NO RIGHT TO WIN
A CONTINUING DIALOGUE WITH VETERANS OF
THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY
The best of the Battle of Midway Roundtable in book form
THE FLIGHT TO NOWHERE
The USS Hornet Air Group at the Battle of Midway
by Ronald W. Russell
The flight of the USS Hornet Air Group (HAG) on the morning of 4 June 1942 has been one of the BOMRT’s most frequently and intensely reviewed subjects. In No Right to Win (“NRTW”), I presented the best of our members’ recollections and analyses as to where the various elements of the HAG flew on that momentous and very curious flight. The topic appears principally in Chapter 8 and again in Chapter 12.
There are three fundamental mysteries to the HAG’s flight on that morning:
1. Which way did they go: southwest (course 240 degrees true) or west (course 265)?
2. If they went west, why does the Hornet’s after-action report say they went southwest?
3. And if they went west, why? There were no enemy carriers in that direction.
By the time NRTW was completed, our members’ discussions on the topic had mainly centered on just the first question, because traditional histories of the BOM all say it was course 240, while more recent revelations indicate that course 265 was correct. In the end it was impossible to definitively rule out one or the other because of conflicting yet irrefutable eyewitness accounts from HAG veterans who were actually there at the time. Consequently, in Chapter 12 I labeled the matter as unresolved, and unlikely to ever be resolved.
The Course of Choice
But if one is going to pursue the discussion, it’s necessary to pick one or the other as the most likely, and that choice has to be the westbound course, 265 degrees true. I make allowances for the traditional 240 degree course in NRTW primarily because of the convincing testimony of VB-8 pilot Clayton Fisher, who clearly remembers seeing Midway’s towering column of black smoke on the horizon to his left as he flew the HAG’s outbound track. That could only have happened on course 240, and Fisher is not the least bit ambiguous about his recollection. He was there and I wasn’t, so I have to believe that he saw what he says he saw.
Nevertheless, the preponderance of evidence and veteran testimony points to the westbound course. That contrasts starkly with Fisher’s account, but we simply have to accept that and move on. In addition to the several supporting interviews in the
Weisheit book plus his revealing discovery of the PBY evidence (p. 133 in NRTW), there is the equally unambiguous testimony of Chief Richard Woodson (p. 136), who definitely saw Waldron and VT-8 break away to the left from the HAG, not to the right. That only could have happened on course 265 (compare pages 132 and 135). The clincher is the fact that Woodson’s eyewitness account is completely independent of Weisheit and his book—Woodson had never heard of either before I raised the subject with him.
Rationalizing the Westbound Course
Declaring the westbound course a historical fact immediately presents a few problems. In the first place, why would the commander of the Hornet air group (CHAG), CDR Stanhope Ring, go that way? A cursory examination of the chart on p. 135 easily shows that he not only wouldn’t have encountered any enemy carriers in that direction, but that his planes would actually pass well behind the point where Kido Butai was first spotted, hours before he could have gotten there. Based on that alone, course 265 makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.
Further, if a believable rationale for such a course could somehow be postulated, you are next tasked with justifying it since any such rationale turned out to be wrong. And finally, if you can somehow explain why course 265 was the HAG’s assigned course, you need to figure out why John Waldron of VT-8 didn’t buy into it.
But as the discussion continued unabated on the Roundtable, a believable reason for the westbound course began to emerge. The catalyst may have been the following editorial inquiry that I wrote for the 3 August 2007 Roundtable Forum, in response to a message on the subject by one of our members:
This topic is perhaps the Roundtable’s most enduring, one that seems to generate solid interest at least a couple times each year. Tom Fritz reminded us of it in his message: “Mitscher and Ring sent the Hornet air group far to the north of the courses taken by Enterprise and Yorktown planes.” It even comprises one full chapter and part of another one in No Right to Win.
For what it’s worth, then, I have to ask this question: if we accept that the HAG departed Task Force 16 on a course of 265 degrees true (which, of course, is not proven beyond all doubt, but that’s another matter), the obvious question arises: why did Ring go that way? In his message, Tom says it was to seek the carriers that Ady didn’t see, and which were presumed to be trailing the leaders by some distance. John Lundstrom offers the same theory in Black Shoe Carrier Admiral (p. 248).
