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Midway: Like the Dew
By David H. Lippman
March 2013

After the disastrous Devastator attack, VT-6 pilot Machinist Albert W. Winchell flies his battered plane away from the battle, spewing fuel. When the engine fails, he makes a perfect emergency landing into the sea. Winchell and his crewman, ARM 3rd Douglas M. Cossett, pull out their life rafts, emergency rations, first aid kits, and parachutes to use as awnings and sails. They begin a 17-day ordeal of drifting in the Pacific, surviving on a caught albatross and emergency rations before being picked up by an American PBY on June 21. When both are flown to the Midway hospital, they will have lost 60 lbs. each and be the last survivors to be rescued.

Overhead, VF-6 still awaits its call to battle. It never comes. At 9:52, Gray tries to reach McClusky and Lindsey, to no avail. At 10 a.m., Gray realizes he has barely enough gas to get home. As VT-6 disintegrates beneath him, Fighting 6 heads for Enterprise.

At 9:40 a.m., Ensign Earnest flops his battered TBF on the ground at Midway, goes into a ground loop, and comes to a halt. Earnest and Ferrier climb out of the plane, the only survivors of the Torpedo 8 detachment. They will later be known as “the other sole survivors.” Earnest and Ferrier gain Purple Hearts for their ordeal. Earnest himself also wins two Navy Crosses, one for the attack and one for bringing the TBF home. It’s the first TBF to fight and survive a battle and the aviation experts want to know how the aircraft type fared. Ferrier also gains a Distinguished Flying Cross. Both survive the war, with Earnest retiring as a captain and Ferrier as a commander.


McClusky, January 1942.

 
By 9:55 a.m., Wade McClusky’s Enterprise bombers are short on fuel, but gamely following their leader. In five minutes, he will give up the search. But at that moment, he spots a destroyer beneath him, racing northeast. It’s the Arashi, finished with scaring off the submarine USS Nautilus for the moment and racing to rejoin the fleet. McClusky mistakes her for a liaison cruiser going from Kondo’s Occupation Force to Nagumo. He alters course to follow Arashi.

McClusky’s radio blares with an order from Browning, “Attack, attack!” McClusky retorts, “Wilco, as soon as I can find the bastards.”

Nautilus is struggling, too. At 9 a.m., Brockman pops up his periscope and sees an aircraft carrier under attack. When Arashi turns up, Nautilus dives again. To Brockman’s annoyance, his submarine is leaking air from a deck torpedo tube.

At 10 a.m., Lem Massey spots three columns of smoke just beyond the northwest horizon, 40 miles off. He turns right towards them, Bombing 3 and Fighting 3 following obediently. Neither group has seen the smoke. Leslie asks Massey in code if he has sighted the enemy. No reply.

At 10:05, Ensign Bill Pittman spots some “curved white slashes on a blue carpet,” which become more ships than he has ever seen. Ensign Tony Schneider sees them, too, but his gas gauge gives out, and he has to turn away and splash into the water. He and his gunner will survive three days in the drink before a PBY rescues them.

At the same moment, Leslie sees the smoke. Then Bill Gallagher picks out the wakes of ships 35 miles away. Ten minutes later, Torpedo 3 reaches the enemy — as two Zeros sweep in to attack. Massey calls for fighters. Japanese bullets rip up the Devastators. One explodes a CO2 bottle under pilot William Esders’ feet, filling the cockpit with smoke. He hurls the cockpit open for fresh air.

Massey and his planes roar in, as does Fighting 3. The entire Japanese combat air patrol swings in to tackle the intruders. Lt. Iyozo Fujita, unable to eat breakfast, climbs into his Zero, spotted on Soryu’s flight deck, and races off to fight the Americans.

Zeros dive in on Thach’s two low-level Wildcats, and Thach and his pals dive into battle, creating a busy dogfight. The Thach Weave does not work as planned because only Thach’s wingman, Ensign R.A.M. Dibb, gets the message to use the tactic. But Thach tells Dibb, “Pretend you are a section leader, and move out far enough to weave.” The two test the tactic. It’s Dibb’s first battle, and the tactic works. When a Zero gets in on Dibb’s tail, an angry Thach swoops behind the Zero, and shoots it down. Thach later likens the encounter to a highway game of “chicken.”

However, the Japanese have the numerical advantage, and shoot down Ensign Edgar Bassett. Ensign Daniel Sheedy is ultimately able to bring his damaged Wildcat back to Hornet. But Massey has to attack alone.

