From the Naval History Magazine – June 2013 Volume 27, Number 3:

Three Navy ‘back-seaters’ recollect their experiences aloft during early World War II—including taking off against a
Japanese carrier force on 4 June 1942 without having received gunnery or flight training.

Oral “Slim” Moore is still worthy of his nickname. He uses a cane to get around, and by his own admission he’s “getting a little long in the tooth”—but he stands six feet two inches tall and doesn’t carry a pound of extra weight. He was first tagged as Slim at East Denver High School in Denver, Colorado, where he graduated with the class of ’39. He joined the Navy a year later. Right out of boot camp he was sent to radio school on North Island, San Diego. At the Battle of Midway in June 1942, he flew off the aircraft carrier Hornet (CV-8) in the rear seat of an SBD Dauntless dive bomber.

Aviation radioman second class was his rating. More commonly, he and his kind were called radioman-gunners, radio-gunners, rear-gunners, back-seat men, or rear-seaters. They manned the rear cockpits of carrier dive bombers and torpedo planes, alternately handling the radio gear and .30-caliber machine guns. All radioman-gunners of that era were enlisted men, although a large proportion (Moore among them) eventually went on to become officers. Remarkably, in most cases they received no formal flight or gunnery training before being placed in the cockpit.

When not on the flight rosters, they were returned to the aircraft repair shacks on the hangar decks, where they stood deck watches and were put to belting ammunition, hauling ordnance, and pushing planes. When they did fly, they took the same risks as the pilots and gave their lives in the same numbers.

I went to Moore’s handsome home in Berkeley, California, to record his recollections of the historic battle. He greeted me at the door and invited me into his dining room, where he had photographs and old news clippings spread out on the table.

Moore was with the Hornet in Norfolk the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and he was still with her in October 1942, in the South Pacific, when she was sunk at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. For most of the intervening ten months, he flew behind Ensign William “Doug” Carter of Bombing Squadron Eight (VB-8).

The rear cockpit of the SBD was equipped with emergency flight controls, as well as a seat that could be pivoted to face forward or backward. Carter urged his rear gunner to learn as much about flying as he could. That way, if Carter was wounded or killed in action, Moore would have a fighting chance to return to the Hornet . An auxiliary stick was stowed against the bulkhead on the port side of the rear cockpit. Moore would “ship,” or engage, it and fly the plane. He could fly straight and level, execute turns, and even practice landings in the air. He had rudder pedals and elevator and throttle controls, but no access to the flaps or landing gear, so an actual landing would have been a dubious prospect. Moore had never heard of a rear gunner attempting to belly-land or water-ditch an SBD, but thinks it could have been done.

Moore was surprised the Navy didn’t send him to gunnery school to learn how to handle the .30-caliber twin mounts. He occasionally got a chance to shoot at a target sleeve towed by an F4F Wildcat, but not often. Mostly he learned gunnery by shooting at Japanese airplanes. When I asked Moore if he thought the .30 was a powerful enough weapon for air combat, he responded: “Powerful enough to knock down a couple of Japs, I can vouch for that. Not like a .50 would have been, but I guess a .50 was too big for the SBD. And the .30 was convenient—it was stored under the cowling, and you just pulled it out and you were ready to go.”

Moore was on board the Hornet in April 1942 when she carried Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle’s 16 Army Air Forces B-25 bombers to within 650 miles of Tokyo and they took off on a one-way bombing mission famously known as the Doolittle Raid. The Hornet ’s entire air group was crammed onto the hangar deck, unable to fly until the big twin-engine bombers had cleared the flight deck. Air cover for the task force was handled by the Enterprise (CV-6), which sailed in company with the Hornet .

Among the men who flew off the Enterprise during that mission was another long-time resident of the San Francisco Bay area, Edward R. Anderson, a rear-gunner with Bombing Squadron Six (VB-6). Sadly, Anderson passed away on 13 February of this year, but I was fortunate enough to meet him in November 2012, in the conference room of his San Rafael rest home. His daughters, Janice and Gretchen, joined us.

