Lofton R. Henderson

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Major Lofton Henderson

Killed during the Battle of Midway, flying an SBD-2

Dauntless 2129. The Airfield on Guadalcanal was named Henderson Field in his honor.

Credit: USMC date: 1941

Lofton R. Henderson (May 24, 1903 - June 4, 1942) was a naval aviator in the United States Marine Corps during World War II. He was the commanding officer of VMSB-241 at the Battle of Midway and is recognized as the first Marine aviator to die during that battle while leading his squadron to attack the Japanese carrier forces.


Lofton Henderson was born on May 24, 1903 in Lorain, Ohio.

He graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1926. Prior to World War II, he served in China, and various Caribbean stations, and on aircraft carriers Langley (CV-1), Ranger (CV-4), and Saratoga (CV-3).

Major Henderson was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism at the historic Battle of Midway, one of the decisive battles of history. While leading 16 Marine Corps planes in a glide bombing attack on the aircraft carrier Hiryū, his left wing burst into flames as he began his final approach. Henderson continued the attack and perished as his plane dived toward the enemy carrier.

Toshio Kojima
228th Infanty Regiment, Japanese Army
by John Innes, 1995

I erected the cross for Toshio, when the bones were found on Hill 27 in October 1995. All the implements around him in the foxhole were American and he was in an American foxhole. At the time, there was a rededication ceremony for Lofton Henderson. General Paul Henderson (his brother) and a group of Marines for the ceremony at Henderson Field. Innes took them along to see the remains. They all agreed that the remains were likely to be that of an American because of all the American equipment in the foxhole.

The American Marines accompanying General Paul Henderson in the meantime arranged with CILHI that a recovery team would visit and remove the remains. In the meantime John Innes arranged for a simple cross to be made to mark the site and organised Father Percy the Local Catholic priest to perform a Christian ceremony for 'the American'. It seemed appropriate. After not hearing from CILHI for some weeks and our anxiety to establish the identity of the American we went back into the grave site looking for a dog tag. Around his neck was a Japanese dog tag!

VALIANT SACRIFICE: Death in the Skies Over Midway 4 June 1942 (Full Article)(Feb 2008)

Submitted by Margot on June 4, 2010 - 12:27am

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By Dick Camp

Radio-gunner Corporal Eugene T Card anxiously gripped the stick of the Douglas SBD-2 Dauntless dive bomber, trying to keep the aircraft straight and level, while his pilot, Captain Richard E. Fleming, feverously worked out the location of the Japanese aircraft carriers on his chart board. The order they had been given-"Attack enemy carriers bearing 325 degrees, distance 180 miles, on course 130 degrees at a speed of 25 knots"-seemed simple enough, but trying to locate the Japanese ships in the huge expanse of ocean was akin to finding the proverbial "needle in a haystack."

The Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber entered service in late 1940, even though it was considered obsolete because of its low power-to-weight ratio, giving it only fair climbing and maneuver characteristics. Production delays of its replacement, the Curtis SB2C, forced the Marine Corps to order 57 of the SBDs. Despite the aircraft's weaknesses, the SBD-2 carried the fight against Japan in the first six months of the war.

The Dauntless had a crew of two, a pilot and radio-gunner, who manned a single .30-caliber machine gun. Two fixed-forward .50-cal. machine guns that fired through the propeller arc gave the Dauntless additional firepower. The SBD could carry a 1,000-pound bomb in a crutch beneath the plane's center section and two 100-pounders in the wing shackles. According to one pilot, the Dauntless "was a pleasure to fly, powerful and heavy, yet responsive and easy to control."

Cpl Card suddenly noticed First lieutenant Daniel Iverson's SBD-2 closing up fast. As he came alongside, Iverson gestured frantically downward to the left. Card craned his neck, but all he could see was blue sea through the scattered cloud cover. His attention was diverted by Fleming's voice over the intercom, "We've made contact. There's a ship at 10 o'clock. Do you see it?"

Card looked again, and there it was, a slender black shape trailing a long white wake as the ship sped toward Midway Island. Fleming took control of the aircraft. Card secured his control stick and manned the single .30-cal. machine gun in the rear cockpit. Within minutes, more and more Japanese ships could be seen, including the unmistakable shape of two aircraft carriers.

Card watched utterly fascinated as the carriers turned into the wind and started launching aircraft. His reverie was abruptly broken by the squadron commander's voice, "Attack two enemy carriers on port bow." The SBD-2 fell away, losing altitude for a low-level glide-bombing attack. All at once, two streaks of smoke flew past the starboard wing, and Fleming's excited voice called out, "Here they come!"

