A section of AV-8B Harriers was scheduled to fly a day training sortie and hot pit, and then perform night carrier qualification to regain currency. Shortly after takeoff, the mishap pilot reported to his lead that he had a fuel-flow proportioner, or PROP, caution. He secured the PROP system and balanced the fuel manually in accordance with NATOPS procedures. After landing from the day event, the mishap pilot, his flight lead, and the squadron landing signal officer (LSO) discussed the situation and decided to continue the mission and launch the aircraft into the pattern for the required night landing. A fuel proportioner malfunction is a downing discrepancy, a fact known to all three.
Because of an unrelated malfunction, the flight lead’s aircraft was shut down prior to the night event. After taking on fuel and water, the mishap aircraft was launched into the Case III pattern for his night landing. Approximately two miles from landing, the engine RPM began to fluctuate. The pilot executed his NATOPS immediate action items and initiated a waveoff. After climbing to 1,500 feet, the pilot reported his RPM was fluctuating between 75 and 95 percent and began a turn downwind to enter the Case I pattern. After turning off of the 180, the aircraft descended below glide path. Passing the 90, the pilot selected full power and leveled his wings, but could not arrest his rate of descent. The pilot ejected at approximately 40 feet AGL.
Grampaw Pettibone says:
Only two good things can come from this kind of knuckleheadery. The first one is we got that fine Marine out of the briny not too worse for the wear. The second is that you kids will hopefully learn something that may keep you from making the same mistake. Heck, that’s what we do here in Gramp’s house, right?
Back when Gramps was an instructor, we had an adage: “Live to fly, die for the ‘X.’” We said it jokingly—but only half jokingly—’cause after all, what kind of Naval Aviators would we be if we didn’t get the job done for the old man? But there’s a line kids, and these gents were so far beyond it they didn’t even know where it was! Gramps loves me some hard charging Marines (is there any other kind?) but gee-whiz, there weren’t bad guys coming over the horizon, this was C-darned-Q. It was nothing but a training mission and three smart, disciplined, and highly trained aviators all thought it was ok to launch that jump jet on a demanding night evolution, even though it wasn’t really airworthy—and that just don’t make sense.
So come here kids and let’s talk about what’s important here. We get paid to take risks, sometimes extreme risks, but a training sortie ain’t the time to do it. Training’s important, but it ain’t so important that you should unduly risk your air machine, much less your hide.
Now you kids run along, Gramps is gonna wander down to the barn and muck some stalls.
U.S. Naval Aviation continued its worldwide presence, acting as an international force for good in 2011. Naval Aviation, in concert with NATO and coalition allies, confronted the forces of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi under Operation Odyssey Dawn. Naval air crews and ships also participated in Operation Tomodachi, a disaster relief and humanitarian aid effort following the 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami off the northeast Pacific coast of Honshu, Japan. Naval helicopter detachments continued to provide support to distressed private and merchant vessels from pirate attacks in the Arabian and the Horn of Africa. Naval aircraft made headlines and achieved milestones, as well. The E-2D Advanced Hawkeye made its first carrier launch and landing, the EA-18G Growler engaged in its first combat operations, the P-8 Poseidon touched down for the first time at NAS Jacksonville, and both Joint Strike Fighter variants continued to make headway toward eventual fleet introduction. Naval Aviation also bid farewell to the UC-12B Huron and the Marine Corps’ first EA-6B Prowler, while welcoming USS Green Bay (LPD 20) and USS Anchorage (LPD 23) to the fleet. The future of Naval Aviation continued to take form with milestone achievements from unmanned aerial vehicles as the X-47B Unmanned Combat Aircraft System Demonstrator successfully completed its historic first flight. In other firsts, the initial components of the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) were delivered to Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) to await installation. The following chronology captures the some of the more important highlights, milestones, and mishaps of Naval Aviation in 2011.
January 8 A Navy rescue helicopter retrieved an injured hiker after he sustained head and neck injuries from a falling boulder on Guam. Through the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Guam, fire and rescue requested assistance from HSC-25. The helicopter was able to locate the hiker quickly for transport to the U.S. naval hospital for treatment. 13 USS Enterprise (CVN 65) deployed to the Middle East under new skipper Capt. Dee Mewbourne. The ships and embarked squadrons from the Enterprise Carrier Strike Group (CSG) entered the U.S. 6th Fleet area of responsibility (AOR) on 20 January 2011. 26 Under Secretary of the Navy Robert Work announced that CVW-14 would be disestablished.
February 1 The E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, the Navy’s newest airborne early warning and control aircraft, made its first carrier launch aboard USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) and its first carrier landing on 3 February. 3 USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) completed its final flights in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. 4 The X-47B unmanned combat aircraft system demonstrator successfully completed its historic first flight at Edwards AFB, Calif. 22Green Bay departed San Diego for the Western Pacific on its maiden deployment.
March 1 USS Makin Island (LHD 8) became the first West Coast ship to conduct flight deck operations with the MV-22 Osprey. 1 USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) and USS Ponce (LPD 15) entered the Suez Canal en route to the Mediterranean, as Western nations exerted diplomatic and military pressure on Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to step down. 14 USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) and other ships were repositioned off the east coast of Japan after the detection of a low-level radiation plume from the Fukushima nuclear power plant in the aftermath of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. 16 VP-4 arrived at Misawa, Japan, to assist with Operation Tomodachi disaster relief efforts. VP-4 departed Misawa on 30 March. 18 Marine Transport Squadron Belle Chase, La., retired the UC-12B Huron. The Huron has logged nearly 25,000 flight hours since its introduction in 1980. 20 Ships of the Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and embarked Marines of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) arrived off the coast of Honshu to provide humanitarian assistance in support of Operation Tomodachi. 21 Marines from the 26th MEU, along with MV-22 Ospreys and CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters, conducted a tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel mission after a U.S. Air Force F-15E crashed east of Benghazi, Libya. The Osprey was able to locate the pilot and return him to Kearsarge. 21 USS George Washington (CVN 73) left the Japanese port of Yokosuka as a precautionary measure because of high levels of radiation. George Washington returned to Yokosuka on 20 April, after completing repairs and scheduled upgrades following its work as part of Operation Tomodachi. 24 A Philippine-flagged merchant vessel and its 20 crew members survived a run-in with pirates in the Arabian Sea after U.S. Navy helicopters helped scare off the unwanted interlopers. Enterprise and USS Leyte Gulf (CG 55) responded to a distress call from M/V Falcon Trader II, which reported that suspected pirates in a small skiff were attempting to board the vessel. An SH-60F with the HS-11 Dragonslayers from Enterprise and an SH-60B with the HSL-48 Vipers from Leyte Gulf investigated the situation. The HS-11 helicopter fired warning shots, and two pirates were seen jumping off the ship’s bow onto the skiff. The helicopter pursued them to the suspected mother ship, when the pirates fired back with small-arms fire without causing any damage or casualties. 26 USS Arlington (LPD 24), the second of three ships built in honor of 9/11 victims and their families, was christened at the Huntington Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss. 28 A P-3 Orion from VP-5 marked a first in the aircraft’s 49-year history when it fired an AGM-65F Maverick missile on a hostile Libyan vessel during Operation Odyssey Dawn. 29 A Marine Corps CH-53D Sea Stallion from HMH-363 crashed off the coast of Hawaii, killing one crewman and injuring three others. 29 A Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier deployed with the 13th MEU aboard USS Boxer (LHD 4) crashed into the water during takeoff in the Arabian Sea. An MH-60S helicopter from HSC-23 recovered the pilot and returned him to the ship. 30 The engine of an F/A-18C Hornet (BuNo 165190), assigned to VMFAT-101, caught fire and exploded aboard USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) injuring 10 Sailors. 30 NAS JRB Willow Grove was disestablished. 31 After 32 years of service, USS Nassau (LHA 4) was decommissioned at NS Norfolk, Va. 31 The EA-18G Growler participated in its first combat missions as part of Operation Odyssey Dawn in late March.
April 4 The Ronald Reagan CSG departed the disaster relief mission in Japan. 4 The P-8A Poseidon made its first landing at NAS Jacksonville, Fla., during the Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Force Centennial of Naval Aviation Symposium. 6 The USCGC Assateague (WPB 1337) and helicopters from HSC-25 responded to a mayday call approximately 65 miles off the northern tip of Saipan to rescue the crew of a fishing vessel. No injuries were reported. 6 Two Navy officers from VFA-122 at NAS Lemoore, Calif., died when their F/A-18F Super Hornet crashed outside the base. 7 HSC-85 welcomed the arrival of their first HH-60H Seahawk helicopter as the command began its transition to special operations mission support. 8 The Marine Corps completed an aviation first by flying MV-22B Ospreys on the aircraft’s longest movement to date. Six Ospreys with VMM-266 returned to the 26th MEU after a trek from Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, to Souda Bay, Greece. 14 The engine of an F/A-18C Hornet from VFA-113 caught fire aboard USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) in the Arabian Sea. The fire was extinguished and the pilot escaped unharmed. 15 The last CH-53 helicopters from the HMX-1 Big Irons was reassigned to the operating forces. 29 An A-3 Skywarrior landed at NAS Whidbey Island, Wash., to become a static display. The aircraft originally came to Whidbey Island in 1956 and was the station’s first permanently assigned jet bomber. 29 Lockheed Martin test pilot David “Doc” Nelson flew the F-35B structural loads test aircraft BF-3 on its first short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) flight followed by its first vertical landing at NAS Patuxent River, Md. U.S. Marine Corps test pilot Col. Fred “Tinman” Schenk completed the first vertical landing in mission systems test aircraft BF-4 on 27 April 2011.
May 2 Osama bin Laden was buried at sea aboard Carl Vinson. 9 NAVAIR’s Aircraft Launch and Recovery Equipment program delivered the first set of EMALS components to Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78). 11 The George H.W. Bush CSG departed NS Norfolk to the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf region for its maiden deployment. 14 The Navy christened Anchorage during a ceremony at Huntington Ingalls Avondale Shipyard in Avondale, La. 14 Sailors and Marines from VMU-2 returned home to MCAS Cherry Point, N.C., from a seven-month deployment to Afghanistan. 24 An F/A-18F Super Hornet from the VFA-11 Red Rippers became the 400,000th aircraft to land on the flight deck of Enterprise. 26 VX-30 delivered the final S-3B Viking aircraft to undergo specialized depot-level restoration at FRC Southeast, Fla. 29 Secretary of the Navy Ray Maybus announced that the Navy’s next Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier will be named John F. Kennedy (CVN 79). 31 NAS Brunswick, Maine, held its disestablishment ceremony, ending 68 years of service.
