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Naval aviator recalls his role as scout at Battle of Midway

A U.S. Navy Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina patrol bomber in flight, circa 1942.

U.S. NAVY

By COURTNEY MABEUS | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: June 3, 2017

NORFOLK, Va.  (Tribune News Service) — Capt. Dexter Rumsey participated in a battle he never laid eyes on.

Rumsey was a 24-year-old lieutenant junior grade flying the Navy’s Catalina twin-engine seaplane when Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941. Three days later he got orders to the Pacific, and would later fly in some of the Navy’s most decisive battles, including the Battle of Midway.

The June 3-7, 1942, clash between the Imperial Japanese and U.S. navies, almost entirely by aircraft, is considered a turning point in World War II’s Pacific campaign. After the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. suffered a series of other losses, including in the Philippines, said Tim Orr an associate professor of military history at Old Dominion University.

But a well-timed advance in U.S. intelligence allowed the Americans to break Japanese codes and enabled their fleet to ambush its now-former enemy as it advanced on Midway Island, northwest of Hawaii.

“They know that Midway is the next target,” Orr said. “They know what day it’s going to happen.”

American forces repelled the attack, decimating Japan’s remaining carriers and allowing the U.S. and its allies to go on the offensive in the Pacific. The Japanese lost four carriers, a cruiser, three destroyers and 256 planes. The U.S. lost the carrier USS Yorktown, a destroyer and 145 planes, according to a Navy history.

The Navy will mark the battle’s 75th anniversary with a free ceremony Monday at the Naval Aviation Monument Park in Virginia Beach. Rumsey, now 99 and retired from a long career that included several leadership roles – he was commanding officer of Naval Air Station Oceana from 1964 until 1966 – is scheduled to appear as the guest of honor. Orr also is scheduled to speak.

Rumsey, who a month earlier had served in the Battle of Coral Sea, patrolled the flank during Midway. He flew his Catalina from the French Frigate Shoals, an atoll in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands a couple of hundred miles away that Orr called “an important piece of real estate.” The Japanese used the island as a refueling stop months before Midway until Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Chester W. Nimitz ordered the Americans to occupy it, Orr said.

Rumsey said he flew countless patrols from the shoals.

“Everybody was spread out,” Rumsey said. “The only things floating that saw each fleet was submarines. So, you’ve got to be understanding of a battle where the radius was somewhere around 300 miles.”

Rumsey was looking for the Japanese, but said he never spotted a submarine, or anything else.

“Not even fish,” he said.

Rumsey joined the Navy in 1938 and received his commission in 1939. He said he caught the flying bug at about age 12, from his stepfather, Rear. Adm. Leslie Gehres, a naval aviator who was one of the first to fly from the USS Langley, the Navy’s first carrier. Gehres became known for his role commanding the aircraft carrier USS Franklin, which received heavy damage in a 1945 bombing off Japan but refused to sink.

Rumsey later flew jets, including the Banshee and Corsair. Because the Catalina was designed for long-range missions and could land on water, Orr said Rumsey’s aircraft played vital roles in intelligence gathering and in search-and-rescue of aircrews. Orr called the Catalina the “workhorse of naval intelligence.”

“The story of fighting the battle is the story of finding the enemy fleet,” Orr said. “Back in those days, the only way you can do it is by quite literally sighting it. No GPS or satellites or, you know, technological wizardry in those days. You’ve got to be out there, chart your course and report it accurately.”

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©2017 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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