A Japanese Zero flashed by, climbing almost straight up. Card turned his .30-cal. machine gun on the fighter, but it was already out of range. Another slashed through the formation. Out of the corner of his eye, Card saw a burning aircraft plummeting toward the ocean. A white parachute blossomed but he could not make out who it was. His SBD continued to bore in toward the target, amidst a tangle of diving aircraft.

Major Lofton R. Henderson, commanding officer of Marine Scout-Bombing Squadron 241, cringed at the thought of taking his inexperienced pilots, "the 'greenest' group ever assembled for combat," into the fight. Ten of 28 pilots had joined the squadron against the veteran Japanese fliers in the last week, and only three had any time in SBDs. However, nothing else could be done.

A huge enemy task force under the command of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, was headed for Midway. Lieutenant Colonel Ira L. Kimes, CO of Marine Aircraft Group 22, remarked that "it [Japanese task force] appears to have everything but Hirohito with an outboard motor on his bathtub."

Unbeknownst to Yamamoto, American codebreakers had succeeded in cracking the Japanese fleet code and knew his plan of attack. ADM Chester W Nimitz, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, was determined to stop him. He scraped together a hodgepodge of reinforcements, including VMSB's inexperienced pilots, and rushed them to Midway.

The shortage of gasoline limited pilot training to "two or three hops with practice bombs" and left Maj Henderson with little choice but to devise an attack plan that would give his untrained pilots the best chance for success. He divided them into two striking units-one led by himself, 18 SBD-2s with the more-experienced pilots, and the other led by Maj Benjamin W Norris, 12 of the older SB2U-3 Vindicators with the green airmen, because the SBD-2's performance was far superior to the other aircraft.

The Vindicator was developed in the 1930s and was the first monoplane to be designed as a carrier-based dive bomber. Nicknamed the "Wind Indicator" or "Vibrator" by the Marines because of its slow speed the SB2U-3 was obsolete by the start of the war. One pilot said that as a "dive bomber, it wasn't; the wing structure just would not withstand the terrific stresses of the pullout from a dive. ... 'G' forces put big waves and wrinkles in the wings." When the Marines attempted to dive-bomb with them, the wing fabric began peeling off, and they used adhesive tape to fix them.

Henderson planned on a shallow glidebombing approach because it required less skill than a diving attack. In a series of briefings and chalk talks, he instructed the pilots that he would lead them in a fast power glide to 4,000 feet and then turn them loose to hit the carriers at very low altitude-500 feet or less.

He cautioned the youngsters to get out fast, by hugging the water and using the cloud cover to escape. Everyone knew that his SBD was sadly outclassed by the Japanese Zero. Lastly, Henderson instructed them that upon notice of an incoming raid they were to get off the ground as quickly as possible and assemble at Point Affirm20 miles east of Midway.

Card heard a "Wuf!" and another and another. Black puffballs appeared near his plane, and he realized the sound was from Japanese antiaircraft fire. He was too busy fighting off the Zeros to pay much more attention until "somebody threw a bucket of bolts in the prop," and small holes appeared all over the cockpit.

Card told Walter Lord the well-known author, that "he felt a thousand needles prick his right ankle ... and something hard kicked his left leg to one side." Blood streamed down his legs, but he had no time to stop the bleeding. The Zeros kept boring in, and he had to keep them at bay.

Henderson was ahead of Card's plane, leading the attack. Iverson was just behind. "The first [enemy fighter] attacks were directed at the squadron leader in an attempt to put him out of action," Card recalled. "After about two passes, one of the enemy put several shots through his plane and the left wing started to burn.... It was apparent that he was hit and out of action." Henderson's wingman, second lieutenant Albert W Tweedy, followed him faithfully until he too was shot down.

Capt Armond H. DeLalio, leader of the 3d Section, watched in horror as 2dLt Thomas J. Gratzek's plane burst into flames and plunged toward the sea. Three other SBDs quickly followed-2dLts Maurice A. Ward Bruno P. Hagedorn and Bruce H. Ek, along with their radio-gunners, Privates First Class Harry M. Radford Joseph T Piraneo and Raymond R. Brown.

The survivors, led by Capt Elmer G. "Iron Man" Glidden, pressed the attack "through a protecting layer of clouds. On emerging from the cloud-bank, the enemy carrier was directly below," he recalled, "and all planes made their runs." They were assailed on all sides. The radio-gunners fought back valiantly.

Card had the satisfaction of seeing a Zero burst into flames. PFC Reed T. Ramsey scored a hit at point-blank range; however, Private Charles W Huber's gun jammed and all he could do was point it, hoping to fool the pursuing Japanese. In the heat of battle, PFC Gordon R. McFeely got so carried away that he riddled his own tail.

