The navy pilot had been flying a mission from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise against the Japanese somewhere in the Pacific thirteen days earlier in an engagement that became known as the Battle of Midway, a smashing and needed triumph for American forces. While the grief felt by the parents of the Franklin College graduate was still fresh, they received a second dispatch informing them that the first telegram has been mistaken; their son was not dead, but instead had been listed as missing in action.
The scrambled communications from Washington, D.C., had the pilot’s frantic parents searching for answers from anyone they could find who knew their son. Following up on a letter from Lieutenant L. A. Smith, the commanding officer of Bombing Squadron 6 (the group in which Norman flew), which had confirmed that Norman had been forced down at sea, Fred Vandivier wrote Smith on June 29 noting that “this uncertainty and anxiety of waiting is very distressing.”
Fred wrote that his wife, who suffered with a stomach ulcer, “has so reacted to this news that she is seriously ill.” Norman had not been home for a visit since Christmas 1940, so his father sought some personal information from his squadron mates in order to ease the pain felt by him and his wife. “Did he fit in?” Fred asked about his son. “Was he happy? Did he have ability? Did he have confidence in himself? Does anyone know of his last flight? Did he fly alone? If he doesn’t show up within the next few days, what do you think was his most probable fate?”
The anxious Hoosier father had to wait some time for answers to his questions. What has emerged over the many years since the end of the war is a picture of a young man who had a talent for his chosen profession, especially the difficult task of flying the navy’s Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bomber against the enemy’s ships and shore installations. What he had little use for, however, was the navy’s spit-and-polish traditions. He wrote his sister, Rosemary, a Rushville teacher, during his training that he had become tired of what he called “this ‘Yes, Sir,’ business.”
In the sheaf of letters he wrote to his family, now part of the Indiana Historical Society’s William Henry Smith Library’s collection, another aspect of his character shines through—a sincere desire to spare his parents from the real danger he faced, even while undergoing training at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida. He went as far as hiding from them the death of a classmate, who went into a spin while in the air and never recovered, slamming into the ground. Much later, while serving in combat, he broke down and admitted to his mother and father, after the death in a crash of a friend from Johnson County, that he, too, preferred to be killed instantly in such a manner. “When the time comes, I really think that is the best way there is to go,” he wrote on May 27, 1942, just a week before his own disappearance. “Of course, we all hate to think about it, and we all want to put it off as long as possible, but when the time comes, I’m sure that is the way I’d choose.”
Born on March 10, 1916, in Edwards, Mississippi, Norman Francis Vandivier spent little time in that state, as his father left his position as superintendent of the Southern Christian Institute, a school for African American students, to move to Franklin in Johnson County, Indiana, running a farm located about six miles southwest of the city. Graduating from high school in 1934, Vandivier attended Franklin College, where he joined the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and starred as an end on the football squad and first baseman, pitcher, and captain for the baseball team. During his time at the college, Vandivier also displayed an interest in the military, serving with the Indiana National Guard as a member of Battery A, 139th Field Artillery. Mary Vandivier said her son had a longtime interest in the military, as well as airplanes—an interest he followed after graduating from Franklin by enlisting with the U.S. Navy in the summer of 1939.
The five-foot, ten-inch, 174-pound Vandivier reported for elimination flight training as a seaman, second class, at the U.S. Naval Air Reserve Base at Grosse Ile, Michigan, on July 15, 1939. He received from the navy its standard allotment to aviation recruits of four pairs of underwear, three shirts, three pairs of pants, three pairs of socks, one new pair of shoes, a flight jacket, a helmet, and goggles. After just a few hours of instruction, Vandivier expressed his confidence that he had the necessary aptitude and skills for flying. “I believe I could take one (plane) up and land it by myself,” he boasted in a letter to his parents, “although I haven’t ever done it yet. I have had all the controls on a flight or two but the instructor would join in once in awhile when he thought he was needed. I don’t think I’m going to have any trouble and I sure do like flying.”
