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article number 120
article date 04-12-2012
copyright 2012 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
World War II US Navy Admiral, Marc Mitscher, the Battle of Midway
by Theodore Taylor

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, Combat Air Patrol sprang off the deck and went up to circle the task force. Mitscher had sent the Hornet to General Quarters (GQ) an hour before sunrise.

At about 0530, a Catalina flying boat radioed: “Many planes heading Midway.” The pitifully inadequate group of Marine, Navy, and Army planes on the tiny island took off to intercept. While the enemy struck at Midway, unaware that an American carrier force was closing them, Nimitz was preparing to spring his trap.

Shortly after 0700, while Army B-17’s were unsuccessfully attempting to damage the enemy from 20,000 feet, the Hornet’s fighter pilots were called to deck; then the scout bombers were manned. Finally, Waldron’s torpedo planes were ready. Hitting fast ships at sea is a job for planes that go in low. Then Mitscher spoke into the bridge microphone: “We intend to launch planes to attack the enemy while their planes are still returning from Midway. We will close to about a hundred miles from the enemy’s position.”

Ring, Rodee, Johnson, Mitchell, and Waldron ran up to the bridge for final instructions. Waldron told Mitscher he would take the torpedo planes in and get hits. The exact words of the brief conversation did not seem important at the time, but the Hornet bridge officers do remember that Mitscher touched the lean, fierce fighter on the shoulder. Then Waldron went below to the flight deck to man his plane with the big torpedo tucked inside. The sharp pop of starting cartridges echoed across the flight deck; then the acrid fumes of exhaust swirled into the wind.

Douglas TBD Devastator Torpedo Bombers get ready for launch. Waldron’s group would be destroyed in the first run.

There was a cloud-flecked sky as Soucek gave orders to send the Hornet’s Stingers off. The fighters, Grumman Wildcats, were first; Rodee’s scouts in the Dauntlesses followed; then Johnson’s divebombers, also in Dauntlesses; and lastly Waldron’s heavy-bellied torpedo planes.

It took almost an hour for the launching and Mitscher bent over the railing, occasionally giving an order, and following each plane off with his eyes. Once the last torpedo plane was airborne, Mitscher was practically out of touch with the fight. Radio silence was maintained. Squadron commanders were in charge, with Stanhope Ring, as senior, over them. Mitscher could not contact, advise, or assist. He would have to wait until they got back to find out what happened.

Jack Waldron takes off in his Douglas TBD Devastator Torpedo Bomber.

Last-minute teletype instructions to the Hornet’s air group placed the enemy at a distance of 155 miles. The fighters and bombers climbed to 19,000 feet, flying at 125 mph. Waldron stayed below a layer of cumulus clouds, nursing his planes along at 110 mph. They breezed through the morning without knowledge that Admiral Nagumo had changed the course of his carriers and was retiring. When the bombers and fighters reached their supposed position, Nagumo and his carriers were not in sight. Stanhope Ring kept the air group traveling southwest.

But Jack Waldron, down below the blanket of clouds at 1,500 feet, unmindful that his fighter cover was not above, rolled the torpedo squadron northward on a strong hunch. He found Nagumo and the carriers Hiryu, Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu. What Waldron then did has been called foolhardy, but it was also heroic. He rode his torpedo planes in against the carriers without fighter protection; full into the ack-ack and whirling Zeros, hoping to deliver his weenies and pickles. Waldron presented fifteen solid targets to the Japanese gun gallery. Ensign Gay was shot down and hid beneath a floating seat cushion. He witnessed the Battle of Midway from that bobbing box seat and was picked up later.

Japanese Zero’s ready for combat.

The Hornet’s bombers and fighters were running low on gas. But planes from the Enterprise and the Yorktown arrived to convert three of Nagumo’s carriers into flotsam. The Hiryu sent her planes after the Yorktown in retaliation. Meanwhile, back on the Hornet, Mitscher stirred about the bridge uneasily. He knew little or nothing of what was going on. Communications had been spotty all morning. Action reports seeped in, but nothing to indicate any decisive combat. Some, of the planes had run out of gas and crash landed in Midway’s lagoon; others had re-gassed at Midway. Survivors of the Hornet’s snipe hunt banged down on deck to re-gas. They didn’t need to rearm. They hadn’t fought. Mitscher pushed on, holding an easterly course at high speed to land his planes. The first wheels hit the deck at 1320. Rodee’s scouts and part of Bombing Eight fluttered in. Then they waited for the fighters and for Torpedo Eight.

Ring and Rodee went to the bridge to tell Mitscher they hadn’t seen the enemy and knew nothing of Waldron. Then Quillen, the rear gunner in Ensign White’s dive bomber, reported that he thought he had heard Waldron’s voice on his radio: What I heard was Johnny One to Johnny Two. I am quite sure it was Lieutenant Commander Waldron’s voice as I have heard him on the air a number of times. I also heard him say, Watch those fighters. Also, See that splash. Also, How’m I doing, Dobbs? Also, Attack immediately. Also, I’d give a million to know who did that …

And then there was silence. Thus they died, all except one. Fifteen planes, each with pilot and crewman.

