Wednesday, May 4, 2016

On Behalf of a Grateful Nation: My Tribute to Dusty Kleiss


Tales from the Army of the Potomac is a blog dedicated to the valiant Union soldiers who fought in the Civil War, but occasionally I feel the need to let my interest in the Pacific War intrude in my Civil War affairs. Let this be one of those times.

For those of you who pay attention to the goings-on in my life, recently, I had to say farewell to a friend of mine, Captain Dusty Kleiss. He died on Friday, April 22, 2016. He was 100 years old.

Dusty was a dive bomber pilot who served in World War 2. During the opening days of the Pacific War, he belonged to Scouting Squadron Six, a carrier-based squadron attached to USS Enterprise (CV-6). He fought in several important engagements: The Battle of Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941), the Battle of the Marshall Islands (February 1, 1942), the Battle of Wake Island (February 24, 1942), the Battle of Marcus Island (March 4, 1942), and the Battle of Midway (June 4-6, 1942). At Midway, on June 4, Dusty piloted a Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive bomber labelled 6-S-7. Together with his squadron and his trusty gunner, RM 3/c John W. Snowden, Dusty participated in two missions that led to the sinking of four Japanese carriers. Dusty’s bombs scored direct hits on two of those carriers, the Kaga and the Hiryu. On June 6, Dusty participated in another mission. During this one, he made another direct hit, this time on a Japanese cruiser, the Mikuma. He was the only American pilot during the Battle of Midway to score three direct hits. As far as I’m concerned, he was the most indispensable American aviator at the battle because he caused the most physical damage of any U.S. pilot in the air during those three decisive days. During the war, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Navy Cross. After the Battle of Midway, Dusty spent another twenty years in the Navy, retiring as a captain in 1962.

I first met Dusty back in January 2012. Together with my wife, I traveled to his apartment at the Air Force Village (now Blue Skies of Texas), a retirement community in San Antonio located just outside of Lackland Air Force Base. Originally, Laura and I wanted to interview him for a short article we were writing for the Hampton Roads Naval Museum’s historical journal, the Daybook. Our visit became a bit more involved than we thought. Soon, we came back a second time, and then a third, and we made many phone calls. In the end, we conducted hours upon hours of interviews, as Dusty shared his life story, his intimate tales, opinions, and confessions. He was a veteran with an interesting story to tell, and he wanted someone to remember it.

What struck me the most about Dusty was the fact that he hated to be called a hero. It bothered him greatly. He encountered the term often. Whenever he did public presentations on the Battle of Midway—and he did a great many for the nearby Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas—visitors came up to him and called him a hero. This is no surprise. As is our custom nowadays, we tend to revere the World War 2 generation, calling them heroes whenever the opportunity presents itself. This was a tradition set in place by historians and politicians. For instance, in his 1997 book about World War 2 GIs, Stephen Ambrose wrote, “So they fought and won, and we all of us, living and yet to be born, must be profoundly grateful.” In 2004, President George W. Bush said: “They saved our country, and thereby saved the liberty of mankind.” I could go on. It’s fairly easy to find similar expressions of gratitude.

Dusty hated that kind of attention. “I’m anything but a hero,” he once told a reporter. “I was only doing what at the time was the proper thing to do.” During one of our conversations, he recollected an incident where the USAA invited him to be the guest of honor at their 2011 Memorial Day Commemoration. The whole event made him uncomfortable. He grumbled, “They just wanted to make me into some kind of hero. Just garbage!”

I watched the video of the event in question. The USAA showed a 12-minute clip that profiled Dusty and his actions at the Battle of Midway. At one point, Hugh Ambrose (son of Stephen Ambrose) asked Dusty to stand up and be recognized. Timidly, he arose from his seat in the corner, and the spotlight came on him. Without prompting, the audience surged from their seats and gave him a standing ovation. For two minutes the audience applauded loudly. My friend, Dusty, clutched a USS Enterprise ball cap nervously. Then, when the clapping subsided, he said, “I don’t deserve it, but I sure thank you.”