But I’ve always had a problem with that idea. I don’t personally recall any intelligence that suggested Nagumo’s carriers would advance on Midway in widely separated task groups. They didn’t do anything like that at Pearl Harbor and I don’t think they did it in the Indian Ocean raids, so why consider it at Midway? Perhaps one of our veterans or historians can enlighten us on that matter.
Then there’s the fact that course 265 intersected Kido Butai’s track behind the spot where Howard Ady first sighted them at 0552. With a launch time over two hours after that, even Ring had to know that flying course 265 would not intersect the enemy’s track until Nagumo had proceeded toward Midway for nearly another 100 miles. For me, it’s too much of a stretch to believe that Ring thought part of the Japanese carrier force would be trailing the other part by a hundred miles.
Tom’s basic point is valid: having seen only two enemy carriers and knowing there was at least double that number out there, it was reasonable for the PBYs to continue searching rather than dogging what appeared to be only two of them. But with regard to course 265 true for the HAG, no sensible rationale for that heading has yet appeared (in my opinion). Until it does, whether that’s the course the HAG actually flew and whether it was done deliberately will remain one of the BOM’s prime mysteries.
The beginning of a possible solution to the mystery came with the following response, from Roundtable member Robert Morgan:
As for why Commander Ring allegedly flew 265 degrees true to look for carriers behind those sighted on the morning of the fourth, the Japanese did operate two separate carrier groups at Coral Sea. Shoho was caught out in front of Shokaku and Zuikaku on that occasion, while the two larger carriers ran loose. Perhaps that was what the U.S. planners and/or Commander Ring were anticipating? Perhaps the Coral Sea experience with Shoho may have been weighing on the minds of the commanders and planners at Midway.
If Commander Ring did search behind the Kido Butai by flying 265 true, then that may have been his intent.
CINCPAC Makes an Assumption
By this point, then, the Roundtable was focusing on an assumption by CINCPAC that Kido Butai’s carriers approaching Midway were to be formed in widely separated groups, and that the two CVs initially seen by Howard Ady were just the leading group; a second one would be following some distance behind. But where did such a notion originate? I didn’t believe it was the Coral Sea experience, as I said in the following response to Mr. Morgan’s message:
Bob Morgan offered the only answer (above) to my question as to why anyone would think that the Japanese carrier striking force (Kido Butai) would separate its Midway-bound CV divisions by a very large distance. Historians have generally concluded that the HAG (Hornet air group) flew a very strange westbound course (265 degrees true) from the ship, and perhaps the best reason offered for doing so was to find Japanese carriers that were presumed to be following the two initially spotted by Howard Ady. However, for course 265 degrees true to make any sense, the calculated separation between the supposed separate carrier groups would need to be nearly a hundred miles.
I had asked what evidence there was that Kido Butai would fragment its carrier divisions, instead of operating them as one coherent strike force like they did at Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and in the Ceylon raids in April 1942. Bob suggests that American experience in the Coral Sea, with Shoho being far removed from Shokaku and Zuikaku (Carrier Division 5 of Kido Butai) could have given reason to expect a similar separation at Midway.
But in my opinion, that seems unlikely. Shoho was a light carrier, mounting only about 30 planes, and it was not a part of Kido Butai. Instead, it was attached to Cruiser Division 6, the covering force for the Port Moresby invasion. It’s true that LCDR Dixon, of Lexington’s SBD force, had radioed “scratch one flat-top” after helping send Shoho to the bottom, and “one flat-top” may have been interpreted by many as one of Kido Butai’s fleet carriers. However, that notion should have disappeared when the returning American pilots reported sinking a light carrier.
During the past week I engaged in some lengthy e-mail exchanges with John Lundstrom and Jon Parshall on this subject, and I’ll have excerpts from those messages in the next issue. For now, though, it seems fair to conclude that the basis for the USN assuming Kido Butai would advance on Midway in separate groups arose from little more than (a) knowledge that they formed their carriers into discrete divisions, which were presumed to operate independently, and (b) an assumption that the enemy’s carrier doctrine was no different than ours; something like “we operate our carriers independently, so everyone else must do the same.”
That assumption is evident in two places in
CINCPAC’s Midway Op-Plan 29-42
, as elements of a listing preceded by “Operations...are visualized as follows:”
“...attacks by carrier aircraft...it is thought that one or more carriers may take up close-in daylight positions for this purpose.”
“...covering of attacking carriers...by additional carrier groups.”
A look at Kido Butai’s disposition during the Pearl Harbor and Ceylon raids might have altered that assumption, but such detail would remain unknown until long after the BOM.
