Valor Friday

| December 17, 2021

While working on last week’s Pearl Harbor-related article, I came across today’s subject. In the early daylight hours of Sunday 7 December, 1941, we all know that the American Pacific Fleet’s aircraft carriers were out of port and thus spared. This was fortuitous as World War II’s Pacific War would be dominated by aircraft, supplanting the battleship, which had ruled naval warfare for decades.

USS Enterprise (CV-6)

One of the Pacific Fleet’s carriers, USS Enterprise (CV-6) was 215 nautical miles west of Oahu that morning. Aircraft of the carrier’s Scouting Squadron Six (VS-6) and Bombing Squadron Six (VB-6) took off starting at 0615 hours that morning. The flight plan for the 17 aircraft of the flight was to conduct a patrol in a large arc, starting at about 58 degree (northeast) and moving to 95 degrees (east) about 150 miles, then moving south-by-southeast to the airfield at Ford Island, Hawaii.

SBD Dauntless

As fate would have it, about 200 miles north of Oahu at the exact same time, Japanese carriers were launching their own planes. This was the first wave of the Attack on Pearl Harbor.

Map of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, December 7th, 1941 showing position of US ships in harbor

The first wave of Japanese aircraft commenced their attack on Pearl Harbor at 0755 hours.

The American aircraft, unaware of the surprise attack, were coming to the Hawaiian Islands, having experienced an unremarkable patrol. The time was 0810 hours.

The flight leader reported seeing a squadron of aircraft in column formation. He assumed they were US Army Air Forces aircraft, so gave them a wide berth. As he neared Oahu though, he saw anti-aircraft fire over the island. At that moment, coming to realize something was wrong, that he and his flight were attacked by fighters from behind. He saw the distinctive Japanese rising sun emblem and immediately knew he’d wandered his flight into the first American battle of World War II.

Clarence Dickinson

Flying one of the scout planes was Lieutenant Clarence Dickinson. Dickinson was pilot of an SBD Dauntless. The Dauntless was a state-of-the-art scout and dive-bomber. A large fighter, it could carry nearly as much bomb weight as a B-25 medium bomber. The Dauntless was armed with two forward, fixed-position .50-caliber machine guns and two rear swivel-mounted .50-caliber machine guns. Though not designed as a fighter, it was successful at defending itself against the lightly built Japanese aircraft.

Dickinson had been a 1934 Naval Academy graduate and came from Raleigh, North Carolina. Flying in his back seat as observer and gunner was Radioman First Class William Cicero Miller, also of North Carolina. Miller had enlisted into the Navy in 1938 and been Dickinson’s “back seater” since April of 1941.

Dickinson reported that at about 0825 as they were nearing Barbers Point, Oahu at 1,500 feet elevation he noticed shell splashes in the water near the entrance to Pearl Harbor. Looking out, he saw a cruiser and three destroyers about three miles out from the harbor entrance, but they weren’t the source. He assumed some Army coastal artillery were having some misguided fun. He remarked to his gunner that someone was going to catch hell for it tomorrow morning.

Turning his attention forward, the area above Pearl Harbor was filled with anti-aircraft bursts. A massive fire had engulfed Ewa Field, sending smoke as high as 5,000 feet, and Dickinson saw a thick column of smoke rising from a battleship he later learned was USS Arizona (which had exploded about 15 minutes prior).

Realizing there was a threat from enemy aircraft, Dickinson called a wing man to come alongside and then rose to 4,000 feet. Still not seeing any enemy aircraft, once he got to this higher altitude he was attacked by two Japanese Zero fighters without warning.

Japanese A6M “Zero” over Pearl Harbor

The Naval Aviators dove, but the Zeros (far quicker and more nimble) followed them. The two enemy planes focused their fire on Dickinson’s wingman. As they did, four more enemy fighters took the two Dauntlesses under fire.

