November 22, 2020

FTV: Definition of a ‘Hero’


     When Clayton Fisher died in January of 2011, Norman Jack (“Dusty”) Kleiss became the last living dive bomber pilot to have participated in the Battle of Midway.  As time took more of the participants of the June 4 – 6, 1942 battle, he found he was being sought out by more and more historians seeking information about the events of that engagement.  At the age of 95, Kleiss asked himself questions that would ultimately lead to him finally telling his story.  Questions like, “Why has God seen fit to make me the last one?  Why must I be forced to remember Midway for every remaining day of my life?”  His best answer to these nagging questions ended up as a collaboration with two people who were seeking information as the 75th Anniversary Commemoration of The Battle of Midway was being planned.  His co-authors would be Timothy Orr, an associate professor of military history at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia and Laura Orr, the deputy education director at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, the U.S. Navy’s official museum in Norfolk.  Jack Kleiss determined that he had one final duty to fulfill and with the Orrs on board, together they crafted the book Never Call Me a Hero – A legendary American dive-bomber pilot remembers The Battle of Midway (William Morrow – 2017).

     The book was slated for release in time for the 75th Anniversary Commemoration of the Battle of Midway scheduled for June of 2017.  Dusty Kleiss would not see the release nor the commemoration as he passed away in 2016 at the age of 100.  As the title clearly states, Kleiss never considered himself a hero.  In the book’s introduction he says, “Dear reader, please be generous to me, but never call me a hero.  During the Pacific War, I did my job and that’s it.  I know I performed a dangerous task – dropping out of the sky with a bomb – and that I lived in an exceptional time, when the world was torn apart by war.  But in the end, I’m just a lucky fool, blessed with a long life and lasting love.  Fortune favors me, but I have yet to comprehend why.”  Kleiss never called himself a hero, but everyone else certainly should.

     Born in Coffeyville, Kansas on March 7, 1916, Norman Jack Kleiss was the youngest of three children.  His father John was born in Wisconsin and was a master woodworker for a railroad company until he took up the insurance game.  His mother Lulu was an expert typist.  The Kleiss family made their home alongside the Verdigris River, a tributary of the Arkansas River.  Located but a few miles from the Oklahoma border in southeast Kansas, Coffeyville is probably best known as the end of the road for the fabled Dalton gang.  The Daltons decided to hold up the town’s two  banks simultaneously on October 5, 1892.  The decision proved to be a fatal one as  four gang members and four townsfolk died in the ensuing gun battle.  As a youngster, Kleiss remembered hearing the tale from a veteran of the gunfight.

     Young Norman, always a determined child, decided one day that his name would be ‘Jack’ and that was that.  It was a different time to grow up.  Jack recalled building a small boat that he and his friends christened the Punkin’ Creek Special after one of the tributaries of the Verdigris River.  Oftentimes, his father would drop Kleiss (and another newly created dinghy) off at the Verdigris on his way to work.  At mid-afternoon, his father would drive down the road paralleling the river until he found wherever the river had taken Jack during his adventures.  For an adventurous child, it was a wonderful place to grow up.

     Kleiss first became interested in the Navy when he went to live with his mother’s brother in Lincoln, Illinois for a period of time.  Jack’s mother was battling stomach cancer and his father had to farm out the kids so he could continue working during his wife’s illness.  Uncle William had been a surgeon in WWI.  When his own son, Jack’s cousin Walter, decided to attend the Naval Academy instead of following his father into medicine, Uncle Walter sought to interest Jack in the medical field.  He did consider it for a while, but it was his introduction to the Naval Academy that would stick with Kleiss when he returned home to bury his mother in February of 1929.  

     In 1932, the fifteen year old Kleiss enlisted in the Kansas National Guard.  He lied about his age to sign up, but nobody seemed that concerned about it.  His weekend training involved a variety of tasks but the most memorable was horse riding.  Jack claims he has a better memory of the equine soldiers he worked with than the humans in the company.  During one of their war game exercises, Kleiss and his horse were ‘killed’ when he ventured out from the trees to watch an airplane fly by.  It was about this time that Jack decided airplanes would be the new calvary and he wanted to become a “cavalryman mounted on wings, a knight of the airborne battlefield.”  Kleiss reasoned that the newly emerging field of Naval aviation was his best bet to become a pilot.  As his high school graduation neared, he had to turn down a four year scholarship to Kansas State University in order to accept a fourth alternate appointment to the Naval Academy.  The alternate appointment left him a gap year to fill between high school and his first year in Annapolis.