June 1 NAS Pensacola, Fla., received a Beechcraft T-6A Texan, the 27th and last aircraft to be repainted in a historic scheme as part of the Centennial of Naval Aviation Heritage Paint Project. 10 The Marine Corps’ first EA-6B Prowler (BuNo 160432), received into the service nearly 35 years ago, made its final flight during a ceremony at MCAS Cherry Point. 15 A T-45 Goshawk from VT-2 at NAS Kingsville, Texas, crashed, with the pilot sustaining only minor injuries. 17 The VFA-195 Dambusters returned to George Washington after completing the transition from the F/A-18C Hornet to the F/A-18E Super Hornet. 30 VMU-3 formed a new detachment at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, and became operational with the launch of an RQ-7B Shadow in support of 2d Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. 30 USS Dubuque (LPD 8) was decommissioned by the Navy at NB San Diego.
In late June, the Navy’s MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned aircraft deployed for the first time to Southwest Asia, where the helicopter conducted missions over the Arabian Sea and in Afghanistan.
July 2 A team from the Navy Unmanned Combat Air System program office accomplished the first carrier touchdown of an F/A-18D surrogate aircraft using systems developed as part of the unmanned combat air system carrier demonstration. 6 A UH-1Y Huey helicopter (BuNo 167793) assigned to HMLA-369 crashed at Camp Pendleton, Calif., killing one Marine and injuring five others. 8 The F-35C completed the first jet blast deflector test at NSA Lakehurst, N.J. 8 HSC-85 transitioned from being a logistical support squadron to its new mission of supporting Navy special warfare operations at NAS North Island, Calif. 12 The Navy marked eight million accumulated flight hours for the F/A-18 family of aircraft. 15 The Enterprise CSG returned to Norfolk following a six-month deployment in the Mediterranean and Arabian seas. 25 USS John C. Stennis (CVN 64) departed NB Kitsap, Wash., for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. 27 The F-35C completed its first steam catapult launch at NSA Lakehurst. 29 The John C. Stennis CSG and CVW-9 departed NAS North Island for a seven-month deployment to the Western Pacific and 5th fleet AOR.
August 3 USS Halyburton (FFG 40), its two Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicles, and HSL-42 Det. 2 returned to NS Mayport, Fla., after completing a seven-month deployment. 4 USS Cleveland (LPD 7) returned from its final deployment. Cleveland was decommissioned on 30 September at NB San Diego. 6 A CH-46 Chinook helicopter crashed in the Wardak province in Afghanistan, killing 30 U.S. (including 22 SEALs) and 8 Afghan service members. 10 Coast Guard crews rescued two Marines from VMFA-121 after their F/A-18 Hornet crashed into the Pacific Ocean near MCAS Miramar, Calif. 11 USS New Orleans (LPD 18) hosted deck-landing qualifications for Marine Corps AH-1Z Cobra attack helicopters during a predeployment exercise. New Orleans’ late 2011 deployment marked the first operational deployment of the AH-1Z. 24 A T-34 Turbomentor assigned to VT-28 based out of NAS Corpus Christi, Texas, crashed with no fatalities reported. 24 The Navy’s alternative energy program expanded when a T-45 completed a biofuel flight at NAS Patuxent River.
September 7 The C-12 Huron’s more than 30 years of faithful Navy service officially ended at a disestablishment ceremony held on NB Coronado, Calif. 9Ronald Reagan returned to San Diego ending a seven-month deployment that included supporting combat missions in Afghanistan and helping in relief efforts in Japan. 13 An F/A-18A Hornet from VFA-204 crashed after attempting to land at NAS Fallon. The pilot only suffered minor injuries. 16 An EA-6B Prowler completed its inaugural biofuel flight at NAS Patuxent River. 19George Washington returned to sea to continue patrol after three weeks at Fleet Activities Yokosuka, Japan. 19 Two Marines from HMLAT-303 died when their AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter crashed at Camp Pendleton, igniting a brush fire in a remote area of the base. 27 An E-2D Advanced Hawkeye made its first EMALS takeoff at NSA Lakehurst. 30 An MQ-8B Fire Scout flew for the first time using biofuel during a test flight at Webster Field in St. Inigoes, Md.
October 3 An F-35B landed for the first time on a ship at sea aboard USS Wasp (LHD 1). The test, the first of three scheduled at-sea evolutions for the STOVL aircraft, was designed to collect environmental data on Wasp’s deck to measure the F-35B’s impact to flight deck operations. 15 The George Washington CSG departed early from a port visit in Singapore to provide humanitarian aid in the wake of the worst flooding in many years in Thailand. The Navy withdrew their ships on 24 October after never receiving a formal request for assistance from the Thai government. 18Abraham Lincoln pulled into its homeport of Everett, Wash., for the last time. Abraham Lincoln now calls NS Norfolk its homeport. 25 USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) celebrated the 25th anniversary of the ship’s commissioning.
November 25Enterprise celebrated 50 years of active service. 30Carl Vinson and CVW 17 departed NAS North Island for a deployment to the Western Pacific and U.S Central Command AOR.
December 1 U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta officially brought the year-long celebration of the Naval Aviation centennial to a close at a gala event at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. 5 Sailors assigned to Enterprise departed NS Norfolk for the first phase of preparations for the ship’s 22nd and final deployment. 8 Two Navy E-2C Hawkeye aircraft from VAW-77 detected and provided assistance to a capsized fishing vessel near Barranquilla, Colombia. 10 USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) and its CSG returned to Norfolk following a seven-month deployment to the 5th and 6th Fleet AORs. 17 A detachment of Marines from VMU-1 in Afghanistan completed its first unmanned aerial cargo delivery in a combat zone. The unmanned system, a Lockheed Martin K-MAX helicopter, moved just under two tons of food and supplies to Marines at Combat Outpost Payne. 18 The John C. Stennis CSG and embarked CVW-9 launched the Navy’s final sortie over Iraq, ending naval aviation support for Operation New Dawn. 23 The VAQ-138 Yellow Jackets returned to NAS Whidbey Island following a six-month deployment to Iraq, only the second expeditionary deployment for a squadron of EA-18G Growlers.
Lt. Stanley W. “Swede” Vejtasa seethed as he sat in his F4F Wildcat aboard USS Enterprise (CV 6). He and his VF-10 “Reaper 7” division mates—Lt. Leroy “Tex” Harris, Ens. Willis “Chip” Reding, and Ens. William “Hank” Leder—had been assigned combat air patrol (CAP) duties over the fleet and sat in their planes, incredulous at the seemingly endless delay getting aloft. The Japanese were on their way, and everyone knew it. The only way to neutralize an incoming attack was to intercept it with the advantage of altitude and the sun at your back. But they had waited too long. The in-bound strike would be overhead in moments. And still they waited.
“We just sat there and sat there,” Swede recalled. “We couldn’t get off. We knew they were coming. Nobody seemed to be in control. What the hell? What’s the delay? I was ready to get out of the plane, head up to flag plot to see what was going on.” Having been considered expendable just 12 hours earlier, Swede could only wonder what fresh madness Rear Adm. Thomas Kinkaid was up to this morning.
The day before, 25 October 1942, had been a day from hell. Shortly past noon, Kinkaid got word that the Japanese mobile strike force (or Kido Butai), some 350-plus miles away, was headed his way. A little more than an hour later a malfunctioning propeller pitch motor presaged events to follow. Lt. j.g. Bill Blair’s Wildcat engine was stuck in high pitch, seriously compromising his ability to control the airplane. He bounced over the barrier, slammed one SBD Dauntless overboard, ruined three others, and totaled his own Wildcat. Having efficiently destroyed five planes, Blair was quickly dubbed a “Japanese ace” by his Air Group 10 buddies.
In accordance with Enterprise’s status as duty carrier, Kinkaid sent out SBD scouts in a search pattern. In a deviation from that duty responsibility, however, the admiral decided to send out a cobbled together and untested Enterprise strike force—despite having an experienced strike force currently spotted on the flight deck of his other carrier, USS Hornet (CV 8). When this plan was revealed in the ready room, Vejtasa did his own calculations and quickly realized they couldn’t possibly reach the Japanese fleet—and he loudly objected to this “mission impossible.”
Who was this brash lieutenant calling the mission into question? By this point in the war, Swede had seen a lot of combat. He had bombed enemy transports, contributed to the sinking of the carrier Shoho, and shot down several Zeros with an SBD, exploits for which he’d been awarded two Navy Crosses. His was the voice of experience, and there in the ready room in the presence of the admiral’s staff he boldly declared this mission insane.
A miffed admiral’s staff member overruled Swede’s mutinous objections, and sent the pilots on their way. An hour after their departure, Kinkaid learned that the Japanese fleet had turned away from any possible contact. Refusing to break radio silence, Kinkaid declined to recall his strike group.
Returning from their initial search leg of 175 miles and two subsequent legs of 70 miles, one VF pilot, Lt. Don Miller, bailed out for reasons unknown and was never seen again. Even worse, the group returned to an empty “Point Option” with still no word from Enterprise. The ship’s YE-ZB homing signal normally available to guide them in was silent. Trading ordnance weight for flight time, the dive-bombers dropped their bombs.
One detonated on the ocean surface and took down two of the low-flying SBDs. In the dark, with his lights on, and flying close to the water with Ens. Edward “Whitey” Feightner on his right wing, Swede found the oil slick he’d noticed seeping from Enterprise flying CAP that morning. Tracking the thankfully narrowing slick for another 50 miles brought them in sight of the Big E.
Swede was tied for first aboard, as VF pilot Ens. Ed Coalson narrowly avoided chewing up Vejtasa’s plane during their simultaneous landing. Minutes later an SBD crashed on landing, ruining another in the process, and three fuel-starved TBF Avengers were forced to ditch. Swede had gotten them back, however. That was about the only thing that hadn’t gone wrong. That morning’s accident had resulted in the loss of five aircraft, and the day’s goose chase had cost eight airplanes and (so far as anyone knew) one pilot’s life—a total of 13 for the day without a shot being fired and through no effort of the Japanese. Kinkaid’s absence of communication had signaled that the air group was expendable. With blunders like this on every level, who needed an enemy?
