Midway’s Other “Lone” Survivors of VT-8
More than One Airman Returned
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)