Turning Point – 1942
I wrote the following for my nephew when he joined the Navy in 2007. Pardon the length and the topic as it is unrelated to Auburn Football, but I thought I’d share this for the 71st anniversary of the critical moment of the Battle of Midway. Seventy years ago in 1943 there was no Auburn Football as the university did not even field a team due to so many young men signing up for service in the war.
As the years go by and our WWII veterans pass on, it’s important to remember what they accomplished for us and our nation. War Eagle.
By Patrick Sullivan
Every service in the United States military has achieved victories that have shaped our nation. Since 1776 there have been many battles and incidents, large and small, on land sea and air, but few can truly claim the title of ‘turning point’ for a particular conflict. The US Navy’s share of victories is no less significant than the other services. But the Navy can arguably claim the most decisive victory for our nation. Certainly it was one of the principle triumphs of the 20th Century, and well worth consideration with Salamis, Lepanto, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and Trafalgar as one of the most decisive naval battles in the history of the world.
But like all victories, it was not without cost. A heavy burden was borne by a few brave men doing their best against long odds, paying the highest price for what may have seemed at the time a very small task in the grand scheme of things. They knew very little about what events their actions would influence, what impact their courage might have, or the value of their sacrifice to our nation. Like many men in combat, their view was limited to their immediate surroundings, their specific mission, and the trust they had in their comrades and leaders. At the critical time, they simply did their duty as they knew it. Sadly, as it is often in the midst of hard situations, in their last moments they may even have believed that they had failed.
Such is the nature of combat. As a rule, individual sailors, marines, airmen or soldiers lack the full vista of the battlefield in which they fight. Their individual missions and contributions seem small, minuscule affairs while greater, more important actions take place elsewhere. Oftentimes, their actions remain in the fog of history, lost to all recall save for the few who witnessed them. But every now and then, fate and circumstance bring to light the contributions of a few men whose devotion to duty ultimately helped save us all. This is the story of 45 such men.
Torpedo Squadron 8 was facing a tough situation. They had only two-thirds their normal compliment present for duty as June 4th dawned. Their decade-old planes were already obsolete the day they first saw them eight months before. Their planes were under powered, under-armed and far less maneuverable than the newer model aircraft.
The aircrews were green. Most of the young men had served less than a year in uniform. While the crews were considered adequately trained in flying and manning their aircraft, none of the pilots had ever even lifted a live torpedo off the deck of a carrier before. Due to weather and operational limitations, flying time in their only previous combat situation consisted of long fruitless submarine patrols over vast stretches of open water. None of these operations were even remotely related to their mission today: a coordinated strike with two other torpedo squadrons in conjunction with three squadrons of dive bombers and two supporting fighters groups.
The only truly experienced pilots were the squadron commander, Lieutenant. Commander John Waldron, a 1924 graduate of the Naval Academy, and Lieutenants Ray Moore and James Owens. Waldron was a former flight instructor, a gifted trainer and a firm but likable commander. His subordinate officers admired him, and their confidence in their squadron leader was contagious. However the combat experience of the unit leaders was just as limited as their crews. The war had started only seven months before, and the bulk of the training they were able to provide for their newly assigned crews in the weeks leading up to the battle were tactical exercises outlined on the only medium available – a small blackboard in the wardroom. There the unit spent many long hours relating both enemy and friendly tactics until the men could all teach the classes themselves. It was all they could do. Fuel for proper training was scarce, and live torpedoes were reserved for shooting at enemy ships.
To keep his men alert and focused, LDCR Waldron conducted daily calisthenics on the flight deck. While this was ridiculed by the other flight crews on the ship, it did serve to build a unique espirit de corps in TV-8 that was noticed by the rest of the ship’s compliment. Despite these limitations, morale was high and as they sailed towards the battle area and every man knew his place and his mission to the letter. They were young, fit, enthusiastic and ready to fight.