By mid-October, following two bloody months of bitter, inconclusive fighting, both sides understood the strategic necessity of controlling Guadalcanal. This moment seemed propitious for the Imperial Japanese Navy: U.S. carrier forces in the Pacific were close to nonexistent. USS Lexington (CV 2), USS Yorktown (CV 5), and USS Wasp (CV 7) had all been lost, Enterprise had suffered major damage, and USS Saratoga (CV 3) had been put out of commission for months after a torpedo attack. By all appearances, this was late autumn for U.S. aircraft carriers. Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo sought a decisive encounter, hoping to shatter whatever American carrier forces still existed. With that accomplished, Japanese landing forces could finally evict those determined Marine and Navy pilots from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. The Kido Butai might then reassert itself, roaming at will in the Pacific and Indian oceans.
Apprised that the Japanese fleet was within reach, Vice Adm. William Halsey famously ordered his outnumbered TF-61, composed of Enterprise (TF-16) and Hornet (TF-17), to “STRIKE-REPEAT-STRIKE.” It was an imperative that likely instigated Kinkaid’s rush to judgment.
For Kinkaid, Swede, and Whitey, 26 October was to be a day of serious firsts. Kinkaid had commanded Enterprise during the landings at Guadalcanal at the beginning of August and during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons on 24-25 August, but he’d been subordinate. This was to be his first opportunity to shoulder overall combat command of a two-carrier task force. Swede would fly his first combat sortie in a F4F Wildcat. For Whitey the 26th would be his first day of combat, period.
Upstaging Halsey’s sense of urgency, the Japanese got the jump on the Americans. Just before 0800, carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku launched a combined 67-plane raid. The attack was soon augmented with a subsequent 48-plane strike. Having anticipated an 0800 takeoff, it was nearly an hour later before a furious Swede and Reaper 7 finally lifted off. This insanely late launch badly disadvantaged them against the high-flying bombers already overhead blindly bombing Enterprise through the clouds.
“We took off on instruments in heavy cloud, could hardly see the end of the deck,” said Vejtasa. “When we got off, we were given no instruction. I took off full-throttle in a right turn up through the fog. Tex Harris was ahead of me and Stan Ruehlow was behind. The attackers were coming in. We climbed and climbed, flying on instruments, and at 12,000 feet I broke out of the fog, wing-and-wing with a Val dive-bomber.”
The Val was part of the Zuikaku attack force of seven Japanese Type 99 Val dive-bombers. Swede quickly set up a short high-side run, and torched the last in line. The surviving six pressed on toward TF-17 and Hornet.
At 0910, in the clear and miles away from Enterprise (which was hidden by murky squalls), Hornet’s anti-aircraft fire opened up on the coordinated attack above her. At 0912, the first bomb hit Hornet, closely followed by two more.
Swede stumbled upon another Val breaking out of the mist just sitting there. “He was probably looking for our carriers way down below, or looking for his group. He was confused. I cut in and shot that guy down.”
Another of the Val pilots, WO Sato Shigeyuki, was either wounded or killed by anti-aircraft hits on his plane while over Hornet. At 1014 Swede watched him make a wide circle and then make the plunge, his bomb still attached, into the stack of the carrier.
There came a lull in the action as the Japanese dive-bombers departed.
Around 1145, Hank Leder of Reaper 7 called, “Enemy aircraft nine o’clock low,” referring to a formation of Type 97 Kate torpedo bombers. Launched from Zuikaku, they were at 11,000 feet lining up for an attack on Enterprise. From his vantage point at 14,000 feet, Swede quickly recognized the scenario as the ideal fighter attack situation.
“There were more than a dozen, flying in Vs of three in close formation,” Swede said. “It was easy to see them; they had just broken out of some cloud and were ready to enter a big cloud over the Enterprise. That’s when we followed them, closed on them.”
Swede and Leder dove into the attack. A shower of brass casings indicated someone was doing a lot of firing. “I didn’t see what Leder was firing at.” Suddenly the targeted Kate exploded. Swede then closed and pursued a tight, wingtip-to-wingtip V of three Kates with a fourth on their left into a cloudbank.
“Dogfights are exacting as hell,” Swede observed. “We had practiced with [VF-10 commanding officer Lt. Cmdr. James H.] Flatley about just how to manage a situation like this one. We had to control our dive speed, join their formation at close range and shoot them down. There was no room to maneuver. In the fog, I’m supposed to shoot down four Kates. I was scared as hell sometimes. But I got right under them—what we learned to do.”
There are many discrepancies between the written record and what Swede says transpired. Accounts by the likes of Cdr. Edward P. Stafford (The Big E), John Lundstrom (The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign), James and William Belote (Titans of the Seas), Eric Hammel (Guadalcanal: The Carrier Battles), and Peter Mersky (The Grim Reapers: Fighting Squadron Ten In WW II) all mention three, rather than four Kates in the fog, and include the detail of Swede blowing the rudder off the leader’s plane. Swede tells it differently:
“I’m 50 feet behind four of them in heavy fog. I got under their tails to avoid the rear-seat gunners. After cutting out my outboard guns, I went after the single Kate on the left. I blew him apart and he pitched forward. I expected the V to break, but they didn’t. Then I went after the number-two man; he pitched forward and blew up. I shifted to the leader, again careful to keep below him in order to stay out of the gunner’s field of fire. When I hit him he pitched up and back, and I thought his wing was going to hit me. The last slowed down, and I flamed him. I never wrote about shooting a rudder off.”
That made six Japanese bombers downed on this sortie.
Following the in-cloud destruction of those four Kates, Swede broke into the clear, concerned about his ammunition and fuel. Off to his right, he could see Enterprise twisting and turning and fighting off a new attack. He headed over, hoping he might get aboard.
Just out of the clouds to Swede’s left came another Kate that nearly collided with him. “I could see the pilot, the second pilot, and the third guy. I had no time to react,” Swede said. “I followed him toward the Enterprise and turned in behind him, again under the tail. I fired a burst and set him on fire. . . . I kept figuring he’d release his torpedo as he got lower over the water, but he never did. Finally, he caught a wingtip in the water and cart wheeled.”
Anxious to replenish, Swede turned to the left to avoid the intense anti-aircraft fire. That’s when another Kate flew over the top of him. “I almost had heart failure. All he had to do was drop down and fire his forward machine guns and I was a goner. Instead, I’m on his tail, and he’s climbing. . . . I switched on all my guns, and I had a few rounds. I set him on fire.” Swede was worried that the Kate might dive on the battleship USS South Dakota (BB 57).
“I missed [the Kate] badly. I tore some pieces off him, and he caught fire but didn’t explode,” Swede said. “He never faltered, didn’t go down. He was losing altitude but he had to be alive as he corrected his dive very noticeably. At this point, with my ammo gone, I gave serious consideration to cutting off his tail with my prop as we had discussed in our training. As I closed, I flew into the fire stream. My plane is full of smoke. Jesus, you talk about a blast, a plane like that with a whole stream of fire blowing back. I was within 50 feet and I got knocked to the right. Turned away, hell, it just knocked me away from the plane. I figured, ‘Swede, that was a foolish move—you’ve just put yourself down.’” This violent action convinced observers and the board evaluating victories that Swede had peeled away to avoid the antiaircraft fire from cruisers, destroyers, and South Dakota. He was credited with a probable.
The doomed Kate pilot, SN1 Kiyomi Takei, understood that he was flying too fast to drop his torpedo. He seemed to aim for South Dakota, but then deliberately steepened his dive and crashed into the destroyer USS Smith (DD 378).
“After a fiery crash onto the Smith’s forecastle,” Swede recalled, “the wrecked plane rolled off the side into the sea, but the torpedo remained, rolling around in the flaming aftermath. The torpedo cooked off and blew the hell out of everything.” Despite an explosion that devastated both forward gun turrets, and killed 57 members of her crew, the destroyer’s engineers kept the ship going. Smith’s commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. Hunter Wood Jr., left an untenable bridge to con the ship from aft. From there, he steered her into the massive, foaming wake of South Dakota, which washed much of the gas and fire into the sea. Smith resumed station to continue her antiaircraft fire mission.
Around 1130, Enterprise struggled to repel and survive yet another Val attack, which had resulted in two hits and several damaging near misses. With a powerless, drifting Hornet no longer a worthy target, newly arrived Japanese Val and Kate pilots focused entirely on Enterprise. Scattered clouds that had earlier concealed the latter carrier now provided attack cover for the bombers.
Whitey, meanwhile, orbited above a ditched Gordon Barnes hoping to connect his buddy with one of the screening ships, when he was ordered to return to ship immediately. He reluctantly joined the line of sweaty pilots preparing to land as Enterprise combed numerous torpedo tracks. A dynamically pitching deck provided a high-stakes challenge for both pilots and the LSO. Once aboard, bomb holes, a downed barrier, the huge square cavity near the island formed by elevator no. 2 stuck in the down position, and a mere 300 feet of landing deck severely tested the LSO, pilots, and plane handlers.
Whitey recalled LSO Lt. Robin Lindsey’s finesse. “When it was time to return to the carrier, Robin waved me off as the Enterprise dodged a spray of torpedoes. Minutes later as I was setting up in a left-hand pattern, the Enterprise leaned away in a hard right turn. Robin was the best. There were no barricades, and he brought me in easy.”
However well intentioned, Whitey’s lingering over Barnes had delayed an Enterprise course change out of the prevailing winds. Back aboard, Whitey’s Good Samaritan efforts earned him a personal tongue lashing from Kincaid. Grateful for his dismissal, he now confronted the shocking destruction in the hangar deck. “Water defiled with blood, oil, and bodies floating around sloshed halfway up to my knees. It was a terrible mess. There was confusion aboard the ship. More attacks were coming, and I could hear shooting. I couldn’t wait to get aloft; I didn’t want to be aboard ship when it blew up.”
Still in the air, Swede could hear Flatley on the CAP frequency, anxious to get his shot-up strike group aboard Enterprise. Their needs notwithstanding, the air battle continued around them. Finally, shortly after noon, it was time to return to a compromised Reaper base. Once again, getting back aboard Enterprise required focus, skill, and patience. Still under attack, Capt. Osborne Hardison masterfully conned the ship, dodging an aggressive torpedo attack. The twisting and turning carrier meant gas-exhausted planes had to be waved off, forcing many to ditch close to the carrier or nearby destroyers whose lookouts kept their eyes peeled for bobbing air crews.
