Gay wasn’t actually the squadron’s sole survivor, but he was as indisputably brave as the two others from Torpedo Eight who survived the battle that day. Ensign Albert K. “Bert” Earnest piloted one of the squadron’s six TBF Avengers that attacked the Japanese fleet from Midway Atoll. He brought his battered hulk back in a harrowing flight that Admiral Chester Nimitz called “an epic in combat aviation,” earning him the second of his three Navy Crosses (his first was for “press[ing] home his attack” on 4 June). Earnest’s wounded radioman/gunner, Airman Third Class Harry Ferrier, also survived. But 45 of the 48 men of VT-8 were killed that day.
Beginning when he was plucked from the sea a day and a half after being shot down and for decades thereafter, Tex recounted his Midway mission and how he survived and was rescued. But his later versions of what he claimed to have seen of the decimated Japanese fleet while in the water have been called into question. Historians generally agree that the most contemporaneous statements are the most reliable; therefore, this narrative of Gay’s actions and observations on 4 June is drawn from the initial statements he made to his rescuers and to the Navy shortly thereafter.
One of VT-8’s Green Pilots
Three days before the battle, Lieutenant Commander John Waldron, the commander of Torpedo Eight, addressed his pilots in their ready room on board the Hornet, concluding at one point, “You might want to tidy up your personal affairs and write a letter home just in case some of us don’t get back.”
It had never struck Tex that he wouldn’t get back. It might happen to one of the others, but not to him. He would get through. The lesson he had learned in life was to do your best whatever challenge came your way.
Born in Waco, Texas, on 8 March 1917, he experienced a life-changing event as a boy when his family was attending the Texas State Fair. An oil company was taking people up on sightseeing flights in a Ford Tri-Motor airplane. He asked his parents to take him but they refused. His grandmother saw the boy’s disappointment and said: “Come on, son. . . . I came here in a covered wagon, and I’m not afraid of that thing.” From that moment on, he wanted to fly.
After the 1929 stock market crash, the family faced hard times. His father lost his job. The family had to split up. Young George went to live with an aunt and uncle. Working for ten cents an hour at a drugstore, he saved enough money to go to Texas A&M, where he joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps.
Three years later, Tex had to quit school when his money ran out. A friend told him that the Navy was looking for pilots. He passed the service’s physical, went on to earn his wings, and a month before the Pearl Harbor attack, was assigned to Torpedo Eight.
On his way across the Pacific on board the Hornet, he began keeping a diary. He put all his candid thoughts in it, including his assessments of VT-8’s skipper, his fellow pilots, and the things they experienced together. He confided his fervent hope that the squadron’s obsolete Douglas Devastators would soon be replaced with the new Grumman TBFs. The failure of the squadron’s Hornet-based aviators to receive them led to an angry entry: “What really bugs me is being here with such poor equipment to work with while at home, a bunch of ‘supposed to be’ Americans are kicking about a 40-hour work week. If we had TBF’s, I don’t know of a place in the world I would rather be than here with a chance to do our part.”
In all his months of training he never carried a torpedo in his plane, launched one, or seen it done. In VT-8’s initial battle, for the first time he would be flying with a torpedo weighting down his Devastator, just like most of the others in the squadron.
‘We Will Attack’
On the morning of 4 June 1942, Tex was assigned to the last section of three planes out of the squadron’s 15 on board the Hornet. As navigation officer, he was bringing up the rear so he wouldn’t have to stay in formation as he consulted his charts. About 90 minutes after takeoff, at 0917, he suddenly saw wispy smoke columns in the sky up ahead. Enemy ships began to take shape. He could see three carriers in the first group, along with battleships, cruisers, and destroyers. “We will go in,” Waldron called out on the radio, sounding very calm. “We won’t turn back. We will attack. Good luck.”
His words gave Tex confidence they had a fighting chance. A moment later, the sky was filled with Zero fighters. As they swirled madly around the Devastators, it seemed to Tex he was flying in slow motion while the Zeroes were flying in real time.
He saw one of the Devastators drop like a hurtling stone into the sea. A few seconds later, another Devastator went down. The dwindling formation was still miles from the carriers when two Zeroes moved in to attack Gay’s plane. He could feel machine-gun bullets thudding into the armor plate behind his bucket seat. Another pattern wounded or killed his rear gunner, Radioman Third Class Bob Huntington, but he couldn’t turn around to see. Bullets raked his instrument panel and blasted holes in the windshield.
“My two wingmen are going in,” came Waldron’s voice for the last time. As Tex watched, the lieutenant commander’s plane burst into flames. Fire quickly enveloped the fuselage, and the torpedo plane 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 were riding a fiery chariot. In the final moments, he thrust his leg out onto the right wing. Then the Devastator hit the water and he was gone.
