All posts in “Midway”

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Midway 70 Years Later: US Shore-based Air Order of Battle

US Land-based Air:
Sunday, 17 May 1942.PACIFIC OCEAN AREA (POA, 7th Air Force): The 7th Air Force is placed on alert in anticipation of a possible attack on Midway. For the next 10 days the old B-18′s on hand are used on sea searches to supplement the B-17′s. VII Bomber Command receives an influx of B-17′s during this period, and the 72d Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 5th Bombardment Group (Heavy), is converted from B-18′s to B-17′s.

Beginning with Billy Mitchell’s “demonstration” off VACAPES in 1921 where the Ostfriesland and ex-USS Alabama were sunk by heavy bombers, airpower proponents hailed the ability of land-based aircraft to protect our coastlines, claiming precision bombing would make surface ships obsolete.Now, in the wake of the attack by Japanese carrier-based aircraft on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent all out offensive through out the western reaches of the Pacific, land-based air began staging at Midway and would soon have the chance to prove if the advertising was true or not.

Onboard Midway, a collection of aircraft ranging from Marine fighters (F2A Buffalos and F4F Wildcats) and dive bombers (SBD Dauntless’s and SB2U-3 Vindicators) to Navy PBY Catalina’s and TBF-1 Avengers were joined by elements of the 7th Air Force, contributing 17 of America’s frontline bomber, the B-17E Flying Fortress and 4 of the new Martin B-26 Marauders.The former would conduct long range patrols in concert with the Navy PBYs to locate Japanese forces and attack same from high altitude while the Marauders would be used for low-level attacks with airborne torpedoes.

(Ed note: Because of the ranges involved, Japanese land-based air was not a factor and the Navy/Marine aircraft at Midway island will be rolled up with US carrier-based air)

The PBY Catalina

Ubiquitous, jack-of-all trades, vital, lifesaver.Many adjectives came to describe the PBY Catalina, perhaps the widest produced and used seaplane of record.Designed with the extreme distances of the Pacific and the rise of a potential rival, Japan, in mind, the PBY (PB – Patrol Bomber, Y-Consolidated Aircraft) first flew on 28 March 1935 as the XP3Y-1 (it later would be changed to PBY) – the final construction figure is estimated at around 4,000 aircraft, and these were deployed in practically all of the operational theaters of World War II.

The XP3Y-1 soon proved to have significant performance improvements over current patrol flying boats. The US Navy requested further development in order to bring the aircraft into the category of patrol-bomber, and in October 1935 the prototype was returned to Consolidated for further work. The work included installation of 900 hp (671 kW) R-1830-64 engines. For the redesignated XPBY-1, Consolidated introduced redesigned vertical tail surfaces. XPBY-1 had its maiden flight on 19 May 1936, during which a record non-stop distance flight of 3,443 miles (5,541 km) was achieved.
While the Catalina would see extensive service as an ASW aircraft, night attack and SAR, its most famous missions were as a long range patrol aircraft – first locating the German pocket battleship Bismarck and later at Midway, making the initial sighting of the Japanese fleet bound for Midway.Thirty-one PBY-5s from Patrol Wings 1 and 2 (under Captain Cyril Simmard, USN) were onboard Midway serving this mission and providing SAR capabilities as a secondary function.

 

The B-17E Flying Fortress

On 8 August 1934, the U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC) tendered a proposal for a multi-engined bomber to replace the Martin B-10. Requirements were that it would carry a “useful bomb load” at an altitude of 10,000 feet for ten hours with a top speed of at least 200 mph.Also desired were a range of 2,000 miles and a speed of 250 mph. The Air Corps were looking for a bomber capable of reinforcing the air forces in Hawaii, Panama, and Alaska. The competition would be decided by a “fly-off” at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio. Boeing competed with the Douglas DB-1 and Martin Model 146 for the Air Corps contract.

At the fly-off, the four-engine Boeing design displayed superior performance over the twin-engine DB-1 and Model 146, and General Frank Maxwell Andrews of the GHQ Air Force believed that the long-range capabilities of four-engine large aircraft were more efficient than shorter-ranged twin-engined airplanes. His opinions were shared by the Air Corps procurement officers and, even before the competition was finished, they suggested buying 65 B-17s.
In spite of a crash of the prototype later that year, the USAAC had been impressed by the prototype’s performance and, on 17 January 1936, the Air Corps ordered, 13 YB-17s for service testing. The YB-17 incorporated a number of significant changes from the Model 299, including more powerful Wright R-1820-39 Cyclone engines replacing the original Pratt & Whitney’s.

On 1 March 1937, 12 of the 13 YB-17s were delivered to the 2nd Bombardment Group at Langley Field in Virginia, and used to help develop heavy bomber techniques and work out other bugs.In one of their first missions, three B-17s, following lead navigator Lt. Curtis LeMay, were sent by General Andrews to “intercept” the Italian ocean liner Rex 800 miles off the Atlantic coast and take photographs. The successful mission was widely publicized.

In late 1937 the Air Corps ordered ten more planes, designated B-17B and, soon after, another 29.Improved with larger flaps, rudder and Plexiglas nose, the B-17Bs were delivered between July 1939 and March 1940. They equipped two bombardment groups, one on each US coast.Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, fewer than 200 B-17s were in service with the Army, but production quickly accelerated, and the B-17 became the first truly mass-produced large aircraft.The aircraft went on to serve in every World War II combat zone, and by the time production ended in May 1945, 12,731 aircraft had been built by Boeing, Douglas and Vega (a subsidiary of Lockheed).

The B-17E variants at Midway were an extensive redesign of that used in previous models up to the B-17D. The most obvious change was the vertical stabilizer, resulting in a shape that was distinctive for the time.

Because experience had shown that the plane would be vulnerable to attack from behind, a tail gunner and powered two gun turret behind the cockpit were added to the B-17E design. (Before this, crews had to devise elaborate maneuvers, to deal with a direct attack from behind, including jerking the aircraft laterally, allowing the waist gunners to alternate shots at it.) The configuration with 3-window box would also appear on the B-29, and also adopted by Soviet bombers as late as the Tupolev Tu-16 Badger, and in different form on the B-52. The teardrop-shaped sliding panels of the waist gunners were replaced by larger rectangular windows for better visibility. In the initial fifth of the production run, the ventral bathtub turret was replaced by a remote-sighted Bendix turret. Aircraft built after that used a Sperry ball turret.A total of 512 were built, making the B-17E the first mass-produced version of the B-17.The B-17E’s at Midway were under the command of Lt. Col. Walter C. Sweeney, USA and were assigned to the 7th Air Force.

The Martin B-26 Marauder

In 1939, the United States Army Air Corps issued a specification for a twin-engined medium bomber, Circular Proposal 39-640. Six months later, Glenn L. Martin Company presented a design to the Air Corps. Peyton M. Magruder led the design team for this aircraft after Martin won the contract. This design, Martin Model 179, was accepted for production before a prototype even flew, due to the desperate need for medium bombers following the intensification of the war in Europe.

Once the first aircraft came off the production line in November 1940, Martin conducted tests, the results of which were promising. The first B-26 with Martin test pilot William K. “Ken” Ebel at the controls, flew on 25 November 1940 and was effectively the prototype. Soon after, it was turned over to the Army Air Corps to be service tested. It went from paper concept to working plane in less than two years.

While the B-26 was a fast plane with better performance than the contemporary B-25 Mitchell, its relatively small wing area and resulting high wing loading (the highest of any aircraft used at that time) led to tricky high-speed landings (approach at 140 mph (225 km/h) and stall at 130 mph (210 km/h) indicated airspeed). The R-2800 engines were reliable but the electric pitch change mechanism in the propellers required impeccable maintenance and was prone to failure. Failure of the mechanism placed the propeller blades in flat pitch with instant total loss of power. Due to the rotund fuselage, the B-26 engines were placed far outboard and loss of power on one side resulted in a violent snap roll flipping the aircraft on its back. This led to a high number of accidents during takeoff, thus earning B-26 the nickname “Widowmaker” by its pilots (other colorful nicknames included “Martin Murderer,” “The Flying Coffin,” “B-Dash-Crash,” “The Flying Prostitute,” (because it had no visible means of support, referring to the small wings) and “The Baltimore Whore” (because the Martin Company was located there).

