The movie “Midway” will be released on November 8 and I encourage all to go see it. Not because it represents one of the greatest American military victories as an underdog, but because this WWII saga highlights one of Santa Monica’s finest former residents, Lt. Richard H. Best.
Mr. Best was a wonderful leader of men and led the Bombing Squadron unit, VB-6, off of the USS Enterprise. When attacking the 4 Japanese carriers the morning of June 4, 1942, he and another 15 plane bombing squadron approached two carriers. The other squadron leader was not as experienced of a bombing commander and mistakenly dove on the wrong carrier. Not only did his squadron dive on the carrier Kaga, but so did 12 of 15 of Lt. Best’s squadron. Lt. Best realized the mistake and, with more than enough bombs dropping on the Kaga, was able to divert his remaining three plane formation over to the Japanese flagship carrier, the Akagi. While the other two pilots had near misses, Lt. Best dropped his bomb perfectly in the middle of the flight deck. It blew parked planes with pilots still in their seats completely off the ship. More importantly, it set off a series of explosions in the hangar deck that doomed the ship. Later that day he participated in the sinking of the 4th carrier. He was likely one of only a couple of American pilots who sunk two carriers during the war.
That morning Lt. Best had tested his oxygen canister and breathed in toxic fumes. He insisted on continuing his mission that day. The next morning he was coughing up blood, and was hospitalized for 32 months with having activated latent tuberculosis. He never flew again. He retired to Santa Monica where he lived until his passing in 2001. He was Director of Security at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica at the time of the theft of the Pentagon Papers. He hated the corporate life and was ready by the time retirement age came around.
From about 1998 to 2001 I was able to visit Lt. Best several times at his home on 26th Street. He had lost his tough Jersey accent shown in the film and though he lived alone, spent much time in his own gardens and was a voracious reader. He could quote me all the greatest soliloquies from Shakespeare. We would sit at his kitchen table eating a bologna sandwich and glass of milk and he recounted every minute detail of that fateful day. He was doing extensive traveling well into his late 80’s to attend commemorations and memorial dedications.
Please, Santa Monica, take your kids and grandkids to see this movie to see the amazing sacrifice the men at Midway made and to see one your hometown’s greatest heroes.
By Andy Spurlock
Las Vegas, Nevada