The god of war smiled on United States forces at Midway.
“In 30 hours, at the Battle of Midway, the fate of World War II was changed in the Pacific,” according to commentary from newsreel footage taken at the time.
It was the pivotal Pacific engagement of the Second World War. Statistically, it was a battle the U.S. Navy had little chance of winning.
The Harvard-educated Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor six months earlier, commanded the vastly superior Japanese armada at Midway. In poker parlance, he held four aces.
Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz, a 1905 U.S. Naval Academy graduate, bet the country on the luck of the draw. He drew a royal flush and won.
Capt. Bert Earnest (Ret.) a Virginia Beach, Va. resident and recipient of two Navy Crosses in a single day during that battle, was the featured speaker at the Golden Pelican Squadron’s 60th anniversary luncheon in Sarasota, Fla., June 21, 2002 to commemorate that battle. The squadron has 120 former naval aviators who live in West Coast Florida.
The deck was stacked against the U.S. Navy at the start of the Midway conflict. Yamamoto’s combined fleet at Midway numbered 160 ships of the line, Nimitz had 76 vessels. He had no battleships, the Japanese admiral had 11. Nimitz had three carriers, Yamamoto four. The U.S. had eight cruisers the enemy 23.
Most of the U.S. Army Air Corps and Navy pilots had never experienced combat. A number of their planes were outdated. The Japanese aviators were battle-hardened. They flew superior planes in many cases.
Following the June 4, 1942 battle that began at sun up, the Imperial Navy never again seized the initiative. This engagement ended the Japanese’s westward advance in the Pacific.
All four of Yamamoto’s aircraft carriers—Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu—were sunk at Midway. In addition, he lost the heavy cruisers Nikuma and Mugami, the destroyers Asahjo and Tawskace and the iron clad Haruwa. He also lost 322 planes and 2,155 men, including the cream of his naval aviators.
U.S. losses included the carrier Yorktown, the destroyer Hamman and 147 aircraft.
The U.S. Navy held one ace from the outset. It broke the Japanese navy’s secret military code. It knew Yamamoto’s huge fleet was steaming toward U.S. forces in the Pacific. However, naval intelligence officers weren’t certain where it would strike.
Yamamoto split his fleet. As a feint, he sent a smaller contingent of ships to invade the Aleutian Islands, off the Alaskan coast. Some U.S. military planners thought the main body of the enemy’s fleet was going to attack the California coast—possibly San Francisco.
Two letters held the key. Cmdr. Joseph J. Rochefort Jr., in charge of Nimitz’s code breaking operation at the Navy’s Combat Intelligence Unit at Pearl Harbor, knew Yamamoto was headed for “AF,” but that’s all he knew.
He suspected the Japanese were going to attack Midway. They wanted to take the island and use it as one of their perimeter bases of operation to block the advancing American forces.
To make sure he was correct, Nimitz’s senior cryptologist solved the mystery by sending a message of his own he knew the enemy would intercept. It said U.S. forces on Midway were running out of fresh water.
Two days later a Japanese telegrapher sent a coded message to his headquarters saying, “The U.S. Navy was running out of fresh water on AF.”
The U.S. Navy code breaker had his answer. “AF” was definitely Midway.
The island would feel the wrath of the largest fleet the Imperial Japanese Navy ever assembled during World War II. Nimitz knew where the attack was going to be and roughly when it would take place. But he still had to overcome the greatly superior Japanese odds.
Into this battle stepped Ensign Earnest. The 24-year-old pilot had never fired a shot in battle.
Earnest was a member of Torpedo Bomber Squadron #8, most of whom were shot down at Midway. During the first few minutes of the air battle 29 of the squadron’s airmen would be killed. The torpedo bombers’ primary target, the Japanese aircraft carriers at the heart of the enemy’s giant fleet. Only Ensign George Gay, who splashed down but survived, and Earnest would live to tell about their historic attack.
When the American public learned the fate of the 29 young Naval aviators they became instant heroes. It was one of the few times during World War II that an American military unit was praised for not accomplishing its objective.
By war’s end, Earnest would be a naval hero. He received two Navy Crosses, the Navy’s second highest award for valor, for the part he played at the Battle of Midway. In addition, he was also awarded a third Navy Cross for attacking Japanese ships in “The Slot” off Guadalcanal later in the war.
When he took off from Midway that morning 60 years ago, Earnest was flying a Grumman TBF-1 Avenger. It was a torpedo bomber with a crew of three. It had one .30 caliber machine-gun he controlled, a .50 caliber machine-gun in the upper turret handled by Seaman 1/C Jay D. Manning, a .30 caliber machine-gun, operated by RMN 3/C Harry H. Ferrier, the rear gunner, and a 2,000 pound torpedo carried internally and dropped by the pilot.
