In this condensed excerpt, Mrazek provides the account of Lieutenant Commander John Waldron's efforts to secure fighter protection for his obsolete Douglas Devastators before the mission on 4 June 1942, in which Torpedo Eight helped buy the precious battle time that allowed American Dauntless dive bombers to win the "Miracle at Midway."
Wednesday, 3 June 1942
USS Hornet Torpedo Squadron Eight
Lieutenant Commander John Waldron removed a page of stationery from his desk and began writing a letter to his wife, Adelaide. Most of the pilots hadn't taken his advice about writing home. Few thought they were marked for death.
At the age of forty-two, Waldron knew mortality was all too real. Death could come at any moment in the air, and he had narrowly escaped it six times since winning his wings back in 1927.
She was the ideal Navy wife, uncomplaining about his long absences, and always ready to help the wives of his officers by employing humor and sympathy to help them through the tough times. Waldron knew she would understand everything he was about to write.
I believe that we will be in battle very soon. . . . You may rest assured that I will go in with the expectation of coming back in good shape. If I do not come back, well, you and the little girls can know that this squadron struck for the highest objective in Naval warfare—to sink the enemy . . .
I love you and the children very dearly and I long to be with you. But, I could not be happy ashore at this time. My place is here with the fight . . .
You know, Adelaide, in this business of the torpedo attack, I acknowledge we must have a break. I believe that I have the experience and enough Sioux in me to profit by and recognize the break when it comes, and it will come.
God bless you, dear. You are a wonderful wife and mother. Kiss and love the little girls for me . . .
I acknowledge we must have a break . He had been fighting for one most of that week. It was fighter protection. That would be the biggest break his men could possibly have.
Earlier that day, the four squadron commanders had met with the Hornet Air Group Commander, Stanhope Cotton Ring. Waldron had urged Ring to follow the same air tactics used at the Battle of the Coral Sea a month earlier, when half the fighters went in low to protect the torpedo planes, and half stayed up high with the dive bombers. Pat Mitchell, who commanded the Hornet 's fighter squadron, backed Waldron all the way.
Captain Pete Mitscher made the final decision. All ten of the Hornet 's Wildcat fighter planes would stay up to protect Ring and the dive bombers. Waldron's squadron would stay in formation, about eighteen thousand feet below the others. The entire air group would attack together.
At the Coral Sea battle, the Zeroes had proved faster and more maneuverable than the Wildcats. Mitscher was convinced that the Wildcats would have more maneuvering room at higher altitude.
Waldron couldn't believe it. If the Wildcats couldn't duel with the Zeroes at low altitude, then what chance would his Devastators have at less than half the Wildcats' speed?
Thursday, 4 June 1942
USS Hornet Torpedo Squadron Eight
Tex Gay awoke to the stabbing beam of a flashlight aimed into his eyes.
"Reveille, sir," came a disembodied voice from the darkness.
Through the open doorway, he could hear the other pilots being wakened all along the passageway. Sitting up, he realized he hadn't taken off his uniform before climbing into the bunk. Most of them were still groggy from interrupted sleep when they began trudging down to the ready room.
The big square reflector screen over the teletype machine at the front of the room remained dark. They knew the teletype keys would start chattering as soon as anything important happened. In the meantime, all they could do was wait.
Tex felt calm, almost relaxed. Like the others, he knew their PBY patrol planes were spread out for hundreds of miles to the northwest of Midway Atoll searching for the Japanese striking force. When it was sighted, the teletype keys at the front of the ready room would start clacking like mad. Having had less than three hours sleep, he dropped into his cushioned chair and dozed off.
"General Quarters!" came an earsplitting voice over the ship's loudspeakers. "Flight quarters! All pilots report to your ready rooms!"
The reflector screen over the teletype in Ready Room Four flashed the message, " Many enemy planes headed for Midway bearing 320 degrees ."
