Thursday, June 04, 2009

A Dawn Like Thunder

A Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bomber, with pre-war markings. Fifteen of these aircraft, assigned to Torpedo Squadron 8 of the USS Hornet, were shot down on the second day of the Battle of Midway and only one crew member survived (Wikipedia photo).

Sixty-seven years ago today, 15 torpedo bombers launched from the carrier USS Hornet on the second day of the Battle of Midway. As a group, they turned towards the Japanese fleet, and their own appointment with destiny.

The aircraft were Douglas Devastators, assigned to Torpedo Squadron 8 of the U.S. Navy. Crewed by a pilot and a rear gunner, the antiquated Devastators had a simple, yet crucial mission: find the enemy carriers, launch torpedo attacks at low altitude, and sink the capital ships of the Japanese fleets.

It was a daunting task. A successful torpedo strike required crews to fly at wave-top level, directly at enemy vessels, which were heavily defended by anti-aircraft guns and fighters. Making matters worse, the Devastators were slow--even in comparison to other torpedo bombers--and their only "defense" was the skill of their pilot, and meager defensive fire from the rear gunner's .30 caliber Browning machineguns.

Navy tactics called for coordinated attacks against an enemy fleet, improving prospects for success (and survival for the aircrews). While the torpedo bombers penetrated at low level, dive bombers were supposed to strike from medium altitude (with escort from U.S. fighters), dividing enemy defenses. But coordination was often difficult to achieve, due to poor communications, the limited fuel capacity of strike aircraft, and other factors.

As anyone who has studied Midway knows, coordination was nonexistent as Lieutenant Commander John Waldron, the leader of Torpedo 8, began his run toward the Japanese carriers. Without fighter escort--and without enough fuel to make it back to the Hornet--Waldron and his crews elected to press their attack, against overwhelming odds.

It was a suicide mission. All of the Devastators were shot down by enemy Zeros or anti-aircraft fire from the ships. Only one man, Ensign George Gay, survived. Waldron and the rest of his men died, without scoring a single hit on the Japanese carrier force.

But the sacrifice of Torpedo 8 was not in vain. Torpedo squadrons from the Yorktown and Enterprise arrived moments later and initiated their own attacks, with losses that were nearly as heavy. But the waves of torpedo bombers forced the Japanese to concentrate their defenses at low level, creating an opening for the dive bombers, led by Lieutenant Commanders Wade McCluskey and Maxwell Leslie. In minutes, their formations transformed three of the four Japanese carriers into blazing hulks, forever altering the course of the Pacific War.

While the legend of Torpedo 8 was secured in that heroic, sacrificial attack, the squadron's story did not end there. Historian (and former New York Congressman) Robert Mrazek published a new history of the unit last year, detailing its service before--and after--the Battle of Midway.

Mrazek's book, A Dawn Like Thunder, traces the squadron from its pre-war days in Norfolk, Virginia, where it joined the Hornet after the carrier was commissioned in 1941 (Waldron was Torpedo 8's first commanding officer). After the U.S. entered the war, Waldron ran the "squadron like there was no tomorrow," working his aircrews and support personnel from early in the morning until well after dark.

In early 1942, the Hornet headed for the Pacific, taking Waldron and most of the squadron to war. A smaller contingent of pilots, gunners and ground crews headed for New York to take delivery of the new, Grumman TBF Avenger, the Navy's new torpedo bomber. After checking out in the Avenger, the rest of Torpedo 8 was supposed to link up with their squadron mates in the Pacific.

But the reunion never occurred. The squadron's Avenger "detachment" made it to Midway, but they operated from the island, rather than the USS Hornet. Despite having better aircraft, the fate of those crews was nearly as grim; of the six TBF's that launched from Midway, only one survived.

Yet, as Mr. Mrazek reminds us, the history of Torpedo 8 didn't end with that epic battle. Despite their appalling losses, the squadron was quickly reconstituted and participated in the Solomons Campaign, operating (again) from the Hornet until the carrier was sunk. After that, the unit flew from Guadalcanal, part of legendary "Cactus Air Force" that supported Allied ground and naval operations. Losses remained heavy; before the squadron was finally disbanded, it was down to a single, flyable aircraft and a handful of aircrews.

An excerpt from the book--and an interview with Mr. Mrazek--can be found on the NPR website. A Dawn Like Thunder is a superb read, well-researched and well-written. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the full story of Torpedo 8.


Mad Fiddler said...

My dad was part of the crew of the Hornet (CV-8) during that period, and continued to serve on that ship until it was sunk in the Battle of Santa Cruz.

Although he distinguished himself by his actions under fire, he told of those incidents only after determined wheedling. Most of his stories were of the other guys he'd admired and messed around with. Stories of liberty, building sailboats from scraps, exploring on islands they visited.

Throughout my childhood, I saw off-duty sailors and officers coaching baseball teams, helping with scout packs and troops, ushering in chapel, escorting kids around at Halloween, et cetera. I'd been to funerals of dads killed in flight deck screwups often enough to know that peacetime military aviation had a heavy cost, too.

When the 60's unfolded, I absolutely knew the Left were lying about the military being a bunch of cowardly butchers.

I'd seen the truth.

David said...

July 8, the son of the Navigator/Bombardier of the fourth B-25 to lift off the USS Hornet on the bombing mission "Thirty Seconds over Tokyo" will tell the story of his father bailing out over China after his plane ran out of fuel.