Interview with Earl Gallaher
Editor's Note: The following content is a transcription of a period document or a collection of period statistics. It may be incomplete, inaccurate, or biased. The reader may not wish to take the content as factual.4 Jun 1992
ww2dbaseInterviewer: Jim Bresnahan
Interviewee: Earl Gallaher, commanding officer of US Navy Scouting Squadron Six (VS-6) from USS Enterprise, who participated in the Battle of Midway, among others
Gallaher: We were supposed to have gotten in on the 6th, we ran into bad weather, we were slowed down, and we were delayed by one day. So we took off approximately I'd say somewhere around 225 miles from Oahu. We were still playing war, we were on a search flight, if we sighted a submarine or anything we were supposed to attack it with machine guns, we didn't have any depth bombs or anything, attack it with machine guns and try to get a destroyer there. When we got to the end of our leg, mine took me over the island of Kauai, I got to the end of my leg and I started in just all I was thinking about was getting in, going up to the club, having a beer, and relaxing. In between Kauai and Oahu we were flying down like we always did on these search flights about 100, 200 feet off the water, I saw a bunch of planes flying around up overhead, and they had fixed landing gear. The Army has some of that type of planes on the island at the time, this is on Sunday morning, usually when we would come in from a flight we would always have an attack with the Army, it was the Army Air Corps then, we would have a mock battle, you know. I talked to my radioman on the intercom and I said "did we miss something on the board this morning? Are we supposed to have an exercise with the Army?", and he says no, there wasn't anything on the board. So I continued on and went in. At that time we had a certain angle we had to come in to approach the island of Oahu. There were two of three of them around the island. I came in on the west side of the island, and I saw the smoke coming up, and it didn't mean anything to me, because it looks just like cane fields burning.
Bresnahan: You were the one that made the initial report back to the Enterprise about the attack?
Gallaher: Well, somebody else called first, he said "don't shoot down friendly American planes", and he said "I'm not gonna let these bastards shoot me down and I'm gonna land in the water", something to that effect. We never heard from him since, so I don't know what happened to him. When I got down to the end of the island I went down to Barber's Point I could see then they were still bombing, and I picked up five other planes, so there were 7 of us, and I flew off Barber's Point and every once in a while a Jap Zero would drop down and start coming toward us and I was in what we called a Lufbery circle and I had my radioman open fire with the machine gun, through a couple of bursts, and the guy would leave. At that time I broadcast "Pearl Harbor is under attack by Japanese" and I didn't say this is no drill, I said this is no [laughs] that was the way I gave it. They receved it that way because Admiral Fox, who was a neighbor of mine here for a while, he was the supply officer on the ship and one of his jobs was being in the communications place, he heard the thing, not the way I said it. But I also reported that these planes were rendezvousing and were flying off in the direction of, I gave him the course, matter of fact, and they were flying off on a northwesterly direction. I did not realize until I got in there and actually saw the bombs drop and everything and those planes I have seen rendezvousing and flying up above me on the way in had red balls on the side of their planes. Never even dawned that they were Japanese planes, and that they had meatballs on the fuselage, and it just didn't register in my mind. Then I landed first at a Marine field called Ewa Field, I landed there and I taxiied up the line and a Marine sergeant jumped up on the ramp and I finally said "get the hell off the ground can't you see what's going on, the planes were burning all around the field". So I took off and I went in the regular landing pattern like we always did when we went to Ford Island, and we got opposite the water tower where you were supposed to drop your wheels and landing flaps, I dropped my wheels and my landing flaps, I was leading a three-plane section and there were two two-plane sections in the back of me. At that time Navarez was going to ground, he's the one that got underway... Apparently some kids manning the machine gun looked up and saw planes coming with wheels down and he opened fire, and when he opened fire everybody did. So I was about that time I had my wheels down and flaps down and everything I was committed to land I couldn't do anything else, I was sitting in the plane ducking tracers which was a foolish thing to do because if you can see the tracers and it's not gonna hit you, because the fire comes out the rear end of the tracer and it's gonna go by you, but that's what I was doing, it was my first taste of being shot at. I couldn't do anything else but going and land and they had to stop shooting when we got on the ground.
