The Battle of Midway Roundtable
ENEMY CONTACT REPORTS FROM
CARRIER AIR GROUPS AT MIDWAY
by Ronald W. Russell
30 July 2009
With the crystal-clear view of hindsight, it’s
easy to wonder in amazement why all of the U.S. carrier squadrons that sighted
the Japanese carrier force (“Kido Butai”) on the morning of 4 June 1942 failed
to radio a concise enemy contact report (bearing, ship types, course, speed)
back to Task Force 16 and 17. Today
we think that to be an obvious, primary requirement for any aircrew that sights
an enemy fleet. Yet, with the sole
exception of VF-6 commander James Gray (and belatedly in his case), no TF 16/17
squadron made anything like a contact report as the carrier battle commenced.
William Shields, a retired USAF brigadier general and former
fighter pilot, recently brought this matter to my attention as something that
struck him as an incomprehensible anomaly.
He asked if the issue had previously been reviewed on the Roundtable, and
if so, what possible explanation could there be?
I gave him an answer off the top of my head, but
forwarded his inquiry to a few of our notable historians for anything they might
be able to add. What ensued turned out to be an excellent example of how some of the
previously obscure or misunderstood details of the BOM are typically explored,
analyzed, and brought to clarity on the Roundtable, usually to a degree not seen
anywhere else, if at all.
To show how that happens, I’ve attached the
message thread below, with the commentary from Gen. Shields, myself, and
Roundtable authors Mark Horan and John Lundstrom inserted where appropriate. For anyone who may not be aware,
Mark is a coauthor of
A Glorious Page In Our History, and John is probably best known here for
The First Team books plus
Black Shoe Carrier Admiral.
The writers are identified as:
WS = William Shields
RR = Ronald Russell, Roundtable editor
MH = Mark Horan
JL = John Lundstrom
- - - - -
advantage of the Roundtable's tolerance for possibly old (and possibly dumb)
questions, I would like to ask this one:
the other HAG [Hornet Air
Group] airmen know about the VT-8 engagement with Kido Butai, when did they
know it, and what did they do about it?"
At the time of Waldron's contact report to
Ring, there were some 78 other HAG airmen airborne within perhaps 80 miles of
the action. Presumably they were monitoring a common frequency.
covers it well. Keep in mind that this is 1942. The radio technology
employed dates from the 1930s, and it wasn't all that reliable. They used
the low end of the HF band, around 2 to 6 MHz for voice radio, which had a
dismally short range under those conditions. Long range contact was by CW
(Morse code), which was only done by the radiomen-gunners in the VSB & VT
squadrons, when they weren't engaged by Zeros. Most pilots and radioman
reported hearing nothing of the Waldron-Ring exchange at about 0830, and fewer
still heard anything from Waldron thereafter.
Actually, the presumption is incorrect.
Each of the four [HAG] squadrons, plus CHAG [air group commander Stanhope Ring]
were given a unique command frequency. This left the fighters on their own
circuit, with no way to converse with any of the strike planes unless they
changed frequency. Of course, the strike planes that equipped the attack
squadrons were multi-place planes with a radioman as part of the crew.
Those radiomen could change frequency to allow contact with any of the other
squadrons. Customarily, such inter-squadron communication was done by the
CO, though the division leaders might find it necessary to do so as well.
However, it was not uncommon for a crew to decide to switch frequencies to
monitor communications. It is worth noting that at least two
radioman-gunners and a couple of pilots in wing planes specifically stated that
they did monitor (change) frequencies and that is why they heard [certain radio
calls] when others did not.
All of them knew that detection and location of
the Japanese fleet was crucial to their mission. It would seem that those
airmen had an inherent duty to ensure that contact with the enemy was
immediately reported, so that CHAG's formation could attack and the task force
commanders could be updated on the tactical situation.
I think the
problem is the state of carrier doctrine in that early era. By the end of
the war, radio equipment and communications doctrine were well refined, but in
June 1942 neither was the case. One would certainly think today that
getting a contact report back to TF 16/17 upon first sight of enemy CVs would be
a no-brainer, but the doctrine of today or even 1945 didn't exist in 1942.
If you read some of the squadron after-action reports on our web site, there are
recommendations that new communications procedures be implemented; basic things
that we now take for granted. The fact that they show up in AARs is
indicative that they didn't exist during the battle.