The toll eventually led to a halt in production. During this time a commission of inquiry (led by then-Senator Harry Truman) was appointed to look into the problem. When Truman and the other commission members arrived at the Avon Park Bombing Range, they were greeted by the still-burning wreckage of two crashed Marauders. Indeed, the regularity of crashes by pilots training at MacDill Field — up to fifteen in one thirty day period — led to the only mildly exaggerated catchphrase, “One a day in Tampa Bay.”

The B-26 began combat operations in early 1942 in the Pacific, but saw most of its action in the Mediterranean and European theaters. These aircraft, also a part of 7th Air Force, were under the command of Capt. James Collins, USA.

books1

What We’re Reading – And Why

The Current "Stack of Shame"

A quick look at the sidebar will reveal a variety and number of books read over the course of the past year, oft times engendering discussions off-site as to selections and purpose.  Looking at the current working stack on my desk, I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk to why these particular selections.

My first read of Kissinger’s book got me thinking about deterrence theories that emerged during the Cold War, how they were put on the shelf 20 years ago when the Soviet Union disappeared and now, how some folks think we can just pull them off the shelf and apply them to China.  Problem is, not only do I think those theories may not apply, they may in fact, carry us down avenues with results quite different than we intended.  Part of my studies and work on theater nuclear forces was grounded in a better understanding of Russian culture as applied to Soviet deterrence practices across a range of operations, theaters and levels of war.  That I ended up disagreeing with the prevailing (at the time) school of thought shouldn’t come as a surprise to readers here – and neither should my initial thoughts laid out above vis-a-vis China.  This isn’t just in the nuclear arena, but even more so conventional as we look at the array of advanced anti-access/area denial forces being fielded by China, employable outside of a conflict over Taiwan.  So – I’m taking a historical perspective/approach looking at China’s actions in a conventional realm versus near peer (conventional) powers and major nuclear power.  There is a pattern that points to an offensive deterrence that, during a confrontation, has led to fairly aggressive actions that incurred substantive losses on the other party’s account, followed by a rapid withdrawal from overrun territory by Chinese forces to show occupation wasn’t their intent.  A noteworthy element of these actions though, and one that must be factored into the analysis is that these case histories stem from Mao’s reign and a PLA that was short on technology and long on manpower (ground forces) which runs counter to the decade-long modernization and overhaul in doctrine and operations (epitomized, for example, by the development and wide deployment of a range of conventional ballistic missiles).  Additionally, while most of the Party leadership were veterans of the Long March and Korea and as such, had experience with military operations, today’s Party leadership has at best, passing acquaintance with military operations and requirements.  In such a scenario, will there be more deference given plan and COAs sourced from the military — IOW, a tendency to accept at face value n the part of Party leadership?  As I delve into this issue, these are some of the questions I am asking myself and which form the entering argument with the publications above.

  • Russia, NATO BMD and the INF Treaty:
Nervov, RSVN (Strategic Missile Troops) Missile Complexes Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty; Text and Annexes National Defense University, Case Studies: U.S. Withdrawal from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty Podvig, Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces Stav, The Threat of Ballistic Missiles in the Middle East

When the US withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2002, there was a varied response from Russia, ranging from Putin’s non-committal “do what you must” to statements from the Defense Minister and Chief of Staff that Russia would investigate dropping out of the INF Treaty.  In the intervening years since, this threat was rolled out on various occasions when the Russians wanted to highlight their concern over various aspects of the US efforts to develop and deploy ballistic missile defense.  Since the initial announcement of the European Initiative in 2007  (basing 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland, supported by an X-band radar in the Czech Republic) it has become a recurring theme, in concert with “other military-technical means.”  This begs a couple of questions – namely, what are the real motivations behind the rhetoric, what real benefits would Russia accrue in stepping away from the first bi-lateral nuclear treaty that banned an entire class of weapons and set the stage for the START treaties on strategic nuclear forces and, in an age of growing numbers of ballistic missiles, nuclear and conventional, inhabiting the 500-5500km range (essentially longer ranged SRBM, MRBM and IRBMs as well as ground-launched cruise missiles), is the INF Treaty still relevant?  Part of the investigation includes a deep dive into the developmental history of Russian ballistic missiles with particular attention being paid to one of my old haunts — the period 1976-1987 and the impetus behind the development and deployment behind the SS-20/Pioneer IRBM.  As noteworthy as the political, military and engineering decision-making behind Pioneer’s development and controversial deployment was, there were two other programs – Skorost (“Speed”) and Kuryer (“Courier”) which bear investigation.  Each program was the result of a deliberate decision to respond to the Pershing II/GLCM deployment (itself a response to the SS-20 deployment) with new ballistic missile systems (or in the Russian vernacular, missile complexes), derived from (then) new mobile strategic systems like the SS-25 and aimed specifically at the systems the US was deploying to strengthen the nuclear guarantee to NATO.  The impetus behind this is to see if there are parallels between then and now that may predict or explain certain behaviors and statements from Russian leadership in the current dispute over the US-led European Phased Adaptive Approach to ballistic missile defense against the Iranian ballistic missile threat.

It is popular to talk about the “global economy” in referential terms as if it is a late-20th Century/21st Century phenomena.  In actuality, beginning with the return of Columbus from the 1492 expedition, profound ecological and economic wheels were put into motion – almost all of which had unforeseen consequences.  Mann’s work is a masterful, scientific review of the “Colombian Exchange” and later, the impact the founding of Manila some 80 years later by the Spanish explorer Legazpi would have on not only Europe, but the American and African continents that stretch into today.  Economist Miller (author of “War Plan Orange”) turns to recently declassified documents to take another look at attempts by the US to dissuade Japan from its aggression in China in the run-up to Pearl Harbor.  Building on his experience in international trade while working for a major mining company, he brings new perspectives on the role international finance had in influencing Japanese decision-making and actions — and in the process spurred a branches & sequels process that led to the Pacific war.  While far from finished with Bankrupting the Enemy, I think those who would argue for a trade war/currency war today with China would be well advised to consider Miller’s work and a look at the unintended consequences (as well as what a bureaucracy can do to thwart Presidential initiatives) that may result.  Both authors have a compelling writing style that addresses head on, complex ideas and concepts, placing them in a thoroughly comprehensible context – something, unfortunately, that cannot be said about some the preceding texts which can verge on the turgidly pedagogical….

And finally, there is reading just for the simple pleasure of a story well told, even if it is of an event that has been as widely dissected and told as that of Midway.  One of the vehicles used under such conditions is historical fiction and a new entry in that genre is Vengeance Strikes the Blow, written by G. Alvin Simons and published by Cripple Creek Press:

 Excerpt from the book:


    Kusaka staggered a few steps as Akagi turned toward the approaching enemy aircraft presenting a smaller target. He watched as three of the battered, tattered medium bombers continued winging toward the carriers intent on launching their torpedoes. Frantic Zeroes, having retreated earlier from the tremendous volume of friendly gunfire belching forth from the screening vessels, now ignored the threat. They dove in, blasting away at the deadly intruders.

    The deep Pacific waters already littered with destroyed enemy aircraft, Kusaka wondered at the Americans’ tenacity. We slaughter them with ease, yet still they come, he thought. Seemingly oblivious to the certain death awaiting them. Almost contemptuous in their disregard for our defense. Are they arrogant? Stubborn? Fools? What kind of men are these?