“When we arrived at Midway on June 1, they told us, ‘A Japanese attack was imminent,’” Earnest said. “Every morning for the first couple of days we woke up at 4 a.m., warmed up our engines and waited to be called.
On June 4th they found the Japanese. Our squadron leader told me, “The Jap fleet is at 320 degrees, 150 miles from Midway.’ That was an hour’s flying time,” he said.
“A few moments after I spotted the enemy fleet, my rear gunner said, ‘We’re being attacked by Zeroes!’
“That became very apparent. My upper turret gunner was killed almost immediately by machine gun fire,” Earnest said.
Upwards of two dozen enemy fighters buzzed like hornets around the much slower, less maneuverable Avenger. Moments after he opened his bomb bay door the hydraulic system on Earnest’s plane was shot out by enemy machine-gun fire.
“My tail wheel dropped down in the way of my rear gunner’s .30 calibers, making it useless. Then the tail gunner was hit by fire and knocked out,” Earnest said. “We had no fire power, except forward.”
He hit the deck with the enemy Zeros in hot pursuit. At 200 feet above the waves, he was flying at torpedo altitude. His speed was 125 knots, the proper speed for releasing his torpedo, but the enemy carriers were still four or five miles away. They weren’t within torpedo range.
“We were getting the hell shot out of us by Zeros. They would shoot their machine guns, to get the range. Then they would fire their 20 millimeter. It scared the hell out of me.
“Something came through the windshield. It hit me in the neck. Blood spurted all over. It didn’t seem to bother me,” Earnest recalled. “About that time my elevator controls went limp. When I moved the stick back and forth nothing happened. My controls were shot out.”
With no controls, his upper turret and tail gunner killed or wounded and enemy fighters swarming all around his plane, things were getting dicey.
“There was a Japanese light cruiser to port,” he said. “I kicked my plane around using my ailerons and rudder. I lined up on the cruiser and dropped my torpedo.
“I expected my plane to hit the water a few second later. I automatically rolled the elevator tabs back. When I did the plane jumped back up into the air. At that moment, I realized I could fly by using only my elevator tabs,” Earnest said.
It was a revelation to a pilot who had only 400 hours flying time and no combat experience. He headed back toward Midway with a pair of Zeros harassing him. Earnest did everything possible to evade the two enemy fighters, even though his stick was inoperable.
“They were peppering my plane with machine gun fire. I couldn’t return their fire because my only working machine gun was pointed forward. After four or five minutes the Zeros left,” he said.
In addition to having few controls and little fire power, his compass was shot out and his radio disabled. The most direct rout home was to fly over the Japanese fleet. He knew he didn’t want to do that. To evade the enemy fleet, Earnest headed south. Later he would fly east toward his base, a speck of sand in the middle of the wide Pacific.
“I turned east toward the sun after a while. I flew and flew and flew, but I saw nothing but water,” he said. “I decide to go up to 4,000 feet and see if I could see anything more. There, off to the east, was a huge black plume of smoke. The Japanese had hit the power plant at Midway. The fuel was burning.
“When I got close to the island, I tried to put my wheels down, but I had no hydraulic pressure. I used the emergency wheel release, but only my left wheel dropped. I gained altitude and tried to shake the right wheel loose. It didn’t work.
“I made my recognition turns in preparation for landing,” he said. “They tried to reach me on the radio from the base to tell me to bail out. But my radio was out of commission. I wouldn’t have done that anyway because I wasn’t sure of the condition of the other two sailors aboard.
“I made my landing approach. A guy on the runway gave me a big wave off. I took the wave off and tried a second time. He waved me off again. On the third time around I said, ‘The hell with it.’ I decided to put it down,” Earnest explained.
“I landed very nicely on one wheel. My right wing eventually dropped down, hit the ground and spun the plane 270 degrees. It ended up parked beautifully on the side of the runway,” he said.
Earnest’s Avenger was the only one of the six that flew off Midway to return. His torpedo bomber had 64-7.7 caliber machine gun bullets and nine 20 millimeter cannon holes in it.
“I climbed out of the airplane a little shaken. I started to run around and see if my upper turreted gunner was dead.
“A big Marine stopped me.”
“You don’t want to go back there,” he said. “I never saw my turret gunner again.”
His tail gunner survived. He had regained consciousness. The gunner was walking around moments after the TBF landed.
“I didn’t have a damn thing to do with winning the Battle of Midway. I just was in it,” Earnest told the audience.