Bresnahan: Did you get a brird's eye view of the wreckage in the harbor itself?
Gallaher: Oh yeah, I was very very very upset because the Arizona had been my first ship in the Navy as an ensign, and the Arizona had taken the worst licking. I was very very upset about that. But anyway, we landed, finally had nine SBDs including a skipper's. They loaded the planes up with bombs. I don't know who set up the search pattern but they sent us out on a search from, I can't remember the name of the point now but it was the northwest point of Oahu, and they sent us out on a search looking for the Japanese. I knew they weren't there and I told them that, but anyway we went in bad weather. We finally get back and nobody found anything.
Bresnahan: You went out to the northwest about 175 miles, you think you might have come close?
Gallaher: It must have been about a 60-degree angle and we had 2 planes in each sector in that 60 degrees from this point on the northwest corner of Oahu, so we would never have found them because they were way the hell and gone to the west of that. When we got back that night and landed we stayed in BOQ [Bachelor Officer Quarters] that night down in the basement. Being down in the basement like that we didn't know what was actually going on. Found out later that they shot down some of our fighters from the Enterprise that came in at night. I recall there was something like 4 fighters that were shot down that might by our own people. The next morning we had orders to take off, they thought the Japanese were coming back in again for another attack, we had orders to take off an hour before sunrise. Go down a little bit off of Diamond Head until an hour after sunrise. We got out on the line these 9 SBDs and, I think there were the only combat airplanes left on the island I think at that time, there were no army planes at all, just these 9 SBDs. We were setting up on the line with the engines turning up and a duck [a seaplane?] came up from the other side of the field from where we were and taxiied out onto the runway, had all its lights on, turned his engines up, take off. He got his engines turned up and he took off and he just about cleared the ground when somebody opened fire, and everybody started shooting at him, he got down right on the water and flew around the island and disappeared; somebody told me later he went by the Enterprise well out to sea later on and he was still flying right down on the water. When this happened I reached down and cut my engines. I went over and climbed up on the wing of the skipper's plane and said captain I'm not gonna take off, I rather have the Japs shoot up this plane on the ground then have these people shoot me down in the air. Then he told me to tell the rest of them to cut their engines, so I did, and we did not take off. Of course the Japanese did not come back in again. He went in and got on the telephone and was talking to somebody across the field, he didn't need the telephone he could almost hear his voice and answered that his planes were not gonna take off until these people get some fire control disciplane. So we did not take off.
Bresnahan: As far as the Marshall strike, that was your first offensive action against the Japanese. Were you worried going in with the myth of Japanese invincibility and seeing all the Pearl Harbor damage?
Gallaher: No, we had a really old map of the Marshall Islands itself and it shows just a little dot on the thing which was Roi Island. It was an atoll in the Marshall Islands. An atoll has several island around it, and one of them was Roi Island, and that's where we knew they had an airfield there. Roi Island was where we were supposed to make our strike. Hal Hopping went into it, made a very shallow dive going in, I actually made a completely circle with my second division, trying to be able to come in faster and still got down and saw him shot down. I was right there on his tail and his group dropped the bombs. I can't remember now how many were lost in the first division, but it was quite a few. I saw that the Japanese Zeros, of course we've awaken them by that time they had their fighters in the air, I saw the fighter on Hal's tail, and saw him going into the water. The Japanese plane then turned and started up towards me, and I pushed over and we were shooting at each other. I was using my 50 caliber and I don't know what he was using; he didn't use his cannon because I had one little bullet hole in my engine cowling when I got back, which was about 7.7 millimeter I think it was. He was not a kamikaze because when we got pretty close together I ducked and he pulled up. And when he went over my rear seat man he had a couple of bursts at him. I still have my 500 pound bomb on board; I dropped the two 100 pound bombs on the airfield. I heard a report there were ships at Kwajalein Island, so I got right down on the water and got out of there, and headed for Kwajalein. On the way down I picked up four planes I believe. As we approached Kwajalein Island, we were still getting reports of these ships there. I climbed up altitude and when we got down there, there were several ships, and the one that was putting up a lot of anti-aircraft fire was a Japanese cruiser. I picked that for my target, and I came in and did a figure 8 coming down on this dive to avoid anti-aircraft fire. I got down low enough and I finally straightened out and I dropped my bomb, pulled up, and I did hit him on the stern. The other planes attacked the other ships that were there. There was one plane that came down with me on the cruiser. The other planes attacked the other ships that were there. Of course later on the torpedo planes came in and they cleaned up on a couple of them.
