Flight of the Avenger

By Sam Cox, Rear Admiral, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Exhilaration is what I felt, sitting in the gunner’s turret as “Doris Mae’s” powerful radial engine roared and vibrated on the take-off roll.  Restored to flying condition by the Capital Wing of the Commemorative Air Force, the World War Two-vintage TBM Avenger torpedo bomber was the heaviest single-engine aircraft built by the U.S. during the war.  I was already marveling at the naval aviators who were able to bring that big plane aboard even the smallest escort carriers.

As much fun as I was having however, as a historian, I couldn’t help but think back to the Avenger’s role during World War II, and imagining what it might have been like to be commencing a mission against the enemy.  I knew the names of two others who had sat strapped in the same turret as I was; Aviation Machinist’s Mate 3rd Class (AMM3c) Jay Manning in a TBF-1 Avenger piloted by Ensign Albert “Bert” Earnest at the Battle of Midway on June 4, 1942, and Lt. j.g. grade William “Ted” White in a TBM-1C Avenger piloted by Lt. j.g. George H.W. Bush during a strike on the Japanese island of Chichi Jima on Sept. 2, 1944.  Unlike those two brave men, I knew with a high-degree of certainty that I would return safely from my flight.  They had no idea whether they would return at all, and as it turned out, neither one of them returned alive.

Chichi Jima, Bonin Island. Seaplane base and town under attack by U.S. carrier aircraft, Sept. 2, 1944. Photographed by a USS San Jacinto plane.

 

As the Avenger gained airspeed and altitude, I could only imaging what either one of those two gunners would have seen as their planes launched.  Manning would have seen the airstrip at Eastern Island of Midway Atoll, covered with Marines in defensive positions, thousands of “Gooney Birds” (Laysan Albatross,) and every plane on the island that could fly launching behind them to attack the Japanese carriers.  White would have seen the flight deck of the light carrier USS SAN JACINTO (CVL 30) receding behind him in the vast Pacific Ocean and other aircraft launching for the strike on Chichi Jima.  What I saw was perfectly normal; the homes, schools and businesses of northern Virginia, displaying all the signs of peace and freedom purchased at such a terribly high price by Manning, White and many more like them in the battle against tyranny in the Second World War.

When I looked upwards, I had a better sense of what those two men would have seen; a beautiful blue sky and clouds.  But I knew that those clouds did not hide Japanese fighters.  The last thing Manning would have seen, on his first combat mission, would have been an exquisitely agile Japanese A6M “Zero” fighter, with a superbly trained and highly combat-experienced pilot, maneuvering and steadying up to take a shot with his 20mm cannons, since his 7.7mm machine guns seemed to have little effect on the incredibly tough American torpedo bomber.  Manning would have been firing his own machine gun in a life-or-death duel that the Japanese pilot won; a 20mm shell directly in Manning’s chest ended the young sailor’s life.

A Grumman TBF-1 “Avenger” drops a torpedo in practice, circa 1943, over the Atlantic.

It is less certain what White would have last seen; most probably the anti-aircraft shells bursting around his aircraft that inflicted mortal damage to the plane, despite which Lt. j.g. Bush continued his dive and dropped his bombs on the target, before getting his crippled plane out to sea.  White was not Bush’s normal gunner.  He was an Intelligence Officer (like me) who had taken the gunner’s place so that he could observe Chichi Jima’s defenses.

Exactly what killed White is unknown, but he probably never made it out of the aircraft before it crashed. And from where I sat in the turret I could see why.  I barely was able to squeeze my way into it, hanging awkwardly in the small seat by the straps.  There was no room for a parachute.  The only way out for the turret gunner was to shimmy down from the turret into the radioman’s compartment, put on a parachute, and then jump out the hatch on the underside of the aircraft.  Given that torpedo bombers generally flew their missions at very low altitude, the odds of a successful escape from the turret were pretty small.