Inside Ready Room Four, the pilots rushed to gather the plotting boards, helmets, goggles, and survival gear stored in the compartments under their cushioned seats. Standing before them, Waldron said he thought the Japanese carrier task forces would "swing together" and retire just far enough so that they could retrieve their planes from the first strike. He told them not to worry about navigating, just to follow him.
"If we find ourselves alone and outnumbered by the enemy planes on the way into attack, we'll keep boring in toward the carrier," he said. "If there is only one man left I want that man to take his pickle in and get a hit."
A few moments later, the order came that they had been waiting for all morning.
" Pilots, man all planes ," read the reflector screen.
As they crowded toward the door, an order came down for the four squadron commanders to report to the bridge. Pete Mitscher was waiting for them. The first one there was Pat Mitchell, the skipper of the fighter squadron.
Mitchell was no smooth talker, but he knew Mitscher respected him. Like Mitscher, Pat was all Navy. He had graduated from Annapolis in 1927. His brother Bill was Annapolis '24.
Mitchell again requested that his squadron be assigned to fly cover for Waldron's Devastators. Without a pause, Mitscher shook his head.
"You'll protect Commander Ring and the dive bombers," Mitscher told him as the other squadron skippers arrived.
With Mitscher looking on, Commander Ring said that he was planning to fly a course of 265 degrees, more than 30 degrees to the north of the Japanese fleet's last reported position, 234 degrees southwest.
John Waldron spoke up in disagreement. He proposed a course of 240 degrees, which took into account the last fleet sighting, as well as the possibility that the Japanese had swung back to the north after launching their first strike.
Mitscher told Waldron and the others to follow the course Ring had given them.
On the flight deck, the takeoffs proceeded with almost agonizing slowness. The first launch had begun with the carrier's Wildcat fighters, followed by thirty-four dive bombers. When Tex Gay's Devastator finally reached the head of the line, the Takeoff Control Officer gave him the cut signal.
"Twelve minute delay," the TCO yelled up at him.
Waldron was slated to take off last out of the fifty-nine planes. As each minute passed, his frustration and anger mounted. Far above him, dive bomber pilot Troy Guillory also wondered what was going on. He had burned a lot of gas reaching nearly twenty thousand feet, and they were now just flying around in circles.
The Takeoff Control Officer finally motioned at Tex with his black and white checkered flag. When the flag swept forward, his Devastator rumbled down the deck and lifted off into space.
Once they were all in the air, Waldron led them away from the Hornet . Ensign Lawrence French, who was flying air cover above the carrier, watched Waldron head off on a bearing of west northwest. The rest of the air group stopped circling and headed west, too.
Aboard the Hornet , Lieutenant Commander John Foster, the air operations officer, tracked the group on radar. At sixty miles out, they were still on Ring's original course of 265 degrees when the last blips disappeared.
At 0816, Troy Guillory was startled to hear a voice coming through his earphones. It was the voice of Lieutenant Commander John Waldron, although he hadn't used his call sign.
They were heading in the wrong direction, Guillory heard him say.
Flying on the wing of Commander Ring, dive bomber pilot Ben Tappan heard Waldron too. When no one responded to his call, Tappan began to wonder if he might have imagined it. Every pilot knew the order about radio silence. Then he heard Waldron again.
"I know where they are," he said. "I'll take us to them."
The next voice Troy Guillory heard was the Hornet 's air group commander, Stanhope Ring. He sounded angry. "You will stay on us," he said without giving his call sign. "I'm leading this formation."
Then Ben Tappan heard Waldron's voice for the last time.
"The hell with you," he said.
It was 0825.
Richard Woodson, the gunner in Ensign Don Kirkpatrick's dive bomber, glanced down and saw the lead torpedo plane slowly move off to the left. As Woodson watched, the rest of the Devastator pilots turned to follow their leader.
Waldron's fifteen plane squadron flew southwest, the second division close in behind the first. Tex Gay was trying to estimate the rate of their fuel consumption when Waldron's voice came through his earphones.
"There's a fighter on our tail," he said.
