Mitscher and the Mystery of Midway

By Craig L. Symonds

On 28 May 1942, the Hornet left Pearl Harbor in company with her sister ship, the Enterprise (CV-6), for a rendezvous nearly 1,500 miles to the north, a location optimistically code-named Point Luck. Cryptanalysts under Commander Joseph Rochefort, working in the dark, air-conditioned basement of the 14th Naval District headquarters in Honolulu, had determined that the Japanese were embarking on a major operation to seize the two-island atoll of Midway, and Admiral Chester Nimitz had decided to send his carrier force there in the hope of springing an ambush.

An Incorrect Assumption

The crucial role of the code-breakers in the Battle of Midway is well known—often even overstated. Some students of the battle have asserted that Rochefort and his colleagues were able to provide Nimitz and the other senior American planners with a copy of the Japanese order of battle. That, however, was not the case, which is particularly important in assessing the role of the Hornet air group in the subsequent battle. While Nimitz did know that the Japanese were sending four carriers—plus supports and escorts—to attack Midway, the available intelligence did not tell him how the Japanese would deploy those four carriers—a point to bear in mind. We know now, of course, that all four ships operated together as a single task force—the Mobile Striking Force, or Kido Butai . But at the time, Nimitz and the other key decision-makers assumed that the Japanese would operate their four carriers in two separate groups. 2

The source of that assumption is unclear, but it may well be something as simple as a case of mirror-imaging: The United States operated its three carriers in two task forces (TF 16 and TF 17), so it perhaps seemed quite likely to the Americans that the Japanese would do the same. Evidence of this assumption is in Nimitz’s initial orders to the task-force commanders and the commanders on Midway. In those orders, Nimitz suggested that “one or more [of the enemy] carriers may take up close-in daylight positions” for the attack on Midway, while “additional carrier groups” operated against American surface forces. In the briefing that Mitscher’s intelligence officer, Lieutenant Stephen Jurika, gave to the pilots on board the Hornet the night before the battle, Jurika told them “there were at least two carriers, two battleships, several cruisers and about five destroyers in the attack force which would attempt to take Midway” and that “the support force some distance behind contained the rest of their forces.” 3

Those assumptions were reinforced at 0603 on 4 June when a PBY Catalina out of Midway reported the first sighting of the enemy: two carriers and two battleships, 180 miles north of the atoll. Two carriers! Where were the others? Forty-five minutes later, Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, the senior American officer afloat, sent a message (which Mitscher monitored) to the commander of TF 16, Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, to remind him: “Two carriers [are] unaccounted for.” 4 It is important to remember those assumptions in considering what happened next.

A Curious Lack of Documents

At 0705, the Hornet and Enterprise began launching aircraft. The Yorktown (CV-5)—the third U.S. carrier at Point Luck—held her strike force back to await further news, presumably information about those “missing” two carriers. By 0800 all the planes from the Enterprise and Hornet were aloft. The Enterprise planes flew to the southwest on a bearing of approximately 239 degrees True, toward the coordinates sent in by the PBY two hours earlier.

But what about the Hornet ’s planes? Which way did they go? That turns out to be a complicated question.

For starters, there is a gaping hole in the official record concerning the activities of the Hornet ’s air group on 4 June. Though all unit commanders were required to submit official written reports after each action, there is only one official report from the Hornet , written by—or at least signed by—Pete Mitscher. Stamped “Secret” and dated 13 June 1942, it is sufficiently detailed in its description of events, but it is not accompanied by a group commander’s report or reports from any of the squadron commanders. The absence of a report from the torpedo squadron (VT-8) is easily explained: Torpedo Eight from the Hornet was wiped out in its attack on the Kido Butai that morning; only one pilot survived, Ensign George Gay. Though he was debriefed, and much later wrote a personal memoir, Gay never wrote an after-action report. There is no explanation, however, for the absence of reports from any of the three other squadrons.

In the one report that does exist—Mitscher’s—he asserts that “The objective, enemy carriers, was calculated to be 155 miles distant, bearing 239° T[rue] from this Task Force; one division of 10 VF [fighters], Squadron Commander in charge, was sent with 35 VSB [bombers] and 15 VTB [torpedo planes].” It is noteworthy that Mitscher uses the passive voice: The range and course bearing “was calculated”—by whom he does not say. Similarly, the strike force “was sent” and while he does not specifically say that it was sent on that bearing of 239 degrees, that is certainly implied. (Of course, passive voice was—and is—common in Navy parlance. Even today, officers do not make requests, instead their chits read: “It is requested that. . .”—as if the request existed independently of the author.)

