Richard Halsey Best: Carrier Killer at Midway

In the six months between Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway, Imperial Japan looked unstoppable. It had humiliated the Republic of China, forced the weakened French to surrender Indochina, smashed the British Empire in Malaya, Singapore, and Burma, conquered the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines, and was now moving east to annex the Solomons and isolate Australia. The Doolittle Raid rattled the Japanese, however, and Admiral Yamamoto decided to seek a decisive battle with his principal obstacle: the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The showdown came in the Battle of Midway, and it proved decisive in large part because of a single American pilot: Richard Halsey Best. At that critical hour, he would be Japan’s worst nightmare.

Richard Halsey Best

Background

Richard Halsey Best was a career navy man, having graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1932. He first deployed on the USS Richmond and decided to become a naval aviator two years later, being assigned to Fighting Squadron 2 on the USS Lexington. He then became a flight instructor at Pensacola and eventually a dive bomber pilot, flying the SBD Dauntless dive bomber aboard the USS Enterprise. As such, he avoided the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, as the Enterprise, like the other American aircraft carriers, was at sea on the day of infamy. Still, Richard Halsey Best must have felt the blow on a visceral level. The U.S. Pacific fleet had suffered badly and many of his comrades had died.

Those were dark times for the American and Allied war effort, but Richard Halsey Best did what he could. His first action of the war came on February 1st, 1942, when he attacked a Japanese base on Taroa Island. The attack was a success. In his after action report, he noted:

  • The group leader was particularly pleased with the aggressiveness with which all pilots pressed home the dive bombing attack in complete disregard of A.A. fire and fighter opposition.
  • (Omitted).
  • Pilots during pull out noted damage caused by their bombs as follows:
    6-B-10500 lb bomb direct hit on northern hangar. Whole south side erupted into smoke and flames.
    6-B-7500 lb bomb hit at door of north hangar, added to general conflagration just started.
    6-B-2Two 100 lb bombs on administrative building west of landing field.
    6-B-9All bombs on the field destroyed one two engine bomber.

It was a small victory, but any boost to morale was welcome at this time in the war. Richard Halsey Best also took part in attacking Japanese-occupied Wake Island and, as a crew member of the Enterprise, escorted the Doolittle raiders, who were stationed on the USS Hornet. The Lieutenant did not take part in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Instead, the USS Enterprise returned to Pearl Harbor to prepare for the much more important battle ahead.

The Battle of Midway

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was alarmed by the Doolittle Raid and wanted to finish the job Japan had started at Pearl Harbor by destroying the American aircraft carriers. His idea was to force the Americans into a position where they would have no choice but to fight. He chose Midway, which he thought the Americans wouldn’t dare to give up because of its proximity to Hawaii. In this assumption, he was correct.

Unfortunately for Japan, his plan was complicated, and saw multiple flotillas needing to coordinate with one another over hundreds of miles of sea from Midway to the Aleutian Islands. To make matters worse, the Americans had decoded the Japanese naval codes and knew the exact time, place, and order in which Japan would attack. Admiral Chester Nimitz, therefore, saw the perfect chance to lure Japan into an ambush, by concentrating his carrier forces northwest of Midway.

Battle of Midway Map

If you wish to learn more about this phase of the battle, you can see the Midway chapter in my Critical Battles Series on Patreon (you will get dozens of others for $5 a month).

The battle turned not into a coordinated offensive, but a scattered series of small attacks from both sides, beginning with Japan attacking Midway itself.

Lieutenant Richard Halsey Best was stationed on the USS Enterprise, which launched its attack squadrons at about 7:06 hours. He piloted his Dauntless dive bomber as part of this squadron. The squadron however, got separated in the confusion, and only the dive bombers stayed together, as the Enterprise’s planes had gotten bad coordinates beforehand. They fortunately arrived at their targets at the same time as planes from the USS Yorktown, increasing the strength of the attack and diverting the Japanese fighter protection toward the latter. Soon, the Enterprise’s planes attacked the Japanese carriers Soryu and Kaga, which both burst into flames from the bombs. At this point, Richard Halsey Best made a snap judgment call.

Believing that the Kaga was finished and seeing that the Japanese carrier Akagi might get away from the attack unscathed, the Lieutenant and two bombers from the Yorktown (rather than his Enterprise team) dove down and bombed the vessel. While his wingmen missed, Richard Halsey Best landed a killing blow on the Akagi. His bomb struck the carrier’s elevator shaft, penetrating into the hanger, and set off chain reaction explosions in the fueled Japanese aircraft below, armed as they were with their bombs instead of the torpedoes they were originally armed with. Akagi, the flagship of the Japanese fleet, could not be saved and Yamamoto ordered it scuttled the next day. Of his decision-making, the Lieutenant wrote in his after action report:

  • Almost at once he saw that VS-6 was diving on the “left hand” CV and so led his division against the “right hand” CV which was of the “KAGA” type. It was launching planes as the attack was made. At least three 1,000 lb bomb hits were observed on that target and it became a mass of flame and smoke. The first section of the first division joined up immediately after pull-out from the dive. At that time they sighted own torpedo planes coming in under heavy attack from enemy fighters and AA fire. They also saw an attack by own dive bombers of a separate attack group on a third CV on which many hits were scored, the CV becoming enveloped in flames and smoke. Shortly thereafter the first section was attacked by an enemy seaplane which was driven off by free gun fire. The first section then retired towards Midway for a short time, and when out of sight of the enemy fleet set course for parent ship and returned.
  • The second division leader delayed attack momentarily. He observed misses near the “left hand” CV, and decided to dive on that target. While in his dive he observed several hits on that target, starting fires. He scored a direct hit in the middle of the carrier with his 1,00 lb bomb, and other 1,00 lb bomb hits were scored by planes following him. That CV appeared to suffer internal explosions in addition to bomb hits, and little of it was left visible in the midst of huge flames, and smoke. The third division apparently attacked the same target as did the second division. Only one pilot from that division returned.

But Richard Halsey Best was not done at Midway.

While three of the Japanese carriers were mortally wounded in the attack, the fourth, the Hiryu, escaped and launched a retaliatory strike on the Yorktown. The Japanese pilots proved as brave and daring as their American counterparts. The American carrier suffered three hits, but the fires were put out, and this fooled the Japanese into attacking the Yorktown again, in another flight from the Hiryu. This attack again damaged Yorktown (which would later be sunk by a submarine), but it committed Hiryu’s squadron, and now the Enterprise launched a retaliatory strike of its own.

Lieutenant Richard Halsey Best participated in this attack. Four of the Enterprise’s dive bombers scored hits on the Hiryu. It is uncertain that Best’s bomb was one of them, but his gunner believed that it was. The commander of the Hiryu, Tamon Yamaguchi, refused evacuation and went down with his ship.

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Richard Halsey Best After Midway

For his actions on June 4th, Lieutenant Richard Halsey Best was awarded the Navy Cross (the second highest commendation in the United States Navy) and the Distinguished Flying Cross. His official citation reads:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Lieutenant Commander Richard Halsey Best (NSN: 0-71601), United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while serving as Pilot of a carrier-based Navy Dive Bomber and Squadron Commander in Bombing Squadron SIX (VB-6), attached to the U.S.S. ENTERPRISE (CV-6), during the “Air Battle of Midway,” against enemy Japanese forces on 4 – 6 June 1942. Defying extreme danger from concentrated anti-aircraft barrage and powerful fighter opposition, Lieutenant Commander Best, with bold determination and courageous zeal, led his squadron in dive-bombing assaults against Japanese naval units. Flying at a distance from his own forces which rendered return unlikely because of probable fuel exhaustion, he pressed home his attacks with extreme disregard for his own personal safety. His gallant intrepidity and loyal devotion to duty contributed greatly to the success of our forces and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

The Battle of Midway was not a knockout blow to Japan. Indeed, Japan would still be capable of launching offensives until late 1942, but it was the Empire’s high-water mark. The battle instantly changed the strategic balance in the Pacific. The Japanese Empire lost four carriers for the price of one, one cruiser, 248 carrier planes, some of its best pilots and officers, and one of its best admirals. With its limited capacity, these assets would be difficult or impossible to replace. The door for the first American counteroffensive, Guadalcanal, was opened.

Unfortunately, Lieutenant Richard Halsey Best would not take part in further action. During the Battle of Midway, his oxygen tanks had malfunctioned, and he had ignored warning signs that saw him snorting out fumes. Just a day after his great triumph, he was coughing up blood. The bad fumes had activated a dormant tuberculosis he had contracted. He would retire in 1944 after being hospitalized for over a year. June 4th was his last day on active duty for the United States Navy.

What a day it was, though! History is epic in its sweep, but Lieutenant Richard Halsey Best showed that is still individual decisions at critical moments which turn the wheel of fate. His snap judgment call to abort the dive on the Kaga and attack the Akagi instead was critical in turning the Battle of Midway from a setback to a catastrophe for the Japanese Empire. If he had been less enterprising and instead strictly stuck to doctrine, the United States Navy would likely have lost its best chance to sink it. It may even have escaped and given the Hiryu crucial backup. Instead, the Battle of Midway saw all four Japanese carriers sunk, tipping the scales of the war. It was an appropriate move for an officer on a ship named Enterprise.

Today, exactly 80 years on from the Battle of Midway, we should remember the lessons of the battle and the characters of the men who won it, because the world is becoming more dangerous. It is not clear the United States would win another battle like Midway.

We need to remember the vrtures of men like Richard Halsey Best – their courage, devotion to duty, and enterprising attitude. At the Battle of Midway, as in so many other places, character determined fate.

Lives of the Luminaries is full of character lessons from other figures like Richard Halsey Best, from the dawn of time to our own. You can read it here.

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