Remembering the 'Torpedo 8'
BY HARVEY BLUMENTHAL
Wednesday, June 13, 2012
6/13/12 at 3:47 AM
June 4 marked the 70th anniversary of the pivotal engagement in the three-day Battle of Midway. In just over five minutes, U.S. Navy dive bombers attacked and sank four Japanese aircraft carriers.
Going down with these ships were the cream of Japan's most experienced aviators, many of whom piloted planes against Pearl Harbor. Many historians credit these few crucial minutes as the moments that decided the war in the Pacific.
A recent Associated Press story recounted this famous battle, but it did not mention "the sacrifice of Torpedo 8," one of the key events in the U.S. victory at Midway.
The story described how U.S. Naval Intelligence learned of the Japanese attack plan by breaking their secret Purple Code, but the ensuing American attack on the unsuspecting Japanese carrier fleet became chaotic because of communication difficulties.
The air attack on the Japanese carriers was to be initiated by high-level dive bombers, then followed up by low-flying torpedo bombers to mop up. All these attack planes were to be protected from Japanese Zero fighters by American fighter planes.
The dive bombers and fighter planes were late getting into position, and when Torpedo Squadron 8 arrived on time, the Japanese carriers were alerted. The 15 planes of "Torpedo 8" were commanded by Lt. Cmdr. John Waldron, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate. Waldron recognized he must commit his squadron to commence the attack, forcing the carriers to take defensive maneuvers, rendering them unable to arm and launch their planes to counterattack the U.S. fleet.
Waldron had briefed his squadron before they took off from the deck of the USS Hornet. He wanted each man to do his utmost to destroy the enemy. "If there is only one plane left to make a final run-in, I want that man to go in and get a hit."
The planes of Torpedo 8 were slow and obsolete Douglas TBD-1 Devastators, and Waldron knew that without the American fighter escorts his squadron was no match for the Japanese combat air patrol of Zeros. Waldron courageously led his squadron in their slow, low-level glide attack formation because his men were trained to follow his lead.
All 15 torpedo bombers with their two-man crews were shot down by Japanese fighters and antiaircraft fire from the carriers. Not one torpedo found its mark, and 29 of the 30 aviators were killed. But the attack proved vital in throwing the Japanese carriers into disorder and also in bringing down the Japanese combat air patrol to sea level so when the dive bombers arrived a few minutes later, the Zeros were too low and unable to climb fast enough to become effective against these high-altitude Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers.
Waldron and his men were heroic in their attack against improbable odds and are honorably remembered for courageously disrupting the enemy fleet and leaving it vulnerable to the late-arriving dive bombers. The "sacrifice of Torpedo 8" paved the way for the stunningly successful destruction of the Japanese carriers and victory at Midway.
We Oklahomans can especially be proud of Waldron because of his Native American heritage: His mother was an Oglala Sioux.
I mentioned that 29 of the 30 men in the Torpedo 8 squadron were killed. The sole survivor was Ensign George Gay, one of the pilots. He survived when his Douglas Devastator crashed into the sea. Gay had a front-row seat and observed the dive bomber attack on the carriers while he bobbed around in his Mae West life vest while holding a cushion over his head so he would not be spotted in the ocean by a Japanese ship.
Gay survived the war and, about 1980, I read in the Tulsa World that he had just come to Tulsa to promote a book he had then written about the Battle of Midway.
Harvey Blumenthal, M.D., was in private practice in Tulsa from 1972-2004. He has been a volunteer faculty member at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine since 1976.
Harvey Blumenthal: The attack proved vital in throwing the Japanese carriers into disorder