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Jun 04 2017

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Richard Halsey Best – 75 Years Later

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A Very Near Thing...

A Very Near Thing…

What if?

It is a question that animates any discussion of history.

WWI might have been avoided entirely had Gavrilo Princip failed in his assassination of the Grand Duke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. John Nance Gardner of Texas would have been our 32nd president had Giuseppe Zangara been successful in his assassination attempt on FDR when he was still president-elect in February 1933.

In the rearview mirror, history appears orderly and predictable. Of course the Americans won the Revolution and, of course the Union won the Civil War. But that was not the view in 1776 or 1864.

The same is true for WWII.

The conventional wisdom holds that once the Americans got involved, the fate of the Axis was sealed. We all know the story. With the greatest industrial potential on earth, available to supply an inexhaustible stream of advanced weapons, a plentiful supply of energy and  huge cohort of young men, the US would systematically overwhelm the Axis, and did. But the assurance of history is betrayed by the gambles and decisions of ordinary citizens before the history is written.

Today, June 4th, in commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway, America owes an enormous debt of gratitude to a man few have ever heard of – Lieutenant Commander Richard Halsey Best.

Born in northern New Jersey, Best entered the US Naval Academy in 1928. Upon graduation in 1932, he served on a cruiser before transferring to Pensacola to become a naval aviator. On December 7, 1941, Best was a carrier pilot aboard the USS Enterprise, which through luck or fate, was not in Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack.

In early 1942, Best saw action in the hit and run raids ordered by Admiral Nimitz, which attacked Japanese-occupied islands in the central Pacific, both the boost morale at home and provide combat experience to his forces. On May 28th, Enterprise and her sister ship, USS Hornet, left Pearl Harbor heading northwest, for Midway.

Early 1942 was a perilous time for America in the Pacific. Most of the major capital ships in the Pacific fleet were at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. The Philippines, Guam and Wake had fallen. Southeast Asia, including Singapore had been overrun by Imperial forces. Moreover, the Japanese fleet had yet to lose a single ship, as it wreaked havoc from Hawaii to Ceylon.  Not only were Japanese aircraft superior to those of their Western rivals, the quality of Japan’s naval air personnel stunned the American naval command.

At Midway, Nimitz saw an opening to change the dynamic of the war. With US intelligence having broken the Japanese naval code, Nimitz knew that the Japanese were about to launch a massive attack Midway, down to the number of ships, likely position and time of attack.  He gambled with the Pacific Fleet’s most precious resources, it’s three aircraft carriers, in a bid to turn the tables on the Japanese Navy and change the course of the war.

Despite the advantages of position and surprise, the battle did not start well for the Americans. While US scout planes had located the Japanese fleet, American inexperience in coordinated carrier operations was readily apparent. There were navigation problems. Fighter, dive-bomber and torpedo bomber squadrons that were supposed to attack together became separated, and attacked piece-meal.

Famously, Hornet’s torpedo squadron 8 (VT-8) only found the Japanese fleet through the intuition of their commander, John Waldron. Attacking without fighter cover, in antiquated planes with pilots who had yet to drop a real torpedo, the squadron was decimated. Only one pilot  of the 29 crew- George Gay – survived. In total, the US launched 41 torpedo planes against the Japanese at Midway, but only six returned. None inflicted any damage on the Japanese carriers.

After the shock of the initial American attacks, and the confirmation of American carriers in the area, the Japanese commander, Admiral Nagumo, began organizing his forces  for a massive attack on the American fleet, with well over 200 aircraft. At 10:15am that morning, Nagumo still had within his power a victory as great as Togo at Tsushima or Nelson at Trafalgar.

 15 minutes later, that door had closed, as had Japan’s hopes for rapid victory in the war.

Lieutenant Best and his crewmates had taken off from Enterprise sometime after 7am. At 10:20am, the whole formation of 34 dive bombers, under the overall command of Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky, began making their bombing runs, targeting the carrier Kaga.  Best, flying further back, noticed that all the diver bombers were going after Kaga and not the second carrier, slightly further away. On his own initiative, Best broke away with two wingmen to attack the second carrier, the Japanese flagship, Akagi.

The first bomb missed, exploding forward and to port of the Japanese carrier. The second exploded right behind the carrier, with the concussion damaging the ship’s rudder. It was Best’s 1,000 pound bomb that hit the carrier almost perfectly in the center of the ship, just behind the middle elevator. The bomb sliced  through the flight deck and detonated among the dozens of planes being prepared for the raid against American fleet. The explosion started uncontrollable fires that eventually doomed the carrier through the work of a single bomb.

When the American aircraft headed back to their ships at 1030, three of the four Japanese carriers, were on fire, out of operation and would eventually sink or be sunk to prevent capture.

Only the Japanese carrier Hiryu remained. After 2pm, Best was again over the Japanese fleet. Initially ordered to attack a Japanese battleship, Best saw that the initial attack on the Hiryu had been unsuccessful, with waterspouts around the ship. Again he made a snap decision to change course and attack the carrier instead. Best landed one of the four 1,000 pound bombs that ended the Hiryu, and Japanese hopes for the Battle of Midway. Best is believed to be the only US aviator to have successfully bombed two carriers n a single day.

But what if?

What if Best had not decided to break off and attack Akagi? Nagumo may well have had two unscathed carriers, and twice the air power, to attack the American fleet after the diver bomber attack destroyed Soryu and Kaga.. Japanese equipment and pilots were still superb (as witnessed by the successful torpedo attacks on the USS Yorktown by Hiryu air crews) and could have tipped the battle to a draw or worse. Would one less 1,000 pound bomb made Hiryu salvageable? Keeping a carrier in the inventory of the Japanese fleet?

We won’t know because Best’s actions made the decision. While the victory at Midway was the product of many individual acts of heroism and courage, it was Best who more than anyone else in a cockpit, changed course of the war.  For that, we owe him an unrepayable debt of gratitude.

Midway was Best’s last mission. A problem in the oxygen line of his Dauntless dive bomber caused health issues that had him in the hospital for 32 months. He retired in 1944, never having flown a combat mission again.

After the war, he worked for the Douglas Aircraft company, the manufacturer of his dive bomber. He later joined the Rand corporation and eventually retired in California. He passed on October 28, 2001 at the age of 91.

Lieutenant Commander Best was interred at Arlington National Cemetery, Section 54/Lot 3192, resting in peace with the other heroes  who have helped keep America safe.  Today, on the 75th anniversary of one of the most consequential naval battles in American history we honor the man who helped change the course of the Pacific war.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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