by Captain Roy P. Gee, USN-Ret
(The following post was written for the Battle of Midway Roundtable, in 2003. Note: CAPT Roy P. Gee passed away on 28 DEC 2009)
Here I am, sitting at my computer, trying to recall the details of my involvement in a great naval battle that was fought 61 years ago. I’m 83 years old and as my recollections of combat fade, I seem to get braver and more heroic than I really ever was. I needed some help in remembering those long-ago events, so I’ve relied upon a letter that I wrote back in 1988 to Bill Vickrey, a Battle of Midway historian, detailing my participation in the battle. In addition, I’ve used certain dates, times, and facts contained in various Battle of Midway logs, reports, and books in order to maintain as much accuracy as I can. My flight log was not recovered when the Hornet was sunk in the Battle of Santa Cruz, which meant that I’d lost the most valuable resource a pilot can have in reporting what he did in the air.
With those qualifications then, here is my story at the Battle of Midway.
PREPARATION FOR WAR
As I grew up in Salt Lake City Utah, I believe I was unknowingly preparing for war. I was a member of the Mormon Church, a very conservative Christian faith. I became a Cub Scout and eventually advanced to the Boy Scout program, where I reached the rank of Eagle Scout. As youngsters, my friends and I played war games between the Yanks and the Huns, or the Chinese. We dug trenches and then went “over the top,” which was a well-known phrase from World War I. That meant that the infantry troops came out of their trenches, rushed up and over their high, protecting walls of dirt and sand bags, and from that position made a frontal assault through “no man’s land” against the enemy’s frontline trenches. I remember playing that game many times in my early youth.
Also, I remember as a youngster having seen several movies about World War I aerial warfare, such as “Wings” and “The Dawn Patrol,” and from that I developed a great desire to learn how to fly an airplane. I visualized myself as a gallant young aviator, flying a Spad fighter, and dog-fighting with Baron Von Ritchhofen (the “Red Baron”) and his bright red Fokker triplane.
I participated in the ROTC program as a platoon commander in high school, and during the summer months I learned infantry strategy and tactics in the Citizens Military Training Program, provided by the U.S. Army at nearby Fort Douglas. I participated in that program during four consecutive summers, graduating as a Sergeant-Major and with a temporary commission as a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army Infantry Reserve Corps.
But I still wanted to fly. During my sophomore year at the University of Utah, I completed an aviation class in pilot training, which was sponsored by the Civilian Pilot Training Program. That program was established by President Roosevelt in order to gather a very large cadre of young pilots who could quickly be inducted into the armed forces whenever necessary. I completed the program and earned a private pilot license.
One day in June of 1940, a U.S. Navy aviation recruiting team came to Salt Lake City. I took their flight physical exam with the belief that if I passed that tough test, I would be a cinch for acceptance by the U.S. Army Air Corps. Instead, as fate would have it, I was skillfully talked into becoming a naval aviator. Because of that decision, the course of my life has led me to this moment in time. I now know that I made the right decision on that June day so long ago.
Upon completing flight school at Pensacola in 1941, I eagerly awaited my orders to see whether I was staying there or going on to Miami. The patrol bomber and cruiser scout pilots were trained at Pensacola, while candidates for any of the fighter or attack squadrons were sent for advanced carrier training at NAS Miami. The orders came—Miami! I was destined for the air group of the brand-new USS Hornet (CV-8).
DAY OF INFAMY
Before boarding the Hornet, the air group was stationed at Norfolk, where my roommate was Grant Teats. During the first weekend of December, Grant and I took a trip with two other buddies to Washington, D.C. to see a pro football game between the Washington Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles. During the course of the game we began hearing announcements for Admiral or General So-and-So to report to the War Department, or for Congressman or Senator So-and-So to report to their offices at the Capitol. There was a suspenseful feeling throughout the stadium that something awful had happened. Our fears came true when a man sitting in our vicinity with a portable radio exclaimed that reports were coming in from Hawaii about Japanese aircraft bombing and torpedoing Navy ships at Pearl Harbor. Many had been sunk or severely damaged. Scores of people quickly left the stadium, as did my three shipmates and me.
