Mid­way’s Other “Lone” Sur­vivors of VT-8

More than One Airman Re­turned

Flight Journal - - CONTENTS - by Mark Carl­son

In 1982, Cap­tain Bert Earnest and Com­man­der Harry Fer­rier at­tended an event to com­mem­o­rate the 40th an­niver­sary of the Bat­tle of Mid­way. The guest of honor was Ge­orge Gay, the lone sur­vivor of the doomed Tor­pedo Squadron 8 off USS Hor­net (CV-8). Gay talked about the bat­tle and his lost squadron mates. Even­tu­ally, an at­tendee no­ticed Earnest stand­ing nearby and asked him who he was.

“Oh,” said Earnest with a glance at Fer­rier, “we’re the other ‘lone’ sur­vivors of Tor­pedo 8.” Mid­way has sparked its share of leg­ends, the most en­dur­ing be­ing the tragedy of VT-8’s 15 TBD Dev­as­ta­tors fly­ing into a swarm of Ja­panese Zeros and an­ti­air­craft fire as they at­tacked Ad­mi­ral Chuichi Nagumo’s car­ri­ers. Of the 30 men of Tor­pedo 8 who took off from Hor­net, only En­sign Gay sur­vived. He be­came an im­me­di­ate celebrity. Fea­tured on news­pa­pers, wined and dined by politi­cians, he was the sym­bol of the doomed avi­a­tors of Tor­pedo 8.

But Tor­pedo 8 was not de­stroyed. Lieu­tenant Com­man­der John Wal­dron only led half of the squadron. Its slow TBDs were even then be­ing re­placed by the faster and pow­er­ful Grum­man TBF Avenger. The rest of the squadron was still on NAS Ford

Is­land at Pearl Har­bor with their new TBFs. Tor­pedo 8 was the first squadron to re­ceive the new plane. The other pi­lots and gun­ners were un­der the com­mand of Lieu­tenant Harold “Swede” Lar­son. They had ar­rived from Nor­folk the day af­ter Hor­net left Pearl, too late to board their as­signed car­rier.

New­bies Move into Po­si­tion

En­sign Al­bert “Bert” Earnest, who had joined the squadron six months ear­lier, was a 25-year-old from Rich­mond, Vir­ginia. He had un­der­gone flight train­ing at Pen­sacola, Florida, in 1941.

“The Hor­net was leav­ing Nor­folk in about a month,” Earnest says. “Com­man­der Wal­dron de­cided who would go with the ship. The rest would re­main be­hind to be trained on the new TBF-1. When we fi­nally reached Pearl at the end of May, the En­ter­prise and Hor­net were al­ready gone, and York­town was still in dry dock.”

Earnest loved the TBF and felt good about its power and speed. “The Dev­as­ta­tor was a fairly good air­plane, but its time was long past. It was slow, es­pe­cially af­ter you put on a tor­pedo. The TBF was much, much faster and car­ried the tor­pedo in­ter­nally.”

Even as the Amer­i­can car­ri­ers raced to­ward Mid­way Atoll, another dar­ing scheme was un­der­way. A motley col­lec­tion of Army, Marine, and Navy planes was be­ing hastily as­sem­bled to beef up the is­land’s air strength. Among them would be six of Tor­pedo 8’s new TBFs. Lar­son was or­dered to choose the crews who were most ready for com­bat and send them to Mid­way un­der 32-year-old Lieu­tenant Lang­don Fieber­ling. The TBFs would carry long-range fuel tanks for the 1,200-mile flight to the atoll, where they were to be ready for an at­tack on the Ja­panese strik­ing force. It was a tall or­der: None of the pi­lots or air­men had ever been in bat­tle. Few had ever dropped a live tor­pedo or even had ex­pe­ri­ence in long over-wa­ter fly­ing. But they went to Mid­way to do their part in the most desperate bat­tle of the Pa­cific war.

