A Vivid Memory of Midway
Commander Clayton E. Fisher, USN-Ret
by Ronald Russell
(The following post is from the Battle of Midway Roundtable and originally appeared in Veterans Biographies, distributed during the annual Battle of Midway commemoration in San Francisco, June 2006)
In September 1941, upon completion of pilot training advanced carrier training in Florida, Ensign Clayton E. Fisher was assigned to Bombing Squadron 8 (VB-8) aboard the brand new carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) at Norfolk, Virginia. The ship was placed in commission in October, and for the next few months conducted shakedown and training operations in the Atlantic and Caribbean. One day in March 1942, two Army B-25 medium bombers were mysteriously brought aboard the ship just before it got underway for an unexplained operation. The VB-8 pilots were amazed to see the two big planes take off from the carrier. Without knowing it, they had witnessed the first operational test of Lt. Col. Jimmie Doolittle’s proposal for attacking the Japanese mainland with carrier-launched B-25s.
Fisher and the rest of the Hornet’s crew got to see the real thing two months later, as Doolittle and his sixteen B-25s launched from the ship on their dramatic mission that stunned the enemy’s high command. As a direct result, Japanese Admiral Yamamoto was given the go-ahead for his expansive Midway operation, in which Fisher flew five missions as the pilot of a VB-8 SBD dive bomber.
The morning of 4 June 1942 saw the Hornet airmen’s first combat sortie. Fisher was assigned to fly wing on the air group commander, an honor that brought him a great deal of apprehension since the much-feared Japanese Zeros would seek out the group commander’s flight in any air combat. But it was not to be—only Torpedo Squadron 8 (VT-8) among the Hornet’s four squadrons made contact with the enemy carriers; the rest returned to the ship or in some cases landed in the sea due to lack of fuel.
Later that same day, VB-8 was sent with other squadrons to attack the Japanese carrier Hiryu, which had escaped the devastating strikes that morning by USS Yorktown and USS Enterprise aircraft. The Hiryu was already fatally hit by the time VB-8 arrived overhead, so the squadron dove on one of its escorting cruisers. Fisher’s 1000-pound bomb failed to release at the bottom of his dive, nearly driving his SBD into the water. As it happened, the extra weight propelled his plane through and beyond the enemy task force at an enormous speed, and he was relieved to see Japanese antiaircraft gunners firing well behind him as a result.
By the following day, June 5th, four enemy carriers had been sunk, but Admiral Spruance, was uncertain whether there might be more. While searching for additional Japanese ships, a lone destroyer, the Tanikaze, was sighted and attacked by multiple Navy squadrons as well as two flights of Army B-17s. Fisher’s bomb missed just astern of the ship, which may have been the luckiest vessel on either side in the Battle of Midway—over a hundred bombs were dropped on the elusive target with only minor damage from a near miss.
The 6th of June saw further searches for possible Japanese carriers. Two cruisers and two destroyers were found and attacked by planes from the Hornet and Enterprise as well as Marine aircraft from Midway. Fisher’s bomb missed on that sortie, but on a second flight that afternoon he got a crippling direct hit on the destroyer Arashio as it tried to screen the cruisers Mogami and Mikuma. The Mikuma sank as the result of that action, while the badly damaged Mogami and Arashio eventually made it back to port.
The Battle of Midway was finally over. By the end of the day on June 6th, Fisher was emotionally drained and physically exhausted. He had logged seventeen hours on his five combat sorties. His most vivid memory of Midway, though, was not the trauma of aerial combat. Instead, he remembers looking into the VT-8 ready room as the sun set on June 4th. What he saw was a ghostly emptiness. Instead numerous pilots reviewing the day’s battle, there were just empty seats. The only sign of the men who should have been there was their uniforms hanging on hooks, after having changed into their flight suits.