Ron Singerton: A Blossom in the Ashes
The Battle of the Coral Sea
May 8, 1942
The torpedo planes had failed; it was the SBD Dauntless dive bomber’s turn next. Again, Mitsubishi Zeros tore upward to challenge the Americans. Tad spotted a Zero targeting a Dauntless; he shoved the nose around and pulled hard as he rolled in on the Zero. Sensing danger, the Zero pilot turned toward Tad who managed to get off a burst. Smoke then flames bloomed from its fuel tanks, turning the Zero into a lethal orange-red-black flower as it plummeted toward the water.
Tad broke off and turned tightly to clear his tail and spotted a second Zero attacking another SBD just beginning its dive on the Shokaku. Tad lined up behind the intruder, but had to immediately pull up as another F4F cut him off, fifty caliber guns blazing. The Zero banked away, did a loop and dived on its assailant. Turning in a tight, twisting circle, Tad reentered the melee to see the Zero gaining on the slower, less maneuverable Wildcat.
It was Lee-Beauregard. Flashes spewed from the Zero’s machine guns, ripping holes into Smyth’s wing. Barreling in, Tad saw Beauregard frantically twisting his Wildcat to keep it from being hit. Apparently, he’d forgotten the first rule in fighting a Zero: when attacked, dive away.
“Someone, anyone, get the bastard off my six!” shouted Smyth as the Zero closed the range. He glanced to his left and saw Tad lined up on him, a furious, intent look on his face. He was dead in Tad’s sights.
“No!” he screamed as Tad waited for the exact moment.
Concentrating on finishing off the damaged Wildcat, the Zero’s pilot didn’t notice Tad’s F4F until a fusillade of fifty-caliber rounds ripped in the Zero’s fuselage from one end to the other. The plane flipped over and spiraled into the sea.
“You’re all shot up,” Tad called out to Smyth over the radio. “Recommend you head back to the Lex.”
There was no answer from Beauregard, but Tad saw his plane head toward their carrier. Glancing down, Tad saw two more Zero’s splash into the ocean. Near misses erupted around the Shokaku, but it appeared that, once again, she would escape unharmed.
Then five fresh dive bombers sped down, and an enormous explosion erupted on the forward flight deck. Moments later, a second thousand-pound bomb struck the center. The huge carrier turned into an inferno as munitions and fueled aircraft exploded, sending oily black smoke hundreds of feet into the air.
Circling above, Tad could see hundreds of crewmen abandon ship while more explosions blew aircraft and crew overboard. The air battle broke off as Japanese pilots, seeing the utter destruction of their carrier, flew toward the Zuikaku to protect that ship from a possible enemy strike. But that was not to be; the American aircraft were out of bombs and torpedoes.
Somewhat to Tad’s surprise, the surviving Americans reached the carriers ahead of the Japanese formation. I guess our guesses are better than theirs, he mused. Either that, or we have better intel. Either way, he was vastly relieved. Jack however, was chagrined.
“If we had more planes with bombs and torpedoes we could have gone after the other carrier while it was so lightly defended,” he muttered in an undertone to Tad. “Think about it! If we’d destroyed both carriers, any Zeros that did survive an attack against the Lex and the Yorktown wouldn’t have any carrier to return to. They’d all plop into the drink and drown when they ran dry. Now they’re still out there.”
“Maybe you should be an admiral,” Tad replied.
Crews set about rearming and refueling aircraft, making quick repairs on damaged planes. One petty officer sarcastically thanked a pilot for bringing back an F4F that was so shot up his team were counting bullet holes and shaking their heads.
A number of pilots were in the ready room for another briefing, engaged in describing their encounters. Lee-Beauregard Smyth was one of them and he broke off when he saw Tad enter. All talk stopped; nearly everyone was aware of the animosity between the two men.
Tad, ignoring him, was about to pass when Smyth said, “Hey, hold up.” Tad stopped and looked at him, his face devoid of expression.
“I, uh, I just wanted to say thanks,” Smyth said. “I thought for a moment I was in your gun sights.”
“You were. But I had a juicer target. Try not to cut me off again. Something bad might happen.”
“Yeah, well, it was pretty dicey with the Ja. . .Nips all over the place.”
“Sure was,” said Tad. “The Nips know how to fly. So, don’t go telling ensigns otherwise. If they go up there expecting easy targets, they won’t survive.”
It was a truce, of sorts.
The audience watched with rapt attention as squadrons flew majestically through broken clouds. Intense aviators checked their instruments and acknowledged the presence of wingmen.
“Carrier!” said one of the pilots. The squadron rolled into a steep dive and plunged toward the American ship and its protecting aircraft.
“They’re going in!” said an excited viewer, hands clapping as the Japanese fighters dived like birds of prey upon the American planes. From far below anti-aircraft sent black bursts aloft, one of which clipped a Zero. There was a gasp from the audience as the pilot announced, “I’m losing fuel but will attack the carrier.”
“Yes, get the carrier, Corporal Omeda, then head back to the ship. You are doing an honorable thing to attack by yourself. The Emperor will be proud of you!”
Five American Wildcats rose up to challenge the Japanese, and a wild dogfight ensued. One after the another the American planes were torn apart by the Zeros, and theater-goers cheered. Torpedoes were seen in the water streaking toward the American carrier. Then the camera concentrated on an American pilot, fear in his eyes, as he tried to evade lieutenant Takashi Shamura’s machine gun bullets.
As the tension increased, the American pilot, his words translated, screamed, “Someone get him off me!”
Sayuri gripped Kumi’s hand, her eyes wide as bullets ripped through the cockpit, setting it on fire. “Yes! Yes, flame him!” shouted one patron as the plane corkscrewed through the air, black smoke and fire rampaging behind it.
Again, the camera focused on the pilot, his eyes wide with fright, as fire engulfed him. Ripping off his goggles and headgear, he tried to open the cockpit but it was too late. Starring into the camera he yelled, No, no, no!” as his plane disintegrated around him. The audience clapped and cheered, the sound filling the theater.
“Tad!” screamed Sayuri. “It’s him, it’s Tadishi, oh, Kumi-san, it looks just like him!” she sobbed.
People stared at her with disbelief. A man in navy uniform stood and leaned toward her. “what did you say? You know this, this enemy pilot?”
Others were standing, peering at the woman who now seemed to be babbling.
“No! She doesn’t,” blurted Kumi. It’s the fire, she’s traumatized by fire. Her mind isn’t right. Her brother died in a fire. He was a navy pilot on board the Shokaku. Pay her no attention. I will take her home.”
Holding her hand over her mouth, Sayuri followed Kumi from the theater as people shook their heads. A few followed them outside but decided against running to the authorities; the two women were already merging into the crowded street.