Battle of Midway hero turns 100

Posted at 7:43 AM, Mar 07, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-07 07:43:38-05

Norman Kleiss lives in a modest apartment in San Antonio. 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.

It’s incredible that this amazing American war hero still lives among us. With fuel running low, gunshots firing from below, Norman Jack “Dusty” Kleiss successfully bombed two Japanese aircraft carriers in a surprise attack — the start of what later 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.

Navy pilot Dusty Kleiss successfully dropped bombs on two of four Japanese aircraft carriers in the famous Battle of Midway. The sea and air battle went the U-S way and Japan could never advance in the Pacific again. CNN's Richard Roth talked with Captain Kleiss in October and they both looked back at his dramatic accomplishments.

Navy pilot Dusty Kleiss successfully dropped bombs on two of four Japanese aircraft carriers in the famous Battle of Midway. The sea and air battle went the U-S way and Japan could never advance in the Pacific again. CNN’s Richard Roth talked with Captain Kleiss in October and they both looked back at his dramatic accomplishments.

Kleiss celebrated his 100th birthday on Saturday with around 60 friends and neighbors. He’s the last surviving American dive bomber from that battle.

Like many men my age, I am fascinated by World War II stories. I couldn’t believe I was getting to meet this courageous man. Our interview was arranged through Kleiss’ youngest daughter, Jill, who flew in from California. 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 call him Dusty

Kleiss grew up in Coffeyville, Kansas. As a boy he once got very upset with a teacher who Kleiss 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 later aid him in his military career.

Why does 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 deck. 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 torpedos. 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.

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 if he felt 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.”

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 passed away in 2006.

“She was three times as smart as me, that’s for sure,” he said.

These days, Kleiss needs to take eye medication. The eyes that could spot ships miles away during the war have started to fail him. His mind is slowing down as well; some war stories can veer into tales from his childhood. But he is 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 is proud of what he and his fellow soldiers did during the war, but doesn’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.”

Kleiss received a birthday letter from the Obamas, congratulating him on his 100 years, and thanking him for his service. His family isn’t at all surprised he made it to see 100.

“I’ve always known him to be happy, genuinely happy, and have great faith,” his nephew, Jack Beal says. “Maybe that’s the key to longevity.”