US Navy TBD-1 Torpedo Squadron Six (VT-6), from USS Enterprise (CV-6), in about 1938 (from here)

We have studied the night before a test. Some of us have awaited the hour before an important interview. About half of us have stood beside our ladies as they suffered, giving birth to our children. We have all waited for the arrival of a crisis, when an important matter would be resolved. Few of us, however, have contemplated our options as the minutes ticked away before the onset of a great battle.

Imagine going into battle knowing you could be a sacrificial pawn. Imagine flying over a vast ocean to battle an enemy fleet in an obsolete war plane. Consider Victor Davis Hanson’s words from Lessons from the Battle of Midway.

Japan could not equal American industrial strength, but American aviators and seamen could certainly match the Samurai courage of their Japanese counterparts.

At Midway, 37 of the 41 slow-flying and obsolete American Devastator torpedo bombers lumbered to their deaths, as they were easily picked off by Japanese air cover.

But such heroic sacrificial pawns drew off critical Japanese fighter protection from the fleet. In its absence, scores of high-flying Dauntless dive bombers descended unnoticed to blast the Japanese carriers with near impunity. (from here)

What exactly happened? Well, let’s start with who is who (from the Battle of Midway)?  Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance commanded the American forces. Admiral Chūichi Nagumo commanded the Japanese carrier battle group. Now here is the story in a bit more detail. We start just as the attack on the Japanese force has begun.

It was at this moment, when his carriers were all-but defenceless against an air attack, that Nagumo received news of an incoming aerial attack from planes from both the ‘Hornet’ and ‘Enterprise’. All that Spruance had left behind were sufficient planes to give his ships aerial cover – the rest were sent to attack the Japanese fleet. Spruance’s planes first left the fleet at 07.52 led by Lieutenant-Commander McClusky. In all, 67 Dauntless dive- bombers, 29 Devastator torpedo-bombers and 20 Wildcat fighters were involved. However, they were spread out over a large area and communication between the flight leaders was difficult. In essence, four separate squadrons advanced on the Japanese. Unknown to them, Nagumo had changed course and when the planes arrived at the point that they believed the Japanese would be at – they found nothing. Some planes searched in vain; a lot of the fighters had to ditch as they simply ran out of fuel. However, the torpedo squadrons, flying low over the water, did find the Japanese carriers – but they had no fighter cover for the attack.

Regardless of this, the attack went ahead despite the extreme danger of it. Lieutenant-Commander Waldron, in his final message to his squadron, had written:

“My greatest hope is that we encounter a favourable tactical situation, but if we don’t, I want each of us to do our utmost to destroy the enemies. If there is only one plane to make a final run in, I want that man to go in and get a hit. May God be with us.”

The attack was met with fearsome fire from the carriers escort ships and over 50 Zeros attacked. Very few torpedoes were fired and none hit their target. Only one pilot survived the onslaught.

Another attack also failed but it served a purpose of concentrating the focus of the Japanese on these torpedo squadrons. The Japanese defenders failed to notice dive-bombers flying at a much higher altitude. With their decks crammed with planes about to take off, the Japanese carriers were tempting targets. The first attack took out the flight deck of the flagship ‘Akagi’ detonating a store of torpedoes. The flames soon reached fuel supplies and within minutes the ‘Akagi’ was doomed, though it was another seven hours before the ship was abandoned. Other dive bombers attacked the ‘Kaga’. Here again, fuel was soon ignited and the ship suffered severe damage, even if it took two hours to sink. More dive-bombers attacked the ‘Soryu’ with the same deadly impact. Only three bombs actually hit the ‘Soryu’ but they did enough damage for the captain, Yanaginoto, to order that the ship be abandoned. Like the ‘Kaga’ it continued afloat for some hours but was doomed. The ‘Soryu’ went down at 19.13 along with her captain, Yanaginoto and 718 of her crew.

In the space of five minutes, the Japanese Navy had lost half of its carrier force, ships that were deemed to be crewed by the Navy’s elite. (from here)

Who was Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron?

At the Battle of Midway, beginning at 0702 hours, fifteen Douglas TBD-1 Devastator torpedo bombers were launched from the United States Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) along with squadrons of Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers and Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters.

Led by Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron, Torpedo Squadron Eight (VT-8) flew at low altitude toward the expected position of the attacking Japanese fleet, while the fighters escorted the dive bombers at high altitude. Waldron sighted the enemy fleet at a distance of 30 miles and ordered his squadron to attack. Without any fighter escort, the slow flying torpedo bombers were attacked by Japanese Zero fighters and defensive anti-aircraft fire from the warships. All fifteen TBDs were shot down.

Only one man, Ensign George H. Gay, of the thirty pilots and gunners of Torpedo Eight, survived. The torpedo bombers failed to score any hits on the Japanese ships, and their single .30-caliber machine guns did not bring down any of the Zeros. (from here)

After the battle, the 39 remaining Douglas TBD-1 Devastator torpedo bombers were withdrawn from service. Yet thanks in part to the courage of the men who had flown them, America managed to win the Battle of Midway, even though those men had failed to score any hits on the Japanese ships. With what they had, those brave men did what they could, and it was enough.

Much of life is just showing up and doing what we can do. When it seems hopeless, all we can do is remember God takes care of the rest.

Psalm 20:6-8 New King James Version (NKJV)

Now I know that the Lord saves His anointed;
He will answer him from His holy heaven
With the saving strength of His right hand.

Some trust in chariots, and some in horses;
But we will remember the name of the Lord our God.
They have bowed down and fallen;
But we have risen and stand upright.


  1. A very excellent story of sacrifice for Memorial Day, Tom.
    Being from Chicago I am reminded of the story of Edward “Butch” O’Hare (yep.. the airport’s namesake). The first Naval aviator Medal Of Honor winner. I’ll not get into the story here… but do a Wiki search on his name as time and interest permits.

  2. firstly, I love a griping history lesson—as they are griping..and in this case harrowing.
    So many things, so many battles could have all gone a different way, with a vastly different outcome and our lives, as we know them would never have been…
    it is really amazing when we consider the consequences had brave men and women opted not to step up to the proverbial plate as it were—opting rather to backslide, appease, concede…but they each knew that there was indeed something dear to fight for and to very potentially sacrifice for…
    and sadly we take a look around today and I know they would be sick…..
    thank you for sharing Tom!!

    1. @Julie

      Thank you.

      I was reading Victor Davis Hanson’s column. When I saw his comment about the men who flew the Devastator torpedo bombers, I decided to look a bit more into their story.

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