By Dr. Frank A. Blazich, Jr., Curator of Modern Military History, National Museum of American History
For Ensign George H. Gay, Jr. of Waco, Texas, the morning of June 4, 1942 began with groggy trepidation. With knowledge of a large Japanese invasion fleet moving towards Midway Island outnumbering the assembled American naval force, Gay did not sleep well. He and his fellow aviators of Torpedo Squadron 8 (VT-8) aboard the carrier Hornet (CV-8) would fly to battle in obsolete, slow, poorly maneuverable Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bombers. These aviators faced a formidable Japanese force with considerable combat experience in the Pacific War’s early months. The attack by VT-8 on the Japanese carrier battle group that morning would be the first combat mission for the squadron, and the first time Gay or any of the squadron’s ensign pilots had ever flown a mission – much less witnessed a takeoff – with the unreliable Bliss-Leavitt Mark 13 aerial torpedo.
At 7:00 a.m. on the sunny flight deck of Hornet, VT-8’s aircraft moved into position for launch. Camera crews working with filmmaker Naval Reserve Commander John Ford – himself on Midway Island – filmed the two-man teams of each aircraft smiling, joking, and drawing scary faces on their torpedoes before their subsequent takeoffs. This film footage would be the last visual record of the unit’s members.
The plan for Hornet’s strike mission against the enemy proved disagreeable to the commander of VT-8, Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron. Commander Stanhope Ring, the air group leader, opted to lead the Hornet’s fighter and dive bomber squadrons on a course due west to find the Japanese carriers. Waldron, however, believed the enemy forces lay in a different direction. After briefing his men to “Just follow me. I’ll take you to ‘em,” Waldron turned his Devastator on a course heading southwest, and at 8:25 a.m. VT-8 flew unescorted on a direct course to the Japanese carriers. Concurrently, the Devastators of Torpedo Squadron 3 (VT-3) from the carrier Yorktown (CV-5) and Torpedo Squadron 6 (VT-6) of the carrier Enterprise (CV-6), of 12 and 14 planes, respectively, launched and headed towards the enemy fleet, numbering a total force of 41 American torpedo bombers.
Around 9:18 a.m., VT-8 spotted the enemy carrier force and two minutes later Waldron led his unit into battle. In view of the Americans lay the Japanese carrier battle group, consisting of Kaga, Hiryū, Akagi, and Sōryū, all veterans of the Pearl Harbor attack. Low and slow as they commenced torpedo runs, the Devastators provided ample targets for anti-aircraft guns and 21 Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighter planes aloft on combat air patrol. Undaunted and committed to victory, Waldron targeted Sōryū and prepared for his torpedo run.
The enemy fighters immediately swarmed the vulnerable Devastators barely moving at 100 knots. The Zeroes brought down Waldron and several aircraft quickly. Gay abandoned his initial torpedo run and began to maneuver his aircraft while his rear gunner/radioman, Aviation Radioman Third Class Robert K. Huntington of Los Angeles, California, took aim where possible with his twin .30-calliber machine guns. With his single fixed .30 caliber machine gun, Gay fired at anything that flew in front of him and managed to hit and damage one Zero fighter until the gun jammed. Suddenly Gay felt something hit his left arm, and found blood on his hand. Squeezing a dark lump on his arm a spent Japanese machine gun bullet popped out. Moments later something hit the back of his left hand, disabling his use of it. Soon Huntington called over the intercom that he was hit and then the radio went silent; Gay was on his own. Meanwhile, the remainder of the squadron’s aircraft fell to enemy cannon and machine guns, smashing into the water and disappearing beneath the waves.
In less than 15 minutes, enemy fighters had annihilated VT-8 except for Gay’s aircraft. Although damaged by enemy fighters, he spotted a target, the Sōryū, and moved to attack. At a distance of 800 yards from the ship, Gay dropped his torpedo and managed to hop his Devastator over the carrier. Circling back around, Gay found himself facing five Japanese fighter planes. In an instant machine gun and cannon fire ripped into the torpedo bomber, wounding Gay. A 20mm cannon shell exploded by his left rudder pedal, blowing apart the pedal and setting the engine on fire. Gay suffered severe flash burns on his left leg. Despite having his rudder and aileron controls shot out, Gay managed to somewhat control the crash of the Devastator into the sea, cartwheeling on impact
Despite the cockpit frame jamming on impact, Gay smashed out of the canopy and unsuccessfully attempted to extricate Huntington. All the while enemy planes continued to strafe the sinking Devastator and its lone survivor. As the plane sank away, Gay bid his comrade goodbye and swam to the surface, bumping into his uninflated life raft that floated free of the sinking aircraft. Bobbing in the ocean in considerable pain while riding the life raft between his legs, Gay spotted a black cushion from the plane floating nearby. Recognizing it as the cushion located in the crawl space beneath the pilot’s seat, Gay grabbed it to put it over his head in an inverted V shape to provide him some camouflage from the enemy while still having some semblance of visibility. Nearby he could see three of the carriers steaming in his direction with other Japanese warships. Of the 15 Devastators and 30 aircrew of VT-8, only Gay remained alive. All 15 torpedoes failed to score any hits. The other torpedo squadrons, VT-3 and VT-6, also failed to score any torpedo hits while each lost ten aircraft in the process; only six Devastators out of 41 launched returned to their home carriers. Wounded, alone and surrounded, for Gay the situation looked bleak.