Bresnahan: At Wake Island, for Scouting Six, there wasn't too much opposition, is that true?
Gallaher: One thing that's really outstanding about that one is that we were supposed to have a coordinated attack with the cruisers. The cruisers were going in, they were going to bombard, and we were going to coordinate the attack, and knock out any airfield and air opposition. I was always the first one to take off. I had a very short run, that's why they would load my plane, for instance, with a 500-pound bomb and two 100-pound bombs. Further back, they would load them with 1,000-pound bombs, because they have more takeoff run. Well, I was the first one off at Wake Island, and we were in a mist, a very light misty rain.
Bresnahan: You took off in the early morning, right?
Gallaher: Oh, this is before dawn, yes.
Bresnahan: Is that extremely tough? I imagine it would be.
Gallaher: Well, not normally, but in this case it was bad, very bad, because with misty rain, with the props going around, the fire and exhaust from your engine get picked up and made a halo in front of you. I couldn't see a thing when they gave me the signal to go. I shifted to instruments, and I made the first and only instrument takeoff I've ever made from a carrier. I completely shifted to instruments and got off alright. The second plane, a boy by the name of Terry Tess, he went over the side. I was out there flying around all by myself up above this soup, waiting for the squadron to get up there to rendezvous with me. I didn't know what was going on; there was complete radio silence. Terry went off the side of the ship and a destroyer picked him up and lost the rear seat man, and Terry lost an eye in this thing. I guess it must have cleared up a little bit later on because the planes finally got off alright. That was the worst takeoff I've ever had. I had to do it on instruments because I couldn't see the deck and I couldn't see anything except this rolling fire going around, this halo around and in front me.
Bresnahan: As far as the Marcus attack, were you surprised that orders came to attack an island so close to Japan?
Gallaher: I was surprised we were gonna do it. We couldn't have destroyers go in with us because it was so far out, so we had to use cruisers to go with us, which is very unusual. We were launched quite a long ways away from this place. I think the surprise for me is that they would hit this island so close to Japan, but it was done, I think, for psychological reasons. We had a problem with that one because we had a cloud layer, and the planes got separated. We had a hell of a time getting the planes together. The first part of the group, the group commander and his group, they got in alright. My squadron, the second division, we got lost, couldn't find it, so I went in with my first division alone. As we approach the island, it was covered with clouds. The group commander was given a false report, "come on in Hornet group, come on in Wasp group" or something like that. The Japanese of course could hear this, so they thought they were gonna be attacked by hell of a lot of people. I was the only one left, with my five planes. I couldn't see the island because of the clouds. I ducked down underneath the clouds and I could pick the island up, then what I had to do is to duck in and out of the clouds. The place was completely covered. When they made their attack, they made a dive bombing attack; when I came in I had to make a glide bombing attack because the cloud layer was so low.
Gallaher: ... the feeling of anticipation, more than any kind of fear or anything like that, the anticipation of the fact that we were really gonna have the chance, this was my feeling and I know the feeling of many of the pilots, of paying them back for Pearl Harbor. I had no trouble whatsoever going to sleep that night, we were up very early supposedly to make a pre-dawn takeoff, but of course we had to wait until we have a final report to have some idea where these people are suposed to be.