Dusty’s modesty only made me love him more. I rarely use the word, “hero.” After spending years in academia, I gained a healthy suspicion of the expression. Perhaps it is jaded of me to think this way, but whenever I hear the word, my eyebrows tilt in doubt. In my lifetime, I’ve only ever told one living person that he was my hero; that man was Dusty.

After one of our trips to San Antonio, my wife and I bid Dusty goodbye in the lobby of Air Force Village. After giving him a hug, I said: “Now, Dusty, I know you hate to be called a hero, but I want to let you know that you’re mine.” I expected him to grumble some self-effacing retort, but he didn’t. He giggled happily and stood there smiling. My wife Laura and I walked down a long hallway, bound for our rental car and a trip to the airport. When we looked back, we could see Dusty there, still in the hallway, still smiling happily.

I don’t know how to explain it. Dusty shrugged off every compliment he ever received about his service in World War 2, but for some reason, when I gave him the same effuse praise, he let it slide.

I prefer to think that my estimation of him is accurate. Back in 1941, the U.S. Navy asked a great deal from him. Effectively, the country said: “You will kill our foe. You will do this by dropping out of the sky like a meteor. You will plummet to earth and release your bomb at the last minute. Most likely, you will be killed in attempting this. You may be shot down. You may be hit by your own bomb blast. You might not pull out of your 240-knot dive. You might run out of gas on your trip back to your carrier. . . . But you will do this for us. We need to win and you must make the sacrifice.”

Dusty attempted to make the sacrifice. There were nineteen pilots in Dusty’s squadron at the Battle of Midway. Seven died in the battle. Two more died later in the war. As Dusty explained it, he just happened to be in the lucky half that lived. Even more luckily, he outlived the other nine who survived the war. In fact, Dusty was the last dive bomber veteran alive to have served at Midway, and I suspect, he was the last American pilot to have served at that battle. Four years ago, he wrote this for my wife’s museum’s publication: “At age ninety-six, I wonder why the Good Lord has spared me, perhaps the last dive bomber pilot that bombed a ship in the Battle of Midway? . . . The only thing I can presume is that He has not yet found me worthy to reach all those other Saints above us.”

On April 29, 2016, Dusty’s friends and family placed his earthly remains to rest in Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery. I had to honor to be there to witness it. As happens at military funerals, a Navy officer handed Dusty’s son, Jack, Jr., the flag that draped his father’s coffin and thanked him “on behalf of a grateful nation.” Lacking the talent to describe the emotion that impregnated those proceedings, I will say simply that I was truly moved by seeing it.

Dusty was my hero because he always knew that a living hero would be too proud. He didn’t die at Midway, and for that I am grateful; he lived long enough to become my cherished friend.

Now that I am back in Norfolk, I plan to have chicken wings and beer in his honor. (This was Dusty’s favorite meal, and incidentally, it’s also mine.) I respect the word “hero” too much not to keep his memory fresh in my mind.

Tally Ho! Dusty! You’re the bravest man I ever met.
This photograph depicts LTJG N. Jack "Dusty" Kleiss (1916-2016) in the summer of 1942. He is arm-in-arm with his wife, Jean Mochon.
This image depicts USS Enterprise (CV-6) in April 1942. That plane in the foreground is 6-S-7 with Dusty at the controls. 

That's Dusty in the middle. My wife and I are on either side.
April 29, 2016.


  1. Very touching tribute to a great man. I'm sorry to hear of his passing, but I'm grateful that I was able to hear his tale, told by his friend. I agree that the use of the term "hero" is a bit too liberal these days. Maybe he was happy that you thought of him, not as "a" hero, but rather, as your hero. Thanks again for sharing the story!

  2. Ran across the book Friday. Just finished it. Wonderful work! Sobering and compelling. Appreciate all that you & Laura did to bring this history to our attention.

  3. Thanks. I will convey your message to Laura. We're glad you liked the book!