Mitscher’s 13 June report continues: “They [the pilots] were unable to locate the enemy and landed on board at 1727.” Mitscher explains this by noting “about one hour after the planes had departed the enemy reversed his course and started his retirement.” And it is true that the Kido Butai turned from the southeast to the northeast at 0917 that day. As a result of that turn, Mitscher writes, the American pilots failed to spot the enemy and eventually returned to the carrier—those who could. Mitscher even included a map in his official report showing the air group flying on the 239-degrees-True course and missing the Japanese carriers because they had turned north. 5

(Most) Pilots Tell a Different Story

For more than 50 years, students of the Battle of Midway took Mitscher at his word and described the Hornet air group as missing the Japanese because the American planes flew south of the target. But, as Ronald Russell noted in his February 2006 article, unofficial evidence, mainly from postbattle interviews, memoirs, letters, and other such sources, mostly (though not exclusively) indicate that the Hornet air group had not flown to the southwest on a course of 239, but to the west—on a course of 265 degrees.

That evidence comes mostly from the pilots themselves, who, in postwar oral interviews recalled that they had flown “westerly,” as one put it, “almost due west,” according to another, or more precisely (from yet another), “at 265 degrees.” When one pilot, Troy Guillory, initially said that the air group flew “westerly,” his interviewer suggested that he must be mistaken, that the course was to the southwest, at 239 degrees. No, said Guillory. “We went the wrong way to start with”—and pointing to the chart—“to the 265 line.” Ensign Ben Tappan stated simply, “We were going west.” The commander of the Hornet ’s scouting squadron (VS-8), Lieutenant Commander (later Rear Admiral) Walt Rodee bluntly said, “We took the bearing and the course they gave us. It was about 265. . . . It was almost due west.” Rodee did not file an after-action report, but he did make note of the course in his flight log—which he kept. Finally, the radar operator on board the Hornet recalled tracking the air group as it flew away from TF 16, and said that as far as the CXAM radar could track the air group, it had flown outbound on a course of 265 degrees. Significantly, not all the pilots agreed. Ensign Clayton Fisher, who flew as wingman for the group commander on 4 June, claimed until his death in January 2012 that the air group flew southwest on a bearing between 235 and 240 degrees. 6

Explaining the discrepancy between Mitscher’s report and the pilots’ memories is difficult. The absence of any squadron reports from the Hornet is by itself suspicious and encourages the conclusion that Mitscher’s official report may well be in error. Not surprisingly, Spruance thought so, too. In his own report on the battle, he wrote, “Where discrepancies exist between Enterprise and Hornet reports, the Enterprise report should be taken as more accurate.” That is an astonishing statement to make in an official report, and comes close to asserting that Mitscher’s report was not to be trusted. 7

A Calculated Risk

To try to resolve this mystery, it is essential to re-examine what the Americans knew—or thought they knew—about Japanese intentions that day. Remember that most of the high command—including Mitscher—believed the Japanese were operating in two carrier groups: the one that had been sighted, and a second one, which was presumed to be operating 80 to 100 miles to the rear. Mitscher knew that the planes from the Enterprise were going after the two carriers that the PBY had sighted and reported, and he may have harbored fears that even if that strike were successful the other two enemy carriers would remain untouched—and more important, that the element of surprise would be lost.

Pete Mitscher was the most senior U.S. Navy aviation officer afloat that day. Rear Admiral Bill Halsey, an aviator who was supposed to have commanded at Midway, was in the hospital. Captain George Murray, commander of the Enterprise , was Naval Aviator No. 22, and Spruance had designated him as tactical air officer for the strike. But Mitscher, who was Naval Aviator No. 33, had been selected for promotion to rear admiral, and his staff already was referring to him as “Admiral Mitscher.” In Halsey’s absence, Fletcher was the senior officer afloat, but neither he nor Spruance were aviators. It is easy to imagine that, in Mitscher’s mind, it was up to him to ensure the proper coordination of the air strikes.