Anderson was a warm, courtly man who took my hand and asked me questions about my family. He did not remember many details of his service in the war, but his daughters provided me with photographs, news clippings, and his flight log. As I perused it, I was astounded at the amount of flying Anderson had done—hundreds, probably thousands of hours of “scouting hops” and bombing missions in every part of the Pacific. Later Janice sent me a copy of his fascinating wartime diary, which begins with the attack on Pearl Harbor and runs through August 1942, when personal diaries were banned by the Navy Department lest they should fall into enemy hands.

Anderson joined the service in July 1941, in response to a Los Angeles Times notice offering to send volunteers directly into radio school, with the promise of a quick promotion to the rank of petty officer, third class. He signed up, completed a four-month training program, and was assigned to duty on board the Enterprise .

The early months of the war found him in an Enterprise aviation repair shack, learning how to affix bombs to the SBDs. He hoped above all for a flight assignment but had not yet qualified as a gunner. In January he was assigned to the plane-handling crew. His work days began at 0330 and lasted 16 to 17 hours, and he was often so exhausted that he thought his legs might give out. Anderson related the details of every Enterprise plane crashed or lost at sea, faithfully recording the names of the pilots and rear-gunners whose lives were lost, but the manifest dangers of carrier flight operations did not deter his ambition. He wanted a flight assignment, and on 10 March 1942, he got it.

His pilot was Ensign Lewis A. Hopkins, who was “fresh from Pensacola but he seems to be a very good pilot and is a swell fellow personally.” Like Moore, Anderson received no flight training. “I just got in the back seat and we took off. My training was my first flight!” While the Enterprise was in Pearl Harbor, VB-6 was stationed at Ewa Field, where it practiced dive bombing and gunnery.

In late May, Anderson’s diary referred to an approaching Japanese fleet. During this period, American task forces were pulsating with rumors of an imminent battle. Pearl Harbor was jammed with ships taking on fuel, provisions, and ammunition, and anyone could see that something big was about to happen. On the morning of 27 May, the Enterprise sortied from Pearl Harbor, and the air group flew aboard that afternoon. The following day it was announced to the crew that a large Japanese fleet was converging on Midway, and the carriers Enterprise , Hornet , and Yorktown (CV-5) were headed out to intercept them.

Lloyd F. Childers is a dignified and stoic man who unnecessarily apologized for not standing to greet me. I visited to his home in Walnut Creek, California, to discuss the important part he played at Midway. Childers was an Aviation Radioman Third Class in the Yorktown ’s Torpedo Squadron Three (VT-3). He flew in the rear cockpit of a TBD Devastator, a dangerously slow, thoroughly obsolete aircraft that was already in the process of being retired from the Fleet in favor of its successor, the TBF Avenger. The U.S. torpedo squadrons were decimated at Midway; Childers was the sole radioman-gunner in his squadron to survive the 4 June attack on the Japanese carriers.

After graduating from high school in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Childers joined the Navy in November 1940. Like Moore, he went directly from boot camp into radio school. He was chosen because he had taken one semester of typing in high school, and radio school wanted men who could type. Childers learned to read semaphore and blinker, and by the time he graduated he could copy code at 40 words per minute. On 7 December 1941, he was a member of the crew of the destroyer Cassin (DD-372), in drydock at Pearl Harbor. At a quarter to eight that Sunday morning, he went ashore to buy a newspaper. On his way back to the ship, Japanese planes suddenly filled the sky. A bomb struck near the Cassin, knocking her off her keel blocks and starting raging fires. She was judged a total loss.

In the aftermath of the raid, Childers was one of thousands of sailors left shipless, and he worried that he might serve the entire war in the deck force. As it turned out, however, radiomen were in short supply. He applied for a transfer to VT-3, then on board the Saratoga (CV-3), and got it. But the carrier was torpedoed at sea south of Oahu on 11 January 1942 and forced to return to Bremerton, Washington, for months of repairs. Stranded at Naval Air Station Kaneohe on Oahu for three months, VT-3 was finally assigned to the Yorktown on the eve of the Battle of Midway.

