The Battle of Midway Roundtable
In remembrance of
CDR CLAYTON E. FISHER, USN-Retired
1919 - 2012
by Ronald W. Russell
6 January 2012
Clay Fisher (center) at the BOM anniversary commemoration in San Francisco, 2006
A Cornerstone Of The Roundtable
With profound regret, I must announce to the members of the Battle of Midway Roundtable
and to all others who may have an interest:
the nation, the Navy, and the Roundtable has lost one of their best. Clay Fisher passed away on the third
of January 2012, at the age of 92 years and eleven months.
It wouldn’t be quite adequate to say that Clay was merely a key member of
the Roundtable. He was that to be sure, but his ongoing and generous participation with
us, offered from the rare vantage point as a dive bomber pilot in the thick of
three days of action at Midway, has constituted a major piece of the total body
of knowledge about the battle that the BOMRT has generated throughout its
15-year history. It would be tough
to imagine the Roundtable without him.
We would know a whole lot less about the USS Hornet air group and
its controversial commander, both during as well as before the battle. We would know a whole lot less about
flying and fighting in the SBD Dauntless.
And we would never know his personal story of dedication, valor, and
sacrifice in some of the most famous battles of two wars.
Clay told that personal story in full in his autobiography,
Hooked: Tales and Adventures of a Tailhook Warrior (2009), and if you’re interested enough in
Clay Fisher to read this obituary, I’m certain you’ll also want to read his
book. In brief, it’s a story of a
dedication to aviation learned at an early age, followed by a U.S. Navy career
in the air that, by my count, resulted in his dodging death at least eight
times. (There was actually another
one, when he left a National Guard unit to begin Navy flight training—the Guard
unit was activated in 1941, sent to the Philippines , and virtually wiped out
during the Japanese invasion.)
A couple of those near-tragedies had a humorous ending, recounted long
ago on the Roundtable and in our book about the Roundtable’s veterans,
No Right to Win.
The first one, before the war as the Hornet was moving into the
Pacific from the Atlantic, involved a rough landing aboard the ship in an SBC4
biplane bomber, an aircraft with a poorly designed tailhook assembly. No one really knew that until the
one on Clay’s plane ripped completely off as he caught a wire upon landing,
sending the rest of the bomber skidding hookless across the flight deck
until it came to rest amidships, to the amusement of a large audience of
officers watching from the island.
The second one, during training in an F6F Hellcat toward the end of the war,
involved a dead engine, a ditching in the Atlantic, a rescue by sailors who gave
the exhausted pilot a generous bolt of whiskey to help him recover, and finally
a wide-eyed wife as her tipsy husband walks in their front door in a wet flight
suit and dragging a parachute harness.
However, there was precious little humor in many of his other sorties. He had a key role in the Hornet
air group’s infamous “Flight to Nowhere” as the air-sea battle at Midway
commenced on 4 June 1942. Flying as
wingman to the group commander, Stanhope Ring, he had a front-row seat to the
events of that curiously abortive flight—a story told extensively over the years
on the Roundtable. And that put him
in the center of the subsequent controversy that developed concerning which way
Ring’s planes flew that morning. An
abundance of veteran testimony suggests that the course was critically wrong and
blatantly at odds with that recorded by the Hornet’s captain, Marc
Mitscher. But virtually alone on
the other side of the debate, Clay remembered with total clarity a scene during
that flight that seemed to prove inarguably that the new theory, despite its
host of supporters, had to be wrong and Mitscher had to be right. That’s a familiar story on the
Roundtable, and you can find the full details in Chapters 8 and 12 in No
Right to Win, with additional followup
web site here.
But the “Flight to Nowhere” was immediately followed that afternoon and
over the next two days with four more sorties against the Japanese fleet,
culminating in the final attack against a cruiser-destroyer force on June 6th,
during which Ensign Fisher planted his bomb squarely on the stern of the
destroyer Arashio. He and
his radioman-gunner, ARM3/c George Ferguson, thus became one of the minority of
aircrews who flew on all five missions against the enemy ships at Midway.
There is far more to Clay’s World War II story, but it’s readily
available in his book and in our on-line archives. For this obituary there’s only one
more wartime tale that should be told, concerning his combat tour in Korea. Actually, he wasn’t supposed to go
there at all. As a senior officer
and World War II veteran who had already amassed his share of combat experience,
he’d been ordered to an east coast squadron in 1950, which would have kept him
out of the Korean war altogether. However, he’d acquired some personal interests in California that he
wanted to attend to, so he requested a change in his orders to something on the
west coast. That request was
granted, and he was sent to the USS Essex (CV-9) at San Diego—briefly. It was soon bound for Korea and
another shooting war. There
he participated in the celebrated attacks on the bridges at “Toko-Ri” as well as
numerous interdiction missions in North Korea, flying F4U Corsairs in the
After Korea he served tours in training squadrons at Pensacola and
Imperial Beach, California, followed by his final assignment in 1960 as
executive officer at NAS Miramar, near San Diego. There he was amazed one day to find
that a sailor named “Ferguson” was asking to see him—it was his radioman-gunner
from Midway, George Ferguson, now a Chief Radioman. The two had a raucous reunion at the
base CPO club.
Clay retired with 21 years of service in
March 1961, making his home at Coronado on the west side of San Diego Bay. He then commenced a long career as a
real estate developer, which he told me was just slightly less hazardous than
aerial combat. I first made contact
with him in 2001 while seeking some information about the SBD Dauntless. We subsequently developed a close
association by phone, e-mail, and in person over the next several years. I got to know him as one who,
despite his advanced age, was exceptionally bright and articulate to his very
last days, always willing to discuss in detail anything you’d want to know about
the BOM, the Hornet,
the planes he flew, and the men he
served with in that fascinating era.
Farewell and following seas to an outstanding naval officer, honored
Midway veteran, key Roundtable contributor, and cherished friend.
Click here for more photos.
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