Lieutenant Commander Richard H. Best, USN

Lieutenant Commander Best was the commander of Bombing Squadron 6 from USS Enterprise at the Battle of Midway. He took part in the destruction of two Japanese fleet carriers on that historic occasion.

Lieutenant Commander Richard H. Best, USN (ret) was born and raised in New Jersey. He graduated from Annapolis Naval Academy in 1932 and earned his Wings of Gold three years later. From 1936 to 1938 he was a member of VF-2, the famous "Flying Chiefs", which was considered the most professional squadron in the Navy. Subsequently, he instructed at the Navy flight school at Pensacola, but returned to the fleet in 1940.

Best joined the Air Group of USS Enterprise (CV-6) and flew Douglas SBDs in Bomber Squadron VB-6. He served in Enterprise for the next two years. Following Pearl Harbor, he led his squadron during American hit-and-run carrier raids on the Marshall Islands, Marcus Island and Japanese-occupied Wake Island. He was in Enterprise when it covered the Doolittle raid on Japan.

"THE FAMOUS FOUR MINUTES" by R.G. SMITH

This painting depicts one of the defining moments of the Pacific War when the tide turned against the Japanese aggressors at America's Midway Islands. Lieutenant Richard H. Best and his two wingmen in their Douglas Dauntless SBD dive-bombers have just launched a successful attack on the Japanese flagship aircraft carrier Akagi. The crushing defeat inflicted on the Japanese Navy by the very much smaller United States Pacific Fleet at Midway put an end to Japan's ambition to dominate the central Pacific region, and removed the Japanese threat to Hawai.


Permission to illustrate the Pacific War Web-site with this superb painting by leading aviation artist, the late R.G. SMITH, was generously given by his daughter Mrs Sharlyn Marsh. History enthusiasts who are interested in acquiring an R.G. Smith signed aviation print or lithograph may contact Sharlyn Marsh at: Sharlynmarsh@aol.com

On 4 June 1942, Best led his squadron Bombing Six on two strikes against the aircraft carriers of Japan's powerful First Carrier Striking Force in the historic Battle of Midway. On the morning mission, when the tide of battle was turning strongly against the Americans, he sank Vice-Admiral Nagumo's flagship HIJMS Akagi with only two wingmen flying support. Later that day, when the tide of battle had swung dramatically back in America's favour, his four remaining serviceable aircraft helped to destroy the powerful fleet carrier HIJMS Hiryu.

For his actions in the Battle of Midway, Lieutenant Commander Best received the Navy Cross, the Navy's second highest award for valour after the Medal of Honor.

He describes below his role in the great battle that turned the Pacific War around.

"On 28 May 1942, the Enterprise departed Pearl Harbor in the company of Hornet and the usual cruiser and destroyer screens. I commanded Bombing Six, an eighteen plane dive-bombing squadron. The air group consisted of an Air Group Commander (AGC), a scouting squadron, a torpedo squadron and a fighter squadron. On that day there was no word of the mission, but the next morning, Admiral Spruance, who commanded the task force, held a conference in his cabin for the AGC and the four squadron commanders.

"The Japanese are planning an attack on Midway which will include occupation of the island. A preliminary feint to draw the American Navy off in the wrong direction will be an attack on the Aleutian Islands on 3 June. On 4 June, a carrier attack on Midway will start when four carriers, Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu launch from a position north-west of Midway. The Occupation Force approaching from the south-west, consisting of troopships and battleships, will arrive off Midway on 5 June. The briefing was explicit concerning the identities of the carrier, the battleship and cruiser divisions. The detail was mind boggling. To know the timing and the identity of the forces involved was stupefying enough, but how could we believe the mind-reading necessary to know the Aleutian attack was a diversionary feint?

"We steamed west to a point north-east of Midway called "Point Luck", where we were joined by Yorktown, barely patched up from the damage done her the month before in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Unlike previous ventures to the west, we flew no scouting flights in order to avoid any chance of radio interceptions in the event of plane emergencies. On 3 June, we began receiving "All Fleet Do Not Acknowledge" messages from Pearl Harbor reporting Japanese attacks in the Aleutians. Later in the day came reports from Midway of the sighting of the Occupation Force and plans for attacking them with the sighting of the Carrier Attack Force 225 miles bearing 315 degrees from Midway.

"With the AGC leading, Bombing Six and Scouting Six were launched. We circled the ship for more than an hour until we were finally ordered to proceed as the torpedo planes were launched. The torpedo planes, the Douglas TBDs, were much slower than the dive-bombers, Douglas SBD-2s and 3s. However, since the dive-bombers would climb to twenty thousand feet, it was calculated that both would reach their targets at the same time. In reality, after departure, the two groups never saw each other again.

"At fourteen thousand feet we went on oxygen, and I discovered that I had a faulty canister in the oxygen line. With only one spare, I was forced to breathe it for about five minutes, by which time it was clear of the caustic soda dust, but I was not.

"We crossed the Japanese course line a little over an hour later. Midway was abeam to port, but at 175 miles away, the only proof of its existence was the towering columns of smoke rising five miles in the air. If further proof of its location was needed, an Army Air Corps B-17 at 30, 000 feet crossing above us from starboard to port was proof enough that it was on its way back to the base. At this point we should have turned to a course of 315 degrees, but the AGC held course for another fifteen to twenty minutes. We then turned north-west, and when he spotted the rooster tail of a Japanese destroyer at high speed proceeding north-east, he paralleled the course correctly, assuming that she was rejoining the Attack Force.