Massey’s TBDs run smack into a hungry and tired Iyozo Fujita, who streaks into the formation, joined by 10 Zeros. Bullets tear up Lem Massey’s plane. He climbs out on the wing stub to jump, but there’s no time. Massey and TBD, both in flames, spiral into the Pacific. Chief Aviation Pilot Wilhelm Esders finds himself in command, even though he’s the junior pilot. He looks around to see six or seven TBDs burning around him. He leads the survivors over Akagi and toward Hiryu, amazing Fuchida: They have a perfect release point for Akagi but don’t use it. Esders and his five surviving teammates release their fish toward Hiryu, but Kaku handles the carrier beautifully to avoid the attacks.

Fujita, hungry, swoops after VT-3, and knocks down two TBDs. On his way back to Soryu, his Zero is hit by Japanese AA guns, which set it on fire. Just 200 meters above the sea, Fujita is forced to bail out. His parachute opens just as he hits the water. Fortunately, Fujita’s life jacket propels him to the surface. Once there, he wages a long struggle to free himself from the chute’s lines. Fujita is not having a good day.

On Akagi, Fuchida and his pals cheer and whistle encouragement as the Devastators corkscrew into the sea. The surviving Americans head for home. Esders will almost make it — he will have to ditch his plane within sight of Yorktown, and get picked up by the destroyer Hammann. His gunner, ARM2 Mike Brazier, dies of his wounds. Esders, however, survives to retire with the rank of commander.

Another Yorktown pilot is alive in the water, but his pickup is less pleasant. The Japanese destroyer Arashi hauls the burned, wounded Ensign Wesley Osmus aboard. Osmus’ gunner, Benjamin Dodson Jr., of Durham, N.C., goes down with the plane. The Japanese treat Osmus’ wounds. But Arashi’s skipper, Cdr. Yasumasa Watanabe, wants to have a chat with this American.

As the survivors of VT-3 pull out, it is the end of the line for the TBD Devastator as a weapon of war. Of the 41 sent in to battle that morning, only four return to their carriers. The remaining TBDs go stateside to be used as trainers. They are replaced in the hangar decks and hardstands by TBF (Grumman) and TBM (General Motors) Avengers.

The sacrifice of the three squadrons presents historians with the question: What have they achieved? They have kept Nagumo on the jump all morning, preventing him from regaining the initiative. They have also pulled the Japanese combat air patrol down on the deck to cope with the slow-moving bombers. There are no fighters over the carriers. And the Japanese formation is a mess from all the emergency maneuvering.

However, Nagumo has had enough. He has faced eight attacks in three hours, but despite the delays, the mechanics have re-armed 93 planes, and the flight decks of all four carriers are spotted with the strike on the American fleet. At 10:20, Nagumo orders his carriers to turn into the wind, first to replace the combat air patrol, then to launch the attack. They are getting word that enemy dive-bombers might be nearby.

On Akagi, Genda hears this message, but he is untroubled. He has just seen eight consecutive attacks beaten off with no damage, including dive-bombers. Clearly the Americans are hopelessly inefficient and incompetent.

On Kaga, Chief Warrant Officer Takayoshi Morinaga stands with some pilots on the center of the flight deck, just aft of the second elevator. While waiting to launch, they are working as extra lookouts.

Akagi’s Cdr. Shogo Masuda swings his white flag at 10:22, and Akagi shoots off her lead Zero. Morinaga and their pals see, heading straight for them, what look like tiny black beads falling loose from a string. They shout, “Enemy dive-bombers!”


A Dauntless dive-bomber at Midway.

 
They are Enterprise’s group, untroubled by combat air patrol. Lt. J.G. Edwin Kroeger, of Bombing 6, warns his boss, Dick Best, that he’s short of oxygen. Bombing 6, loaded with 1,000-lb. bombs, drops down to 15,000 feet, where all can remove their face masks. This move puts Best below and ahead of McClusky.

Up above, McClusky studies the situation with his binoculars. No fighters, no flak, all ships turning. Obviously, they’ve been repelling a torpedo attack.

Ensign John McCarthy thinks McClusky has led them back to Enterprise, and his radioman, E.E. Howell, asks, “Do you think we’re home?” McCarthy looks down at the yellow flight decks and pagoda masts. “No, that’s not home.”

McClusky breaks radio silence to assign Gallaher’s Scouting 6 and himself to the carrier on the left and Best to the one on the right, saying, “Earl, follow me.” Best doesn’t get the message, and assumes he will take the nearer target. But McClusky, an aggressive fighter pilot, simply piles in. Best sets up his division and squadron to attack, opens his flaps — and McClusky and Scouting 6 zoom by him. Both squadrons are hitting the same target, Kaga.

