|Name Richard Best||Rank Lieutenant commander|
|Born March 24, 1910 Bayonne, New Jersey (1910-03-24) |
Allegiance United States of America
Battles/wars World War II Pacific War
Died October 28, 2001, Santa Monica, California, United States
Education United States Naval Academy
Awards Navy Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross
Years of service 1928–1944 (16 Years)
Battles and wars World War II, Pacific War
Service/branch United States Navy
Similar World War II , Lieutenant commander (United States) , Pacific War
Lieutenant Commander Richard Halsey "Dick" Best, USN, (March 24, 1910 – October 28, 2001) was a dive bomber pilot and squadron commander in the United States Navy during World War II. Stationed on the Enterprise, Best led his squadron in most of the major actions of the early war in the Pacific before being invalided out with tuberculosis in 1942. Best was portrayed in the 2019 film Midway by Ed Skrein.
- Early career 19281941
- Pearl Harbor
- Wake Island
- Marshalls Gilberts raids
- Marcus Island Doolittle raid
- Battle of Midway
- Sinking of the Akagi
- Sinking of the Hiryu
- Invalided out
- Civilian life 19442001
The contribution of Best and his pilots to victory in the Pacific cannot be over-estimated. The Japanese had sent an invasion fleet by unknown route across the Pacific under cover of bad weather to take Midway Island and from there stage an invasion of the Hawaiian Islands, which they had failed to do at Pearl Harbor. Navy code-breakers discovered that they would attack Midway. The Americans stationed their outnumbered carrier force around the island. After the initial Japanese air attack they launched three squadrons of torpedo bombers, fighters, and dive bombers, in the direction of the Japanese retreat.
Early career (1928–1941)
Richard H. Best was appointed to the United States Naval Academy in 1928. Having graduated with honors in 1932, he served for two years aboard the light cruiser USS Richmond. In 1934 he was transferred to the Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, as a naval aviation student. He completed his flight training in December 1935. His first assignment was Fighting Squadron Two (VF-2B) aboard the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, flying the Grumman F2F.
SBD-2s on Enterprise, April, 1942, Hornet in the background.
In June 1938, he was given the choice to either join a patrol squadron at Panama or Hawaii, or become a flight instructor at Pensacola. Choosing Pensacola, he was assigned to instruct Training Squadron Five, which was not named according to the codes and rules that had been developed for fleet aircraft (see List of United States Navy aircraft squadrons). In the peacetime Navy, aviation students were given a year of training, 300 hours of flight, before receiving their wings. The training was divided into five units reflecting grades of skills mastered: Training Squadron One, Two, etc. One and Two taught general flying skills, three, instrument flying, four, seaplane and flying boats, and five, carrier take-off and landing, aerial gunnery, combat tactics, dive bombing, and torpedo bombing. The student began with One and ended with Five.
In September, 1939, President Roosevelt declared a limited national emergency, anticipating coming to the assistance of the British Empire. Starting in October, the 300 hours, one year were cut to 200 hours, 6 months. All students took Training Squadrons One and Two, and elements of Three, but those intended for multi-engine scout work took only Four, while carrier pilots took only Five, thus increasing the output of pilots. Anticipating what was probably coming, after a year and some months of instructing, Best decided that he could be of most use as a dive bomber pilot. He put in a request for a transfer to the Pacific Fleet as that.
On May 31, 1940, Best received orders to join Bombing Squadron Six (VB-6), which was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. The ready identification scheme for the carrier and its aircraft in use at the time is as follows. Every ship was assigned a unique number, called the Hull number, because typically it was painted in white on the upper front hull, where it could be seen by an observer looking laterally along the surface of the ocean, but not from above. Carriers were treated differently. No numbers appeared on the hull. Identifiers needed to be visible to returning pilots; therefore, they were painted on the flight deck. Prior to the war, the Enterprise displayed an English abbreviation, "EN," on either end of its flight deck. During the war this was changed to the number 6, for CV-6, the legal hull number, though not on the hull.
Numberng of aircraft squadrons followed from the hull number. "V" meant fixed-wing. "VB" was for bombing, (dive bombers), "VT" for torpedo, "VF" for fighting, "VS" for scouting, although in fact any of the aircraft could be armed and utilized for any purpose. VB-6 thus identified "Bombing Squadron 6," which could only be of the Enterprise, in historical sources usually shortened to "Bombing 6."
Upon arrival at the squadron's base on land, Naval Air Station North Island, California, on June 10, Best was made flight officer (operations officer) of the squadron, who was third-in-command. By early 1942, after the war had begun, he had advanced to executive officer, a standard Navy term for second-in-command, under his close friend and USNA classmate, William Hollingsworth, known as "Holly," as commander. Best subsequently became squadron Commander in time for the Battle of Midway.
In 1940 VB-6 was equipped with the Northrop BT-1 dive bomber. In late 1941 it converted to the Douglas SBD-2 Dauntless. In the spring of 1942 the SBD-3 replaced the SBD-2, being equipped with an upgraded engine, armor, self-sealing fuel tanks, and a better armament.
By now it is well-known to history that the Japanese naval forces conducting a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, succeeded in effecting a surprise, but were themselves surprised by the absence of the two aircraft carriers, the Enterprise and the Lexington, from the harbor. They had steamed out on patrol, the Enterprise on November 28, and the Lexington on the 5th, to deliver aircraft to Wake and Midway Islands, and to scout ironically for any possible threat. They were part of a recent force, the Command Battle Force, under the command of William Halsey Jr., the commander of a somewhat larger and more permanent group, Carrier Division 2, a group of carriers. Halsey had been ordered to deliver fighters to Wake by Husband Kimmel, commander, Pacific Fleet. He had received an intelligence report indicating Wake was about to be attacked. He not received, nor did he anticipate, the one about Pearl Harbor. In addition to these two ships the Pacific Fleet included the Saratoga, which was not at Pearl, but was far away in San Diego.
The absence of the two carriers is sometimes woven into a totally speculative conspiracy theory, that President Roosevelt allowed and encouraged the attack to arouse the country, but such a theory is based entirely on fortuitous circumstantial evidence. There is no "smoking gun" to indicate that the absence of the carriers was anything but an accident, disasterous for the Empire of Japan, fortuitous for the western democracies. As long as those carriers were afloat, the Empire could not occupy the Hawaiian Islands or invade the west coast of the United States.
The accident was not entirely accidental. The carriers had been ordered out of the harbor by Husband E. Kimmel, through his concern for the defense of the two islands. Kimmel held two commanding positions in the Navy: Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT), and Commander-in-Chief, United States Fleet (CINCUS). After the attack he was relieved of duty and reduced a rank for "bad judgement" and "dereliction of duty," which amounted to failure to keep the base in readiness. Ironically, his moves to keep Wake and Midway ready cost the Japanese the war. It is not true that the entire Pacific Fleet except the carriers lay indolently at risk in Pearl Harbor. With the carriers were fleets of cruisers, destroyers and other ships. Military disasters typically require scapegoats, and Admiral Kimmel and the army general commanding, Walter Short, fit the bill. Kimmel retired in 1942. The actual cause of the defeat is that a daring and resourceful enemy struck a brilliant though ill-advised blow. It failed of its mark, awakening, as its commander, Isoroku Yamamoto, is believed to have said, "a great, sleeping giant." He had been against it initially.
The Enterprise was scheduled to return to Pearl on the very day of the attack. She was operating 330 km (150 mi) south of Pearl Harbor. At about 06:15 she launched 18 SBDs. Their orders were to search an assigned sector, two planes per sector, for any possible trouble and then land at Ford Island, their base when the carriers were in harbor. If they found any Japanese ships and aircraft, they were to fire immediately. In charge of the search was Commander of the Enterprise Air Group, LtCdr. Howard L. Young. Besides his plane were 12 planes of Scouting Squadron Six (VS-6) and five from VB-6, Best not being among them. He was on the carrier hoping that he would not be assigned, as he had scheduled some leave and his wife and four-year-old daughter were waiting at Pearl.
In brief, the aircraft returning to Pearl had a terrible report to make. The base was under attack; there were Japanese aircraft everywhere. Some of the scouts were shot up or shot down. Their effectiveness under such circumstances was null. Despite these difficulties, the crew of only one plane of VB-6, "6-B-3" was lost. In the afternoon and evening patrols several aircraft from both carriers were lost. Aircraft attempting to land on the island were destroyed by friendly fire from gun crews now fully aware and in a "trigger-happy" frame of mind. The few that did manage to land were advised to get into the air immediately.
The Enterprise returned to port on the evening of the attack, too late to be of much assistance there, but intact and ready for the coming defense of the United States. The Lexington was left at sea longer with orders to drop the ferrying and conduct a search pattern for the attackers. Not finding any, it returned to Pearl on the 13th. The Enterprise was not long in port. It steamed the next day, also with search duties. As a sort of postscript to the battle, on December 10 two pilots of VB-6 (not Best) would sink the Japanese submarine I-70 at 23°45′N 155°35′W.
As Pearl Harbor was being attacked on December 7, flights of Japanese bombers swept down on Wake Island, thus beginning the Battle of Wake Island. They were from Kwajalein Island in the Marshall Islands, a long-standing Japanese possession. Wake was a long-standing American possession.
The Marshall Islands are mid-way between the Solomons and the Hawaiian Islands. Wake is an isolated atoll hundreds of miles from any other island. It could not be used for island hopping, as you cannot hop from there to anywhere else not more readily reached by other routes. It has an airfield useful as a stop-over for long-range flights. In the early 1940's, Pan American World Airways had a construction company there to upgrade the facilities. By order of the President, it was under Kimmel's jurisdiction. He had stationed the First Marine Defence Battalion there, about 500 men, who guarded the 1300 civilians. They were heavily armed, their armaments including six 5-inch naval guns and twelve F4F fighters.
The Japanese being unable to take Wake, but suffering the loss of two destroyers from artillery fire and bombing, Kimmel's first move was to send for the Saratoga, which arrived on the 15th. Each carrier would be the center of a supporting task force (TF) of ships. The Saratoga was sent to the relief of Wake as part of TF-14. The force seemed sufficient, so Kimmel sent the Lexington as part of TF-11 (formerly TF-12), into the Marshalls to attack Japanese bases and supply lines. The Enterprise in TF-8 would continue to patrol the waters around Hawaii. Orders were sent to the Yorktown in Norfolk, Virginia, transferring her from the Atlantic to the Pacific Fleet. She would be in TF-17, but by the 30th she was only in San Diego.
On December 17, Kimmel was jerked suddenly from his command, to be replaced by William S. Pye, a vocal opponent of Kimmel, and opponent of the policy of fortifying Wake. He was to be Acting CINCPACFLT; that is, he was a candidate for the position, to keep it if he succeeded. To him, the island was not worth the cost of keeping it. Cancelling the relief, he argued that the Japanese had just been reinforced by two carriers, and that it was too late to save the island. He was refusing a battle that would have been a major one if it had taken place. Sources that support Pye erroneoulsy extend the date of decision past the fall of Wake. Wake fell on the 23rd after an intense battle with high cost to the Japanese. Having no hope of relief, it surrendered. Pye was relieved on the 31st amidst a general outcry that he had abandoned the Wake defenders. The President acted swiftly. He was moved to a non-combat command.
Pye's replacement as CINCPACFLT was a submariner, Chester W. Nimitz. He had a reputation for being a fighting admiral, which was what the United States needed at the time. Nevertheless, the President utilized the opportunity to revive COMINCH, now CINCUS. Ernest King, another fighting admiral, was moved from CINCLANT to take the position. Later, pointing out to Roosevelt that he was past the mandatory retirement age, he received the reply, "So what, old top?" By this time Roosevelt had war powers. Nimitz, surprisingly, could see Pye's point of view, and rescued him from oblivion. Pye was allowed to play a part in planning the subsequent campaign in the Marshalls. Wake was deemed not worth the cost of retaking it. It was isolated by a submarine blockade. After the Battle of Midway it was of no use to the Japanese. Its 2000 defenders, always on the verge of starvation, were bombed repeatedly by the Americans. After one such bombing they executed the 80 civilians still being held, for which the commander was hanged after the war.
In early January, Nimitz began his term as Pacific Fleet Commander with four TF's: 11 (Lexington), 8 (Enterprise), 14 (Saratoga), and 17 (Yorktown). He sent them all out on patrol almost immediately, as far south as the Coral Sea, with orders to raid bases and sink ships, as well as to serve as sentries for further action. McArthur's baseball principle of "Hit 'em where they ain't" (Willie Keeler) was yet in the future. The TF's were to aggressively seek out "harm's way" (a naval expression attributed to John Paul Jones). They inflicted only moderate damage, January through March.
The Saratoga took a Japanese torpedo on January 11th and was out of action at Pearl and San Diego for repairs and updating until the spring. Meanwhile the Japanese invasion moved toward Australia and New Zealand. ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps), a WWI military coalition, was temporarily reconstituted in 1941. Their naval force, situated in the Coral Sea between the Solomon Islands and Australia, requested military assistance from the United States. Nimitz sent the Lexington to join them.
The other two TF's went to Samoa at Pye's insistence. The main island of this archipelago, located far out in the Pacific between Hawaii and the Solomons, was divided into Western Samoa, which was ruled by New Zealand as a League of Nations mandate (see History of Samoa), and Eastern, or American, Samoa, an unincorporated territory of the United States, which it still is today. The United States Naval Station Tutuila (an island) was the major base in the region. Pye saw the base as threatened, which it might have been. The two TF's disembarked marines, bringing the marine population up to 5000 men, and provided them with additional aircraft. There were more marines than there were native Samoans. As it turned out, the Japanese were interested in a base a little closer to Hawaii. Samoa sat unthreatened for the remainder of the war.
After reinforcing Samoa, the Yorktown and Enterprise went their separate ways on January 29, the Yorktown to raid the Gilbert Islands, an archipelago between Hawaii and Papua New Guinea (off Australia), and the Enterprise to raid the Marshall Islands. The Yorktown was to hit Jaluit Atoll, Mili Atoll, and Butaritari Atoll, destroying three aircraft, but losing seven. The Enterprise struck Kwajalein Atoll, Wotje Atoll, and Taroa Island with better luck: 15 Japanese aircraft and some surface ships in exchange for 6 aircraft. The greatest danger from the Japanese is that they would retaliate immediately from the stricken bases and sink the two American carriers. Nimitz therefore attacked all 6 bases at the same time in the early morning hours of February 1, 1942.
The 6 bases, under the command of Shigeyoshi Inoue, were heavily armed and populated, with artillery and a variety of aircraft. As at Pearl, surprise was everything. Nimitz, of course, was far away in Pearl. His commanders in the field were Frank Jack Fletcher of TF-17, a Medal of Honor winner, and William Halsey Jr. of TF-8, known as the quasi-legendary "Bull Halsey," whose portraits now typically reflect his knickname. They were at long last without question the men for the task at hand.
The attack was a dress rehearsal for the coming Battle of Midway. All the same unit names from the Enterprise appear: Fighting 6, consisting of F4F's, Scouting 6 and Bombing 6 (dive bombers), consisting of SBD's, and Torpedo 6, consisting of TBD's. The 6 has no significance, any more than the number of divisions in an army. It came from the designation of the Enterprise as a "CV-6." The squadrons were grouped by method of attack. On this occasion, however, they were all armed for bombing: 2 one-hundred-pound bombs on the F4F's, 2 two-hundred-pound bombs and a five-hundred-pound bomb on the SBD's, 3 five-hundred-pound bombs on the TBD's. They all carried a full load of 50-caliber machine-gun ammunition, to be expended after the bombing (except that matters did not go as planned). For defense the Japanese had Mitsubishi A5M's, or "Claudes," predecessors of the famed "zeros." The main American concern was to keep them from getting off the ground by bombing them and their facilities. Failure to do that would be another disaster.
At 0430 (4:30 A.M.) on the 1st, the Enterprise turned into the wind to launch 6 F4F's under Wade McClusky, headed for Wotje. They were followed on the same launching run by 36 SBD's of Scouting and Bombing 6 under Howard L. Young, whimsically called "Brigham" (after Brigham Young, no relation). Shortly after, 9 TBD's and another SBD were launched, all 46 (excluding the F4F's, on a different mission) to rendez-vous and proceed to Kwajalein 155 miles away. Subsequently 12 more F4F's were launched and headed for Wotje and Taroa.
Before arrival, the TBD's, under Gene Lindsey, veered to the Anchorage, a naval site in the atoll, while the SBD's bombed Roi-Namur, a fortified island in the north of the atoll. They had a difficult time finding it, due to the inaccuracy of historic maps and ground fog. They found a fully alert base, but due to the size of their sorti, managed to destroy it anyway. Meanwhile Lindsey, discovering heavy shipping at the Anchorage, had radioed the presence of choice targets of opportunity. Not only did the message attract Young's SBD's, but Halsey, hearing it on the Enterprise, switched 9 TBD's to torpedoes and dispatched them also. Meanwhile Bombing 6 under William R. Hollingsworth dived on the Anchorage from 14,000 feet.
McClusky's 6 F4F's finally arrived at Wotje, bombing it uneventfully. However, James S. Grey, commanding 5 additional F4F's, having disappeared from the target area to bomb the wrong island, now discovered that Taroa had been further constructed into a major base. Moreover, he could not fully strafe the place, as the F4F guns began to jam, all experiencing the same mechanical failure. As a result 6 Claude fighters got into the air and began to attack the Americans. Just in the knick of time salvos from the cruisers and destroyers caused havoc in the facilities, distracting the attention of the Japanese.
Marcus Island, Doolittle raid
On February 24, 1942 Best took part in the attack of Wake Island by the Enterprise Air Group, and on March 4 Marcus Island was attacked. After these raids Enterprise returned to Pearl Harbor and accompanied the USS Hornet during the "Doolittle Raid" in mid-April. Both carriers then sped to the south, but were too late to take part in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Both carriers and their sister ship USS Yorktown were then recalled to counter a new Japanese threat at Midway Islands. Enterprise and Hornet left Pearl Harbor on May 28, the hastily repaired Yorktown two days later to take part in what became known as the Battle of Midway, from 4 to June 6, 1942.
Battle of Midway
After contact reports of Midway-based PBY Catalina patrol aircraft on the morning of June 4, 1942, Enterprise started to launch her air group starting on 07:06h. Under the overall command of the air group commander (CEAG) Lt.Cdr. Wade McClusky were 14 TBD-1 Devastator torpedo bombers of Torpedo Squadron 6 (VT-6), 34 SBDs of VB-6, the CEAG section, and VS-6, and ten F4F-4 Wildcat fighters of Fighting Squadron 6 (VF-6). However, the squadrons became separated and reached the Japanese independently. Only the dive bombers stayed together and reached the enemy by 09:55h. At about 10:22h the Enterprise dive bombers started to attack two Japanese carriers, which proved to be the Kaga, and the Akagi.
Sinking of the Akagi
At this point, the attack became confused, as all 34 Dauntlesses started to attack Kaga, and none the Akagi. Obviously, Best expected to attack according to the U.S. dive bomber doctrine. This was that VB-6 would attack the nearer carrier (in that case Kaga) and VS-6 the one further away (here Akagi). The three-plane CEAG section was expected to attack last, as their planes were equipped with cameras to assess the damage later. However, evidently McClusky was not aware of this, having been a fighter pilot until becoming CEAG. Therefore McClusky began his dive on Kaga, being followed by VS-6, and Best's VB-6 was also attacking Kaga according to doctrine. Lieutenant Best noticed the error and broke off with his two wingmen to attack the Akagi.
At 10:26h Best's three SBDs attacked the Akagi. The first bomb, dropped by Lt.(jg) Edwin John Kroeger, missed. The second bomb, aimed by Ens. Frederick Thomas Weber, landed in the water, near the stern. The force wave of that hit jammed the Akagi's rudder. The last bomb, dropped by Best, punched though the flight deck and exploded in the upper hangar, in the middle of 18 Nakajima B5N2 planes, parked there. That hit doomed the Akagi.
Sinking of the Hiryu
Later that day, Lieutenant Best participated in the attack on the last remaining Japanese carrier - the Hiryu, possibly scoring one of the four hits. Another very credible and more recent source states that on June 4, 1942, Best's gunner, James Francis Murray "saw the flash of their bomb through the smoke as it struck (Hiryu) amidships forward of the island. Best is believed to be the first American pilot to successfully bomb two Japanese carriers in one day." After the battle, Best was awarded the Navy Cross and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Considering this unique accomplishment, Admiral Thomas Moorer and Vice-Admiral Bill Houser made a serious but failed effort to recommend Best for the Medal of Honor after his death in 2001.
On the morning flight, Best had tested an oxygen bottle to be sure that it was not leaking caustic soda. Best's first inhalation was then filled with gas fumes. He snorted the gas fumes out, not thinking about it anymore. The next day Best began to cough up blood repeatedly. The flight surgeon found out that the gas fumes had activated latent tuberculosis. He entered the hospital at Pearl Harbor on June 24, 1942. After undergoing 32 months of treatment, Richard Best retired from the US Navy in 1944.
Civilian life (1944–2001)
After his retirement from the Navy Best moved to Santa Monica, California, where he lived for the rest of his life. After discharge from the hospital, Best worked in a small research division of the Douglas Aircraft Corporation. This division became part of the Rand Corporation in December 1948, where Best headed the security department until his retirement in March 1975. He died in October 2001 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Best was married and had a daughter - Barbara Ann Llewellyn, a son - Richard Halsey Best II., a grandson and a step-daughter - Amy Best.