August 21, 2008 Email to Russ Padden From Ron Martell:
Capt. Richard E. Fleming, a Marine Corps pilot, holds a special place in World War II history as the only participant in the Battle of Midway to receive the Medal of Honor. Rich Leonard posted information on your website page about Fleming that contains statements requiring clarification or correction. This article addresses those statements.
About 2:30 a.m. on June 5, 1942, two Imperial Japanese Navy heavy cruisers, the Mogami and the Mikuma, collided while withdrawing at high speed from Midway Island. An earlier order to bombard Midway with two other cruisers had been countermanded. Sailing in column, the lead ship spotted the American submarine Tambor. Red signal lamps flashed an emergency turn to port. The Mogami, last in line, turned too slowly. The Mikuma shoved the Mogami's bow nearly 90° to port, cutting her speed in half. The Mikuma's port side was ripped open adjacent to a fuel oil bunker. This allowed an unmistakable oil slick to trail behind her. Later that morning, twelve dive-bombers left Midway to attack the pair. The oil slick, then more than thirty miles long, led Marine pilots directly to the wounded ships. At 8:05 a.m. Capt., later Brig. Gen., Marshall A. Tyler, USMC, led six Douglass Dauntless SBDs in a dive-bombing attack on the Mogami that scored no hits. Three minutes later, Capt. Fleming led his unit of six outdated Vought Vindicator SB2U-3s in a glide-bombing attack over the Mikuma's stern. As deadly accurate anti-aircraft fire raked his plane, setting first his engine and then his plane afire, Fleming dropped his bomb. He crashed in flames; whether into the Mikuma's last turret or into the sea is a matter of lingering controversy.
Capt., later Col., Leon Williamson, USMCR, winner of two Navy Crosses at Midway, and Imperial Japanese Navy Captain Soji Akira, commanding officer of the Mogami, both saw Fleming's plane crash. Gerald Astor's book, Semper Fi in the Sky published in 2005, reports that Williamson saw Fleming's plane crash into the Mikuma. Williamson, Fleming's wingman, wrote in a recent letter that he was flying immediately behind and to Fleming's left. Williamson confirmed he saw Fleming's plane crash into the Japanese ship. Published in 1946, United States Strategic Bombing Survey Interrogation (USSBS) No. 83 quotes then Rear Admiral Soji as saying I saw a dive-bomber dive into the [Mikuma's] last turret. . . .
There are more than two dozen published accounts of Fleming's crash. No currently available, published account names any eyewitness who said Fleming crashed into the sea. There are published accounts from only two other pilots about his attack. Capt. Marshall Tyler and 2d Lt. George Koutelas both said Fleming's bomb was a near miss and his plane crashed or went down in flames. Neither of the two said whether he crashed into the ship or into the sea.
Versions From Other Midway
Three Midway-based Marines, Warrant Officer, later Col., W. R. Bill Lucius; 2d Lt., later Lt. Col., Sumner H. Whitten and Intelligence Officer Albert Grassell, gave second hand accounts that Fleming's plane crashed into the Japanese ship. Two other Marines, also relying on second hand information, gave a different account. Gordon Prange, Donald Goldstein and Katherine Dillon, authors of Miracle at Midway published in 1982, referenced Midway-based Lt. Col. Ira Kimes' June 8, 1942, report. Kimes, commanding officer of Marine Air Group 22, said that Fleming scored a direct bomb hit on the Japanese ship before crashing into the sea. Prange's book continued, To the best of our knowledge no one else on the American side questioned that Fleming crashed into Mikuma. . . However Corporal, later Major, Eugene Card, USMC, gave the same information as Kimes in an interview published in the Detroit News. Still, nearly every one of the Midway-based Marines named in any published source said either Fleming's bomb or his plane hit the ship.
The Medal of Honor Citation
On November 24, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt presented the Medal of Honor to Fleming's mother, Octavia Fleming, of St. Paul, Minnesota. The Medal of Honor was given for his brave actions on both June 4 and 5. The Citation said, in part, that while attacking a Japanese battleship [on June 5th] his bomb scored a near miss before he crashed into the sea. Since the Mikuma was a cruiser, not a battleship, and no eyewitness said he crashed into the sea, the Citation was, to that extent, based on inaccurate, second-hand information. Two authors, Lt. Col. R. D. Heinl, Jr. USMC and Capt. Walter Karig USNR incorrectly wrote that the Medal of Honor was awarded for Fleming's feat in crashing into the Mikuma. It was not awarded for that reason.