An Un­known Quan­tity

The Grum­man TBF, which did not yet bear the name “Avenger,” was the most ad­vanced tor­pedo bomber in the car­rier


fleet. The pro­to­type had flown in Au­gust 1941, and the planes were only now rolling off the assem­bly line on Long Is­land. Built to the Grum­man “Iron Works” rugged stan­dards, it was a mas­sive plane with a 54-foot wing­span. A 1,950hp Wright Cy­clone R-2600 en­gine drove the 5-ton bomber and her three-man crew for a thou­sand miles at a max­i­mum speed of 275mph. The pay­load was a sin­gle 2,000-pound tor­pedo, or a ton of bombs or depth charges. Early mod­els car­ried twin for­ward-fir­ing .30-cal­iber Brown­ing ma­chine guns in ad­di­tion to the sin­gle .50-cal­iber in the dor­sal ball tur­ret and .30-cal­iber in the ven­tral po­si­tion. They par­tic­i­pated in some of the most im­por­tant cam­paigns against Ja­panese ships and land in­stal­la­tions. But in June 1942, they were an un­known quan­tity in the air war.

At 0600 on June 1, the six planes were fu­eled for the long flight to Mid­way. Lar­son had made up some large de­cals bear­ing the squadron’s em­blem of a clenched fist with the word “At­tack!” With a wave, Fieber­ling led them off Ford Is­land at 0700. The new Wright Cy­clone en­gines pounded out the smooth ca­dence of power as they climbed to 1,500 feet and took up a com­pass head­ing of 270 de­grees. Fieber­ling led the first three-plane el­e­ment, with Earnest trail­ing on his left wing and En­sign Charles Bran­non on his right. Be­hind them were En­sign Ozzie Gaynier with wing­men Vic­tor Lewis and Dar­rell Wood­side trail­ing be­hind.

Un­like most of his squadron mates, Earnest had ac­tu­ally dropped a tor­pedo dur­ing train­ing at NAS Quon­set Point in Rhode Is­land. He thought that may have been why he had been se­lected to join the de­tach­ment. Seated in the tur­ret at the rear of the canopy was Gun­ner’s Mate Jay Man­ning, and in the lower com­part­ment un­der the tur­ret was Ra­dioman Harry Fer­rier from Spring­field, Mas­sachusetts. Both were still in their teens; in fact, Fer­rier was only 17, hav­ing al­tered his birth cer­tifi­cate to join the Navy at 15. He could only see out of the small side and back win­dows of his ven­tral po­si­tion. Be­low the TBF was a vast, empty blue ocean.

Eight hours later, the big Grum­mans ap­proached Mid­way. The an­ti­air­craft gun­ners were warned of the in­com­ing tor­pedo planes. One gun­ner had asked, “What does a TBF look like?”

“Like a preg­nant F4F Wild­cat,” he was told. When Fieber­ling’s planes ar­rived, not a fin­ger touched a trig­ger.

“We Were on Our Own”

Fer­rier saw the run­ways on Eastern Is­land lined wingtip to wingtip with B-17s and brand-new Martin B-26 Ma­raud­ers, as well as PBY Catali­nas and Marine fighters and dive-bombers. Fer­rier said that there were so many that it seemed they would barely have room to land. Yet some of the planes were long past their prime. The Marine F2A Brewster Buf­falo fighters were woe­fully ob­so­lete, while some Vought Vindi­ca­tor dive-bombers had sur­gi­cal tape patch­ing the fab­ric sur­faces.

The VT-8 men learned that a huge Ja­panese

fleet was com­ing to in­vade Mid­way, the tiny atoll where the U.S. Navy had cho­sen to make its stand. Earnest wasn’t scared; he knew his job, and the TBF was the best plane for the pur­pose. He was sure they could hold their own when the bat­tle be­gan.

“We were told that the car­ri­ers were busy pro­tect­ing the Hawai­ian Is­lands. We shouldn’t ex­pect any help from them. We were on our own.”

Fer­rier and Man­ning had an idea. They af­fixed wide mask­ing tape to the lead­ing edges of the wings, at about where ma­chine guns would be on a fighter. Then they inked black holes on the tape to ap­pear as gun­ports. They hoped the TBF might make some Zero pi­lot think twice about at­tack­ing it.

The Bat­tle Is Joined

The Amer­i­cans knew what was com­ing but were hardly able to stop it. At 0430 on June 4, the first wave of 108 Ja­panese fighters and bombers launched from Nagumo’s four car­ri­ers. On the atoll, Earnest was awak­ened by the heavy roar of big ra­dial en­gines as the 16 B-17s took off. He headed to his TBF and be­gan pre­flight­ing it. Fer­rier and Man­ning checked their guns and equip­ment. To the left and right, the other pi­lots and crews did the same. The dawn sky light­ened as the air­crews waited for or­ders to take off. Some­where out there, a huge bat­tle was about to be fought.

