Battle of Midway: Navy Aviator Remembers Midway

The following blog is an adaptation from a 2003 Battle of Midway roundtable, in which retired U.S. Navy Capt. Roy P. Gee shared his personal accounts as an aviator during battle. At the time of the roundtable, Gee was 83 years old, and though during the battle he lost “the most valuable resource a pilot can have in reporting what he did in the air,” his flight log, he was still able to recall much of the battle and the events leading up to the war in the Pacific.

SBD "Dauntless" dive bombers from USS Hornet (CV 8) approach the burning Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma to make the third set of attacks on her, during the early afternoon June 6, 1942. Mikuma had been hit earlier by strikes from Hornet and USS Enterprise (CV 6), leaving her dead in the water and fatally damaged.

SBD “Dauntless” dive bombers from USS Hornet (CV 8) approach the burning Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma to make the third set of attacks on her, during the early afternoon June 6, 1942. Mikuma had been hit earlier by strikes from Hornet and USS Enterprise (CV 6), leaving her dead in the water and fatally damaged.

Plotting the enemy’s course.

We went to general quarters at 6:30 a.m. on the morning of June 4th. All Hornet pilots and crewmen were at flight quarters in their ready rooms. A PBY flying from Midway had spotted the Japanese task force. The teletype in VB-8′s ready room was steadily clicking away with navigational data that I diligently copied to my chart board, as did the other VB-8 pilots. The required information consisted of following elements:  (1) enemy position, course and speed, (2) own task force position, course, and speed, (3) wind speed on the surface and at various altitudes, (4) latitude and longitude of the operational area plus magnetic compass variation. Using these four elements, each pilot was responsible to prepare his own navigational solution for flying a relative motion course to intercept and attack the enemy, and also the return course back to our carrier.

“Pilots man your planes.”

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.

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.

Ensign Roy Gee (at right) with squadron mate Clay Fisher, 1941.

Ensign Roy Gee (right) with squadron mate Clay Fisher, 1941.

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 feet, 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.

 We continued flying on a westerly heading for some time and were getting close to our point of no return without seeing anything of the Japanese fleet. Lt. Cmdr. Johnson decided to break away and fly towards Midway because some of our pilots didn’t have enough fuel to return to the Hornet. So we left CHAG, VS-8, and VF-8 and flew to Midway. Shortly after we turned towards Midway, Lt. Tucker, for some reason, turned his section of three SBDs away and headed in an easterly direction. As the remaining 14 VB-8 SBDs headed towards Midway, Ens. Guillory suffered engine failure and made a forced water landing. He and his R/G, ARM2/c Cottrell were observed to safely leave the aircraft and get into a life raft. They were later rescued by a PBY.

As we approached Midway, the skipper signaled us to jettison bombs. Afterwards, as we continued our approach to the Eastern Island airfield, we received sporadic anti-aircraft fire that caused minor damage to some of the planes, but it quickly ceased after our SBDs were recognized as friendly. Shortly thereafter, Ens. T. J. Wood ran out of gas. He and his R/G, ARM3/c Martz were safely rescued after ditching their aircraft. Ens. Forrester Auman ran out of fuel on his landing approach and safely ditched in the lagoon, where he and his R/G, ARM3/c McLean were rescued by a PT boat. After the remaining 11 SBDs had landed, we taxied to an area where our aircraft were refueled and rearmed with 500 pounds bombs. Refueling from gasoline drums was necessary due to fuel trucks being damaged from the Japanese air attack. The runways had not been damaged, but certain buildings and the water system had been hit.

Midway Air Operations had notified Hornet of the arrival of VB-8 at Midway. Lt. Cmdr. Johnson was ordered to return to the ship and to attack any Japanese ships that we might find while en route. So we departed Midway and returned to the Hornet without incident. We were recovered aboard at about 2 p.m. with our 500 pounds bombs intact. When I entered the VB-8 ready-room, I was shocked to learn that none of VT-8′s 15 TBDs nor VF-8′s 10 F4Fs had returned, and that all the crews had been declared MIA. I went to the wardroom to get something to eat and paused to look at the empty chairs that were normally filled by my friends from VF-8 and VT-8. It was a sorrowful site, but I could only dwell on it for a moment; the announcement came for all VB-8 pilots to report to the ready room immediately.

Attacking the Hiryu.

Upon entering the ready room, I was informed that we were launching on a mission to attack the Japanese Carrier Hiryu. The attack group would consist of nine VS-8 SBDs carrying 1000 pounds bombs and seven VB-8 SBDs carrying the 500 pounds bombs that we’d loaded on Midway. No VF escort would be available. The enemy ships were located approximately 162 miles out, bearing 290 degrees. I plotted my course for intercepting the enemy formation and returning to the Hornet. Lt. j.g. Bates, the VB-8 flight leader for this mission, briefed us on tactics for the strike. We were ready to go.

