From the book, The Magnificent Mitscher.
United State Navy Captain, Marc Mitscher, skipper of the aircraft carrier, US Hornet, was attempting to join the Battle of the Coral Sea after completing the Doolittle raid on Japan.
|B-25 departs the USS Hornet in the Doolittle raid.|
Action in the Solomon’s area, bloody and indecisive, had been mounting, and intelligence warned of heavy Japanese forces in the Coral Sea. The Hornet sailed again, headed for a battle that was already hot. It was the first major naval engagement in which no shots were exchanged by surface vessels. But Mitscher missed it. It was joined before the Hornet could reach the Coral Sea. The carriers Lexington and Yorktown took on the Japanese without her. The Lexington, smoking, holed and shattered, was so badly damaged she had to be destroyed by our own forces, on May 8. The Japanese lost the carrier Shoho and suffered severe damage to other units. Their advance southward was checked for the time being.
Hornet steamed back to Pearl Harbor, still untested in conflict, and Mitscher was informed he had been selected for rear admiral. It was thirty-eight years since he first took a Navy oath. He accepted flag rank on May 31, 1942, and his blue, two- star insignia fluttered from a Hornet halyard.
|Hornet arrives at Pearl Harbor.|
Except under rare circumstances, such as these, a rear admiral does not command a ship. He commands groups or types or units of ships or sometimes planes or bases. However, Hornet’s new prospective commanding officer, Charles Perry Mason, had not had sufficient time to be “shaken down.” So Mitscher, as an admiral, sailed in command of the Hornet. Mason was, of course, an intensely interested observer. He reminded Mitscher, “Take good care of her. This is my ship.”
The destination was the sea and sky around Midway Island, 1,080 miles from Honolulu, where another major battle was shaping.
“IN ACCORDANCE with Commander in Chief Pacific Operation Plan, the Hornet got underway from Pearl Harbor, 28 May 1942, recovering the Air Group at sea, at 1630, the same afternoon,” begins the Hornet’s Action Report for the Battle of Midway. As was usual, her aircraft had been stationed ashore when the ship was in port. They flew out to roost when she was a short time out of Pearl Harbor. Minutes after the planes were aboard, the speaker system blared throughout the ship: “This is the captain. We are going to intercept a Jap attack on Midway.”
That settled any doubts in the minds of the Hornet pilots. Not all of Torpedo Eight was aboard. Six new Grumman Avengers, part of VT-8, were based on Midway. The Hornet pilots had been training for months, long before the ship got her final coat of paint, but not one was blooded. Their total average flying hours were somewhere around 285 each. Routine training was conducted enroute, and most of the aircraft, in addition to combat air patrol, were scheduled for daily exercises. The force steamed on to a rendezvous with Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher’s Task Force 17.
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Mitscher bantered with his officers and squadron commanders. He was in high spirits. There was horseplay and he joined in. Sam Osterlough, the ship’s doctor, had brought aboard a crate of fresh grapefruit at Pearl Harbor, and kept the fruit locked up in his sick-bay refrigerator. Chaplain Harp and Waldron connived to steal it and Harp made a clean getaway during GQ one day. But Osterlough suspected and put him on report. Mitscher convened a mock trial, taking great delight in calling the chaplain’s attention to the ways of the wicked.
But beneath the banter there was uncertainty as each turn of the screw brought them nearer Admiral Nagumo’s enemy carriers. On June 1, Mitscher wrote out a message for Commander Henderson to read over the bull horn: “The enemy are approaching for an attempt to seize Midway. This attack will probably be accompanied by a feint at western Alaska. We are going to prevent them from taking Midway, if possible. Be ready and keep on the alert. Let’s get a few more yellowtails.” Although some skippers, through oversight or intent, kept their crews in suspense, Mitscher tried to inform every man of what might be hanging beneath the next cloud.
The next day, at 1400, the Hornet task force kept its rendezvous with the Yorktown northeast of Midway. Admiral Fletcher assumed tactical command of the entire American defensive force, but Nimitz, back in Pearl Harbor, still called the strategical signals. Halsey was ill, and Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance had taken over Task Force 16, in which the Hornet rode.
As the hours passed and the ships hid under the low overcast of a weather front, guns were checked and aircraft engines tuned. Mitscher, who had remained on the bridge since leaving Pearl Harbor except for cat naps in his sea cabin, pored over charts and all but memorized each word of each important dispatch. Cool, steady Walter Rodee talked to his scouts; Waldron drilled his pilots on torpedo tactics; flyers played poker, or drowsed in the ready rooms. Above the task force, Combat air patrol (CAP) orbited endlessly.
Jack Waldron, who never called a torpedo by its proper name, preferring such affectionate names as “weenie” or “pickle,” was a skinny, savage professional. He had given a mimeographed message to each of his torpedo pilots: Just a word to let you know I feel we are all ready. We have had a very short time to train and we have worked under the most severe difficulties. But we have truly done the best humanly possible. I actually believe that under these conditions we are the best in the world. My greatest hope is that we encounter a favorable tactical situation, but if we don’t, and the worst comes to worst, I want each of us to do his utmost to destroy our enemies. If there is only one plane left to make a final run in, I want that man to go in and get a hit. May God be with us all. Good luck, happy landings and give ‘em hell.’
|Avenger dropping a “pickle”.|
That morning, June 3, the pilots and air crews were up at 0100 for breakfast and briefings. Mitscher slept for perhaps a half hour during the night; most of the time he stayed on the wing of the bridge, staring out into the night, his thin jacket drawn close around his neck against the chill air.
What was on his mind? We can only guess. Certainly he realized what the dawn would bring to the pilots. Coral Sea had been an air fight. But he was too old, his reflexes too stiff, to slug it out personally with a Zero or drive a torpedo plane so low that it would spin a web of spray before thrusting its missile out. Neither would he be concerned with the over-all strategy or tactics of the battle, for Nimitz, Fletcher, and Spruance would decide that. Mitscher’s concern was the Hornet and Air Group Eight.
Air Group Eight was ready. There was brash, brawling Gus Widhelm, and the nice guy, Stan Ring, and the man who was, in many ways, a reasonable facsimile of Mitscher himself, Jack Waldron; all of them actually knew little about aviation or war. They were going into battle for the first time.
Former Navy pilot Frederick L. Gwynn recalls: As to what it felt like to be sent into danger as a pilot, I can remember one variation on the theme of admitted fear characterized in World War II. To get off a carrier deck, one does have a lot of mechanical preparation on deck and a never-failing audience, which means that the beginning of every strike involves fulfillment of Walter Mitty dreams. I’d say the actual take-off forced one into some self-confidence and bravado, unlike the infantry situation where no one was watching. Furthermore, as I found when I became a squadron exec, one would rather be sent than do the sending and then have to write the letter home.
Mitscher had done everything he could. From the time the air group had first swarmed aboard off Norfolk in December, he’d overseen their training, advised the squadron commanders, and primed them for battle. Now his job was to carry them in, launch them, vector them to targets, and finally protect his ship so that it would be there when they returned.
The wind gauge on the Hornet’s island mast floated lazily around to record but 4 knots early on June 4. The sea was flat and still off Midway, and as the horizon turned from gray to pink, CAP sprang off the deck and went up to circle the task force. Mitscher had sent the Hornet to GQ and hour before sunrise.
(On to the battle of Midway …)