At 0555, Mid­way’s SQR-270 radar picked up a se­ries of con­tacts at 175 miles, com­ing south­ward. In­stantly, the alarms went off, and the is­land’s Navy and Marine de­fend­ers took their po­si­tions. Into the air went the Wild­cats and Buf­fa­los of Ma­jor Floyd “Red” Parks’ VMF-221. Their job was to shoot down as many of the in­com­ing bombers as pos­si­ble. Earnest watched as a jeep drove up to the TBFs. “A Marine yelled that the Ja­panese force was at 320 de­grees, 150 miles,” he says. “We started the en­gines and took off right af­ter the [Marine] fighters. But we were on our own. No fighters at all. They were needed for the de­fense of Mid­way.” In the ra­dio gun­ner’s com­part­ment, Fer­rier looked out the small win­dow and saw the is­land fall away as they banked to the north.

Fieber­ling was easy­go­ing and un­ruf­fled in the most try­ing of cir­cum­stances, the per­fect man to lead his small de­tach­ment into bat­tle for the first time. His TBFs were to join up with the Army B-26s and Marine dive-bombers to make a com­bined at­tack on the Ja­panese fleet. But that would prove to be im­pos­si­ble. The mixed bag of Navy, Army, and Marine planes flew at dif­fer­ent al­ti­tudes and speeds. The Vindi­ca­tors were a hun­dred knots slower than the new TBFs. Some of Wal­dron’s in­de­pen­dent na­ture had worked its way into Fieber­ling’s own per­son­al­ity. In the end, he said they would find the en­emy car­ri­ers and at­tack, alone if nec­es­sary. Their planes were armed with a Mark 13 aerial tor­pedo weigh­ing 2,200 pounds with a 600-pound Tor­pex war­head.

Hav­ing a range of 6,000 yards, it could do great dam­age to an air­craft car­rier—if it hit. But car­ri­ers were fast and ma­neu­ver­able, and the only way to guar­an­tee a hit was to bore in low and get as close as pos­si­ble be­fore drop­ping the “fish.”

The TBFs climbed to 2,000 feet and took up the head­ing of 320 de­grees at 160 knots. Then a for­ma­tion of en­emy planes passed them. Those were the first Ja­panese planes they had ever seen. They would not be the last.

Just as the is­land dis­ap­peared over the south­ern hori­zon the first wave of Ja­panese bombers and fighters be­gan their at­tack. Bright blasts of ex­plod­ing bombs and AA guns punc­tu­ated the col­umns of black smoke that rose into the morn­ing sky.

“En­emy Fighters!”

At 0655, Earnest, far­thest to the left, saw a sin­gle ship headed south. It looked like a trans­port. Then the whole ocean was cov­ered with ships. “It looked like the whole damned Ja­panese Navy,” he says. A mas­sive bat­tle­ship was just ahead and, be­yond that, two big car­ri­ers steam­ing side by side.

The car­ri­ers were the Ak­agi, flag­ship of Ad­mi­ral Nagumo, and Hiryu, steam­ing 5,000 yards apart, while the other two car­ri­ers, Kaga and So­ryu, were 10,000 yards (five miles) be­hind. Their hangar decks were packed with fighters and bombers be­ing fu­eled and read­ied for a pos­si­ble at­tack on any U.S. ships that might be in the area. Un­known to the Tor­pedo 8 de­tach­ment, Fieber­ling’s crews were the spear­point of the en­tire Amer­i­can at­tack. But in­stantly, the Tor­pedo 8 men were no longer alone in the sky.

“En­emy fighters!,” Man­ning called over Earnest’s in­ter­phone. The tur­ret’s .50-cal­iber be­gan bang­ing away as Man­ning turned and aimed at the dart­ing Zeros. Earnest had never seen such nim­ble and swift fighters. “There were so many, they were get­ting in each other’s way. I trig­gered my nose guns, but noth­ing hap­pened.”

En­emy can­non shells and 7.7mm ma­chine­gun bul­lets tore into the big TBFs. Earnest felt and heard the thump of en­emy bul­lets tear­ing through his plane.