In addition to getting used to being in the air, Vandivier and his other classmates endured learning Morse code and the tedious task of cleaning all the airplanes after flights, using gasoline “to take off the oil and bug spots.” Every third night, he had to go on watch from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., staying in the hanger to answer the telephone that, thankfully, seldom rang. On August 4 he successfully soloed and received the ritual dunking in a nearby lake to mark the occasion. “You now have an aviator in the family. Boy! Do I feel good,” Vandivier wrote.
After surviving his initial training regimen, Vandivier received orders to report to the Naval Air Station at Pensacola, Florida, for further training as an aviation cadet with the U.S. Naval Reserve. His orders came shortly after Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, which had sparked declarations of war from the allied powers, Great Britain and France, starting World War II. As American opinion vacillated from aiding Great Britain to remaining neutral in the conflict, Vandivier arrived at the Florida base in late October 1939 to be greeted with an unusual welcome. When Vandivier and other cadets walked up to the barracks that served as their home for the next several months, suitcases in their hands, someone opened a window on the third floor, beat on the screens with his fists, and screamed: “Let me out of here! I want out of here! I’m starved!” Other faces appeared at various windows to yell at the newcomers “sucker,” “so you want to be a birdy,” and other choice expressions.
In addition to the harassment from his more experienced classmates, Vandivier had to suffer through a long day of lectures on seamanship, naval leadership, fundamentals of the naval service, and naval command and procedure. His day started at 5 a.m. and ended at 9 p.m. “That’s about as long as it is on the farm,” he noted. “There is a lot of pressure on you all the time, too.”
The pace never seemed to let up over the next few months, as Vandivier practiced his marksmanship with machine guns, learned how to fly a variety of maneuvers (snap rolls, loops, wing-overs, cartwheels, and figure eights) in a Stearman built NS1 airplane, developed a knack for formation flying, took to the skies in actual combat aircraft used by the navy, and had his normal flying senses challenged by learning to fly only by instruments in a blacked-out cockpit. “Their speedy program has made it really a case of survival of the fittest,” Vandivier wrote to his parents on November 19, 1939, “and fellows keep busting out [failing] every few days. I still have plenty of confidence that I’ll get along all right, but I see how a few members of the class could break out and not be missed, at least by the standards that I judge by.”
As Vandivier progressed further and further into his training, his schedule tightened. In May 1940 he outlined a typical day’s schedule as part of the advanced training in Squadron 5. Roused out of sleep at five in the morning, Vandivier had to eat, bathe, and shave before reporting to work at his squadron at 6:30 a.m. He and his classmates pushed their airplanes out of their hangers to warm up their engines. For about two hours he flew his low-wing aircraft by instruments, before returning to the station for an hour solo flying in a North American Texan T-6 advanced trainer (an SNJ in navy parlance), which Vandivier called “the best kind of airplane they have down here,” with retractable landing gear, flaps, and a closed cockpit. At 12:15 p.m. he spent an hour of flight simulation on the ground in a Link Flight Trainer before another hour of solo flying in the SNJ followed by an additional hour in the Link Trainer. During this time, he was also supposed to sandwich in a radio operations exam, with eight minutes of sending and eight minutes of receiving without more than five mistakes. Although his day’s work ended at 4:30 p.m., Vandivier said he much preferred an “easy day down on the farm digging ditches or pitching wheat. It wouldn’t be nearly the strain.”
In June 1940 Vandivier received a commission as an ensign and the navy assigned him to become a member of Bombing Squadron 6 on the USS Enterprise, a 19,800-ton Yorktown-class aircraft carrier originally commissioned by the navy in May 1938 and a ship that provided stellar service in Pacific battles throughout World War II. To reach his new assignment, Vandivier had to travel to San Diego, California, and from there ship out on the battleship USS Utah for a two-week cruise to the Hawaiian Islands, where the Enterprise, known lovingly by its crew as the “Big E,” was then stationed. “I get a big kick out of standing on deck and just looking at the water, with the snow-white foam about the boat and the water that looks exactly like ink, it is so dark blue” said Vandivier, who also told his parents he had not suffered yet from any sea sickness on the voyage.
