Page 1 of 1

SBD Dauntless Pilot at the Battle Of Midway.

Posted: Tue Jan 09, 2007 2:32 pm
by Reggie
Milford Merrill was one of the Dauntless pilots that attacked and destroyed the Japanese Navy carriers at the Battle of Midway - which is of course in the minds of many the turning point of the Pacific War, this was the first severe mauling that the Japanese Navy received at the hands of the Americans and has been immortalised in many ways since. This is an interesting interview to hear about it first hand - including the screw ups and the fact that the Dauntlesses were attacked by friendly aircraft as well as enemy aircraft during the battle. Read on and enjoy. All credit to Military History Magazine. :salute: :D



The Battle of Midway, June 7,1942, is considered one of the turning points of World War II. It was a battle that could easily have gone either way. Although the United States won, the margin of victory could be measured in minutes. The scorecard after the battle showed the United States lost one carrier and a destroyer and fewer than 200 aircraft, while the Japanese lost four carriers and a heavy cruiser, along with all their aircraft and most of their pilots. The results of the battle destroyed the margin of naval superiority the Japanese had held since the beginning of the war. Midway, which allowed America to scrap its purely defensive strategy, was the first major Japanese naval defeat since their defeat by Korean Yi Sun Sin at the end of the 16th century.

U.S. Navy Commander Milford Austin Merrill earned the Navy Cross as a Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber pilot during the Battle of Midway. Now retired after 24 years of service, Merrill was interviewed for Military History by Ed McCaul.

Military History: When did you first get into flying?

Merrill: I was always interested in flying. About two years before we entered World War II it was realized that this country should build up a reservoir of trained pilots. Therefore, the government instituted a Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) in various colleges throughout the country. I became involved in the program while doing undergraduate work at Long Beach Junior College in California. The intent was to take us through the private pilot training phase of flight school, followed by advanced training for some. I was one of the ones selected from Long Beach to attend the advanced training. This included proficiency in acrobatic flying and additional cross-country flying, and we ended up with a limited commercial license. At that time you had to have a minimum of 200 hours before you could apply for a commercial license or carry passengers for hire. This was during the last days of the Depression, and it was very difficult to find the money to pay for additional lessons after completing the advanced phases of the CPTP pilot training program. The limited commercial license made it possible for us to acquire additional experience by flying for flying schools or services that might need an aircraft part for pick-up at some destination. We would fly to the location, get the part and receive credit for the flying hours. After I had completed the initial training, a friend suggested that we go take a physical examination for Navy flight training at the nearby Navy Reserve air base in Long Beach. So we took the Navy's physical first, and my friend went on and took the Army Air Corps' physical. Shortly thereafter, I received a call to appear before a selection board.. .with a group of about 40. Within two months I started flight training as a potential naval aviator at the Long Beach base.

MH: When did this happen?

Merrill: In November 1940. We went through a vigorous ground and flight training. Then, they selected a group to go on to Pensacola [Florida]. Within a few weeks we were on our way to Pensacola. There we went through additional ground and flight school programs leading to our designation as naval aviators.

MH: What was the washout rate?

Merrill: I don't recall. But shortly after we first got there, they told us when we were in formation to take a look to the left and right of us, and within six months one of us would not be there. We knew that as cadets we had to toe the mark. They gave us training on many different types of aircraft. We were trained for aircraft carriers, flying boats and catapult aircraft, which were still Curtiss biplanes at that time. I was interested in carrier aviation because I had seen the carriers off the coast of southern California. Toward the end of flight school we flew various types of carrier aircraft - dive bombers, fighters, torpedo planes and scout planes. It was at this time I requested carrier aircraft duty and was assigned to Bombing Squadron 3, one of the four squadrons of Air Group 3 from the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga. We were Bombing Squadron 3 of Air Group 3 because USS Saratoga, CV3, was the third aircraft carrier built. Langley was CV1, Lexington was CV2, Ranger CV4, Yorktown CV5, Enterprise CV6, Wasp CV7, and Hornet CV8. These were the carriers available when World War II started. With the exception of a few short periods, I was with Bombing 3 all during my tour of duty in the Pacific.

MH: How long did it take you to get your naval wings after you entered flight school?

Merrill: I already had around 100 hours of flight training when I entered flight training in the fall of 1940, and I graduated on July 7, 1941. Each air group at that time consisted of four squadrons: one fighter, one torpedo and two scout bombing squadrons.