The Japanese plane was well out to the right of them and moving fast in the same direction they were. To Tex, it looked more like a float plane, the kind that could be catapulted off a Japanese battleship. It quickly overtook them and moved past.
The Japanese pilot was almost certainly radioing their position back to his fleet.
Flying high cover with the rest of Pat Mitchell's fighter squadron, Ensign John "Mac" McInerny decided it was time to take matters into his own hands, even if that meant his own court martial.
The son of a blacksmith and muscled like a steer, the big Irishman had a reputation as a hard-partying woman chaser. The other men in his squadron knew him as one hell of a fighter pilot.
McInerny knew that the fighters were at the point of no return, if they hadn't already passed it. Gunning his engine, McInerny pulled up alongside Pat Mitchell. Getting the squadron commander's attention, he pointed to his gas gauge. Mitchell shook his head at him.
McInerny cut the throttle and dropped back into his position as wingman to Johnny Magda. After another five minutes of droning westward into the empty sky, McInerny had had enough. Flying up alongside Mitchell again, he pointed to his gas gauge. Mitchell angrily waved him away.
The big Irishman dropped back just long enough to signal Johnny Magda that it was time to go. Banking his plane to the left, he began his turn. When Magda peeled off to go after him, the rest of the fighter pilots followed.
I'm going to be court-martialed for this, McInerny thought.
Staring into the distance, Waldron suddenly saw wispy smoke columns dead ahead of them. Enemy ships began to take shape as dark silhouettes on the crystalline sea.
To Tex Gay, it looked like they covered the ocean. He could see three carriers in the first group, and a fourth following behind. Maybe all that guff about the Skipper's Sioux intuition had been right after all. He had gone straight to the enemy fleet like they had been on the end of a plumb line.
Waldron was on the radio again, attempting to contact Commander Ring to let him know that they had located the Japanese carriers.
"Stanhope from Johnny One . . . enemy sighted."
There was no response.
"Stanhope from Johnny One . . . answer," he called again. "Enemy sighted."
Flying with the rest of the Hornet air group, Leroy Quillen, the radioman/gunner in the dive bomber piloted by Ensign K. B. White, heard Waldron loud and clear.
"Stanhope from Johnny One," he repeated once more.
With no acknowledgment to his signal, Waldron focused on his squadron.
"We will go in," he said, sounding calm. "We won't turn back. We will attack. Good luck."
The Skipper put his nose down and leveled off at about five hundred feet. He had told them that they might have to go in alone, and now the worst had come. A moment later, the sky was filled with Zeroes. The enemy fighters swung around in half loops and wingovers to gain better firing positions.
"Johnny One under attack," Waldron radioed.
From the bridge of the carrier Akagi , Commander Minoru Genda, Admiral Nagumo's operations officer, watched with almost detached fascination as the fifteen torpedo planes came on. The slow-moving Devastators reminded him of a flock of waterfowl crossing a lake. To Genda, it was sheer idiocy for them to attack without fighter protection, and a total violation of the first rule of war, which was to concentrate one's forces.
Up ahead, Tex Gay saw one of the Devastators drop like a hurtling stone into the sea, its two man crew gone in almost an instant. It happened so fast that he had no idea whose plane it was. A few seconds later, another Devastator went down on his left.
"Is that a Zero or one of our planes?" came Waldron's voice on the radio.
Tex radioed back that it was a Devastator.
Two Zeroes moved in to attack him, one from behind and the other from the port side. He could feel machine gun bullets thudding into the armor plate behind his bucket seat. A second pattern raked his instrument panel and blasted several holes in the windshield.
He heard his gunner Bob Huntington cry out on the intercom. Turning his head, Tex saw him slumped down in his seat, motionless. Waldron's voice was still coming through his earphones.
"There's two fighters in the water," the Skipper had radioed at one point. "See that splash . . . I'd give a million to know who done that."
In the tail of his dive bomber, Leroy Quillen listened to Waldron's excited words as they came through the radio.
"My two wingmen are going in," came Waldron's voice for the last time.
Then it was his turn.