It was just before noon when Lindsey took over for a spent Jim Daniels, who had, since 0930, supervised the landing of more than 60 planes, some badly damaged. Lindsey was not new to the platform, having served as LSO for Enterprise during and since Midway, and as assistant LSO in all the previous operations. By every account, Lindsey performed like a master conductor, and brought every aircraft safely aboard. But a flight deck beneath Swede’s wheels didn’t translate into comfort and civilized pleasures. Severe bomb damage made even water scarce, a serious issue in the tropics. After quickly refueling and rearming their planes, Swede and a relieved Whitey were sent back aloft for a second CAP.
“We knew there’d be more attacks,” Swede said. “About 45 minutes into the flight, less than an hour, but after 1400, we saw another attack come in. It was a large group, 12 or more Kates coming as horizontal bombers. I begged the fighter director for permission to attack. ‘Negative, hold your position.’ We could see them—we could have overtaken them. ‘Can I detach three CAP F4Fs for an interception?’ ‘Negative.’ The whole Japanese group swept over the Hornet, doglegged left and disappeared. I was furious at the control people.”
That attack from equally exhausted Japanese pilots resulted in a further bomb hit and a lot of resentment from Hornet fighter pilots, who felt that Swede’s CAP had simply abandoned the sinking carrier to her fate. Part of the problem was that Enterprise had to steer into the wind and away from the drifting hulk of Hornet, giving every indication of hightailing it out of there and dragging her CAP further from Hornet.
Swede again launched for what turned out to be a blessedly short and thankfully uneventful third CAP over Enterprise. By 1730, it was time to come home. Trapped and spotted airplanes now littered the deck. Observers upstairs on the island were hard pressed to spot any deck peeking through the fighters and bombers—including aircraft from the doomed Hornet—parked everywhere. Anyone overseeing the proceedings below quickly grasped their enormous vulnerability. Just one plane overshooting a cable could easily set off fires and explosions fatal to the ship.
Lindsey’s talents notwithstanding, orders from the bridge reflected larger tactical concerns. With the flight deck now impossibly crowded with aircraft, Lindsey was ordered to “put planes in the water.” Scuttlebutt had it that to continue landing planes was the stuff of court-martial. “Admiral, I can bring ‘em aboard,” Lindsey appealed. Wisely, Kinkaid chose not to interfere. Energized by the intense dramas all around him, Lindsey grabbed his paddles and strode back to his platform. The demanding yet delicate task of landing a battered, weary, and fuel-deprived array of desperate fighters and bomber pilots belonged to him.
By the time Swede finally made the groove, he was the last of 10 who had had only the no. 1 wire available to them. “I was the last to land. We had a lot of inexperienced new guys, and I figured it was best to let them in first. I gave the lead to my wingman. I saw how crowded the deck had become, and realized I might have to land on the water. I had complete confidence in Robin and in my ability to control my plane. I didn’t realize how little room there was until I came around. But Lindsey brought me in slow and low; how I missed the round down I don’t know.” Around 1750, Swede hooked that solitary lifeline. As there was absolutely no more room on the flight deck, his plane was chocked on the spot.
Swede recalled the moment. “At that point, the place went crazy. Everyone, pilots, crew, the whole ship waved and hollered at what Lindsey had just pulled off. They probably would have done the same if I’d crashed.”
The night before, following the terror-filled goose chase, air officer John Crommelin exhorted his shaken pilots, “Tomorrow if you get back to the ship and into the groove, we’ll get you aboard.” Lindsey, his magic on full display, made good on Crommelin’s promise.
Swede’s deck-edge trap signaled the end of the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands for Air Group 10, and initiated a petty and vindictive command discussion about how to recognize Swede’s astounding performance. Swede’s unprecedented sortie had made him an ace and more in a day. Flatley had not flown with the expendable strike group, nor had he witnessed any of Swede’s victories the next day, but he rightly understood the significance of Swede’s mission. Flatley noted on the margin of Swede’s flight log, “Greatest single combat Fight Record in the history of Air Warfare. Congratulations. J H Flatley.” Under remarks for the mission, Swede noted, “‘The Battle of Stewart Islands’ shot down (5) Mitsubishi VT planes, (2) Aichi Dive bombers, (1) probable VT jap (sic). Total: 7 confirmed, 1 probable.”
So impressed was Flatley that he wrote Swede up for a Medal of Honor. It was an unrequited gesture. Perhaps angered by Swede’s outburst on the 25th, which subsequent events vindicated, an ungrateful Kinkaid responded by downgrading Flatley’s recommendation to a Distinguished Flying Cross. Somewhere up the line, wiser heads prevailed. Swede was awarded a third Navy Cross.
Nearly 70 years later retired Rear Adm. Whitey Feightner still firmly believes Swede earned the Medal of Honor that day. During our interviews this past year, I asked Swede about these events and whether he thought he was a hero. He was quick to defer. “No way. That honor belongs to Robin Lindsey.”
Ted Edwards is a freelance historian. His most recent book, Leonard “Robbie” Robinson: Waxahachie Warrior, was published by FastPencil Press in 2010. He is currently working on a biography of Swede Vejtasa, tentatively entitled, In His Own Words: Swede Vejtasa, the Battle of Santa Cruz and Beyond.
These are unprecedented budgetary times. Tune in to the latest communications coming from Navy and Marine Corps leaders and one will hear how important it is to sustain readiness in the face of difficult national budget reconciliations, to be judicious stewards of the nation’s resources, and to find more effective and efficient ways of doing business.
Beginning in the late 1990s, Naval Aviation conducted several process improvement initiatives in the areas of training and cost per flight hour. These projects shifted the aviation community’s cultural mindset from one of consumption to one that considered readiness within the framework of cost effectiveness, helping Naval Aviation achieve savings and retention of warfighting capability. Building on this success, by 2004 Naval Aviation had codified a process of collaboration and cross-functional decision making based on a set of enterprise principles.
The Naval Aviation Enterprise (NAE) was officially established in 2004 to advance and sustain warfighting capabilities at an affordable cost. The NAE is not a command and exercises no command authority. It is a partnership of stakeholders subscribing to a set of enterprise principles and tenets that enable stakeholders to overcome stovepipes to cooperate for the greater good of Naval Aviation. Navy and Marine Corps flag and general officers lead and engage this enterprise partnership across their aviation commands and other organizations. This informal structure facilitates increased transparency, collaboration, continuous improvement, and the utilization of metrics to inform objective and focused actions geared toward efficient delivery of Naval Aviation forces ready for tasking.
The NAE’s efforts were initially focused on improving aircraft warfighting readiness. Success in this field led to a broader approach to address other strategic challenges. NAE cross-functional teams currently focus on four areas: current readiness, total manpower, the coordination of fiscal resources, and future readiness initiatives.
In 2009, the NAE recognized the need for a greater emphasis on the future readiness of Naval Aviation forces, as well as controlling the total ownership costs of weapon systems. The future readiness cross-functional team (FRCFT) that was established to facilitate these goals began with three strategic objectives: championing future readiness issues, identifying and engaging with future readiness stakeholders, and evaluating issues for fielded systems and sustainment infrastructure as part of the future readiness initiatives process. This process was established in 2010 to solicit ideas from stakeholders across the enterprise on ways to improve readiness or total ownership costs for already fielded aircraft and associated weapon systems.
These ideas are then evaluated and the best among them selected and prioritized for inclusion in the budget. In the first year, the team received approximately 35 submissions that were evaluated by a team composed largely of experts from the NAVAIR cost department and logistics competency. Nine initiatives were selected and briefed to senior leaders to gain their endorsement.
In the end, seven of the nine initiatives were supported with an investment of more than $130 million. They are expected to achieve a net cost avoidance of approximately $1.57 billion over the lives of their supported systems, a return of more than 10 to one. For fiscal year 2013, an additional 10 initiatives were endorsed, five of which were supported in the budget cycle, with funding of $175 million and an expected cost avoidance of $800 million. The NAE’s integrated resource management team will monitor these initiatives to measure their success in achieving promised savings.
Steadfast leadership support for future readiness initiatives during the fiscal year 2012-14 program objectives cycles and beyond is central to the success of this process. Future readiness initiatives have consistently appeared on the type commander’s priorities list issued annually by Commander, Naval Air Forces, in support of readiness and sustainment priorities. These initiatives will drive down sustainment costs and, by contributing to a more cost-effective and capable force, may have a positive impact on the future of Naval Aviation.
Examples of initiatives include a next generation prognostics-based solution for better understanding weapon system maintenance requirements. The system factors in the extent of deviation or degradation of a system’s components from expected normal operating conditions, and then devises a condition-based maintenance response prior to actual component failure.
The H-53 condition-based maintenance initiative funds the elements necessary to monitor critical systems on an aircraft, tracking performance trends to alert maintainers when maintenance is required. Conventional maintenance strategies consist of corrective and preventive maintenance. In corrective maintenance, the system is maintained on an “as-needed” basis, usually after a major breakdown. A prognostic system will alert maintainers when an area is degrading before failure, saving surrounding components from damage and reducing technician time to accomplish repairs. A systems-oriented approach to prognostics requires that the failure detection and inspection-based methods be augmented with forecasting of parts degradation, mission criticality, and decision support. The H-53E platform is the pilot for the condition-based maintenance systems, methodology, and standards that may one day reside on all Naval Aviation platforms.
Future readiness initiatives also include more conventional approaches dedicated to addressing known readiness shortcomings or total ownership cost issues. The NAVAIR engine reliability fix concept, now in its sixth iteration, focuses on improving engine readiness and reducing total ownership costs. This effort addresses safety-related failure modes as well as improving repair manuals and the reliability of engine/module parts and assemblies that are expensive to maintain and difficult to remove from aircraft.
The latest iteration of the engine reliability fix program deals with five engine types: the F414, F404, T700, T56-A-427, and T64. The platforms powered by these engines include the F/A-18 and E-2C aircraft and the H-60, H-1, and H-53 helicopters. This program provides the resources necessary to sustain reliability and address fleet deficiencies while preventing repair cost growth. These platforms will be in the fleet for many years, so reducing/optimizing sustainment costs while maintaining readiness is critical.
The engine reliability fix and H-53 condition-based maintenance initiatives are shaping the future, and the FRCFT continues to seek ideas from the fleet. While the team is known for championing ideas—from any stakeholder in the NAE—that lead to total ownership cost reduction and readiness improvement, the team also leads numerous other efforts. These include facilitating engagement and better-informed decision making in the requirements and acquisition process, as well as identifying best practices aimed at improving the transition rate of science and technology investments into fleet use. All of these affect the Navy’s ability to field future capabilities, achieve total ownership cost reduction goals, and meet readiness entitlements.