We drove back to the Naval Air Station at Norfolk, Virginia, and reported to the squadron duty officer for further orders. We felt nothing but hatred for the Japanese at that moment. Their navy had carried out a very dastardly and cowardly sneak attack against our navy on the morning of the Sabbath. President Roosevelt put the attack in perspective: “December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy!” When our country declared war on Japan and Germany in the following days, I was both mentally and physically prepared to do my duty to God and my country.
The Hornet pilots were like a group of race horses chomping at the bit. We were in a big hurry to get into combat against those “dirty Japs” who had attacked us in such a devious manner. In retrospect, though, I think that I wasn’t fully aware at that time of the enormity of the situation or the realities of war.
ABOARD THE HORNET
After the Hornet launched Jimmy Doolittle’s B-25s on 18 April 1942, task force commander RADM “Bull” Halsey, in the flagship USS Enterprise, ordered a 180 degree reversal of course back towards Hawaii. Our aircraft were moved from the hanger deck to the flight deck, and we pilots were able to get in a little flight time. I was with Bombing Squadron 8 (VB-8) while my former roommate Grant Teats had been assigned to Torpedo Squadron 8 (VT-8). Our two squadrons plus Fighting 8 (VF-8) and Scouting 8 (VS-8) flew CAP and search missions during the 7-day transit back to Hawaii.
On the 25th of April, as Hornet approached Pearl Harbor, the air group flew to Ewa airfield on Oahu. After the fly-off, Hornet proceeded to its berth at Pearl Harbor. After four days in port, Hornet departed Pearl on the 30th, recovered the air group, and steamed to the South Pacific in order to aid USS Yorktown (CV-5) and USS Lexington (CV-2) at the Battle of the Coral Sea. While en route, the pilots of VB-8 and VS-8 flew many 200-mile search missions. During one such mission, LT(jg) Randal Gardner and his radioman-gunner (R/G) from VB-8 failed to return. They were never found.
The Battle of the Coral Sea was over before Hornet reached the scene, so the ship was ordered to return to Hawaii. We flew still more searches on the return leg, and tragedy struck VB-8 again when ENS Louis J. Muery and his R/G, Richter, failed to return. We later learned that they made a forced landing in the water as a result of engine failure and had spent 23 days in a rubber life raft before washing into the rough surf of an island. The raft capsized in the surf, and as the two weakened survivors struggled to get ashore, Richter drowned. Muery was later rescued.
Hornet arrived at Pearl on May 26th, but sailed again only two days later—we and our sister carriers were to repulse an expected Japanese fleet assault against Midway Atoll.
PLOTTING THE ENEMY’S COURSE
We went to general quarters at 0630 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.
CHAG (Commander, Hornet Air Group: Stanhope C. Ring) had his own navigation solution, as did our VB-8 CO, LCDR Ruff Johnson, the VS-8 CO, LCDR Walt Rodee, and the VT-8 CO, LCDR John Waldron. The VF-8 CO, LCDR Mitchell remarked that he would use the solution that was chosen. The squadron COs’ solutions were different from CHAG’s, but he overruled them and said that the air group would fly his navigational solution. LCDR Waldron strongly disagreed. (The conflict over our proposed navigation was explained in my 1988 letter to Bill Vickrey, and is reported on page 84 of A Glorious Page In Our History, published in 1990. Waldron subsequently decided that he’d follow his own solution, and told his Torpedo 8 boys to follow him—he would lead them to the enemy.)
“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. I don’t know which particular aircraft (side number) we flew that day—my only record of that went down with the Hornet at the Battle of Santa Cruz.