Mitscher knew there would be only one chance to effect surprise, and that once surprise was lost, the battle would become a toss-up. If the Enterprise planes succeeded in surprising and sinking the two enemy flattops at the known coordinates, it is entirely reasonable to assume that Mitscher may have calculated the best use of the Hornet ’s air group was to find and sink the two carriers that had not yet been sighted—but which presumably were operating 80 to 100 miles behind the other Japanese ships. In consideration of those factors, Mitscher may have told his air group leader, Commander Stanhope Ring, to take the entire air group to a position 80 miles behind the leading Japanese carriers. If one calculates that bearing from the Hornet’s position that morning, it turns out to be about 265 degrees.

If that is what happened, Mitscher apparently did not share the revised objective with any of the four squadron commanders—just with group commander Ring. That would explain why the commander of Torpedo Eight, Lieutenant Commander John Waldron, was so surprised—and then angry—when he was told the course he was to fly. He knew that a course of 265 would not lead them to the coordinates he had carefully plotted in the ready room that morning based on the location of the sighted Japanese carriers.

Broken Silence, Angry Words, and a Breakup

There are no official transcripts of the radio chatter that morning because everyone was supposed to be observing radio silence. The objective, after all, was surprise. But years later, many of the air-group pilots recalled what they heard being transmitted, and their memories are revealing.

After the Hornet ’s planes launched between 0700 and 0755 that morning, the bombers and fighters climbed to 20,000 feet while the torpedo planes flew almost three vertical miles below them at 1,500 feet. Though they all flew under radio silence, only about 15 minutes into the mission several of the pilots remembered John Waldron’s voice coming through their headsets: “You’re going the wrong direction for the Japanese carrier force.” Ring was furious that Waldron had broken radio silence, and equally furious to be challenged on an open radio net—in effect, in front of the entire command. The next voice on the air was Ring: “I’m leading this flight,” he snapped. “You fly with us right here.” Waldron was not intimidated. “I know where the damned Jap fleet is,” he insisted. Ring, even angrier, barked back: “You fly on us! I’m leading this formation; you fly on us.” There was a brief silence before a final rejoinder came from Waldron: “Well, the hell with you. I know where they are and I’m going to them.” Three miles below Ring, Waldron banked his plane to the left, heading southwest. His entire squadron went with him. 8

History tells us, of course, that Waldron was right. He did know where “the damned Jap fleet” was. And when he found it, his squadron was annihilated in a futile and hopeless attack against overwhelming odds. But meantime, what was happening with the rest of the Hornet air group? A half hour after Waldron departed, the Wildcat fighters accompanying the strike force began to run low on fuel and they, too, abandoned the mission, flying back toward the Hornet on a reciprocal course. None made it, for they had waited too long and failed to find the task force. All of them ran out of fuel and ditched in the ocean. Two pilots lost their lives.

Soon after the departure of the fighters, some pilots in the bombing squadron (VB-8) recalled hearing another broadcast from Waldron: “Stanhope from Johnny One. Stanhope from Johnny One.” There was no reply, but there were more messages from Waldron: “Watch those fighters!” and “My two wing men are going in the water.” 9 It was evident now that Waldron had indeed found the Kido Butai . Soon after that, the planes from the Hornet ’s bomber squadron, led by their CO, Lieutenant Commander Ruff Johnson, peeled off from the formation and turned south. Ring broke radio silence in an attempt to recall them, but they continued on, partly to look for the Japanese, partly to see if they could make it to Midway’s airfield because Johnson doubted that his pilots had enough fuel left to make it all the way back to the Hornet . Eleven of them eventually landed on Midway; three went into the water out of fuel; and three managed to reach the Hornet .

Ring continued to fly west, now with just the scout bombers still in company. At 225 miles out—nearly 100 miles beyond the calculated range to the target—the scout bombers, too, left, low on fuel. Astonishingly, for a few brief moments Ring flew on by himself. Very soon, however, he gave up and turned. He flew back toward the Hornet completely alone—abandoned by his entire command. In the day’s final tally, just 20 of the 59 airplanes that took off from Hornet that morning returned. Not one of them had dropped a bomb on an enemy ship.

The Case for Fudging an After-Action Report

The episode has gone down in the history of the Battle of Midway as “the flight to nowhere.” As Mitscher noted laconically in his official report, “None of Scouting Eight or Bombing Eight made contact with the enemy.” That much of Mitscher’s report, at least, is true enough. But if the recollections of the pilots are accurate, much of the rest of his report is not. So we are still left with the puzzle of why Mitscher recounted a dramatically different story in his report. 10 It can’t be known for certain, but a very plausible explanation is that three considerations influenced Mitscher.