Soji Akira's USSBS Interrogation
On November 14-15, 1945, then Rear Admiral Soji Akira gave his eyewitness statement as part of USSBS Interrogation No. 83. [In Japanese fashion, Soji's surname is given first, then his given name, Akira.] Soji, who had been the Captain of the Mogami, reported that the Mikuma was off the Mogami's port bow, and then he straightforwardly declared that:
"The Mikuma was not hit by any bombs, but I saw a dive-bomber dive into the last turret and start fires. He was very brave."
The Heinl and Morison Accounts
In 1948, two years after the USSBS was published, Lt. Col. Heinl quoted Soji's Interrogation statement verbatim in his monograph, Marines at Midway. In his posting to your website, Leonard does not cite either Soji's USSBS Interrogation or Leon Williamson's eyewitness account. Heinl merely repeated the Soji quotation; he did not invent it, as one might infer from reading Leonard's posting.
Heinl is the source of a statement that Leonard appropriately questioned. On June 6th, American carrier planes pounded the Mikuma with bombs, creating a gigantic explosion just forward of Mikuma's next to the last or fourth turret. A photograph taken after the explosion shows piles of wreckage heaped atop that turret. The photograph can be seen at
Heinl wrote that the photograph may well be of the wreckage of Fleming's plane. Samuel Eliot Morison, citing Heinl, said Soji saw the dive-bomber crash and that the photograph did indeed show Fleming's plane. Prange et al. wrote in Miracle at Midway, published in 1982, that in 1961 Soji denied Morison's account that the picture showed the wreckage of Fleming's plane. They wrote Soji thought there was no damage to the Mikuma at the time of Fleming's attack. They further reported that Mogami's Damage Control Officer, Lt. Cdr. Saruwatari Masatake, said that the wreckage shown in the photograph did not look like an enemy plane. He also said he didn't see the 'hit,' although he heard about it after the battle. Leonard claimed, but without citing any source, that Soji denied saying he saw Fleming crash into the Mikuma rather than only denying the Mikuma sustained any damage.
However, Leonard correctly wrote that it is unlikely that the visible wreckage depicted in the photograph lying atop the fourth turret came from Fleming's plane hitting the last, or fifth, turret. The photograph shows layers of wreckage probably coming from the June 6th attack that buried other wreckage. Saruwatari's comment that the wreckage did not look like an enemy plane is pertinent. The Mikuma carried two float planes in catapults just forward of the fourth turret. The explosion in that area would have blown those planes apart. No one can say with certainty that none of the wreckage shown on the turret came from a plane. But, even if none of Fleming's plane's wreckage is visible in the photograph, that does not mean his plane did not hit the Japanese ship. The photo is simply irrelevant, and Heinl's and Morison's speculation about it created a red herring.
Although not mentioned in your website, there is another account of Fleming's crash written by Japanese pilots Fuchida Mitsuo and Okumiya Masatake. Their book, Midway, the Battle That Doomed Japan, published in the United States in 1955, said that fire from Fleming's plane crashing into the Mikuma's last turret set off an explosion of gas fumes that killed all the crewmen in the starboard engine room. Although repeated in many later works, there is absolutely nothing in any eyewitness account or in any record to substantiate this claim. At the time of the crash, both Japanese pilots were very far from the two cruisers.
Battle of Guadalcanal
Leonard wrote Soji confused Fleming's crash on the Mikuma, with a plane crash into the cruiser Maya he said Soji witnessed at the Battle of Guadalcanal. Leonard gives no information placing Soji Akira on any ship at that battle. Instead, Leonard confused RADM Soji Akira with a different naval officer, RADM Nishimura Shoji (Nishimura was his surname, Shoji his given name). Nishimura did not witness Fleming's plane crash at the Battle of Midway. He was on his flagship, the light cruiser Yura, with the Invasion Force, many miles from the Mogami and the Mikuma on the morning of June 5th. Promoted in 1943, Vice Admiral Nishimura was killed in action at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944.
RADM Nishimura was at the Battle of Guadalcanal on November 14, 1942. He commanded the smaller Bombardment Unit that included the Maya and two other cruisers shelling Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. The larger Main Body that included five cruisers stood off Savo Island. Early that morning during a dive-bomber attack the starboard wing of Ens. P. M. Halloran's SBD hit the Maya's mainmast and crashed into the ship's port side. Fire from the crash triggered explosions in ready ammunition boxes, killing thirty-seven Japanese sailors. It took two months to repair the damage to the Maya.
Soji's Service Record
Soji's service record places him in Northern Japanese waters during the Battle of Guadalcanal. On Nov. 10, 1942 he was posted as an assistant to Vice Admiral Hosogaya's staff of the Fifth (Northern Force) Fleet. On Nov. 15 or 16 (accounts vary) Soji was given command of the heavy cruiser Nachi then berthed at the Ominato Naval Base on the northwest coast of Honshu Island, about 3,600 miles from Guadalcanal. Nothing in Capt. Soji Akira service record shows he was at the Battle of Guadalcanal on November 14.
is nothing to show which of the two forces Soji would have been with if he had
been there. Even if he had been, there is nothing that would buttress
saying he saw Halloran's crash into the cruiser Maya. After describing
Halloran's crash and without citation to any source, Leonard wrote, "I'd suggest
that this incident was most likely the one to which Soji was referring. . . . This is a purely speculative statement, with no factual support, that
Soji confused Fleming's attack on the Mikuma with Halloran's attack on
Soji's Cruiser Experience
When Rear Admiral Soji gave his USSBS testimony, he had more than thirty years of naval experience. Soji was the Commanding Officer of three cruisers and served as the Chief Navigator on four others. He had commanded the Mogami for more than nine months before Midway. The Mogami and the Mikuma were sister ships from the same class of cruisers. The two trained together and sailed together from the December 7th attack on Malaya to June 5th at Midway. Soji was very familiar with the Mikuma. It seems highly improbable that he confused Fleming's crash into Mikuma's last turret, which he said caused no damage, with Ens. Halloran's crash into the mainmast and then the port side of the Maya, igniting explosions that killed thirty-seven men. Halloran's attack came over the stern of the Maya and hit the mainmast in the center of the ship. His crash into the port side likely was amidships. The two plane crashes would present markedly different images to any experienced cruiser officer. It took two months to repair the damage to the Maya. The death toll and the differences in damage to the two ships sharply contrast the two plane crashes. There is no proof that Soji Akira saw the Guadalcanal crash; but even if he had, he certainly could have kept two dissimilar plane crashes separated in his own mind when he gave his eye witness USSBS testimony.
Two Other Points
Two other points need comment. Leonard cited Capt. Walter Karig's book, Battle Report Pacific War: Middle Phase published in May 1947 as saying Fleming's plane disintegrated as he tried to pull out of his dive. Karig wrote in his preface that the book was not to be taken as a detailed history. Karig was not a witness to Fleming's crash and he did not cite any source for his description. He did not mention Soji's USSBS Interrogation published in 1946. It seems likely if he had read it, he would have cited it in his book published only a year later.
Leonard also wrote that the book, A Glorious Page in Our History, written by Robert Cressman and others, said Fleming crashed into the sea. The book does not say that. It cites 2d Lt. George Koutelas' statement that only recounted Fleming's plane went down in flames without stating where it crashed. Perhaps Koutelas did not see the actual crash and limited his report to what he could personally verify.
I have located more than two dozen published accounts of Fleming's attack written between 1942 and 2007, not including either Leonard's posting or this article. Eighteen, including two eyewitness accounts, said his plane crashed into the Mikuma, while five others, including those of two pilots on the mission, do not state where his plane crashed. Five published accounts, including the Citation to the Medal of Honor, said he crashed into the sea. I believe the two verified eyewitness accounts fully support the view that Richard Fleming's plane crashed into the Mikuma. Others may choose to believe differently.
One Final Note
Flight Surgeon Lt. Charles R. Forrester wrote a letter to Fleming's mother in July 1942. He said about Richard:
died a hero's death and in doing so, God took him unto
His country may well be grateful to him, and you may well be proud of him "for when the time comes to pay homage to those that gave the last full measure' Dick Fleming will rank with the greatest of them all.
Richard Fleming stands unique. He received the only Medal of Honor awarded any participant in the critical Battle of Midway. He was the first WW II Marine pilot, and the only Marine bomber pilot in the War, so honored. Ideally, what people believe about the story of his valiant death should be firmly rooted in reports from trustworthy eyewitnesses and confirmed in reliable records that withstand scrutiny. The story of his final moments on earth should not rest on speculation, supposition or unidentified sources.
Very truly yours,