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

ENS John McCarthy: Scouting Six and Midway

The morning of June 4, 1942, dive bombers from Enterprise and Yorktown CV-5, found the Japanese carrier force northwest of Midway Island and attacked the carriers Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu, inflicting mortal damage on all three carriers. (The fourth carrier, Hiryu, was devastated in a separate attack later that day.) ENS John R. McCarthy and his rearseat-man Earl E. Howell, of Enterprise's Scouting Six, manned one of the planes which attacked Kaga.

After the attack, five VS-6 Dauntlesses formed up around the plane manned by Flight Officer LT Charles Ware and his rearseat-man AMM 1/c William Stambaugh:

PlanePilot & Crewman
S-4LT Charles R. Ware & AMM 1/c William H. Stambaugh
S-5ENS Frank W. O'Flaherty & AMM 1/c Bruno P. Gaido
S-6ENS James A. Shelton & RM 3/c David B. Craig
S-12ENS Carl D. Peiffer & ARM 3/c Frederick C. Jeck
S-14ENS John C. Lough & RM 3/c Louis D. Hansen
S-15ENS John R. McCarthy & ARM 2/c Earl E. Howell

Under Ware's leadership, the six planes fended off repeated attacks by furious Zeros, and turned to the challenge of making it back to Enterprise and Task Force 16. Only two men - ENS John McCarthy and ARM 2/c Earl Howell, in plane S-15 - ever returned. Some fifty years later, in a letter to researcher Mark Horan, John McCarthy recalled the attack and the long flight home. (Editor's notes are in square brackets.)

Ware's Group Forms

Following behind Dick [LT Clarence E. Dickinson] in the pullout, we first became aware of the Combat Air Patrol we anticipated at 12000 feet. All Japanese Navy Zeros were concentrating their efforts between 0-500 feet. Dick had some difficulty in dive flap retraction and he lost speed quickly and excessively. It was virtually impossible to stay behind him with all of the wingover effort an SBD can stand. When [Earl] Howell called out a Zero just across from the apex of one of these wingovers, the fighter climbing steadily inside my turning radius, I gave up on Dick and dove for the deck with our little friend well placed on our tail. Howell called out his o'clock position and for a turn to port. I heard a few bursts from Howell's guns and when he had finished, a roll to the right was necessary to maintain a course away from the enemy Task Force. Howell, on intercom, called out, "I think I got him." Surely enough, our Zero friend was torching, turning away on what appeared to be a water landing attempt. On this particular flight, Howell was credited with two kills and an assist on a third

"We had been committed so long in first finding the Japanese force, then this attack, it was of no use to tell a person he was comparatively 'low on fuel.' Sometimes radio silence helps."

Being very alone at this point, we were definitely looking for other SBD's in our general area. These we found, with their own Zero problems. Charlie Ware's partial division was starting to form, his first section already together and defending. The second section, consisting of myself and two SBDs joining on me, formed just above the first section, sliding to the outside of Charlie's evasive turns, when a fighter committed himself to the attack. Twelve .30-caliber free gun mounts were able to bear on each fighter as he came within range, and the tracer display was very impressive as well as effective in additional Zero casualties. The fighter attacks remained singular, varying from right to left. I have often wondered what our luck would have been like if the Japs had made simultaneous attacks at this limited air speed (115 kts). I truly believe that the situation would have been reversed.

Fuel and ammunition became critical throughout the division. Since our fairly new tactic of staying close to the water denied the Zero his deathly capability of pressing in his attack and recovering under the unprotected belly of the SBD, our friends were breaking off their runs much earlier, and their shot pattern was dropping in the water underneath the first section. The word became "Conserve Fuel, Conserve Ammo," and Charlie dropped the speed level down to 105 knots. A fuel count at this point looked next to ridiculous in my section. It was becoming so varied no one could benefit by coordinated conversation on this particular point. We had been committed so long in first finding the Japanese force, then this attack, it was of no use to tell a person he was comparatively "low on fuel." Sometimes radio silence helps. If the fuel counts taken from the four various indicators were at all correct, somebody would be in the water very shortly, the time depending upon whatever action may ensue in the near future. One thing was very sure at this point: we all were not about to make it back to the carrier that we came from.

Charlie had chosen to comply with the original directions to retire toward Midway. With the defensive turning from continuous fighter runs, we had progressed six to eight miles toward Midway in 12-15 minutes. The Zero run activity finally became intermittent and we were able to fly around the Jap Task Force and attempt a return to the Enterprise.

We climbed to 1200 feet, spreading out, and "floated" at 1700 RPM - 23 inches, a power setting that would give you about 100 kts at our existing weight, all people relaxing but intent on getting back as far toward our own force as possible.

It took a long time to circle the three burning carriers and arrive at our estimated return course. Earlier, I had conserved some badly needed fuel by remaining in an auto-lean mixture setting in face of running with a high cylinder head temperature, thereby gambling on experiencing a sick engine during and after attack. This gamble paid off dividends, and gave us some "pocket fuel", about 20 gallons worth over the division average. I experimented a little further with the mixture by selecting a control setting just ahead of "idle cutoff", and it worked. With a momentary RPM drop-off, it indicated that we were at a leaner mixture and another slight increase in mileage. At our low power setting, my old war weary SBD couldn't get hurt, and it continued to run very well.

