.(3)
With Adm. King in Washington agitating for Fletcher’s removal on grounds of “lack of aggression” (read: personal antipathy), Pacific Fleet C-in-C Nimitz calls him in for a face-to-face. After stopping along the way in a Honolulu bar for some liquid fortification, Frank Jack makes a strong case for his conduct of the Coral Sea battle – where he won a major strategic victory with an inferior force – and Nimitz decides to retain him in overall command of the upcoming confrontation. Halsey, however, drops out: suffering from combat fatigue and shingles, he hands over command of TF-16 to his cruiser commander, Adm. Raymond Spruance. Though he next brings Fletcher and Spruance together to coordinate plans and procedures, Nimitz does not directly subordinate Spruance (who has no experience commanding carriers) to the battle-tested Fletcher. Time and energy is also expanded fending off Washington, where Naval Intelligence still thinks the real Japanese target may be the American west coast. Meanwhile some 700 miles eastward at Midway Island(4), an Army Air Force B-17 heavy bomber squadron takes up residence, and the dive-bomber squadron of Marine Air Group 22 receives a
draft of nine new pilots….On May 27 arrival we are greeted by remarks indicating that we’re “just in time” for something. Doesn’t bother us….Next morning at squadron briefing Major Henderson lets us know that the Japs are due, and we do a little more thinking on the matter. The greenest group ever assembled for combat includes 2nd Lieutenants George Lumpkin, E.P. Thompson, George Koutdas, D.L. Cummins, myself, Jack Cosley, Ken Campion, Orvin Ramlo, and James Marmande. None of us has ever flown a Vindicator, so we check it out…
…with no more trouble than a couple of ground loops (and) we all make two or three dives with practice bombs. Mighty little preparation for the job at hand.(5)
While Midway builds up ground and airstrength and repairs on Yorktown continue, Spruance’s force – carriers Enterprise and Hornet with 6 cruisers (heavies New Orleans/Minneapolis/Vincennes/Northampton/Pensacola + light anti-aircraft cruiser Atlanta) and 9 destroyers (Phelps/Worden/Monaghan/Aylwin/Balch/Conyngham/Benham/Ellet/Maury) – quickly provisions and sorties from Pearl. Press correspondant Bob Casey, witness to Halsey’s Marshall Islands and Tokyo raids from cruiser Salt Lake City , now finds himself aboard Northampton:
28 May, Thursday…out of harbor 8:30 AM, at 9 heading out through the slot. The day turning out well, cool enough. Calm, sleepy atmosphere broken only by Fort Weaver ack-ack ominously thumping off our port bow. Apparent now that we’re going northwest and best though on the subject suggests that we are heading for a slugging match.
The sluggers, both carriers’ air groups, fly aboard around mid-afternoon. Enterprise Air Group Commander Wade McClusky brings in VF-6, 27 F4F “Wildcat” fighters led by Lt. James Gray; VB-6, 19 SBD “Dauntless” dive-bombers led by Lt. Richard Best; VS-6, another 19 dive-bombers led by Lt. Wilmer Gallaher; and Lieutenant-Commander Eugene Lindsey’s VT-8, 14 TBD “Devastator” torpedo-planes. Hornet‘s Air Group Commander, ill-omened Stanhope Ring, arrives with VF-8, 27 F4F fighters led by Lt.-Cdr. Sam Mitchell; VB-8, 19 Dauntlesses led by Lt.-Cdr. Robert Johnson; the 18 dive-bombers of Lt.-Cdr. Walter Rodee’s VS-8; and VT-8, 15 torpedo-planes under Lt.-Cdr. John Waldron.
29 May, Friday…at sea, calm, cooler. This morning an announcement to officers on watch that we will shortly contact an enemy who is traveling in great strength. According to the best information the Japs have mustered many carriers and battleships, a large number of cruisers and countless destroyers. As usual we seem to be holding the short end of the stick – this time shorter than usual. We muster two carriers, a few cruisers, and a handful of destroyers to face an armada, meeting it with a flyswatter and a prayer. Today heading almost due west, tomorrow we will be in waters north of Midway…already in their patrol zone. A B-17 passed over us today. Well, we might sit here and fret but, while our assets may be slim, they are good. We have our carriers and inasmuch as the Japs art going to run into it we may look upon Midway Island as another carrier – and unsinkable at that. So let us think in a grand fashion….This is our great opportunity.(6)
The American Admirals think so too. At noon on the 29th Spruance chairs a conference attended by his staff, Air Group Commander, and the Enterprise fighter, torpedo, and dive-bomber squadron c/o’s. Among them Richard Best of VB-6:
He lays out the whole plan of the Jap attack, including that they will hit the Aleutians on June 3rd…not only gives us the names of their carriers – Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, Hiryu – but also mentions a battleship force coming up from the southwest and a transport unit with troops that will land on Midway. The carriers will striike from the northwest, at daybreak on June 4th. This is all hard to believe. Our submarines cannot possibly have observed all Spruance tells us…he gives their battleship and cruiser division numbers, even the names of ships. When the briefing is complete, he asks for questions. I speak up boldly, “Admiral, suppose they don’t hit Midway but keep going east and hit Honolulu or Pearl again?” I have a wife and four-year-old daughter there. Spruance regards me silently…then says, “Well, we just hope they won’t.”(7)
Next day is uneventful for TF-16 and newsman Casey….