Just after dawn, the alert came. The Japanese carrier fleet was spotted, and VT-8 was ordered to join in an immediate strike. Within a very short time, the crews received a hasty briefing, outlining their mission and that of the five other attack squadrons before they were released to board their craft. In a few minutes, all fifteen planes of VT-8 lifted off the deck of the USS Hornet in the early morning light and headed straight towards the enemy. As LCDR Waldron had previously discussed in their training, the flight formed a scouting line in order to maximize their chance of finding the enemy fleet. Once in contact, he would give a signal to form up for attack. This would allow his squadron to hit the enemy in a compact formation and thereby increasing the chance of at least some of the squadron’s torpedoes hitting their targets. En route, there was little chatter on the radio. All possible questions had been discussed in their endless chalkboard exercises. Everything went smoothly. At the precise time listed on their orders, the enemy fleet appeared on the horizon, and LCDR Waldron gave the order to close up. This was it. VT-8 was poised to attack and sink the enemy carriers.
But their enemy and fate had other plans. Due to coordination and navigation difficulties, the dive bomber and fighter groups they were supposed to join were late to the target. VT-8 and two other torpedo squadrons arrived alone over the enemy fleet. Guarding the Japanese fleet were enemy fighters in four 30-plane groups, flown by the most experience naval aviators on the planet. Nearly every enemy pilot had many more years of training than those of VT-8.
Whatever thoughts went through LCDR John Waldron’s mind at the moment are unknown. His flight was now without any fighter cover and without the coordinating dive bombers, facing a fully alert enemy fleet with many times as many fighters as there were attacking planes. All the anti-aircraft guns on the ships in view were now trained upon them. There was not enough fuel remaining to wait for the rest of the missing squadrons to make it to the battle area. Whether LCDR Waldron considered aborting the mission is unrecorded. What is known is what happened next. Without any delay or unnecessary maneuvering, VT-8 closed and lined up for an attack run at the Japanese carriers, just as they had practiced on their endless chalkboard exercises. Faced with overwhelming odds, they simply conducted their attack like those long-rehearsed drills in the wardroom. Over the radio, there was no expressions of panic, no exclaims of dismay or frustration, only short, clipped orders and battle information passed between the pilots as they flew towards the enemy flattops.
As they approached the lead carrier, a curtain of anti-aircraft criss-crossed in front of them. One of the covering fighter groups fell on the 15 planes of VT-8 well beyond the range of their torpedoes. It was a complete mismatch. The enemy planes were faster and far more maneuverable than the lumbering torpedo planes. The nimble Zero fighters were armed with forward-firing 20mm cannon while the American crewmen could only return fire with relatively puny 30 caliber machineguns. It was like fighting back with pop guns.
Between the enemy fighters and the tremendous anti-aircraft fire from every enemy ship in range, planes from VT-8 and the other two attacking squadrons were shot down one by one in rapid succession. Only one of the few torpedoes they managed to drop even came close to hitting an enemy ship. The enemy fighters were everywhere, overwhelming individual planes sometimes three and four to one as they desperately tried time and again to reach the carriers. Within minutes, the attack was in chaos. Enemy fighters easily broke up the American formations and followed in hot pursuit the last shattered remnants of the torpedo squadrons as they fled the battle area.
None of the retreating planes were from VT-8. Waldron had kept their formation despite the incredible amount of fire directed at them. Of the fifteen 3-man aircraft that LCDR Waldron led that morning, not a single plane returned. 44 men were lost from the aircrews, either killed outright or drowned after crashing in the ocean. The entire squadron was lost save for one pilot, who miraculously survived the shock of ditching his stricken plane. After hitting the water at over 100 miles an hour, Ensign George Gay struggled out of his sinking aircraft, and bobbed uncertainly in the water, hiding under the only item he was able to save from his craft, a flotation seat cushion. Beneath this cover he found himself alone, treading water in the midst of the enemy fleet, with a severe burn on his leg and bullet wounds to his hand and shoulder.