An Attack

Suddenly, Charlie's section was diving, joining again, as they slanted toward the water; I followed, not actually knowing why - my head virtually "up and locked". Visible aft were about 18 aircraft in one of the old classic "Vee" formations coming up on our stern at 8 o'clock, 1-2 miles distant and climbing, at about 2000 feet. This formation later turned out to be the dive bomber force that hit the Yorktown.

Out of this came another Zero contingent with fresh belly tanks, and red hot to fight. In a later analysis it was surmised that these fighters, commissioned to cover their Soryu [actually, Hiryu: Soryu was one of three carriers mauled in the morning attacks], the last operative carrier of the Jap Task Force, assumed that we were low-flying torpedo planes about to attack, instead of some well-spent SBD's with practically no fuel or ammo. Back to our old evasive tactics, turning into the attack with a delayed slideover of the second section, now at 95-100 kts, and some of our guns out of ammunition.

Within a five minute interval, Fleming [actually, ENS Frank O'Flaherty], my left wingman, ran out of fuel and made a beautiful water landing with 0° flap. I watched his contact and the hydroplane attitude he was able to develop made it possible to see the bending of the three propeller blades over the cowl. Howell watched until he saw the raft inflate and reported that they were in good shape.

This second attack lasted an estimated 20-30 minutes of combat and ended only in harassment. Neither formation was doing anything to the other, except making it more impossible for our group to get back to the carrier. One by one, the Zeros dropped their belly tanks and, all of a sudden, there were no Japs. Later reports divulged that the Japanese bomber force that attacked the Yorktown did so without fighter cover and, quite possibly, we helped in a small way to divert some of the action beset against this wonderful Task Force of tired guys getting over their Coral Sea wounds.

Leading his division against two long fighter attacks after a major bombing engagement long overdue and putting this group out on its mission a good 4.5 hours from launch was, at this time in the war, well beyond the expectancies of the capabilities of the SBD and, more important, the people trained to them. Charlie Ware, on his last encounter and his last flight, did one of the most remarkable jobs of flying under all combat problems known during the first six months of WW II. He accomplished some very venerate tasks in the last flight of his life, which were graciously relayed many times back throughout the training squadrons to benefit the new pilots coming up, who would later find similar conditions to encounter. First, his flight smoothness as a division leader allowed airplanes and crews to fly and fire as a group. Second, his consideration of the other person's fuel problem let the group hang together longer, giving all a greater chance when we finally ran into the Zeros closer to our own Task Force. Third, and most important, the classic agility he would instinctively fall into, with a turn at precisely the right time to set up his six planes for a grandstand shot at an attacking fighter, was of the greatest effectiveness.

Decision to Break Off

After this last engagement, it was anybody's guess as to where the Big E may be. Charlie was heading too far north for me. His predicted course was about 25° less than my best guess. I flew alongside to "discuss" this in a radio silence environment (hand motions as to which direction and two fingers denoting 20°). Charlie nodded and hand-signalled - straight ahead for him. I repeated my best course prediction and he acknowledged by the old hand-to-head breakoff signal. I broke and my wingman decided he had a better intuition on the course, so he broke to starboard on another 15-20° course differential.

We watched each other, Charlie's still-formed three plane section, me, and my wingman, for another 15-20 minutes, until maximum visibility took over and we were all on our own.

On our last homing efforts, all three contingents climbed slowly - my highest altitude 3500 feet - to tune in on the ZB-YE VHF homing beacon. (Similar to the present VOR used universally in commercial airline operations. At that time it was in its infancy, but a real lifesaver.) No signal yet - no word from the Enterprise. I had run completely out of fuel on the two outboard tanks and was working on two low inboards, with no fuel indication on the gauges. Howell and I discussed our situation and agreed that weight was most important. If we were attacked once more we would abort and land in the water. He shot out what little remaining .30-caliber was left and threw overboard his empty ammo cans. I emptied my two forward .50's. Still no signal from the ZB. At this point, we had been away from launch five hours, and a lot can happen to home base in that time in a carrier duel.

I asked Howell if by some chance he could retune our receiver for the Yorktown ZB. In about three minutes he had the signal from the Yorktown coming in "Loud and Clear" not too far away from our position. This hadn't been practiced much prior to this as it was possible not to be able to retune to the original frequency. What a radioman I had on board. Once we had made contact, we started to lower our altitude on the line of sight principle, maintaining a clear signal from York's ZB. At the point when all sectors could be received, the rear of the Task Force was visible. A TBD was in the water to our left, and finally the Yorktown was sighted.