The FRCFT is a relatively young partnership, but enterprise thinking is not. When used effectively, the collaboration, transparency, and metrics-informed decision making between warfighters, support providers, and resource sponsors will help the Navy and Marine Corps make the tough decisions necessary to ensure Naval Aviation continues to deliver the right force at the right time.
Capt. Beaulieu is the commanding officer of the Defense Contract Management Agency’s aircraft propulsion operations. He was a resource officer assigned to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Director of Air Warfare (N98). Capt. Gurke is a contractor with Booz Allen Hamilton who supports the NAE future readiness team. If you have an idea for saving the Navy or Marine Corps money or making it easier to do our job, connect with a member of the future readiness team by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
Two F/A-18Cs were on an overwater one-versus-one air combat maneuvering flight. Following an engagement during which the wingman executed a left oblique maneuver, the leader called, “OK, let’s knock it off. I’m at your right side now. Level your wings.” The leader intended to maneuver the flight for the next setup.
The wingman, however, was experiencing difficulty. He had flown into an 80-degree, nose-up attitude, 120 knots airspeed. Shortly thereafter, his Hornet stagnated at 25 degrees nose up, 70-degree left angle of bank, 60 knots airspeed. The pilot increased left rudder, left aileron, and backstick, and the F/A-18 departed controlled flight.
The leader thought his wingman appeared to be in a flat attitude relative to the horizon but did not realize the pilot was out of control. The pilot in trouble retarded throttles to idle and held flight control neutral. At 16,000 feet, descending airspeed indicated 48 knots.
“Do you have a visual on me?” transmitted the leader.
“Knock it off, I’m ballistic,” responded the wingman, alerting the leader he was, indeed, out of control.
The leader rogered.
The wingman then selected “normal” on the heads up display symbology to obtain boxes around altitude and airspeed. He did not, at any time, recall the angle of attack (AOA) reading but heard the AOA tone intermittently.
The leader maintained continuing relative position on the falling Hornet. At 14,000 feet, he called, “10,000 feet” to advise the wingman of the approaching altitude. The wingman rogered. Passing 11,000 feet, he momentarily selected military power while maintaining neutral flight controls, then reselected idle.
The Hornet was not oscillating slightly in roll and pitch. “Get the AOA down,” transmitted the leader. As the motion became more violent, the wingman had to work harder to maintain neutral stick by bracing his feet against the rudder pedals and his body against the seat with both hands on the stick. He could not understand why the Hornet was not accelerating or beginning to recover. He actuated the spin recovery switch but that didn’t help.
The leader radioed, “9,000 feet,” and at 7,500 feet the wingman decided to eject. He took his left hand off the stick and placed it on the throttle to transmit his intentions. He took his right hand off the stick and located the ejection handle.
When the leader noticed the Hornet pitch nose down, he reported, “You’re gaining airspeed. That’s good,” just as the wingman transmitted, “Ejecting.” Neither heard the other’s call.
The wingman ejected safely and was rescued, uninjured. The time from the “knock it off. I’m ballistic” call to ejection was 39 seconds, and in this period the Hornet swung 350 degrees counterclockwise, losing 7,000 feet. Grampaw Pettibone says:
Holy Howlin’ Hornets! This flier put himself into his own vise by violatin’ one of the hard rules of the aviatin’ business: maintain flyin’ speed! He couldn’t complete the vertical maneuver, then induced the departure with increasin’ left rudder, left aileron, and backstick at too low a speed.
It took him too long to analyze his out-of-control situation. He didn’t use the AOA, visually or aurally, to figure out where his nose really was. He thought the nose was down when it was flat, and couldn’t figure why he wasn’t gainin’ speed. The indicator kept tellin’ him 48 or so knots. Confusion got the best of him.
He probably had high AOA hang-up or was in a low-yaw-rate spin. Whatever, at the first sign of trouble, neutral controls mighta got him out of it. Could be he was unknowingly holdin’ aft stick in and overridin’ the feedback mechanism, too.
Key points: call on your indicators (i.e., AOA) and other instruments for help if things don’t “feel” right—just like when you get vertigo off the bow. And know what to do before you have to do it—meanin’ practice for emergencies.
Old Gramps is all for bein’ optimistic, as most naval aviators are. But the best pros are the wary optimists who know how to handle trouble immediately, especially when it comes unannounced. (Originally published in May-June 1992)
A Matter of Priorities
Rain fell in a steady drizzle as the F-14 Tomcat rolled, under tow, from the flight line to the wash rack area where it would receive its regularly scheduled weekend scrub in preparation for the following week’s flight schedule. The brake rider, concerned with the rain, closed the canopy to protect himself and the sophisticated cockpit instruments from the steadily increasing drizzle.
Once the aircraft was parked and chocked, the brake rider secured the cockpit and attempted to exit. He actuated the normal canopy select handle; however, the canopy moved only a couple of inches up off the cockpit sills and stopped. Realizing that the nitrogen charge must be low, he then attempted to manually push the canopy open but with little success. The canopy moved only another two to three inches and stopped.
The brake rider signaled to the tow crew supervisor that the canopy would not open. The tow crew checked the canopy actuator nitrogen gauge and noticed that the pressure was very low. The crewman turned to bring the nearby nitrogen cart alongside the aircraft to service the canopy actuator system. As he walked toward the cart, he was startled by a loud explosion, and realized immediately what had happened. He turned to see the double cockpit F-14 canopy fall to the deck near the aircraft. After the dust, smoke, and debris had cleared, the brake rider exited the aircraft.
Grampaw Pettibone says:
Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat, if this doesn’t beat all! Within the previous two months, this young lad had received two ejection seat/canopy checkouts, had recently completed brake rider school, and was fully qualified.
During the tow from the hangar area, the brake rider noted the time. He became concerned about the lateness of the hour and the pending squadron basketball game in which he was to play. When the canopy failed to open, his concern mounted. Impatience led to frustration. He was not content to wait the 5-10 minutes which would be required to service the canopy actuator and open the canopy. Timely attendance at the squadron basketball game had now become his most pressing priority. Fully aware of his actions, the brake rider consciously selected the canopy jettison handle, blew the canopy from the aircraft, and climbed down from the cockpit.
Following the incident, the brake rider was escorted to the base dispensary. He was administered a physiological and psychological profile and determined to be fit in all aspects for duty.
This literally blew my mind! Maybe this young lad was, in fact, fit for duty. Well, I am fit to be tied! His irresponsible actions resulted in a quarter-of-a-million dollars in damage to the F-14 aircraft. We don’t need, and can’t afford, that kind of help! (Originally published in July 1982)
Seventy years ago, over the course of the first week of June 1942, naval, air, and ground forces of the United States and Imperial Japan fought what would be known as the Battle of Midway. Although other battles would soon eclipse Midway in size and scope, no naval battle of World War II—and few others, if any, in all of naval history—would have so many momentous consequences ascribed to it as this singular engagement. Going into the battle, Japan’s martial fortunes were advancing in every theater of Asia, and the United States and its allies were reeling from one defeat after another. Less than a week later, four Japanese fleet carriers would be twisted ruins on the bottom of the Pacific, and the Imperial High Command would be so stunned that it would keep the results of the battle a secret from the Japanese people for the rest of the war.
The story of the battle has been told and retold over the years, and Midway continues to hold a mythological place in the collective memory of the U.S. Navy and the United States. In the past decade and a half in particular, however, a new generation of scholars has greatly added to our understanding of the battle. This article will present a portrait of this work that will hopefully prove illuminating for both those who follow the field and those who do not.
To talk about Midway is to confront the problem of explaining coincidence, contingency, and outcome in war. American scholars of Midway have long sought to explain the many seeming coincidences by characterizing the result of the battle as little short of a “miracle.” Walter Lord would name his 1967 narrative of Midway Incredible Victory, and 15 years later Gordon Prange’s posthumously published account of the battle was straightforwardly entitled Miracle at Midway. One battle participant’s memoir, God Was at Midway, even saw divine intervention at work.1The titles were more than mere rhetorical flourishes; the concept of the miracle has helped to explain the elements of the battle that have eluded detection, explication, or understanding. Over the years, Midway has perhaps become less of a miracle—but many mysteries remain.
One of the first monographs to describe the battle was Victory at Midway, written by Griffith Bailey Coale, the U.S. Navy’s first official combat artist and witness to the immediate aftermath of the battle (he arrived on Midway days after the main engagement). The book, published in 1944, is mostly autobiographical and filled with the exaggerated casualty claims common to a war still in progress (i.e., multiple Japanese battleships, destroyers, and transports are said to have been damaged or sunk, none of which actually occurred). Nonetheless, the work established the broad themes and tone that would characterize many of the Midway histories to follow: a crushing defeat was achieved against great odds; further invasions of Hawaii, Panama, and the West Coast were averted; and American bravery and fighting spirit won the day.2
It is telling that Midway’s story would first be told by an artist. Perhaps more than any other major battle of World War II—a conflict otherwise documented by abundant film and still photography—Midway long lacked a clear and detailed visual record.3 There are no images of the battle’s key moments—most notably the final U.S. dive-bombing attacks on the Japanese strike group (the Kido Butai). Only a few photos exist of the attacks’ aftermath, and these are of only one carrier (Hiryu). Coale’s work, as well as that of other artists such as R.G. Smith, has come to be among the most important visual representations of the battle. None of these artists, however, was an eyewitness to the combat at Midway.
Historians have also been key participants in the construction of the story and memory of Midway. Just as the creation of the visual record of the battle’s most important moments has required the skilled brushes of painters, so too has Midway’s incomplete written record required the critical imaginations of historians working in the absence of important documents. Most important, deck logs and maintenance records from all four Japanese carriers, as well as from USS Yorktown, were lost and incompletely re-created from memory. Modern scholarship, increasingly concerned with the hours before the final attack on the Kido Butai on the morning of 4 June and the question of what was happening on the flight and hangar decks of the Japanese carriers during that time, have had to speculate using a range of alternative sources to answer these questions.