Childers was surprised at how little preparation he received before being posted to the flight roster of a torpedo squadron that was days away from fighting the war’s biggest naval battle to date. “We didn’t have any training,” he said. The radioman was put into a cockpit behind Warrant Officer Harry Corl and told to get the hang of it. He and Corl flew out to the Yorktown a few hours after she left Pearl Harbor on 30 May.

When maneuvering to drop a torpedo at an enemy ship, the TBD flew a hundred feet above the sea at a little over 100 knots. At that speed and altitude, the plane was dead meat for Zero fighters. “Everybody knew the aircraft was slow; that was no secret,” said Childers. He recalled a grim briefing with the pilots of VT-3 in their Yorktown ready room. They were bluntly informed that most of the squadron was to be sacrificed. If three planes managed to get through the Japanese fighter screen, they would be doing their jobs. “I was in shock,” Childers recalled. “As we walked out, everyone was joking and laughing. I was not laughing.”

Childers turned 21 years old on 4 June, the day of the battle. At 0400 he went down to the mess deck and ate a breakfast of steak and eggs, which was unheard of; it was, he remembered, a “last meal for the condemned men.” Hours of agonizing waiting followed as the Yorktown steamed southwest at 25 knots. A few minutes after 0900 (Midway time), the pilots were ordered to man planes. The big carrier turned southeast into the soft morning breeze and poured on speed to get wind across the deck. Childers keyed his mike and told Corl: “Today is my 21st birthday. Presumably today I am a man, so let’s celebrate.” The SBDs of VB-3 launched first, followed by the Devastators of Childers’ squadron.

Flying at 2,500 feet over the North Pacific wastes, Childers noticed something very strange. Splashes. Big splashes, out at sea, in the middle of nowhere. What was going on? (Not until later did he realize that some of the Dauntlesses of VB-3 had accidently dropped their 1,000-pound bombs from 15,000 feet above.) While scanning the horizon, trying to make sense of the bizarre splashes, Childers spied a “wisp of smoke on the horizon at two o’clock,” about 30 miles away. He directed Corl to it, and Corl alerted the squadron commander, Lieutenant Commander Lance E. Massey, by hand signals. Massey then led the squadron in a starboard turn to fly toward the strange smoke.

Soon the gray shapes of Japanese ships, including four aircraft carriers, resolved on the horizon. VT-3 bored in, descending to 100 feet above the sea. They flew in a two-division stacked-down formation. The squadron’s aviators didn’t know it, but the torpedo planes of the Hornet (VT-8) and the Enterprise (VT-6) had attacked earlier that morning, each suffering catastrophic losses (VT-8 lost all planes and all but one pilot). At about 15 miles from the task forces, the Zeros moved in above VT-3 and lined up their attacks. Corl estimated six Zeros to every three-plane section of Devastators. The Yorktown fighter escort, VF-3, engaged several Zeros above their heads, but Childers did not see the friendly fighters. He was focused on the attacking planes. “They were so nimble,” he recalled. “They were so good. I think everyone who saw them climb were in awe of the performance of the Zero fighter.”

On the subject of the .30-caliber guns, Childers takes a different view than Slim Moore. The .30 caliber, Childers said, “was only a little better than nothing.” A .50 caliber would have been much more effective. “With the .30, you had to aim high to correct for the fall of the bullet,” he said. “The only way you were going to hit the target was to arc it like an artillery shell.” When his .30 jammed, Childers pulled out his .45-caliber sidearm and fired at the pursuing Zeros. “I don’t know that it ever did me any good, but it was comforting. And I thought, when I’m empty, I’ll throw ammo cans at the bastards.”

As they neared the fleet, Childers noted that the Zeros followed them in, disregarding the danger of their own ships’ antiaircraft fire. He watched the other TBDs of his squadron go down, one by one. The dive-bombing squadrons had not arrived over the Japanese carriers, so there was nothing to distract the enemy planes. “If we [VT-3] had arrived 15 minutes later, it would have saved a lot of lives.”