As the two American planes came over Pearl Harbor, having descended to about 1,000 feet, the enemy fire on Dickinson’s wingman hit true. Dickinson watched as his comrades’ plane caught fire and fell behind. The pilot was still trying to fly and fight his aircraft, but Dickinson soon saw it strike the ground. Before it did so, he saw one parachute open. The pilot, Ensign McCarthy survived, but broke his leg (having hit it on the plane’s tail while bailing out). The gunner, Radioman Third Class Mitchell Cohn, went down with the plane. His remains were never recovered.

Dickinson was now alone with between three and six Japanese Zeros taking him under fire. Dickinson’s gunner Miller reported about then that he had been hit. Dickinson later said, “Miller, in a calm voice, said, ‘Mr. Dickinson, I have been hit once, but I think I have got one of them.’ He had, all right. I looked back and saw with immense satisfaction that one of the Zeros was falling in flames.”

Miller’s true aim would be the Navy scouting squadron’s only confirmed kill of the battle. He is also the first American man to be able to claim an air-to-air victory in WWII.

Dickinson said of the volume of enemy fire directed at him, “One or more of them got on the target with cannon. They were using explosive and incendiary bullets that clattered on my metal wing like hail on a tin roof. I was fascinated by a line of big holes creeping across my wing, closer and closer. A tongue of yellow flame spurted from the gasoline tank in my left wing and began spreading.”

His plane hit and his gunner wounded, Dickinson was running low on options. Dickinson recalled asking, “‘Are you all right, Miller?’ I yelled. ‘Mr. Dickinson, I’ve expended all six cans of ammunition,’ he replied. Then he screamed. It was as if he opened his lungs wide and just let go. I have never heard any comparable human sound. It was a shriek of agony. When I called again, there was no reply. I’m sure poor Miller was already dead.”

Dickinson was able to use his fixed forward guns on one of the enemy planes as it came before him, but he did not strike it.

Dickinson’s fuel tank was on fire and his left wing controls were losing function. He called on the intercom for Miller to bail out, but received no response. As the aircraft entered a right spin and headed down from about 1,000 feet, Dickinson heeded his own advice and bailed out.

Dickinson’s chute deployed correctly and he landed without injury near Ewa Field. It was then that he realized his gunner hadn’t made it out. William Miller was 22 years old when he was killed in action that morning. He’d either died of his wounds before receiving the bailout order or he’d been too injured to jump. In either case, he went down with his ship.

Radioman First Class William Miller

Miller received a posthumous commendation from the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet (likely Admiral Chester Nimitz). Dickinson’s report says, “At all times MILLER, William C., RM1c, USN, conducted himself in an outstanding manner and in accordance with the best traditions of the Navy. He kept himself alert and cool and in every way successfully carried out his assignment.” At the time, a letter of commendation would have been a considerable award for an enlisted man. The Navy Commendation Medal, the current equivalent award, wasn’t instituted until 1943. Similarly, other awards and decorations that might seem more fitting now such as the Air Medal or Bronze Star Medal also had yet to be created. The Navy named an Evarts-class destroyer escort after Miller as well, another high honor. USS William C. Miller (DE-259) was commissioned on 2 July 1943 and served through the end of World War II, earning 7 battle stars in the Pacific Theater before her decommissioning.

For his role in the day’s combat action, Lieutenant Dickinson was awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest award for combat bravery.

When Dickinson reported to his superiors at Ford Field, he didn’t relay any of the morning’s actions. If they knew he’d just been shot down, his gunner (who had worked with him for the past seven months) was killed in action, and he’d had to parachute out of his aircraft with only seconds to spare, they probably wouldn’t have let him back in the air so soon. Since he didn’t, he was immediately given an aircraft and sent back into the air on a 175 mile scouting mission to try and find the enemy fleet.

In the days after the Attack on Pearl Harbor, Dickinson’s ship USS Enterprise remained in the area. As American vessels were hastily repaired and moved out of the harbor, the Navy wanted to ensure that enemy ships, submarines in particular, did not lurk nearby waiting to strike.

It was on one of these anti-submarine patrols just three days later that Dickinson would again engage the enemy. On 10 December Dickinson spotted a Japanese submarine on the surface.