     During this pause in his educational plans, Kleiss worked a variety of jobs.  Though it involved hardening steel drilling equipment with cyanide, he considered his job at the Oil Country Specialties company his best job.  One of the company managers, Roger “Rolley” Inman, had formed a flying circus with his two brothers and a two-year-old male lion (yes, a lion).  Inman gave Kleiss and his father their first airplane ride.  With Jack’s father standing in the enclosed cockpit drinking a cup of coffee between Inman and Jack, Rolley did a full loop.  The centrifugal force kept both his father and his coffee on the floor and in the cup, respectively,  Upon landing, Jack’s dad thanked Rolley for both flights.  “Flights?”  Inman laughed.  “I gave you only one flight!”  Kleiss senior rejoined, “No, you gave me two flights, the first and the last.”  His father may have hated flying, but Jack loved it.  Any questions he had about turning down the scholarship to KSU disappeared completely as Rolley took the plane through the loop.  A year at Coffeyville Junior College helped Jack buff up his math during the day while he continued at Oil Country Specialists on the afternoon shift, often working until midnight.   He also endulged in his hobby of repairing firearms which both added to his savings and his personal gun collection.

     In May of 1934, Kleiss reported to Annapolis, Maryland to enter the U.S. Naval Academy.  He graduated 245th in a class of 438.  Jack still had a two year commitment to serve in the surface Navy before he could apply for aviation training.  He was serving aboard the USS Vincennes out of Long Beach, California when he met his future wife Eunice.  She was a few years older than he and of another faith.  Jack says he was foolish and pigheaded enough to let their differences keep him from proposing to her.  After a deployment to the Atlantic Task Force and then aerial training in Florida, Kleiss found himself stationed aboard the USS Enterprise out of San Diego, CA.  He had a grand plan to marry Eunice (who they had mutually decided to call ‘Jean’, much the same way he had decided to be ‘Jack’ instead of Norman), but after only two days on the west coast, he had his orders changed.  The Enterprise was leaving for Hawaii and the commanding officer had Jack transferred into the Scouting Six squadron who would begin intensive training in Pearl Harbor for an undetermined amount of time.  Though the wedding would have to wait until after the Battle of Midway, Jean drove to San Diego to pick up the things that Jack would not be able to bring with him when he boarded the Enterprise.

     Flying a “Dauntless” SBD-3 (a ‘Scout Bomber Douglas – Mark 3’) on a bomb run has a steep learning curve.  Kleiss said plunging down a roller coaster was “Dullsville” compared to a dive-bombing run.  In practice or the real thing, the planes would start at an altitude of four miles.  When the wing commander waggled the wings of his aircraft, each plane would peel off one by one in a downward plunge toward their target.  The pilot would need to arm the bombs, adjust their instruments, and set the perforated flaps at the back of the wings called dive brakes.  Kleiss said that at the start of a dive, the target looked no larger than a ladybug sitting on top of your shoe.  

      Jack describes a typical bomb run:  “At full dive speed, an SBD dropped at 240 knots, or 275 miles per hour.  Even a typical, ‘perfect’ dive was hard to endure.  Air resistance buffeted the plane and deafened our hearing.  We had to keep our cockpits open during a dive, so the noise of the wind drowned out nearly all other sound.  With one eye on the bomb scope, we adjusted the dive so our target was centered and had no tendency to drift up and down, or left or right.   Our other eye glanced at airspeed and other instruments, assuring us that our dive brakes were working.  Mainly we watched the altimeter, which spun like a top but was inaccurate by 1,000 feet.  If it spun past 5,000 feet we knew it just passed 4,000.  We required 1,500 feet for normal pullout and another 1,000 feet to stay above bomb fragments.  A quick pull on the manual release handle gave each pilot a jolt as the undercarriage bomb – either a 500-pounder or a 1,000 pounder – pivoted ‘downward’ (really behind the plane) to clear the propeller.  To pull out, we pulled smoothly on the stick, which resulted in 6 to 8 g’s worth of pressure.  (At 6 g, this means that if a pilot, his parachute, and his flight gear met the design weight of 200 pounds, then he pushed down on the seat with a force of 1,200 poundds.)  Once we had pulled out into a level flight, we closed our dive brakes, swing those big perforated flaps flush with the trailing edge of the wing, accelerated to full throttle, went high RPM (rotations per minute) on the engine, and headed for home.”

     The carrier Enterprise was heading back to Pearl Harbor after delivering men and cargo to an island Marine base when the Japanese sneak attack occurred on December 7.  Had they not been delayed by weather, they would have been in port that fateful morning.  Kleiss’s squadron lost planes when they encountered the Japanese planes bound for Hawaii.  He himself flew a later scout loop but saw no action.  Initially, the chaotic radio chatter was hard to decipher, but when the fleet raised their battle flags, everyone knew they were now at war.  In the early months of 1942, Kleiss was involved with Task Force strikes at the Marshall Islands, at the island atolls of Wake and Marcus.  Kleiss wondered then if the loss of pilots, gunners, and planes was worth the minimal damage they did on these raids, but the brass assured them the message they sent by striking sites within 1,000 miles of Tokyo was just as important.  The engagement that would shake the Japanese fleet to its very core was closer than Jack thought. 