The TBDs were in close formation, and Childers looked across and saw Massey’s plane, T-1, burst into flames. The skipper’s rear-gunner was Chief Petty Officer Leo Perry. “I could see his facial expressions clearly,” Childers recalled. “First, his face showed questioning, like ‘what’s happening?’ Second, his expression was fear. Then I watched as T-1 hit the water, exploding in a mass of churning fire. Those were the final seconds in the lives of Lieutenant Commander Massey and Chief Perry. The only good part was that it was quick.”

The elevator controls on Corl and Childers’ plane were shot away, and the plane went into a dive. Corl released the torpedo and brought the nose up using the tab control. They banked to starboard, fell in with another surviving plane of their division, and headed back toward Point Option in hopes of finding the Yorktown .

Ed Anderson, flying behind Ensign Hopkins in a VB-6 Dauntless armed with a 1,000-pound bomb, had launched from the Enterprise at 0920. Departing the task force on heading 240 degrees, the dive bombers immediately began climbing to altitude. At 13,000 feet they turned on their oxygen. Anderson’s diary offers a useful reminder of how physically punishing it was to fly at high altitude in a World War II–era warplane. At 19,000 feet they were cold, very cold. Anderson was in his lightweight summer flying suit and had forgotten his winter flying boots. His feet were numb. He beat his hands together to keep them warm.

To make things worse, he felt the call of nature. To urinate, he would have to take off a lot of gear—parachute, life jacket, flying coat, flight suit, trousers. Moreover, it was his duty to watch for enemy fighters and be prepared to dive at any time. “A guy can only stand so much, so I said to hell with the Japs and started zipping. Finally made it! Ah!!” Then his supply of oxygen ran out. That was dangerous, as it could lead to deteriorating cognitive functioning. Anderson found it difficult to move and began to get drowsy. He keyed the mike and asked Hopkins if he was okay, and the ensign replied “he thought so.”

After three hours of flying, they emerged over the edge of the Japanese fleet, far below. Anderson could see antiaircraft fire and expected Zeros at any moment, but there were none to be seen. Amazingly, no one in the Japanese fleet seemed to have spotted the dive bombers until they were directly overhead. VB-6 went into a steep glide down to 12,000 feet, lined up to attack the enemy carriers, opened up their dive brakes, and went down at an angle of 70 degrees. Hopkins and Anderson’s plane attacked the Kaga . She was already blazing fiercely from the stern. As Hopkins released his bomb and pulled out of the dive, Anderson looked down and saw two bombs hit the flight deck, “and the flame and debris shot hundreds of feet into the air. It was a sight I’ll never forget.” After the pullout they were doing 200 knots, but a Zero made a run on them on the port beam. Anderson warded it off with the twin .30s, and then noticed antiaircraft bursts from a battleship directly below them. Anderson urged Hopkins, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

As they withdrew, Anderson looked back and saw three Japanese carriers ablaze. It had been one of the most devastating and decisive attacks in the history of war at sea, and it had lasted all of five minutes.

The performance of the Hornet Air Group on 4 June 1942 has been the subject of plenty of dissection, dissent, and debate. Only one of the carrier’s squadrons managed to find the enemy that morning—and that unit, VT-8, was annihilated. All ten F4F Wildcats escorting the Hornet bombers lost their way trying to return to the ship and were forced to ditch due to fuel exhaustion. Two of the pilots died without ever sighting an enemy ship or aircraft. The SBDs of VB-8 and VS-8, failing to find the enemy fleet after expending more than half their fuel, had to turn back toward the Hornet . On the return they drifted apart, some flying directly back to the Hornet while others (including Carter and Moore’s plane) flying to Midway. None of this was any fault of Moore’s, of course; as a radioman-gunner he had nothing to do with the navigational decisions of the Hornet ’s air group commander, Commander Stanhope C. Ring.

