The Strategic Shooters
Hundreds of millions of people were directly engaged in WW II, and at least 55 million perished (roughly 25 million military and 30 million civilian). Among the world’s militaries, a relatively small percentage saw combat and many saw none at all. Of some 15 million Americans mobilized, slightly more than 400,000 died from all causes and about 680,000 were wounded.
Therefore, the proportion of the U.S. armed forces who served as “trigger pullers” on land, sea, or air represented a decided minority. Of those, a tiny handful were positioned to affect the outcome of a battle, let alone the wider war.
In 1942, when the Pacific War hung in the balance, both sides produced aviators who made a personal difference. Off Rabaul, New Britain, New Guinea, in February, Wildcat pilot Lt. (j.g.) Edward “Butch” O’Hare was credited with spoiling a Japanese bomber attack on USS Lexington (CV-2), then one-third of the Pacific Fleet’s aircraft carriers.
The most vivid examples arose during the Battle of Midway. Two Enterprise (CV-6) SBD pilots exerted influence far beyond their personal achievements. During the Big E’s lengthy search-strike on the morning of June 4, Lt. Cmdr. Wade McClusky’s leadership placed two Dauntless squadrons overhead of the Japanese carrier force. Had he guessed wrong at Adm. Nagumo’s location, the battle may well have been lost.
Leading Bombing Squadron Six was Lt. Richard H. Best, who personally inflicted the mortal blow on Akagi, the Japanese flagship. In the fatal afternoon attack on Hiryū, the last remaining enemy flattop, Best scored another hit—one of two known pilots to do so that day.
Off Guadalcanal in October, a determined Enterprise scout pilot made a difference. Lt. Stockton B. Strong searched far beyond his assigned sector. He led his wingman down on the Japanese carrier Ryūjō, with two hits knocking her out of the battle.
In the same engagement, Lt. Keiichi Arima, a Shōkaku D3A “Val” pilot, scored a hit on Enterprise. Two months before, at Eastern Solomons, he had also struck the Big E, knocking her out of action—an unequalled record. Perhaps more remarkably, he survived the war.
Thus, dive-bomber pilots were the individuals best positioned to determine the outcome of battles, which, in turn, affected the course of the war. Their unique contributions reflected the nature of WW II combat, in which massed formations of heavy bombers, phalanxes of tanks, and ships with 200 to 3,000 men required teamwork. The scout-bomber pilot, with his radioman-gunner, was a warrior unique to his place and time, probably never to be repeated.
The Mustang proved to be the deal breaker of WW II because it had the magic combination of speed, range, firepower, and maneuverability. (Photo courtesy of Stan Piet)
The Bf 109 had barely half an hour of combat time due to fuel limitations, but it arrived over England in big numbers. (Photo by John Dibbs/planepicture.com)