On 30 May 1942, on Eastern Island at Midway Atoll, Captain Richard Eugene Fleming, U. S. Marine Corps Reserve, wrote to his girl back home. From the tenor of the letter, it was apparent that the 24-year-old Fleming did not expect to survive the battle that lay ahead. “Letters like this should not be morbid nor maudlin,” he wrote, “suffice it to say that I’ve been prepared for this rendezvous for some time . . . this is something that comes once for all of us; we can only bow before it.” He then tenderly wrote his good-bye.1
Aware that a Japanese armada was bearing down upon Midway, Dick matter-of-factly talked shop with his fellow pilots in Marine Scout Bombing Squadron (VMSB) 241 about the possibilities of dive- bombing Japanese ships. He appeared eager to fly into combat.
As Japanese aircraft approached Midway, VMSB-241 —16 Douglas SBD-2s and 11 Vought SB2U-3s— scrambled at about 0610 on 4 June. The two American groups rendezvoused 20 miles from the island and divided into two attack units, the SBD-2s under Major Lofton R. Henderson, USMC, the squadron commanding officer, and the SB2U-3s under Major Benjamin W. Norris, USMC, the squadron executive officer. Fleming flew in Henderson’s division. Both unit leaders soon received and acknowledged instructions, by radio, to attack an enemy carrier bearing 325°, 180 miles distant on course 135°. Henderson set course to intercept the carrier, Norris to intercept the task force.2
The SBD group soon sighted its quarry, the Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu. Henderson, knowing the relative inexperience of his pilots, opted for glide-bombing, rather than dive-bombing, and had the group climb to 4,000 feet to commence the attack. As the Marines began to let down, however, the Hiryu's combat air patrol, composed of Mitsubishi A6M2 Type 00 carrier fighters (Zeroes) set upon them; their first victim was Henderson, who went down in flames after two passes. (Two months later, the airfield at Guadalcanal would be named in his honor.)
With Henderson gone, Fleming assumed the lead of the division. He pressed home his attack, through a storm of antiaircraft fire and a swarm of Zeroes, releasing his bomb at the Hiryu and pulling out at just 400 feet.3 Corporal Eugene T. Card, USMCR, Fleming’s wounded radio-gunner, tried to keep the Zeroes at bay, while Fleming masterfully took the SBD-2 close to the water and kept jinking to keep the fighters off balance. After a 20-mile chase, the Japanese tired of the sport. With his “instruments ... a mess and the compass . . . gone,” Fleming told his radio-gunner, “We may have to sniff our way home.”4 Fleming joined up with Captain Elmer G. Glidden, USMCR, on the way back, and eventually reached Midway, their navigation helped immeasurably by the pillars of smoke from the burning fuel tanks on the island.
Making a fine three-point landing and holding the plane straight on the strip in spite of a flat left tire, Fleming turned the SBD-2 off the runway and stopped. As the ground crew rushed up, Fleming climbed out and announced “Boys, there is one ride I am glad is over.” Their SBD-2 had been holed 179 times.5 *Although the Marines had not scored any hits on the Hiryu, they had kept the Japanese off balance and paved the way for later strikes by carrier-based dive-bombers.
VMSB-241 had suffered heavily that morning, but more work remained to be done. On the evening of the fourth, the report of a burning carrier (the Hiryu) prompted the dispatch of the remainder of the squadron to seek out and destroy that ship. Taking off at 1900, the squadron, divided into two units (SBD-2s under Captain Marshall A. Tyler and SB2U-3s under Major Norris, who had succeeded Henderson) and proceeded out 200 miles into the black night. Finding no trace of the enemy, the squadron turned and headed back to Midway through heavy squalls and beneath a low cloud ceiling. During the return flight. Major Norris became disoriented, lost altitude, and flew into the water.
The following morning, reconnaissance reports disclosed the location of the crippled Japanese cruisers Mogami and Mikuma, and again prompted the dispatch of VMSB-241. The Marines took off at 0700, one unit (SBD-2s) led by Tyler (the third VMSB-241 skipper in two days), and the other (SB2U-3s) led by Fleming, who had had less than four hours’ sleep.
Tyler’s unit commenced the attack with dive-bombing runs on the two ships; Fleming’s followed with a glide-bombing run. With heavy antiaircraft fire spattering the sky, Fleming kept his Vindicator steady and released his bomb, resulting in a near-miss. Fleming’s plane then burst into flames as the pilot tried to pull out of the dive. An airman in the group swore that he saw two parachutes soon thereafter, but if Fleming and his radio-gunner, Private First Class George A. Toms, did bail out, they were never recovered.
Dick Fleming died pressing home an attack on an enemy ship. While it appears that he did not score a direct hit on his objective, that in no way diminishes the qualities of heroism and devotion to duty that earned him a posthumous Medal of Honor, the first Marine pilot to be so decorated in World War II.
1. Letter, Captain R. E. Fleming, USMCR, to Peggy Crooks, 30 May 1942. Copy provided to author by Colonel Ward Fleming, USAFR, the late Captain Fleming’s brother, in 1981.
2. FN1 VMSB-214 War Diary.
3. Captain Richard E. Fleming, Medal of Honor citation. An account of this action is contained in John B. Lundstrom, The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1984), pages 337-338.
4. FN1 Sergeant Eugene T. Card, USMC, “A Rear Seat in the Battle of Midway Island,” unpub. mss., a copy of which was provided to the author.