Hampton Roads carriers, pilots help turn the tide at Midway

For six dark months following the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, virtually every news report from the Pacific left America reeling.

Japanese forces rolled over Guam, Wake Island, Hong Kong and Singapore with breakneck speed, then forced a humiliating surrender on the doomed defenders of the Philippines.

So steady was the drumbeat of losses that only Col. Jimmy Doolittle's daring but militarily insignificant bombing raid over Tokyo on April 18, 1942 — and the Navy's break-even clash with the Japanese in the May 4-8 Battle of the Coral Sea — interrupted the spiraling cycle of defeat.

But when the first reports from the Battle of Midway began to appear on June 5, the magnitude of the victory wrought by three Newport News-built aircraft carriers and their Norfolk-trained air groups could not be exaggerated by the eight-column headlines.

The Navy had triumphed over a larger, more experienced foe in one of history's greatest and most decisive naval battles — and no place in America had played a more important role in that momentous victory than Hampton Roads.

"What the Battle of Midway showed was that the war in the Pacific was going to be decided by naval aviation — and this was what Hampton Roads had been building and training for for nearly two decades," Hampton Roads Naval Museum Historian Clay Farrington says.

"This is where those carriers were constructed. This is where so many of those pilots trained."

Naval air roots

Hampton Roads' ties to naval aviation began on Nov. 14, 1910, when Eugene Ely made the first flight from a ship, launching his Curtiss Pusher from the USS Birmingham anchored off Old Point Comfort and landing at Willoughby Spit.

Five years later the plane's builder — aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss — opened the Atlantic Coast Aeronautical Station at Newport News Point, where the figure who became known as the "Father of Naval Aviation" not only tested his landmark "flying boats" but also trained the first Navy pilots to fly them.

By mid-1917 those early Navy airmen had moved to newly founded Naval Air Station Hampton Roads, tying their aircraft up on stakes in the water as Chambers Field — named for the Navy officer who set up Ely's first flight — was being constructed.

Not long afterward, Norfolk Navy Yard began converting the collier USS Jupiter into the nation's first aircraft carrier, which was commissioned as USS Langley on March 20, 1922.

Based at Norfolk for more than two years, the carrier and its air group logged many firsts in American naval aviation, including the first take-off from a carrier — which took place on the York River on Oct. 17, 1922 — as well as the first landing and first catapult launch.

At NAS Hampton Roads, airmen developed and tested new approaches to arresting gear, then — with the help of planes and pilots transferred from Aviation Field Yorktown — carried out the first experimental attacks to pit moving battleships against swarming torpedo bombers.

"Norfolk embraced air power and naval aviation at a time when it was hard to do because of the traditional focus on battleships," says Old Dominion University history professor Timothy Orr, who co-authored with his wife — HRNM Deputy Education Director Laura Orr — "Never Call Me a Hero: A Legendary American Dive-Bomber Pilot Remembers the Battle of Midway."

"And it led the way in terms of how the Navy adapted to this new technology and developed strategies to use it."

Much of that change sprang from the other side of Hampton Roads, where Newport News Shipbuilding launched the Navy's first purpose-built carrier — the USS Ranger — in 1933.

Three years later it followed with the first of three much larger, faster and more capable carriers in the Yorktown class — all of which organized and trained their air groups at Norfolk before leaving for the Pacific.

"Norfolk played a huge role in the development of naval air power — and it was all those carriers that made the difference," Naval History and Heritage Command Historian Mark Evans says.

"You couldn't base them in just any port — and Norfolk had not just the port they needed but also the air station they needed for their planes and pilots."

Prewar build-up

With the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933, both the naval and naval air stations at Norfolk and the Newport News yard saw a quantum leap in the money devoted to building naval air power.

At $237 million — or approximately $4.3 billion today — the bill ranked as the nation's largest military appropriation to that time, Farrington says, and through the 1930s it was followed by equally important congressional measures that expanded the cap on the number of Navy planes from 1,000 to 15,000.

Among the biggest beneficiaries was the Newport News yard, where Naval Academy graduate Homer L. Ferguson fought fiercely to secure contracts for not just one but the first two Yorktown-class carriers.

"Newport News was one of only five shipyards capable of building these new carriers — and Ferguson was nothing if not ambitious," Orr says.

"He did everything he could to ensure that the first two contracts came to Newport News — even though he didn't have all the machinery and equipment he needed to build them."

Far longer, wider and faster than the Ranger, more defensible and capable of readying and launching their larger 90-plane air groups in a much shorter time, the Yorktown and Enterprise combined the mounting carrier experience of both the yard and the Navy into a new, much more formidable weapon.

The new warships also reflected the keen interest of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who'd served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in World War I and regularly referred to the service as "my Navy."

"This is Roosevelt imagining how to build a new kind of fleet where the aircraft carrier would be an essential part of the Navy's chess set," Orr says.

"And these ships had the capability to mount the kind of large, swarming combined attacks that had become an increasingly important part of the Navy's new battle plan."

Training days

Commissioned on Sept. 30, 1937, the Yorktown had just completed carrier qualifications for its new air groups when Rear Adm. William F. "Bull" Halsey Jr. arrived in April 1938 as chief of Carrier Division 2 and the Aircraft Battle Force.

The Enterprise was commissioned just days after Halsey's arrival — and it was still organizing its fighting, bombing, scouting and torpedo squadrons when he began to oversee training.

"Field Carrier Landing Practices" took place on a simulated carrier deck laid out on a Chambers Field airstrip, writes Thomas Wildenberg in "Destined for Glory: Dive Bombing, Midway, and the Evolution of Carrier Airpower."

