Never Call Me a Hero book on dive bombing at Midway

I listened to Never Call Me a Hero: A Legendary American Dive-Bomber Pilot Remembers the Battle of Midway (Jack “Dusty” Kleiss) on Audible.

Kleiss graduates from the Naval Academy in 1938 and, at a salary of about $ 24,000 per year in today’s dollars, serves on destroyers doing “neutral” patrols in the Atlantic after World War II had started, but before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Sailings are delayed for months by union workers trying to get paid more (going so far as to run off with critical components of the ship that have to be retrieved by armed Marines) and incompetence in ship handling leading to damaged turbines and running aground. Once out in the water, the test-firing of a destroyer’s 4-inch guns goes awry when it is discovered that nobody remembered to clean out the cosmoline. Peacetime duty had some hazards, e.g., commercial boat captains in the New York area would seek to smash into Navy vessels in such a way that a lawsuit could claim that it was the Navy ship’s fault. A year of litigation would ensue with at least some damages ultimately paid.

Kleiss served on the carrier Enterprise and flew the Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber. A bomb run required opening a window to help with air pressure equalization, taking a dose of ephedrine via the nose (same purpose), and then nosing over to 240 knots for the dive at more than 10,000 feet-per-minute. Pulling out of the dive imposed 6-8Gs on the pilot and rear-seat gunner.

Kleiss’s most serious injuries occur prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. His squadron is helping to make a Hollywood film. The senior officer, to simulate being hit by the enemy, is supposed to roll and dive out of the formation and then release hydrofluoric acid to create the appearance of flames and smoke coming out of the plane. Instead the pilot of the lead plane released the acid first, right into Kleiss’s plane and face, and rolls/dives second. Kleiss barely managed to get the plane back on the ground and then spent nine days in the hospital for burn treatment.

Kleiss chronicles a tremendous number of takeoff and landing accidents, consistent with the Air Force statistics cited in Unbroken: “In World War II, 35,933 AAF planes were lost in combat and accidents. The surprise of the attrition rate is that only a fraction of the ill-fated planes were lost in combat. In 1943 in the Pacific Ocean Areas theater in which Phil’s crew served, for every plane lost in combat, some six planes were lost in accidents. Over time, combat took a greater toll, but combat losses never overtook noncombat losses.”

Kleiss is humble about his own role in the Battle of Midway. He says that, as one of the lead dive bombers, he was able to target a Japanese carrier before it was engulfed in smoke and flames from previous bomb hits. Also, as one of the lead planes he used less fuel keeping up in the formation and therefore was able to make it back to the carrier with a few gallons of gasoline in the tanks (1 percent of the total fuel available!), unlike squadron-mates who had to ditch.

Kleiss attributes much of the U.S. success in the Battle of Midway to code-breaking. We knew roughly where and when to expect the Japanese fleet. He attributes most of the losses to incompetence. Kleiss says that everyone in the Navy knew that the Mark 13 torpedo was useless, unable to hit even static ships in a harbor. His best friend dies as part of the “40 out of 44 torpedo bombers were lost at the Battle of Midway without scoring a single hit” (Wikipedia) and he has never gotten over this squandering of human life. Most of the dive bombers and crews that were lost were similarly due to incompetence/disorganization. The Enterprise planes were ordered to circle after takeoff to form up with dive bombers from another carrier. This wasted 40 minutes of fuel to achieve something that Kleiss said had no practical value (it was easier to attack in smaller groups). In any case, nothing was achieved because the other planes never showed up. Thus did the dive bombers head out to the extreme edge of their range minus 40 minutes of fuel and a lot of them ditched within about 30 minutes of the carrier.

As with Stefan Cavallo, World War II test pilot, who said “By our mid-20s nearly all of us were in what would turn out to be lifelong marriages and we already had kids,” (see What does the Greatest Generation think of us?) Kleiss married his first sweetheart, had five kids with her (two of whom were born during World War II), and the marriage ended with her death from cancer.

Kleiss served for roughly six months in combat and then worked stateside training Navy pilots before enrolling in a Navy-run engineering school. He says that the Navy tended to promote pilots based on bureaucratic accomplishments, such as hours flown, rather than actual proficiency. This was one of the things that led him to abandon flight operations in favor of engineering. Kleiss was enthusiastic about some of the top admirals, however, particular Bill Halsey, whom he describes as being able to remember personal details about all 2,000+ crewmembers of a carrier. Kleiss describes Halsey confronting officers who appeared in their dress white uniforms and saying “Go back to your cabin and change into khakis. This is a working ship.”

The book is interesting because it reminds us of how rapidly military technology becomes obsolete. We couldn’t put any autonomous guidance into the bombs so we risked smart humans to drop dumb bombs accurately. Wikipedia says that the great age of dive bombing lasted only a few years, mostly replaced by rockets. The bombs that were sufficient to sink the Japanese carriers were mostly 500 lb. and 100 lb., easily delivered today by a drone (see the Tomahawk, for example, which can carry 1,000 lbs.). Given that it takes 20+ years to develop a new military aircraft it is tough to imagine that a human-piloted airplane developed today could ever have military value.

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog