Hundreds of millions of people were directly engaged in WW II, and at least 55 million perished
(roughly 25 million military and
30 million civilian). Among the
world’s militaries, a relatively small
percentage saw combat and many
saw none at all. Of some 15 million
Americans mobilized, slightly more
than 400,000 died from all causes
and about 680,000 were wounded.
Therefore, the proportion of the
U.S. armed forces who served as
“trigger pullers” on land, sea, or air
represented a decided minority.
Of those, a tiny handful were
positioned to affect the outcome
of a battle, let alone the wider war.
In 1942, when the Pacific War
hung in the balance, both sides
produced aviators who made a
personal difference. Off Rabaul,
New Britain, New Guinea, in
February, Wildcat pilot Lt. (j.g.)
Edward “Butch” O’Hare was credited with spoiling a Japanese bomber
attack on USS Lexington (CV-2), then one-third of the Pacific Fleet’s
The most vivid examples arose during the Battle of Midway.
Two Enterprise (CV- 6) SBD pilots exerted influence far beyond their
personal achievements. During the Big E’s lengthy search-strike on
the morning of June 4, Lt. Cmdr. Wade McClusky’s leadership placed
two Dauntless squadrons overhead of the Japanese carrier force. Had
he guessed wrong at Adm. Nagumo’s location, the battle may well
have been lost.
Leading Bombing Squadron Six was Lt. Richard H. Best, who
personally inflicted the mortal blow on Akagi, the Japanese flagship.
In the fatal afternoon attack on Hiry , the last remaining enemy
flattop, Best scored another hit—one of two known pilots to do so
Off Guadalcanal in October, a determined Enterprise scout pilot
made a difference. Lt. Stockton B. Strong searched far beyond
his assigned sector. He led his wingman down on the Japanese
carrier Ry jō, with two hits knocking her out of the battle.
In the same engagement, Lt. Keiichi Arima, a Shōkaku D3A
“Val” pilot, scored a hit on Enterprise. Two months before, at
Eastern Solomons, he had also struck the Big E, knocking her out
of action—an unequalled record. Perhaps more remarkably, he
survived the war.
Thus, dive-bomber pilots were the individuals best positioned
to determine the outcome of battles, which, in turn, affected the
course of the war. Their unique contributions reflected the nature
of WW II combat, in which massed formations of heavy bombers,
phalanxes of tanks, and ships with 200 to 3,000 men required
teamwork. The scout-bomber pilot, with his radioman-gunner,
was a warrior unique to his place and time, probably never to be
The Mustang proved to be the deal breaker of WW II because it had the magic combination of speed,
range, firepower, and maneuverability. (Photo courtesy of Stan Piet)
The Bf 109 had barely half an hour of combat time due to fuel
limitations, but it arrived over England in big numbers. (Photo by
John Dibbs/ planepicture.com)
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