30 May, Saturday….at sea, northeast of Midway. Cold and a little gray. Finagle about all day to no apparent purpose and it gets colder and grayer.
….while TF 17, as seen by Crudiv commander William Ward Smith,
shoves off for the Midway area early in the morning of 30 May. Yorktown not exacly the ship she once was, but her watertight integrity is restored….As my flagship Astoria gets underway and heads for the channel buoys, we receive a message from CINCPAC: “Captain W.G. Greenman reports for duty as relief of Captain Scanland.” Scanland asks me, “What now?” My reply, since we’re underway, “Well…Nimitz has some fast boats. If he wants you relieved at this time, Greeenman will catch up with us…if not, you are stuck with this cruise.” He answers, “That’s OK by me.” As we start the sortie, notice heavy cruisers Indianapolis and Louisville slipping their moorings. They’re going to join Rear Admiral Theobald and his cruiser-destroyer force in the Aleutians. To my flag Lieutenant, Bert Robbins, I remark, “Poor devils…off to the dreary cold of the godforsaken Aleutians.” All ships out by 0900 and Task Force 17 forms up and heads for point “Luck” some 350 miles northeast of Midway where we will rendezvous with Spruance.(8)
Ralph Wilhelm, a floatplane pilot aboard heavy cruiser Portland, gets
underway at 0845….Yorktown, Astoria, 5 destroyers and our ship leaving Pearl but we don’t know what for. Fired our 5″ battery this morning, afternoon the 8″ turrets. Bob, Al, and I fly during the firing. Thought we might return to port this evening but at about 1500 Yorktown’s planes come aboard so I know we are not going back in. Now heading NW on course 320 at 19 knots but no one seems to know where to.(9)
First to land are the 18 dive-bombers of VB-3, led in by Lt.-Commander Max Leslie; then Lt.-Cdr. Wallace Short’s VS-5: 19 dive-bombers; and finally VT-3, 13 torpedo-planes led in by Lt.-Cdr. Lem Massey. All these aircraft come aboard without mishap but, amidst all this lethal techonology, death is omnipresent. While Cdr. John Thach’s 25 Wildcat fighters come in, radioman Ray Daves watches from the bridge. VF-3’s executive officer, Lt.-Cdr. Don Lovelace, gets down first and he is
still in the cockpit when the next plane approaches the stern. Coming in hot, too fast….I can tell by the sound of the engine. The LSO tries to wave him off. I’m laughing when he drops his paddles and scrambles out of the way….Why doesn’t this pilot pull up and try again? He comes in so fast that the tail hook bounces over the arresting cables and then he plows through the last barrier, a rope net below the island. I brace for the impact…this plane crashes into the one that just landed, propeller blades cutting through the canopy and I watch them chop the pilot’s body into pieces as blood splatters across the flight deck….”.(10)
Lovelace, an experienced and popular exec, will be much missed. But Thach and the other Fighting Three pilots have little time to mourn.
That night, after we get everything buttoned up, all pilots of the air group are brought into the wardroom. There the carrier Air Officer gives us a complete briefing on everything known about the oncoming Japanese forces and their intentions. We are all mighty impressed….If we can win this one, we may be able to stop the Jap advance. So we spend the time at hand getting our ammunition ready, checking and re-checking each aircraft. Then I get word that the dive-bomber C/O and the commanding officer of VT-3 want to have a talk….Massey says I ought to stay up with the dive-bombers, “because that’s where the Zeros are going to be, where they were during the Coral Sea battle.” That’s the issue, whether my fighters should go with the dive-bombers or the torpedo-planes. I don’t have enough fighters to split up and send a few with each….I reason that, since the torpedo-planes went in unopposed and got hits at Coral Sea, the Japs will be more concerned about them now….So it’s finally decided that I will go with VT-3. But then Captain Buckmaster, Yorktown’s C/O, decides that only 6 fighters can go. He wants to hold back the rest to defend the ship.(11)
Aboard Northampton, correspondant Casey greets
31 May, Sunday…at sea, northeast of Midway.Cool. Calm. Took on fuel this morning, including lots of aviation gasoline, all of which is right under my bed. HQ – may its tribe increase – sent out a request today for somebody to take pictures of Jap battleships, etc., so that profiles in the spotting books can be corrected. Except for this odd communication, nothing to suggest that there is a war going on in the neighborhood.