Since we’d seen no action that morning, I thought that this could be VB-8′s first exposure to real combat. We were ordered to man our planes at about 3:40 p.m. I met Canfield at our SBD for the second time that day, and we completed our same routine and boarded the aircraft. We went through the takeoff checklist after I started the engine, then we were ready to roll when our turn came. As I approached the take-off position, I was given the stop signal followed by the hold brakes signal, and was then handed over to the takeoff control officer, who held a stick with a brightly colored flag in his right hand. When the deck ahead was clear, the takeoff control officer rotated the flag above his head, which was the signal for me to rev the engine to full takeoff power while holding the brakes and keeping the tail down with the elevators in the full-up position. The takeoff control officer made eye contact with me, then suddenly bent forward on his knee, pointing the flag towards the bow. That was my signal to release the brakes and let ‘er rip. It’s an exhilarating way to take off in an airplane, and old-time carrier pilots can recount many interesting tales. We were safely airborne and proceeding to our rendezvous point. Our VB-8 SBDs, led by Lt. j.g. Bates joined up with VS-8 and LT Stebbins, who was the strike leader. The Enterprise had also launched a much larger strike group about 30 minutes before ours.

By the time we arrived in the target area, the Enterprise group had already finished their strike. That had cleared the upper altitudes of Zeroes, leaving our approach over the enemy force unopposed. The Hiryu was observed to be completely on fire, so Lt. Stebbins directed us toward other suitable targets. He took VS-8 toward one while signaling Lt. j.g. Bates that our squadron was to bomb a nearby cruiser. We maneuvered to make our attack out of the sun from 15, 000 feet. There were puffs of anti-aircraft fire all around us.

Just as we were approaching the dive point, we noticed several explosions on the ocean’s surface, quite some distance from the target. Looking up, we saw a flight of B-17s high above us. They’d dropped their bomb loads right through our formation, missing us as well as the enemy ships! We then tailed off into our dives. Lt. j.g. Bates had the lead plane (bomb 50 feet off the starboard bow) followed by Ens. Nickerson (100 feet astern). I was next (hit astern). The second section dove next with Ens. White first (miss), followed by Ens. Friez (miss wide), followed by Ens. Barrett (hit on starboard quarter), followed lastly by Ens. Fisher (no release). During the dive, what looked like orange balls were popping up at me and continued coming from all directions during my high-speed retirement at sea level. Following the strike, all 16 of Hornet’s SBDs rendezvoused unscathed and returned to the ship, landing back aboard at dusk. VB-8 had at last lost its combat virginity.

Searching. 

Hornet went to general quarters for an hour at 5:30 a.m. on June 5. Thereafter, readiness condition two was set in order to await strike scheduling from CTF 16, and by late afternoon, we had been in the ready room for most of the day. Readiness condition two allowed the pilots to leave the ready room for meals so long as we kept updating our chart boards with the latest navigational data reported on the teletype.

A mission assignment from CTF 16 finally came in at about 5 p.m. We were tasked to search for and attack a damaged Japanese aircraft carrier and its escorting ships bearing 315 degrees, about 300 miles out and on a westerly course with a speed of 12 knots. At about 5:30 p.m., I launched in SBD number 8-B-8 with an 11-plane strike group consisting of CHAG and 10 VB-8 SBDs. Clay Fisher was again flying CHAG’s wing, and our skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Ruff Johnson was leading a nine-plane division of three stepped-down sections, slightly separated from CHAG and Fisher. Lt. Tucker’s section was flying loosely on the Lt. Cmdr. Johnson’s left, while Lt. Moe Vose had positioned his third section aft of Tucker’s and stepped down to facilitate maneuvering. I was flying number three on the right wing of Vose, and Lt. John Lynch was number two on his left wing.

We proceeded on course at 18,000 feet to search for our target. After about an hour, five B-17s were sighted apparently returning to Midway. We continued on course, and at about 7:10 p.m. a lone enemy cruiser was sighted heading west. We passed it by in order to locate the damaged carrier, but to no avail. At our maximum range, CHAG reversed course back toward the cruiser we’d previously sighted. We found it again shortly after 8 p.m., and it began to increase speed and send up anti-aircraft fire as we formed to attack. We followed CHAG down toward the cruiser, which skillfully maneuvered to avoid our bombs. CHAG’s bomb failed to release and none of the other 10 hit the ship, although there were several near-misses.

We all turned toward home with little attempt to rendezvous after our dives. I was able to form up with Vose, and we flew back toward the Hornet together. By the time we approached the task force, darkness had enveloped the ships and it didn’t seem that a deck landing would be possible. Suddenly their lights came on and we were ordered to land. I followed Lt. Vose into the landing pattern, and Canfield and I went over the carrier landing checklist:  wheels down and locked, flaps down, tail hook extended. This was my first night carrier landing in the SBD, and I felt very good.

Aerial photograph, looking just south of west across the southern side of the atoll, 24 November 1941. Eastern Island, then the site of Midway's airfield, is in the foreground. Sand Island, location of most other base facilities, is across the entrance channel.

Aerial photograph, looking just south of west across the southern side of the atoll, 24 November 1941. Eastern Island, then the site of Midway’s airfield, is in the foreground. Sand Island, location of most other base facilities, is across the entrance channel.

