Torpedo Squadron 8 aboard the USS Hornet (CV-8) June 4, 1942
Torpedo Squadron 8
In the Battle of Midway, there were many Sailors who were immediately recognized for their actions. The dive bombers whose payloads were delivered on target and sank the Japanese carriers were among the first to be noted as heroes of this monumental victory. But there were some who may not have been recognized because they failed to accomplish their primary mission to deliver their torpedoes and sink as many ships in the Japanese fleet as possible. This was the fate of Torpedo Squadron 8.
On the morning of June 4, 1942, the relatively young pilots of VT 8 boarded their aircraft with the daunting task of being one of the first squadrons to launch against the imposing Japanese force. When they left the flight deck of USS Hornet (CV-8), these brave pilots had no idea what this mission would bring them.
As their sortie began, there was a great deal of anticipation and apprehension. This would be their first real test in battle. What would happen to them when the Japanese fleet spotted them? Would they have the nerve to stand and fight against overwhelming odds?
As they closed in on the enemy carriers, they came under intense fire from Japanese fighter aircraft. The older, slower American aircraft weren't able to get away from the faster, more agile, Japanese planes. Before Torpedo Squadron 8 were able to make a hit on the enemy fleet, 29 of them would be killed in action. Only one would return to the American battle group.
Many would think that these men failed in their mission. While it was true they didn't sink any of the Japanese ships, they did manage to occupy their defense forces long enough and were able to draw them far enough away from their own fleet. THis allowed that the next flight of bombers to fly in relatively unimpeded and score direct hits on every one of their targets, including the Japanese carriers Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu almost ensuring immediate victory for the Americans.
The only survivor of Torpedo Squadron 8 was Ensign George H. Gay who was wounded in action during the mission.
Gay gave an oral history of what happened that day and why the men of Torpedo Squadron 8 were heroes.
"Well, Torpedo 8 had a difficult problem, we had old planes and we were new in the organization. We had a dual job of not only training a squadron of boot ensigns, of which I was one of course, we also had to fight the war at the same time, and when we finally got up to the Battle of Midway it was the first time I had ever carried a torpedo on an aircraft and it was the first time that I had ever taken a torpedo off of a ship, had never seen it done. None of the other ensigns in the squadron had either.
Quite a few of us were a little bit skeptical and leery but we'd seen Doolittle and his boys when they hadn't seen a carrier before and they took the B-25's off. So, we figured by golly if they can do it, well we could too. It turned out that the TBD could pick up the weight, so it was easy. We learned everything that we knew about Japanese tactics and our own tactics from Lt. Cmdr. Waldron, Lt. Moore and Lt. Owens. They gave it to us on the blackboards and in talks and lectures. We had school everyday and although we didn't like it at the time, it turned out that this was the only way in the world that we could learn the things that we needed to know. We exercised on the flight deck and did all kinds of things that we'd have to do artificially because we couldn't do our flying most of the time.
In the Coral Sea Battle we tried to get there and missed out on most of it but we were able along about that time to get in some bombing practice and to do some submarine patrol. However, the squadron didn't get to fly near as much as we should have. As I said, we had had no previous combat flying. We'd never been against the enemy, our only scrap with them had been in taking Doolittle to as close to Tokyo as we went, and in trying to get into the Coral Sea Battle; but when we finally got into the air on the morning of June 4th, we had our tactics down cold and we knew organization and what we should do. We could almost look at the back of Cmdr. Waldron's head and know what he was thinking because he had told us so many times over and over just what we should do under all conditions.
I didn't get much sleep the night of June the 3rd, the stories of the battle were coming in, midnight torpedo attack by the PBY's and all kinds of things, and we were a little bit nervous, kind of, like before a football game. We knew that the Japs were trying to come in and take something away from us and we also knew that we were at a disadvantage because we had old aircraft and could not climb the altitude with the dive bombers or fighters and we expected to be on our own. We didn't expect to run into the trouble that we found of course, but we knew that if we had any trouble we'd probably have to fight our way out of it ourselves.
Before we left the ship, Lt. Cmdr. John C. Waldron told us that he thought the Japanese Task Forces would swing together when they found out that our Navy was there. We figured that they would either make a retirement in just far enough so that they could again retrieve their planes that went in on the attack. Waldon did not think that they would go into the Island of Midway as most of the squadron commanders and air group commanders figured. He told us when he left not to worry about our navigation but to follow him as he knew where he was going. And it turned out just exactly that way. He went as straight to the Japanese Fleet as if he had a string tied to them. We thought that morning, at least I did when I saw the Japanese carriers, that one was on fire and another had a fire onboard. I thought there was a battle in progress and we were late.
I was a little bit impatient that we didn't get right on in there. When it finally turned out that we got close enough in that we could make a contact report and describe what we could see, the Zeros jumped on us and it was too late. They turned out against us in full strength and I figured that there was about 35 of them. I understand, that is I found out later, that they operated fighter squadrons of about 32 and I guess it was one of those 32 plane squadrons that got us. It's been a very general opinion that the anti-aircraft fire shot our boys down and that's not true. I don't think that any of our planes were damaged, even touched by anti-aircraft fire. The fighters, the Zeros, shot down everyone of them, and by the time that we got into where the anti-aircraft fire began to get hot, the fighters all left us. I was the only one close enough to get any real hot anti-aircraft fire. Yet, I don't think it even touched me. I went right through it, right over the ship.
I think we made a couple of grave mistakes. In the first place, if we'd only had one fighter with us, I think our troubles would have been much less. We picked up on the way in a cruiser plane, a Japanese scout from one of their cruisers, and it fell in behind us and tracked us. I know that gave away our position, course, and speed. We changed after he left but then I know that they knew we were coming. If we'd had one fighter to go back and knock that guy down, catch him before he could have gotten that report off, I believe that the Japanese would have been fooled longer on the fact that our fleet was there. I think that might have been one of their first contacts warning them that we had a fleet in the vicinity and I'm sure that got us into trouble.
Also, we went in to a scouting line out there when we were still trying to find them and didn't. The skipper put us into a long scouting line, which I thought was a mistake at the time. I didn't ever question Waldron. He had his reason for it and I knew that he expected to find them. He wanted to be sure that we did and that is the reason that we were well trained. When he gave the join up signal, we joined up immediately. I was only afraid that in the scouting line in those old planes, that we would be caught by the Zeros and it would be much worse. As it turned out, it didn't make a whole lot of difference anyway. As we joined up quickly and got organized to make our attack, the Zeros got in after us.
I remember that the first one that came down got us over to the left. Lt. Cmdr. Waldron, who was on his air phone, asked Dobbs if that was a Zero or if it was one of our planes. I didn't know whether Dobbs answered him or not, but I came out on the air and told him that it was a TBD. He also called Stanhope Ring from "John E. One, answer" and we received no answer from the air groups. I don't know if they even heard us or not, but I have always had a feeling that they did hear us. I think that was one of the things that caused them to turn north as I think the squadron deserves quite a bit of credit for the work that they did.
Personally, I was just lucky. I've never understood why I was the only one that came back, but it turned out that way. I want to be sure that the men that didn't come back get the credit for the work that they did. They followed Waldron without batting an eye. I don't feel like a lot of people have felt that we made mistakes and that Waldron got us into trouble. I don't feel that way at all. 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 knew him, I'd follow him again through exactly the same thing because I trusted him very well. 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.
The Zeros that day just caught us off balance. We were at a disadvantage all the way."
Derived from the Naval Historical Center