The first widely available historical account in English was Samuel Eliot Morison’s Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions, the fourth volume in his 15-volume History of the United States Naval Operations in World War II. Originally published in 1949 with the benefit of only a handful of available official documents including log books, action reports, and publications from the Office of Naval Intelligence and Naval War College, Morison’s work lacked strong input from Japanese sources. A subsequent printing in 1959 incorporated scholarship from what has been the most significant (and long the only) Japanese source translated into English on the battle, Mitsuo Fuchida’s and Masatake Okumiya’s Midway: the Battle that Doomed Japan, published in the United States in 1955. Later scholars would argue this work suffers from serious faults of credibility—despite the authorship of Fuchida, who led the air attack on Pearl Harbor and was present on Akagi at Midway. Morison also suffered under the limitation of having to skirt around the issue of the true nature of the intelligence coup that made the battle of Midway possible. In the 1950s, much of the story on the breaking of the JN-25 naval code was still classified, so Morison and his team of research assistants had to explain Adm. Chester Nimitz’s apparent foreknowledge of Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto’s plan by stating vaguely that “Intelligence fed [Nimitz] a fairly accurate account of Japanese plans and preparations, deduced from various bits of information from a variety of sources.”4
The mystery of the origin of these “bits of information” could have been the basis for a strong claim, if any could be made, that the battle indeed was a “miracle” for the United States. Morison concludes matter-of-factly, however, that “Midway was a victory of intelligence, bravely and wisely applied.”5 The full declassification in the 1960s and 70s of the efforts that resulted in the breaking of the JN-25 naval code allowed later historians to incorporate more detail about the intelligence side of the battle into the narrative. Subsequent historians dealing with Midway would acknowledge the importance of intelligence breakthroughs in allowing Nimitz to have foreknowledge of Japanese plans and forces. (Walter Lord, writing in the late 1960s, was the first to outline in detail the story of Cmdr. Joe Rochefort and his group at Station Hypo, which broke JN-25.6) Getting the two forces in proximity, however, only ensured that a battle took place—intelligence alone did not predetermine the outcome at Midway. The search for explanations would come to focus on the many key moments and coincidences of the battle, none more so than the crucial American dive-bombing attack on the carriers Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu.
Fuchida and Okumiya brought to the narrative of Midway the Japanese side of the gripping story of the “five fateful minutes,” in which Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo’s carriers went from seeming success to utter ruin on the morning of 4 June. “At 1020 Admiral Nagumo gave the order to launch when ready. On Akagi’s flight deck all planes were in position with engines warming up. The big ship began turning into the wind. Within five minutes all her planes would be launched. . . . At 1024 the order to start launching came from the bridge by voice-tube. The Air Officer flapped a white flag, and the first Zero fighter gathered speed and whizzed off the deck. At that instant a lookout screamed: ‘Hell-divers!’” Fuchida’s retelling was all the more compelling because he claimed to be on the flight deck at that moment American bombs began to fall.7
Fuchida and Okumiya explained the loss at Midway with a number of criticisms of Japanese actions and failures. These included: the success of U.S. intelligence and a corresponding failure of Japanese intelligence; faulty planning, especially an unwise dispersion of forces, lack of a single goal, and bad pre-battle reconnaissance; specific tactical faults by Nagumo, in particular inadequate search procedures on 4 June, allocating too many aircraft to the Midway strike, and a failure to attack the American carrier (Yorktown) immediately on contact; and Yamamoto’s failure to respond appropriately after the crisis and his self-imposed isolation at sea that left him too distant from the Kido Butai to help.
The authors also faulted Japan’s lack of ingenuity in using battleships as close escorts for the navy’s carriers, an overemphasis on quality over quantity in naval aviation, the lack of radar on Japanese vessels, and, perhaps most important of all, Japan’s sufferance from “Victory Disease”— the clouding of judgment resulting from the many easy victories of the early months of the war. “There is an irrationality and impulsiveness about our people which results in actions that are haphazard and often contradictory,” Fuchida and Okumiya conclude. “Indecisive and vacillating, we succumb readily to conceit, which in turn makes us disdainful of others. . . . Our want of rationality often leads us to confuse desire and reality, and thus to do things without careful planning.”8
Lord’s narrative description of the battle incorporated Fuchida and Okumiya’s view of the imminent launch of the Japanese strike against the American carrier force and the attack of American dive-bombers happening within minutes of each other.9 Lord’s conclusions would also mirror those of The Battle that Doomed Japan. The Japanese side suffered from bad luck with the late start of the search plane from Tone, the inability to launch its own attack against the American carriers before being attacked themselves, an unwise dispersal of forces, an assumption that U.S. forces would act predictably, and of course a bad case of “Victory Disease.”10 The U.S. had its problems as well—underutilized subs, poor scouting, slow communications, lack of coordination, and a tentative pursuit after the battle—but victory was nonetheless secured. “Against overwhelming odds, with the most meager resources, and often at fearful self-sacrifice,” Lord concluded, “a few determined men reversed the course of the war in the Pacific.”11
Gordon Prange (and his co-authors Donald Goldstein and Katherine Dillon, who completed his manuscript after his death in 1980) provided the most detailed analysis to date of the causes and outcomes of the battle, but broadly followed similar lines to Morison, Fuchida, Okumiya, and Lord in assigning primacy to Japan’s loss to a host of tactical missteps by Nagumo and the ever-present “Victory Disease,” while crediting U.S. victory to intelligence, the leadership of Nimitz, Rear Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher, and Rear Adm. Raymond Spruance, and the bravery of the men who fought the battle.12 For all of Nagumo’s faults and wrong turns, however, fate dealt him a blow that was beyond his control. “The final debacle was due to a stroke of good luck on the United States side—the uncoordinated coordination of the dive bombers hitting three carriers at once while the torpedo strikes were still in progress,” wrote Prange. “Except for those six short minutes, Nagumo would have been the victor, and all his decisions would have been accounted to him for righteousness.”13
For Prange, Yamamoto was ultimately to blame for the outcome at Midway because of the admiral’s decisions to split his forces, to provide an overly complicated plan, and to hamstring himself by remaining aboard the battleship Yamato under a communications blackout. Here was a paradox that is implicit in much of the historiography of Midway: luck was at play in the tactical conduct of the battle (i.e., the coincidences that constitute the “miracle”), and yet the fatal flaws of the plan doomed it to failure from the start (either because of the faults of Yamamoto personally or the Japanese in general). How can a battle be both a miraculous and an inevitable victory (or defeat)?
Since the late 1990s, research on Midway has shifted toward a closer analysis of the Japanese forces in the battle, made possible by engagement with Japanese documents (in particular, the official history, Senshi Sosho) and other sources either ignored by or unknown to earlier American historians. Key to this movement was the publication of two seminal works, David Evans and Mark Peattie’s Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1997 and Mark Peattie’s Sunburst: The Rise of Japanese Naval Air Power in 2001, which incorporated extensive research in Japanese archives and provided keen analysis of operational doctrine, technology, and strategy. Taking advantage of this work, a series of articles in the Naval War College Review by Dallas Isom (“The Battle of Midway: Why the Japanese Lost,” Summer 2000) and Jonathan Parshall, David Dickson, and Anthony Tully (“Doctrine Matters: Why the Japanese Lost at Midway,” Summer 2001) brought a renewed focus on Nagumo’s decisions and the shipboard operations of his aircraft on the morning of 4 June. Both Isom (Midway Inquest: Why the Japanese Lost the Battle of Midway, 2007) and Parshall and Tully (Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway, 2005) subsequently published book-length versions of their arguments.
The late Dallas Isom, a former Oregon law professor, brings a lawyer’s attention to detail to the study of the battle in Midway Inquest. He focuses on the Kido Butai’s actions on the morning of 4 June, specifically the “crucial period” between 0715 and 1025, during which time a second strike on Midway was contemplated, part of the American fleet was identified, the first Midway strike returned, and a series of decisions about which targets to strike were made by Nagumo. At the heart of Isom’s analysis is the study of torpedo handling and loading procedures—for if the Kido Butai was to attack the American ships spotted that morning by the cruiser Tone’s search plane, it would need its Nakajima B5N Kate bombers loaded with the deadly Type 91 torpedo. The Type 91 was the most powerful ship-killing weapon in the Japanese arsenal, so it is unlikely they would have launched a strike without their torpedo aircraft being ready. Switching between bomb loads (for land targets) and torpedo loads (for ship targets) or back again took time, and it is the issue of time (both when orders for rearming were given and how long those orders took to carry out) that is at the heart of Isom’s analysis. His key claim is that because of a series of factors—the timing of the search plane’s contact with Task Force 17, the multiple attacks by land- and carrier-based U.S. aircraft, and the physical time necessary to rearm the torpedo planes—Nagumo was not ready to launch a strike against the American carriers at 1020 when the SDB Dauntlesses from Enterprise and Yorktown appeared above the Kido Butai.14
In Shattered Sword, Parshall and Tully provide an alternate time sequence and explanation of the events on the morning of 4 June, claiming that because of the nearly constant attacks by American aircraft and the necessity of retrieving combat air patrol (CAP) aircraft, it was the maneuvering of the Japanese carriers that hindered rearming operations and the spotting of the strike force aircraft.15 The two books’ tactical explanations for Nagumo’s inability to launch a strike against the American carriers that morning differ, but the overall conclusion of both books is that Nagumo was nowhere near being ready for such a strike—and hence the miraculous coincidence of Fuchida’s “fatal five minutes” is greatly diminished. Photographic evidence taken of the carriers maneuvering to avoid early morning air attacks clearly shows empty flight decks, except for a handful of CAP fighters.16
Parshall and Tully make a series of other significant claims: that the late launch of Tone’s No. 4 search plane may have actually led to an earlier sighting of the Americans (also argued by Isom); that a reserve strike group was not ready to go when the Americans were first discovered as claimed by earlier historians; that VT-8’s sacrifice alone did not disrupt Japanese CAP operations; and that it was the Kido Butai’s loss of its highly trained maintenance and ground crews, not its pilots, that was the most grievous loss of Midway.17 And the authors also debunk the myth of the “miracle” at Midway: rather than being a triumph of an American David over a Japanese Goliath, Yamamoto’s exceptionally complicated plan ensured that for all of the forces he used for the operation, it would be only the 20 warships of the Kido Butai that would engage the 25 warships of the American Task Forces 16 and 17. Nagumo could confidently rely on only 248 aircraft; Nimitz could call on 233 carrier aircraft and 120 or so aircraft at Midway. The authors’ most trenchant conclusion is that explaining the outcome of the battle means looking far deeper than the tactical missteps on which most historians have dwelled. “[T]he Japanese defeat was not the result of some solitary, crucial breakdown in Japanese designs. It was not the result of Victory Disease, nor of a few crucial personal mistakes. Rather, what appears is a complex, comprehensive web of failures stretching across every level of the battle—strategic, operational, and tactical. . . . They were the end products of an organization that failed to learn correctly from its past, failed to plan correctly for its future, and then failed to adapt correctly to circumstances once those plans were shown to be flawed.”18 Here, the key failure was going to war in the first place with a flawed military system—even had Midway ended differently, allied victory was inevitable against a Japanese military that could neither produce adequate numbers of ships, aircraft, and trained personnel nor learn from its mistakes.