First, by the time Mitscher sat down to write that report nine days later, he knew that all four Japanese carriers had been operating as a unit, so that if he had, in fact, made an independent decision to send the entire air group to look for two of them elsewhere, that decision would now be revealed as—at the least—unwise. Second, by then Mitscher also knew most of the details of the several mutinous actions of the squadron commanders who, one by one, had defied orders and abandoned the group commander. If all that were reported officially, Mitscher would almost certainly have to file court-martial papers against each of them. Disobeying orders during a war patrol, after all, is mutiny.

Finally (and this may have been decisive) by 13 June when Mitscher wrote his report, it was very clear that the Americans had won an overwhelming victory at Midway—indeed, the greatest triumph in U.S. naval history. It simply would not do, then, to sully that achievement with a raft of posthumous courts-martial against men such as Waldron. So instead of filing mutiny charges, Mitscher wrote this: “Torpedo Eight, led by Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron, U.S.N., was lost in its entirety. This squadron flew at 100 knots below the clouds while the remainder of the group flew at 110 knots climbing to 19,000 feet. Lieutenant Commander Waldron, a highly aggressive officer, leading a well-trained squadron, found his target and attacked. . . . This squadron is deserving of the highest honors for finding the enemy, pressing home its attack, without fighter protection and without diverting dive bomber attacks to draw the enemy fire.” 11

So Waldron was not a mutineer—he was a hero. Mitscher may well have asked himself what was to be gained by submitting a report that attacked the memory of the martyred Waldron or filing court-martial papers against any of the other squadron commanders. So instead Mitscher recommended all of them for medals, told those squadron commanders who had survived not to file reports, and submitted what he knew to be a false report.

Is that what happened? The best answer a responsible historian can offer now, 70 years later, is “probably.” The historical quest is never-ending, however, and it is not impossible that one day additional material will come to light that will help explain further the enigma of the so-called flight to nowhere. In the meantime, how do we assess the actions and decisions of Marc Mitscher at Midway? Here was the man who, over the next three years, would command the Fast Carrier Task Force that led the American drive across the Pacific to Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, and became known as “The Magnificent Mitscher.” Should that assessment be modified based on the likelihood that he knowingly filed a false report about the Battle of Midway? Or given the circumstances of 13 June 1942, was his decision to gundeck the story of the flight to nowhere a reasonable one?



1. Ronald Russell, “Changing Course: The Hornet ’s Air Group at Midway,” Naval History , February 2006, pp. 48–53.

2. For a discussion of this see Appendix E (pp. 387–88) in Craig L. Symonds, The Battle of Midway (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

3. Nimitz to Commander Striking Force, 28 May 1942, Action Reports microfilm, reel 3, p. 3. The passage from Jurika’s intelligence briefing is from the diary of E. T. “Smokey” Stover in Stover and Clark Reynolds, The Saga of Smokey Stover (Charleston, SC: Tradd Street Press, 1978), p. 29 (diary entry of 7 June).

4. Fletcher’s message to Spruance is in John B. Lundstrom, Black Shoe Carrier Admiral: Frank Jack Fletcher at Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2006), p. 248.

5. Mitscher to Nimitz, 13 June 1942, Action Reports microfilm, reel 3. Also available at www.history.navy.mil/docs/wwii/mid5.htm .

6. These interviews, conducted by Bowen Weisheit, are collected in the bound volume “The Battle of Midway: Transcripts of Recorded Interviews,” Nimitz Library, U.S. Naval Academy. Weisheit’s conclusions are in his book, The Last Flight of Ensign C. Markland Kelly, Jr. (Baltimore: Ensign C. Markland Kelly Memorial Foundation, 1993).

7. Spruance to Nimitz, 16 June 1942, Action Reports microfilm, reel 3. Also available at www.midway42.org/reports.html .

8. Weisheit’s interviews of Troy Guillory (14 March 1983) and Ben Tappen (1981), “Transcripts.” The last response from Waldron, as rendered here, is an amalgam of what Guillory and Tappen recalled.

9. Enclosure (H) to Hornet Serial 0018, dated 13 June 1942, by Leroy Quillen, radioman/gunner for Ensign K. B. White, in VB-8, Action Reports, reel 2. Quillen remembered the initial call as “Johnny One to Johnny Two,” but others recalled it as “Stanhope from Johnny One.”

10. Mitscher to Nimitz, 13 June 1942, op. cit.

11. Ibid.

 

 
 

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