Diving into the enemy ship, Dickinson flew into a hail of anti-aircraft fire from the sub. Dropping his bomb, he pulled out of the dive. They saw an explosion and the submarine went under the surface. There were no signs of an intentional dive (such as a propeller wake) and after the ship dove, an oil slick was spotted.

I-65, a submarine of the same type as I-70

Dickinson had sunk the Imperial Japanese Navy ship I-70, a Kaidai-type cruiser submarine. It was last heard from on 9 December when it reported seeing USS Enterprise near Pearl Harbor. The submarine was attacked earlier on 10 December by an aircraft of Enterprise’s Carrier Air Group. The damage caused in that first action forced the commander of the sub to the surface where he then tried to fight it out with Dickinson’s Dauntless later in the day. When Dickinson sank I-70, it became the first enemy combatant ship sunk by the US during the war.

Dickinson received his second Navy Cross for this action. For those keeping score, he got two Navy Crosses in less than a week! He was also the first Navy man to sink an enemy ship in the war and was part of the two-man crew that made the first air-to-air kill of the war.

In the coming months, USS Enterprise would continue being present for many major actions of the war. She eventually earned 20 battle stars (more than any ship before or since) during the war. There were 43 recognized Navy campaigns in the Pacific Theater and Enterprise was there for almost half of them.

First, Enterprise’s air wing raided Marshal Islands targets in early February 1942. Dickinson earned an individual award of the Air Medal for being flight lead on the initial assault at Kwajalein Atoll on 1 February. The bombers pummeled the airfield. They destroyed an ammunition dump, two hangars, and a radio station. They then swung back around to strafe the base and planes parked on the ground

After the Marshal Islands, Enterprise then provided combat air patrol coverage for the Doolittle Raiders as they took off from USS Hornet in April.

Days later Enterprise was sent towards the Coral Sea, but the defeat of the fleet there happened before she could arrive. Returning to Pearl the following month, Enterprise would be the flagship for the fleet sailing to Midway Island, in what would become one of the most decisive naval battles of the war. They arrived 4 June, outnumbered and outgunned.

The Japanese order of battle was immense. The main thrust was the 1st Carrier Striking Force, consisting of:

  • 4 fleet carriers
  • 2 battleships
  • 2 heavy cruisers
  • 1 light cruiser
  • 12 destroyers
  • 248 carrier-based aircraft
  • 16 floatplanes
  • 13 submarines

They were supported by an additional four heavy cruisers, two destroyers, and 12 floatplanes.

In contrast, the American fleet was made up of;

  • 3 fleet carriers (Enterprise, Hornet, and the hastily repaired Yorktown, the three remaining carriers in the fleet)
  • 7 heavy cruisers
  • 1 light cruiser
  • 15 destroyers
  • 233 carrier-based aircraft
  • 127 land-based aircraft
  • 16 submarines

For the Battle of Midway, Lieutenant Dickson was to be flight leader for Second Division, Scouting Squadron Six, embarked on Enterprise. He was the officer commanding six SBD Dauntless aircraft.

Just after noon on 4 June 1942, Scouting Squadron Six went into action as dive bombers on the enemy fleet. First Division went in first, targeting the Japanese fleet carriers. The Japanese fleet put up a curtain of lead anti-aircraft rounds. Dozens of American aircraft went down in every pass.

After First Division made several successful hits against the enemy flat top, Dickinson led his division in immediately after the last plane of First Division. Dickinson personally scored the first hit for his division as he struck the enemy carrier with his 500 pound bomb.

After his bombing run, Dickinson was leading his men out of the fray. He saw an enemy fighter ahead and below him. Though his aircraft wasn’t a fighter, and certainly not as nimble as the Japanese Zero he was targeting, he carefully lined up a shot. Dickinson knew if he didn’t finish the enemy with his one shot, the Japanese pilot was going to come back for him. With a much faster, more nimble aircraft, Dickinson wanted to avoid that.

Lined up on the enemy plane, he pushed his nose down. When the sight came over his foe, he opened up with his forward machine guns. He watched as the enemy plane burst into flames and went right into the water.