As Tex watched, Waldron's plane suddenly burst into flame. Fire quickly enveloped the fuselage, and the aircraft began gliding down toward the sea, trailing a thick cloud of smoke and fire.
The Skipper suddenly stood up in the blazing cockpit as if he was riding a fiery chariot. In the plane's final moments, he thrust his leg out onto the right wing. Then the plane hit the water and he was gone.
Northwest of Japanese Striking Force
Hornet Dive Bombing Squadron (Johnson)
Leroy Quillen wasn't the only one listening to Waldron's urgent radio calls. Lieutenant Commander Ruff Johnson, leading the Hornet dive bomber squadron on the left wing of Ring's formation, had received the transmissions too.
Using his plotting board, he quickly drew a southeasterly interception course based on a rough calculation of where he thought the Japanese fleet had to be, and then led his seventeen plane squadron in a turn to the southeast.
Inside the Japanese Striking Force
Tex Gay was the last one left.
The words of the Skipper kept replaying in his mind. If there is only one man left, I want him to go in and get a hit.
Up ahead, the Japanese cruisers and destroyers screening the carriers opened fire with their anti-aircraft batteries. As soon as the barrage began, the swarming Zeroes darted out of the line of fire.
Black bursts began mushrooming on both sides of his wings as the exploding shells sought him out. The plane was bucking like a wild horse as he passed over the screening ships and bored in toward the nearest carrier.
Tex pulled back on the throttle, slowing the plane to eighty knots, which Waldron had always said was the ideal launching speed. Since this was the first torpedo he had ever launched, he wanted to make sure he got it right.
As he closed to within a thousand yards, the carrier began swinging to the right to avoid his torpedo. Remembering his plotting exercises, Tex swung to the ship's port side for a higher percentage shot. When he punched the torpedo release button, nothing happened.
The electronic controls had been shot out. With his left hand numb from a machine gun bullet, he jammed his knees together to hold the control stick in place, and reached over to pull out the emergency cable release lever with his right hand, ripping it out by the roots.
The carrier was now dead ahead of him, filling the screen of his windshield. He saw Japanese sailors running in all directions as the Devastator came screaming in toward the port side, just clearing the flight deck with a few feet to spare. Glancing up toward the bridge, he saw a Japanese officer wildly waving his arms in the air.
He knew that the anti-aircraft batteries on the starboard side of the ship were waiting to knock him out of the air. If he went that way, the Devastator would be an easy target.
Banking to the right, he flew down the carrier flight deck toward the stern of the ship. The flight deck was dotted with planes, gas hoses and bomb trolleys. For a split second, he thought about crashing into them and setting the whole carrier ablaze. A moment later he was past the fantail and banking left to make his escape.
The plane was staggering along when a twenty millimeter cannon shell blew apart his left rudder pedal and passed through into the engine compartment, setting it on fire. He felt a jolt of searing pain in his left leg as flames came surging back through the torn firewall.
He was going in. Using the elevators, he kept the nose up as the Devastator dropped toward the sea. Using his right hand, he reached over to the left to cut the power switches.
The tip of the right wing hit water first, and the plane cart-wheeled forward, slamming the cockpit hood shut above him. Black water was already flushing around his waist as he unbuckled his shoulder straps.
As the nose dropped beneath the surface, Tex fought to release the jammed cockpit hood. Sitting on the bullet-shattered instrument panel, he tried to shove the hood along its track with his one good hand, but it wouldn't come free. He was trapped.
Northwest of Japanese Striking Force
Hornet Dive Bombing Squadron (Rodee)
Lieutenant Commander Walt Rodee, who commanded the Hornet 's second dive bomber squadron, had seen enough. With his planes running short of fuel, he signaled the pilots in his squadron to follow him as he turned around to begin leading them back on a reciprocal course to the Hornet .
Stanhope Ring continued flying west, alone.
The sea water was up to his chin. In panic, he stood on the instrument panel and drove his upper body up against the jammed cockpit hood. It moved back far enough for him to slip through the opening and reach the ocean's surface as the plane started to disappear.
