Remembrance of a Rear-Seater
by CAPT N. J.”Dusty” Kleiss, USN-Ret
27 April 2007
Note: the following post is from the Battle of Midway Roundtable andwas a letter from VS-6 pilot “Dusty” Kleiss in response to a Roundtable member seeking information on her uncle. The subject is Aviation Ordnanceman First Class Thurman Swindell, who was killed in his SBD as it dove on the Kaga at Midway.
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Tracy Lewis asked the Roundtable if it could give her more information about her great uncle Thurman Randolf Swindell, AOM1/c, who was KIA in the Battle of Midway. Tracy is interested in knowing this man not only as a relative, but because she is taking a history class in college and must have a paper about a famous person of WWII. The Roundtable passed Tracy’s request to me to determine if I could give any additional information other than that given to her by the Roundtable.
I first met Thurman Swindell in the fall of 1941, when I was given a collateral duty as Education Officer of Scouting Six. One of my first assignments was scoring the official (closely secured) tests for enlisted personnel to meet qualifications to a higher rating. One of the first official tests I examined was for determining the necessary qualifications of moving from 2/c to 1/c status. There were only two enlisted men of Scouting Six who met possible advancement to that difficult promotion. Meeting official tests was not enough. The contenders also had to score on petty officer ratings, approval from their division officer, their executive officer…and they had to obtain approval of Chief Myers. Gaining approval from Chief Myers was about as difficult in reaching Mount Everest without stopping for breath.
Chief Myers, with a small crew, could repair a shot-up plane brought in on an afternoon and have it ready for flying at 0400 next morning; that was after replacing a wing or a tail and checking all items including the compass. If the plane was beyond repair, he would hoist it onto the overhead and bring down a new one and make certain that everything worked. Then he would repaint the plane and put in all markings and insignia. He would do everything except replacing an engine. That chore was left to Chief Dodge. Before the Pearl Harbor attack, Chief Myers’ hair was black. A few months later it was totally gray.
My little black book shows that Swindell made 3.54 on the official exam, 3.8 on petty officer ability, good ratings from all commissioned officers, and an OK from Chief Myers. That was the highest rating ever given by Myers. In contrast, the other applicant for possible advancement to first class made 3.1 on the official exam, a 3.2 rating for petty officer ability, and was not recommended for advancement by the division officer, the executive officer or by Chief Myers.
SBDs over the burning Japanese cruiser Mikuma, 6 June 1942
Now let me give some indication of what an AOM1/c [Aviation Ordnanceman First Class] was expected to do, and how he must train those under him. On the night of 7 December 1941, our Torpedo Squadron Six and five of us in SBDs (carrying hydrofluoric acid for TBD smoke screen), and some F4F fighters searched late into the night to hit Japanese carriers. We couldn’t find any. Those F4F fighters were shot down by our people on Pearl Harbor. We SBDs landed on our ship ahead of the TBDs. One new TBD pilot, who had never landed on a carrier at night, made a rough landing. The torpedo broke loose, its propeller started twirling, meaning that it was armed and needed only a little bump on the nose to explode. “Slim” Townsend, the flight deck officer, saw it coming towards him at high speed. Slim jumped on it like a bucking bronco, steered it away from the island, and stopped it. Two ordnance men ran to it, disarmed it in two or three seconds, and helped place it on a cart, out of the way, allowing the next plane to land without circling.
Swindell was not on any SBD of those 7 December 1941 flights. He and his crew were too busy putting depth charges, bombs and ammunition on aircraft. On 20 February 1942, AOM2/c Swindell flew with ENS M. A. Merrill in 6-S-19 on our attack against Wake Island, which had been captured by the Japanese. We sunk one ship in the harbor and damaged another ship as we made a “dog leg” heading back to our Enterprise. (We never went directly back to our ship because that would show the enemy our position.) We were tearing that ship apart, using left over ammunition, when a U.S. cruiser several miles away saw what was happening. She fired one salvo, sinking that ship. Only four Japanese survived. We captured them, interrogated them, and made them the first Japanese prisoners of war. Lots of damage was done to Wake Island from our dive bombers and from shells from our cruisers.
On 4 March 1942 Swindell flew with ENS Merrill in 6-S-3, making an attack on Marcus Island. Based on heavy cloud cover and many AA batteries aiming at us, it was hard to tell how much damage was inflicted on their hangars, storehouses, and oil and gasoline tanks. One thing we knew for certain: we clobbered their radio station. We heard Tokyo repeatedly calling Marcus to answer. They continued for the next 24 hours. Marcus never replied.
A photograph of 13 May 1942 has a caption showing that Swindell was now AOM1/c. Apparently a vacancy had opened for that petty officer slot. Almost always a slot opened only when the previous recipient was lost in battle.
On the morning of 4 June1942, Swindell flew with ENS J. Q. Roberts. I watched them dive on the Kaga, two planes ahead of me. They were in the fifth plane to dive. I never saw them again. I was too busy aiming my bombs on the Kaga. The official battle report states, “forced landing near Kaga.” Neither Roberts nor Swindell were ever found. All available evidence indicates that their plane was shot down by AA gunfire.
It took only four hits, only seconds apart, to demolish the Kaga. Each of us carried a 500-pound bomb and two 100-pound incendiaries. Additional hits were made, but many SBDs had to select other targets because flames and smoke obscured the carrier. The Battle of Midway was won in less than five minutes. That’s all the time it took to make three of the best Japanese carriers into balls of flame.
It might be noted that only the very best people occupied the rear seat of our SBDs in battle. Don Hoff, of Fresno, California, who was a Radioman 3/c at that time, assures me that AOM1/c Swindell had flown numerous previous flights. He was an expert in gunnery, and was capable of operating all the numerous radio equipment in our SBDs. That included knowing how to operate the new YE-ZB homing equipment. Not all SBD plane crews from other carriers were able to operate the new YE-ZB homing system. They landed on the ocean. Fortunately, most of those crews were picked up at the end of the battle.
Statistics show that our dive bombers were the best in the world and they sunk more Japanese military ships than any other method, including attacks by submarines and surface ships. That great method paid a high price. More than half of our original Scouting Six crews were lost in the first six months of WW II. Just imagine sitting on the back seat of an SBD during combat. You would face to the rear, holding twin .30 caliber machine guns, scanning the sky for Zeros, ready to shoot them down before they shoot you. Then, suddenly, you are plunged downward vertically at 250 miles per hour, pushing downward on your seat with a force of one ton at eight “G’s” after the pilot has dropped his bomb. Then you must be ready to aim at more Zeros. Then the pilot tells you to go on the air, or switch to the homing frequency, or give hand signals to nearby crews in Morse code. All of this requires securing the guns, reaching forward, changing radio coils, and moving dials accurately and quickly.
We pilots always received medals when our airplane and crew did something important. The enlisted man in the back seat was rarely mentioned. I would have been killed long ago had it not been for the skills of my RM3/c, John Snowden. As Educational Officer, I had selected him before other pilots noticed his abilities. He scored number one in all categories for promotion, the highest ever recorded in my little black book.