The reluctant but real hero.
Never Call Me a Hero: A Legendary American Dive-Bomber Pilot Remembers the Battle of Midway
By Timothy and Laura Orr
(William Morrow, 312 pages, $26.99)
The spring of 1942 was not an optimistic time for America, or for the free world. Most of Europe was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hitler’s Nazis. And how the allies were going to reverse this was not obvious at the time. If anything the situation in the Pacific was even gloomier, with the Japanese Imperial Navy having its way against the Americans, the Brits, the Chinese, and the Dutch. Had the Greater East-Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere been a public company then, brokers would have been giving the buy signal. It wasn’t even clear at that time that the mainland United States was out of reach of the Land of the Rising Sun’s war machine. Very bad medicine.
Yes, there had been the April raid on Tokyo by then Colonel Doolittle’s B-25s. But these medium bombers, launched from the carrier Hornet, did little physical damage. The strategic effect of the raid was small, though the raid gave Americans a psychological lift, and certainly caught the attention of the Japanese high command. It was a slick trick. But not one that could be repeated. America needed a real win.
Complicating the matter in the Pacific was the fact that the allies had decided on a Europe first strategy, whereby the greatest effort, therefore the greatest resources, would be devoted to defeating the Nazis in Europe, even though in America at the time feeling was running highest against the Japanese because of Pearl Harbor, the Bataan death march, and other barbarities committed by the Japanese. American ships, planes, and trained men in great numbers would eventually arrive in the Pacific and overwhelm the Japanese. But in the spring of 1942, America was on the defensive and on a shoestring in the Pacific. Only three American carriers were available in the world’s largest ocean, Hornet, Enterprise, and Yorktown.
For all these disabilities, the win for America finally came at Midway in June of 1942, just six months after the “unprovoked and dastardly attack” on Pearl Harbor. It was Japan’s first turnover, and the beginning of a long and successful campaign to put an end to Japan’s hopes of owning the Pacific and the nations and people bordering it.
Most Americans have seen documentaries of the Pacific war and know that the Battle of Midway was the first major naval battle where ships of the opposing forces never came within sight of each other. All the attacks in this historical confrontation were carried out by aircraft from the two sides’ carriers. It was David and Goliath-san, as America was outnumbered two to one in planes and ships. But by end of business June 4, four Japanese carriers — Kaga, Akagi, Hiryu, and Soryu — had been sent to the bottom by American Dauntless dive bombers. This was sweet revenge as these four had taken part in the Pearl Harbor attack.
In the four-day battle, America lost the carrier Yorktown and 145 aircraft along with most of their crews. But it was a clear victory for the United States Navy, and the turning point in the Pacific Campaign. Japan was never able to overcome the loss of her four large carriers, almost 300 combat aircraft, and the seasoned pilots who died in the battle. Their initiative in the Pacific was gone. They went from offense to defense, where they remained for the duration.
At the controls of his Enterprise-based Dauntless through this fateful campaign was 26-year-old Lieutenant Junior Grade N. Jack “Dusty” Kleiss of Coffeyville, Kansas, a 1938 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. It’s his inspiring story, and that of his shipmates and fellow aviators, that the naval historian tag team of Orr and Orr tell, and they tell it well. They mix in just the right amount of back story and big picture context with what is essentially a memoir. They do it in such a way as to not interrupt the flow of Kleiss’s narrative, which reads like a first-person novel. But in this novel-like story the events, the people, and the drama are real.
The title of the book comes from the insistence by Kleiss that he was not a hero. Just a modest man who, on the way of just doing his job, turned out to have an immodest amount to do with one of history’s most important battles. Kleiss was the only American flyer during the battle to score bomb hits on three different Japanese ships, the carriers Kaga and Hiryu on June 4, and on the cruiser Nikuma on June 7. So if Kleiss was not a hero, then the word has no meaning. He always insisted that the real heroes were those who gave their lives in service to their country. And these included many of Kleiss’s friends he had trained with, fought with, and became close with, as all warriors must in order to withstand the horrors of war.
Kleiss knew his combat successes, and those of his squadron mates, came as a result of their skills, patiently gained through long months of training, as well as their courage. Their willingness to face fantastic risks without flinching. He knew his success and survival were also a result of fate and dumb luck, fate which decreed that LTJG Kleiss would not be hit by enemy fire but the guys in the next plane would. The way of war, where luck is rarely a lady.
Readers of this memoir will take away a full understanding of the Midway engagement and its importance, the coming of age of naval aviation, particularly the harrowing experience of dive bombing, with its thrills and perils. America produced men like Dusty Kleiss in their millions when they were needed, ordinary men who presented themselves when called, put on uniforms, and did extraordinary things. They are why the dark designs of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan did not succeed.
After Midway, Dusty Kleiss never flew in combat again. The Navy sent him back to the states to train future dive bomber pilots. He stayed in the Navy until 1962, retiring at the rank of captain. Most of his assignments after the war were engineering billets. Like so many veterans, Kleiss spoke little about the war and his role in it, even to his family. There was much he wished, not necessarily to forget, but not have to deal with continually. He was only coaxed to open up late in life when veterans of the campaign became thin on the ground, and he feared the true story of the matter might be lost.
Dusty Kleiss, at the time the last surviving dive bomber pilot from World War II, died in the spring of 2016 at the age of 100. A long and successful life for a great American and a hero, whether or not he fancied the honorific.
Hiryu burning, June 5, 1942 (Wikimedia Commons)