Navy Ensign Albert Earnest sat in the cockpit of his brand new Grumman TBF-1 Avenger torpedo bomber, watching ghostly images take shape around him as the sun emerged from the Pacific Ocean. Many of those images were aircraft, so many that there was barely room for them all on the tiny Pacific atoll.
Earnest’s TBF was 1 of 21 that had just emerged from production and gone to Pearl Harbor to join the USS Hornet (CV-8) air group. But the ship had sortied with two other carriers the day before to intercept an approaching Japanese fleet.
Having missed the opportunity to join his squadron mates in the Hornet and hearing rumors that the Japanese were headed for Midway, Earnest and five other Avenger pilots volunteered to fly to that island. After a 1,200-mile flight, they arrived at the atoll on 1 June 1942.
As the sun rose on Midway three days later, Earnest waited to see what the new day would bring. Strapped into the turret on the top of Earnest’s aircraft was Aviation Machinist’s Mate Third Class Jay Manning, and serving as radioman and tunnel gunner was Radioman Third Class Harry Ferrier.
At about 0600, word came that the Japanese had been spotted 150 miles away, and Earnest took off with the other TBFs. Looking aft from his turret, Manning ominously reported seeing guns firing from Midway.
In about an hour, a large Japanese fleet loomed ahead. As the TBFs nosed down for an attack run, Manning reported, “Here come the Zeroes!” and commenced firing. Leveling off at 200 feet, Earnest saw shells exploding along the edge of one wing and could feel bullets striking the armor plating behind his seat. First Manning’s gun fell silent, then Ferrier’s. A shell fragment pierced the canopy hitting Earnest in the face and cutting the chin strap of his flight helmet, spraying blood across the control panel.
Barely able to maintain control but determined to launch his one-ton torpedo, Earnest managed to line up on a nearby light cruiser. As he launched his fish, two Zeroes pounced and began chewing at his already mangled aircraft. “They just peppered me,” he later recalled. Eventually running out of ammunition, the two raptors relinquished their prey and headed back to their roost.
Earnest was miraculously still flying but was alone now. He turned his limping TBF southward, hoping to find his way back to Midway. Convinced that both his crewmen had been killed, he was suddenly startled by the sound of Ferrier’s voice. The radioman had been knocked unconscious by a grazing round but was now alert, although he could not see through his window because it was smeared with blood.
Eventually sighting a towering plume of smoke that had risen from Midway in the aftermath of heavy Japanese attacks, Earnest arrived at the island with only one of his landing gear in place. On the one wheel and gently lowering the opposite wingtip to the surface, the TBF spun around and parked itself on the edge of the runway. Once out of the cockpit, Earnest tried to check on Manning but was stopped by a Marine who said, “You don’t want to see that.”
Later that day Earnest learned of the great American victory at Midway. But he also learned that he and Ferrier were the only survivors among the crews of the six TBFs that had flown from Midway. As if that news were not sobering enough, they later learned that all of their squadron-mates who had flown from the Hornet had been killed in action, save one.
Years later, in an October 1964 Proceedings article, Ferrier laconically described that harrowing day as “terrible, yet triumphant.”
Lieutenant Commander Cutler is the author of several Naval Institute Press books, including A Sailor’s History of the U.S. Navy and The Battle of Leyte Gulf.