As he floated in pain and shock, mourning his lost comrades, and coughing out what seemed like an endless amount of seawater he had sucked in as he hit the water, he witnessed one of the most dramatic hours in the history of warfare. As the last few planes from VT-8 plane were being shot down, the Japanese carrier fleet commander, Vice Admiral Nagumo, made a momentous decision. His flight decks were filled with planes being readied with bombs to strike the American island defenses on a small atoll nearby. Now that his ships were under attack, Nagumo surmised that the elusive but vulnerable American carrier fleet was now within striking range of his aircraft. An immediate strike from his four fleet carriers would surely result in the sinking of the last operational American surface fleet and finishing what was attempted at Pearl Harbor: the complete destruction of the US Navy forces in the Pacific. Such an opportunity was too good to let pass.
If his squadrons could be ready in time for when the scouts radioed in the American location, he could have an attack launched before the Americans could ready a second strike. Since this recent American attack was certainly defeated, there wasn’t a moment to lose. Nagumo quickly gave the order to re-arm his planes with torpedoes and ship bombs and launch an immediate counterattack. He further ordered the land bombs removed from the planes to be piled along the flight deck in to maximize the speed of the rearmament. There would be time after all planes were launched to secure the spare ordinance.
Just twenty short minutes after the last plane of VT-8 hit the water, the Japanese strike force was nearly ready. As Nagumo correctly anticipated, an excited radio message from a scout plane confirmed the location of the three remaining American carriers. All that was needed was for the Japanese ships to turn 20 degrees into the wind and begin to launch their planes. Once in the air, the attack would likely result in the sinking of least two American carriers, potentially all three, leaving not a single American carrier within five thousand sailing miles of the West Coast.
Vice Admiral Nagumo strategic thinking was flawless and he was absolutely correct in recognizing the critical moment of battle. At that moment, Japan had eight operational carriers afloat – four in this operation, two obsolete carriers in defense of the Japanese home waters and two more fast carriers being refitted from previous operations that spring. If his gamble paid off, the Imperial Japanese Navy would have six active fleet carriers and be in complete control of the Pacific. It would be at least six months to a year before America could organize and launch any fleet to oppose them. By that time, the entire Pacific, including the Hawaiian Islands, would likely be firmly under Japanese control. Australia would be completely isolated, and likely to capitulate, along with every other island outpost of the European powers. Any future attack by the Americans would have to originate from their home ports on the West Coast, 2300 nautical miles away from Hawaii, and over 5000 miles from Japan, a near impossibility, no matter how many ships they built. The Americans might even be forced to accept terms with Japan rather than continue the conflict.
Then the impossible happened. Just as the first plane of the Japanese strike force lifted off the lead carrier, Ensign Gay looked up to see dark objects falling from the sky above the enemy carriers. The American dive bombers had finally arrived. Delayed by a navigation error and on their last reserves of fuel, they began to attack the Japanese carriers precisely when they were most vulnerable. The covering flights of fighters were well out of position, low and away from their proper defense stations. Additionally, the decks of the Japanese carriers were now filled with fully fueled combat planes loaded with ship bombs and torpedoes, with numerous other bombs piled on the flight deck waiting to be transferred below. Within minutes, bombs from three attacking squadrons rained down on the leading three Japanese carriers.
The results were unbelievable. The American bombs triggered sympathetic detonations in many of the bombs on board. Fires from these detonations ignited spilled fuel on the deck and white-hot shrapnel penetrated fuel tanks in the tightly packed planes of Nagumo’s strike force, rapidly turning the deck of the carriers into fiery infernos. Pilots and deck crews were trapped in whirlwind fires before they could even react. The three best carriers of the Imperial Navy, along with their entire complements of aircraft and trained flight crews were lost before the attacking dive bombers had even completed their first run. In an instant, the ratio of operational carriers in the Central Pacific went from 4 – 3 in Japan’s favor to 3 – 1 in favor of the Americans.