The lead aircraft closed to within a thousand meters before releasing its torpedo. It splashed down and disappeared from view, running toward its intended target. The unburdened plane skittered away across the wave tops with enraged Zeroes hounding its tail. Kusaka’s eyesight remained locked in place, waiting for the weapon to reappear when it neared Akagi.
    The huge ship made another hard turn, veering away from the oncoming torpedo. Kusaka lurched sideways into Genda, releasing a groan of pain from the young officer. The torpedo chugged past, missing the carrier and leaving a trail of bubbles in its wake. Cheers and clapping drifted on the combat-torn wind, falling silent as the second enemy plane bore in. The defensive gunfire increased in volume. A mountain of shot and steel sought to destroy the attacking aircraft. Amidst the panicked frenzy and close quarters, friendly fire struck neighboring vessels. Kusaka winced at the number of stray rounds zipping between the ships. This is utter madness, he thought. We could be wounded or killed at the hands of our fellow countrymen.

Haven’t had much of a chance to get too far in, but what I have read so far I like and it is getting good reviews in important venues like the Battle of Midway Roundtable; definitely a recommended buy (available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle versions).

So that’s were the end of 2011 and the (near) start to 2012 finds us — some of the research will find its way here, but the bulk is for other venues.  I will be interested to see what is in the offering for the new year (book-wise) and am interested in what you are reading as well as why – let’s hear what’s on your Stack of Shame!

w/r, SJS

Guest Post: THE U.S. NAVY’S FLEET PROBLEMS OF THE THIRTIES — A Dive Bomber Pilot’s Perspective

From 1923 to 1940, the US Navy conducted 21 “Fleet Problems” as it sought to understand, exploit and incorporate new technologies and capabilities while developing the tactics, training and procedures to employ the same should war present itself – which by the 1930s was beginning to look more and more likely to the discerning observer. Conducted in all the major waters adjacent to the US, these problems covered the gamut of naval warfare from convoy duty, ASW, strike warfare and sea control. Most important, at least to this observer, was that this was the laboratory that tested the emerging idea of putting tactical aircraft at sea on board aircraft carriers. In doing so, the inherent flexibility of aviation across a broad span of warfare areas became apparent as more people in leadership looked at naval aviation as something more than just a scouting force for the main battery of the fleet extant — the battleline. It was in this laboratory that the Navy developed the techniques and identified the requirements for carrier-based dive bombers, so different form the big, lumbering land-based bombers that the Air Corps’ advocates were saying would make ships obsolete by high altitude, “precision” bombing. Proof would come at Midway when both forces were employed — the B-17′s dropping their bombs from on high hit nothing but water. But dive bombers from Enterprise and Yorktown struck at the heart of the Kido Butai. And as the thousand-pounder from Lt Dick Best’s SBD Dauntless smashed through the Akagi’s flight deck, a battle was turned and the course to winning a war was set. But it took visionaries to set the wheels in motion. Here then is the story – fittingly from the perspective of one of the few WWII dive bomber pilots still with us, LCDR George Walsh, who flew that great beast of an aircraft, the SB2C Helldiver in the Pacific theater. – SJS

As we enter the second half of the Centennial of Naval Aviation, I have found no reference to the “Fleet Problems” of the 1930s that were of great importance to the progress of naval aviation. These exercises were conducted at sea by hundreds of ships and aircraft of the peacetime Navy to prepare our nation for possible war.  The Fleet Problems were vital, providing realistic training for the generation of professional naval officers, mostly Annapolis graduates, who were responsible for leading America to victory in WW II despite enduring the hardships and sacrifices of the 1930’s. The exercises were well planned and intense, demanding all the devotion and talents of the men who participated under conditions that simulated wartime and called for extended tours of sea duty.

As you look back on these Fleet Problems you will find it mystifying that we were so unprepared for the December 7th, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, and that the Battle of Midway was badly mismanaged.

“The “Fleet Problems” should not be confused with the “War Games” conducted at the Naval War College in Newport. The fleet and not the college developed the strategy and tactics for air warfare in the Pacific.1 It was in the conduct of these exercises that our Navy perfected the techniques of aircraft carrier operation and proved the usefulness of carrier task forces as an offensive weapon.

It is interesting to trace the progress of naval aviation from the earliest introduction of a carrier, the Langley (1922), into the 1926 Fleet Program VI as an auxiliary to Fleet Problem XXI in 1940 when the carrier Task Forces acted as a long distance striking force independent of the main battleship forces.

USS Langley sunk at the Battle of Java Sea 1942

USS Wasp sunk in Solomons 1942

As aircraft increased in speed, range and bomb loadings, the Fleet Problems reflected the value of the new capabilities. New carriers were built to take advantage of the new and more powerful aircraft, first the Saratoga and Lexington in 1927, then the Ranger (1934), Yorktown (1937), Enterprise (1938), and Wasp (1940).

Fleet Exercise IX
It was not until 1929 that a major aviation breakthrough occurred. Rear Admiral Joseph Reeves, commander of the aircraft squadrons of a simulated enemy force, dispatched the carrier Saratoga and its escorts away from the main battleship fleet, and made a daring high speed run in for a mock attack on the Panama Canal; this exploit received extensive press coverage.

“Writing many years later, (Cmdr.) Eugene E. Wilson, who had been one of Reeves staff officers in 1929, would rightly state that Saratoga’s exploits during Fleet Problem IX marked the first step in the development of the Carrier Task Forces which were so effective in the Pacific. This operation convinced naval aviators – and some surface warriors, such as (Admiral) Pratt – that task forces built around carriers would be of importance in the future of naval warfare.” 2

“The most important conclusion drawn from the Saratoga’s raid was the impossibility of stopping a determined air attack once it was launched. Unfortunately, in the years to come, this lesson would be forgotten, by certain members of the so-called Gun Club—the battleship men who were unwavering in their faith in the supremacy of the big gun. Their preoccupation with refighting the Battle of Jutland instead of ensuring the security of the fleet contributed greatly to the disaster at Pearl Harbor. Evident to Reeves and to the carrier commanders who followed in his footsteps, was the reality that in any future engagement involving aircraft carriers at sea, the first carrier to locate and bomb the other would determine the outcome.” 3

Rear Admiral Joseph Reeves, center

Fleet Problem X
Next year the first long distance aircraft carrier vs. aircraft carrier battle was simulated in 1930:

“Then at 0810 the three Lexington scout bombers made a dive bombing attack on the Saratoga, “damaging” the forward edge of her flight deck. At 0829, just 14 minutes after the scout bomber strike, the first waves of Lexington dive bombers, 45 aircraft in all, began a series of attacks that rendered Saratoga’s flight deck useless, wrecked half her aircraft, and destroyed a number of anti-aircraft guns, Then, 4 minutes later, at 0833 15 Lexington fighter bombers made a pass at Saratoga, and then hit Langley. Within two minutes a dozen more Lexington fighter bombers hit Langley. The umpires ruled that both carriers had been destroyed as well as all their aircraft. In twenty minutes both Blue carriers had been put out of action, in an incident eerily resembling the fate of three Japanese carriers at Midway in1942.”
“Virtually all observers commented on the importance in carrier warfare of getting in the first blow”. 2

Fleet Problem XI
This comment is repeated in the analysis of the 1931 exercise:

“Of even greater consequence was that the lesson of Fleet Problem X as to the importance of “getting in the first blow” against enemy carriers was clearly reaffirmed in Fleet Problem XI.” 2

Boeing F2B-2, 1931 Fighter

Fleet Problem XIII
1932 was an interesting year following the invasion of China by Japan. The scenario proposed that Hawaii had been taken over by an enemy and the U.S. Navy was dispatched to take it back. In a joint exercise the Army played the part of the Black occupying power and our Navy the Blue attacking force.

Captain John Towers, Chief of Staff, planned to use the carriers Lexington and Saratoga to launch a sneak attack on the Army in Hawaii prior to covering landings by the marines. On Saturday, February 5th, the two carriers and destroyers formed a separate Task Force and left the main battle fleet, making high speed runs in to a launch position 100 miles north of Oahu during the night. At dawn Sunday morning a surprised Army woke to the roar of fleets of aircraft attacking their installations. Captain Towers had timed the attack perfectly.

