June 04, 2016

The Last Divebomber

It had been a very long day already for Norman.  He'd been flying for three hours in search of his target.  If he was very lucky, he'd get to suffer through the full two hour flight back.  The fuel gauge of his plane was telling him that he might get to take a swim instead.  Between then and now, though, he had to do his job while a bunch of other men doing their jobs tried to kill him.  Because the date was June 4th, 1942, Norman was flying a SBD Dauntless dive bomber, he was part of Scouting Six (VS-6), flying from USS Enterprise, and he was about to become a very important part of the Battle of Midway.

His boss, Commander Wade McClusky, led his two squadrons of SBDs down on the Japanese carrier Kaga.  Five of the first six bombs missed, and then it was Norman's turn.  He popped the Dauntless' dive brakes, throttled back the 1000hp Wright Cyclone engine, then went into his dive.  Hanging against his straps, he thought back to his days in training: dive as low as you can before you drop, and aim ahead of your moving target.  He also thought to himself, that big red circle makes a great aiming point...

He didn't release his 500lb bomb until he reached 1000' of altitude... for a dive bomber, point-blank range... and hit 9g's on the pullout, trusting the SBD's sturdy construction wouldn't fall apart under the stress.  It didn't, and he made his escape from the Japanese fleet very low on the deck indeed.  His bomb hit the Kaga's centerline just short of his target point and probably exploded in one of her hangars.  The ship sank later that day.

Norman managed to nurse his Dauntless back to the Enterprise, landing aboard with a mere three gallons of gas left.  Of the 33 SBDs to take off from the carrier that day, only 15 made it back, only 11 of them usable.  Once back aboard, he ate a sandwich and took a nap.  A few hours later came the call for another strike, this time against the sole remaining Japanese carrier, the Hiryu.  Between the Enterprise's surviving SBDs and the Dauntlesses that had landed aboard from the badly damaged Yorktown, 25 planes lifted off, carrying a random assortment of 500lb and 1000lb bombs.

After another long flight, the mixed force of Dauntlesses found their target.  This time, Norman's 1000lb bomb was the fourth and last to hit the Hiryu,  all of them in her bows.  Indeed, he was one of the last to attack, if not the last.  The Hiryu would burn for hours, then sink on her own later.

On June 6th, Norman again found himself diving on a Japanese ship, this time the cruiser Mikuma.

And again, he put his 1000lb bomb on target, becoming the only pilot at the Battle of Midway to score hits on three ships.  For his overall performance at this greatest victory, he would be awarded the Navy Cross.

As it turns out, Midway was Norman's last combat action.  He was transferred stateside where he trained the next generation of dive bomber pilots for the rest of the war.  He served in the Navy for 20 years, retiring with the rank of Captain.  He'd then go on to live a full and rewarding life.

Captain Norman Kleiss, once better known as "Dusty" Kleiss, died this past April 23rd at the age of 100.  He was the last dive bomber pilot to have served at the Battle of Midway to pass away.

Today is the 74th anniversary of Midway. 

Posted by: Wonderduck at 11:34 AM | Comments (8) | Add Comment
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1 Fascinating story and well-written.  I had heard of Kleiss before in passing, but didn't hear that he was gone.  On a related note, it's also kind of sad to read how little work has been done to find the wrecks of most of the Japanese ships from WW2.  Of these three ships, some wreckage has been found from Kaga, but not the hull.  Hiryu and Mikuma have not been found, and the general location of Mikuma isn't well known.

Posted by: Ben at June 04, 2016 02:48 PM (Pk1MK)


Up in Valhalla, Captain Kleiss is no doubt swapping tales with another arrival from earlier this year, the redoubtable Captain Eric Brown, RN, FAA.


Posted by: cxt217 at June 04, 2016 05:14 PM (bSR/T)


Ben, the ocean is really deep there, like between two and three miles deep. Searching the bottom that deep ain't easy.

It would be slow and expensive, and it's hard to see how it would be worth it. Once you've found it, then what?

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at June 04, 2016 05:49 PM (+rSRq)

4 It's possible that the Japanese ships, even if they were found, would be substantially deeper than the Titanic.  USS Yorktown is some 16000 - 18000 feet down, where the Titanic is at -12000 feet.  They also had a good idea where she lay, based on US Navy records.

The Japanese carriers, on the other hand, could be narrowed down to "over there somewhere", followed by a non-committal wave of a hand.  That they found even a piece of the Kaga was nothing short of miraculous, but it was a piece that was blown off the carrier; her final resting place might be hundreds of miles away, in a direction that surviving Japanese records no longer pinpoint.

Worse still... who would care?  The Akagi just doesn't hold the same fascination that the Titanic does for the general populace.  Sure, I'd geek like mad, and so would hundreds of historians... but really, that's about it.  They wouldn't make a feature film about the sinking of Soryu, right?

Plus they're right at the limits of what deep diving vehicles can do... all in all, searching for the sunk Japanese carriers is kinda like asking "how do you make a small fortune in underwater archaeology?"

The answer?  "Start with a large fortune."

Posted by: Wonderduck at June 04, 2016 06:24 PM (X/kQu)

5 Oh, I get that.  I'm not trying to imply that no-one cares.  The only reason anyone would try to locate those wrecks would be because the search tests the limits of new technology...and I fully expect their discovery to come from such an endeavor.  Maybe once the ocean floor map starts falling under 1km resolution.  It took 20 years to go from 20km to 5km, so maybe within a decade if we're lucky.  The fiddly bits can be a headache.

Posted by: Ben at June 04, 2016 09:16 PM (DRaH+)

6 Norman had a HECK of a run, there. Wow. Great write-up, good sir!

Posted by: GreyDuck at June 05, 2016 08:48 AM (rKFiU)

7 Hi,
Do you by any chance know the photo credit (and where I could get a hi-res version) of the final photo of Dusty (the one with an American flag in the background)? Thanks!

Posted by: Nick at March 10, 2017 03:28 PM (5gY4q)

8 Nick, I first found the picture at the website of the San Antonio Express-News.  It appears you can order hi-rez pictures from them at this page.

The picture is licensed to the Associated Press.  You can contact them for pricing to use it yourself at this page.  It appears to be credited to photographer Eric Gay, dated 12/7/2007.

Beyond that, I'm sort of up in the air.

Posted by: Wonderduck at March 10, 2017 09:04 PM (UDOXQ)

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