Bresnahan: As far as the fateful torpedo attack, being professional they demand... how well do you know the commanders of the torpedo suqadrons, Gene Lindsey, John Waldron, and Lem Massey?
Gallaher: I didn't know John Waldron very well, but I knew Gene Lindsey very well, because he was on hte Enterprise. I did know Lem Massey quite well. We've been friends for a long while. John Waldron I had just met more or less casually; I knew about his Indian background, that sort of thing, I knew he was hell of a nice fella and I knew he was a good pilot. Gene Lindsey, of course, we've been together on aboard on the ship all this time, so I knew him very well. He had been banged up in a crash and I had no idea Gene was not able to take off that morning.
Bresnahan: Did that alarm you in any way, the two-to-one advantage?
Gallaher: They had broken the Japanese code and they had a pretty good idea what the Japanese ships were gonna be there. But they didn't have the detail plans of how they were split up and stuff like that. Originally, they got a report and I thought the force that was down south-southwest of Midway, which was actually was the invasion force, they originally thought that was the attack force, but Admiral Spruance's staff knew that wasn't so, and the attack was to coming from the northwest. So we had to wait until we got a definite report on them, which was finally sent in by patrol planes, one of our PBY, that gave us position of the carrier group of the Japanese.
Bresnahan: What were your thoughts on the way Spruance had taken command instead of Admiral Halsey? Were any of the pilots worried at that point?
Gallaher: No, everybody [laughs] trusted Halsey so much in that group that the pilots themselves... some of the staff was a little bit leery about it because he was not an aviator... they had a pretty strong individual on the staff, Miles Browning, that didn't agree sometimes with Spruance, but Spruance was a very fine tactician, and I think that's why Halsey really recommended him for the job. Understand that Admiral King back in Washington, Ernest King, was very much against it; Nimitz went along with it. In my opinion, it was a hell of a good decision.
Bresnahan: As far as the morning before the attack, reveille at 3:30 or something like that, why were those extra three or four hours before takeoff? Was it just a matter of...
Gallaher: While we were waiting for the report to come in, the butterflies your stomach started acting up, and they get more active as the time went along. It was not a case of fear, it was a case of nervousness or something. But the minute they sounded the words "pilots man your planes", and you get into your airplane, in my case, and I'm sure in almost everybody else, the butterflies disappeared. We got to do a job then.
Bresnahan: You said you knew Gene Lindsey and Lem Massey, and didn't know John Waldron too well. After you heard about the torpedo squadron, all the planes being shot down, were you surprised, knowing those two or not knowing Mr. Waldron so well, that they did take their squadrons in under such bad conditions?
Gallaher: I think they all deserved the Medal of Honor for having done a... I don't know if you're faimilar with that plane and all, but that plane, right down close to the water, and slowing down to a very slow speed... we had such a lousy torpedo in those days, and then even if they reached the right altitude and right speed the torpedoes so many times wouldn't go where it was supposed to go anyway.
Bresnahan: I was always wondering what ran through a torpedo pilot's mind, knowing that the plane was obsolete and the conditions were terrible. Especially Mr. Waldron saying before that he wanted [not clear] get a hit, that must have been amazing thing to be a torpedo pilot back in those days.
Gallaher: It was. The thing was a terrible crate. Of course the fact is that the torpedo planes came in when they did, and they were making the attacks that they were, is the thing that really helped us, the dive bombers. That was one of the things that so many of my pilots did not mind too much. I had one, Dickie Dickinson, that reacting all the time that we were running without fighter escort. We knew we were not going to have figher escort; the plan ahead of time was the fighters that were available didn't have to stay back with the ship, in the fact the ship was under protection of the torpedo planes. Actually they didn't do any good because Jim Gray, who was leading the fighter squadron, lost the torpedo planes; he was up in high altitude, and the torpedo planes were down at the water level, and he didn't help them at all.
Bresnahan: When did you finally learn the torpedo squadron slaughter? Did you catch anything on the plane's radio, or could you catch anything on the radio, or did you hear when you got back to the ship?