Bit­ter Losses

Still hold­ing for­ma­tion, the Amer­i­cans forged ahead at full power. Fieber­ling be­gan his at­tack run, div­ing at the sea to­ward one of the car­ri­ers. Then Man­ning’s gun stopped fir­ing. In the ven­tral com­part­ment, Fer­rier felt some­thing warm and sticky run­ning over his head and shoul­ders. It was Man­ning’s blood. A 20mm can­non shell had ex­ploded in his chest, killing him in­stantly.

Fieber­ling’s TBF lev­eled off at 200 feet as the Zeros fol­lowed them down. Earnest saw his leader’s bomb-bay doors open, and he fol­lowed suit. More bul­lets lanced into Earnest’s plane, and the howl of the 230-knot airstream added to the din of air­craft en­gines and gun­fire. Trac­ers streaked all around them as he tried to con­cen­trate on the Hiryu, which grew larger with ev­ery pass­ing se­cond. Sud­denly, he felt a sharp blow on his neck as shrap­nel hit him. Blood sprayed over the in­stru­ment panel. Another Zero moved in be­hind the TBF.

Fer­rier was about to fire when the tail­wheel fell, block­ing his view. The hy­draulic sys­tem had been hit. Un­able to fire, he could only wait. The big Grum­man was tak­ing fierce pun­ish­ment as dozens of bul­lets tore into the thin alu­minum skin. Earnest felt the plane slip­ping out of for­ma­tion as his con­trol ca­bles were shred­ded. Pulling back on the con­trol stick had no ef­fect. He could not climb or dive. Then a can­non shell ex­ploded in the in­stru­ment panel. Un­able to con­trol the TBF, he knew they were go­ing down.

The five re­main­ing TBFs were bor­ing in amid a swarm of fighters and in­creas­ing an­ti­air­craft fire. Then one of them burst into a ball of orange flame and spun into the sea with a ti­tanic splash, but the oth­ers con­tin­ued their at­tack. Two man­aged to re­lease their tor­pe­does, but the Hiryu was able to avoid them. One by one, the rest of Earnest’s squadron mates fell from the sky and crashed into the sea. Fieber­ling, Bran­non, Gaynier, Lewis, and Wood­side were all lost, with their gun­ners. They had died be­fore Wal­dron’s 15 Dev­as­ta­tors had even launched from the Hor­net. The first ca­su­al­ties of the at­tack on the Ja­panese fleet had been the men of Tor­pedo 8.


The Bat­tle Turns

Some­how, against all odds, Earnest’s shotup, bat­tered TBF was still fly­ing. He had no el­e­va­tor con­trols, no hy­draulics, and no ra­dio or nav­i­ga­tional in­stru­ments. But he still wanted to try to sink an en­emy ship. Just ahead to the left was a cruiser, AA guns blaz­ing away. With a kick on his left rud­der, he cob­bled the crip­pled TBF around, aimed at the en­emy ship and trig­gered the switch to re­lease the tor­pedo. Ex­pect­ing to feel the sud­den re­lease of weight, he was sur­prised when noth­ing hap­pened. He tried the emer­gency re­lease with the same re­sults. The tor­pedo would not fall free of the plane.

The big plane slipped closer and closer to the rolling swells, and there seemed no way to stop it.

Then Earnest did some­thing that had be­come a habit dur­ing train­ing. “I had my hand on the el­e­va­tor-trim wheel, and the plane sud­denly jumped up. I re­al­ized I could still con­trol the el­e­va­tor that way. But I had two Zeros com­ing at me. Then they left. I don’t know why. They had me dead to rights.”

That was when the AAF B-26 Ma­raud­ers bored in on the car­ri­ers with their own tor­pe­does. Af­ter that came the Marine dive-bombers. Earnest was north of the fleet, with the Ja­panese be­tween him and the atoll. “I de­cided to head south un­til I was past the fleet, un­til I fig­ured I was west of Mid­way.” But all his nav­i­ga­tional in­stru­ments, in­clud­ing his com­pass, had been shot away. “The sun was rel­a­tively low in the sky, so I knew where east was. I climbed to about 4,000 feet.” There were sev­eral planes in the dis­tance head­ing south, but he had no way of know­ing who they were—prob­a­bly Marine dive-bombers re­turn­ing home af­ter be­ing sav­aged by the Zeros.

