The Battle of Midway was far from the end of the war in the Pacific, but some historians have cited it as the turning point. The names of the strategists on both sides of the battle are well known, but far less well known is the name of Richard Best. Best’s exploits on June 4th 1942 mark him out as perhaps the single aviator most responsible for changing the fortunes of war in the entire theatre. Tragically for Best, June 4th would also be his last flight.
Richard Halsey Best was born in Bayonne, New Jersey on March 24th 1910. He grew up fascinated by the stories of First World War American aviators, brought home from the violent skies over war torn Europe. Deciding at an early age that he wanted to fly in an era when all US military aviation belonged to the army or navy, Best passed the exams for the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, and joined the naval service in June 1928 at the age of eighteen. He was commissioned as an officer upon graduation in 1932, and appointed to the ship’s company of the Omaha class light cruiser USS Richmond. After two years of service, Best’s application to transfer to naval aviation was accepted and he began flying training at Pensacola, Florida.
Upon completion of training and being awarded his pilot’s wings in 1935, Best’s first tour was with VF-2B, flying the Grumman F2F fighter from the carrier USS Lexington. In 1938 he returned to Pensacola as an instructor, specialising in Instrument Flying and also the development of torpedo bomber tactics. With the war raging in Europe, Africa and Asia threatening to engulf the United States, Best requested to return to front line operations in June 1940, specifically asking for a tour with a dive bomber squadron as he believed this to be the best way to make a contribution.
Initially appointed as the squadron Operations Officer of Northrop BT-1 equipped VB-6, his success in the role led to his advancement to Executive Officer of the squadron. He first saw action in February 1942, leading strikes against Japanese shipping and land based targets at Taroa and Wake Island. By the summer of 1942, with the US Navy now fully committed to large scale operations in the Pacific theatre, Lieutenant Best was now Commanding Officer of VB-6, now re-equipped with the newer Douglas SBD Dauntless and operating from the carrier USS Enterprise as part of Lt Cdr Wade McClusky’s Enterprise Air Group.
With a Japanese assault force on the way to the strategically vital Midway Island at the beginning of June 1942, Enterprise would soon find herself in the thick of the action. Japanese codes had been broken by US Naval Intelligence, so American forces were well aware of the powerful escort provided by no fewer than four enemy aircraft carriers as they steamed towards the confrontation.
On the fateful morning of June 4th, Enterprise’s Air Group launched to strike the Japanese warships which had been spotted by a Catalina patrol aircraft. With over sixty aircraft launched for the raid, squadrons became separated en route and arrived at different times. Best’s VB-6 were amongst the first to arrive, and he positioned to attack the closest Japanese carrier: the Kaga. Meanwhile the TBD Devestator torpedo bombers from Enterprise and USS Yorktown were attacking at low level. Waves of Japanese fighters smashed into the ranks of the low level torpedo bombers, their attack augmented concentrated AA fire from the carriers and their escorting warships. The Devestators were massacred with 35 of 41 aircraft being shot down, without being able to cause any damage to the Japanese warships. However, this gave the Dauntlesses the time and space they needed to attack with far less opposition.
Due to the confusion of over one hundred aircraft swarming around the flak torn skies, the entire concentration of dive bombers had positioned to attack the Kaga. Best was the only aviator with the situational awareness to realise this and do something about it: he immediately ordered his own section of three Dauntlesses to break off their attack and reposition to dive at the Akagi. With fierce AA tearing up the skies around them, the trio of dive bombers rushed down towards the 37,000 tonne aircraft carrier. Of the three bombs one missed; another was a near miss which damaged Akagi’s rudder. Releasing from 2500 feet, Best’s bomb was directly on target.
Best’s 1000 pound bomb smashed through the carrier’s deck abeam the island and exploded in the hangar, amidst a squadron of fuelled and armed B5N torpedo bombers. The hit doomed Akagi, who blazed furiously from stem to stern and despite the best efforts of her crew to control the damage throughout the night, was scuttled on the morning of June 5th. The carriers Kaga and Soryu had also been critically hit. The fifteen aircraft of VB-6 returned to the Enterprise but most were bearing the scars of significant battle damage.
The day was far from over for VB-6. In the afternoon Best led his squadron up again to strike at that last remaining Japanese carrier: the Hiryu. This time the dive bombers were met in force by defending Zeros. With the Dauntlesses struggling to shake off their attackers and taking accurate fire from AA, they again braved enemy fire to deliver their bombs. Despite a number of the US Navy dive bombers being shot down during the attack, The Hiryu was struck by four 1000 pound bombs. Although there is a significant degree of uncertainty over which pilots are credited with these hits, Best is largely acknowledged as being one of the pilots who delivered his bomb accurately. The Hiryu was the fourth Japanese carrier to be lost at Midway.
Despite returning safely to the Enterprise, tragedy would strike Best. On the morning of June 4th Best had breathed in oxygen from a faulty canister which had created gases which turned to caustic soda. After surviving the two famous strikes on June 4th, Best began to cough up blood. He was transferred to hospital at Pearl Harbor where x-rays showed spots on his lungs. He had developed latent tuberculosis.
Best would never fly again. After 32 months of treatment, Best was retired from the US Navy in 1944. For the next decade he estimated he spent some four years in hospital. After recovering enough to return to work Best found employment with the Douglas Aircraft Company, and then worked in security for the Rand Corporation until he retired in 1975. He passed away on October 28th 2001. His career and his health tragically affected by one aberration, he is still remembered as one of the US Navy’s most successful early war aviators and leaders despite such a short combat career. The US Navy recognised his achievements with a Navy Cross and Distinguished Flying Cross.