Japanese planes were attacking the Yorktown. Soon a column of smoke reached into the northwest sky. Some Hornet fighters were over there trying to ward off the blows, and got three Zeros. The Yorktown was mortally wounded. One Yorktown pilot wobbled toward the Hornet and crashed down in a grind of ripping metal, his machine guns accidentally peppering the island structure.

Yorktown takes first hits.

Minutes later, the officer of the deck reported to Mitscher: five dead and twenty wounded. With Fletcher’s Task Force 17 flag burning in the Yorktown, Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance took local tactical command. A Japanese submarine finished the Yorktown later.

Spruance signaled Mitscher and the Enterprise to get the Hiryu. Her planes had destroyed the Yorktown and could do the same to the Enterprise and the Hornet. At 1803, Mitscher launched sixteen bombers to join the Enterprise striking group. Enterprise pilots got there first and laid into the enemy carriers. The Hornet bombers circled at 20,000 feet while nine B-17’s attempted to bomb the Hiryu’s escorting battleships, missing by a wide margin. Then VB-8 pushed over into their dives, releasing bombs at low altitude for hits on a battleship and a heavy cruiser. The Hornet had finally drawn blood.

Douglas SBD Dauntless Dive Bombers sunk the Japanese carriers.

As more action reports drifted in, Mitscher informed the Hornet crew, “Four Japanese carriers are afire. Direct hits have been scored on their battleships and cruisers.”

It was growing dark, and the Hornet, blacked out, soon blended into the night. How could her surviving bombers find the fight deck? Two planes angled toward the task force. Then others droned up. None of the Hornet pilots had qualified in night carrier landings.

“Turn on the truck lights,” Mitscher ordered. The dim red beacons shone out from her masthead but the planes passed over. Mitscher knew the pilots could not possibly spot her deck. “Let’s give them more light.” Two search beams climbed into the air over the Hornet; a string of lights outlined the flight deck to port.

Henderson said, “Captain, there must be subs here.” “The hell with the subs,” Mitscher said, straining to glimpse the aircraft as they approached and finally landed.

He had thought Stan Ring was lost. Then Ring came up to the bridge, sweaty and haggard. The surviving pilots gathered in the wardroom and pantry, happy to be alive, but the joy was tempered by concern about the still unreported torpedo-men.

Mitscher ordered Dr. Sam Osterlough to the bridge, and Sam came up with his pockets bulging and clinking. “How are they?” Mitscher asked. “Some are a little shaky.” “Give them each a bottle and see to it personally that they get to bed.” Osterlough, on the way to deliver his “packages” to the’ pilots, stopped by Mitscher’s cabin, pulled one of the two-ounce bottles of brandy out of his pocket, and placed it on the desk.

By now, it was obvious that Torpedo Eight was not returning. It appeared the Hornet had lost at least twenty-five aircraft and almost double that number of pilots and crewmen. The day’s operations had not been good, but the bombers had partially recouped in the sunset attack. There were five bodies in readiness for burial from the gun accident. Luck had been very bad.

As the Hornet quieted down, and her crew sprawled out to sleep for a few hours, Mitscher talked to Henderson on the wing of the bridge. “If we keep operating singly we can lose all the carriers,” he said. At flight quarters, each flattop steamed out into the wind with her escorts, sometimes disappearing over the horizon. “That [the destruction of the Yorktown] wouldn’t have happened if we were operating in a group so Combat Air Patrol could protect the entire force and each ship give support in antiaircraft fire.”

Mitscher’s desire for more group operation had been overruled several times. It was argued that ships the size of carriers could not be operated in close formation. He brushed aside that argument. “Maybe the Yorktown will convince them,” he said tiredly to Henderson. Then he went below to the hangar deck, where at 0100 services were held for the victims of the accident.

USS Yorktown under attack from Japanese carrier aircraft.

Meanwhile, Spruance had ordered a retirement to the east instead of maintaining his position or steaming westward. The wisdom of this move will be argued for a long time, since it enabled the remaining Japanese ships to open the distance. In his action report, Spruance declared he based his decision on lack of information about the enemy and the risk “of a night encounter with possibly superior enemy forces.” He thought another enemy carrier might be lurking nearby. However, Mitscher, Henderson recalls, felt that the task force should have steamed westward in pursuit of the Japanese.

On June 5, Mitscher launched twenty-six bombers for a strike against the still burning carriers and battleships. The planes found only oil slicks to mark the major ships but attacked a destroyer leaving the scene. Once again, they roared back over the task force in darkness, and once again, Mitscher lit up the Hornet. Out of gas, they sputtered in.

On June 6, search planes fanned out to find the remnants. Running low on gas, Gee landed on the Enterprise, and unaware of his relative inexperience, the Enterprise sent him off on a long-range search mission. After a few hours he spied some ripples on the mirrored ocean and went down for a better look. Soon Gee relayed word that two groups of the Japanese fleet had been located. The pilot Mitscher had grounded in January thus vindicated himself completely.

