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USS Enterprise CV-6
The Most Decorated Ship of the Second World War

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Torpedo Eight's attack was nearly finished when Enterprise's Torpedo Six located the Japanese. Had Waldron not attacked first, Gene Lindsey's TBDs might have passed harmlessly to the south. Instead, smoke laid by screening ships attracted Lindsey's attention, and at 0930 he turned northeast to investigate. Lindsey made out three carriers, selected the closest, Kaga, as his target, and like Waldron split his group into two sections for the attack. Spotted by Japanese lookouts at 0938, Torpedo Six was set upon by Zeroes. To make matters worse, Kaga soon turned north, forcing the section led by LT Arthur V. Ely into a stern chase and forcing Lindsey's section into a wide half-circle clockwise around the outside of the screen to try to gain the carrier's port bow.

Ely's section immediately encountered Zeroes and concentrated anti-aircraft fire. Ely radioed for Jim Gray's Wildcats using the pre-arranged signal - "Come on down, Jim" - but there was no response from the fighters. After seeing the TBDs they believed were Torpedo Six disappear into clouds, Fighting Six had taken up station some fifteen miles northeast of the Japanese - on the opposite side of the fleet from VT-6's true position - and awaited the call for assistance. The call, though sent several times, was never received.

The results were predictable. Ely's section gamely closed in on Kaga, only to be cut down plane-by-plane by slashing Zero attacks. Two of the seven Devastators survived to make their drops: those flown by Machinist A. Walter Winchell and Chief Machinist Stephen B. Smith. Though damaged, both planes approached within 1000 yards of Kaga and made good their drops, with no results. Escaping the enemy screen independently, both aircrews survived the mission, though only Smith's plane returned to Enterprise. Their TBD out of fuel, Winchell and his gunner Douglas M. Cossitt ARM 3/c ditched, and spent the next seventeen days in their rubber raft, before being rescued by a Midway-based PBY on June 21.

Spared the Zeroes' attention while trying to reach attack position, Lindsey's section drew fierce opposition when they began their run-in. One rearseat gunner, William C. Humphrey ARM 1/c, succeeded in knocking down a Zero, but four of the seven planes in Lindsey's section - including Lindsey's plane itself - were destroyed by Zeros. The remaining TBDs released their torpedoes - to no effect - and escaped the enemy force with relative ease: all three eventually returned to the Big E.

Eleven TBDs of Enterprise's Torpedo Six spotted on her flight deck, about 0730, June 4, 1942.

Yorktown's Torpedo Three, despite the benefit of a small fighter escort led by LCDR Thach, suffered similarly. Only one plane of VT-3's twelve ever returned to Task Force 17; too damaged to land, it ditched near the task force. The pilot was picked up later by destroyer Hammann; the gunner died of wounds before then. Carrier Hiryu evaded the five torpedoes the squadron dropped.

It is easy to dismiss the torpedo plane attacks as gallant but ineffective. To do so clouds the truth about just how close they came to success. The men and officers in VT-3, VT-6 and VT-8 knew they were flying obsolete planes, knew about the deadly Zero, knew the powerful force they were taking on and understood that their odds of survival were not good. But they were also professionals, and when they found the Japanese, they pressed their attack with skill and determination. They closed in to within a few ship-lengths of their targets before dropping their torpedoes. They closed in close enough to strafe the enemy ships and kill, close enough to force the enemy carriers to make sharp evasive maneuvers, close enough to clearly see warplanes spotted on the flight decks, preparing to strike at their own carriers. Perhaps only a few planes survived, but the ones that did presented a credible threat to the Japanese.

If the Japanese had doubts about their opponent's "will to fight", those doubts were fading now. Mitsuo Fuchida, who observed the attacks from Nagumo's flagship Akagi, praised the brilliant performance of the Zero pilots, while also recognizing "the dauntless courage shown by the American fliers." What neither Fuchida nor his fellow officers fully appreciated was the toll that the repeated - apparently futile - attacks had taken on Nagumo's force. No longer in close formation, Akagi was separated by 6000 yards from Kaga and Soryu, too far away for mutual anti-aircraft protection. Hiryu had practically disappeared over the horizon. Many of the patrolling Zeroes still swarmed over the remnants of VT-3, and the remainder of the fighters in the air were poorly positioned for countering additional attacks. Aboard the ships, the anti-aircraft guns had been brought down to low elevations: with their primitive fire control systems, they were ill-prepared to counter planes diving from overhead. In the carriers, the hangar decks were packed with armed and fueled planes. Moreover, in the haste to re-arm planes, fuel lines had been left full, and bombs and torpedoes scattered on the hangar decks instead of stowed away in magazines.

