Remembering Dick Best and the Battle of Midway, 4 June 1942
June 4, 2015 in Aviation
Today is the 73rd anniversary of the Battle of Midway, the battle that changed the course of the war in the Pacific.
I’d like to take this time to remember my friend, the late Richard H. “Dick” Best, the only person I ever met who personally changed history, and the greatest American patriot it was ever my privilege to know (though not the way many might think – read on).
Dick was the commander of Bombing-Six aboard the Enterprise at Midway. On December 7, 1941, he had flown off Enterprise and landed at Ford Island that night. As he told me, “I looked down at the fires that were still burning, and I swore to myself I would make them pay.”
The Enterprise strike group was commanded by Wade McCluskey, recently “fleeted up” from command of VF-6 to Commander Enterprise Air Group, and a man who was flying his first dive bomber mission on 4 June 1942. History records that he flew out to the maximum range without finding the fleet, turned north and found a Japanese destroyer “with a bone in its teeth” that he followed to the fleet. Dick remembered things differently: “We could have struck the Japanese at the same time as the torpedo bombers, and perhaps saved more of them, except McCluskey couldn’t navigate around the breakfast table. I was a good navigator, and I knew when we missed the turn to the north, but we were under radio silence and I couldn’t use the gas to speed up and catch up to him and let him know he’d made that mistake. It was an error that cost us half our young pilots, who ran out of gas trying to get home.”
Nevertheless, the Enterprise strike group arrived over the Japanese fleet just as the last of the torpedo bombers was being shot down. The Zero CAP was all down at sea level. And then McCluskey made a second mistake: dive bomber doctrine called for him and the lead squadron to fly across the fleet and strike the far target (the “Akagi’). Instead, he dove right in front of Best with all of VS-6, and most of VB-6 went with him, diving on “Kaga” (the near target. Dick was left with his two wing men. They flew across the fleet and dove on Akagi. Navy doctrine said a force of less than 18 dive bombers was useless. They attacked anyway. The first bomb missed amidships and started a fuel leak in Akagi. The second missed just astern and jammed her rudder. Dick’s 1,600 lb armor piercing bomb struck the flight deck and penetrated to Hangar 2, filled with fully-fueled B5N2 torpedo bombers, as well as the ordnance now lying on deck from the two reloads that had happened. It was the most successful dive bombing attack by anyone in World War 2, and killed Akagi.
Dick didn’t know it, but when he had tested his oxygen rebreather system, he had gotten a dose of the chemicals, which stimulated latent tuberculosis (lots of people back then had been exposed). When he returned to Enterprise, he was coughing up blood. Nevertheless, he took part in the strike that afternoon on Hiryu, where his bomb likely was the one that lifted the forward elevator and threw it against the bridge. He had participated in sinking two Japanese carriers in one day, and insured the American victory. When he entered his dive over Akagi, we were losing the battle. When he closed his dive flaps and pulled out of the dive two minutes later, he had changed history.
Dick spent the next 10 years battling tuberculosis. He finally found employment at RAND Corporation, as the Librarian. It was here that he gave his best service to his country, in his personal estimation, when he “turned a blind eye” to Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo when they removed the Pentagon Papers and copied them. “The American people deserved to know what had been done in their name.”
Dick Best was a lifelong FDR Democrat, as he put it, and a lifelong cat person. He was a collector of books (the first time I was in his home, I was gratified to discover how many books he had in his library that I had in mine), and a lover of good jazz (over 200 CDs and also Broadway cast recordings).
I took him out to Chino in 1998 for the Midway remembrance, where they wanted to give him a ride in their SBD, but he said no. “The last time I was in an SBD, I sank two Japanese carriers. How could I top that?”
Dick died in October 2001, age 91, of “the old person’s friend,” pneumonia, developed from the first cold he had in the ten years I knew him.
Truly an American hero who made anyone who knew him feel privileged to be a “fellow American.”
The model is Dick’s “B-1” at Midway. the two accompanying photos are of him and the flight deck of Enterprise before the strike was launched – Dick’s airplane is the furthermost forward on the port side of the flight deck.
2 additional images. Click to enlarge