Torpedo Squadron 8 Plane Captain Relives ‘Battle of Midway’

Story Number: NNS070604-11Release Date: 6/4/2007 12:32:00 PM
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By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James E. Foehl, Commander, Navy Region Hawaii Public Affairs

PEARL HARBOR (NNS) -- On June 4 more than 1,500 distinguished visitors and guests will gather on Midway Atoll to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Midway.

The sacrifices of those U.S. Sailors who fought so valiantly during that battle at sea June 4-7, 1942, will continue to be commemorated every year by the Navy as the critical turning point of the war in the Pacific--a battle that changed the course of history.

The story of the battle begins months earlier, when a daring bombing raid on Japan was launched from U.S. aircraft carriers led by then U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, striking America's first blow in the Pacific after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

One of the Sailors who participated in both the Doolittle Raid and the Battle of Midway spoke of the sacrifices of heroic Sailors.

"The day of the [Doolittle Raid] launch was a rough day. There was some speculation of fishing boats that were out there who would alert the Japanese of what we were doing and what type of ship we were," said William A. Tunstall, an aviation machinist's mate 2nd class from Springfield, Mass., who was assigned to Torpedo Squadron 8 (VT-8).

"Capt. Marc Andrew Mitscher, [Hornet's commanding officer], came on and told us the reason the airplanes were on our flight deck was that we are going out and bomb Japan," said Tunstall. "We went up on 40 [degrees] north and started to cross the ocean. When we got to 180 [degrees], low and behold, there's another aircraft carrier."

From the flight deck of USS Hornet (CV 8), the U.S. Army Air Force B-25 bombers launched what would prove to be a greatly embarrassing attack to the Japanese on their homeland soil.

"When these [B-25] aircraft started to launch, I went up to hangar deck, then on up to the catwalk. When the bow went down, [the landing signal officer] would tell them to launch. When the deck came up, they'd be right in a position to take off," said Tunstall.

The strike was a success. Shocked that their home islands were vulnerable to attack, the Japanese now knew that the U.S. carrier forces in the Pacific posed an immense threat, which they had to eliminate.

After the Doolittle Raid, the Japanese devised a plan for an attack on Midway, designed to cripple the U.S. Pacific Fleet carrier forces and capture Midway Islands, which could serve as a launching point for further attacks on Hawaii or the U.S. mainland. Japanese submarines would be sent to intercept carriers from Pearl Harbor to Midway, and as attacks on Midway began, the Pacific Fleet carriers would be ambushed as they attempted to come to the island's rescue.

However, unknown to the Japanese, superior American communication intelligence gave the edge to U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Chester W. Nimitz. Nimitz used information gleaned from decoded Japanese message traffic to strategically position his fleet for battle with the unsuspecting Japanese carrier forces while keeping the American fleet out of reach of the Japanese submarines.

USS Enterprise (CV 6) and Hornet quickly moved from Pearl Harbor, heading to a point north east of Midway, with USS Yorktown (CV 5) following soon after.

The stage was set.

"June 4, 1942, I was on the flight deck of [USS] Hornet," said Tunstall. "I was a plane captain of a TBD [torpedo bomber]. It was a fine old airplane, I had flown a lot of hours in it and flying the middle seat as a Bombardier when it was needed."

"When they announced they had found the Japanese and their ships were coming closer, within range of our airplanes, they sounded general quarters and we went up and got our planes ready to go," said Tunstall. "I had my airplane ready to go. I said to [my pilot] 'Mr. Abercrombie, I want to wish you the very best. Good luck.'"

The planes were all quickly launched, and formed up with the other squadrons to head off the Japanese Fleet.

"Waldron, commanding officer, VT-8, found [the Japanese Fleet] and called in all the available aircraft he could get," said Tunstall.

VT-8 received the Presidential Unit Citation, which was awarded on April 5, 1943, for their attack that day. The citation gives a vivid account of the squadron's desparate and, ultimately, doomed attack which led the way for other air attacks to succeed.

"Flying low without fighter support, Torpedo Squadron (VT) 8 began the perilous mission, 'Intercept and attack!' First to sight the enemy, the squadron attacked with full striking power against crushing enemy opposition, scoring torpedo hits on Japanese forces. Realizing to a man that insufficient fuel would prevent a return to the carrier, the pilots held doggedly to the target, dropping torpedoes at pointblank range in the face of blasting anti-aircraft fire that sent the planes, one by one, hurtling aflame into the sea."

Following the brave attack by VT-8, dive-bombers from the Yorktown pummeled Japanese carrier Soryu, making three lethal hits with 1,000-pound bombs that turned the ship into an inferno.

Meanwhile, Enterprise planes hit Japanese carrier's Akagi and Kaga, turning them into scrap metal within a short period of time.

Within a span of minutes, three squadrons of SBD scout bombers; two from Enterprise and one from Yorktown, successfully bombed and set ablaze three of the four Japanese carriers and crippled the Japanese carrier forces at Midway.

As a final effort, the remaining Japanese carrier, Hiryu, launched an attack on Yorktown.

Despite hits from dive bombers and going dead in the water, Yorktown regained 20 knots and launched her aircraft to intercept inbound Japanese torpedo bombers.

Two Japanese torpedoes opened a huge hole in Yorktown's midships port side and left her with a severe list. Fearing the ship would roll over, abandon ship was ordered.

Enterprise planes, which now included 10 refugees from the Yorktown, answered Hiryu by putting more than four bombs into her, destroying the forward flight deck and setting her ablaze.

Shocked and overwhelmed, Japanese Combined Fleet Commander Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto ordered a retreat and his Midway operation was called off.

Recounting what happened to his own squadron, Tunstall said, "All our (VT-8) planes were shot down. The one [pilot] that came back, parachuted into the water and his name was [Ens.] George Gay."

The sacrifices and daring action by the vastly outnumbered U.S. fleet proved decisive in a way few battles ever have; Japanese plans to extend their empire across the Pacific Ocean by sinking the remaining U.S. Pacific Fleet carrier forces were smashed. The heroic actions of the American Sailors in the Battle of Midway set the stage for the ultimate vistory in the Pacific theatre of World War II, and left a legacy of valor for future generations of U.S. Navy Sailors.

[Some of the information used in this story was provided by the Naval Historical Center].

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