MH: Where were you when Pearl Harbor

Merrill: Saratoga was tied up at the carrier pier at North Island Naval Air Station, having just returned to San Diego from the Hawaiian Island area. I had not been aboard her on that cruise because I was not yet qualified for carrier landings. So, those of us not yet qualified were left behind to go through aircraft carrier qualifications at San Diego and Miramar. Shortly after Saratoga arrived in the islands, Lexington returned to San Diego for a brief stay. Those of us in carrier qualification training flew out to sea to meet her and do our first real carrier landing. Her air groups had taken off and flown to the naval air station while we headed out. We had to make five satisfactory full-stop landings onto Lexington. After each landing, we had to wait until everybody else had landed. Then we would take off and do it again. After we qualified, we flew back to shore. Lexington left San Diego, and Saratoga came back sometime in November '41. December 7 was a working day for us. We were going to shove off the next morning around 0800 hours. We were to fly out as a group after the ship had departed, rendezvous with her and land on board. About 1045 in the morning, if I remember correctly, one of our pilots walked into the ready room and said, "Hey, guys, the Japs are bombing Pearl Harbor!" Shortly afterward, the call came out for the squadron commanders to go up to the administration building where at that time, if memory serves me correctly, the commander, Aircraft Pacific Fleet, had his headquarters.

When they came back, the word was that we were not going to fly out and rendezvous with the carrier, we were going to taxi our aircraft down to the pier and be loaded onto the carrier there. I surmised that there was a possibility that long-range Japanese submarines could be waiting off the coast as part of their overall plan, and we did not want the carrier to be a sitting duck steaming into the wind recovering aircraft. So, we headed out to Pearl Harbor and conducted our normal anti-submarine and other patrols on the way there. When we got close to Pearl, all the air groups except those on patrol took off and flew into Pearl Harbor. We had to fly single file and on a north-westerly heading, then along the beach off Waikiki to Pearl Harbor. My first view of Pearl Harbor was when I turned onto my final approach; it was a mess.

MH: When did you arrive at Pearl Harbor?

Merrill: Approximately five or six days after we left San Diego. So, it would have been around the 12th. I remember that we were at sea when President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt made his famous "Day of Infamy" speech. Following our arrival we conducted carrier search probes, including an attempt to get relief to the men on Wake Island.

MH: Was Midway the first action you saw?

Merrill: No. When we were returning to Pearl after one of our missions, we were torpedoed on the starboard side. At that time dry docking at Pearl was limited, so following temporary repairs, Saratoga departed for the West Coast and permanent repairs. Our scouting squadron remained with her to carry out the necessary security patrols on the way to the West Coast. Shortly thereafter Enterprise arrived in the area from a patrol, and they were looking for volunteers to replace the losses they had suffered in the Marshall/Gilbert [Islands] raids. Some of us volunteered as "fillers" for her next cruise, including my carrier roommate and me. Soon afterward, Enterprise made the first retaliatory raid on Wake Island, followed by a raid on the Japanese-held Marcus Island before returning to Pearl. I did a crazy stunt during that raid. When I made my dive, I did not like it. So, I did not release my bomb and pulled up and went back up by myself to make another dive from 10,000 feet. It was crazy. On my way back to the ship I saw a couple of other planes who were shooting up a Japanese patrol boat. So, I assisted them. In the meantime, the folks at the carrier were wondering what had happened to us. They did not know if we had been shot down or what. So there we were, three ensigns delaying the departure of the ship from enemy waters. When we landed, the first thing they did was to ask us where we had been. So, we told our story. Well, I never saw anything bad in my records. My squadron commander did take me aside and told me the potential hazard in which we had put the ship. We probably did not get into trouble over it because they did not want to discourage enthusiasm and initiative on the part of the junior officers. When I look back on it now I say, "Merrill, how stupid could you have been!"

The cruiser Mikuma sunk by Dauntless dive-bombers at Midway

MH: Do you have any other memories of the Marcus Island raid?

Merrill: Marcus Island was a predawn raid. All I can say about predawn is that while it may be predawn at 20,000 feet it's still dark on the ground. The tracer rounds looked like streams of fire coming up at the aircraft. I remember cracking my hood to get a better view and all of a sudden my goggles flew up and tugged in the wind until the hold-down straps broke. I thought my goggles were going to pull me out of the plane, the pull was that strong.

MH: What happened after you got back to Pearl?