Although the American torpedo bombers failed to strike a blow, VT-8’s brazen attack upset the delicate operations of the Japanese carrier battle group and its commander, Admiral Chūichi Nagumo. In order to dodge the American torpedoes, Nagumo’s carriers maneuvered and reversed course out of the wind, preventing the Japanese from launching additional aircraft. Further defensive actions resulted in flight decks loaded with fighter rather than strike aircraft to confront the torpedo bomber attacks, thereby delaying critical Japanese spotting operations to locate the American carriers. Waldron and VT-8’s actions cost the Japanese roughly an hour of invaluable time with which to strike the American carrier force, time that arguably decided the outcome of the battle.
Thankfully, the U.S. Navy needed less than an hour to shift the winds of war in the Pacific. Around 10:20 a.m., three squadrons of dive bombers from Enterprise and Yorktown arrived at the battle site, perfectly positioned to attack the Japanese carriers. With a grandstand seat for the ensuing action, Gay watched and cheered as the Kaga, Akagi, and Sōryū all sustained fatal bomb hits and turned into floating cauldrons of searing flames and secondary explosions.
As he watched in the water, an enemy cruiser and destroyer steamed near Gay’s position. He actually saw some of the sailors aboard the cruiser pointing at him, but the ship steamed off and left the American to fend for himself. In the cover of night, Gay inflated his yellow life raft, clambered aboard and discovered three of the four air compartments had bullet holes. Thankfully, the one compartment kept the raft buoyant. In the cold of the night, Gay shivered in the darkness with the sounds of the Japanese scuttling the burned-out carriers too close for comfort. Hours of saltwater immersion severely irritated his eyes and exacerbated his wounds; ultimately, he lost 30 pounds via dehydration, blood loss, tension and anxiety during his ordeal. Around 6:20 a.m. on June 5, a Navy PBY Catalina flying boat spotted Gay and returned in the afternoon to rescue him after 30 hours adrift. By the afternoon of the fifth, all four Japanese carriers lay at the bottom of the Pacific, effectively ending any future Japanese naval-based offensive military operations in the Pacific.
On June 6, Gay flew from Midway Island to Pearl Harbor for medical treatment. During his examination, doctors found a bullet fragment in his left hand which the chief surgeon managed to extract without any damage to Gay’s hand. The following day, while recovering from his operation and ordeal in the hospital, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet, and a group of officers came to visit Gay and hear his account of the battle. Pleased with Gay’s account, Nimitz and his staff departed at which point a hospital attendant came in with a wheelchair. Groggily, Gay found himself wheeled outside and handed an afternoon edition of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin with the headline “Japanese at Midway SMASHED” as news cameras clicked away. The following morning, papers across the nation featured Gay’s photo and his account of the battle and subsequent survival.
For their collective valor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decorated the men of VT-8 with the Presidential Unit Citation. The Navy awarded every VT-8 pilot the Navy Cross, and the radiomen/rear gunners the Distinguished Flying Cross. Every aircrew member received the Purple Heart. After his death on October 21, 1994, the Navy scattered Gay’s remains at sea by the Midway battle site to join his lost comrades of 52 years prior.
Visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History exhibit, “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War,” will find on exhibit a faded khaki flying jacket worn that fateful day of June 4, 1942. Unassuming and unadorned, the jacket bears a small tear on the left arm near the elbow where the Japanese machine gun bullet struck its wearer. This small mark of damage is representative of the loss of 29 men in a war which destroyed the lives of countless millions; in death, the valorous actions of these men, and their surviving representative comrades proved invaluable in helping the nation achieve one of its greatest naval victories.