Clarence “Bill” Gregg was only 21 the day he helped change the world.
It was his first mission since joining the U.S. Navy, and all he knew when he took off from the Enterprise aircraft carrier that morning was that he had to stay in formation and focus on survival. This week will mark the 75th anniversary of that day, the Battle of Midway, which military historians agree changed the tide of World War II.
Now 96, Gregg lives in Palmetto Bay with his wife, Gail.
He fell in love with flying the first time he rode in a plane, a prize for his success as a paper boy for Iowa’s Des Moines Register. The itch to be in the skies took Gregg to the University of Oklahoma, where he found out the government paid for students to learn to fly.
With the war on, he and a friend soon decided to quit school and join the military. They showed up at the Adophis Hotel in Dallas with intentions to join the Canadian Air Force, which was signing up American pilots, but the recruiters were out to lunch. Across the hall, a chief petty officer beckoned them inside his office. Have a cup of coffee with me, he told them. We’ll wait for the Canadians to return.
“By the time they got back I had signed up the the U.S. Navy,” Gregg said.
It was off to Pensacola for training, then Opa-locka. On the weekends, the cadets would explore Miami’s wonders: the beach, the swimming pool shows and the clubs where a dime bought a dance with a pretty lady.
When his training ended, Gregg headed home for his two weeks of leave. He and his mom drove to Iowa for some family time before he had to report to San Diego. On that rainy, blustery Sunday, Gregg remembered stopping for a bite to eat in St. Louis. Inside the restaurant, he heard the news on the tinny radio: The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
His first instinct was to get back in the car and tell his mom to step on the gas.
“I was afraid I’d get there too late for the war,” he said. He wasn’t.
When he got off the train in San Diego, he found a city so overflowing with troops the government couldn’t house them all. His turn finally came in May, when he was shipped straight to Pearl Harbor. Compared to all the seasoned pilots, Gregg said his 300 hours of flight training felt like sightseeing tours. “I was a nonentity,” he said.
But less than a week later, he found himself on a Douglas dive bomber on his first mission. At the time, he had no idea that Naval historians like Craig Symonds would come to consider the Battle of Midway the most decisive battle of World War II.
“It was the moment when the Japanese ceased to have the initiative in the war,” said Symonds, the author of “The Battle of Midway” and former chairman of the history department at the U.S. Naval Academy.
The Americans had previously been reactive to every attack from the Japanese, but after this battle, that changed. American code breakers finally cracked part of the notoriously complex Japanese military code — JN25B. They knew the Japanese planned to send five or six air carriers to attack the Midway Atoll base in late May or early July. The plan was to draw the American air carriers to the atoll and ambush them.
This is where American Adm. Chester Nimitz made a bold decision, Symonds said. He could have taken this information and sent his carriers to safety, but he decided to seek out the Japanese and fight.
Gregg and his fellow pilots, most of them beginners like him, flew for hours across the Pacific Ocean on the morning of June 4, 1942.
Then someone spotted the Japanese carriers. From there, Gregg said, it was “follow the leader straight down.” The pilots dive-bombed the four carriers, landing blow after blow. Gregg said he’s pretty sure none of the hits came from him.
In just five minutes, the Americans sank three of the four Japanese carriers, Symonds said. The fourth was sunk by mid-afternoon. The Americans only lost one carrier, the Yorktown, which was already damaged and patched up from a previous battle.
After the earlier Battle of the Coral Sea, Japanese fighter planes adjusted their strategy and flew low to target the American torpedo planes. This gave dive bombers like Gregg the perfect vantage point to attack the fighter planes.
At the time, Gregg said, the significance of the battle was lost on pretty much everyone involved except the admirals. But even if he’d known the odds were stacked against him, Gregg said he wouldn’t have been scared.
“Anyone in that situation thinks he’s going to make it and he’s safe,” he said. “You sort of skirt the fear. You do it in spite of the fear.”
Avoiding the fear was a skill Gregg honed through the rest of his military career. Loss is different in war, he said. Grief couldn’t last long.
That November, Gregg was flying in formation over Guadalcanal when a friend named Seibert was hit by anti-aircraft fire. Gregg was close enough to see the hit was fatal. He watched his friend turn around and salute him, just as his plane nose-dived into the ocean.
Nearly seven decades later, Gregg’s chin shook and his eyes filled with tears as he talked about Seibert’s last moments.
“I remember thinking — wondering — if I could face it that way,” Gregg said.
At 96, Gregg has told many stories about his time at war. Most of them were funny, and some were published in “The Hook,” a U.S. Navy carrier aviation journal. But he only tried to write about the fear once, and even then it was focused on the high of pushing through fear to succeed.
He said he doesn’t often talk about what he saw during the war, and he doesn’t like to think about it.
“He has nightmares,” his wife, Gail, said.
Gregg’s humility is deep seated. He immediately shakes his head whenever anyone calls him brave or compliments his patriotism.
“It seemed terribly important to our country and our way of life,” he said. “I don’t consider my service unique or more important than anyone else.”
The first time he can recall anyone making a big deal of his service was on a recent honor flight, an annual event organized to fly veterans to Washington, D.C., for a tour of the monuments. Gregg’s group was greeted by bands, generals, admirals, the Marlins dancers and his favorite — a Cub Scout pack standing at attention.
A wall of his study is dedicated to his time in the military. In the center, he hung a framed painting of the same Douglas dive bomber he flew during the Battle of Midway. One of the real models he flew is in an airfield museum in Kansas, according to a flight log the museum found inside the plane.
A glass shadow box alongside the painting tells the story of his life in pins and ribbons: a Distinguished Flying Cross, an Air Medal, a Bronze Star with V for Valor and pins from his time at American Airlines (five years) and Eastern Airlines (16 years).
Gregg stayed in the military even after the war ended. He was on his ship when he heard about the first nuclear bomb dropped on Japan (the reaction on board? “Whoopee”) and he was right off the coast of Japan when the crew got word of the second bomb.
The day Japan surrendered, the fleet of ships was told to “just head east,” Gregg said.
He remembered the full moon that night, and how a band quickly set up on the flight deck. They played “California, Here We Come” and everyone sang along.
A lot of soldiers went home after that, but not Gregg. He stuck around and was promoted all the way to lieutenant commander. He spent three years at the War College in Rhode Island, including a few years teaching. His two decades of service came to an end, as did his time flying planes. Gregg moved on to the airline industry and ended up at Eastern Airlines in South Florida, where he met his second wife, Gail. They married in 1984.
The couple is now retired, and spend most of their time with their grandchildren or traveling to WWII museums.
Recently, Gail Gregg pulled out all the boxes of photos and documents from her husband’s military career and made a scrapbook. The black and white photos of a grinning 20-something pilot standing proudly in front of his plane, or on the deck of his aircraft carrier are safely tucked behind plastic sheets.
In the same box, she keeps his green, size 7 1/8 commander’s hat from the ’50s. When she handed it to him in their sunny South Florida living room, he slipped it on his head and tilted the brim just so.
“There,” he said with a grin. “Perfect.”