By August Vandivier had joined the Enterprise’s more than two thousand-member crew and had begun one of the most difficult aspects of his training as a naval aviator—learning the intricacies of landing and taking off of a ship underway at sea. At first, he practiced with a landing signal officer (the crewman who guided pilots to their landings using reflective paddles) at a small airfield. The first time he witnessed a landing on his new ship, Vandivier expressed amazement at how much a ten-thousand-pound aircraft could bounce (six feet in the air) before finally coming to a halt, snagged by the ship’s arrester cables. “You bring the plane in on full power at a very low speed, about two miles per hour above stalling speed,” he explained the proper procedure in a letter to his parents. “Then, when the signal officer gives you the cut, you cut the gun and practically fall through the deck. There are nine wires stretched across the deck at 10 [foot] intervals, each about a foot above the deck, and fastened to a hydraulic cylinder, so that they will give when your hook catches. There is a hook about four feet long in the tail of the plane which we let down to catch the wire. It usually catches before any other part of the plane touches the deck and it just stops it in mid-air.”
To qualify, Vandivier had to make seven landings and takeoffs on a deck made of Douglas fir from the Pacific Northwest and measuring approximately sixty feet wide and 180 feet long. “I made a fairly good approach,” Vandivier said of his first landing, “got the cut [signal from the LSO], and started to settle towards the deck without any idea of what was going to happen next. I was a little too high; and got a cross wind which drifted me across the deck straight towards the tower.” While only forty feet away from the tower, and traveling at seventy miles per hour, Vandivier thought he might be headed for a crash when the tailhook on his plane caught the cable “and really jerked me to a stop. Boy, was that a relief.” Just a few weeks later, Vandivier had sixty-five hours of flight time and twenty carrier landings to his credit.
As a member of Bombing Squadron 6, Vandivier also had to learn how to control his plane when dive bombing, practicing this specialized skill on a target raft towed by another ship. In an October 14, 1940, letter to his parents, he outlined the “interesting problem” of targeting a bomb on a moving object. “You have to allow for the trail of the bomb, depending on the steepness of the dive and the altitude at which you release,” he said. “You also allow for the distance the raft will travel after the bomb is released and the amount and direction of the wind, with its effect on the path of the bomb. All in all, you are fairly busy as you travel down at 300 miles per hour. We start our dives at 10,000 [feet] and pull out at 1,000.” He called such training “fun, and an interesting game. Of course I’m glad it’s just a game instead of something more serious.”
To Vandivier, that something more serious that might bring him into combat involved what was going on in the Atlantic Ocean, where the American navy had established a Neutrality Patrol in the Caribbean and 200 miles off the coasts of North and South America to deter German U-boats from interfering with shipping. If called into action there, however, Vandivier expressed doubts about the navy’s chances. “As for us, we would be out of luck trying to compete with any of the modern planes being used in Europe with the planes we have,” he wrote. “The U.S. has sold all of its modern planes to England and let the Navy use planes from four to ten years old. We expect to get some modern planes pretty soon.” As for the threat of a possible attack by the Japanese in the Pacific, Vandivier believed that once the United States called “the Japs bluff they will back down again. They seem to be scavengers who will take whatever they don’t have to fight to get.”
Throughout 1941 the Enterprise and its crew ferried men and material from the West Coast of the United States to the Hawaiian Islands. By that spring, Vandivier’s squadron had begun training and getting the bugs out of the aircraft they would take to war—the Douglas SBD Dauntless, which could be used as a scout plane or dive-bomber. The Dauntless became “the most successful and beloved by aviators of all our carrier types,” according to naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison, as the plane sank more Japanese shipping than any other aircraft in World War II. The two-man SBDs (aircrews said the letters stood for “slow but deadly) were equipped with two fixed, forward-firing .50-caliber machine guns in the cowling and a twin .30-caliber machine gun operated by the rear gunner/radioman. “The new planes are really much easier to handle . . . and they will be a much nicer carrier plane,” said Vandivier. “They will also carry a 1000 lb [pound] bomb and 310 gallons of gasoline. In fact, I could probably fly from here [San Diego] home with only one stop for gas, and could probably do it in the daylight hours of one day.” The Dauntless proved to be a dependable combat aircraft, able to sustain considerable damage yet still bring its aircrew home safely to their ship.