It was a stunning and complete victory. Later that day, both sides each suffered the loss of one additional carrier from subsequent strikes. By then, the battle arithmetic was strategically decisive. The Japanese had started the day with four fleet carriers in the Central Pacific Theater facing the last three remaining US carriers in the entire hemisphere. At the end of the day, the US had the only two operational fleet carriers in the central Pacific basin. The rest were sunk or so far out of position as to make them useless for any practical purpose. The balance of combat power had swung decisively in favor of the US Navy. That force would never relinquish their advantage again during the war, or in the many decades since the battle that became known simply as Midway.
In the next three years, the balance of naval power would reach astronomical proportions in favor of the US. American shipyards would soon overwhelm the Imperial Japanese Navy by building twenty five more fleet carriers and fifty four smaller “jeep” carriers. The Japanese would only manage to build one, the Shinano. That vessel was later sunk by a submarine’s torpedo before it could even approach a combat area. When the war ended, the US Navy was the most powerful and technically advanced navy on the planet with over 70 active aircraft carriers. But without the victory at Midway, that overwhelming force may never have had the chance to arrive for battle before all of our naval bases and those of our Pacific allies were taken. That razor thin difference between victory and defeat rested on the shoulders of LCDR Waldron and the other 44 men of VT-8.
In an interview shortly after the action in which his shipmates were lost, VT-8’s lone survivor, Ensign George Gay, was asked to add his thoughts on the action that turned the course of the war. This is what he had to say:
“Personally, I was just lucky. I’ve never understood why I was the only one that came back, but it turned out that way, and I want to be sure that the men that didn’t come back get the credit for the work that they did. They followed LtComdr. Waldron without batting an eye… I know that if I had it all to do over again, even knowing that the odds were going to be like they were, knowing him like I did know him, I’d follow him again through exactly the same thing because I trusted him…We did things that he wanted us to do not because he was our boss, but because we felt that if we did the things he wanted us to do then it was the right thing to do.”
George Gay recovered from his injuries, and later participated operations at Guadalcanal. He returned to the United States in 1943 where he was assigned to duty as a navy flight instructor. After the war, he had a long career as an airline pilot. George Gay passed away on October 21, 1994. According to his last wishes, his ashes were scattered over the Pacific at the precise grid reference off Midway atoll where VT-8 last flight ended, rejoining his shipmates at last.
Excerpts from Captain M. A. Mitscher’s report to the Commander in Chief, U. S. Pacific Fleet on June 13, 1942:
“Torpedo 8 led by Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron was lost in its entirety. This squadron flew at 100 knots below the clouds while the remainder of the group flew at 110 knots, climbing to 19,000 feet. Lieutenant Commander Waldron, a highly aggressive officer, leading a well trained squadron, found his target and attacked…. This squadron is deserving of the highest honors for finding the enemy, pressing home the attack, without fighter protection and without diverting dive bomber attacks to draw the enemy fire. Ensign G. H. Gay, A-V (N), U. S. N. R. is worthy of additional praise for making a torpedo hit and for the presence of mind he showed in hiding under his seat cushion, after being shot down, for several hours, thereby probably saving his own life and giving us an excellent eye-witness picture of the damage caused by the attack on the enemy carriers”.
“The Commanding Officer feels that the conduct of Torpedo Squadron Eight, led by an indomitable Squadron Commander, is one of the most outstanding exhibitions of personal bravery and gallantry that has ever come to his attention in the records of the past or present”.
The last of Torpedo Eight’s TBDs, T-16 (BuNo 1506), flown by LCDR John C. Waldron with Horace Franklin Dobbs, CRMP, in the rear seat, taking off Hornet 4 June 1942.
Commander Waldron (posthumously) and Ensign George Gay were both awarded the Navy Cross for heroism. Additionally, Squadron VT-8 was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for their action on June 4, 1942.