Gallaher: You mean that the torpedo planes were being clobbered?
Gallaher: Oh, I could see them! I knew that's what it was, I mean, we were up in 20,000 feet and of course we came in at a high speed run in coming down, we could see the planes dropping in the water and see all the anti-aircraft fire down below. We knew that's what it was, the torpedo planes were being worked over by the Japanese. Of coruse we had no fighter opposition whatsoever up at that altitude.
Bresnahan: Were you shocked when you got back to the ready room that so many torpedo pilots had been lost?
Gallaher: Yes, I was. I was shocked that I had so many losses. I only got back, actually, six planes out of the sixteen in my squadron.
Bresnahan: When you finally reached the attack point and you saw nothing, were you scared of not finding them and having to turn back not having dropped the bombs at all?
Gallaher: No, of course we knew we couldn't fool around too long because of the gas situation, but flying at 20,000 feet the visibility was perfect and I could see the island of Midway when we got out to the point where we were supposed to pick them up. Seeing the island of Midway and all the ocean in between that I knew there were no Japanese task force down there. I was just about ready to go up alongside of Wade McClusky and tap out a message... we were still in radio silence until we were in actual contact with the enemy, we used the dot and dash system where a closed fist was a dot and a open hand was a dash. And then Wade picked up this destroyer and made the turn to the north just before I was gonna go up to tell him that I thought they must reverse course. Of coruse this destroyer led us right into them.
Bresnahan: When you saw the enemy fleet it must have been a tremendous sigh.
Gallaher: Oh my god [laughs], we knew that they had a lot but the ocean was covered with ships. It was a tremendous sigh. At that moment we were getting close to [not clear] that Wade gave me an order to follow him in on the target and gave [Dick] Best his order to go in on the other one. From then on it was [unclear]. It was a perfect dive because the target was heading into the wind so my dive was coming downwind into a carrier that was on a steady course heading into the wind. My dive was awfully steep; I put my bomb sight on that red rising sun up on the bow of the carrier and I came down... I mean, it was a perfect situation for a dive bombing attack. I came down and I came down as low as I dared, and let the thing go. Of course the SBD was a wonderful dive bombing airplane anyway; it had lots of other features, went fast enough and stuff like that. The planes on the Kaga were already armed and they were ready to take off. There wasn't any mess on the deck, but all the planes were armed, they had bombs on them, and they were all gassed up and everything. It was like diving on to a group of planes that were ready to take off, that's all.
Bresnahan: As far as releasing the bomb, did you tilt it before a dangrous maneuver and watched it?
Gallaher: In dive bombing practice, we practiced off the kelp beds off the California coast, when we got these little miniature bombs, you'd always pull up and just kind of stand your plane on its tail and watch the bomb hit. So you mark it, you know, and see how you did. I cautioned my pilots never to do that when we get into the actual combat, but I couldn't resist the temptation myself and I pulled up and watched it. My radioman, he saw and said "god damn, that was a beaut cap'n".
Bresnahan: Were you able to see what damage was done by your bomb?
Gallaher: I wanted to see if I got a hit [laughs]. I couldn't resist the temptation, I mean, I didn't want to just pull out of the dive and pull away, not even know whether my bomb hit or not.
Bresnahan: Is there any word that can describe what damage was done, with all those things sitting on the deck?