Our original plan was to progress to the van of the force and make a powered water landing so almost any ship could pick us up when we were raft-borne. Making a carrier landing in our fuel condition was suicide; even if everything was going for you, the carrier ready and landing A/C, and no traffic, you still had very little chance of making it. The TBD in the water changed our minds. We flew over her location, waggled wings, and headed for the closest destroyer. About halfway from her, with no more fuel, the engine quit 150 feet above the water, I dropped the nose, leveled off and waited for the forgiving sink characteristic the SBD seemed to always have. (Of course, this was with a 500 lb. bomb strapped underneath, about 100 gallons of fuel, full forward and aft ammo - the usual load.) I goofed the water landing, dropped a wing, and cartwheeled wingtip to wingtip.

When I "woke up", Howell was forward on the catwalk yelling "Mac, you're hurt!" I started to feel water up to my belt. While I was "asleep", Howell, who miraculously came out of this very poor landing without a scratch, had ejected the life raft, gotten himself out of the complicated rear seat armor, forced himself forward on a 30° declining angle to find out why I was so slow in getting out. In the cartwheel, I had literally wiped the cockpit. Seventeen stitches were needed to close up my eyes and forehead, a broken nose was set, and two black eyes were in evidence for a couple of weeks.

Our war weary SBD that had taken us through five hours plus of combat like a beautiful lady, was starting to fill rapidly with water. Howell went back to inflate the raft floating in its container just aft of the catwalk. To obtain leverage, he placed his foot in the channel area for the flap actuators and became lodged solidly. He was literally anchored to a sinking airplane. With the expression "this may hurt" I twisted his ankle and turned his shoe enough to release his foot. I sure was not going to lose this great guy at this point.

Things then became something between the ridiculous and the sublime. We had recovered both parachutes, but we couldn't find the oars because there were too many parachutes and people in the little raft. We jettisoned one chute and found the oars. I tied my scarf around my forehead to keep the blood out of my eyes and we started to paddle, not row, but paddle Indian fashion. We went forward a good five feet before a 2-turn spin occurred, leaving Howell and me looking at each other. Suddenly I remembered another really smart accomplishment; I'd salvaged the Very's pistol and it was nicely tucked under my belt with a red star in the breech. This pistol was one of those surplused off the USS Constitution - twelve gauge, 7-inch barrel sans trigger guard (it was cocked). Nothing had happened so far - draw it and see if it shoots - it did - the most beautiful red star, up and away. I was truly thankful it was up there now, and not during or after our landing.


The USS Hamman was starting its turn toward our raft. Within five minutes she was throwing lines to us and we were being helped aboard and down into the wardroom. I received my share of stitches and bandages and was out of sick bay in a hurry in order to meet the crew of the downed TBD originating from Yorktown. The flying chief had gone through the hell of all the torpedo bombers that day and had made it this far back home, ditching, out of fuel. His gunner was in the last stages of life, having been shot up on his torpedo run and was now in a rigid state of shock lying on the wardroom table. Three of us massaged and applied heat to his arms and legs, under Doc Anderson's directions, but to no avail.

"The fate and heroism aboard the Hamman is written in many journals, but for this record it is stated that not a finer group of officers and men could be found in the U.S. Navy."

Commander [Arnold E. True], skipper of the Hamman, then Number 1 plane guard for Yorktown, had requested permission to leave the screen to pick up survivors (the TBD). He received a negative due to the imminence of air strikes. When we landed halfway between Hamman and the TBD, he announced to Yorktown that he was "picking up survivors", diverted from the screen, and picked up our two crews. The fate and heroism aboard the Hamman is written in many journals, but for this record it is stated that not a finer group of officers and men could be found in the U.S. Navy. These people received some 20-25 seriously and mortally wounded men from Yorktown after the torpedo attack against the carrier and its evacuation, all in miserable shape coming out of the oily sea around the carrier.

Hamman had one medical doctor and two qualified corpsmen attempting to care for a casualty list that would keep a general hospital going full time. And yet, there was no panic, bleeding was stopped, compresses applied, sutures made, catheters inserted. Some died. One died when Howell and I were holding him upright in some of the last efforts his body would give him to stay alive.

We helped as long as it was possible in the hospitalized wardroom of the Hamman. After all of this, a very, very long day, the Commanding Officer of the Hamman, Commander [True], invited me to use his cabin as he was standing bridge duty all night. Howell had found friends in the petty officers' quarters, and we both slept. This was the first day of the now-called Battle of Midway. At this point, no one knew quite exactly how this P & L statement would come out.

Of the six aircraft retiring together under Charlie Ware's wonderful leadership, Earl Howell and I were the sole ones to survive. I am sure that every one of them, like O'Flaherty and ourselves, were capable of surviving a water landing and becoming raft-borne. Talking to some who were fortunate to effect rescue 3-4 days later, a windstorm on the first night (night of June 4) created many problems, requiring crews to go over the side and hang on to the life lines to prevent being capsized. A few life rafts on June 5 were sighted without survivors. This could have been the fate of many.

The first engagement was costly, but providential. Once the first launch was accomplished that morning, there was no turning back. Recovery to refuel and relaunch would have reversed the entire situation. Thank God McClusky did not choose this route.

John McCarthy's letter reprinted with kind permission of Mrs. Kathryn Howell, wife of Earl Howell, deceased.

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