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Midway: Torpedo Eight
By David H. Lippman
March 2013

At 8:38 a.m., a few minutes after No. 4 Scout alerted Nagumo to the approaching American carriers, Yorktown’s air officer, Murray Arnold, finally orders his planes to launch. VF-3 bombers will go in first to strafe, then VB-3, VS-5, and finally VT-3. The idea is that the dive-bombers will cripple the carriers, leaving them immobile against torpedo attacks. With 175 miles between Yorktown and Nagumo, there is virtually no safety margin. Oscar Pederson, Yorktown’s Air Group Commander, suggests the squadrons rendezvous en route. He and Yorktown air officer Cdr. Murray Arnold agree that the Japanese are still advancing on Midway. Yorktown’s group will fly to the interception point, then head northwest, reversing the Japanese course.

Yorktown, having the experience of Coral Sea behind her, uses the "running rendezvous" technique to launch their strike. The TBDs are launched first. As the Devastators streak into the air, the SBDs of VB-3 are spotted for launch and sent up. After that, six F4Fs take off. The squadrons rendezvous in the air, while heading towards the Japanese — a more efficient system.

But Fletcher is unsure. At Coral Sea, he flung his entire strike force at the first contact report, which turned out to be the light carrier Shoho, not the Japanese main body. He decides to launch Bombing 3, Torpedo 3, and six planes from Fighting 3. Scouting 3 and the rest of VF-3 will be the reserve.

At 8:40, Yorktown’s 1MC blares “Pilots, man your planes.” The aviators climb into their cockpits, led by Cdr. Max Leslie, boss of Bombing 3. At 8:45, VT-3’s 12 torpedo planes are airborne, led by Cdr. Lem Massey. Leslie leads his 17 SBDs next, the bombers hauling 1,000-lb. bombs into the sky. Finally, Jimmy Thach’s six F4F fighters claw airborne, as Astoria blinkers, “Good hunting, and a safe return.”

Jimmy Thach, right, demonstrates his new tactics.

Five minutes out, Jimmy Thach is stunned to hear an explosion in the water ahead of him. One of Leslie’s SBDs has dropped its bomb by mistake. Thach looks up to see the culprit is Leslie himself. But it’s not Leslie’s fault. He has ordered his pilots to activate the new electric arming switches, and the connection is faulty, the releases cross-wired. Two more planes suffer the same fate. Annoyed at the failure, Leslie wonders aloud if he should turn back and get another bomb. ARM1 William Gallagher, Leslie’s radioman, has the enlisted man’s usual view of the brass. He says if they turn back, they’ll be kept on the ship. Leslie flies on. He tells his pilots to use the manual arming switches. By then, two more planes have lost their bombs. Only 13 of Yorktown’s 17 planes are now carrying ordnance.

Leslie has time to reflect on the absurdity of the situation. A 20-year veteran, he has been preparing for this moment — the attack on an enemy carrier — all his professional life. Now he can’t do any damage. But what he lacks in ordnance, he makes up in determination, to lead his young reservists into action.

Meanwhile Thach roars on, hooking up with Lem Massey’s TBDs. Thach is a tactical innovator, who is aware of the Zero’s superiority and the Wildcat’s deficiencies. He has assigned to of his F4F-4s to fly at 2,500 feet, just under the clouds, pretty much as lookouts. Thach’s other four flights are at 5,000 feet, and are to dive in when needed.

For Jimmy Thach, today’s battle will be a test for a tactic that he has developed on his kitchen table using matchsticks. Thach, like Luftwaffe ace Werner Molders during the Spanish Civil War, has realized that the World War I-era tactic of three-plane V-formations is unwieldy for the fast pace of 1940s air warfare. In his Coronado home, Thach used matches to develop four-man units with two-plane sections. They will fly in the same direction, separated by a standard distance equal to the diameter of the tightest circle the two aircraft can make.

The planes on the right watch the tails of the planes on the left and vice versa.

In action, the section not being attacked will make a sharp turn toward the one being attacked, throwing the enemy’s lead off. The enemy will not be able to make an attack without seeing an American nose — and guns — pointed at him. The key to the Thach Weave is that it needs no communication. If one section sees the other make a turn, it knows it’s coming under attack. Thach’s technique has proven successful in maneuvers, but is not yet Navy-wide policy. Now Thach has an opportunity to prove his technique in battle.

On Akagi, Nagumo frets about the need for accurate information. He orders Soryu to launch one of its experimental “Jill” scout planes to hook up with the Tone plane, which is nearly ready to come home. Nagumo passes that news on to Scout No. 4 at 8:54 a.m. Shortly after 9 a.m., the last of Tomonaga’s planes lands, and Nagumo flashes his ships to make a 70-degree course change, turning port to head northeast. To save time, the ships swing in their tracks at 9:17, creating a box of carriers with Hiryu leading Akagi on the right, and Soryu leading Kaga on the left.

