The Faces of Midway

Artist R.G. Smith's depiction of SBD Dauntless dive-bombers attacking the Japanese aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu during the Battle of Midway.

Artist R.G. Smith’s depiction of SBD Dauntless dive-bombers attacking the Japanese aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu during the Battle of Midway.

Whether they strapped into cockpits of airplanes on the sandy shores of Midway Atoll or on the wooden planks of carrier decks, a select group of young men faced a daunting prospect in early June 1942. Bearing down on them was a mighty Japanese Fleet, some of the ships of which had last ventured this far east in the Pacific Ocean the previous December en route to launch air attacks against Pearl Harbor. This time, owing to code breaking by Naval Intelligence, U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Chester W. Nimitz knew details of the enemy’s plans. Yet, as it always does in war, success or failure hinged on those closest to the action, which in a carrier battle included naval aviators who winged their way towards the enemy.

The National Naval Aviation Museum holds a collection of archival records in its collection consisting of the flight training records of individual aviators. They provide a unique glimpse into the months in which young men first learned to fly, taking the first steps towards active service in the fleet. Using these records, and other sources in the historical collection, we present the faces of Midway.

Aviation Cadet Richard Fleming

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Aviation Cadet Richard Fleming arrived at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola in 1940. Despite having gone to military school before graduating from the University of Minnesota in June 1939, he ran afoul of station officers during his time in the “Cradle of Naval Aviation,” accumulating demerits for unauthorized absence from formation and not having articles in proper order. Having failed to submit a fuel diagram of the TBD Devastator prior to soloing in the airplane, he once had to report to a classroom every morning for a week to sketch the diagram and study it. Yet, what he did not display in military bearing, he more than made up for in character and initiative. Receiving his wings in November 1940, he accepted a commission in the Marine Corps and eventually found himself on Midway Atoll as a member of Marine Scout Bombing Squadron (VMSB) 241. “He was a laughing, slightly sardonic character,” recalled a fellow officer on Midway, his intellectual curiosity fueled by a collection of books he maintained in his dugout and his spirit demonstrated by his leadership in singing ribald songs with squadronmates. On the morning of June 4, 1942, Fleming participated in the squadron’s strike against the Japanese fleet, he and his gunner, Corporal Eugene T. Card, pressing home a bombing attack against the carrier Hiryu in the face of intense antiaircraft fire. Returning to Midway, Fleming climbed out of the cockpit of his SBD-2 Dauntless and purportedly exclaimed, “Boys, there is one ride I am glad is over.” The following day, flying an SB2U Vindicator with VMSB-241, Fleming and his gunner, Private First Class George A. Toms, were shot down during a bombing run against the Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma with Fleming maintaining his attack run despite his aircraft being aflame. For his actions, Captain Richard Fleming received the Medal of Honor posthumously.