Some­how Earnest’s dam­aged plane kept go­ing. The big Wright Cy­clone, de­spite be­ing hit sev­eral times, never fal­tered. With no com­pass or air­speed gauge, he was go­ing to have to be ex­tremely lucky. If he missed Mid­way, he and Fer­rier were doomed to van­ish into the empty sea. As he coaxed the crip­pled TBF south, Fer­rier came on the in­ter­phone. “He said he had been knocked out but was OK. I asked if he could see if the tor­pedo was gone, but there was so much blood from Man­ning cov­er­ing the small win­dow into the bomb bay he couldn’t see.”

About an hour af­ter leav­ing the en­emy fleet be­hind, Earnest turned east. Even­tu­ally, he saw a smudge of dark gray, which re­solved it­self into col­umns of black smoke ris­ing from the is­land. He de­scended and lined up on the run­way for a land­ing. But his trou­bles were not over. “I couldn’t get one wheel down,” he said. “I didn’t have any flaps or hy­draulics.” With con­sum­mate skill, the avi­a­tor man­aged to bring the bat­tered TBF into a one-wheel land­ing, skid­ding to a noisy stop just off the run­way.

By then, the car­rier-based Daunt­lesses were wreak­ing havoc on the first three Ja­panese car­ri­ers. All but one of the VT-8 men that left with Wal­dron were dead. But the bloody day had been an Amer­i­can vic­tory. That afternoon, the SBDs fin­ished off the fourth en­emy flat­top.

But the War Had Just Started

The sur­viv­ing TBF was found to have more than 100 holes from small- and large-cal­iber shells. Even all three pro­pel­ler blades were rid­dled. But that tough lit­tle plane never let its pi­lot and crew down. It was shipped back to Pearl, where Grum­man en­gi­neers ex­am­ined it with re­spect­ful awe. Af­ter the bat­tle, the name “Avenger” was given to the new plane.

As for Tor­pedo 8, they re­assem­bled in Hawaii and shipped out on the USS Saratoga (CV-3) in Au­gust. They were headed for an is­land in the Solomons called Guadal­canal. The war had just started for the men of VT-8.

Af­ter the long and desperate Guadal­canal cam­paign, Bert Earnest served 30 years in the Navy, ris­ing to the rank of cap­tain. He flew B-17s as a hur­ri­cane hunter and com­manded the Naval Air Sta­tion at Oceana, Vir­ginia. Harry Fer­rier con­tin­ued to fly Avengers through­out the war, see­ing com­bat from the En­ter­prise. He was com­mis­sioned an en­sign in 1945 and re­tired as a com­man­der in 1970.

The au­thor highly rec­om­mends Robert J. Mrazek’s ex­cel­lent 2008 book, A Dawn Like Thun­der: The True Story of Tor­pedo Squadron Eight, pub­lished by Lit­tle, Brown and Com­pany, New York.

When the dam­aged TBF was land­ing, one gear leg wouldn’t ex­tend, and dur­ing the roll­out, the other folded. Heavy equip­ment was used to get it back on its feet. (Photo cour­tesy of Stan Piet)

The TBF’s per­for­mance wasn’t ham­pered when car­ry­ing a tor­pedo be­cause it was mounted in­ter­nally. (Photo by John Dibbs/ planepic­ture.com)

A fac­tory-fresh TBF-1 is run up at Grum­man prior to a test flight. The TBF was, in all ar­eas, a ma­jor step up from the TBD Dev­as­ta­tor. (Photo cour­tesy of Stan Piet)

Mid­way was ac­tu­ally two is­lands: Sand and Eastern. (Photo cour­tesy of Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

Bert Earnest, pi­lot of the VT-8 Avenger that sur­vived at Mid­way, stayed in the Navy af­ter the war. (Photo cour­tesy of Wiki­me­dia Com­mons) Main­te­nance per­son­nel eval­u­at­ing the dam­age to Earnest’s TBF. The port panel on the tur­ret was re­moved for ac­cess...

Dam­age to the tur­ret ap­pears to be shrap­nel from a shell ex­plod­ing in­side of it. (Photo cour­tesy of Stan Piet)

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