There are countless stories of valor and sacrifice among those courageous men who flew the Avenger during World War II against the Japanese, and against German U-boats; too many to do them justice in this article.  The plane made its debut on Dec. 7, 1941; the ceremonies were rushed upon news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The original aircraft were known as TBF’s, built by Grumman, and were intended to replace the TBD Devastator, which was the world’s most advanced torpedo bomber when it came into service in 1937, and woefully obsolete by 1941. The name “Avenger” would not be bestowed on the TBF until after the Battle of Midway. Later versions were designated TBM’s, built under license by the Eastern Division of General Motors as Grumman concentrated on producing as many F6F Hellcat fighters as possible. Successive versions of the TBM had more powerful engines, upgraded electronics (radios and airborne radar.)  The version I was in was a modified TBM-3E, which served in the U.S. Marines late in the war, eventually serving for many years in the Georgia Forest Service as a fire-fighting bomber, via the Canadian Navy.

If you read the Wikipedia account on Avengers (and many other accounts of the Battle of Midway) the first combat mission of the TBF was deemed a failure; five of six planes shot down for no hits. It was a failure, but one which had absolutely nothing to do with the bravery of the pilots who flew the mission. It was, however, one of the most pivotal points of the battle and key to the U.S. success that followed.

When Earnest, Manning and Radioman 2nd Class Harry Ferrier launched from Midway Island on June 4, 1942, they were part of a flight of six TBF’s led by Lieutenant Langdon Fieberling that had only just arrived on the island as part of a last-ditch build-up of force in anticipation of a major Japanese attack and invasion.  The detachment belonged to Torpedo Squadron Eight (VT 8,) the main part of which was embarked on the carrier USS Hornet (CV 8), under the command of Commander John Waldron, and equipped with the obsolete TBD Devastator. When Hornet left the U.S. East Coast in early 1942 to carry Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle’s B-25 bombers on their epic raid on Japan, Waldron left behind a detachment of his squadron to train and convert to the new TBF. The detachment then made its way independently to Oahu, missing Hornet’s sailing for Midway by one day.  Six planes and crews of the detachment, all volunteers, flew direct to Midway island to bolster its defenses, a feat of long-range navigation notable in its own right.

USS Hornet (CV 8) circa late 1941, soon after completion, probably at a U.S. east coast port. A ferry boat and Eagle Boat (PE) are in the background.

Upon the first sighting reports of the Japanese carrier force and inbound Japanese air strike just after dawn on June 4, every flyable aircraft on Midway was thrown into the air. First to launch were the Marine fighters, almost all of which would be shot down or severely damaged by the Japanese fighters escorting the incoming strike. The next to launch were the six VT-8 detachment TBF’s, followed by four U.S. Army Air Force B-26 Marauder twin-engine bombers rigged to carry a torpedo (the first and last time the Air Force would ever do so,) followed by the U.S. Marine Dauntless and Vindicator dive-bombers.

Knowing only a range and bearing to the Japanese carriers, Lt. Fieberling led his six TBF’s on a high-speed direct-line transit to the reported position. The slightly faster B-26’s did the same, on a parallel course, which would result in a synchronized (but not coordinated) strike against the Japanese carriers. Although no one has ever doubted Fieberling’s courage, some have questioned his judgment in taking six unescorted TBF’s against four Japanese carriers. However, given the stakes of the desperate battle, Fieberling really had no other choice but to do what he did, attack.

The TBF had never seen combat, nor had any of the six pilots and twelve radiomen/gunners of the VT-8 detachment.  None of them had even dropped a torpedo before, live or exercise.  They knew the torpedoes they were carrying were unreliable.  They did not know that the slow speed and altitude restrictions for dropping those torpedoes, which made the planes even more vulnerable, were actually counter-productive, because the torpedoes had never been tested under war-like conditions (“too expensive.”)  Nevertheless, Captain James Collins, USAAF, leading the B-26’s, independently made the exact same decision as Fieberling; his flight also proceeded unescorted and direct, and did not wait to form up for a coordinated strike with the Marine dive bombers.   As it turned out, the Marine aircraft took almost an hour to form up themselves, during which time the Japanese carriers moved a considerable distance from the last sighting reports.  Both Fieberling and Collins had accepted the “do or die,” nature of the mission in a “must win” battle against the numerically superior, and in many ways, qualitatively superior, Japanese.