“The fact that Japan nearly duplicated this attack on Pearl on Sunday morning, 7 December 1941, was no accident. Early in the 1950s Towers dined in Tokyo with a Japanese vice admiral who had participated in the planning. “He told me they had simply taken a page out of our own book!” 4

In 1942, shortly after the Battle of Midway, Towers was appointed ComAirPac and supervised the employment of our carriers for the balance of WW II. No longer did black shoe officers captain aircraft carriers.4

Admiral John Towers, Time Magazine June 23, 1941

Fleet Problem XIV

“The 1933 problem was designed to simulate a war in the Pacific, one initiated by carrier operations. Anticipating that Japan would attack before formally declaring war (as she had done against Russia in 1904), the scenario envisioned the sortie of the Japanese fleet eastward across the Pacific. This fleet, its sinister designation Black, had ominously prescient orders: “To inflict maximum damage on the PEARL HARBOR NAVAL BASE in order to destroy or reduce its effectiveness.”

“The Army, (defending Blue force) had put their forces on full alert January 27th, and 24 hour air patrols were initiated out to 150 miles. Avoiding Blue air patrols, the Black carriers and their escorts arrived at a position north of Molakai around midnight on January 30th. The strike force arrived over Pearl Harbor around dawn and was ruled to have inflicted serious damage.” 4

Fleet Problem XVI
Held in 1935 it was the largest mock battle ever staged, conducted over an area of the sea covering five million square miles of the North Central Pacific between Midway, Hawaii, and the Aleutian Islands and involving 321 vessels and 70,000 men. Although four aircraft carriers participated, the major contribution to aviation was the experimentation with underway refueling of carriers that enabled carrier task forces to operate independently.  Debate over the role of aircraft carriers continued, and reached its nadir in 1938 when Admiral Claude C. Bloch was appointed CINCUS. It came as a shock to the naval aviation contingent for Admiral Bloch regarded carriers as just another ship to serve as an auxiliary tied to the battle line.2

Fleet Problem XIX
However, in 1938 the Black Fleet again simulated an attack on Hawaii. Saratoga was commanded by Captain John Towers, who had earned his wings in 1911, and was the first of the Navy’s pioneer airmen to command a fleet carrier.  Admiral Ernest King “decided to affect a surprise air raid on Pearl Harbor. He directed Saratoga to the northwest of Hawaii. Using a convenient weather front, at 0450 on March 29th King launched an attack from 100 miles that hit the Army’s Hickam and Wheeler airfields and Pearl Harbor Naval Air Station with “devastating effect.” 2

Douglas TBD-1, 1937 Torpedo Plane

Fleet Problem XX
As war loomed in Europe in 1939 this Fleet Problem was witnessed at sea by President Roosevelt while he was embarked on the cruiser Houston and the battleship, Pennsylvania. From the time he had served as Secretary of the Navy from 1913-1920, FDR took a lively interest in all matters pertaining to the Navy.

“Although short, Fleet Program XX demonstrated a high degree of sophistication in the development of the American naval force. The navy’s use of air power had clearly matured. Both commanders, Kalbfus and Andrews, had managed their air forces rather well, each concentrating his efforts at destroying his enemy’s air power before going after his battle fleet. Each had made carriers the center piece of independent task forces.” 2

Grumman F2F-1, 1939 Fighter

Fleet Problem XXI
The opening of the war in Europe caused stringent controls of the press in 1940, and dispensed with the traditional diplomatic attempts to disguise the identity of the simulated enemy force, Japan. Among the objectives was to study various fleet and carrier task force defensive formations. Lexington and Saratoga with four heavy cruisers and 4 destroyers made up the Strike Force operating independent of the Attack Force of cruisers and destroyers, and the Main Body of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers.  For this exercise one division of Omaha class cruisers was commanded by Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher who was later chosen to lead our carrier task forces at the beginning of WW II despite the fact that he had no prior experience with aviation or aircraft carriers.5   At the conclusion of this exercise President Roosevelt ordered the fleet to remain in Hawaiian waters in the hope of sending a message to Japan.

Fleet Problem XXII
In December1940 this problem was cancelled as the Navy concentrated all effort on preparing for the eventuality of entering a shooting war.  As a nation we need to appreciate the dedication of our professional Annapolis trained corps of officers who endured the hardships of the thirties and worked intently on these Fleet Problems to keep our Navy in fighting shape. It can only be compared to athletes training for a future Olympics, constantly working out to stay in shape with exercises that were challenging both mentally and physically.  There were probably less than 37,000 regular naval officers at the start of the war with skills honed during the Fleet Problems.6

In addition to this key contingent, the exercises trained the warrant officers, chiefs and ratings who reenlisted year after year during the hard times of the ’30s. These experienced men were available when needed to provide a manpower framework to enable the huge wartime expansions of the 1940s as they were distributed among the new ships to mold the raw recruits.

Douglas SBD-3, 1941 Dive Bomber

The Fleet Problems had also trained pilots like Lt. Cmdrs. Wade McClusky, Max Leslie and John Waldron of Midway fame as they searched the Pacific for the Japanese carriers on June 4th, 1942. Having served as the cutting edge during the fleet exercises, they were well aware of the importance of disabling the flight decks of the Japanese carriers before they could launch a strike against our carriers. Our carriers and the lives of their shipmates depended on it. It was this awareness that prompted John Waldron to lead his squadron in a quixotic foray into the “Valley of Death”. It was this awareness that drove Wade McClusky to search beyond the “point of no return.”

During the Fleet Problems each year the pilots faced danger every time they climbed into the cockpit. They faced casualties from carrier operational accidents, mechanical failures and pilot error. They also had to fly missions that tested the limits of aircraft and pilot capabilities. Admirals experimented with night and bad weather flight operations as well as the limits of aircraft range, and the speed of carrier launchings and recoveries. Admiral King, later Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet and CNO, was not popular with the pilots he put at risk in his drive for efficiency.

Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King

Finally, the Fleet Problems perfected more than aircraft carrier operations. At the same time the Navy was working out problems in logistics, intelligence, staff structure, communications, cryptology, and radar.  It is to be hoped that the budget crisis shaping up now in Washington does not hamper our nation’s ability to support our Navy’s continuing preparedness for threats unknown.  We still need to support our professional Annapolis trained officer corps even when there is no apparent threat in view.

Lt. Cmdr. George J. Walsh USNR
July 17, 2011

Notes:

1. The Quiet Warrior, by Thomas B. Buell
2. To Train the Fleet for War, by Albert A. Nofi
3. All the Factors of Victory, by Thomas Wildenberg
4. The Struggle for Naval Air Supremacy, by Clark G. Reynolds
5. Black Shoe Carrier Admiral, by John Lundstrom
6. Battle Report by Walter Karig, From Author’s Foreword

Article Series - Centenary of Naval Aviation (1911-2011)