Vandivier did have some trouble with his new plane. In a May 21, 1941, letter he outlined an “interesting experience” he had during a landing on the Enterprise at sea off of Oahu. When he was only 250 feet from the ship’s stern, his engine cut out while flying seventy-five feet above the water. “Under the circumstances,” Vandivier said, “I couldn’t do much to get it running again before it hit the water.” Calling it “an embarrassing predicament,” he had to make a crash landing in the water, wrecking his new plane (which he estimated cost the American taxpayers $30,000); it sank within three minutes. His crew member managed to make it into a life raft, but Vandivier had to inflate his Mae West life jacket and dogpaddle in the warm water while waiting to be picked up by a nearby destroyer. Despite his crash, Vandiver tried to minimize the dangers he faced. Writing from Pearl Harbor, the main navy base in the Hawaiian Islands, he noted that if war came “this is the safest place I can imagine to be. It is so well fortified and guarded that it would be almost impossible to take it, and it would be practically worthless to another power anyhow. The Atlantic side of the U.S. is the bad spot now.”
Vandivier proved to be very wrong in his prediction. Early in the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941, nine-year-old Joan Zuber, the daughter of a U.S. Marine officer stationed at Pearl Harbor, started her day by opening the pages of a favorite book. She had just settled back to begin her reading when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw a “grayish-black column of smoke. Something was burning.”
Zuber dropped her book and ran outside to see what was happening. Looking over the bushes in her yard toward Luke Field, the navy’s airbase on Ford Island located in the center of the harbor, she could see smoke and flames rising into the sky, filling it with a large, black cloud. Although her first thought was to run back inside the house to tell her mother what was happening, she instead remained outside. “Just then a strange plane with red balls on the sides of its body swooped low over my head, diving toward the masts of the [battleships] West Virginia and Tennessee,” Zuber remembered. “What plane was that? What was it doing flying so low?”
The plane Zuber saw streaking toward the American ships was part of a force unleashed in two waves from six aircraft carriers from the Empire of Japan. The surprise attack—undertaken without a formal declaration of war—by the enemy aircraft aimed to quickly swoop down and destroy the 130 vessels of the United States’s Pacific fleet—ships that Japanese Fleet Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, in charge of planning the strike, called “a dagger pointed at our [Japan’s] throat.” That “dagger” Yamamoto had been so worried about suffered horribly from the enemy onslaught on December 7. An armor-piercing bomb slammed into the battleship USS Arizona. The bomb sliced through the ship and ignited its forward ammunition magazine, setting off a huge explosion, killing 1,177 crew members. Although unprepared for the onslaught, American forces shot down twenty-nine Japanese aircraft. They suffered, however, the loss of two battleships (the Arizona and Oklahoma) and severe damage to another six battleships, as well as having approximately two hundred airplanes destroyed on the ground and approximately 3,500 servicemen either killed or wounded.
For Vandivier’s family, some of the first words about their son’s safety came from a Globe Wireless telegram from Honolulu, which read: “SAFE AND SOUND LETTER FOLLOWING LOVE NORMAN VANDIVIER.” In a December 18 letter Vandivier said that due to “unforeseen incidents,” there had been a delay in his letter writing and warned that there might be periods in the future where it would be impossible for him to send any mail home for months at a time. He also warned them to expect “disaster rumors of all kinds floating around, almost all of which die when any attempt is made to verify them. Mothers worrying about me bothers me a lot more than any of the things that have happened or are going to happen out here.” Even if he had wanted to pass along information on his experiences, he could not do so because mail had to be scrutinized by navy censors and “must contain no reference to what I am doing, where I am going, nor what I have seen. That doesn’t leave me a lot to write about.”
What Vandivier could not tell his family was that the Enterprise had been involved in the tail end of the Pearl Harbor attack. The carrier had been on its way back to its base after delivering Marine Fighter Squadron 211 and its complement of Grumman F4F Wildcats to Wake Island. Although scheduled to arrive at Pearl Harbor on Saturday, December 6, bad weather delayed the Enterprise’s return until Sunday, December 7. The ship’s Dauntless scout planes were soon under fire by Japanese Zero fighters. “Pearl Harbor is under attack by the Japanese. This is no shit!” Lieutenant Earl Gallaher radioed back to the Enterprise, which lost eleven pilots and nine aircraft, some brought down by panicked American anti-aircraft crews. “Before we’re through with ’em, the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell!” vowed Vice Admiral William “Bull” Halsey Jr., who had selected the Enterprise as his flagship.