"About that time, my left wingman ran out of oxygen and so informed me by hand transmitted Morse code. I started dropping down to 15, 000 feet where he could be comfortable without the use of oxygen. This put me well below and ahead of the AGC, so that when we sighted the Japanese carriers I was 5, 000 feet under him. He assigned targets by radio, which I didn't receive. When abreast of the nearest carrier, I called him to say that I was attacking according to doctrine (i.e., leading aircraft take the far target and trailing planes take the nearer targets) and thus share the surprise. I turned toward the nearest carrier (Kaga), split to either side of my second and third divisions. When nearly over the target with my division in column, I started to open my dive flaps when right in front of me, and from above, the AGC and Scouting Six came pouring in. Furious at the foul-up, I tried to cause my squadron to rejoin, but without success, and I took my first section of three planes toward the next carrier (Akagi).

"SBDS OVER AKAGI" by R.G. SMITH

This is another view of Lieutenant Richard H.Best and his wingmen immediately after they struck their
devastating blow at the powerful Japanese naval force threatening America's Midway base.

"I was at full throttle nose down so that when I approached the push over point, I was going too fast to open my dive flaps. Horsed up on the stick, I was at 14,000 feet before I slowed down sufficiently to open my flaps. With all of the violent manoeuvring, we were not detected and there was no AA fire or any other sign of awareness. We came in at a 70-degree dive angle, released at 2,000 feet, and were cocked back at a steep climb angle to observe the bombing results. The first bomb hit forward of the bridge and tore up the deck. The second bomb hit the lead fighter on the fan tail of a group of six or seven Zeros, which were in the process of launching (the first Zero ran through my bomb sight as I put my eye to the telescope at 3,500 feet). The third bomb hit among the Zeros, and probably was the bomb that jammed the rudder and had the Akagi mindlessly circling as long as she stayed afloat.

"As we exited, we flew through a covey of Zeros on the reverse course and apparently attempting to get in position ahead of a torpedo squadron still in tight formation. (Ed. This was Yorktown's VT-3 attacking Hiryu) Our exit course was taking us directly to the carrier Soryu further to the east, which was under attack from Bombing Three from the Yorktown. The Japanese only credit four or five hits, though I think it was nine or ten. It was completely engulfed in smoke and flames and erupting explosions as the bombs hit.

"Of the original eighteen dive-bombers in VB-6, only four remained operational. Our first section came aboard intact. The sixth section leader was too shot up from AA fire over the Kaga to fly in the afternoon, but a wingman from the fifth section did come aboard undamaged. Two VB-6 planes running low on gasoline landed on the Yorktown, which was twenty miles west of Enterprise. Unfortunately, these planes were lost on the Yorktown. Of the remaining SBDs, only three crews were found in their rubber boats after they had to ditch for lack of fuel.

"We were held on board until late afternoon when twenty-four remaining serviceable SBDs were launched: six from Scouting Six, four from Bombing Six and fourteen from Bombing Three, who, upon their return from attacking the Soryu, were diverted to Enterprise when the Yorktown came under attack. The commander of Scouting Six led the attack as he was the senior aviator. I followed with my few planes, and the fourteen SBDs of VB-3 brought up the rear.

"This time we went straight to the target, the Hiryu. She had six or more Zeros aloft who came straight for us as soon as they sighted us. Simultaneously, the Hiryu put up what appeared to be a stationary barrage at 20,000 feet. Neither defense was any deterrent. We came in over the port and starboard bows and left the carrier aflame and out of control. My right wingman was shot down in the dive, probably by the Zero that was following him down.

"The afternoon attack was quite unlike the morning one. Everyone and his brother was firing at us. Both sides of the Hiryu from the bow to the stern were laced with muzzle blasts of innumerable AA guns (maybe even small arms fire).

"I had never seen such a continuous curtain of muzzle blasts. Even a battleship on her starboard quarter was firing at us. This time, I didn't risk observing the bomb fall. I jinked furiously until I was out of AA range, due west of the Japanese force. I was turned south to give them wide berth with due respect for the Zero capabilities. I was well south of them before I turned back to the east. When I saw smoke columns off to the south, I flew south to identify them and, at a reasonable distance, I saw three carriers were the victims of our morning attack, dead in the water and burning.

"I returned easily to the Enterprise and, for the first and only time, I came in from a right-hand circle because the specified approach was from the starboard beam. I felt like the lord of creation and my own master. It probably shocked the LSO, (Landing Signal Officer) but he gave me an "R" all the way aboard."

Note: This account of Lieutenant Commander Best's action against Japan's First Carrier Striking Force was reproduced by kind permission of the International Midway Memorial Foundation (http://www.immf-midway.org/)

FOOTNOTE:

The faulty oxygen bottle in his SBD dive-bomber affected Lieutenant Commander Best's lungs and caused his immediate grounding. He developed tuberculosis and two years later he was medically retired as a Lieutenant Commander.

Speaking with good humour about the day on which he participated in the sinking of two Japanese fleet carriers at Midway and ended his career as a Navy pilot, Best commented :

"You couldn't end a career better than that in 30 or 40 years!

On 28 October 2001, Lieutenant Commander Richard H. Best died in Santa Monica, California, at the age of 92. He is survived by a daughter and son and grandchild.

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