A false sense of security prevailed in the Kido Butai. The strike being prepared could inflict tremendous damage on the American carriers, but it had to be launched first. Until then, Kaga, Akagi, Hiryu and Soryu were extremely vulnerable. And while the fleet's anti-aircraft defenses had coped well with the slow-moving torpedo planes and other scattered attacks, it hadn't yet faced dozens of fast-moving dive bombers simultaneously ... nor was it prepared to.

"We plan to contact and destroy enemy task force." - VADM Chuichi Nagumo
"Earl, follow me down." - Enterprise Air Group Commander LCDR C. Wade McClusky

Though the torpedo squadrons had little difficulty finding Nagumo's carriers, the scouting and bombing groups did not fare so well. Hornet's VB-8 and VS-8 failed to contact the enemy at all, flying north and some miles west of Nagumo, before giving up and retiring. The 32 SBDs of Enterprise's Bombing Six and Scouting Six[4] had expected to intercept the enemy at about 0920. Having flown too far southward, and unaware that Nagumo had changed course at 0915 to nearly due north, at 0920 McClusky and his men found nothing but thousands of square miles of empty ocean. Positive the Japanese could not be to the southeast, McClusky decided to continue southwest for another 35 miles, then turn northwest - the reverse of the enemy's expected course - and finally east and back to Enterprise. Under the circumstances, it was a tough decision to make. Enterprise's bombers had been in the air for more than two hours, and fuel consumption was becoming a worry. The search southwest turned up nothing, and for many minutes the leg northwest seemed fruitless as well. Then, at 0947, just a few minutes before he would turn east for home, McClusky spotted the wake of a single ship. At the time McClusky thought it was a cruiser, but whatever it was, it was making good time to the northeast. Suspecting that it might be hurrying to rejoin the main Japanese force, McClusky turned his bombers to parallel the course of the ship: Arashi.

At 1002 - approximately the same time that Torpedo Six's attack ended and Torpedo Three's began - the Enterprise bombers found the Japanese. McClusky radioed a brief contact report, and made for an attack position. Time was short. One plane - flown by ENS Tony Schneider of VB-6 - ran out of fuel shortly after the sighting, and the remainder were not much better off. At first, some of the airmen even thought the ships below were their own task force. In Bombing Six, several planes had expended their oxygen supply. Their commander, LT Richard Best, led his planes down to 15,000 ft. from 20,000 ft., and took off his own oxygen mask to demonstrate it was no longer needed.

But another serious threat was conspicuously absent. As the SBDs reached their pushover point - the point where each bomber would roll into a steep dive on the target below - no enemy fighters interfered, no anti-aircraft shells burst in their midst. Enterprise's SBDs began their attack unopposed.

Approaching from the southwest, McClusky resolved to attack the two closest carriers: Kaga to the west, Akagi to the east. Five thousand feet below, Bombing Six commander Dick Best radioed McClusky his intent to attack the nearest carrier - Kaga - but apparently McClusky didn't receive the message. At 1022, McClusky and his wingmen led LT Earl Gallaher and Scouting Six into the attack. Best was surprised to see friendly planes hurtling past him, plunging down on Kaga. Two sections of Best's VB-6, missing their commander's signal to form up, followed as well. Hurtling downward at 450 feet each second, the SBDs yielded Kaga little time to react. Releasing at approximately 1500 feet, McClusky and his wingmen - ENS William Pittman and ENS Richard Jaccard - missed, but the next bomb, a 1000-pounder dropped by LT Gallaher, hit Kaga squarely in the aft flight deck, amidships. The next two planes scored near misses. One plane, unable to recover from its dive, slammed into the sea, killing pilot ENS John Q. Roberts, and his gunner Thurman R. Swindell, AOM 1/c. But behind them, LT(jg) Norman "Dusty" Kleiss scored a hit alongside Kaga's forward elevator; a second hit struck fueling equipment, spraying the bridge with burning gasoline. As many as six additional hits followed. Flames and smoke made it impossible to count with precision. In the hangar decks, fuel and munitions set off a conflagration which soon overwhelmed the ship.

To the northeast, at 1026 Dick Best and the remaining planes of VB-6 attacked Akagi. Best and his wingmen, LT(jg) Edwin J. Kroeger and ENS Frederick T. Weber, scored a hit and two near misses with 1,000-pound bombs on the carrier, with Best's bomb setting off munitions sitting unprotected in the hangar. Mitsuo Fuchida described the scene:

Looking about, I was horrified at the destruction that had been wrought in a matter of seconds. There was a huge hole in the flight deck just behind the amidship elevator. The elevator itself, twisted like molten glass, was drooping into the hangar. Deck plates reeled upward in grotesque configurations. Planes stood tail up, belching livid flame and jet-black smoke.