The six TBF’s and four B-26’s ran into almost 30 Japanese Zero fighters of a carrier force that had been on a six-month victory spree.  Some British Beaufighters had given the Japanese carriers a scare in the Indian Ocean a couple months before, but no one had laid a glove on the four Japanese carriers of Carrier Division One (Akagi and Kaga) and Carrier Division Two (Hiryu and Soryu). Convinced of their own invincibility, with pretty good reason, the Japanese fighters expected easy pickings of anything that would dare attempt to strike their carriers. They were surprised to see two types of aircraft they had never seen before (TBF and B-26). They were even more surprised when both types of aircraft proved incredibly resistant to machine gun fire, forcing them to use their canons, which necessitated a more steady and risky approach. They were even more shocked when the formations of TBF’s and B-26’s each shot a Zero down before losing any U.S. aircraft. Whether Manning or another gunner shot a Zero down will never be known.

Discipline among the swarm of Zeros began to break down, as aircraft jockeyed for position, sometimes interfering with each other trying to avenge the loss of their fellow pilots. Every U.S. plane absorbed incredible punishment, killing and wounding aircrewmen, but still they kept coming. The Japanese Zeros bravely flew into the anti-aircraft fire being put up by the Japanese ships escorting the carriers, so they could keep firing on the U.S. planes, which were getting dangerously close to the Japanese carriers.  Even riddled with bullets and shells, with gunners dead and dying, the American planes just kept coming. None of them turned away despite the overwhelming odds.

Finally, the cumulative damage became too much and the U.S. planes started to go down, three TBF’s and one B-26. Earnest flew on, even though he could not raise his gunners (Manning was dead and Ferrier wounded and unconscious). Just as he believed his severely damaged plane was about to crash, Earnest veered off and launched his torpedo at the Japanese light cruiser Nagara, while the other two remaining TBF’s got close enough to launch their torpedoes at the carrier Hiryu before they were shot down. Hiryu and Nagara would skillfully avoid the torpedoes. Only at the last moment did Earnest discover that he could still fly his plane using the trim tab as his only controllable surface.

Meanwhile the three surviving B-26’s pressed their attack. The first and second planes got close enough to Akagi to drop their torpedoes, which Akagi maneuvered to avoid. The second B-26 buzzed the length of Akagi’s flight deck at bridge height, strafing as she went.  The third B-26 didn’t drop a torpedo but was either out-of-control or deliberately tried to crash into the Akagi, missing Akagi’s bridge by a matter of feet before impacting the water. A few feet lower and Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo (Commander of the Japanese carrier task force) and most of his staff would have been killed.

The valiant and determined attack by the TBF’s and B-26’s, and his near-death experience, convinced Nagumo that aircraft flying from Midway represented a very real and dangerous threat that needed to be dealt with immediately, more so than a hypothetical threat posed by U.S. aircraft carriers that Nagumo’s scout aircraft had not yet found. His decision to order his reserve strike (almost half his aircraft) to be re-armed with ground-attack rather than anti-ship weapons would set in motion the chain of events that would lead to disaster and the loss of all four carriers.  The cost would still be high for the U.S. torpedo bombers; of the 41 TBD’s launched from three carriers later that morning, only five would make it back.  All 15 TBD’s of Torpedo Eight would be shot down, with only one survivor, Ensign George Gay.

Torpedo Squadron 8. Photographed on board USS Hornet (CV 8), circa mid-May 1942, shortly before the Battle of Midway. They are Ensign Harold J. Ellison; Ensign Henry R. Kenyon; Ensign John P. Gray; Ensign George H. Gay, Jr.; Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Jeff D. Woodson; Ensign William W. Creamer; Aviation Pilot First Class Robert B. Miles. Lieutenant James C. Owens, Jr.; Ensign E.L. Fayle; Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron, Squadron Commanding Officer; Lieutenant Raymond A. Moore; Ensign Ulvert M. Moore; Ensign William R. Evans; Ensign Grant W. Teats; Lieutenant (Junior Grade) George M. Campbell.

 

Ensign Earnest would nurse his bullet and shell-riddled TBF via a circuitous route back to a crash landing on Midway.  Captain Collins and one other B-26 would do the same.  None of the aircraft would ever fly again.  Earnest’s TBF would be the first of many heavily damaged Avengers that would bring their crews back safely thanks to their sturdy construction.  However, the aircraft flown by Lt. j.g. George Bush on Sept. 2, 1944 (“Bar III,” short for Barbara) would not be one of them.