Irritated, Best closes his flaps, and signals Bombing 6 to attack the next carrier, farther to the east. Then he opens his flaps and streaks down on Akagi. However, the second and third divisions of Bombing 6 dive on Kaga anyway. The attack is like a textbook illustration, better than any practice assault.

Twenty-five American dive-bombers bear down on Kaga, McClusky leading. At 1,800 feet, he pulls the bomb release. Kaga Air Officer Cdr. Takahisa Amagai, watching from below, is impressed by the Americans’ skill as they dive out of the sun and take advantage of intermittent clouds. Behind McClusky, Gallaher snarls, “Arizona, I remember you,” thinking of his first duty station, now a sunken wreck. He releases his missiles at 2,500 feet.

Gallaher is followed by Lt. j.g. Jacob “Dusty” Kleiss, Ens. James Dexter, and Lt. Clarence Dickinson, leading Gallaher’s second division. On December 7, 1941, flying an F4F from Enterprise to Pearl Harbor, Dickinson saw the sickening tableaux of the U.S. Pacific Fleet being destroyed beneath him. Jittery American gunners shot down his plane, and Dickinson had to bail out. Now he gains a measure of revenge.

At 10:22, Lt. Cdr. Sesu Mitoya, Kaga’s communications officer, standing on the flight deck, dives for it as the dive-bombers’ scream grows louder. Gallaher’s bomb hits starboard aft amid planes spotted for launch, and sees the blinding flash as he pulls out. Morinaga sees the bomb coming straight for him, and hurls himself onto the deck. The bomb sets off the parked planes like a string of firecrackers, which in turn sets off a series of explosions, killing most of Morinaga’s pals nearby.

Two more bombs miss Kaga, and fire control officer Lt. Fiyuma and Mitoya sprint to the bridge to report on the damage. There he finds Capt. Jisaku Okada gaping in disbelief at the situation. Fiyuma says all passages below are afire and most of the crew trapped below decks, with power cut off. The ship is starting to list. Fiyuma urges Okada and the bridge crew to go down to the anchor deck. Okada shakes his head. “I will stay with my ship.” Mitoya heads down to try to reach the Engine Room crews.

At 10:22, Bombing 3 skipper Leslie bangs on the side of his SBD and points out a target below to Bill Gallagher. 15,000 feet below is a Japanese aircraft carrier. It’s Soryu, the most easterly of three below them. Gallagher is awed by the huge ship and the big red circle on her flight deck. Leslie calls Lem Massey on the radio, but gets no answer.

At 10:23, Gallagher tells Leslie that Soryu is launching planes. Leslie pats his head — the signal for “Follow me” — at 10:25 and pushes over in the best dive he has ever made. But he doesn’t have a bomb. At 10,000 feet, he opens fire with his machine guns, to at least lead his men in.

At the last minute, Leslie pulls out, and Lt. Lefty Holmberg leads the actual attack. He puts the red circle in his telescopic sight and waits until 2,000 feet. As he pulls out, he sees the flight deck explode into a column of colorful smoke — red, blue, orange, gray, yellow — and an aircraft fall off into the ocean. AMM2 G.A. La Plant howls with joy at the sight, and Holmberg watches. Lt. j.g. Paul Holmberg and Lt. Sid Bottomley are later credited with direct hits.

While Mitoya clambers down Kaga’s ladders through smoke, Lt. Jacob “Dusty” Kleiss of VS-6, the seventh plane to dive on Kaga, scores a hit on the painted red circle near the forward elevator. The eighth plane to dive in bombs Kaga in the same spot. The seventh plane’s bomb hits the forward elevator and crashes through it, exploding in the hangar deck. The blast cooks off the airplanes, fuel, and ordnance. The next bomb explodes a fuel cart near the air command post, which just misses the Kaga, but the ball of fire covers the bridge with flaming gasoline, killing Okada, Fiyuma, and everyone on the bridge.


The Japanese carrier Kaga.

On Akagi, civilian newsman Teiichi Makishima films Kaga’s ordeal. He’s aware that the censors will probably keep the film, but he is also aware that he is shooting history. He watches the columns of water from the near-misses, and sees Kaga’s bridge burn, and says, “She is beaten at last.”

The following bomb explodes right over Cdr. Yamasaki, the chief maintenance officer, and he disappears. Amagai, watching, thinks, “Let a bomb come upon my head, if it comes. Those who vanish like the dew will surely be quite happy.”

 

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David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist and graduate of the New School for Social Research, has written many magazine articles about World War II. He maintains the World War II + 55 website and currently works as a public information officer for the city of Newark, N.J. We're pleased to add his work to our Daily Content.