The most recent work on Midway, The Battle of Midway by former Naval Academy history professor Craig Symonds, incorporates much of the work done by Isom, Parshall, and Tully, and is a comprehensive account (if focused on narrative rather than analysis). Notable among Symonds’ contributions is his emphasis on the problems encountered by Hornet’s air group throughout the battle. The newest carrier at Midway, USS Hornet and its pilots suffered a series of misfortunes that led to nearly all of them failing to engage the enemy during the battle—except for the men of Torpedo Squadron (VT) 8, who attacked the Kido Butai but had only one survivor.
The carrier’s faults were so numerous that only a single action report was filed after the engagement (rather than one for each squadron) and the ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Marc Mitscher, may have deliberately falsified it to cover up the notorious “flight to nowhere.”19 Symonds brings back into sharp focus the many missteps and disappointing performance on the American side—for all the effort by scores of aircraft (and the sacrifices of pilots and air crewmen), for instance, only the SBDs from Enterprise and Yorktown scored hits during the battle. Symonds argues that it was the decisions and actions of key individuals, rather than of chance, that led to the battle’s outcome. “[T]he Battle of Midway is best explained and understood by focusing on the people involved.”20 Although this is in line with the movement toward making the battle out to have little to do with luck, in a way it brings the story of the battle full-circle by reemphasizing the actions of individuals, rather than the doctrine, operational procedures, strategy, and organizational culture emphasized by other historians.
At the heart of the story of Midway is the issue of contingency in battle. To say that contingency was a factor in the battle’s decision is not to say that its outcome was a “miracle”—indeed, contingency was as present at Midway as it is at every battle. In that sense, Midway was unremarkable. What was remarkable about Midway was the sudden shift in the war’s direction brought about by the battle’s outcome. As some historians have argued, that shift may indeed have been inevitable—had it not taken place at Midway, it would have taken place somewhere else—but studying this battle remains valuable for better understanding of how these kinds of shifts take place.
Footnotes: 1 Stanford E. Linzey, God Was at Midway: The Sinking of the USS Yorktown (CV-5) and the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway (Chula Vista, Calif.: Black Forest Press, 1996). 2 Griffith Bailey Coale, Victory at Midway (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1944), p. 151-53. 3 This was a problem largely rectified by A Glorious Page in Our History: The Battle of Midway, 4-6 June 1942 (Missoula, Mont.: Pictorial Histories, 1990) by Robert Cressman, et al. 4 Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II: Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2001 [1947-62]), p. 80. 5 Morison, p. 158. 6 Walter Lord, Incredible Victory (Short Hills, NJ: Burford Books, 1998 ), pp. 17-28. Rochefort himself finally became the subject of a serious biography with Eliot Carlson’s Joe Rochefort’s War: The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2011). 7 Mituso Fuchida and Masatake Okumiya, Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan, The Japanese Navy’s Story (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1955), pp. 176-77. 8 Fuchida and Okumiya, pp. 232-48. 9 Lord, pp. 160-61. 10 Lord, p. 285. 11 Lord, p. 288. 12 Gordon W. Prange, Donald M. Goldstein, and Katherine V. Dillon, Miracle at Midway (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982), pp. 370-90. 13 Prange, pp. 374-75. 14 Dallas Woodbury Isom, Midway Inquest: Why the Japanese Lost the Battle of Midway (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2007), pp. 173-76. 15 Jonathan B. Parshall, David D. Dickson, and Anthony P. Tully, “Doctrine Matters: Why the Japanese Lost at Midway,” Naval War College Review, Summer 2001, Vol. LIV, No. 3, p. 146; Jonathan B. Parshall and Anthony P. Tully, Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Dulles, Va.: Potomac Books, 2005), pp. 229-31. 16 The authors suggest Fuchida had an agenda to serve by deliberately distorting the record to cover up deficiencies in Japanese actions on the morning of 4 June. Parshall and Tully, Shattered Sword, pp. 438-39. 17 Parshall and Tully, Shattered Sword, pp. 431-33. 18 Parshall and Tully, Shattered Sword, p. 414. 19 On the morning of 4 June, Hornet’s air group flew on a too-westerly course that overshot the Kido Butai. The group’s squadrons abandoned the group commander, Cmdr. Stanhope Ring, and either returned to Hornet, ditched, or (in VT-8’s case) participated in the fateful torpedo attacks on the Japanese carriers. Craig L. Symonds, The Battle of Midway (New York: Oxford, 2011), pp. 245-65, 389-91. 20 Symonds, p. 5.
During the very early stages of the Vietnam War, the Marines had a specialized aircraft that was capable of jamming enemy radars: the Douglas EF-10B. This aircraft, a derivative of the F3D Skyknight (and affectionately known as the “Drut”—turd spelled backwards), had been a very effective night fighter against the MiG-15 over “MiG Alley” in the Korean War. In the years following that war, the development of radar-guided surface-to-air missiles (SAM) advanced rapidly. In Vietnam, the United States learned this the hard way, when deadly SAM sites started cropping up all over North Vietnam, especially around the Hanoi area.
The only aircraft at the time capable of handling the SAM threat were the F3D-2Q and EF-10B. The Marines were well versed in applying the anti-SAM technology that made the aircraft very effective at countering missile sites. Marine Composite Reconnaissance Squadron (VMCJ) 1 employed that technology in Vietnam and did an excellent job of backing up Navy and Air Force strikes north of the demilitarized zone (DMZ). By the early 1960s, the aircraft was considered obsolete as it was a slow, straight-wing platform that was thrown into a supersonic, swept-wing arena. The primary purpose of the Drut’s jammer was to identify and block fire control radars that made SAMs so effective. That was not the only mission type, however, flown by EF air crews.
One of VMCJ-1’s missions was flying night patrols involving a team effort against Viet Cong road traffic. These flights were different than the regular electronic-countermeasures (ECM) missions in the north, as the former included C-130 flare ships and several bomb-loaded B-57 Canberras. The aircraft often flew in close formation and with zero visibility during new-moon periods. These missions required complete concentration on the part of the EF-10B air crews for hours on end. The main threat usually was not enemy anti-aircraft fire, but vertigo.
One of the Marine pilots who logged a lot of time in the EF-10B north of the DMZ was Lt. H. Wayne Young. “Our role in this was that we would fly wing on a C-130 Hercules flare ship with a couple of B-57s that were orbiting above our track,” Young recalled. “If any fire control would crop up against our flight, our ECM guy [right-seater] would pinpoint it and give a fix to the C-130 crew. I don’t know exactly what type of gear they had on board, but they would relay the info to the B-57s.”
Young said that the C-130 would then drop a string of flares to light up the specific area where the signal was received. The bombers would then line up and make a run on whatever the target was with their ordnance.
“At the end of their bomb run [along Highway 1], the B-57s would come off their drops and the C-130 would go into a hard right turn and set up a race track pattern for about 90 minutes,” said Young. “Here we were sitting on the C-130’s wing, in the dark, flying at 190 knots, which was all the big Herc could muster, so we were nearly stalled out trying to maintain position with him. Then [the C-130] would rack his aircraft into a hard right turn and we’d have to slide down underneath him to maintain position and we’d get caught in his prop wash—with our straight-wing EF, we’d be bouncing all over the place! To top that off, the flares would burn out and we would be back in total darkness, usually out over water, so there would be no horizon or reference to focus on except the little white light on the top of the C-130 fuselage. We operated on these missions with all lights off, for obvious reasons. You had no rotating beacon, no navigation lights, and only one light on top of the flare ship as your reference point.”
The only safety features in this mission were the pilots’ eyes. The glaring light from the flares and exploding ordnance, followed by total darkness, wreaked havoc with night vision. Even as their eyes were adjusting back, they had to remain in tight formation with the C-130.
“When you got down in the prop wash, you knew that you were on the right side or left side,” said Young, “but when you were trying to adjust from bright light to darkness, it was extremely dangerous because of the proximity of the two aircraft, and all of this was happening below 10,000 feet. It usually didn’t take long to pick up another signal from an enemy position, and then the process started all over again. We maintained radio silence, and the only communications going on was between the controllers inside the Herc and the B-57s.”
VMCJ-1’s most dangerous missions involved escorting Air Force and Navy bombers deep into North Vietnam. The squadron took every precaution to avoid the SAM sites and MiG-17s that were always near in the higher “Route Pack” areas, especially Hanoi and Haiphong. EF-10Bs were very effective in stand-off jamming, which put them directly off the coast, but still well within effective range to jam enemy radars as strike forces converged on their targets. The squadron lost five EF-10Bs during their deployment, but only two as a result of enemy fire (one in 1966 and the other in 1968). Any mission sending them as far north as Hanoi or Haiphong definitely put them in harm’s way.
Young was on one of those missions that went all the way to the Haiphong area in 1965. It was a two-ship jamming element; the other EF, piloted by Capt. Chuck Houseman, was the lead. After they finished protecting the strike force, and before they could turn back toward their base, the Air Force asked them for some “extra” duty.
“Our EF-10Bs were definitely a guarded asset, because if we lost one, we couldn’t order an immediate replacement [since] they were in very short supply,” said Young. “We were equipped with a K-10 camera which was a huge box camera that was excellent in taking aerial images. Also, the fact we were so slow also enhanced the quality of each frame. The [Air Force] asked us to stay up in the area long enough to swing over Haiphong Harbor and get some pictures. On these deep missions, we were always escorted by a couple of Marine F-4s, which was rare for our Phantoms as they were usually working close air support for the troops far to the south.”
Both pilots were up for the idea, and instead of making the usual right turn they would ease over the harbor and use their cameras. Houseman told Young to slide about 100 yards off his right wing and slightly behind, so the two cameras would cover a much wider area.