Next, Nagumo blinkers and signals a stream of orders. “After completing homing operations, we plan to contact and destroy the enemy task force.” The attack on the American carriers will conform to Organization No. 4: 18 torpedo planes from Akagi, 27 from Kaga, 36 Vals from Hiryu and Soryu, and 12 fighters from all four carriers. Launching will start promptly at 10:30 a.m. Battle flags snapping in the breeze, Nagumo’s ships crank up to full speed.

Nagumo also radios Yamamoto the situation and his intentions, which causes consternation on Yamato’s flag bridge, 450 miles behind Nagumo. Yamamoto breakfasts on boiled rice, miso soup, eggs, and dried fish, then stands on his flag bridge in starched whites, reading messages. The meal exacerbates Yamamoto’s stomach ache, which is lately attributed to roundworms. The U.S. Navy has appeared too early for Kuroshima’s complicated plan. Yamamoto asks Kuroshima, “Do you think we ought to order Nagumo to attack the United States carrier force at once? I think we had better do so.”

Kuroshima replies, “Nagumo has prepared half his air force to attack the United States carrier force, and maybe Nagumo is already preparing his attack.” Yamamoto drops the point. Kuroshima spends the rest of his life kicking himself. If Kuroshima merely said, “Yes, sir,” and sent off a message over Yamamoto’s signature, Nagumo might attack right away. Yamamoto resumes watching his ships.

While Nagumo’s fleet advances, the latest report comes in from Tone’s scout plane, an acknowledgement of the 8:54 message. It adds, as an afterthought, “10 enemy torpedo planes are heading toward you.” At 9:18, Chikuma’s AA guns open up on the incoming Americans.

The men of Torpedo 8. George Gay crouches in the center.

At about 9 a.m., Waldron deploys Torpedo 8 into a scouting line, having seen no sign of the Japanese ships. The last TBD in line is flown by Ensign George Gay, 25, fresh out of flight school. Torpedo 8 is the Hollywood image of the American war effort. It includes a former college track star from Sheridan, Oregon; Harold Ellison, a New York insurance man; a Los Angeles lumber dealer’s son; lumberjack Grant Teats; Wesleyan intellectual Bill Evans; a Navy enlisted man who gained a direct appointment to Annapolis; and a few Academy men. Gay himself went from Texas A&M to Pensacola flight school, and his take-off from Hornet this morning is the very first time he has ever taken off a carrier deck with a torpedo — or even seen it done.

Waldron believes the Japanese will head north after recovering their aircraft. He’s right, but the Japanese have not reached the point Waldron has estimated they will be at. That’s because of time spent in evasive maneuvers from the earlier attacks.

Around 9:18, Waldron spots three carriers below, and Torpedo 8 swings into attack, nine miles away from the enemy. When Torpedo 8 swoops down, so do Japanese Zeros from above, as in all the other attacks, demonstrating the Zero’s speed, maneuverability and height. Lt. Iyozo Fujita leads his Soryu fighters against the Americans, with predictable results. The TBDs are slow, unmaneuverable, and poorly armed. The American planes explode or drop like stones. Debris and balls of fire hurl through the air.

Gay sees Waldron’s plane catch fire. Waldron stands up and struggles to bail out, but the plane explodes. In a matter of minutes, Gay’s plane is the only one left. Even his gunner, Bob Huntington is hit. Gay feels a pain in his left elbow — a spent bullet has landed in his torn sleeve. Gay pulls it out and stuffs it in his mouth, and heads on in for Soryu’s starboard side.

Gay can see planes being fueled on Soryu’s flight deck, and avgas hoses “scattered all over the place,” along with AA guns roaring at him. Gay also sees “the little Jap captain up there jumping up and down raising Hell.” At 800 yards out, Gay hits his release button. Nothing happens. He pulls the manual release, and the torpedo races off.

Too close to turn away, Gay flies “right down the gun barrel” of a big AA gun, across the flight deck, does a little turn, and flies right over the flight deck again. Fujita, nearby, watches this entire scene, and races over to attract the carrier’s attention to Gay’s torpedo. Soryu turns and avoids it. Short of fuel, Fujita lands on his carrier’s deck. He learns that nobody on Soryu saw his gyrations. The turn was pure luck. An irritated Fujita stomps off for breakfast, while technicians refuel his Zero.