Merrill: Upon arrival at Pearl, we rejoined Bombing Squadron 3. Soon afterward Bombing 3 flew aboard Enterprise as temporary replacements for one of her squadrons for her next cruise. After we had departed, we were told that we were going to rendezvous with Hornet but that was all they told us at the time. Early one morning, after we had launched the combat patrol and the search aircraft, I was sitting on the flight deck with another pilot, resting after exercising, when Hornet appeared on the horizon. As we got closer to her I thought: "What in heaven's name does she have on the flight deck? It can't be [North American] B-25 bombers!" Sometime shortly after that there was a general announcement that we had rendezvoused with Hornet with the intention of proceeding to a certain point off the coast of Japan and launching the B-25s for a raid on the Japanese homeland. One of my classmates from flight school happened to be in an Enterprise SBD [Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless] squadron, and he was one of the pilots who made unexpected contact with Japanese fishing boats. They got the warning message back to us by dropping a beanbag message onto Enterprise. On the planes we had gray canvas bags full of beans, with big streamers, and in the back end would be a pouch. We would quarter across the ship almost forward of the port quarter, flying very slowly across the bow, and drop the message on the deck. We used beanbags regularly because we always operated under radio silence, and the radio switches would be wired down. This was done not because they did not trust us - we knew that no one would answer us anyway - but to prevent an accident.

I returned from a long-range search and when I walked into the ready room, I learned that due to the possibility of detection, the B-25s might be launched earlier than planned. Also, some aircraft from Enterprise Bombing 6 and three of us from Bombing 3 would fly over to Hornet and land aboard her immediately after the B-25 launch. They were sending us to help augment Hornet's anti-submarine and search patrol operation on the return trip to Pearl. We were launched so that we would be ready to land on Hornet as soon as the last B-25 took off. I can remember flying upwind along the starboard side of Enterprise when Hornet started to launch the B-25s. I got to see [Lt. Col. James H.] Doolittle take off and take that dip below the flight deck. As soon as the bombers took off, we landed. While returning to Pearl, we received word of the Battle of the Coral Sea. After arriving, we learned that Air Group 3 would go aboard Yorktown, to give her squadrons some rest, after some repairs had been made to the ship. The shipyard worked around the clock to get Yorktown ready. Still, when I landed on her, I they still had a big steel plate covering one of the bomb holes in her flight deck.

MH: You mentioned communicating between aircraft. But if you were on radio silence, how did you do it?

Merrill: Our radiomen/gunners were terrific in that they could communicate aircraft to aircraft using Morse code hand signals. We did not have any problem when we were flying in formation.

MH: What happened to you at Midway?

Merrill: On the morning of June 4,1942, information was received in the ready room that contact had been made with the Japanese forces and that Enterprise and Hornet were launching an attack. Yorktown would rearm and refuel our returning scouts and then launch our air group as rapidly as possible. This caused us to be a little behind the air groups from Enterprise and Hornet. Fortunately, we made contact with a different part of the Japanese fleet than the other air groups did, and within a few minutes of them also. Our air group attacked the Japanese aircraft carrier Soryu. You have to remember, though, that we did not know it was Soryu at the time.

MH: What was your position in the attack?

Merrill: I was in the last section, aircraft No. 17 with section leader No. 16; No. 18 had no been able to launch. By the time we were in attack position, my section leader signaled to us that we should attack other ships since Soryu had already been hit two more times and was starting to burn. He signaled us to go for a nearby cruiser. Unfortunately it looked like we did not hit her. A dive bomber group performs like a ballet troupe. If you commence an attack from 16,000 feet, it is quite conceivable to have 18 aircraft all diving at the same time on the same target. You attack in a line astern formation, corkscrew fashion, and rendezvous in formation about 50 feet off the water immediately after the attack, for mutual protection against enemy fighters. That way every aircraft's rear twin .30 caliber machineguns can provide maximum protection. Since we broke away from the group to attack the cruiser, my gunner and I lost the defensive advantage. When I tried to rendezvous with our group, we had to run the gauntlet of fire from the Japanese ships. About this time we were looking for any American aircraft to join - any port in a storm! We joined up with some Enterprise aircraft very casually because I did not want them to think that we were Japanese. We flew with them until we got close to the fleet, then their group leader waved us off and we went on over to Yorktown. However, I was very certain to make my recognition turns carefully so that we would not be fired upon. I had received the signal to prepare to land from Yorktown and had just turned onto my base leg, with one SBD dive bomber ahead of me, when Yorktown came on the air and said, "Stand clear, we are about to undergo an air attack!"

MH: That must have been a tense moment.