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. 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 ft, 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. LCDR 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 3 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 AA 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 lb. 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. LCDR 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 1400 with our 500 lb. 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 9 VS-8 SBDs carrying 1000 lb. bombs and 7 VB-8 SBDs carrying the 500 lb. 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(jg) 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 1540. 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 (TCO), who held a stick with a brightly colored flag in his right hand. When the deck ahead was clear, the TCO 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 TCO 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(jg) 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(jg) Bates that our squadron was to bomb a nearby cruiser. We maneuvered to make our attack out of the sun from 15,000 ft. There were puffs of AA 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(jg) Bates had the lead plane (bomb 50 ft. off the starboard bow) followed by ENS Nickerson (100 ft. 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.
TRAGEDY ON THE FLIGHT DECK
The Hornet’s deck log reported the following remarks on Friday, 5 June 1942:
“Zone Description: plus 10
0 to 4
Ship darkened and in readiness condition three.
0110: held funeral service and buried the remains of the late Lieutenant R.R. INGERSOLL, U.S. Navy; the late CUMMINGS, W.B. JR. Pvt, USMC; the late HUMFLEET, L. E., Pvt, USMC; the late IGNATIUS, W.B. SGT, USMC; and late MAYER, E.A. Sea. 2c, USN, in Latitude 30 degrees- 19′ N, Longitude 174 degrees- 52′ W.”
Thus, the Hornet’s deck log recorded the final resting place of five brave men who were mortally wounded at their battle stations during a tragic landing accident that had occurred the day before. Radar had observed many bogeys in the direction of Yorktown, which was reporting that she was under attack by enemy aircraft. The sky in her direction was filled with AA bursts. As the attack subsided, Yorktown’s fighters were low on gas and ammo and were ordered to land on either Hornet or Enterprise. A wounded pilot flying F4F, side number 5-F-4, crashed on landing aboard Hornet, which caused the plane’s machine guns to accidentally fire. That resulted in the five deaths noted above in the ship’s log, and it also wounded 20 other men at their battle stations.
Hornet went to general quarters for an hour at 0530 on the morning of June 5th. Thereafter, readiness condition 2 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 2 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 1700. 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 1730, I launched in SBD no. 8-B-8 with an eleven-plane strike group consisting of CHAG and ten VB-8 SBDs. Clay Fisher was again flying CHAG’s wing, and our skipper, LCDR 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 LCDR Johnson’s left, while LT Moe Vose had positioned his 3rd section aft of Tucker’s and stepped down to facilitate maneuvering. I was flying number 3 on the right wing of Vose, and LT John Lynch was number 2 on his left wing.
We proceeded on course at 18,000 feet to search for our target. After about an hour, five B-17’s were sighted apparently returning to Midway. We continued on course, and at about 1910 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 2000, and it began to increase speed and send up AA 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 ten 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, tailhook extended. I picked up the LSO and his lighted wands as I turned into the groove. My approach speed was good, but I was a little high. The LSO gave the high-dip signal, meaning I was to drop the nose, come down about ten feet, and resume my approach attitude. The LSO then gave me the Roger signal, followed shortly by the cut engine signal, and I landed the aircraft, catching the third wire. This was my first night carrier landing in the SBD, and I felt very good.
After my tailhook 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’d 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 0500 on June 6th 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 0700, and Canfield and I were flying a sector to the southwest at 1500 ft. 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 ft. 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 AA 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 0835 and I decided to get out of there and back to task force ASAP. Arriving over the Enterprise at about 0930, 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 1015. I proceeded to the bridge in order to brief RADM 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.
No flights had been scheduled for the VB-8/VS-8 pilots on June 7th, although half of us were on standby in our ready rooms from 0600-1300 while the other half did the same thing from 1300-1900. Our SBDs were also on standby, loaded with 500 lb. bombs and machine gun ammo. On June 8th 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 1340 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 waste 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, and 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 20th, 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.
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 4th, 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.