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New Book By ODU History Professor Chronicles Life of WWII Dive Bomber

By Betsy Hnath

World War II dive-bomber pilot Dusty Kleiss never considered himself heroic. But his actions during the Battle of Midway, which are chronicled in his memoir, "Never Call Me a Hero," certainly qualify.

Kleiss co-wrote the book with Tim Orr, an associate history professor at Old Dominion University, and Orr's wife, Laura, education director of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.

The Orrs met Kleiss in 2012 at an event commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Midway. They were amazed at the humble way he described dropping bombs responsible for sinking three Japanese ships -- two of the four carriers also used in the bombing of Pearl Harbor, as well as a cruiser - during the battle. The Orrs wanted to know more.

After many phone calls in which Kleiss recounted his experiences during World War II, Orr and his wife approached him about collaborating on a memoir.

Kleiss felt uneasy about publishing his story, let alone claiming heroism, even though most historians cite the U.S. victory at the three-day Battle of Midway as a crucial turning point in the Pacific war.

"The World War II generation hated receiving undue attention for what it did," Orr said. "They didn't see anything exceptional in their actions, just duty that had to be done."

After some convincing, Kleiss finally agreed.

"Mr. Kleiss was never reluctant to get into details, but he was modest," Orr said. "The title 'Never Call Me a Hero' is our promise to him. He thought he owed it to the 'true heroes' -- those U.S. military service members who died fighting in World War II."

When he and his wife began working on the book, Orr assumed most historians had come to a consensus on the history of the Battle of Midway. Instead, Kleiss offered a startling new narrative. "Dusty had a more contrarian view of the battle than we anticipated," Orr said.

"He described how the Navy's senior officers treated the pilots as expendable assets. This was all news to me," Orr said. "For instance, Dusty concluded that American admirals knew the highly dysfunctional Mark-13 aerial torpedo stood no chance of success, but they sent three squadrons of torpedo bomber pilots into the fray anyway — simply as cannon fodder —anything to keep the Japanese fleet busy or distracted so the better-armed planes could deliver the killing blow. So, Dusty told us, the American admirals sent the torpedo bomber squadrons on a suicide mission."

Orr said Kleiss, who died in 2016 at the age of 100, still believed in the power one person could wield. That's a lesson Orr now incorporates in his classes at Old Dominion.

"Kleiss' experience shows how one human's life is worth more than the sum of their fame," Orr said. "One well-meaning person can change the course of world history, and Dusty Kleiss' life story is evidence of that. In that way, 'Never Call Me a Hero' is an optimistic book. In general, I like optimistic stories. If you study the history of war, as I do, you don't see many of them."

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