The above comment says it all. The doctrine at the time stressed
radio silence. That almost everyone decided to break radio silence for one
reason or another (VT-8, VT-6, VF-6, VSB-6, VB-3, and VT-3 assuredly did), they
did so relative to some form of attack coordination—no one ever thought of doing
so to make a proper contact report. Of course, prior to 4 June, our
carrier planes had always found the enemy. The results on 4 June were
largely responsible for new doctrine bring implemented in the Solomons.
Contact reports by strike planes as opposed to
search planes were unusual in the USN system at that time; witness their lack at
Coral Sea, too. As Mark said, such messages that the U.S. CVs intercepted were concerned
with coordinating the various elements of the strike group. If Waldron sent a contact report per
se, the U.S. CVs did not receive it.
authors state that individuals in CHAG's formation were aware of the VT-8
engagement. Mrazek [A Dawn Like
Thunder] (pages 134, 135, 137) says that Waldron's
contact report to Ring was heard clearly by gunner Quillen, who listened to
further Waldron transmissions as the VT-8 attack developed.
On p. 134 Mrazek is quoting from
George Gay, who certainly could have heard Waldron's voice radio calls since he
was within sight of him. On page 135 he seems to infer that Quillen also heard
Waldron try to call Ring, but there is no such quote from Quillen in the record.
Quillen's statement is contained in enclosure H of Captain Mitscher's official
after-action report, and it only
cites certain calls Quillen heard from Waldron when Waldron was talking to his
own pilots. Mrazek gets that right on p. 137.
says that [VB-8 commander] Johnson got word of the Waldron messages and turned
VB-8 toward the Japanese fleet, and (p. 152) that Johnson looked
for the Japanese fleet for an hour after hearing Waldron's last message.
Mrazek also cites Roy Gee at length on p. 138, but Gee (one of our Roundtable
members) will tell you that he heard nothing on the radio during the entire
flight, and he was in the same formation with Johnson. Not to debate what
Johnson claimed; it just illustrates the above issue about primitive radio
technology. When Johnson made his turn to the southeast, Gee thought they
were just heading toward Midway due to low fuel, which is what ultimately
As Mark notes, Johnson turned VB-8 south because
he heard messages from Waldron's attack and knew at least some of the enemy must
be to the south.
Bowen Weisheit erroneously thought VB-8 flew west all the way out
to the final turn around point 225 miles out, but Johnson broke away well before
that. He headed south parallel to
the reported track of the supposed lead group of IJN CVs, didn't find them (he
must have passed just to the west of Nagumo!) and finally headed for Midway.
Lundstrom (The First Team, 2nd edition, p. 347) says that some VB-8
airmen heard snippets of Waldron's radio calls.
et. al. [A Glorious Page In Our History],
page 95, says that Ring heard Waldron's message about 0920, and that Johnson
then turned toward the last known Japanese position.
I don't know what Cressman is quoting
in this case. I could find no evidence of any such claim in the
AAR nor in Ring's latter-day "Lost
Actually, it was “et. al.” (me) that wrote those passages, and the references
are to folks who were interviewed [that had been] monitoring frequencies other
than their own.
Sword] (p. 272) say that Hornet SBDs received
Waldron's announcement that he was under attack, and that thereupon Johnson
plotted a course to find the Japanese fleet. The authors cite a 2004
communication from Mark Horan as a source for their analysis of Hornet
This likely is
another reference to Quillen. If fits the description P & T have given
reports are true, why did HAG airmen who knew of Waldron's report not sound an
alarm, relay the report, and enter the battle?
Again, I believe
it's the doctrine (or lack thereof) that existed at the time. Seems so
obvious to us, but we weren't there.
Also, and most important, the text of Waldron’s known radio transmissions
says nothing about Kido Butai’s location.
The rest of the HAG had scant knowledge of where VT-8 had gone; only that
they had deviated from the prescribed course about a half hour after launch—and
few of the VSB pilots and gunners had even seen that. So Waldron’s chatter to his pilots
would have given Ring and the VSB squadrons little or nothing to go on in order
to enter the battle.
You need to study all the references to CHAG and
his rigid approaches to discipline. No junior pilot in the HAG would
willingly run foul of him. Besides, it wasn't their call. It was up
to the squadron COs, who I am sure they assumed were already on the command
frequency and hearing exactly what they were hearing.
The issue of
radio silence is often mentioned by BOM authors...
The context there generally refers to
radio silence from shipboard transmitters. It also applied to aircraft
until they had found the enemy.
...but It is
not logical that HAG airmen who had heard and understood Waldron's message would
have been inhibited by radio silence doctrine.
