The Strate­gic Shoot­ers

Flight Journal - - FEATURES -

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)

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