Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Last Survivor of Torpedo 8

Commander Harry Ferrier (USN, Ret) speaks at this week's ceremony at NAS Whidbey Island, Washington, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Midway.  Ferrier is the sole surviving aircrew member from Torpedo 8, which lost all of its aircraft (except one) in attacks against the Japanese fleet.  Commander Ferrier, who was 17 at the time of the battle, is holding the cap he wore into combat at Midway.  It was pierced by a Japanese bullet (U.S. Navy photo).    

On the 68th anniversary of D-Day, Google elected to commemorate the date with a "doodle" marking another milestone: the opening of the nation's first drive-in theater, which occurred 79 year ago.  Not that we're surprised; the gang at Google has never struck us as particularly pro-military.  On Memorial Day, the Yellow Ribbon beneath their logo was practically microscopic.

So, if the search engine giant can't remember the Boys of Pointe du Hoc, immortalized by their perilous climb up the cliffs of Omaha Beach (and Ronald Reagan's stirring tribute speech in 1984), it's a sure bet that you'll never see a Google Doodle for the Battle of Midway, which occurred 70 years ago this week.  After all, it was only the turning point of the Pacific War.  In the span of a few minutes, Japanese hopes for defeating the United States were forever dashed, as two squadrons of Navy dive bomber, led by Lieutenant Commanders Wade McCluskey and Max Leslie, sent three enemy carriers to the bottom.  A fourth Japanese carrier was lost the next day, along with hundreds of pilots and aircrews that represented the cream of their naval aviation force--losses that were never replaced.

But the U.S. also paid a heavy toll at Midway.  The carrier Yorktown was lost, despite heroic efforts to save her.  We also lost scores of pilot and aircrew members, including many that flew lumbering torpedo bombers against the Japanese fleet.  It was tantamount to a suicide mission; a successful torpedo run required the crew to fly low and slow, through curtains of anti-aircraft fire and (more often than not) a gauntlet of enemy fighters.

The sacrifice of these men was embodied in the final mission of Torpedo 8, launched from the USS Hornet.  Led by Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron, they pressed home their attack against the enemy fleet, despite a lack of fighter cover and coordinated dive bomber attack.  And Torpedo 8 suffered grievous losses; Waldron was killed, along with every other man in his formation, except for one pilot, Ensign George Gay.  Damage to the enemy fleet was negligible, but some analysts credit the valiant attack with pulling enemy fighters down to the deck, clearing the way for Max Leslie's and Wade McCluskey's dive bombers.

But in reality, Torpedo 8 was a "split" unit at the time of Midway.  The squadron had been selected to receive the new Grumman TBF Avenger, as a replacement for the obsolete Douglas TBD Devastators.  But when the Hornet was dispatched to the Pacific, Waldron couldn't wait around for the new planes.  Along with his more experienced crews, Commander Waldron deployed with the Hornet, still flying the TBDs.

Meanwhile, the rest of the squadron's aircrews and ground personnel became a detachment of Torpedo 8, eventually receiving the Avenger and completing their check-out in the aircraft.  Racing to join the Hornet at Pearl Harbor, they arrived a day after the carrier sailed for combat at Midway.  Instead of operating from a flattop, the Avengers were sent to Midway, where they became part of a land-based striking force that would also engage the Japanese.

On the morning of 4 June--the first day of the battle--the Midway-based TBFs (along with Army Air Corps medium and heavy bombers) got the first crack at the Japanese fleet.  While the Avengers were faster and better-armed than the TBDs, they were no match for heavy AAA fire and swarm of enemy Zeroes.  Five of the six TBFs were shot down; the surviving torpedo bomber, with Ensign Bert Earnest at the controls, returned to Midway and made a crash landing.  Ernest and his radio operator (R 2/C Harry Ferrier) survived.  Their gunner was killed in one of the attacks by enemy fighters and both Earnest and Ferrier were wounded.  Later they would learn of the sacrifices made by the rest of their squadron; Of the 48 pilots and crewmembers from Torpedo 8 dispatched against the Japanese, only three survived.

After the way, George Gay had a 30-year career as a pilot for TWA.  He passed away in 1997.  Bert Earnest stayed in the Navy, rose to the rank of Captain, and eventually served as commander of NAS Oceana, the service's "master jet base" on the east coast.  Captain Earnest died in 2009.  Harry Ferrier also made the Navy a career, earning his commission and retiring at the rank of Commander.  Two days ago, at the age of 87, he participated in ceremonies commemorating the battle at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington.

A Naval officer who spoke at the event described Commander Ferrier as a "national treasure."  Here's hoping that he's around for the 71st anniversary next year, and who knows, maybe the Doodle crew at Google will opt for something a little more patriotic.  .                                                  


Dymphna said...

google is a real tool all right.

I noticed the lame Father's Day commemoration had exactly ONE kid. Must have been Google's exposure to Chinese law, hmmm?

"Don't be evil" - but you can be as ignorant of history and as too-cool-for-fool-Americana as you want.

Yeah, I loathe Google. They're tainted with a bad case of 60s ingratitude. Not even sharp enough to be cynical.

Dymphna said...

BTW, my son did his Boy Scout Eagle project on the reamaining vets in our county. Including one feisty nurse who was a hoot. Anyone who spent her spare time pulling leeches off her body and watching her skin slough off in the tropics is TOUGH.

What surprised him most was that each of these people saw the reason for their service as an attempt to save Europe and the Jews and Asia in order to avoid having to do it here.

That may well be a long view arrived at after the fact, but none of them saw their service as wasted and all of them felt the experience added to their own wealth of wisdom.

I found out how half-starved many of those serving in the Pacific were. I'll bet some of those flight casualties were do to being dehydrated and extremely hungry. Supplies were evidently intermittent.