They would have known that the enemy was engaged and the battle was on,
making radio silence moot, if not counterproductive.
Not really. Quillen, et al who heard Waldron had
no knowledge as to where VT-8 was, and therefore where the enemy was.
So no enemy contact report was warranted at that time or even possible, except
by VT-8. Radio transmissions from the
at that point would only have clued the enemy that another strike was
inbound from a new direction.
More accurately, all of radioman and more than a
few of the pilots had no idea the mission was in trouble. Their job was to
follow the CO. The real question is, did they know at that time
[when VT-8 commenced its attack] that they were not “on course, on time?" The only ones who for sure
knew the answer to that were Ring, Johnson, and [VS-8 commander] Rodee. Ring chose to do nothing, Johnson
waited while he checked his navigation and then took action when none was
apparently forthcoming, and Rodee, who likely was ready to do what Johnson did,
received direct orders from Ring to follow him, which is what he did because he
surely wasn't going to disobey a direct order from CHAG!
There were a number of cases that day of breaking
radio silence when a battle was developing, including Waldron, McClusky, Gray
(VF-6, belatedly) and, that afternoon, Adams (VS-5). Why not HAG?
Adams was on a search mission. Doctrine expressly told him to radio his
contact report. CHAG was a rigid, by the book, arrogant, no nonsense
leader with no experience in combat. For him, doctrine was everything.
No enemy in sight—no broadcasting!
The others, with the exception of Waldron, were all far more experienced combat
pilots, or, in the case of the three Yorktown/Saratoga squadrons, well
trained in wartime tactics based on the combat experience they had obtained.
Even Gray's belated contact report
was so indistinct that TF 16/17 didn't have a solid grasp on where he (and the
Gray's two messages were thought by the
Enterprise to have come from McClusky [leading VB6 and VS6 toward Akagi
and Kaga]; hence Browning's anguished order to attack!
The first solid report came from VF3
CO Thach when he landed on
sprinted up to the flag bridge to tell Fletcher in person.
One important correction is that Thach never
briefed Fletcher as to the destruction of the three Japanese carriers. He never had the chance to do so. The first attack on the Yorktown
came in too quickly after he landed, and things turned chaotic. No one told
Fletcher the morning strike had knocked out three carriers. This is more of
faulty deductions. See Black Shoe Carrier Admiral, p. 570, note 3. Thach even wrote Morison in 1949
(letter in Morison's Office Files) to correct the error, but Morison never
bothered to alter his text. It's
necessary to know this to understand Fletcher's decisions later that afternoon. So far as he knew, no more than one
or possibly two Japanese carriers had been hit.
John’s contribution here is significant, for it even corrects a BOM
primary source that I was referring to when I mentioned Thach sprinting to
Yorktown’s flag bridge to report to Fletcher. That came from VF-3 pilot Tom
Cheek’s memoir (see No Right to Win
, p. 106).
According to Cheek, Thach actually hadn’t seen the three Japanese
carriers burning since his fight with Zeros was at a higher altitude than
Cheek’s, who was down low with VT-3.
After Cheek landed, Thach asked him what he had seen and it was Cheek who
told him about three burning Japanese CVs.
But as Lundstrom explains in his cited Black Shoe note, it turns
out that Thach then made his report to Yorktown air officer CDR Murr
Arnold, who apparently had no chance to pass the word to Fletcher during the
chaos of the Japanese air attack.]
a dilemma. Reading the information noted here, a student of the BOM is left with
two unattractive choices: either the reports that some HAG airmen heard and
understood Waldron's contact message are wrong, or those airmen failed in a duty
to relay the message so that HAG and other forces could join the battle.
As indicate above, this is not true, especially
the latter as it was never doctrine for junior pilots to second-guess their
leaders in combat!
Or, thirdly, they
didn't do what we expect of them today because their then-extant knowledge,
training, experience, equipment, and doctrine didn't compel or allow them to do
anything more than they did.
The dilemma is
most troubling in the case of Ring.
A statement that he knew of Waldron's contact with the enemy and flew on,
away from the battle, is equivalent to an accusation of dereliction of duty.
Although there are several things one
can nail Ring for in the BOM, I don't think this one sticks because he didn't
know where Waldron was when he (allegedly) heard him at 0920, and therefore he
didn't know where the enemy was. He did make a turn at about that time,
ostensibly toward the enemy, but if Weisheit is right, his turn was actually
definitive account of the USN at Midway has yet to be written. There's a lot more out there that
that’s what keep the Battle of Midway Roundtable going!
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