For Yorktown radioman Daves, the morrow is
a good day because I spend my free time with Mike Brazier…one of the new aviation radiomen that hangs out with us. Not sure how we got to be such good buddies in so short a time. Maybe that’s just the way it is when you’re stuck together on a ship during a war. But I think Brazier and I would have been friends anywhere. Ashore, we’d go for beer and play some pool….He’s got a girlfriend back home and shows me her picture, going to get married the next time he gets leave. I’m more afraid for him than for myself, as he is a rear-seat gunner on a torpedo-plane. By this time everyone knows that the Devastators aren’t devastating at all…too slow, carrying a 1,000-pound torpedo they can barely do 100 mph. Brazier never indicates any fear; we don’t talk about it. But this day I know he isn’t concentrating very well when we play acey-deucy…beat him two times out of three.(12)
Next morning, June 1st, cruiser scoutplane pilot Wilhelm
tows the sleeve for the force and all ships fire on it with 1.1’s, 20 mm and machine guns. Then make high runs at 7,000 feet so they can calibrate their range finders, but it’s very cloudy and I doubt if they see me at all. Al flies the mid-day inner air patrol on which he sights two tankers and two destroyers ahead. He reports them by message drop to Yorktown and as he’s pulling away he accidentally drops one of his bombs ahead of the carrier….We fueled three destroyers yesterday so we are low on fuel and fuel from tanker Cimarron this afternoon. She and the Platte join with us….these two tankers left Pearl with TaskForce 16 so evidently they are up here someplace.(13)
They are, as correspondant Casey simultaneously records,
….at sea, northeast of Midway. Cool and a bit foggy. Now really in Jap territory. We can tell by the condition watches and our daylight zig-zag. Odd that it seems much like any other part of the Pacific, We continue to contact whales large and small, as if there weren’t plenty of Hirohito’s subs in the vicinity.
Due to the Americans’ code-breaking intelligence coup and quick exit from port, most of these Japanese submarines are now many miles east of the U.S. fleet, forming a powerful but useless patrol line near Oahu which Yamamoto thinks will give him advance warning of anything hostile coming out of Pearl Harbor.
At noon, raining, a thick grey rain. Boots and saddles for launching planes. Then un-boots and saddles. Too wet…too thick. About 2 PM an alarm…planes sighted to starboard. Our cruiser’s scouts go out to look at them….Midway-based PBY’s. The aviators come in, red-faced from the wind and wet, yellow rubber jackets dripping and shiny. “I was always a delicate kid”, says pilot Tom O’Connell. “They used to wonder if I’d ever grow up. Now I wonder if I’ll live to see my next birthday.” ….”When is it?” ….”Thursday.”
2 June, Tuesday….northeast of Midway. At 1 PM the Yorktown arrives with two cruisers and an assortment of destroyers. This new force stays aloofly over toward the horizon on our starboard side, but they make a very inspiriting sight…”(14)
(to be continued)
Clayton Fisher, Hooked – Tales and Adventures of a Tailhook Warrior (Denver, 2009), p. 73
Peterson, Briny to the Blue (Scottsdale, 1992), pp. 53-54.
Surgi quoted in Oliver North, ed., War Stories, Vol. II, Heroism in the Pacific (Washington, 2004), pp. 116-117.
Ringblom account @ http://www.onemarinesview.com/one.
Casey, Torpedo Junction (Indianapolis, 1943), p. 363.
Best statement in Wayman C. Mullins, ed., 1942: Issue In Doubt (Austin, 1994), pp. 191-192.
Smith, Midway – Turning Point…(NY, 1966), p. 69.
Wilhelm’s diary at Chris Hawkinson’s Battle of Midway site, http://www.centuryinter.net/midway/veterans/ralphwilhelm.html.
Daves, Radioman (NY, 2008), pp. 112-113.
Thach quoted in John T. Mason, Jr., The Pacific War Remembered – An Oral History Collection (Annapolis, 1986), pp. 98-100.
Daves, op. cit., pp. 114-115.
Wilhelm, loc. cit.
Casey, op. cit., pp. 364-365.