In just five minutes, Enterprise's Scouting Six and Bombing Six destroyed two Japanese fleet carriers. Kaga was abandoned at 1700 and sank at 1925. Akagi was abandoned just after Kaga slipped under the waves, and scuttled before the dawn June 5. Attacking nearly simultaneously with McClusky's SBDs, Yorktown's Bombing Three, led by LCDR Max Leslie, inflicted such extreme damage on Soryu that she too sank that evening. A single carrier, Hiryu, escaped damage the morning of June 4.

In their ready rooms that morning, the pilots had been directed to retire towards Midway before turning northeast to return to the US carriers. Now pulling out from their dives, they did so, eager to escape the ships in the Japanese screen, and the Zeroes that soon swarmed angrily over them. Air Group Commander McClusky's shoulder was wounded as two Zeroes pounced on his SBD, but his gunner, Walter G. Chochalousek ARM 1/c, brought down one with the plane's .30-caliber machine gun, discouraging the second Zero in the process. Floyd Adkins AMM 2/c, gunner in the VS-6 SBD flown by ENS William R. Pittman, shot down an enemy fighter, despite having to manhandle his 175-pound machine gun which had broken free of its mount. Six VS-6 Dauntlesses formed up on the SBD flown by LT Charles R. Ware. Earl Howell ARM 2/c, a gunner in one of those planes, had "flamed" one Zero already. By flying slowly very low over the water, weaving as the enemy planes made their passes, and concentrating their fire, this group succeeded in keeping their assailants at bay: not one plane was brought down by enemy fighters.

Clifton R. Bassett AOM 2/c, of Yorktown's Bombing Three is carried on a stretcher, suffering wounds received during the afternoon attack on Hiryu.

But the surviving planes now faced an equally serious challenge: the flight back to Task Force 16. There were two major problems. First, all of the planes by now were critically low on fuel, having expended it first in long delay after launch, then the extended search for the enemy, and finally in their efforts to evade the enemy fighters. Second, no-one knew exactly where Task Force 16 was. Often, airmen would be informed of a "Point Option" before launch: the anticipated position of the carrier when the planes returned from their mission. But this morning, no Point Option had been given. The pilots had been told only that after launching, Enterprise and Hornet would resume steaming southwest at 25 knots.

Despite their efforts to conserve fuel, one by one the bombers' tanks ran dry, leaving their crews with no option but to ditch and hope for rescue. One of the first was in LT Ware's group: the Scouting Six SBD manned by ENS Frank O'Flaherty and Bruno P. Gaido AMM 1/c, a hero of the Marshall Islands raid the past February. When last seen by their friends, O'Flaherty and Gaido had ditched safely and were climbing into their raft. Later picked up by a Japanese destroyer, the two men were interrogated and then murdered by drowning. Of the remaining five planes in LT Ware's group, only one - manned by ENS John McCarthy and Earl Howell ARM 2/c - ever returned to Task Force 16. The remainder misjudged the correct course home, and vanished into the north Pacific.

Others had better luck. In Bombing Six, ENS Tom Ramsay and his gunner S. L. Duncan ARM 2/c ditched and were eventually rescued by a Midway-based PBY on June 12. LT Joe Penland and H. F. Heard ARM 2/c also ditched, but were rescued the next day by Phelps DD-360. ENS McCarthy and LT C. E. Dickinson managed to find TF-16, both landing in the water nearby. In total, five of the fifteen planes in Bombing Six, and eight in Scouting Six, returned to Enterprise (two too damaged to fly again), the last landing just past noon, having spent five hours in the air. In Torpedo Six, just four planes came back, one so damaged that it was immediately pushed overboard.

With the exception of the torpedo squadrons, most of Yorktown and Hornets' attack groups eventually returned. Scouting Eight returned directly to Hornet, bombs still slung below the planes' bellies. Most of Bombing Eight landed at Midway, also without striking a blow at the enemy. Yorktown's Bombing Three, having ravaged Soryu, returned to Task Force 17 nearly intact. Yorktown, however, refused them permission to land. Knifing through the waves at 30.5 knots, cruisers Portland CA-33 and Astoria CA-34 ahead and astern, and encircled by destroyers, the patched-up veteran of Coral Sea was preparing to repel an enemy attack.

[4] The SBD flown by ENS Eldor Rodenburg had turned back due to engine trouble.

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