SAN ANTONIO — I knew the day might come. The news still hurt.
The daughter of an amazing war hero called the other night to say her father was dying. An overnight email a day later told me that Norman “Dusty” Kleiss, 100 years old, hero of the Battle of Midway, had died Friday.
He was the last surviving dive-bomber from the sea battle that turned the tide of World War II.
In discussing Dusty with his daughter, we agreed it was as if the pilot was determined to reach the age of 100 before his health faded. Several weeks ago, there was a big weekend party in San Antonio, where he lived. Family, friends and even some, uh, dancers attended.
When his actual birthday arrived a few days later, on March 7, he received a call from former President George H.W Bush, himself a flier in the Pacific during the war. A few hours later, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter called. Carter later posted details about the conversation and a photo of him on the phone with Dusty. He told Dusty the United States was proud of him and thanked him for his service.
Sen. John McCain, imprisoned during the Vietnam War, sent a letter of congratulations. And the Obamas, too.
Daughter Jill Kleiss said the calls and letters brought great Joy to Dusty, who even at 100 was completely aware of what he was hearing and with whom he was speaking on the phone.
Friday morning, Jill emailed me. “He is flying with the angels now,” she wrote.
It was last summer when I came across Dusty’s name, and having an avid interest in anything WWII-related, I wondered whether he was still alive. When I first reached him on the telephone, I almost started to shake. It was like going back in time. I could hear the engines roar over the Pacific Ocean; the tide of World War II was about to change.
“So you want to talk about the Battle of Midway?” Kleiss asked. Boy, did I.
Fast-forward a few weeks, and I couldn’t believe I was face to face with a war hero. What was he doing in a modest apartment in Texas, I wondered. The man deserved a mansion!
With fuel running low, gunshots firing from below, Kleiss bombed two Japanese aircraft carriers in a surprise attack, the start of what became known as the Battle of Midway. In all, four Japanese carriers were destroyed, and the course of the war in the Pacific was forever changed.
Our interview was arranged through Kleiss’ youngest daughter, Jill, who flew in from California. On an October morning, we set up our cameras in the living room. Kleiss, with the help of a walker, came out of the bedroom singing a Navy drinking song.
He closed his eyes at times, recalling those historic events. I felt like closing my eyes, too — imagining the danger the pilots faced coming in alone in the face of ship guns and Japanese Zeros.
They called him Dusty
Kleiss grew up in Coffeyville, Kansas. As a boy, he once got very upset with a teacher who he says pulled the hair of a fellow student. So Kleiss and a friend launched snowballs at the teacher, knocking her to the floor. He was suspended for a week. But the episode revealed skills — boldness and good aim — that would aid him in his military career.
Why did everybody call him “Dusty”? A year before Midway, in 1941, Kleiss was attempting to land a plane on a field in Hawaii. Thinking he had been given the green light from the tower, Kleiss was startled to see Marine planes blocking the runway as he came in for a landing. He swerved into a pile of clay and heard the controller bellow on the radio, “Unknown dust cloud! Who the hell are you?”
It would not be the last time Dusty and his plane would arrive by surprise.
In the weeks before the Battle of Midway, Dusty was promoted to the top squadron of fliers after braving anti-aircraft fire with a malfunctioning plane.
June 4, 1942
The United States had broken the Japanese communication code. American ships, including Dusty’s vessel, the Enterprise, searched for hours for the opposition fleet, which was headed toward Midway Island. Finally, U.S. planes spotted four Japanese aircraft carriers with support ships.
First, the U.S. torpedo pilots went on suicide-like missions, up against overwhelming Japanese firepower. Shortly after, Dusty’s Dauntless Douglas dive-bombers arrived on the scene. The unsuspecting Japanese carriers were changing bombs below decks. They were caught completely unaware.
Kleiss and his pilots targeted the Kaga first. The first few dive-bombers missed. Kleiss was the second to hit.
He knew where to place the bombs.
“I went up to 20,000 feet, and I looked at the red big circle,” he said.
The first 500-pound bomb set numerous airplanes on fire. His main bomb went four decks below, hitting long lance torpedoes. Kleiss barely missed the ocean, pulling out of a dive as the Kaga erupted into an inferno. A Japanese Zero immediately challenged him, but tail gunner John Snowden shot it down.
Sandwich and a coffee
They barely made it back to the Enterprise. Incredible as it sounds, Kleiss said, he followed his flight with a sandwich and coffee, then a brief nap while planes roared overhead. Then he took off for an attack on another Japanese carrier, the Hiryu. That ship was using evasive maneuvers. But what’s important as a dive-bomber, Kleiss said, is to figure out not where a ship is but where it’s going. Again, he looked for the red circle on the ship, zoomed down and scored a direct hit.
“It was a bonfire that could be seen 10 miles away.”
During our chat, the humble Kleiss told me, “I figure God in his mercy has given me the ability to do certain things.” I asked how he really did it; how did he survive hair-raising dives in the heat of a major battle? “I think other people feel heat and pain far more than I do,” he replied.
When the battle ended, the Japanese had lost four carriers. The United States had lost one: the Yorktown.
Midway crippled the Japanese threat on the Pacific. I asked Kleiss whether he felt that he was a hero.
Kleiss laughed. “I’m anything but a hero. I don’t hate the Japanese at all. I was only doing what at the time was the proper thing to do.”
Midway was his last mission
During his time at war, Kleiss kept a Navy log book. He wrote down simple things like “attacked Japanese carrier.” And he wrote often to his girlfriend, who waited three years for him to come home from military service. He could not break secrecy codes and tell her of his dangerous missions.
Midway was Dusty’s last war mission. It wasn’t long before he married Jean in Las Vegas in 1942 — a marriage that lasted until Jean died in 2006.
“She was three times as smart as me, that’s for sure,” he said.
In his last years, Kleiss needed eye medication. The eyes that could spot ships miles away during the war had started to fail him. His mind was slowing down as well; some war stories veered into tales from his childhood. But he was still able to elicit a laugh from an audience. Years ago, he said, his family would take him on roller coasters. While they all screamed, Dusty said he fell asleep. “BOORRRING!” he told me.
Kleiss was proud of what he and his fellow soldiers did during the war but didn’t boast of his Midway bombing runs.
“Regardless of anything that happened to me, God would give me enough strength if I worked hard enough, long enough, that I would be able to accomplish something to preserve the United States of America,” he said.