  1. Flightdeck Friday: Smoke and the Battle of Midway
  2. Flightdeck Friday: RF-8 Crusaders and BLUE MOON
  3. Flightdeck Friday: Midway POV – Wade McClusky
  4. Flightdeck Friday: 23 October 1972 and The End of Linebacker I
  5. Former VFP-62 CO and DFC Recipient, CAPT William Ecker, USN-Ret Passes Away
  6. CAPT John E. “Jack” Taylor, USN-Ret.
  7. Flightdeck Friday: USS MACON Added to National Register of Historical Places
  8. Tailhook Association and Association of Naval Aviation
  9. Flightdeck Friday: Speed and Seaplanes – The Curtiss CR-3 and R3C-2
  10. Flightdeck Friday: A Family Remembers a Father, Naval Officer and Former Vigilante B/N
  11. Out of the Box Thinking and Execution 68 Years Ago: The Doolittle Raid
  12. The ENTERPRISE Petition – A Gentle Reminder
  13. USS Enterprise (CVAN/CVN-65) At Fifty
  14. A Golden Anniversary: The Hawkeye At 50
  15. Project CADILLAC: The Beginning of AEW in the US Navy
  16. Project CADILLAC: The Beginning of AEW in the US Navy (Part II)
  17. Project CADILLAC: The Beginning of AEW in the US Navy (Part III)
  18. Reflections on the E-2 Hawkeye’s 50th Anniversary
  19. An Open Letter to “The 100th Anniversary of Naval Aviation Foundation”
  20. U.S. Naval Aviation – 100 Years
  21. Doolittle’s Raiders: Last Surviving Bomber Pilot of WWII Doolittle Raid, Dies at 93
  22. More Naval Aviation Heritage Aircraft (But Still No Hawkeye)
  23. Naval Aviation Centennial: Neptune’s Atomic Trident (1950)
  24. Naval Aviation Centennial: One Astronaut, A Future Astronaut and Reaching for New Heights
  25. Flightdeck Friday Special Edition: The Space Shuttle – Thirty Years of Dreams, Sweat and Tears
  26. Flightdeck Friday – Postings from the Naval Aviation Museum
  27. Saturday Matinee: US Naval Aviation – the First 100 Years
  28. National Museum of Naval Aviation – Some Thoughts and A Call to Action
  29. Flightdeck Friday – 100 Years of Naval Aviation and the USCG
  30. Guest Post: THE U.S. NAVY’S FLEET PROBLEMS OF THE THIRTIES — A Dive Bomber Pilot’s Perspective
  31. This Date in Naval Aviaiton History: Sept 18, 1962 – Changing Designators
  32. Centennial Of Naval Aviation – The Shadow Warriors

Remembering Midway – 68 Years Later

In every battle there is a moment when the combatants, and the world, seem to catch their breath. It is a fleeting moment, lost in the blink of an eye. But in that same blink, everything changes. Such moments are borne of desperation, of courage, of plain dumb luck. But they are pivotal – for what was before is forever changed afterwards. – SJS (June 2007)

Three years ago I wrote that at the end of a series of posts (which are collected here)  that began on the 65th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea, and culminated on the anniversary of Midway with some modern day observations and what we might take away. For even today, with all our technological sophistication there are still things we can learn at all levels, be it at the Fleet or in the cockpit or on the bridge.  One of those lessons is the role of the individual and seizing the initiative when everything else seems to be going to hell in a handbasket around you.  That was something impressed upon me as a young LTJG E-2C Mission Commander and I found resonance and inspiration from the JO’s and petty officer’s actions that pivotal day.

And sometimes it means pressing ahead into a situation from which you know there is no way out — but to do otherwise would result in a greater loss.

There aren’t too many of them left — the original Midway vets that is.  Same for the Doolittle Raiders.  Ditto Medal of Honor awardees from that era.   These modern day Samuel’s raised their Ebenezer in our darkest hours – and what was before was forever changed.

The job wasn’t finished yet though, and the way ahead was still perilous — Guadalcanal, Savo Island, Bloody Tarawa (can it ever be though of as just Tarawa?), Iwo Jima, Anzio, Normandy, Bastogne and the Meuse — Okinawa; all lay in the future.  But it was a future made possible by the fighting spirit of the Navy, Marines and Army Air Corps in a far flung theater whose battlefield was but a featureless, sun-dappled sea of blue.  Still, more would come and follow in their footsteps.  And you and I today carry their proud heritage forward.

The far horizon is difficult to discern these days and it may well indeed hide gathering storm clouds – from whence direction I can not say for certain.  But it would do us well to heed their lessons and remember their deeds when the warning flags are broken and we are called to battlestations once again.

– SJS, June 2010

CAPT Roy P. Gee, USN-Ret: Midway Veteran

From the Midway Roundtable comes word that another veteran of that battle has folded his wings. CAPT Roy Gee, USN-Ret. who flew from USS Hornet (CV 8 ) with Bombing EIGHT quietly passed on 28 Dec 2009. Details of his life may be found at the Roundtable’s site. Also there is a first person account of Midway:

Suddenly, “Pilots Man Your Planes” was announced. We all wished each other good luck as we left the ready room for the climb to the flight deck and our SBDs. (And by the way, climbing up and down the ship ladders many times a day will get you in great physical condition! Carriers didn’t have escalators in those days.) I met my R/G, Radioman First Class Canfield at our assigned SBD and went over our mission and recognition charts with him. I don’t know which particular aircraft (side number) we flew that day—my only record of that went down with the Hornet at the Battle of Santa Cruz.


After completing an inspection of the aircraft and its bomb, Canfield and I climbed into the cockpits. As I sat there waiting for the signal to start engines, I suddenly got the same feeling of apprehension and butterflies in the stomach that I got before the start of competition in high school and collegiate athletics. The butterflies left after takeoff as I focused on navigating and flying formation. Our two squadrons (VB-8 and VS-8) rendezvoused in two close-knit, stepped-down formations on each side of CHAG’s section, which consisted of CHAG and VS-8 wingman ENS Ben Tappman and VB-8 wingman ENS Clayton Fisher. CHAG’s section was flying above and somewhat separated from VB-8/VS-8 and was escorted by 10 VF-8 F4Fs. As we proceeded to climb to 19,000 ft, we soon lost visual contact with VT-8. We were maintaining absolute radio silence and were on oxygen, and our engines were on high blower. I eased my fuel mixture control back to a leaner blend in order to conserve fuel as we leveled out at 19,000 feet and proceeded on our assigned course.” Read the rest here.


Rest in peace CAPT Gee with the thanks of those who honor your courage and action on that fateful day when so much hung in the balance.

Saturday at the Movies: Midway

No, not that one — this is original footage shot by John Ford and his cameramen at Midway during the attack.  This version of the classic film has been cleaned up and redone in hi-res – quite a feat considering the state of film at the time.  Be sure to watch in HD and full screen.  Some particulars from the email with the link:

When Ford viewed the rushes that he had taken at Midway — the massive explosions, the debris slamming into the camera, the spectacular raising of the flag amongst black clouds of ruin — he knew he had something special. But in a way, the material was too good — sure to be heavily redacted by the Navy as too frightful and disturbing for public consumption. So in Washington soon after the battle, the wily director secretly passed the reels to one of his young field photo editors, the former child actor Robert Parrish, and asked him to cut it down to a decent twenty-minute documentary. “Is it for the public or the OSS ?” Parrish asked.
“It’s for the mothers of America ,” Ford shot back. “It’s to let them know that we’re in a war, and that we’ve been getting the #### kicked out of us for five months, and now we’re starting to hit back.” (h/t Battle of Midway Roundtable)

And now . . . John Ford’s Battle of Midway:

By the way – how about stopping by the Valour-IT site (hit that thermometer up in the right corner there and it’ll take you there) and dropping a fin (or three) for Team Navy in appreciation ?

The vast editorial staff here heartily recommends it and you will have made a difference in the life of someone who has given so much for us.

Flightdeck Friday: Midway POV – Wade McClusky

Written narratives and biographies are important and a primary research source.  However, when one has the opportunity to listen to a narrative, especially of one who was there and played a key role in a major event  – that is even better.  Courtesy friend and contributor to this blog, LCDR George Walsh, USN-Ret, himself a dive bomber pilot from the Pacific theater (SB2C Helldiver) comes a clip of a radio interview with then RDML Wade McClusky, USN-Ret conducted on the 30th anniversary of the Battle of Midway and a few short years before he left this life for greener pastures. – SJS

(click here to listen) → C.Wade McClusky, Radio interview 1972

h93187Rear Admiral Clarence Wade McClusky, Jr., USN (Retired), (1902-1976)

Clarence W. McClusky, Jr. was born in Buffalo, New York, on 1 June 1902. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1926 and became a Naval Aviator three years later. Over the next decade, he served in several air units, as well as on command staffs, as an instructor at the Naval Academy and at shore facilities. In 1940 he was assigned to Fighting Squadron Six (VF-6), based on USS Enterprise (CV-6), and assumed command of that squadron in April 1941.