A One-Plane Attack
Gay began jinking his plane, side-slipping between the Zeroes’ machine-gun bursts, drawing ever closer to the nearest carrier. A machine-gun bullet from one of the Japanese fighters grazed his left arm. His left hand went numb.
Up ahead, the Japanese ships screening the carriers opened fire with their antiaircraft batteries. As soon as the barrage began, the swarming Zeroes darted away out of the line of fire. Black bursts began mushrooming on both sides of the Devastator’s wings. The plane was bucking like a wild horse in the turbulent air as he bored in on the nearest carrier.
Using his right hand, he pulled back on the throttle, slowing to 80 knots, which the skipper 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 Gay closed toward the carrier, she began swinging to starboard to avoid his torpedo. Remembering his plotting exercises, Tex swung to the ship’s port side for a higher percentage shot. Cutting across her bow, he headed back around in a tight turn and took aim slightly forward of the carrier’s port bow.
But when he punched the torpedo release button, nothing happened. The electronic controls had been shot out. With his left hand numb, he jammed his knees together to hold the control stick in place and reached over to pull the emergency cable release lever with his right hand. He ripped it out by the roots.
Tex hoped the torpedo was gone because the carrier was now 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.
He knew that the antiaircraft batteries on the starboard side of the ship were waiting for him. Banking to the right, he flew down the carrier’s flight deck toward the stern. When he was past the fantail, Tex banked to the left. Flying low above the water, he passed between two cruisers and out beyond the destroyer screen.
The Zeroes were waiting for him. A 20-mm 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 down.
Using the elevators, Gay kept the Devastator’s nose up as the bomber dropped toward the sea. The tip of his right wing hit water first, and the plane cartwheeled forward, slamming the cockpit hood shut above him. Black water was already flushing around his waist by the time he had unbuckled his shoulder straps.
As the nose dropped beneath the surface, Tex forced open the cockpit hood and slid free. As he floated in the roiling sea, two things surfaced alongside him. One was the aircraft’s deflated life raft; the other a black rubber seat cushion.
Hearing a plane diving, he 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. Gay grabbed the black seat cushion and held it over his head, waiting until the pilot finished his run. He didn’t come back.
A Ringside Seat
About 30 minutes later, Tex was still surrounded by ships of the Japanese carrier force when he heard a distinctly familiar whine. It reminded him of the keening wail that a dive bomber made after pushing off on a bomb run from high altitude. He had heard it plenty of times during training.
As the whine turned into a full-throttle screaming roar, he knew what the noise had to mean. A Dauntless dive bomber was plummeting down in attack. A few moments later, it was joined by a second and then a third. One Dauntless was already pulling up when Tex heard a terrific thunderclap, and a few moments later, a curtain of fire rocketed up from the deck of one of the carriers like a giant Roman candle. Then the ship took another hit, sending up a thick cloud of smoke and flame.
Still more Dauntlesses were diving now. As he watched, another colossal blast resounded across the water and a second Japanese carrier erupted into a blazing firestorm. Flames were coming out of both the fore and aft sections of this carrier like a two-headed blowtorch. As he treaded water, a third rumbling blast thundered across the sea, and a billowing spire of smoke belched up from a third Japanese carrier. Submerged up to his chest, Tex could feel the pressure of the detonations.
From Rescue to Nimitz
All that day, Gay floated in the sea. When darkness descended, he took the chance of inflating the yellow life raft. It was perforated with bullet holes, but its CO2 canister filled enough of the air-tight compartments to keep him afloat. But there was no water in the survival kit.
That night, the temperature dropped and his wet flight suit gave him little protection from the cold wind. He thought about discarding his wet boots, but they were Justin Jodhpur riding shoes, and he had paid a lot for them. They stayed on his feet.
As dawn broke, Tex saw that the enemy fleet had disappeared. He was alone on the sea, drifting through vast patches of floating wreckage, when he heard the sound of an aircraft—a U.S. PBY Catalina patrol bomber. Someone in the crew saw his yellow raft because the plane made a slow circle above him. Gay spread his arms horizontally, which was the “roger” sign for being okay. The pilot rocked his wings before continuing to the northwest.
Nauseated and dehydrated, he finally lost consciousness, waking to see the sun dropping low in the western sky. His left hand had swollen up to nearly twice its normal size. He again heard the sound of an aircraft engine—the PBY’s. The pilot, Lieutenant “Pappy” Cole, brought it down and taxied up to his raft. A crewman helped him through the open hatch.
They gave him water, but he couldn’t keep it down. When he told the pilot that he had seen three Japanese carriers burning, Cole headed straight for Midway. There, the island commander came to the PBY to confirm what Tex had told the crew. He was put aboard another plane that was headed to Pearl Harbor. At the naval hospital there, the doctor asked him how he had kept the wounds so clean. “I kept them soaked in salt water for thirty hours,” quipped Tex.