Gallaher: My bomb hit. The next bomb hit, I know. The first two bombs in my squadron got hits. The explosion started immediately. After we pulled away, there were other hits on the ship, too. They had one explosion that must have sent the flames and stoke up at least 2,000 feet in the air. There was just terrible explosion on the ship. As I was retiring, I thought there were two other carriers that were aflame and burning, too. What we did when we came out of the dive, we got to the screen, and then headed down in the direction of Midway for a short period, and then headed back for the ship; this was a diversion to make them think that we came from Midway. My pilots were very inexperienced. On the 5th of June, they sent these planes out looking for damaged CVs; battleships, carriers, and destroyers, and so forth. They launched the planes late in the afternoon about 5:30, they didn't actually make contact until somewhere around 8:30. There were nine planes from my squadron among this group. Of the 9 planes there were 6 planes that had never even flown the SBD at night before, and of course had never made any night carrier landing practices. When they came back, every one of them, they had to turn the lights on the carrier, the screen deck lights, and all 6 of these planes that had never flown at night before all got aboard without even a blown tire. I was so proud of them. I was out of action because in that afternoon attack when Hiryu turned out from under me I tried to toss my bomb on board and I pulled something in my back so when I got back to the Enterprise I couldn't reach down and get my hook. I flew around up there for a hell of a long while while the rest of the planes were landing, I turned the lead over to my number two man, and I flew around trying to go down and get to the handle to get my hook down. Finally I had to do it, I had to do something because I was afraid that if I land in the water we wouldn't get out, and I couldn't land on the ship without a hook. So I went down and did it, and I almost passed out. When I got aboard the doctor and the corpsman were on the wing of my plane by the time I got up into the spot and they had to lift me out of the airplane. So that put me out of action. At night, when the kids were coming in, I was supposed to be in bed, but I was up on the deck and I squeezed them aboard, every one of them.
Bresnahan: As far as going back toward the Enterprise after the attack on the three carriers, was there trouble getting back, without being attacked by Japanese fighters?
Gallaher: There were some attacks. There was one case, I don't know whether you read about it or not, there was a kid in my squadron by the name of [Floyd] Adkins whose gun jumped out of the mount, that twin 30 caliber gun, and he held it in his lap in his dive, and when they came out of their dive they were attacked by a Messerschmitt-type fighter, the Japanese had some of those, and this kid was able to hold this gun up on the fuselage of his plane and shoot that Japanese plane down. When they got back to the ship they put the gun down on the deck, this is a very slight individual, this gunner, and Adkins couldn't lift it off the deck. But he was able to shoot the plane down. There were other planes that were attacked of them. I lost some planes, I know all they did was they ran out fuel and they just were never picked up. Of course we had some bad weather at that time and I didn't have good search and rescue business at that time. But my whole third division was lost that way with no indication of what happened to them.
Bresnahan: When you got back on the Enterprise what was the feeling among the pilots? You know you must have at least hit three carriers very hard.
Gallaher: What was the feeling? Elation [laughs]. Even though it was tempered by the fact that we had so many people who didn't get back, but still elation on the part of the pilots for the fact that we had done what we had done.
Bresnahan: At that time you didn't know you had sunk all three, right?
Gallaher: I knew that when I was leaving, I could see all three were burning very seriously. I knew we had clobbered them. Of course they didn't sink right away. The Japanese sank the Kaga by torpedoes.
Gallaher: The position was given by one of the Bombing Five Scout planes, a chap by the name of Adams. The story about that, he told the radioman to send the position of this carrier task group and the kid came back and said "just a minute I got a Zero to take care of back here first". He was under attack at the time. But anyway we had a very definite position and I had no problem at all finding them. They were heading west into the sun and I led the group out of the sun and also down wind, of course we had fighter opposition that time, there were about six Zeroes up there that made passes down along the line, and they knocked down one plane trailing at the end of the line. As I pulled up after I finished my dive, there was Zero by me, I could almost reach out and touch the belly of this plane. He followed me down on the dive. The carrier [Hiryu] made this 180 degree turn from under me, and I tried to toss the bomb on board and my number two man who followed me, he missed too astern. But the third plane caught up with him and got a hit.
Gallaher: I got another thing that was very difficult for me was the fact that I had to write letters to the families of these people who were lost. That is a hard thing to do. It was very difficult to write and tell them that their son was lost in a battle. It was the one thing I hated more than anything else. When I went down to Pensacola later, one lady came down, Charlie Ware's girlfriend, he was not married, came down to see me when I was commanding officer of the station at Pensacola. They wouldn't believe it, they still didn't believe that they were gone. It was awfully hard to talk to people like that. ww2dbase
C. Peter Chen
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945