"Individual Battle Practices" honed the airmen's gunnery, bombing and torpedo skills against ground and water targets as well as those towed through the air.

"Formation Battle Practices" tested and perfected aerial formations and tactics, often off the Virginia Capes at the Navy's Southern Drill Grounds.

That made Chambers Field so busy and crowded that the Navy undertook a $72 million, 1,000-plus-acre expansion.

"It was relentless and sometimes dangerous," Evans says.

"In 1941, the Navy was losing one or two planes a day to training."

Bad weather didn't stop the work, which continued in a drill hall with lectures, discussions and war games, writes E.B. Potter in "Bull Halsey: A Biography."

And Halsey himself — who'd earned his wings in 1935 at the age of 52 — sat in on many sessions.

"Halsey had a knack for involving everybody in the discussion," recalled future Chief of Naval Operations Thomas H. Moorer, then a junior lieutenant.

"He was genuinely interested in and recognized merit in good ideas whether coming from himself or the junior officers."

Halsey's training regime continued after the carriers left for a West Coast fleet exercise in April 1939, then were ordered to stay because of the mounting threat from the Japanese.

It also shaped the new air groups aboard the USS Hornet — the third Yorktown-class carrier built by Newport News — which began organizing and training in Norfolk in October 1941.

"Under Halsey's leadership, the green crews and their air groups were turned into seasoned veterans," Wildenberg writes.

Punching back

When the first news from Midway came to Hampton Roads on Friday morning, June 5, 1942, the Navy was terse and cautious.

"Japanese planes attacked tiny Midway Island and its tough Marine Corps garrison," the Daily Press reported, citing a communique from Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Chester M. Nimitz.

A Japanese carrier and battleship were believed to have been damaged.

But as the full story unfolded in the days and weeks that followed, the magnitude of the victory could not be exaggerated.

"A victory for U.S. forces of apparent major proportions in defense of Midway and the whole, vital Allied supply lanes in the Pacific was indicated today in a new communique," said a front-page story with an eight-column headline June 6.

"Momentous victory in the making," the lead headline proclaimed the following day — exactly six months after the surprise attack that started the war.

"Pearl Harbor has now been partly avenged."

Not for many weeks did the Navy reveal the full scope of its triumph.

But as early as June 8 the Daily Press was quoting unnamed Washington, D.C., military sources who considered it likely that the Japanese losses were so great they could no longer control the western Pacific.

By June 18, Nimitz had joined the chorus, describing the victory as "one of the most inspiring pages in American naval history."

Still, 11 more days would pass before the Navy revealed the sinking of at least 10 Japanese ships — including four carriers — and the damaging of at least eight other enemy vessels by the air crews of the Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet.

It reported its own losses then and again on July 15 as one destroyer sunk and the Yorktown damaged.

Two more months passed before the disclosure of the Yorktown's demise, prompting the Daily Press to run a four-column picture of the listing flattop across its front page.

"Mighty aircraft carrier Yorktown; built here, sunk in Pacific after bagging 12," the headline read.

Tough losses

The Yorktown communique "ended weeks of strictest secrecy ordered by the high command to prevent Japanese use of the knowledge in estimating American naval forces available for operations in the reconquest of the Solomon Islands," the paper reported.

"The blows which doomed her were delivered by a Japanese submarine at the very moment when the salvage force began to hold strong hope of getting her to port."

Struck first by bombs, then aerial torpedoes, the giant flattop began to list not long after its own planes helped deliver the blows that sent an enemy carrier to the bottom.

"Every gun on the Yorktown was blazing," wrote the Associated Press' Wendell Webb, who watched from a nearby cruiser.

"She was putting up a scrap if any ship ever did."

Fearing a capsize, Capt. Elliot Buckmaster ordered his men to abandon ship by swarming down ropes draped over the side into the water.

But not until the next day — as Buckmaster and his salvage team were on the verge of saving their ship — did a torpedo fired by a stealthy Japanese submarine inflict the wound that finally sank it.

After weeks of rumors, the news "did not come as a surprise," the Daily Press noted on Sept. 17. But it was still a "heavy blow."

"She did her job, and did it well," an editor wrote.

"All honor to the Yorktown, to her crew and the men who built her."

Many more months would pass before the daring and sacrifice of the carriers' airmen came to light, and even then many details were withheld.

Of 41 Devastator torpedo bombers that launched the first wave of attacks, all but six were shot down.

Among the dead were Lt. Cmdr. John C. Waldron and all but one of 30 men from the 15 planes of Hornet's Torpedo Squadron 8, who had trained so hard over Norfolk that farmers claimed the noise made their cows' milk go sour.

"When the Devastator was introduced in 1938, it was state of the art, and it led to a lot of innovative tactics," Evans says.

"But by the time of Midway it was very vulnerable. It was low and slow and made a very good target."

The American dive bombers showed the same valor in a second, brutally lethal attack — but only after the pilots decided to ignore their plunging fuel gauges and continue to their targets.

Among those forced to ditch afterward was Lt. Cmdr. C. Wade McClusky — the leader of the Enterprise's Norfolk-trained Bombing Squadron 6 — who survived to become one of many Midway flyers awarded the Navy Cross.

"So many of these Navy dive bombers came from Norfolk that when they arrived in the Pacific they were called the 'Norfolk Deck Dodgers,'" Orr says.

"A lot them were killed at Midway when their fuel ran out after their attack and they had to ditch."

Erickson can be reached by phone at 757-247-4783.

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