Indeed, it seems to have been a rather tenuous assumption on the part of CINCPAC’s staff, rather than hard evidence, that Kido Butai would approach Midway in separate task groups. There simply is nothing in the known historical record that would have led CINCPAC to such a conclusion, other than the assumed expectation that the enemy would operate his carriers the same way as everyone else—meaning, us.
For that reason, then, the paradigm of separate carrier groups found its way into CINCPAC’s official set of orders for the defense of Midway—Op Plan 29-42—and that provides the necessary rationale for the leadership of Task Forces 16 and 17 to plan for attacks on more than one formation of Japanese carriers.
Mitscher Makes Up His Mind
With that foundation, the rest of the puzzle seemed to fall into place. One of the reasons it was always difficult to ascribe course 265 to a decision by Stanhope Ring was his track record as an aviator and navigator. His pilots had provided an abundance of evidence that the CHAG was not trustworthy in the air (several specific incidents are cited in NRTW), and that could cause one to question the depth of his understanding of offensive naval air operations and his ability to plan and lead them. That suggests that the decision for course 265 came from another source, and that could only have been the USS Hornet commander himself, Captain Marc Mitscher.
A lengthy discourse on that possibility ensued between Jon Parshall, John Lundstrom, and myself, during which it gradually became evident that Mitscher must have wanted his air group to go after the assumed second group of Japanese carriers that had been suggested in the CINCPAC op-plan. He apparently thought his planes could find them by flying to the west, where they would encounter Kido Butai’s track some 75 to 100 miles or so behind the lead group spotted by Ady. If no enemy carriers were found there, Ring could bank left and lead his planes on the track of the known carriers, perhaps aiding the Enterprise air group in mopping them up.
That almost sounded like a rational idea except for one fatal flaw: there is no way that the group’s TBDs and F4Fs would have had enough fuel for such a flight, particularly in view of the gas-guzzling way the fighters were formed up upon launch from the Hornet. Here, neither Mitscher nor Ring were cognizant or caring enough to realize that the westbound course would spell the doom of at least half of the air group, irrespective of any contact with the enemy.
Then there is the problem of what the TF-16 commander, Spruance, had ordered Mitscher to do. Communication between the Enterprise and the Hornet was nearly non-existent, limited to whatever signals could be passed by visual means or infrequently by low-powered TBS radio. Consistent with existing U.S. Navy carrier doctrine, Mitscher rightly felt that the employment of his air group was his own discretion. After all, Op-Plan 29-42 provided only general guidance; not micromanaged attack assignments for specific air groups and squadrons. Those were the call of the on-scene commanders, and very little was coming to Mitscher from Spruance that would cause him to deviate from his own hunches.
John Lundstrom suggested another factor for which there is no hard evidence, but which certainly merits consideration. In his mind, Mitscher was the “aviator” among the senior officers present. He had been in naval aviation far longer than anyone else on the scene—indeed, both of the task force commanders were the infernal “blackshoes”—no personal aviation experience at all! He was even senior to Captain George Murray of the Enterprise, who was in actual command of the two-carrier task group, TG 16.5. That must have rankled the proud Mitscher a great deal! For those reasons, he very likely felt that he knew far more than Spruance or Fletcher about the business at hand, and was going to show them that was so by
sending his planes in an unexpected direction where they would clobber an inbound enemy force that the blackshoes probably hadn’t thought of.
Waldron Finds His Way
When course 265 was explained to the squadron commanders on the Hornet’s bridge just before launch, Waldron must have seethed with fury at his commanders’ ignorance. An expert on the TBD, he could instantly see that his planes’ tanks would go dry long before they could have returned to the Hornet from such a flight; never mind whether any enemy ships were ever found. Orders were orders and this was war, so he duly headed out on course 265 with the rest of the HAG, playing along for perhaps 30 minutes. During that interlude he doubtless was computing an on-the-fly course change that would take him to Ady’s two carriers, Task Force 16’s actual target. Once he arrived at a solution, he broke radio silence to plead his case with Ring one last time. Denied a deviation from the westbound course, Waldron faced a critical dilemma. He could continue toward the west and ditch his entire squadron in the ocean, possibly without encountering any enemy forces, or he could head for a known target that he could actually attack and still have a good chance of making it back to the Hornet.