Returning to Enterprise, Dickinson was forced to ditch his aircraft in the water as he was nearing the American task force. He’d fought his plane so long and so hard, he ran out of gas a few miles short of home. Landing on a calm sea, both he and his gunner were plucked from the water by the destroyer USS Phelps and later returned to Enterprise. In less than a year, Dickinson had now had two Dauntless aircraft lost from under him. Ironically, of all the destroyers in the American fleet, Dickinson had started his fleet service aboard USS Phelps in the early 1930s.

According to squadron records, it doesn’t look like Dickinson flew again during the battle. If you ask me, he’d already done enough. He received yet another Navy Cross for heroism in battle, his third. He was the first of two men to have received the honor thrice (the other being Lieutenant Noel Gaylor, also a Navy Aviator, who received his third simultaneously with Dickinson).

The American aviators at Midway scored a decisive victory that caused a mortal blow to the Japanese Fleet, one it never recovered from. Of the four fleet carriers the Japanese sent to Midway, all four were sunk and they lost a heavy cruiser. The Americans, despite losing 150 aircraft and scores of men, only lost one carrier (USS Yorktown) and one destroyer (USS Hammann). Casualties numbered more than 300 for the Americans, but they inflicted ten-to-one against their enemy, as the Japanese casualties numbered more than 3,000.

Dickinson remained in the Navy. He flew through the rest of the war and made the Navy a career afterwards. He retired as a Rear Admiral (Upper Half). He was living in Santa Barbara County, California when he died in 1984 at age 71. He was survived by his spouse, Florence, who joined him in death in 1992.

Perhaps most telling of the kind of officer and man that Dickinson was, he chose to be buried with the men he’d fought alongside. He’s interred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii with tens of thousands of Pacific War dead and veterans.

Category: Historical, Navy, Navy Cross, Valor, We Remember

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That’s some impressive stuff. The World War II generation has some amazingly brave individuals who jumped into a’many fray, with no guarantees.

Thanks for the data, Mason.

Old tanker

Thank God that men like that lived. Rest well Admiral and thank you for our freedom.

Only Army Mom

Staggering awe.


3…Navy….Crosses. 2 in a week. Wow. Now THAT is a man. Touch the heavens Mr. Dickinson.


My son and I watched the remake of MIDWAY recently and it differed from the original and showed some of the Carrier Air Wings at/during the Pearl Harbor Attack. Other than the carriers being out to see on Dec 7 I knew little of what they did were doing.

Thanks for this post my Great Uncle was part of the Marine detachment on Enterprise on Dec 7. He later went on to Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester and Peleliu.
The latter two under the command of the legendary Chest Puller of 5 Navy Cross fame.


Thanks Mason for another tale of a true hero and legend.


…Just a quick comment – the CVs at Midway were ENTERPRISE, YORKTOWN, and HORNET. RANGER was in the Atlantic and would stay there until early ’45 – she was designed and built when we weren’t sure what carriers were supposed to be or do, so she was small, slow, and comparatively unprotected. She was the only US fleet carrier that never fought the Japanese, but she got her licks in against the Nazis in North Africa and the Operation LEADER, where she went raiding against Nazi shipping and bases in Norway, and did so with such success that the Nazis put a price on her head.

They never did pay up. 😉

RANGER finally got to the Pacific in the spring of ’45 where she served as the USN’s night fighter training carrier until the end of the war. During the worst of the kamikaze attacks off Okinawa there was some quiet concern that they might have to put her into the line, but that idea was put down – she would not likely have survived a kamikaze or torpedo strike.

(My apologies if that went on a bit; I had family aboard RANGER all the way through the war. It’s an honored name and ship in our family.)

Sgt K

Yeah, the Doolittle Raiders took off from the USS Hornet.


“…just been shot down…back in the air…” Hardcore! Surprised that the plane would fly with the weight of them big brass ones. And with a ht 2 ’26beans, SFC D, among others here, his commo rat was right there with him in that fight.

Great story Mason! Thanks!