June 04, 2017

Midway 75 Years Later: Never Call Me A Hero

A few months ago, somebody named "Nick" showed up in the comment section of a post I wrote on the passing of "Dusty" Kleiss, the last of the Midway dive bomber pilots.  He was looking for information on the picture of Mr Kleiss I had used... where I got it, maybe where the hi-res version is located, that sort of thing.  As it turned out, I remembered where I found it and a little bit of research found that the hi-res version was available via the AP.  I took the time to send Nick the info in an e-mail and thought that would be the end of it.

As it turned out, I was wrong.  Nick was an editor at HarperCollins, and he had been looking for a good photo to use for a book that would be coming out about Mr Kleiss.  I expressed enthusiasm for such a project, and said that I'd be buying it as soon as it came out.  I also pointed him to the Battle of Midway Round Table, and pointed out that it would be of great interest to them as well... after all, Mr Kleiss had been a member himself!  Not long after that, Nick said "I'm sending you a copy of the book."  I'm certainly not going to turn that down!  I also pointed out that it won't make a difference to any review I write... though I really really hoped it'd be good.  The book showed up a couple-three weeks ago, ahead of the official release date, and I began to read through it.  So what do I think about Never Call Me A Hero by N Jack "Dusty" Kleiss (with Timothy and Laura Orr)?

It's delightful.  His service in the Pacific takes up a little over half of the book, more or less, with the remaining pages devoted to the rest of his life.  Kleiss was a habitual note-taker, and he apparently kept everything he could.  His logbooks and diaries of his time on USS Enterprise make up much of the basis for his recollections, copies of official reports and other primary source documents fill in the rest.  But clearly just as important, if not moreso, to Kleiss are the letters he wrote to his girlfriend (later wife) Jean and their relationship.  He was clearly a man deeply in love with his girl, a love which stayed with him even after she passed away in 2006, after more than 60 years of marriage.  We also get to read about what he did after he left the Enterprise, then after retiring from the US Navy in 1962, two topics about which the historical record had previously been essentially silent.

But the real reason we've come to Never Call Me A Hero is his role at the Battle of Midway.  After having read the book, I came away with a sense of both pride and sadness from "Dusty".  Pride in that, while he repeatedly says that he was "just doing his job," the job the US Navy had trained him for, he and his fellow pilots knew they had just been a part of something big.  It's also clear, though, that in many ways June 4th, 1942 was the worst day of his life.  Very shortly before the big attack, he had a talk with his best friend, Tom Eversole, about what was being loaded onto his plane: a Mk.13 torpedo.  Lt Eversole flew a TBD Devastator in VT-6, and after the earlier missions the Enterprise had been on, raids on the Marshall islands, Admiral Halsey had made it clear that as long as he was in command, not a single TBD would ever go to the flight deck carrying a torpedo.  Admirals Fletcher and Spruance had other ideas.  As their conversation came to an end, Kleiss went to his plane thinking his friend was going to die.  Worse, he believed that Eversole thought he was going to die, too.  Even worse, they both knew it would be for nothing: all Mk.13 torpedoes had a flawed trigger mechanism that prevented it from actually exploding when it hit a target.  That usually wasn't a big deal though, since the Mk.13 also tended to malfunction when dropped from a height into the water... kinda like the way a torpedo bomber releases a torpedo.

In a very real way, reading Never Call Me A Hero brought the Battle of Midway to life in a way my prior reading never did.  We all know the names, of course: Dick Best, Earl Gallaher, Wade McCluskey, and many others.  But that's pretty much all they are: names.  But to Dusty Kleiss, they were friends, bosses, someone he had lunch with the day before.  Pilots that he had known for a year or more, some that he just barely knew, even one that he disliked intensely.  More than anything else, that's the value of the book: it gives a human touch to the titanic events of June 4th thru 6th, 1942.  They call it the battle that changed the course of the war.  For Kleiss, it changed his life forever.  He tells us in a matter-of-fact way about the actual attack runs he performed on the Kaga, the Hiryu, and later the Mikuma, gives us some feeling about what it was like to swoop down on a target and plant a bomb dead center, but it feels... I'm not sure how to put it.  Almost detached, but with a huge amount of emotion just behind the facade.  It's a fascinating part of the book, not just the tale being told, but how it's being told as well.  We also get to see a part of the battle that I'm not entirely sure has been talked about before: what it was like afterwards.  Knowledge that they'd won a huge victory, bringing a measure of vengeance to the men and ships killed at Pearl Harbor just a few days under six months earlier... but also his reaction to returning from the first attack and seeing just four stunned men sitting in VT-6's ready room.  Realizing that his own squadron  had taken losses that would have been considered catastrophic a few days earlier, but now meant that VS-6 had more remaining crewmen than the others on the Enterprise.   The intense anger when The Powers That Be tried to send the dive bombers on a ridiculously long search/attack mission... with 1000lb bombs slung underneath, restricting the amount of fuel they could carry, and the resulting yelling match between the squadron leaders and the bridge staff.  Eventually, the satisfaction of a job done well. 