It was a bitter decision, defying one’s immediate superior during wartime while engaged in a combat operation. If Waldron had been wrong and Ring turned out to be right, he would have faced severe consequences if he’d survived—especially if Ring did not. But Waldron’s gut instincts were compelling, and in this case they were absolutely right. TBDs from the Enterprise did manage to find and attack the enemy and return to their ship—it was plainly the right decision. Waldron turned his squadron to the southwest, in a slight modification of the course he would have flown upon launch from the Hornet, and the rest is history.
The Flight of the Hornet Air Group: Closing the Book
In summary, then, viable answers are at last at hand for the three fundamental questions presented at the beginning of this article.
1. Which way did they go: southwest (course 240 degrees true) or west (course 265)? While a nagging doubt will always remain because of Commander Fisher’s compelling testimony concerning Midway’s smoke off his port wing, the multiple statements by other on-scene witnesses tilt the scales in favor of course 265. It would seem that all serious discussion of the HAG’s flight from this point forward must proceed from that premise.
2. If they went west, why does the Hornet’s after-action report say they went southwest? That’s not hard to figure out, though it remains rather astonishing to this day. Mitscher’s after-action report was not written until many days had passed after the battle’s close, by which time the embarrassing facts of where the Japanese carriers actually had been were well known. In his zeal to show the blackshoes that he knew more about the business at hand than they did, he had done precisely the opposite—his westbound decision had been the worst possible choice, most likely causing the loss of all of his fighters and all of his torpedo planes. On the other hand, the aircraft under the direct control of Spruance and Fletcher had
dealt the enemy the crippling blow, making the BOM one of history’s most stunning naval victories. It had been a day of glory of which Mitscher should have been able to claim a major share. Instead, if the true facts were documented in the normal manner, he would plainly have been seen as something of a dunce, culpable for the needless loss of his own men as well as some of those from the other two carriers.
To avoid that career-killing embarrassment, it was a simple matter of documenting the Hornet’s part of the battle in a manner of Mitscher’s choosing. The damning evidence of that exists in the total absence of after-action reports from anyone else in the HAG, in spite of the fact that naval regulations required air group and squadron commanders to record and submit such reports. After-action reports from squadrons on the other carriers and from Midway Atoll exist in abundance; you can find several of them
on this web site
. Nothing like them survives from the Hornet, not from LCDR Rodee (VS-8), LCDR Johnson (VB-8), LCDR Mitchell (VF-8), and not from the CHAG himself. Nothing.
There is only Mitscher’s time-honored official report of the USS Hornet at Midway. And of course, it asserts that the HAG had done what it was supposed to do per Spruance’s orders—fly southwest toward the known enemy carriers and attack them.
Mitscher’s Midway report was accepted as history, and he went on to become the “Magnificent Mitscher” of the fast carrier forces that helped defeat Japan.
3. And if the HAG went west, why? There were no enemy carriers in that direction. The answer was available for all to see long before the writing of NRTW, but insofar as I know, no one ever connected the dots in order to explicitly tell us. CINCPAC’s Op-Plan 29-42 rather plainly told Fletcher and Spruance to expect enemy carriers approaching Midway in separate task groups. Consequently, the two admirals had to plan their ambush accordingly. Once Ady’s contact report was received, the plan was formulated for TF-16 (both carriers, not just the Enterprise) to strike the known targets, reserving TF-17 (Yorktown) for follow-on attacks on the “second” enemy carrier group
if scouts could find them, or for support to TF-16’s strike if no second group was found. That was all very sensible in hindsight, except that the limitations of American carrier doctrine and poor communications apparently left Mitscher with an inadequate awareness of such detailed strategy. Lacking solid contrary orders, he took it upon himself to assume the roll reserved for the Yorktown—striking the “second” enemy group while the Enterprise took care of the leading group. What he thought the Yorktown was supposed to be doing in that case is anyone’s guess.
It would seem, then, that we can now close the book on the mysterious flight of the Hornet air group on the morning of 4 June 1942. I fully expect that the subject will be revisited on the Roundtable from time to time because of its continuing interest, but I doubt that significantly differing answers will ever be found to the foregoing fundamental questions.
Finally, I need to admit that some of what is said here is opinion, and opinion is always a vulnerable commodity. To that I can only repeat the qualification found in NRTW concerning the Roundtable’s constant endeavor to seek out the facts of the Battle of Midway: the best we can ever do is interview the veterans who were there, examine the available evidence, and then form well-founded, reasonable conclusions.
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