Captain Jack “Dusty” Kleiss, USN (Ret.), a VS-6 Dive Bombing pilot that served during the battle of Midway, passed away last week at the age of 100 at his residence in Texas. The Kansas native was the last surviving pilot of his kind that fought in arguably one of the greatest naval battles in human history. He is remembered for his heroism and unwavering humility in the pivotal role he played during that battle.
By Matthew T. Eng
Before I accepted my current position as the Digital Content Developer for the Naval Historical Foundation, I cut my teeth working for several years in the education department of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. As a lifelong resident of Hampton Roads, I wanted to stay close to Norfolk after graduate school and learn more about the area’s strong connection to the Navy. While there, I had the opportunity to work with the finest set of museum staff I have ever met. One of those staff members who came shortly after I started as a contract educator was Laura Orr. Laura was a seasoned museum educator with loads of experience and moxy. It was the beginning of a friendship and working partnership that continues today.
Around 2011, she informed he that she would be working with her husband, Old Dominion University History Professor Dr. Timothy Orr, on a new writing project about about a Battle of Midway veteran named Jack “Dusty” Kleiss. At that point, I was still a young greenhorn in naval history whose knowledge barely extended beyond the American Civil War navies and the 19th century. From what I was told, he was certainly a household name among veteran circles and WWII aficionados.
Over the course of the next few months, Laura and her husband traveled down to San Antonio, Texas, to meet Dusty and write down his story. What an extraordinary story it was. The museum was fortunate enough to have Dusty write about his personal experiences in the Navy, specifically at the Midway. His excellent article is included in the 2012 Special Midway edition of The Daybook, the Hampton Roads Naval Museum’s quarterly publication. I often dig back into my issue I keep in my library and read about his miraculous exploits. This particular section of his article details his experience scoring a direct hit on the Japanese carrier Kaga as a member of USS Enterprise’s Scouting Squadron Six (VS-6):
Wade McClusky waggled his wings and, in our Scouting Six planes, we followed him into a dive on Kaga, the closest carrier. This was the perfect situation for dive bombing: no Zeros, no anti-aircraft fire. McClusky and our Scouting Six dive bombers attacked Kaga. Bombing Six planes attacked Akagi. Earl Gallaher scored the first hit on Kaga. I watched his 500-pound bomb explode on the first plane starting its takeoff. It was the only plane on Kaga’s flight deck. His incendiary bombs also hit the gas tanks beside it. Immediately, the aft-part of the ship was engulfed in a huge mass of flames. I scored the next hit. My 500-pound bomb and two 100-pound incendiaries landed on the rear edge of the large red circle on the bow of Kaga. The bombs set fire to the closely-parked airplanes below deck, filled with gasoline; a huge fire started. (Note: my bombs hit the target at 240 knots, and exploded 1/100th of a second later!) I had dropped my bombs at 1,500 feet, and I pulled out at 9g, just barely skimming above the water.
A Zero came speeding for us. I gave my gunner John Snowden a good angle, and in two seconds, no more Zero! I sped past numerous ships shooting AA fire at me, so I changed course and altitude every second. I finally made a half circle, heading towards Midway. I looked back and saw three carriers in flames: many bombs from Scouting Six and Bombing Six had hit Kaga; three bombs from Bombing Six had hit Akagi; and bombs from Yorktown’s dive bombers torched Soryu. Only Hiryu, twenty miles away, was unharmed.
For his actions at Midway, Kleiss received the Navy Cross. He also received a Presidential Unit Citation in 1944. He also received the Distinguished Flying Cross for action at the Marshall Islands.On 7 March of this year, Dusty and I celebrated the same birthday. I blew 32 candles out on my birthday cake; Dusty had 100. I got a birthday call from my parents. Dusty got phone calls from John McCain, Ash Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Each of the phone calls apparently thanked him for his service and his courage during Midway. Yet it is likely that he shrugged off the praise he had likely heard for nearly 70 years. “I’m anything but a hero,” he said to CNN reporter Richard Roth, “I was only doing what at the time was the proper thing to do.” Laura and Tim Orr asked him about a sentimental photo of Kleiss with his new wife Jean taken after his return back to the states. After receiving one of the most prestigious medals in the United States military, all Dusty could say was “Who would ever look at a Navy Cross with the most beautiful girl in the world doing her stuff?” Those words are still some of the most sentimental I have ever heard, and my heart still flutters every time I read it. Romance authors could not write a better line if they tried. War is hell, but love and duty are eternal. Dusty was a master of both.
Dusty would retire from the Navy as a Captain in 1962. He went on to work for the aerospace industry. He remained active in the community and had written or posted about his experiences on several websites on the Internet. He also made several noteworthy television appearances. Sadly, Dusty passed away last week. He had told those closest among him that he wanted to make it to 100. Strong willed and determined, Dusty did just that – one last mark on the greenie board of a life well lived.
So often we write about individuals of naval history who were towering figures that made the big decisions that turned the tide of conflict. That kind of attention is usually reserved for high ranking officers, men of the WWII era with names like Nimitz, Leahy, Halsey, and King. Dusty never wore stars on his shoulders, but you can believe his character and demeanor was worthy of five stars. It is highly doubtful that monuments will be built in his honor. Dusty would want it that way. So in my own small way, this is but one of many tributes to a great American who exemplified honor, courage, and commitment.
In life or death, his story will continue to inspire generations of Sailors coming into the U.S. Navy. I never knew the man like Laura or Tim did. I can only imagine what it must have been like to sit next to someone who took part in such a harrowing event only to push it aside as merely doing one’s duty. That is the true mark of a hero. But he was more than a hero to me. He was a different caliber of human being. We can only hope to all live close to the potential of Dusty. My heart goes out to the Orr family and anyone who knew him well. Your lives have been undoubtedly enriched by the experience.
Fair winds and following seas, Sir. You are our hero, and we all owe you a debt of gratitude.