Lieutenant Commander McClusky became Enterprise air group commander in April 1942. During the Battle of Midway, while leading his air group’s scout bombers on 4 June 1942, he made the critical tactical decision that led to the destruction of the Japanese aircraft carriers Kaga and Akagi, thus making a vital contribution to the outcome of that pivotal battle. Later in World War II, he commanded the escort carrier USS Corregidor (CVE-58).

Captain McClusky served in a variety of staff and shore positions in the later 1940s. During the Korean War, he was Chief of Staff to the Commanders of the First and Seventh Fleets. He commanded Naval Air Station, Glenview, Illinois, in 1952-53, and the Boston Group of the Atlantic Reserve Fleet in 1954-56. Clarence W. McClusky, Jr., retired from active duty in July 1956. At that time, in recognition of his vital contributions to the outcome of World War II, he was advanced to Flag rank. Rear Admiral McClusky died on 27 June 1976.

USS McClusky (FFG-41) was named in his honor.

015704w

Article Series - Centenary of Naval Aviation (1911-2011)

  1. Flightdeck Friday: Smoke and the Battle of Midway
  2. Flightdeck Friday: RF-8 Crusaders and BLUE MOON
  3. Flightdeck Friday: Midway POV – Wade McClusky
  4. Flightdeck Friday: 23 October 1972 and The End of Linebacker I
  5. Former VFP-62 CO and DFC Recipient, CAPT William Ecker, USN-Ret Passes Away
  6. CAPT John E. “Jack” Taylor, USN-Ret.
  7. Flightdeck Friday: USS MACON Added to National Register of Historical Places
  8. Tailhook Association and Association of Naval Aviation
  9. Flightdeck Friday: Speed and Seaplanes – The Curtiss CR-3 and R3C-2
  10. Flightdeck Friday: A Family Remembers a Father, Naval Officer and Former Vigilante B/N
  11. Out of the Box Thinking and Execution 68 Years Ago: The Doolittle Raid
  12. The ENTERPRISE Petition – A Gentle Reminder
  13. USS Enterprise (CVAN/CVN-65) At Fifty
  14. A Golden Anniversary: The Hawkeye At 50
  15. Project CADILLAC: The Beginning of AEW in the US Navy
  16. Project CADILLAC: The Beginning of AEW in the US Navy (Part II)
  17. Project CADILLAC: The Beginning of AEW in the US Navy (Part III)
  18. Reflections on the E-2 Hawkeye’s 50th Anniversary
  19. An Open Letter to “The 100th Anniversary of Naval Aviation Foundation”
  20. U.S. Naval Aviation – 100 Years
  21. Doolittle’s Raiders: Last Surviving Bomber Pilot of WWII Doolittle Raid, Dies at 93
  22. More Naval Aviation Heritage Aircraft (But Still No Hawkeye)
  23. Naval Aviation Centennial: Neptune’s Atomic Trident (1950)
  24. Naval Aviation Centennial: One Astronaut, A Future Astronaut and Reaching for New Heights
  25. Flightdeck Friday Special Edition: The Space Shuttle – Thirty Years of Dreams, Sweat and Tears
  26. Flightdeck Friday – Postings from the Naval Aviation Museum
  27. Saturday Matinee: US Naval Aviation – the First 100 Years
  28. National Museum of Naval Aviation – Some Thoughts and A Call to Action
  29. Flightdeck Friday – 100 Years of Naval Aviation and the USCG
  30. Guest Post: THE U.S. NAVY’S FLEET PROBLEMS OF THE THIRTIES — A Dive Bomber Pilot’s Perspective
  31. This Date in Naval Aviaiton History: Sept 18, 1962 – Changing Designators
  32. Centennial Of Naval Aviation – The Shadow Warriors

Flightdeck Friday: Smoke and the Battle of Midway

Checking in from the SJS-family’s TAD site this weekend (and yes, we still are in the pre-internet age back at the homeport, still awaiting the service visit by the provider…), where the lead Scriblet is tying the matrimonial knot (and once again, the weather-guessers appear to be winning as we contemplate low ceilings and fits of precipitation for the beach-side event).

Today’s contribution is from LCDR George J. Walsh, USN-Ret., an SB2C Helldiver pilot with significant time and experience in the Pacific campaign post-Midway.  George has been on a campaign to place the proper emphasis on the part of the sentence that runs “the dive bombers at Midway were successful, but only because…” and we are in full agreement.  The whole concept of dive-bombing and the attendant success the US Navy enjoyed at Midway and elsewhere in the Pacific has tended to be glossed over or assumed away as the fortunate happenstance of other external factors.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  To underscore this view, the following perspective is provided by LCDR Walsh. – SJS

66sbdMany reasons have been offered to explain the success of the dive bomber squadrons in destroying all four of the Japanese aircraft carriers at the Battle of Midway on June 4th, 1942.

Some mythic reasons date from the Navy’s Communiqué #97 of July 14, 1942, the 1948 Bate’s Report issued by the Naval War College, the official history of Samuel Morison, and every historian since that time. Here are some of the reasons suggested:

1. The torpedo bombers drew all the Zeros down to sea level. It would take a Zero 7 minutes to climb from sea level to 15,000 feet.

2. The Japanese fleet had lost its cohesion as a result of the early attacks. The carriers were widely separated from one another and the ships of the screen, weakening anti-aircraft protection.

3. The Zero fighters ran out of ammunition downing the torpedo bombers. They carried only 60 rounds for their cannon and thirty seconds of ammunition for their machine guns.

4. Exposed torpedoes, bombs and fuel lines were left unprotected on the decks because of the confusion created by the attacks from Midway.

5. The Japanese carriers were not well constructed for defense with little armor and compartmenting. They had poor damage control making them easy prey for the dive bombers.

6. Japanese tacticians were more afraid of torpedoes than bombs and deployed their fighters accordingly.

7. The Japanese lookouts that should have spotted the high level dive bombers were distracted by the action at sea level fighting off the torpedo bombers.

8. The smoke created to foil the torpedo bombers’ attacks led the dive bombers to the Japanese carriers. Without the smoke from the torpedo defense the dive bombers would not have located the Japanese fleet.

While every historian has parroted one or more of these reasons, some of which are debatable, none has ever considered the features of dive bombing as a weapon system that would explain the decisive success of the dive bombers in snatching victory from defeat at the Battle of Midway. There has been more concern about finding some justification for the appalling losses of the Midway based airmen and the torpedo bombing crews in the uncoordinated attacks of that morning.

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 at high altitude and harassed by the Japanese Zeros’ combat air patrol sbdpilotbefore and during their dives. This victory negates the theory that the dive bombers succeeded in the morning only as a result of the diversion caused by the torpedo planes, a theory dismissed in Shattered Sword as a myth.

The dive bomber prevailed in the battle of Midway because it was the superior weapon. 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. (1)

Here are some facts about dive bombing I would like to make part of this record.

The dive bomber was the predecessor of today’s guided missile. They were programmed in the ready room aboard the carrier. They were launched from the deck and directed over sea and land to targets. Once over the target they tipped over from 10,000 feet and visually locked in on the target. In a plane diving at 300 knots the two-mile dive took 30 seconds with the image of the target growing ever larger in the pilot’s windscreen. Early in the war at Midway pilots followed pre-war doctrine and released their bombs at 2,000 feet or more. As the war progressed bombs were released at 1,000 feet (2) before pulling out. At 506 feet per second this was only two seconds before impact.