Mitscher launched twenty-six bombers again, along with eight fighters. At 1150, Hornet planes attacked two cruisers and a destroyer. The cruisers Mogarni and Mikuma were sunk by dive bombing. A few weeks later, the pilots of Hornet’s VB-8 were nicknamed “The Bombing Fools” because of their low-altitude drops.

Douglas SBD Dauntless Dive Bomber was effective during the battle of midway.

A little later that day, when the planes had returned and were being re-armed for a second strike, the Hornet’s radio intercepted a message from a Japanese admiral saying he was being attacked (by Enterprise planes). The Hornet’s planes made the second shuttle to the fleeing enemy, and then came home for a rest. The Battle of Midway was over.

It is believed that since early afternoon of June 4, Mitscher, over and above the sound of battle and command decision, thought of little besides Torpedo Eight. Until Ensign Gay was snatched from the sea on June 5, there was still hope that perhaps all fifteen empty chairs in the wardroom would be filled again. Mitscher did not discuss at any length the loss of Torpedo Eight or his own feelings about Waldron until much later.

None of Jack Waldron’s Torpedo Eight returned home.

Frances Mitscher, who now lives alone in a modest little house not too far from the ocean in Coronado, California, said, “Admiral Mitscher was convinced that the squadron commander knew he was going to die. The tragedy of this brought him great personal grief.”

In the Action Report to Nimitz, in which he nominated the entire squadron for the Medal of Honor, Mitscher wrote: Just prior to launching he [Waldron] had reported to the commanding officer for final instructions and had stressed the point that his squadron was well trained and ready and that he would strike his blow at the enemy regardless of consequences. His grim determination to press home an attack against all obstacles, his foreknowledge that there was the possibility that his squadron was doomed to destruction with no chance whatever of returning safely to the carrier, impressed all present with the remarkable devotion to duty and the personal integrity of an officer whose pilots asked only that they be allowed to share in the dangers and disastrous fate sure to follow such an attack.

The report clearly reflects Mitscher’s pride and profound admiration. Waldron was his type of man. The references to “devotion to duty” and “personal integrity,” character traits which Mitscher held high, were repeated in almost phonographic fashion in other appraisals which he wrote throughout the war.

As Gay’s account unfolded, and other data began to clarify the battle, it appeared that neither Waldron nor any of his pilots actually made hits on the carriers. Mitscher scoffed at the idea and for the next three years vainly tried to get the Medal of Honor for the entire squadron, refusing to believe that Torpedo Eight had been needlessly wiped out. When the war was over, a survey committee established that Waldron’s squadron had sacrificed themselves without damaging the enemy. Even then, Mitscher declared the medal should have been awarded for the sheer heroic effort of their action. Besides, the torpedo planes diverted the attention of the enemy fighters and allowed the Enterprise bombers to come in undetected. The Torpedo Eight pilots were finally granted the Navy Cross posthumously. However, Mitscher took this as a personal defeat and often spoke harsh words about the Washington board that decided combat awards.

Japanese Aircraft Carrier Akagi before the Battle of Midway. It was one of 4 Japanese carriers sunk in the battle.

At the memorial services for Torpedo Eight and the other Hornet dead, held on Sunday morning, June 7, Chaplain Harp (later the Navy’s Chief of Chaplains) read Owen Seaman’s poem “Victory.” Several hours later Mitscher requested a copy, and it remained in his possession until he died.

As the Hornet returned to Pearl Harbor, it was evident that Mitscher felt depressed for reasons beyond the loss of the pilots and crewmen. Although he congratulated the crew and announced a “well done” for all hands, he felt that the Hornet’s performance had not lived up to his expectations. He also felt that he had personally failed to deliver.

In 1947, a Naval War College strategical and tactical analysis of the Battle of Midway called attention to the Hornet air group’s failure to sight the enemy fleet and turn north. It said: “The commanding officer should insure that flight leaders are properly briefed.” However, Stanhope Ring, later a rear admiral, maintains that Mitscher properly briefed the flight leaders and gave them every scrap of information that was available on the Hornet bridge.

Oddly enough, after all the furor of Midway, a pair of binoculars caused excitement as the Hornet approached Pearl Harbor. Binoculars were, of course, scarce, well-guarded instruments in that early summer of 1942. During the fighting, a lieutenant had lost his pair on the bridge. The ship was searched thoroughly. Both Frank Akers, custodian of all navigational gear, and Mitscher were worried. When the Hornet reached port, and liberty was granted, Naval Intelligence searched all the pawn shops in Honolulu to make certain they had not been slipped ashore. A few days later they were found behind the settee in the chart room.

Akers said, “I think I’ll wait a day or two to tell the lieutenant about it. Maybe he’ll remember next time not to be so careless.” “No,” Mitscher said. “Tell him right away. He’s worrying about them. There’s no use his worrying when we’ve got a war to fight.”

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