After my tail hook was cleared from the arresting wire and put in the up position, I revved the engine in order to quickly clear the landing area and move forward so that the barriers could be raised in time for the next plane to land. After the propeller stopped turning and the wheels were chocked, Canfield and I climbed down and proceeded to our ready rooms. As I went through the hatch and down the ladder, I felt uncomfortable with the surrounding bulkheads and passageways. Somehow, they looked strangely unfamiliar. And for good reason – as I entered what I though was VB-8’s ready room – I discovered that I had landed on our sister ship, the Enterprise!  And of course, LT Vose had done the same thing.

They told me I’d be assigned to fly another search on the following morning. So, I was billeted in a room and told to go to sleep. Although three additional Hornet pilots (Ens. Doug Carter of VB-8, Ens. Jim Forbes of VS-8, and one other whose name I don’t remember) had also landed aboard Enterprise. I don’t recall having any contact with them while aboard.

 Mogami and Mikuma.

I awoke about 5 a.m. on June 6 and remembered that I was on Enterprise and scheduled to fly a 200-mile search that morning. I hopped out of the bunk, washed myself a little, slipped into my flight suit and hurried to the wardroom for breakfast where I encountered an atmosphere similar to the one in the Hornet’s wardroom the previous morning. Many missing pilots would never again sit in the empty chairs. I have never forgotten that feeling.

I finished breakfast and went quickly to the ready room to prepare for the mission. The search group was launched at 7 a.m. Canfield and I were flying a sector to the southwest at 1,500 feet. I was on autopilot, making it easy to keep track of my relative position from the task force as the search proceeded. After about an hour, I noticed several silhouettes on the horizon ahead. As the distance closed, I could see that they were four ships in formation on a southwesterly course. I dropped down to 800 feet and tracked them for several minutes in order to record their position, course and speed, and also to determine their ship class from my IJN silhouette cards. The two larger ships were cruisers with pagoda-type superstructures, and the other two were destroyers. (I later learned that the two larger ones were the Japanese heavy cruisers Mogami and Mikuma.)

Remaining at a safe distance out of anti-aircraft range, I dictated a message for CTF 16 to Canfield. The message contained the enemy formation’s composition, relative position, course and speed. Canfield sent the message by radio but got no confirmation that it had been received. He was concerned that a problem with his radio transmitter might have prevented the task force from receiving the message. It was already 8:35 a.m., and I decided to get out of there and back to task force ASAP. Arriving over the Enterprise at about 9:30 a.m., I dropped them a message containing the data on the enemy cruiser formation that we’d located. I then returned to the Hornet’s air pattern to await recovery. After she launched a strike group, I was recovered aboard at about 10:15 a.m. I proceeded to the bridge in order to brief Rear Adm. Mitscher on the details of my sighting. After reporting to the VB-8 ready room, I was told that I wouldn’t be flying any more that day.

Final patrol.

No flights had been scheduled for the VB-8/VS-8 pilots on June 7 – although half of us were on standby in our ready rooms from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. while the other half did the same thing from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. Our SBDs were also on standby, loaded with 500 pounds bombs and machine gun ammo. On June 8, we were tasked to provide intermediate air patrols covering sectors up to 50 miles out from Task Force 16 during ship refueling operations. I launched in 8-B-7 at 1:40 to fly an intermediate patrol, and after a time, I spotted a life raft with one man in it. I rocked my wings to let him know that I saw him and tried reporting his bearing and distance to CTF 16, but once again, Canfield got no response. I noticed that I wasn’t receiving a ZB homing signal either. I reversed my course in order to fly back toward the task force, but it had become enveloped in a local storm and I couldn’t see it. With my ZB inoperative, I didn’t want to waist fuel waiting for the ships to break clear of the weather, so I decided to fly to Midway. I radioed CTF 16 with my decision and reasoning, and changed course for Midway, which wasn’t far.

I was directed to taxi to the Marine Air Group area upon landing, where Canfield and I reported to the air group commander, Lt. Col. Ira Kimes. He informed us that we would be temporarily assigned to the Marine bombing squadron pending further orders. A message was sent to the Hornet notifying them of our safe arrival on the island; a reply was received that we were to turn our SBD over to the Marines and to await sea transport to back to Pearl Harbor.

Around June 20, USS Pensacola (CA 24) put into Midway in order to pick up wounded personnel and other survivors of the battle for transport to back to Pearl Harbor. Canfield and I boarded the cruiser for the short transit to Hawaii, and rejoined our squadron a few days later. While en route, I asked the Pensacola’s communications officer about Canfield’s transmission concerning the man I’d spotted in the life raft. He did some checking and later told me the message had been copied and the man was rescued. I felt very relieved, but I never found out his name.

The full transcript from Gee’s story can be found here.

Editor’s note:  In Gee’s narrative above, he reports two hits on a cruiser during the Hiryu mission, one by himself and one by Ens. Barrett. Japanese records did not record a hit on any of the Hiryu’s screening vessels on the afternoon of June 4, but Gee’s bomb was seen to strike a cruiser by his section leader, his R/G, and by ENS Fisher. Gee was awarded the Navy Cross for this action.

 

 

 

 

Comments

comments