He had lost more than 20 pounds. After doctors removed shrapnel and applied a clean dressing to his leg, he was wheeled back to his room. The ensign was lying in bed when the door swung open, and a white-haired officer walked in, followed by a group of staff officers. Tex recognized him from his newspaper pictures. It was Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Pacific Fleet Commander-in-Chief.
When Gay tried to come to attention lying down, Admiral Nimitz said: “Relax son. How do you feel?” Tex told him he was doing fine. Commander Ernest Eller, one of Nimitz’s staff officers, was amazed that the young man could be so open and cheerful after everything he had just gone through. “I’d like you to tell me what you saw out there, son,” said the admiral.
Gay recounted what had happened from the time they sighted the Japanese carriers until he was shot down. When he told Admiral Nimitz about seeing the three carriers being hit, the admiral questioned him closely about it.
“You’re sure those three carriers sunk, son?” he asked.
“You don’t have to worry Admiral,” Tex assured him. “From the way those ships were burning, they had to be going down.”
A Midway Celebrity
A few days later, an officer came to see him from the Navy’s public-relations office. He told Gay that people back home were questioning what the Navy had been doing since Pearl Harbor. Now, the service had an answer for them. He asked Tex if he would return to the States and let people know what the Navy had accomplished, and he agreed to go.
Within a few days, his photograph appeared in almost every newspaper in the country. He was invited to appear on Nelson Eddy’s radio program and received a musical tribute from big band orchestra leader Kay Kyser. It was an amazing experience, hectic and crazy. He began to receive fan mail and even marriage proposals. After he appeared on the cover of Life, 20th Century Fox wanted to make a movie about him.
In San Diego, Gay set aside time to visit many of the widows and fiancées of the lost pilots. He did his best to allay their grief, but several concluded he was only after personal glory. In truth, he hadn’t asked for the celebrity he had earned as the one man from Waldron’s attack to come back alive.
Admiral Nimitz didn’t subscribe to the talk about Gay. He had taken a genuine liking to his young fellow Texan. Later in the war, he invited the officer on a private fishing trip to Florida. Tex served his second tour in the Pacific as a Torpedo Squadron 11 pilot based on Guadalcanal. There, he earned an Air Medal for his numerous combat missions.
After the war, Gay became a commercial airline pilot and enjoyed an unblemished 30-year career with Trans World Airlines. Occasionally, he was invited to speak at historical forums commemorating the victory at Midway. At one, the other two Torpedo Eight survivors, Bert Earnest and Harry Ferrier, were also invited to attend. They were standing at the back of the auditorium when Tex was introduced as the sole survivor of Torpedo Eight. Later, someone asked them why they were there, and Bert replied, “We’re the other sole survivors.”
Prior to his death on 21 October 1994, Tex had requested that his cremated ashes be flown out to the grid coordinates in the Central Pacific where John Waldron and the rest of his squadron mates had gone down. There, they were scattered on the wind.
VT-8 Aviators Immortalized
The story of the gallant, one-way mission of Torpedo Squadron Eight’s Devastator aviators captivated the U.S. public’s attention, as well as that of famous Hollywood director John Ford. A commander in the Naval Reserve, Ford was heading up a Navy documentary film unit when he arrived at Midway Atoll on board a destroyer before the battle. He had time to visit the carrier Hornet and then was at Midway during the 4 June 1942 Japanese attack there.
Later, he prepared a moving tribute to the ill-fated squadron’s fliers—a nearly eight-minute film that captures VT-8’s 15 two-man crews smiling and chatting in front of their TBD Devastators or kneeling next to their armed planes’ torpedoes. Originally the film had a very limited release—one copy to each of the 30 aviators’ families.
Ford also directed and produced The Battle of Midway, a documentary showing preparations on the atoll’s islands and scenes of bombs dropping there during the Japanese attack. View John Ford’s Torpedo Squadron 8, below:
Audrey Faye Ellison, Torpedo Squadron Eight widow, letters.
George Gay, Action Dispatches, 5 June 1942, RG 38, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD (hereafter NARA), courtesy of John B. Lundstrom.
George Gay, personal diary, February–June 1942, unpublished, in possession of the Gay family.
George Gay, Torpedo Squadron Eight Action Report, 7 June 1942, RG 38, NARA.
Rete Gaynier, Torpedo Squadron Eight widow, author interview.
The Reminiscences of Rear Admiral Ernest M. Eller, U.S. Navy (Retired), vol. 2 (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1990).
Mr. Mrazek is the author of nine books, including A Dawn Like Thunder: The True Story of Torpedo Squadron Eight (Little, Brown, 2008), which was named Best Book (American History) by The Washington Post. A former five-term U.S. congressman, he authored the law that saved parts of the Manassas, Virginia, battlefield from being bulldozed.