Merrill: It was the first time in the war that I had heard a ship break radio silence. They did not have to say anything else. We knew that we were to form a combat air patrol against incoming Japanese aircraft. Remember, we had two forward-firing .50-caliber machine guns and were quite capable of air-to-air combat. The U.S. dive bomber ahead of me had just made a turn to the port side and was raising his landing wheels and flaps up again when the anti-aircraft batteries started firing. I remember looking up and seeing these Japanese [Aichi D3A] Vals getting ready to make their dive-bombing attack. A couple of our fighter planes went racing overhead to intercept them. A few seconds later, the first bomb hit Yorktown right after we had pulled clear and re-formed. We were probably about a mile away by then. The group of planes we were with got attacked by one of our own fighters. I remember someone yelling over the radio, "See our white stars!" You have to remember, though, about that time you had aircraft everywhere and the fighters were desperately trying to protect Yorktown. After the attack, we landed aboard Enterprise. As we had a quick lunch and some coffee they counted noses, and we ended up with some 24 flyable SBDs aboard Enterprise. The torpedo planes had taken a beating. In the meantime, contact had been made again with Hiryu, the remaining Japanese carrier. We were rearmed with 1,000-pound bombs and were ready to go. We asked about fighter cover and were told: "Sorry, we need what fighters we have to provide cover for the task force. We cannot afford to give you any fighter cover. You're on your own." We took off and headed for the Japs at about 16,000 feet. All the aircraft were dive bombers, as there were too few torpedo planes left to make an attack.

MH: How big would a carrier look from 16,000 feet?

Merrill: Maybe about one to two inches long. But they would get big in a hurry when you started down. Remember, our angle of dive would be about 60 degrees. We would reach a terminal velocity with a 1,000 pound bomb, which was our normal load, of about 260 knots with extended dive flaps.

MH: At 16,000 feet, could you say, "that is a carrier, that is a battleship, or that is a cruiser"?

Merrill: You could pretty much tell what type of ship it was by its relative size, formation position, apparent shape and the size of its wake.

MH: What happened when you found the enemy fleet?

Merrill: We encountered Japanese fighters as we neared the carrier, and they shot down one of our planes. We were being led by an officer off Enterprise, as our skipper had been forced to make a water landing. He and one of his wingmen had run out of gas after the Japanese attack on Yorktown. We were ready to fly over to Enterprise and land when a torpedo plane from one of our squadrons ditched because he had run out of fuel. Our skipper and his wingman stayed there to make sure that the men were picked up. Unluckily, they ran out of fuel in the process and had to be picked up, too. Hence, the senior officer was from Enterprise. It was an unusual attack in that we were coming in from one direction and the planes from Enterprise were coming in from another. One guy said later that if that had happened during training in Pensacola the flight instructors would have torn our heads off.

MH: How did your attack go?

Merrill: Hiryu was hit three or four times, and very soon flames and black smoke were coming from the forward part of the carrier. I had a very good dive and I released my bomb into the smoke and flames.

MH: How close were you when you released?

Merrill: About 1,800 feet indicated on your altimeter. After you released your bomb you would start making a gradual pull and trying to see if you had made a hit. You would get your dive flaps up and fly low over s the water so enemy fighters could not get under you. My aircraft was attacked by some Japanese fighters, and we suffered some damage to the aircraft.

MH: What happened to you during the second and third days of the battle?

Merrill: The 5th and 6th of June were spent seeking, finding and attacking fleeing Japanese ships.

MH: Did you ever meet the American fighter pilot who had accidentally attacked your group?

Merrill: Yes, a few days later back at Pearl when we were relaxing. He came over and apologized most profusely.

MH: What other actions were you involved in during the war?

Merrill: Shortly after Midway we went south for the landings at Guadalcanal. This time we were back on Saratoga. Unluckily, we were torpedoed again in August 1942 and returned to Pearl Harbor for more patch work. Upon completion of the repairs we returned to the Solomon Islands area sometime around July 1943. Bombing Squadron 3 pilots who had been in the Pacific area since December 7,1941, returned to California for further assignment. I received orders to become a carrier aircraft flight instructor. When I was scheduled to return to fleet duty I received instructions in flying large seaplanes and large, four-engine, land-based patrol/attack type aircraft. At the end of the war I was a pilot in a Navy "Privateer" four-engine patrol squadron. The aircraft were designed and equipped.. .to conduct anti-shipping attacks just like the "privateer" sailing ships of long ago. We were on the West Coast ready to fly the aircraft out when the atomic bomb was dropped. It was decided that they did no need more aircraft in the western Pacific, but did need replacement crews. So, we went on out to the Philippine Islands.

MH: What happened to you when the war was over?

Merrill: I remained on active duty for many enjoyable and interesting years with a well-rounded Navy career, eventually retiring.

Posted: Tue Jan 09, 2007 3:12 pm
by Tigertooo
aha, a new one... great :P

Posted: Tue Jan 09, 2007 3:51 pm
by Mothyp
nice read, oh grass skirted one!

Posted: Tue Jan 09, 2007 5:40 pm
by Prangster
Thanks Reggie, great read! :D

Posted: Thu Jan 11, 2007 3:45 pm
by Bunny
Cheers Reggie, nice to see another one in the list. Thanks