For decades after the war, Midway accounts held that the Hornet strike group flew a heading of 240 degrees—the same southwesterly course flown by the Enterprise and Yorktown pilots. In the past 30 years, a new consensus has emerged that Ring flew a heading of 265 degrees, almost due west—a course that took the Hornet ’s strike group far north of the Japanese fleet. Moore emphatically agrees: “I remember the compass reading 265.” He said he always paid attention to the course heading, because if Carter was disabled, he wanted to be able to fly back to the carrier. When Ring eventually turned back, most of VB-8 flew south to Midway. Carter and Moore landed there at about 1115 local time. Tense Marine gunners shot up their aircraft on its approach to the strip, and several holes punctured the fuselage just behind Moore’s rear cockpit position.

On the return trip to the Yorktown , Harry Corl struggled to keep his shot-up TBD aloft. The engine was leaking oil, and Corl could only keep it turning at 2,100 rpm with a rich fuel mixture. He had no elevator control with the stick. Both the main radio and the “ZB” homing receiver were dead. Childers had been hit in both legs by enemy fire; the worst wound was in his right ankle, which was badly fractured and bleeding heavily. Arriving back over the Yorktown at 1425, they found that the carrier had been hit by a Japanese dive-bombing attack and was closed to flight operations.

They had no choice but to execute that dangerous and oxymoronic maneuver known as a “water landing.” Afterward Corl helped the injured Childers from the cockpit, and the two men climbed into their raft. In a few minutes they were picked up by a destroyer, the Monaghan (DD-354). With Childers on a dining table in the wardroom, the ship’s doctor operated on him. He had lost so much blood, the doctor said, he would not have survived another 30 minutes without medical attention.

Ed Anderson and Lewis Hopkins were luckier. They joined up in a formation of four SBDs from their squadron and flew back toward the Enterprise . With no carriers in sight, Hopkins climbed to 7,000 feet in hopes of picking up the YE-ZB homing beacon. Anderson began tuning and found it, which gave them a bearing. Minutes later they spotted the fleet, about 15 to 20 miles away. “I was plenty worried about our gas situation,” Anderson wrote in his diary, “but we came in and landed aboard without a single scratch or hole in our plane.”

That night and the next morning, the aviators traded news about their fellow pilots and radioman-gunners. There was plenty of grieving for lost friends, but they also were thrilled at the dawning realization that they had scored a historic victory. To the three Japanese carriers hit in the morning dive-bombing attack was added the fourth, the Hiryu , destroyed in a similar strike later that afternoon.

In the following days, the American task force hunted down the fleeing remnants of the Japanese fleet. Two heavy cruisers, the Mikuma and Mogami , had collided while maneuvering to avoid an American submarine. Both ships were badly damaged. On 6 June, the Enterprise and Hornet launched most of their remaining Dauntlesses to attack the fleeing stragglers at long-range. Carter and Moore flew with this strike and dove on the Mikuma . “We missed by a mile,” Slim confessed. Of Carter he said: “My pilot was a hell of a flyer but he was a lousy bomber.” He noted this with self-evident fondness for his old friend, who died a few years ago. At any rate, enough American bombs hit the Mikuma to do her in.

Ed Anderson, summing up in his diary, wrote that he believed “the Jap losses were so great that this will be a turning point in our favor for a final victory.”