In other words the only difference between the WW II dive bomber and the Tomahawk missile was these two seconds. The only difference between our Navy’s dive bombers and the Japanese Kamikaze was these two seconds. Dive bombers were the first “Smart Bombs”, and the Japanese were the first to employ aircraft as suicide weapons

At the Battle of Midway the Japanese had no radar and maintained radio silence. Their fighters were vectored to intercept targets by bursts of anti aircraft fire. By the time dive bombers were in range of anti-aircraft fire they were almost at the push over point of their attacks.

dive-bombingOnce the Dauntless dive bombers were committed to the vertical dive with dive flaps deployed it was almost impossible for the speedy Zeros to maneuver into an effective firing position. This was demonstrated in the afternoon attack on the Hiryu. 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, during and after their dives.

The bomb dropped at high speed by a dive bomber reached its terminal velocity and impacted the target vertically. This combination of mass and momentum helped make the Midway dive bombers effective against the Japanese carriers.

However, the lack of armor piercing aerial bombs limited the effectiveness of the dive bombers on follow up attacks against the heavy cruisers Mogami and Mikuma on June 7th. It took hits by 6 bombs to sink the Mikuma, and the Mogami escaped with severe damage after 6 bomb hits.

Pre-war attack doctrine allocated the dive bombers role to flak suppression so the torpedo bombers could deliver the killing blows. This meant that the bombs that struck the Mikuma and Mogami had impact fuses that shredded the superstructure of the heavily armored decks of the cruisers but failed to penetrate to the vitals of the ships.(3)

After Midway, as the effectiveness of the dive bomber was recognized, armor piercing bombs were soon added to the carriers’ arsenals.

SBDCaseyThe dive was always under control. With dive flaps deployed the aircraft would quickly reach a constant speed (terminal velocity). This could not be achieved with an aerodynamically clean plane like the Zero that would continue to accelerate in a vertical dive. This near vertical dive had another defensive advantage. Japanese ships had few HA (high angle) anti-aircraft guns. The targeted ship could not elevate most of its anti-aircraft guns to fire straight up. Even then the Dauntless presented a slim head-on target profile to enemy gunners. Screening ships had very difficult deflection shots at a deceptive flight path and only 30 seconds to adjust aim and range.

On the other hand torpedo planes flew low over the water at slow speed through the entire enemy fleet. Fighters and the screening ships’ anti-aircraft fire picked them up as far as twenty miles out and tracked them all the way in under constant fire to their drop point 800 yards from the target. To launch their torpedoes the planes maneuvered slowly for beam shots on the Japanese carriers and flew directly into the broadside barrage of all the target’s AA guns.

In fanning out to attack torpedo squadrons lost the massed defensive firepower of their gunners’ machine guns while in stepped down V of V formations. Each torpedo plane became a one on one target for the Zero fighter’s machine guns and cannon, a terribly uneven match.

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. Waldron was an experienced naval officer and should have known it was suicidal when he led his men to attack.

“Torpedo planes are extremely vulnerable just before launching a torpedo attack. The success of an unsupported torpedo attack upon the enemy main body with good visibility is considered doubtful, especially if there is a protecting screen. ”(4)

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.

The dive bomber squadrons maintained the mutually supporting defensive strength of their V of V formations right up to the push over into their dives. The rear cockpit gunners rode the dives looking backwards while manning their machine guns for immediate defense on pull out.clevelandsbd

dive-bomb

Even pilots of other services have a minimal understanding of dive bombing. All military pilots have put aircraft in vertical dives, and many have dropped bombs from a diving plane, but our Navy’s dive bombing was different from the diving attacks of conventional aircraft.

The unique features engineered into the Dauntless SBD enabled the pilot to fly a controlled vertical flight from 10,000 feet or more to sea level, tracking a moving target ship as small as 40 feet wide which was taking evasive action. Of these features most important were the split wing trailing edge perforated dive flaps or “brakes” to retard diving speed and allow more abrupt pullouts. Wings were strengthened to withstand the high G forces at pull out. A yoke was designed to throw the bomb clear of the aircraft’s propeller when the bomb was dropped in a vertical dive.

Ideally the dive bombing aircraft, in a vertical 90 degree attitude, plunged at a 70 degree flight path because of the remaining lift on the wings. The target, at 24 knots would travel 1,214 feet while a plane dived from a two mile altitude. Wind was also a factor. The aircraft was literally flown down the dive path at constant speed, using ailerons and elevators to continually adjust the point of impact until bomb release and pull out. Neither the Stuka nor the Val was designed for bombing with extremely high dive paths.(5)   Instead of trailing edge split wing dive flaps their device was a flap that dropped vertically from the center of the wing spar. This also affected lift and the trim of the aircraft. As a result they were not as accurate as our Navy’s dive bombers without descending to lower altitudes.

Slide1

Dive Brake Comparison (l to r): Dauntless, Val, Stuka

It was not the screaming power dive of some historians. The image of the screaming dive bombers was created by the German Stukas, which used sirens activated by air pressure as a terror weapon against troops. Actually our pilots retarded the throttle and put the propeller in high pitch while arming the bomb and deploying the dive brakes.

Of 223 aircraft of all types embarked on the three American carriers at the Battle of Midway and 114 land based on Midway atoll, only the carrier based dive bombers inflicted any serious damage on the Japanese carriers and that damage was the devastating margin of victory. Previously the dive bombers had incapacitated the Japanese carrier Shokaku with three bomb hits at the Battle of Coral Sea preventing Shokaku from participating in the Battle of Midway.

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 two hours after dawn. 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.

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 three 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, to reach the planned 200 mile position north of the islands.

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.

By 1020 in the morning of June 4th at the Battle of Midway 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 that point the U.S. Navy had lost the Battle of Midway.

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 southeast, trailing their lost torpedo squadron. Simultaneously 30 Dauntless of Lt. Cmdr. Wade McClusky’s VB-6 and VS-6 from the Enterprise approached from the opposite direction. McClusky continued on despite the fact that all of his pilots were low on fuel; some of the planes had reached the point of no return and never made it back to their carriers.

Dauntless2 for site

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 Admirals King and Nimitz. 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.

At 1025, almost 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 retracted their dive flaps and advanced throttles to take evasive action low over the sea, gunners fighting off the Zeros as the pilots headed back toward the American fleet.

first_hit_at_midway

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 Squadron 8’s sacrifice, but this time the sacrifice of these brave dive bomber crews paid off.

What had been shaping up to be another glorious victory for Admiral Nagumo in repelling 9 separate American attacks that morning was suddenly 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.

This essay has been written to assure that at least this short life of the dive bomber is given its proper place in history. It is dedicated to the men who fought and died flying this spectacular weapon, and to the few who still survive. The time has come to face the truth about the Battle of Midway and to portray the heroic story of the dive bombers without the well intentioned qualifying comments.

I suggest a good place to start would be with a movement to have Lt. Commanders Max Leslie and Wade McClusky awarded posthumous Medals of Honor.

George J. Walsh

Lt. Cmdr. USNR (ret)

gjwalco@msn.com

___________________

Endnotes:

(1) Warship Losses of WW II, by David Brown, Table Page 229

(2) Helldiver Squadron, by Robin Olds, Pages 141, 144, 188

(3) The Barrier and the Javelin by H. P. Willmott, Page 222

(4) USF-74, Section 2-407. (USF-74 was prepared under the direction of Admiral Halsey.)