The men of the Enterprise made good on Halsey’s threat, hitting back at Japanese installations in the Marshall Islands, while the USS Yorktown struck enemy positions in the Gilbert Islands on February 1, 1942. The mission marked the first time many of the young American pilots had been in combat. Over a fourteen-hour period during the Marshall Islands mission, the Enterprise launched 158 sorties against the Japanese, sinking one ship and damaging eight others, including a submarine. In addition, a navy pilot had dropped a bomb that killed Rear Admiral Yatsushiro Sukeyoshi—the first member of the Imperial Navy’s flag staff to be killed in the war.
During an attack with Bombing Squadron 6 against Kwajalein Island, Vandivier, despite heavy antiaircraft fire, was credited with scoring a near-miss on a cargo vessel and a direct hit on a small Japanese barracks, winning an Air Medal for his efforts. Vandivier and his crewmates almost ran out of luck as their ship started to steam away from the danger zone. The Enterprise came under attack from five Japanese twin-engine bombers, one of which, heavily damaged, attempted a suicide dive into a deck crowded with planes, only to barely miss the ship.
The Enterprise’s aircrews continued to hone their combat skills with raids against Japanese bases on Wake and Marcus Island. In April the carrier provided air support for a secret strike against the Japanese home islands. On April 18 a force of sixteen normally land-based North American B-25 Mitchell bombers led by Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle flew off the pitching deck of the USS Hornet to bomb Tokyo, Japan’s capital city. Although the bombers did little damage, the raid boosted morale in the United States and shocked Japanese citizens, who started to doubt, as one of them remembered, that “we were invincible.”
Vandivier could relate little about his combat experiences in his letters to his parents. In a March 14 letter, he noted that the job of the Enterprise involved keeping the Japanese from “running wild” in the Pacific. “At present the odds are a little in favor of the enemy,” he wrote, “but the odds are continually swinging to our favor. . . . When we finally get this new army into the field to stop them on land, the navy will complete wiping up their navy and the war will be over. Sounds easy, doesn’t it.” He appeared proud of the navy’s early work against the enemy, and wondered why his service chose to keep reports of these actions under wraps from the American public. “I guess it is really our job to make the news rather than to publish it,” Vandivier admitted.
On May 27, 1942, in one of the last letters he ever sent, Vandivier wrote to his college friend and Franklin neighbor Harold E. Van Antwerp, who was stationed at Fort Benning in Georgia. Again, Vandivier could not give any details about his exploits in the air against the Japanese but did tell his friend that even though he had yet to fill his quota, he could claim “a few in the old game bag. It’s even more fun, and much more interesting than shooting rabbits, cause these little rascals can shoot back at you.” He added that he had approximately 1,250 hours in the air and had made 175 carrier landings. The Dauntless had proven to be a “very good carrier” plane, but Vandivier lamented its limited bomb load that necessitated additional sorties against the enemy. “I would much rather make only a few trips, and really drop something when I unload,” he told Van Antwerp. “We have found that these Japs are nothing to be sneezed at, but they are really not very good shots. But even knowing that the guy is a poor shot, you still get nervous when the party lasts too long.”
Incensed by the Doolittle raid, the Japanese sent a large fleet to capture Midway Island, an American possession located about a thousand miles northwest of Honolulu, Hawaii. In addition to capturing Midway, Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto hoped to draw out the American fleet for a decisive battle. On May 30 the American fleet responded to the threat, sending the Yorktown to sea to join the Enterprise and Hornet, on station about 235 miles northeast of Midway. A PBY Catalina flying boat spotted the Japanese invasion force about 700 miles from Midway on the morning of June 3.