Lloyd Childers received a purple heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his service at Midway. He was told that his wounds would put an end to his flying days, but after a long, difficult rehabilitation he made a career of aviation in the Marine Corps. He served with great distinction in both Korea and Vietnam. In the latter conflict he commanded Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 361, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Ed Anderson continued flying with the Enterprise Air Group. He was over Guadalcanal on 7 August 1942, bombing targets along the beach to clear the way for the 1st Marine Division. He attacked Japanese carriers at the Battle of the Eastern Solomons later that month, and when the Enterprise was withdrawn to Noumea for repairs, he was transferred to Guadalcanal to fly with the “Cactus Air Force.” Anderson served throughout the next three years of the war, flying more than 120 combat missions and rising to the rank of chief petty officer. His extraordinary service was recognized with 7 DFCs, 24 Air Medals, and an American Campaign Medal. He settled in Palo Alto, California, and began a 40-year career with the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Slim Moore continued to fly with VB-8 on the Hornet . In October 1942 at the Santa Cruz battle, Carter and Moore’s plane dove on the Japanese carrier Shokaku . Carter was apparently determined not to miss this time, because he descended through 2,000 feet (the SBD’s usual bomb-release altitude) and kept going. Moore recalled: “I was watching the altimeter. I could hardly believe it. We dropped at 1,200, and pulled out maybe three or four hundred feet.”

The Shokaku ’s antiaircraft fire was intense. A burst exploded directly beneath the plane, Moore said, “and I felt a bump in my butt, and I thought, ‘Shit, I’ve been shot.’” A fragment of shrapnel had lodged in his leg next to his shin. He used a first-aid kit to patch himself up as they flew back toward the Hornet . When they arrived over the American task force, the Hornet was ablaze and listing 15 degrees to port. She had taken a furious beating from Japanese dive and torpedo bombers and would sink later that night. Carter managed to put their bird down on the Enterprise .

Transferred back to the States for medical leave, Moore was tapped for officer’s training. He rose to the rank of lieutenant (j.g.) before leaving the Navy in 1947. He settled in San Francisco, raised a family, and worked for the city as a civil engineer for 35 years. He received a Purple Heart, two Air Medals, and two Area Medals.

As I was wrapping up my interview with Moore, he showed me a family photo album, recently given to him by his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. It’s a record of a long and fulfilling life. On the first page is a photo of Moore in uniform, circa 1942, under the headline “Hero!” He pointed to it and grinned playfully. “Look at that—they want to call me a hero.”

In our era of a volunteer military, it’s become customary to refer to all veterans as heroes. The H-word was used much more sparingly by the generation that fought World War II. Fighting the Axis didn’t make a man a hero. Heroes were rare. Heroes were the guys who fell on a grenade to protect the men around them. They were famous, like Audie Murphy. Heroes sold war bonds on the radio; their faces were on the cover of Life ; they received the Medal of Honor.

In my experience interviewing World War II veterans, I have found very little false modesty but plenty of the genuine kind. They won the war and came home and got on with the work of raising families, pursuing careers, and living their lives. For decades after 1945, few had any interest in talking much about the war, and not many did. Now, in the winter of their lives, they are not keen to be singled out for special recognition. They don’t particularly like to be fussed over and pushed into the spotlight. Out of a sense of obligation to history, they will talk to people like me. When they do, they always remind me not to forget the ones who didn’t come home.

Moore spent much of our hour together talking about his high school “boon companion,” Ronnie Fisher. I steered the conversation to Moore’s personal recollections of Midway, and he steered it back to Fisher, the person who gave Moore his nickname. They joined the Navy together in 1940 and went to radio school together. By dumb luck, Fisher and Moore were assigned to the same carrier, the Hornet. Fisher served as a radioman-gunner in Torpedo Squadron Eight. He gave his life on the morning of 4 June 1942, in that squadron’s gallant but futile attack on the Japanese fleet. Moore wasn’t going to let me get away with writing an article about radioman-gunners at Midway without mentioning his long-dead friend.

Maybe it’s just the generation gap, but on the issue of who’s a hero and who isn’t, I have to side with Moore’s family. If he and Ronnie Fisher and Lloyd Childers and Ed Anderson aren’t heroes, then I guess I don’t understand the meaning of the word.

Mr. Toll’s article is based on notes from his interviews with Lloyd F. Childers (12 October 2012) and Oral “Slim” Moore (27 February 2013) and from his reading of Edward R. Anderson’s wartime diary. The author extends special thanks to Ron Russell, Bob Hansen, Barrett Tillman, and the Battle of Midway Roundtable for their assistance.Type your paragraph here.