(5) Destined For Glory, by Thomas Wildenberg, Page 234 Note 9

(cross-posted @ USNI blog)

Article Series - Centenary of Naval Aviation (1911-2011)

  1. Flightdeck Friday: Smoke and the Battle of Midway
  2. Flightdeck Friday: RF-8 Crusaders and BLUE MOON
  3. Flightdeck Friday: Midway POV – Wade McClusky
  4. Flightdeck Friday: 23 October 1972 and The End of Linebacker I
  5. Former VFP-62 CO and DFC Recipient, CAPT William Ecker, USN-Ret Passes Away
  6. CAPT John E. “Jack” Taylor, USN-Ret.
  7. Flightdeck Friday: USS MACON Added to National Register of Historical Places
  8. Tailhook Association and Association of Naval Aviation
  9. Flightdeck Friday: Speed and Seaplanes – The Curtiss CR-3 and R3C-2
  10. Flightdeck Friday: A Family Remembers a Father, Naval Officer and Former Vigilante B/N
  11. Out of the Box Thinking and Execution 68 Years Ago: The Doolittle Raid
  12. The ENTERPRISE Petition – A Gentle Reminder
  13. USS Enterprise (CVAN/CVN-65) At Fifty
  14. A Golden Anniversary: The Hawkeye At 50
  15. Project CADILLAC: The Beginning of AEW in the US Navy
  16. Project CADILLAC: The Beginning of AEW in the US Navy (Part II)
  17. Project CADILLAC: The Beginning of AEW in the US Navy (Part III)
  18. Reflections on the E-2 Hawkeye’s 50th Anniversary
  19. An Open Letter to “The 100th Anniversary of Naval Aviation Foundation”
  20. U.S. Naval Aviation – 100 Years
  21. Doolittle’s Raiders: Last Surviving Bomber Pilot of WWII Doolittle Raid, Dies at 93
  22. More Naval Aviation Heritage Aircraft (But Still No Hawkeye)
  23. Naval Aviation Centennial: Neptune’s Atomic Trident (1950)
  24. Naval Aviation Centennial: One Astronaut, A Future Astronaut and Reaching for New Heights
  25. Flightdeck Friday Special Edition: The Space Shuttle – Thirty Years of Dreams, Sweat and Tears
  26. Flightdeck Friday – Postings from the Naval Aviation Museum
  27. Saturday Matinee: US Naval Aviation – the First 100 Years
  28. National Museum of Naval Aviation – Some Thoughts and A Call to Action
  29. Flightdeck Friday – 100 Years of Naval Aviation and the USCG
  30. Guest Post: THE U.S. NAVY’S FLEET PROBLEMS OF THE THIRTIES — A Dive Bomber Pilot’s Perspective
  31. This Date in Naval Aviaiton History: Sept 18, 1962 – Changing Designators
  32. Centennial Of Naval Aviation – The Shadow Warriors

Midway – 67 Years Later and Controversies Still Abound

midway_dauntlessBackground: In the course of writing for this blog I’ve had occasion to meet up with a number of folks who’ve “been there/done that” in a historical context.  By default many have been from Vietnam, a few from Korea andsome of whom have been by proxy from WWII, but late last year I had the occasion to (virtually) join up on the wing of a Helldiver naval aviator who flew from Ticonderoga.  The genesis of the join-up was a post on Tailhook’s page about the “Grey Books” associated with Midway being de-classified after a review mandated by the Kyl-Lott amendment to the Defense Appropriations Act of 1999 and 2000 (which had forced the re-classification of the previously declassified documents…).  A couple of queries later and LCDR George Walsh, USNR-Ret was vectored my way and offline discussions ensued.  Two items became evident – that at 88 yrs of age George is still a passionate and articulate writer (would that I be the same 35-years hence…) and that he is committed to correcting what he and some others from that era consider to be shortcomings in the historical record.  One is the continued downplay of the role of dive bombers as attested to here in a review he recently wrote on A Dawn Like Thunder by Robert J. Mrazek:

Mr. Mrazek has produced a wonderful book full of great human interest stories about the crews of the fated Torpedo Squadron 8 but it perpetuates some inaccuracies long discounted by historians as follows:

At 7 AM on the morning of June 4th, 1942 a variety of aircraft based on the Islands of Midway located a Japanese carrier force and commenced a series of sporadic attacks that were easily repulsed by the Japanese.
Two and a half hours later, at 9:30 AM, Torpedo Squadron 8 attacked and all planes were easily shot down with no damage to the Japanese. One man survived, Ensign Gay.
After this attack the Japanese fleet turned northeast at high speed to close the American carriers.

It was 10:25 AM when our dive bombers made their successful attacks. How then could the attack of Torpedo Squadron 8 almost an hour earlier have had the effect of drawing the Zeros down to low altitude and clearing the way for the fortunate dive bombers?

How could Ensign Gay have been eyewitness to the crucial dive bombing attacks an hour after he was shot down? Standing up in a life raft visibility at sea level would be 2.8 miles to the horizon. Under a seat cushion?

The myth of Torpedo Squadron 8 was first introduced in Admiral Nimitz’s main Action Report of the Battle of Midway issued on June 28th, 1942. This delayed report was prepared by Commander Ernest Eller, a public relations expert, in close consultation with Admiral Nimitz. In addition James Forrestal, then Under Secretary of the Navy, flew out from Washington to consult. Forrestal was formerly a journalist and public relations expert.

There were many weighty matters to be considered before releasing the Nimitz Action Report, too many for me to go into here, but foremost was the need to maintain secrecy concerning the code breaking.

The story of Ensign Gay and Torpedo Squadron 8 were a welcome public relations tool for the Navy at an opportune time, and it was brilliantly employed. By glorifying the mutinous John Waldron and the glamorous George Gay attention was diverted from the staggering losses of our pilots and the inept way in which Admiral Fletcher had executed Admiral Nimitz’s inspired plan to ambush the Japanese as they were attacking Midway (for reference, the Battle of Midway roundtable has an excellent summary and list of counter-arguments here. – SJS).

Ensign Gay was dispatched on a highly publicized bond raising tour. He was lionized by Hollywood. He made the cover of Life Magazine while Admiral Fletcher was wafted to obscurity on the Northwest Sea Frontier, as far from the Washington press corps as Admiral King could send him.

Robert Mrazek’s engrossing book is a great addition to the many books and films devoted to Torpedo Squadron 8 and the 15 pilots and crewmen shot down at Midway in unsuccessful attacks.

But there also were 16 SBD Dauntless dive bombers and their crews that were lost that day, nobody knowing how many were shot down and how many were lost at sea after pursuing the Japanese beyond the SBD’s point of no return.
Why has there been not a single book about Wade McClusky, Max Leslie, Dick Best and their stories? No TV film about our WW II dive bombing?

Where Torpedo 8′s attacks were futile, the dive bombers succeeded in saving the United States Navy from a looming disaster. It’s a better story but the myth seems to have a life of its own. Focusing on the successful dive bombers at the time of the battle might have invited awkward questions.

I am an 88 year old former dive bomber pilot myself. Too old to start writing books myself, but I have spent the last twenty years searching for the truth about the Battle of Midway as told in my blog.

Everyone who participated in the Battle of Midway 66 years ago deserves our respect and admiration but the U.S. Navy needs to be challenged over its persistence in withholding the true story of the battle all these years.

Let’s open up the old classified files at the Naval Historical Center as well as the Midway files that were reclassified last year after the publication of Peter C. Smith’s controversial book, Midway: Dauntless Victory.

Lots to chew on there for those with a historical bent.  I know as I carry out research on another project that spans the WWII through Cold War span, that the access to original materials has been and remains critical in conducting analyses and that falling into well worn traps of publically held mythos all too easy.  Putting that same material in context with those who were there is also important and as the WWII generation dwindles, opportunities in that regard follow suite – all the more reason to open (or, as the case may be, re-open) the books.  I am encouraged that the Naval History and Heritage Command (neè Naval Historical Center) has taken a round turn on the important role they play in educating and promoting naval heritage in the Fleet and other communities.

There’s more to come as George and I are working on an interesting project, some of which will be seen here – after I finish the first book project later this month.

Midway 65 Years Later – Lessons Learned

"I can run wild for six months … after that, I have no expectation of success." – Fleet Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto

In racing there is a saying – ‘luck is where preparation meets opportunity’ Perhaps there is no truer an example than the Battle of Midway. Popular literature seems to emphasize the American forces stumbling into a heaven-sent scenario of laden carrier decks and little to no opposition to the dive bombers, while giving short shrift to the preparation that enabled them to make use of that opportunity. How so?

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