Bush was on his 50th combat mission when he was part of a four-plane formation tasked with attacking the Japanese radio transmitter on Chichi Jima (using bombs, not a torpedo). Several months earlier, Bush’s plane (“Bar II”) had been caught on the catapult of the San Jacinto when a Japanese air raid came in. Once it was over, he launched to conduct a bombing mission over Guam, but either during the air raid or bombing mission his plane suffered damage and he was forced to ditch the aircraft in the ocean, a dangerous action that he executed nearly perfectly, and he and both his crewmen were rescued by a U.S. Navy destroyer.  During a later mission in the vicinity of Palau, one of the planes in his same flight was shot down, killing a close friend, Lieutenant Roland Houle. (This aircraft was located in 2014.  In 2018, the Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) recovered remains from the aircraft, and positively identified the two aircrewmen, but Houle apparently was lost after he escaped the aircraft and remains missing in action.)  Of the original 16 pilots in the Avenger squadron (VT 51) on San Jacinto, half would be killed or captured during the war.

George H.W. Bush.

On Sept. 2, 1944, Bush’s luck ran out. During a second day of strikes on Chichi Jima, noted for the extreme intensity of Japanese anti-aircraft fire, his plane was hit while inbound to the target. Despite the serious damage to his aircraft, Bush nevertheless pressed home his attack, an action for which he would be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.  Bush was able to get his damaged aircraft back out over water when he determined that he would not be able to get his plane back to the carrier, nor could he apparently control it well enough to be able to ditch.  (Of note, no pilots or aircrew who were shot down over or near Chichi Jima survived the war.  Those that survived being shot down were captured and executed by the Japanese, in several cases involving cannibalism.  After the war, the Japanese major general in command of the island was tried and executed for war crimes.)

Unable to raise either White or his radioman/gunner Radioman 2nd Class John Delaney, and believing that White at least was already dead, Bush elected to bail out.  There are some differences in accounts about how badly the aircraft was smoking at the time Bush bailed out, but only he would know how well the aircraft could be controlled.  Aircraft following behind reported seeing two chutes, one presumably was Bush, the other was a streamer and was probably Delaney. Neither White nor Delaney were ever found.

Bush was injured when he hit the tail after bailing out, but came to and was able to get into his raft. A Hellcat fighter from the San Jacinto kept Japanese boats from reaching the downed aviator, while other aircraft reached the duty “lifeguard” U.S. submarine, USS Finback (SS 230,) via radio and arranged for Bush to be rescued by the sub after being in the water for four hours. Bush then spent the next 30 days aboard Finback, along with four other rescued aviators, for the remainder of her patrol, enduring several depth charge attacks as Finback sank two Japanese freighters. As a result of being on the sub, Bush missed the Battle of Leyte Gulf, but rejoined his squadron for operations in the Philippines (and Typhoon Cobra) flying eight more combat missions. In one of his last missions, Japanese anti-aircraft fire near Manila Bay blew a hole in his wing, but yet again, Bush pressed home his attack on a Japanese transport ship despite the damage.

As my Avenger returned quite safely to earth, I had to admit that it was a lot of fun, despite the “ghosts.” Nevertheless, it was also an opportunity for me to honor the service and sacrifice of those who held the line, at great cost, in the early dark days of World War II, and then went on to achieve victory, at a steep price. The other passenger on the flight, in the second seat behind the pilot (which didn’t exist in the original aircraft) was in her 60’s or 70’s, appeared to feel the same. Her 94-year old (and still living) father had served as a radioman gunner in TBM’s operating against German U-boats. Her flight was also a once-in-a-lifetime “Bucket List” opportunity to understand better her father’s service to our country.

Back on the ground, I thanked my pilot and crewman (who flew in the radio/ventral gun compartment) for a safe flight, and I also thanked the staff of the Commemorative Air Force for what they have done to preserve these historic aircraft, and honoring the valor and sacrifice of those like Manning, Fieberling, White, and Delaney, and many more, who gave everything so that we could have the freedom we have today, and I could have the freedom to go joyriding in a WWII Navy combat aircraft.


(Sources consulted include, “Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway” by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully (2005,) “The Unknown Battle of Midway: The Destruction of the American Torpedo Squadrons,” by Alvin Kernan (2005,) “A Dawn Like Thunder: The True Story of Torpedo Eight,” by Robert Mrazek (2008,) and “Vice President Bush Calls World War II Experience ‘Sobering,’” by Journalist Second Class Timothy J. Christman, Naval Aviation News, (Mar-April 1985)

 

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