Glidden picked out a carrier that had "a huge rising sun amidships of the flight deck ... [which] itself was a gleaming light yellow, making it a tempting target." The rest of the squadron followed dropping three 500-lb. bombs that bracketed the warship. "Looking back," Glidden reported "I saw two hits and one miss that were right alongside the bow. The carrier was starting to smoke."

Iverson bored in on another ship, "a carrier mat had two rising suns on the flight deck. ... Two enemy fighters followed me in the dive. I released my bomb at 300 feet before pulling out. It hit just astern of the deck, a very close miss ... [but] may have damaged the screws and steering gear."

Having expended their ordnance, the SBDs beat a hasty retreat. "The fighters pursued us," Iverson related "making overhead runs for 20 or 30 miles. My plane was hit several times." That was an understatement, as more than 250 holes were counted in his aircraft. His throat mike was severed by a bullet, and his hydraulic system shot away.

Second Lt Richard L. Blain and his crewman, McFeely, found themselves in the water. "The ship stayed afloat for two or three minutes," giving them a chance to get in their life raft. Two days later they were picked up by a passing patrol plane. Second Lt Harold G. Schlendering and PFC Edward O. Smith had to "hit the silk." The pilot survived but the gunner did not.

As the battered remnants of Henderson's division cleared the scene, Norris' slow and clumsy Vindicators arrived. "The clouds became our haven," according to 2dLt Allen H. Ringblom. "Major Norris led us without loss to the target... radioing instructions to dive straight ahead on the target."

Second Lt George T. Lumpkin observed "Major Norris starting his dive immediately from 13,500 feet through the cloud cover ... and came out on the port side of a large battleship."

Lumpkin followed running a gauntlet of fire that was so heavy it was "practically impossible to hold the ship in a true dive." During his dive, Ringblom "received identical holes, about six inches in diameter, in each aileron." The Japanese battleship zigzagged frantically, trying to throw off their aim.

The Marines released their bombs and "saw the battleship practically ringed with near misses, also one direct hit on the bow," according to 2dLt George E. Koutelas. Second Lt Sumner H. Whitten came out of his dive and found himself between two lines of enemy ships that were firing furiously, trying to knock him down. Sergeant Frank E. Zelnis, his gunner, thought it was taking forever to get away, and he called out impatiently, "You dropped your bomb; let's get the hell out of here before we get hit!"

As they pulled out of their dives and attempted to escape, the Zeros swooped down. Second Lt Daniel L. Cummings lost his gunner, Pvt Henry I. Sparks, almost immediately. He related that Sparks "had never before fired a machine gun in the air and could not be expected to be an effective shot, much less protect himself."

Ringblom had "a Zero pass right behind [him] as [he] whipped into a tight turn, only luck making harmless the numerous passes made by the Zeros." Cummings counted five enemy planes on his tail. "In the hit-and-run, and dogfighting, which was my initiation to real war, my old obsolete SB2U-3 was almost shot out from under me. About five miles from Midway my gasoline gave out, and I made a crash landing in the water."

Allen Ringblom also ditched. "I chose to land right in front of a PT boat, and all went so well that I even forgot to inflate my life jacket."

After many perilous encounters, the rest of the squadron made it back to the island. Ringblom arrived dripping wet. A buddy greeted him, saying, "Well, I never expected to see you again." A very much relieved Ringblom blurted out, "Hell, neither did I!"

Fleming executed a perfect three-point landing despite a shot-out tire. As Marines rushed up to take Card away, Fleming announced, "Boys, there is one ride I am glad is over" and shook his wounded gunner's hand. Second Lt Thomas F. Moore remembered calling to his buddy, 2dLt Jesse D. Rollow Jr., "How many got back?" "Eight out of sixteen," Rollow replied shaking his head sadly.

Of the 16 SBD-2s and 11 SB2U-3s that scrambled aloft to attack the Japanese fleet on that fateful June morning, 12 were shot down (eight SBDs and four SB2Us), seven damaged beyond repair and four slightly damaged.

The Marine claims of the number of enemy aircraft destroyed and ships hit proved to be wrong. Subsequent research of Japanese records showed that little actual damage was done. No enemy ships were struck by VMSB-241 bombs, and only six aircraft failed to return to the carriers. Many can argue that the sacrifice of so many Marine pilots and crewmen was in vain; however, ADM Nimitz was not one of them.

"Please accept my sympathy for the losses sustained by your gallant aviation personnel based at Midway. Their sacrifice was not in vain. When the great emergency came, they were ready. They met unflinchingly the attack of vastly superior numbers and made the attack ineffective. They struck the first blow at the enemy carriers. They were the spearhead of our great victory. They have written a new and shining page in the annals of the Marine Corps."

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