After Midway, Kleiss was reassigned, leaving the Enterprise and VS-6 for a training position on the mainland, teaching trainees how to be dive bomber pilots.  Once the war ended, he bounced around the Navy high command in technical billets.  For example, he was in charge of the team that designed (well, modified a British design) and installed the steam catapults on the new USS Enterprise (CVN-65).  After leaving the Navy, he became a high school physics teacher.  And he never talked about Midway.

Until Walter Lord began writing Incredible Victory, his outstanding book on the Battle of Midway... and the first to really use statements from the men who were there.  Marines in their slit trenches on the sandy atoll, riding out the Japanese attack.  Army B-17 crewmen, harassing the Japanese fleet from 25000 feet.  Navy backseat gunners.  Fighter pilots.  Dive bomber pilots.  Even after a six-page reply to Lord's written questions, Kleiss remained reluctant to speak about Midway.  Though it's never explicitly stated in the book, I suspect there was a bit of survivor's guilt involved.  He does wonder why he was allowed to live when his friends and comrades died around him.  On those occasions when family of his friends in VS-6 wrote him, asking for recollections of their father or grandfather, he always had trouble replying... because such-and-such died when his Dauntless caught fire and burned down just before crashing into the ocean.  Then, in 1992, something changed.  It was 50 years later, and he realized that he didn't just want to talk about those wonderful, awful days in June, he had to.  He began attending conferences and anniversaries as a guest of honor, mainly because it was a great way to reconnect with his old buddies from the Enterprise, but to share his role in the battle as well.  Finally towards the end of his life, his goal was to get his memoirs written and published before the 75th Anniversary of Midway.  N. Jack "Dusty" Kleiss didn't live to see his autobiography published, having passed away on April 23, 2016, but he knew it would be.

Never Call Me A Hero doesn't tell us anything about the events of Midway that we didn't already know.  What it does do is distill everything down to the level of one human caught in the middle of the greatest victory the US Navy has ever had.  It makes us connect with the man, the pilot, the dive bomber pilot, of the Enterprise in a way no other book has before or will again.  It's a fascinating story of a man in the middle of history, and who played a major supporting role in how the history resolved.  If you are a Midway historian, you will want to read this book.  If you like biographies, you'll want to read this book.  The book is not essential to understand the Battle of Midway, but you will come away with a better appreciation for the human side of war.  It wasn't just SBDs and A6M2s and Kates and Buffalos.  There were real people in those cockpits, people who lived and died due to their skill, or the skill of their enemies, or just the luck of the draw.  That's important to remember.  "Dusty" Kleiss never considered himself a hero... the men who never came back, they were the heroes, he said... but though he might have denied it, he was certainly a brave man who influenced the direction of the world on those three days in June, 1942.  It's a good story and well told.  It's a fitting memorial to the Last Dive Bomber, and to the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway.

Posted by: Wonderduck at 12:59 PM | Comments (10) | Add Comment
Post contains 1721 words, total size 11 kb.

1 It's neat that you got to be a part of that project, even in a small fashion.

Posted by: GreyDuck at June 04, 2017 10:04 PM (rKFiU)

2 You're not wrong.  It's about as small a part as it's possible to have... the picture he asked me about is in the upper-right-hand corner of the back cover... but it thrills me to no end that I got to do something for this book.

It didn't influence my review in any way... I don't believe it's essential reading on the Battle of Midway... and I definitely would have bought it anyway, but... well.  Good times.

Posted by: Wonderduck at June 04, 2017 11:10 PM (C93gM)

3 One comment that isn't me?  Oh crap.

Posted by: Wonderduck at June 05, 2017 08:23 PM (T79Wl)

4 Yes, you still have readers.  And yes, this is a nice piece of writing, which encourages me to add the book to my wish-list.  But it's not the kind of post that prompts discussion.

Posted by: David at June 05, 2017 10:05 PM (JMkaQ)

5 Yup. It's plenty neat!

Posted by: Avatar_exADV at June 06, 2017 03:06 PM (/lg1c)

6 I liked this story!

I don't like that clicking "comments" at the end of your entries doesn't open the comment section.  (Chrome latest on Win 10, if Pixy looks at it)  I can only get here by hitting 'entry' after someone else posts.

Posted by: Doug O. at June 06, 2017 05:44 PM (b67BQ)

7 Doug, that might just be you.  I literally just switched to Chrome, so I'm watching its behavior very closely, particularly here at The Pond.  When I click on either "comments" or "add comments", they open up just fine.

Posted by: Wonderduck at June 06, 2017 08:16 PM (7E0qe)

8 Honestly, I haven't been able to post here from my home box in months; running Firefox both at home and work, but for some reason the work one will post and the home one won't. I can post just fine to other mee.nu stuff so I dunno what the heck is going on with that.

Posted by: Avatar_exADV at June 06, 2017 10:49 PM (/lg1c)

9 An unlikely possibility is that it's because The Pond isn't actually mee.nu.  I'm one of the few remaining denizens of MuNuVia.

Posted by: Wonderduck at June 06, 2017 10:59 PM (7E0qe)

10 Aha!  A paranoid safety app had blocked this page from hitting scripts.mee.nu

Posted by: Doug O at June 07, 2017 07:16 PM (sdWdc)

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