He reached into the rear compartment and began trying to unbuckle the dead or unconscious Bob Huntington's flight harness. Still strapped to his seat, the young gunner slipped from his grasp and went down with the plane.
As he floated in the sea, two things surfaced alongside him. One was the aircraft's deflated life raft. The other object was a black rubber seat cushion. His burned leg was beginning to hurt when he heard a plane diving and looked up to see a Zero heading straight toward him with its machine guns blazing. The surface of the sea began erupting in tiny geysers of water.
Pulling off his goggles in case they reflected the glare of the sun, he grabbed the black seat cushion and held it over his head. Treading water, he waited for the Zero to finish its run.
Inside the Japanese Striking Force
Flagship Carrier Akagi
With the American torpedo squadron annihilated, an exultant Admiral Chuichi Nagumo was free to release his counterstrike against the American carrier force. Since the first air attack from the defenders of Midway Atoll at 0700, his fighters and anti-aircraft batteries had destroyed or driven off every enemy plane. Not one torpedo or bomb had hit his ships.
A few minutes later, one of his screening vessels reported that a new formation of enemy aircraft was approaching from the south. It appeared to be another squadron of the same slow-moving torpedo planes.
The news came as a minor irritant to Nagumo, who knew that each American carrier had only one torpedo squadron. That meant a second American carrier was probably out there somewhere. All the better. Now, they would be destroyed sooner rather than later.
While his Zeroes raced to intercept the new intruders, he suspended the process of bringing up his own attack aircraft to the flight decks until the latest American threat was repulsed.
The Zeroes dropped down to intercept the Americans as they came skimming in just above the surface of the sea. In less than twenty minutes, most of the Devastators had been destroyed. The surviving aircraft retreated without scoring a hit.
"Launch aircraft when ready," Nagumo ordered his four carrier commanders.
The Japanese carriers were turning into the wind for their launch when lookouts on another screening ship reported sighting a third flight of torpedo bombers coming toward them. The Zeroes flying cover above the carriers went down low again to converge on this latest threat. One by one, the Devastators began to fall.
Was it possible that there were three American carriers lying in wait for him, wondered Nagumo? In his exultant mood, it was still of little consequence. He had driven off every previous attack without the loss of a single ship. At the same time, it was wise to be prudent.
It was 1020.
"Hurry up preparations for the second wave," he ordered Commander Genda.
After being strafed in the water, Tex decided not to inflate his life raft. There was no point in drawing attention, not with the Japanese fleet cruising by like it was the Easter parade.
Three of their carriers, including the one he had just attacked, were turning into the wind to launch their air strike when Tex heard a distinctly familiar whine. It reminded him of the wail that a dive bomber made right after pushing off on a bomb run. Could it be a Dauntless? Hell, there had been more than thirty of them flying with the Hornet air group alone. As the low moaning wail turned into a full-throttle screaming roar, he knew what it was.
Then he saw one.
The Dauntless was plummeting down from two miles high, completely unopposed by the Japanese Zeroes. A few moments later, it was joined by a second and then a third.
The first Dauntless was already pulling up from its dive. A few moments later, Tex heard a terrific thunderclap, and a curtain of fire rocketed up from the deck of one of the carriers like a giant Roman candle. The same ship took another direct hit, followed by a third, each new detonation sending up a thick cloud of smoke and flame.
Still more Dauntlesses were diving now. Free of hindrance from the vaunted Zeroes, they plunged down toward the carriers. As he watched, another colossal blast resounded across the water, and a second Japanese carrier erupted into a blazing firestorm.
Kicking his feet, he began yelling a hoarse cheer of soggy defiance, but it was quickly squelched by a surging wave. As he treaded water, a third rumbling blast thundered across the sea, and a billowing spire of smoke belched up from the third Japanese carrier. Submerged up to his chest, Tex could feel the pressure of the detonations.
He wondered if any of the victorious dive bombers had come from the Hornet .