Gay also splashes into the sea when five Zeros shoot off one wing and wreck his rudder controls. Gay tries to save Huntington, but the plane sinks quickly, taking the gunner with it. The pilot pulls out his rubber life raft and black rubber seat cushion. Remembering advice from Waldron not to throw away anything in a ditching situation, Gay hides under the black rubber cushion to inflate his life raft. Amazingly, nobody notices Gay, his raft, or his cushion.

But every plane of VT-8 has been shot down. Earnest, Ferrier, and Gay are the sole survivors. Up above, Jim Gray and Fighting 6 circle in position over Nagumo’s carrier force, unable to see the action through scudding clouds. With no word from McClusky and no signal, “Come on down, Jim,” Gray assumes that the American attack is a complete success.

At 9:20, McClusky and his planes reach their interception point to find an empty ocean. McClusky checks his navigation — it’s perfect. He checks the weather. Also perfect. Have the Japs shot past him towards Midway? No way, McClusky thinks. He suspects the Japanese have turned around. He flies a box search, first southwest for 35 miles. No sign of enemy ships. He turns northwest, his 30 pilots obediently following him, gulping fuel. McClusky decides to keep heading northeast until 10:00 a.m. Then he’ll head back to Enterprise.

At 9:36, Nagumo flashes his ships to cease fire. All the American planes are sizzling in the water. Once again, there have been no hits. Nagumo and his officers puzzle over the Americans’ sloppy tactics — no fighter escort, and all the planes attacking in a bunch. The Americans are fighting very badly. However, the Japanese have little time to analyze the situation. At 9:38, a new flight of 14 incoming torpedo planes is spotted, heading in from the north.

Torpedo 6, known as VT-6 to the record books, is a more experienced outfit than VT-8, and Gene Lindsey plans to divide into two equal parts, so as to hit a different carrier. Lindsey’s planes fly in at 1,500 feet, and spot the Japanese wakes 30 miles away, and the last flashes of flak from Waldron’s attack. Lindsey’s planes swoop in at about 9:40, doing 100 knots, 34 slower than their rated speed. The Japanese carriers turn tail to the Americans, which gives them even more time to evade the attack. Once again, Nagumo’s Zeros smash into the Americans from above. They shoot down pilots Pablo Riley, Tom Eversole, and then Gene Lindsey himself before he can radio “Come on down, Jim” to his fighter escort.

A VB-6 refuels after attacking Kaga at Midway.

With ample determination, Torpedo 6 maintains its attack, getting into range at 9:58. Lt. Ed Laub is so close, he can see the planes on their flight deck, propellers turning. He punches his release button at 500 to 800 yards away, then pulls out for home. Three other TBDs also escape the slaughter. The other 10 are shot down.

The carrier under VT-6’s attack is Kaga, and Capt. Jisaku Okada displays some fancy seamanship to avoid the American torpedoes. Over the Japanese fleet black balls of AA fire and curls of smoke illuminate the sky. By 10 a.m. Kaga is out of danger, and Nagumo has fended off his seventh attack of the morning, and has yet to suffer a single hit. “Kaga seems to be fighting pretty well,” Genda tells Nagumo.

“She is all right,” Nagumo responds, as the battle continues. Then Nagumo drafts a signal for Yamamoto, and Genda shuffles down to a ready room to chat with Akagi pilots. Genda asks them about the enemy defenses, and says, “How about the skill of enemy fliers over Midway?”

“Enemy fighters are lousy indeed,” one says. “I think they were almost wiped out.” But Lt. Okajima, who is designated to command 6th Air Group on Midway after the Japanese takeover, says, “Staff officer, today’s engagement is tough.”

“Yes, it is,” Genda says. “But nothing to worry about.” Then he heads back to the bridge.

On the flag bridge, Nagumo sends Yamamoto the following signal: “Carried out air attack on AF at 0330. Many enemy shore-based planes attacked us subsequent to 0415. We have suffered no damages. At 0428, enemy composed one carrier, seven cruisers and five destroyers sighted in position TO SHI RI 34, on course southwest, speed 20 knots. After destroying this, we plan to resume our AF attack. Our position at 0700 is HE E A 00, course 30 degrees, speed 24 knots.”

Meanwhile, Genda watches the last Devastators getting shot down over Hiryu. “We don’t need to be afraid of enemy planes no matter how many they are,” Genda thinks. “Originally I had some doubt about the defensibility of the task force against an enemy air raid, but now I see how great it is. This is a winning battle! So, we had better first destroy the enemy planes and then destroy the enemy carriers before we launch a devastating attack upon Midway from this midnight to tomorrow morning.”

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David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist and graduate of the New School for Social Research, has written many magazine articles about World War II. He maintains the World War II + 55 website and currently works as a public information officer for the city of Newark, N.J. We're pleased to add his work to our Daily Content.