“Just as we turned on the cameras, the sky opened up,” said Young. “We were catching everything they had and I was yelling over the radio to Houseman that we were getting a lot of flak that he couldn’t see because it was behind him. I’m watching all this flak walk right up to my plane and I’m flying a slow, straight-wing “Drut” that is flying at 230 mph instead of being in an RF-8 doing Mach 2. We made the run and got out without any damage. When we returned to base, the CO was upset when he found out what we had done during the latter part of the mission. He called the Air Force and said that if they needed any more missions like that, he would send his RF-8s rather than risk losing a valuable jammer! This happened to be the last time we went up in that area again in the EF-10B.”
During the three years the Marine “Drut” served in the war, they logged more than 9,000 sorties and provided electronic jamming in support of thousands of bombing strikes by Navy and Air Force aircraft. VMCJ-1 lost five EF-10Bs in the war; all 10 crew members were listed as “killed in action.” The aircraft was replaced with the EA-6A, RF-8, and RF-4 during the remainder of the war. The lion’s share of the electronic warfare missions, however, fell on the shoulders of the Douglas EB-66 Destroyer that the Air Force brought in during the last days of the EFs. It was very effective, and two squadrons carried the brunt of the jamming requirements.
Warren Thompson has researched and written on military aviation history for more than 40 years.
“For nearly 100 years, Marine Aviation has demonstrated the adaptability, agility, and unique ethos that come with the title ‘Marine.’ Supporting our ground and logistics brothers and sisters, Marine Aviation has forged a lasting legacy of professionalism, innovation, and transformation. The centennial of Marine Aviation provides us a unique opportunity to reflect on this legacy of success as we turn our eyes to the future.”
~Gen. James F. Amos, USMC~
On 22 May 1912, Marine 1st Lt. Alfred A. Cunningham reported for duty at the U.S. Navy’s aviation camp at Annapolis, Md. His arrival for flight instruction marks the official birthday of Marine Corps Aviation. In the 100 years that has followed, Marine Aviation has grown from a fledgling collection of frail aircraft into a powerful multimission force that is a key element to the success of the Marine air-ground task force structure.
Marine Aviation has but one primary role—supporting warfighters on the ground. This unbreakable bond between aviator and infantryman is unique. Marine Aviation has nurtured innovative technologies, learned to maximize their limited resources, and exhibited unparalleled determination in meeting the challenges of the past 100 years.
Birth and Growth: 1912-1940
In the years leading up to America’s entry into World War I, the Marine Corps had experimented little with the airplane. By 1917, Cunningham and his fellow Marine aviators had created an “Aeronautic Company” of 10 officers and 40 men. When the Marine Corps commandant offered a brigade of Marines to fight in France, Cunningham pushed to have his aviators join the battle.
The growth of Marine Aviation during World War I was remarkable. The 1st Marine Aeronautic Company, stationed in the Azores, flew Curtiss float planes and flying boats to search for German submarines. The four squadrons of the 1st Marine Aviation Force, which had trained at the newly created Marine flying field near Miami, Fla., flew their de Havilland light bombers as part of the Navy’s Northern Bombing Force in France. By war’s end, Marine pilots had defeated German fighters, dropped supplies to surrounded Allied troops, and engaged in both day and night bombing missions. Marine Aviation had proved it could successfully fly and fight.
Marine Aviation struggled through the interwar years. Funding was limited, and two-thirds of all Marine squadrons existed only on paper. The small fleet of Marine aircraft was heavily committed domestically and overseas, as deployments to Haiti, Nicaragua, and China strained the force to the breaking point. Still, the Corps found new and innovative uses for attack and transport aircraft, while forging the foundations of the Marine air-ground team that remains in place today. Newer aircraft slowly replaced World War I aircraft. Through service in the field, record long-distance flights, aerial demonstrations, and air race victories, Marine aviators proved that, through their professionalism and “do-more-with-less” attitude, they could achieve great things.
A Force Forged by War: 1941-1945
As America’s entry into World War II loomed, Marine Corps Aviation rapidly expanded and modernized. Fledgling pilots flooded into newly created squadrons and modern aircraft designs replaced older types. This transformation was not yet complete when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, sending the Marines into war with what they had on hand. Defending a string of island outposts across the Pacific, Marine aviators did their best to blunt the Japanese advance. Capt. Henry T. Elrod and Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF) 211 became America’s first aerial heroes of the war for their valiant but hopeless effort to defend Wake Island. During the Battle of Midway in June 1942, Marine air crews threw themselves against better trained and equipped Japanese naval pilots. The sacrifices made by these Marine aviators helped set the stage for the stunning American victory at Midway that marked a turning point in the war.
A handful of Marine fighters and dive-bombers formed the core of the famous “Cactus Air Force,” which fought valiantly against superior numbers on Guadalcanal. Aces Joe Foss, Marion Carl, and Gregory “Pappy” Boyington earned fame for their exploits in the Pacific. Other Marine aviators, such as the brilliant tactician Keith McKutcheon, worked without fanfare to perfect the art of close air support—Marine Aviation’s most potent weapon. Slowly, they helped turn the tide against the Japanese.
In the Philippines, Marine aviators pounded the Japanese and secured the flank of the Army as it swept across the central islands. Marine squadrons operating from Navy carriers struck the Japanese mainland and provided crucial support during the brutal fights for Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Marines flew aircraft ranging from single-engine observation planes to four-engine strategic bombers and undertook thousands of logistical, reconnaissance, and liaison missions. Marine Aviation grew rapidly during World War II and proved its value on the battlefield.
New Challenges, New Capabilities: 1946-1961
Thanks to its great success in World War II, the Marine Corps seemed to have a secure future. The spread of atomic weapons, however, made large-scale amphibious landings such as those at Iwo Jima no longer possible against a nuclear-armed foe. In response, the Marines embraced a new technology, the helicopter, and created the doctrine of “vertical envelopment”—moving Marines ashore by air. The Korean War provided Marine Aviation the chance to highlight the potential of both its new doctrine and helicopters.
In Korea, the Marine air-ground team reached its full combat potential for the first time. Operating from austere air fields and small escort carriers, Marine fighters, helicopters, and transports provided round-the-clock support to Marines fighting to repel North Korean and Chinese forces. During the march to and from the Chosin Reservoir in the winter of 1950, Marine aviators served as a lifeline to thousands of Marines, soldiers, and civilians fighting their way through overwhelming numbers of Communist Chinese. At no point had the bond between Marine aviators and their fellow Leathernecks on the ground been stronger.
Marine Aviation underwent a great transformation between 1946 and 1962. The vertical envelopment doctrine led to the restructuring of the entire Marine Corps into a force that was lighter, more airmobile on the battlefield, and more dependent on air power. It discarded many fixed-wing aircraft in favor of helicopters, and beloved propeller-driven fighters such as the Corsair gave way to newer jet-powered aircraft.
The Long War in Vietnam: 1962-1975
The Vietnam War proved the value of the Marines’ vertical envelopment doctrine and the helicopter. Marine aviators engaged in action over Vietnam from Operation Shufly in April 1962 through the evacuation of Saigon in April 1975. Because of the nature of this sustained conflict, Marine Aviation focused less on air superiority missions and more on the direct application of air power in support of Marines and allied ground forces. Places such as Da Nang, Chu Lai, Marble Mountain, and Khe Sanh became irrevocably linked to Marine Aviation.
By 1967, half of all Marine air units were supporting operations in Vietnam. During their 13-month tours, Marine helicopter pilots averaged more than 1,000 sorties and often flew more than 15 hours a day. The never-ending need for fresh helicopter pilots led to extended combat tours, quicker rotations back to Vietnam, and even the forced transition of fixed-wing pilots to helicopters. Marines had to find creative solutions to the ongoing maintenance and logistical challenges of sustained round-the-clock flight operations. Ordnance shortages led to using bombs left over from previous wars. Training units were stripped of every available aircraft to replace combat losses. Marine electronic warfare and all-weather attack aircraft supported Air Force and Navy operations over the heavily defended skies of North Vietnam, but the bulk of Marine Aviation’s contribution went to the fighting in South Vietnam. Marine fighters and attack aircraft flew thousands of close air support missions, sometimes delivering ordnance just yards from friendly troops.
Marine helicopters moved troops, supplies, and equipment across South Vietnam and, for a brief time, into Laos. Crews routinely flew during horrendous weather and into heavy enemy fire. The Marines developed innovative flight formations and deployed fixed-wing and helicopter gunships to suppress antiaircraft fire and cover transport helicopters into and out of landing zones. In the end, Marine helicopters lifted the last remaining American forces out of South Vietnam.
“No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy”: 1976-2012
Marine Aviation emerged from Vietnam to face a tumultuous period of budget cuts and technological change, while their missions became increasingly diverse. Whether rescuing American citizens and dependents, enforcing U.N. mandates, or providing emergency relief to disaster victims, Marine Aviation became a vital component of American foreign policy. Marines responded to numerous crises, both manmade and natural, in California, Haiti, Grenada, Beirut, Bosnia, Somalia, Liberia, Pakistan, and elsewhere.
In the summer of 1990, more than half of the Marine Corps deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of Operation Desert Shield. As coalition forces repelled the Iraqi army from Kuwait, Marine helicopters closely supported the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force’s drive to Kuwait City, while Marine attack aircraft struck Iraqi units behind the line of battle.
Since October 2001, Marine Aviation has supported operations against the Taliban and its allies in Afghanistan, where Marine units operate across large distances, often without mutual support and at the end of long and tenuous supply lines. The unique capability of Marine Aviation to provide aerial support day and night for extended periods, while operating from basic forward bases, has proven crucial.
In Iraq, as American-led forces removed Saddam Hussein from power, Marine Aviation covered the 1st Marine Division (Reinforced) as it advanced into Baghdad in the spring of 2003. It then found innovative ways to utilize aviation assets to face the challenges posed by the Iraqi insurgency. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, Marine Aviation’s ability to deliver humanitarian aid and enable local government officials to reach distant villages has been an effective weapon against terrorist forces.
For the past 100 years, whenever and wherever the Marine Corps has been ordered into action, Marine aviators and ground crews have stood ready to support their brother and sister Marines on the ground. As Marine Aviation marks its centennial, it faces the daunting challenge of supporting an ongoing war coupled with shrinking funding while continuing to meet routine training and operational needs. Longer and more frequent deployments are consuming aircraft at rates faster than planned, and placing great emotional strain on Marines and their families. But Marine Aviation’s proven ability to embrace new ideas, to find innovative uses for new technologies, and to adapt to new situations has assured its success through the long fight.