You only touch greatness a few times in your life. In Howard Dickerson, I saw greatness.
Back when I was in high school, he didn’t seem like a hero to me. He was just my buddy Ross’s dad. A humble and quietly opinionated man, he was good to Ross’s friends, and forever welcoming.
He rarely talked to us about his experiences during the Battle of Midway. Back then, if I had even heard of it, I would not have known the battle’s significance. I certainly would not have known that against all odds and with only three carriers – one of which was miraculously repaired and returned to duty just in time – the U.S. Navy took on the might of the Japanese empire that boasted four monster carriers and an invasion fleet poised to invade the tiny island of Midway.
Rather, it was in the Navy that I learned about Midway and its significance; not only to the war, but to the course of history.
And Howard Dickerson was there, in the thick of it.
In 1942, he was a Naval Aviator and navigator on a PBY-5 Catalina operating out of Midway Island, and in early June they were standing on ground zero. Because of some brilliant cryptological work, the U.S. knew the Japanese were coming. But as Howard’s son wrote in a fascinating biography of his father’s war years, “The code breakers got the US forces in the right position at the right time, but it was still up to the Americans to find the Japanese and execute an effective air attack.” Howard and his crew were sent to patrol the sector projecting west-northwest from Midway. Their job was to find the fleet.
Seeing nothing, they began to head back to Midway Island, only to be ordered instead to fly to the location of the famous battle that had been fought earlier in the day. Howard’s diary describes what they saw. “We came closer and (saw) that it was three Japanese carriers [Soryu, Akagi, and Kaga] about ten miles apart—burning from stem to stern….we noticed destroyers standing by picking up survivors. They fired AA. We did some fancy dodging, got down to the water and scooted out to about 6 miles….”
They continued their surveillance, reporting the enemy’s course and speed until they began to run low on fuel, then headed back to Midway after one last circle around the burning carriers. “Our decision to take a northerly course around the Japanese fleet proved near disastrous as we were jumped by a Japanese Zero fighter— presumably from the last surviving carrier [the Hiryu]. The Zero made two firing passes before breaking off its attack. By the time we finished dodging the Zero, the sun was setting, and I had only a rough estimate of our position and a dead reckoning for the safety of Midway.”
Before they got there, they ran out of gas. The Catalina landed on the open ocean and the crew was transferred to U.S.S. MONAGHAN, a Navy destroyer. Originally, the ship had orders to rejoin Admiral Spruance’s battle group. But after returning to Howard’s plane to retrieve the ultra-secret Norden bombsight, MONAGHAN was reassigned to escort the badly damaged USS YORKTOWN (CV 10).
It was there that he witnessed the final submarine attack that eventually sank YORKTOWN and the USS HAMMANN (DD 412) that was tied alongside. “The next morning [7 June] the flight deck of the carrier was touching the water—having been damaged some more by the Jap sub. Finally, the Yorktown rolled over slowly and sank—all the destroyers around raised their dress flags, and we also saluted as she went under [flags were actually dipped to half mast and raised again when she went under]. All this time there were dead bodies floating around in life jackets—not a very pleasant sight to see. There were also men trapped in the Yorktown when it went down. There was no way to save them. We had seen the only two ships we lost in the Battle of Midway go down.”
Howard went on to take part in other Pacific battles (Guadalcanal (Aug 7, 1942), the Battle of the Eastern Solomons (August 24-25, 1942), and the Battle of Santa Cruz (October 26-27, 1942)), seeing action and losing many good friends; but to Howard, the Battle of Midway was special. “These additional engagements are themselves unique and exciting, but Midway always remains for me personally and for the entire country, an unparalleled turning point during World War II.”
World War II defined the small town boy from a desert town in California. The memories of his experiences stayed with him his entire life and were the reason his youngest son Ross became a career Naval Aviator.
Howard lived to be 95 years old. After the war he ran a service station in his hometown, served as Mayor for two terms, and attended many Midway reunions.
Along the way he touched many lives, raised a wonderful family, and seemed to always have a smile for any of us who stopped over.
He was a hero and a part of the greatest generation. Midway may have been the defining moment for Ensign Howard Dickerson, but he was much more than a war hero.
He was a great man.
Howard and Marion Dickerson
[Excerpts borrowed from “A Ring-Side Seat at the Battle of Midway: The Loss of U.S.S. Yorktown and U.S.S. Hammann,” by LCDR Howard Dickerson, USNR (Retired), and edited by his son, CDR Ross Dickerson, USN (Retired)]
[In addition to action in the Battle of Midway, USS MONAGHAN sank a submarine on December 7, 1941 and received twelve battle stars for service throughout the war. She was lost in the infamous “Halsey’s Typhoon” in November 1944. Only six crewmembers survived.]