USS Hornet launches aircraft to search for and attack the Japanese carriers

Early on the morning of June 4, the Hornet was ordered to launch all of its available aircraft to search for and attack the Japanese carriers. Our attack group consisted of Fighter Squadron Eight (VF-8) flying Wildcat F4F’s, Bombing Squadron Eight (VB-8) and Scouting Squadron Eight (VS-8) flying Dauntless SBDs, and Torpedo Squadron Eight (VT-8) flying Devastator TBDs.

Ensign Ben Tappan of VS-8 and I had been "volunteered" that morning to fly as wingmen on the Commander Hornet Air Group, Commander Stanhope Ring. The abbreviation for his title is "CHAG". He intended to fly above the dive-bombers to coordinate the Air Group attack. I was just plain demoralized! Our three planes would be the first aircraft to be attacked by the Zero fighters. The experienced Zero fighter pilots would try to take out the flight leaders first. I wanted to be in my own squadron formation and have all those fast-firing twin 30 caliber rear guns from about sixteen dive-bombers protecting our tails. Our squadron doctrine was to try and stay in formation as long as possible, for mutual protection, before breaking up our formation and starting our dive-bombing runs. The torpedo squadrons had to "fan out" and break up their formations to make their torpedo runs. This is one reason they were all going to be such "sitting ducks" for the Zero fighters.

Preparations are under way for launching Hornet's first strike at the Japanese carriers attacking Midway. Ensign Clayton Fisher's Dauntless dive-bomber is in the front position of the SBDs in the aircraft "stack" on the flight deck. His SBD can be seen in the upper left section of this image and is indicated with a white "X".

My assigned aircraft was in the front position of the SBDs in the aircraft "stack" on the flight deck. My plane had a fairly heavy aerial type camera mounted in its belly, because of this additional weight my plane only had a 500-pound bomb hung on it. All the other dive-bombers were loaded with 1000-pound bombs. I was the first dive-bomber aircraft launched from the Hornet. I was excited and the adrenalin must have been flowing as I started rolling down the flight deck. I remember waving at the people on the bridge as I passed by the bridge. All the dive-bombers settled a little after leaving the flight deck because of the weight of those 1000-pound bombs.

After the dive-bombers formed up in formation we started a slow climb to around 14,000 feet. We had to use a lot of engine power to climb, because of those 1000-pound bombs. As we were climbing, I never could see the VT-8 formation that should have been below us probably flying at two thousand feet. We flew over some cloud layers below us that could have obscured their position. We had to use our oxygen masks, which were older vintage than the masks the fighter pilots used. When we reached our altitude, I was collecting ice inside the mask from my breath. Evidently the mask was not sealing out the outside air. I was having difficulty breathing and I finally periodically removed the mask to clear the ice. All pilots and crewmen were wearing summer flight suits and the air temperature became very cold up there.

Hornet's dive-bombers fail to locate the Japanese carriers

As our formation was approaching the estimated position of the Japanese carriers, there was nothing in sight and we were approaching the maximum range for the dive-bombers. There was unlimited visibility, and I could see a large column of black smoke to the south-west of our position that I thought was coming from Midway Island.

The Air Group was operating under a radio silence doctrine until we would make contact with the enemy. The CHAG continued on our original south-west course and gave me hand signals to form a "scouting line" and pointed down at the VS-8 formation. A scouting line meant that all aircraft would break formation and get in a "line abreast" with large intervals between each aircraft. This also meant we were going to continue on our original course.

I dropped off my wing position and dove down and tried to get close enough to pass along the CHAG’s order to the flight leader of VS-8, Lieutenant Commander Rodee. Just as I started to get into position near the flight leader's aircraft, Rodee started turning his formation in a 180-degree turn and assumed a course heading for the Hornet.

I felt I could not abandon the CHAG, and tried to locate him and rejoin up on his aircraft. All I could see was empty sky. It was a very scary feeling being all alone up there. I turned back and tried to join up on the VS-8 formation. I could just barely see the formation, and not wanting to burn excess fuel to close the distance to the formation, I just dogged behind. I finally could see the Hornet and was able to join the formation while approaching the task force.

After landing, I walked into the ready room where I was met by Ensign Christofferson. He had not flown that morning and was very upset. He told me I was the only pilot that had returned from our squadron (VB-8), and that no fighter pilots or torpedo pilots from Hornet's attack group had returned to the Hornet. The fighter pilots had all ditched after running out of fuel, and some of them would later be rescued by PBYs. All the torpedo pilots had been shot down and Ensign Gay was the only survivor. The VT-8 had a detachment flying six of the new Grumman TBF torpedo bombers from Midway Island. All were shot down except a plane piloted by Ensign Bert Ernest. He managed to return to Midway Island in his badly damaged plane. He had a small wound on his face; one of his gunners was killed and the other gunner was badly wounded.

q IMAGE: Pilots of Torpedo Squadron Eight (VT-8) aboard USS Hornet. All were shot down by Zeros during their gallant but hopeless attack on the Japanese carrier force at Midway.

Some of the VB-8 pilots landed at Midway Island. Two pilots had to ditch in the lagoon inside the atoll. One plane ditched at sea, and the pilot and gunner were rescued by a PBY. The CHAG and the remainder of the VB-8 pilots were able to reach the Hornet before running out of fuel.

Japanese dive-bombers attack the Yorktown

Before the remainder of the Bombing Eight planes returned to the Hornet, the Yorktown Task Force came under attack by Japanese dive-bombers. The Hornet crew was warned through the PA system to "stand by to repel dive-bombing attack".

That was about the scariest command I ever heard! There are no foxholes aboard ship. I put my flight gloves on, wrapped a towel around my head to protect myself from possible heat flashes from a bomb blast and crawled under the seats in the rear of the ready room. Our ready room extended from under the island structure out under the flight deck. I wanted to be under the island. The Hornet was not attacked but the activity over the Yorktown was visible from the Hornet. Lieutenant George Ellenberg a VB-8 pilot came in our ready room with a pair of binoculars and wanted me to go out on the catwalk of the island and watch a dogfight over the Yorktown. For some reason, I decided I wanted to stay in the ready room. A little later, I heard a loud noise outside the ready room and a few minutes later one of our squadron crewmen rushed into our ready room carrying a bloody pair of binoculars and told me Lt Ellenberg had just been killed. About five minutes later, Lt Ellenberg walked into the ready room holding a compress on his forehead. He had blood running down his face and his shirt was blood stained.

The Hornet was recovering the fighters of our CAP (Combat Air Patrol) and some from the other carriers that were low on fuel. The Hornet became a "pit stop". As soon as a fighter was landed, the plane was refueled, rearmed, and it was re-launched to get back over the Yorktown. One of the fighter pilots had been shot in the foot and failed to put his gun switches in the "safe" position. When the plane hit an arresting cable, it swerved with its guns firing while pointing at the rear of the island and a 40 mm AA (anti-aircraft) gun mount. Admiral Ingersal’s son was killed, most of the marine gun crew for the 40 mm guns and some other flight deck personnel. It was a real tragedy.