Name: Bert K. Earnest
Age: 86 (at the time of this interview)
Hometown: Virginia Beach, Va.
Address: Richmond, Va.
Entered Service: February 1941
Discharged: July 1972
Rank: Navy Captain
Unit: Torpedo Squadron #8 WWII
Commendations: Purple Heart, Three Navy Crosses, Three Air Medals, Meritorious Service Medal, two Presidential Unit Citations, Navy Unit Commendation, World War II Victory Medal
Spouse: Millie McConnel
Children: Kathryn and William
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. in 2001 and is republished with permission.
Click here to view the War Tales fan page on FaceBook.
Click here to search Veterans Records and to obtain information on retrieving lost commendations.
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be republished without permission. Links are encouraged.
Battle of Midway hero recalls the day 60 years later – Capt. Bert Earnest received three Navy Crosses during World War II
Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Saturday, June 22, 2002
Author: DON MOORE; Senior Writer
SARASOTA — A bunch of old warriors got together at a luncheon in Sarasota Friday to celebrate the United States’ great victory at the Battle of Midway during World War II.
This battle is considered the key engagement in the Pacific Theatre of the war. On June 4-5, 1942, during the first two days of the sea battle, the tide of war changed in favor of U.S. forces when all four of Japanese Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto’s carriers were sunk by navy dive bombers and torpedo bombers.
After this battle, the Japanese never went on the offensive again during the war. It came six months after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
More than 450 people, mostly retired naval aviators, their wives and friends, packed Michael’s On East restaurant to hold the First Battle of Midway Commemorative Luncheon almost 60 years to the day after the engagement.
Even the chairman of the Sarasota County Commission and the Mayor of Sarasota got into the act. They proclaimed June 2-5 “Battle of Midway Days.”
Capt. Bert Earnest , USN (Ret.) was the featured speaker of the luncheon. He received two Navy Crosses, the second-highest commendation this country awards for heroism, for a single flight he made against Yamamoto’s fleet six decades ago.
“He is a true naval hero,” said Adm. Phillip Smith, who introduced him. “Come Midway we stopped ’em.”
It was because of Earnest , and dozens of other young aviators like him, that the much larger and much more experienced Japanese fleet was badly beaten during those five summer days a lifetime ago.
Earnest was a member of Torpedo Bomber Squadron 8, most of whom flew off the aircraft carrier Hornet that day. But Earnest flew from Midway in a new TBF-1 Avenger torpedo bomber that day.
Earnest made it back that day, but he didn’t receive the notoriety that another member of the squadron did.
Ensign George Gay, a member of the Hornet’s torpedo bomber group, survived as well. His plane was shot down and he watched the battle from the front lines floating in the sea a short distance from the enemy carriers that U.S. dive bombers sunk. Because of his unique perspective on the battle, his story became well-known.
Of the naval aviators from Squadron 8 who flew into battle from Midway that day, only Earnest flew back to base alive in his plane. His plane received 64 machine gun holes and nine 20 mm cannon holes. His controls were gone and he landed back at Midway with one wheel up and the other down.
“Ensign Earnest had just been commissioned in December 1941,” Adm. Smith told the luncheon crowd. “He had never flown long distances over water before and had never been in an air battle either.”
“As far as winning the battle, I didn’t have a thing to do with it. I was just there,” Earnest said in his opening remarks.
He went on to explain that by the time they reached Yamamoto’s carriers, he had no controls. By then, his turret gunner had been killed by fire from Japanese Zero fighters and his tail gunner was incapacitated.
He struggled to keep his Avenger in the air. A Japanese cruiser passed in front of him off his port side. He dropped his single torpedo, probably hitting nothing.
“Just before I dropped my torpedo, I rolled my trim tabs. My plane jumped back into the air. Immediately two Zeros got on my tail and stayed on it,” Earnest recalled.
It was about that time he realized he might be able to control his plane somewhat with his wing trim tabs. He made an attempt to get his bomber back to base.
With his compass and radio shot out and his airplane looking like a piece of Swiss cheese, he headed home. Finally the two enemy fighters let him be.
Earnest flew for what seemed like hours by himself but saw nothing but sea in front of him. He coaxed his bomber up to 4,000 feet.
“I spotted a big, black cloud of smoke off in the distance 60 miles away,” he said. “It was Midway!”
Despite the fact he landed on one wheel with almost no control of his plane, he set the battered bomber down perfectly along the edge of the runway.
Before the war was over, Earnest would win a third Navy Cross at Guadalcanal.
“I guess you can call me the only other sole survivor of the Battle of Midway,” he concluded.
The crowd roared. It gave him a standing ovation.