Today we remember the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Midway on June 4-6, 1942. In just a couple of days, this battle changed the course of the war in the Pacific. The loss of 4 of Japan’s 6 fast fleet carriers crippled the empire’s offensive strike capability as well as their ability to provide air cover for their large surface combatants. Japan had lost the initiative and would go over to the defensive and remain there until two atomic bombs ended its dream of ruling a vast empire in the Pacific. SOFREP has written a few pieces on the battle in the past that you can read here and here.
Here are three mostly unknown and unusual facts about the Battle of Midway that have only recently come to light.
The first blow during the battle was struck by the Army Air Corps a day before the battle officially began.
While the Battle of Midway is generally thought of as a battle between two navies beginning on June 4th and ending on June 6th, 1942, but the first American attack on Japanese forces at sea was conducted by B-17s Flying Fortresses of the Army Air Corps on June 3rd.
On the afternoon of June 3rd, at 1623 hrs, nine B-17Es led by Lt. Col. Walter C. Sweeney Jr and the 431st Bombardment Squadron found the Japanese ground invasion task force of transports ships and escorts about 570 miles west of Midway Island. From an altitude of 8,000ft, they dropped thirty-six 600lb bombs. Their pilots made exuberant claims of having made five direct hits on enemy vessels and several near misses.
Several photographs were taken of the Japanese ships evading their bombs. Returning to Midway the army pilot’s reports made it into the press very quickly and headlines about Air Corps bombers smashing the Japanese fleet at Midway appeared back in the states while the actual naval battle raged for the next three days.
Because the Navy had taken the strategic loss of the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown and about 140 aircraft in the battle its own reports to the press about the loss of the carrier and other details of the battle were slow in coming. News of the Yorktown being sunk was not released until four months after the battle. Press reports about what the navy had achieved were slight in the details so the American public mostly believed that it was the Army Air Corps that won the victory at Midway because their reports were first and more detailed.
One US Submarine Played a Pivotal Role in the Battle
In May 1942, the submarine USS Nautilus laid down in 1927 and skippered by Lt. Cmdr. William Brockman Jr. sailed from Pearl Harbor on her first war patrol. Admiral Nimitz, himself a sub-officer had 16 US subs forming a picket line in a fan to the west of Midway to try and spot the approach of the Japanese fleet. As it would turn out Nautilus would spot the Japanese fleet, report on its location, and then drive in alone to try and attack the huge armada spread out before her. As the captain himself would say in his after-action report;
“The picture presented on raising the periscope was one never experienced in peacetime practices. Ships were on all sides and moving across the field at high speed and circling away to avoid the submarine’s position.”
USS Nautilus would fire a torpedo at the battleship Kirishima and a light cruiser as Japan’s main striking force maneuvered furiously trying to escape the submarine in suddenly in their midst. As they withdrew, the Japanese destroyer Arashi remained behind to attack the Nautilus with depth charges to give the fleet time to escape from torpedo range.
After expending numerous depth charges, the Arashi then poured on the coal to make all possible speed in rejoining the rest of the fleet. As it would happen, bombing squadron VT-6 from the US aircraft carrier Enterprise, led by LCDR Clarence Wade McClusky was in skies overhead trying desperately to locate the Japanese carriers himself. He would spot the long wake of the destroyer high-tailing it back to rejoin the fleet and follow its course directly to the Japanese carriers.
Nautilus would later attack the burning Japanese carrier Kaga only to see her torpedoes fail to detonate, survive 42 depth charges dropped on her and was spotted by Japanese aircraft and ships forcing Nautilus to dive and evade numerous attacks by aircraft and surface escorts. For his tenacious determination to press his solitary attacks on the Japanese fleet during the battle, LCDR Brockman would be awarded a Navy Cross.
George Gay was not the “Sole” Survivor of Torpedo Squadron 8(VT-8) Aboard the Carrier USS Hornet.
On June 4th, when the Hornet launched her air group of fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo bombers to attack the Japanese they were not sent to the known last location of the Japanese aircraft carriers to the Northeast but to an expected second location in the West where it was believed two of the four Japanese carriers might be. Carrier doctrine in those days was to split up your carriers into pairs to avoid them being all taken out in a single attack. Enterprise and Yorktown’s air groups would attack to the North-West while Hornet’s planes would head West to hopefully find the Japanese had split their two carrier divisions up. It was a reasoned presumption, but it would turn out an incorrect one.
Torpedo Squadron 8 had been recently assigned to the USS Hornet and was not a complete squadron, half of its pilots and planes were still at Pearl Harbor as the first squadron to receive the new Grumman TBF Avenger that would replace their aged TBD Devastators.
Six of the new Avengers had been flown from the West Coast to Pearl Harbor but had missed the Hornet going to sea by a day. These six Avengers then flew on to Midway in anticipation of joining the carrier there. When they arrived at Midway there was no time for them to fly out to the Hornet and the 6 Avengers of this detachment of Torpedo 8 would fly out on the morning of June 4th to attack the Japanese carriers. 5 of the 6 would be shot down with the remaining one coming back badly shot up. The plane’s pilot was Ensign Albert K. Earnest with a crew comprised of Armorer 3c Harrier H. Ferrier and Signalman 1c Jay D. Manning, who was operating the .50-caliber machine-gun turret. Manning was killed in action with Japanese fighters during the attack.
Later in the afternoon, CDR Waldon commanding Torpedo 8 aboard the Hornet would realize that the supposed western location of part of the Japanese fleet was a bust and turn his squadron to the North to the originally reported location of the enemy. He would soon be followed by the bombing and fighting squadrons of the Hornet’s flight group. According to the attack plan, which was bitterly disputed prior to taking off, the escorting fighters would stay above the dive bombers at 20,000 ft, leaving the slow-moving Devastators of VT-8 all but unprotected at 8,000 feet.
Nevertheless, VT-8 and Waldron found all four of the Japanese carriers and pressed home their attacks with suicidal determination. All 15 aircraft were shot down with the loss of every man except for Ensign George Gay, who would cling to a seat cushion in the ocean with Japanese ships all around him as the rest of the battle took place. He would later be recovered by a PBY Cataline flying boat.
So, you see there were two surviving pilots and one crewman from VT-8 on that day along with the rest of the squadron’s pilots still bringing their new Avengers over from the West Coast. After the battle, the press got hold of the story and made George Gay the heroic “sole survivor” of the squadron’s pilots that day and he traveled the country selling war bonds.
There was still a war going on and the remaining pilots and crews of VT-8 were still tasked to fight it. The remnant was sent aboard the carrier USS Sarasota in August for the invasion of Guadalcanal and the squadron flew ashore to Henderson field to join the “Cactus Air Force” in defense of the island after the Saratoga was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and returned to the states for repairs. There it would grind itself to dust, cobbling together spare parts to try and keep a single aircraft flying missions under the command of her executive officer, LT Swede Larson.
The navy couldn’t rebuild the squadron with its surviving pilots while it was raising war bonds with its “sole” survivor touring the country and VT-8 was quietly disbanded after its remnants left Guadalcanal and returned to the US in November 1942. In 1943, it would be reactivated and assigned to the New aircraft carrier, USS Intrepid.
Famed Hollywood director John Ford had film crews at Midway to film the battle and aboard various ships. After Midway, he discovered that one of his camera teams had filmed ENS Gay and the members of Torpedo 8 just hours before the battle on the deck of the Hornet with their aircraft fueled and armed waiting to take off on their last combat mission. A compilation of the footage was prepared and given to the members of the family as a kind of private video memorial, the first of its kind that we know of.