     Six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Jack Kleiss’s Scouting Squadron Six began a bomb    run on the Japanese aircraft carrier Kaga.  The three bombs Kleiss released all struck the Kaga which erupted into an inferno.  The Kaga was considered one of the Japanese Navy’s most important ships, and it would not survive the attack by Jack’s squadron.  The same afternoon, Jack and the Task Force airgroup fatally struck another enemy ship, the carrier Hiryu.  Two days later, Kleiss became the only pilot from either side to make direct hits on three enemy ships when the cruiser Mikuma was sent to the bottom.  The Battle of Midway crippled the vaunted Japanese fleet, setting the stage for their final defeat in the Pacific Theater.  The cost to the Enterprise airgroup was forty-four airmen while the two Task Forces lost 277 sailors and airmen.  The war in the Pacific would rage for another three years, but Kleiss would make his contributions elsewhere.

     After the Battle of Midway, Jack was back at Pearl Harbor on June 13.  Admiral Nimitz ordered all the senior pilots back to the states on June 21.  A month after the Battle of Midway, Jack and Jean were married.  They raised five children as he continued his Navy career.  The anecdotes he shared about his remaining service time are too numerous to repeat here, but one stood out.  Serving as a flight instructor, he was surprised when one of his pilots returned from a training flight without his radioman – gunner.  Eventually, a farmer called and informed the base that the missing flier had landed in one of his fields.  Upon further investigation, the gunner told Kleiss, “The pilot told me to jump.”  Kleiss asked him to confirm this statement:  “Wait, your pilot told you to bail out?”  “Yes, sir.  He practically shouted it into the interphone.  He shouted ‘Bail!’ sir.”  Kleiss blinked in disbelief:  “Isn’t that your name, ‘Bale?’”

     Never Call Me A Hero is a testament to all of the Navy pilots who came before and after Jack Kleiss.  As the title suggests, he took a very humble approach in telling his story.  He was certainly an able pilot, gunner, and wingman.  He pulls no punches when explaining both the successes, foibles, and just plain luck that allowed for him to survive the war.  As for how he gained his nickname, “Dusty”, it came from one of his foibles.  Kleiss and his gunner had been selected to tow a long white fabric sleeve behind their plane to serve as a target for the other aircraft.  At the conclusion of their practice session, the tow plane would land on the nearest airstrip, stow the target and then return to their own base or ship.  

     After one such training session, Kleiss and his backseat gunner turned and leveled off a little above tree height to land at Ewa Field.  When the control tower did not respond to his hail, he noticed the green landing light was illuminated so he began his final approach.  Already on approach, he noticed a squadron of Marine aircraft approaching the same airstrip, and realized that the green light to land was not for him.  Jack made a quick decision.  Knowing the Marine planes usually needed the entire landing strip, he planned to land his plane and pull off the airstrip as soon as possible to let the planes behind him land.  What he hadn’t counted on was the six inches of red clay dust covering the field adjacent to the paved landing strip.  The billowing dust cloud he created prevented the Marine planes from landing and the radio chatter from both the control tower and Marine pilots told Jack and his gunner that nobody was happy with them.  Quickly stashing the target, Kleiss felt his way back through the dust cloud that still covered  the runway and took off before the tower could ID the plane’s numbers.  Of course, one of Jack’s training squadron planes had watched all of this unfold from on high and the story spread like wildfire back at Pearl as soon as they had their wheels down.  “Dusty” Kleiss now had his own colorful nickname.

      These same Marine fliers landed on USS Enterprise in November of 1941, part of a contingent that were being transported to the Marine base on Wake Island.  The Marine pilots searched the ship high and low for ‘the dust cloud guy’ but nobody said a word about ‘Dusty’ Kleiss being on board.  When asked directly about it by the Marines, Jack simply played dumb:  “What is ‘dust cloud’?” “Dusty” Kleiss was certainly a hero, but he wasn’t dumb enough to tell a bunch of Marine flyers how he earned his nickname.  With his “Dusty” moniker retired at the end of his Navy Career in April of 1962, Jack was employed in the private sector until 1976.  Before he retired for good, he spent ten years teaching math and science.  One of his favorite activities was taking his students on field trips.  For an old field trip lover like myself, this statement elevated Jack Kleiss’s ‘hero stock’ a couple of more notches.

Top Piece Video:  Can’t resist Edwin Starr anytime the subject is WAR – hey, it is a great song and sentiment!