The next morning, the Japanese carriers, including four of the six that had attacked Pearl Harbor, were discovered. At about 7 a.m., the Enterprise launched its planes, including that of Vandivier and his crewman, Seaman First Class Lee Edward John Keaney. Led the carrier’s group commander, Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky, the attack formation began with thirty-three Dauntlesses; fifteen from Bombing Squadron 6, loaded with one thousand-pound bomb each, and eighteen from Scouting Squadron 6, loaded with one 500-pound bomb and two 100-pound bombs. A few hours later, the American planes had yet to find the enemy carriers. Although low on fuel, McClusky made the momentous decision to turn his group northwest to hunt down the enemy, finding the Japanese at about 10 a.m. “I knew, and most everybody knew,” said Ensign Lew Hopkins, who flew in the squadron’s second division, “that we didn’t have enough fuel to get back.”
Vandivier, who flew in the third division, and other pilots from the Enterprise screamed down in dives to drop their bombs onto the Japanese carrier, Kaga, while a smaller group targeted the flagship for the Pearl Harbor attack, the Akagi. The Japanese fleet’s air cover of Zero fighters had just decimated an attack by American Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bombers and were at a low altitude, unprepared to tackle the dive-bombers as they hurtled downward. Watching the attack, American fighter pilot Jimmy Thach described the sight as looking “like a beautiful silver waterfall, those dive-bombers coming down.” It is unknown if Vandivier managed to hit the carrier, or if his bomb missed the target that day.
The Dauntless dive-bombers from the Enterprise proved their worth, however, blasting the Akagi and Kaga with their ordnance, leaving them burning wrecks that had to be abandoned by their crews. Meanwhile dive-bombers from the USS Yorktown hit a third carrier, the Soryu, dooming it as well. “Arizona, I remember you!” cried Earl Gallaher, a member of Scouting Squadron 6. Later in the day, Dauntless aircraft from the Enterprise and Yorktown found and crippled a fourth Japanese carrier, the Hiryu. Japan had been put on the defensive and “the Americans had avenged Pearl Harbor,” noted a Japanese government official.
The victory did not come without a cost. After his attack run, Vandivier had joined up with other aircraft to try make it back to the American fleet. Low on fuel, however, and perhaps suffering from damage from the fierce Japanese anti-aircraft fire or relentless attacks by Zero fighters, Vandivier radioed that he intended to put his plane down at sea.
In an October 22 letter to Fred Vandivier from Tony F. Schneider, a fellow member of Bombing Squadron 6, the navy pilot said witnesses had seen Vandivier land his Dauntless in the ocean. “Whether he was seen to get into his life raft I do not know,” wrote Schneider. “But from that time on there has been no word so far as I know. I checked every day for the first several weeks hoping for news.” Schneider, who enclosed $8 he owed Vandivier in his letter, said the Hoosier had been his best friend and roommate on the Enterprise. “I was forced down at sea on that date myself,” he noted, “and though I was fortunate enough to be rescued on the third day, the news I have been able to get about other friends less fortunate than I has been very sketchy and incomplete. I’m sorry I cannot relieve your mental anguish.”
Although his parents held out hope, nothing was ever heard or seen of Vandivier or his gunner again. A year and a day after his disappearance, Vandivier, posthumously promoted to lieutenant junior grade and awarded the Navy Cross for his part in the Battle of Midway, was declared officially dead by Navy Department officials. In November 1943 the navy decided to name an escort destroyer then under construction for Vandivier (the ship’s construction was delayed by the war’s end, and finally commissioned on October 11, 1955). His parents refused to accept the loss of their son. “Even this official status does not alter our hopes that Norman is by some chance still alive today,” said Fred Vandivier. “Our only hopes are that he either is marooned on a distant island or is a prisoner of the Japanese. Improbable as either may be, they still enable Mrs. Vandivier and myself to keep going in the face of our sorrow.”
No good news ever came, and Fred Vandivier died on February 20, 1958. Mary Vandivier, a Gold Star mother, soldiered on until her death, at age ninety-three, in 1987. For years, she placed flowers every Memorial Day on her son’s grave marker at Franklin’s Greenlawn Cemetery. She continued to cherish mementos from her son’s life, including the Purple Heart and other medals he received for his service in the war, as well as the silver champagne bottle holder the navy presented her after she christened the ship named in his honor. “When we couldn’t have him, this kind of took the place of him,” she said of her keepsakes.