Remembering Torpedo Squadron 8 and the Battle of Midway

by Crocker on June 5, 2009, 7:41 am

in History,Military

As the Civil War historian Bruce Catton observed, when it comes to war memorials, the very act of remembering can itself be a form of forgetting. In the haze of victory, we tend to forget individual sacrifice or any balanced understanding of the events we commemorate.

And when it comes to World War II, we Americans also tend to forget the first year or so – from Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 to the opening months of 1943 – when the ‘war effort’ didn’t go all that well for the US or the allied cause. But during this time, the US was able – against great odds – to come up with some wins when it really counted – even if we were fighting on our back foot.

One such win was the Battle of Midway Island, fought on June 4-7, 1942, when the surviving elements of our Pacific Fleet thwarted the Japanese invasion of the atoll located just a few hundred miles west of Hawaii. The US won a smashing defensive victory over the Japanese, sinking four of Japan’s front-line aircraft carriers and wiping out their air groups.

But victory came at a high price: the deaths of many fine men and the loss of the USS Yorktown, leaving the US with just two operational aircraft carriers in the Pacific.

Making the most promiscious sacrifice of all was Torpedo Squadron 8 from the USS Hornet. Flying the obsolete Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bomber, the squadron was literally wiped out during the fighting on June 4th. Of the squadron’s 16 planes, all were shot down and of the 32 aircrew, only one man survived – Ensign George Gay. Yet, their sacrifice was not in vain – the squadron drew the Japanese combat air patrol down to low level, allowing US dive bombers to destroy 3 of 4 Japanese carriers in mere minutes.

Present before and during the battle was the legendary director John Ford. Commanding a navy film crew, Ford produced several shorts on the battle, including this one of Torpedo Squadron 8, from film shot prior to the battle. As you watch it, remember that the celluloid captures walking dead men.

Skanderbeg over at Red State has written a superb essay on the battle, which is well worth the time to read and absorb. The story of Torpedo Squadron 8 has haunted me over the years, ever since I read Walter Lord’s classic Incredible Victory as a boy. It was impressed upon me that there’s a price to be paid for everything worth having in this life – including liberty.

I try never to forget it.

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Charlie Carlson February 29, 2012 at 12:06 pm

I am haunted lately of the story of Torpedo Squadron 8.
The loss at the Battle of Midway which a recently read in the
book The Two-Ocean War by Samuel Eliot Morison……I had not
read the actual story until lately……..with an aircraft such as the
misnamed “Devastator” the pilots had little chance of surviving.
Lacking fighter escort was surely a contributing factor….

gerald June 4, 2012 at 8:30 pm

It captures walking dead men?
It captures the best of the best.
It should be celebrated and cherished for doing that.

Fred June 6, 2012 at 12:05 pm

I’m going to agree with that. Those brave airmen can be remembered much better than the term, “walking dead men.”
I’m sure no disrespect was ment, but some how it just doen’t sound right.
God bless all the WWII vets.

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