THE FI­NAL RE­UNION OF TOR­PEDO SQUADRON 8

The Covington News - - A VETERAN'S STORY - PETE MECCA COLUM­NIST Pete Mecca is a Viet­nam vet­eran, colum­nist and free­lance writer. You can reach him at avet­er­ansstory@gmail.com or avet­er­ansstory.us.

A heart at­tack took the life of Ge­orge H. Gay Jr. at a Ma­ri­etta hos­pi­tal on Oc­to­ber 21, 1994. A res­i­dent of Ken­ne­saw, Gay was a well-known hero of WWII. Now, as his­tory books are rewrit­ten and mil­i­tary icons are shunned by re­formists, let us hope that Gay’s story will re­main an em­bod­i­ment of the courage and sac­ri­fice of a gen­er­a­tion that saved a world from to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism.

For­mer Pres­i­den­tial Press Sec­re­tary Jay Car­ney stated dur­ing one press con­fer­ence, “Let’s be clear about this, Beng­hazi hap­pened a long time ago.” Okay, but let’s be clear about this: So did Val­ley Forge, Shiloh, San Juan Hill, Bel­leau Wood, Nor­mandy, Heart­break Ridge, Khe Sanh, Desert Storm, the Twin Tow­ers, Iraq and soon-to-be Afghanistan. And ‘a long time ago,’ be­fore Mr. Car­ney was even born, men died so one day he would have the free­dom to at­tend Yale Univer­sity. Yet, even with a B.A. De­gree in Rus­sian and Eastern Euro­pean His­tory, by June 2013, Jay Car­ney had dodged ap­prox­i­mately 9,500 ques­tions and said the equiv­a­lent of “I don’t know,” over 1,900 times.

And let’s be clear about this: The Great­est Gen­er­a­tion didn’t ‘dodge’ their awe­some re­spon­si­bil­i­ties fight­ing a world war, nor did they ut­ter words like “I don’t know” if asked about their al­le­giance to the United States of Amer­ica. En­sign Ge­orge H. Gay Jr. came from that mold of pa­tri­ots.

Com­mis­sioned in Septem­ber of ’41, Gay joined the air­men of Tor­pedo Squadron 8 aboard the USS Hor­net. The men of Tor­pedo Squadron 8, along with the Hor­net’s crew, watched Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolit­tle launch heavy­weight B-25 bombers from the Hor­net’s deck in April of ‘42 for the fa­mous Doolit­tle Raid on Tokyo.

A short two months later, on June 4, the USS Hor­net was part of Task Force 16, which in­cluded the car­ri­ers USS En­ter­prise and USS York­town. These car­ri­ers were the only Amer­i­can car­ri­ers re­main­ing in the Pa­cific af­ter Pearl Har­bor and most of the Amer­i­can pi­lots had never flown in com­bat. Yet these brave young avi­a­tors would chal­lenge the su­pe­rior Ja­panese fleet head­ing for the Amer­i­can-held is­land of Mid­way. Odds heav­ily fa­vored the Ja­panese.

Fif­teen out­dated and slow TBD Dou­glas “Dev­as­ta­tor” Tor­pedo Bombers with a crew of two (pilot and tail gun­ner) took off from the USS Hor­net to search for the en­emy fleet. The En­ter­prise and York­town launched 27 more tor­pedo bombers bring­ing the to­tal to 42. Only six would make it back to the Amer­i­can car­ri­ers.

En­sign Ge­orge Gay and his gun­ner, ARM3c Ge­orge Field, fol­lowed their leader, Lt. Com­man­der John Wal­dron. Wal­dron, an au­thor­ity on en­emy tac­tics, was ru­mored to have a ‘sixth sense’ when lo­cat­ing the en­emy. He proved the ru­mor cor­rect. Wal­dron led Tor­pedo Squadron 8 straight to the en­emy air­craft car­ri­ers, and straight into the pro­tec­tive cover of 32 fast and highly ma­neu­ver­able Ja­panese Zero fight­ers. The Zero pi­lots were com­bat vet­er­ans. The Dev­as­ta­tors, slow and clumsy, were sit­ting ducks.

(All quotes by Ge­orge Gay are the ex­cerpts from a WWII in­ter­view with the Op­er­a­tional Ar­chives Branch, Naval His­tor­i­cal Cen­ter).

Gay: “I don’t think any of our planes were dam­aged, even touched by anti-air­craft fire, the fight­ers, the Ze­roes, shot down ev­ery one of them, and by the time we got in to where the anti-air­craft fire be­gan to get hot, the fight­ers left us and I was the only one close enough to

I was right smack in the mid­dle of it. But boy, I’ll tell you, those ex­plo­sions and all the steel and shrap­nel and their anti-air­craft fire and ev­ery­body shoot­ing at ev­ery­thing, there were a lot of places I’d rather been.

— Ge­orge Gay WWII hero

get any real hot anti-air­craft fire. I don’t think it even touched me and I went right through it, right over the ship.”

Dur­ing his tor­pedo run on the Ja­panese car­rier Kaga, Gay took a hit in his left arm and a fire burned his leg. His wounded gun­ner was dy­ing. When Gay pulled the re­lease mech­a­nism, it was the first tor­pedo he’d ever car­ried and, of course, the first tor­pedo he’d ever dropped. The Kaga evaded Gay’s tor­pedo. No Amer­i­can tor­pe­does scored a hit and all 15 Dev­as­ta­tors of Tor­pedo Squadron 8 were shot down. For a few pre­cious moments the Im­pe­rial Ja­panese Navy thought they had won the war.

Of re­leas­ing his tor­pedo and avoid­ing anti-air­craft fire, Gay said: “…..I flew right straight to her (the Kaga) and of­fered as small as a tar­get as I could. So I flew right down the gun bar­rels, pulled up on the port side, did a flip­per turn right by the car­rier is­land….. I could see the lit­tle Jap cap­tain up there jump­ing up and down rais­ing hell, and I thought about wish­ing I had a .45 pis­tol so that I could take a pot shot at him. Maybe I couldn’t hit him, but, if noth­ing else, thrown the gun at him, but I then dropped right back down on the deck and flew aft look­ing at all these air­planes.”

The Ja­panese com­man­der, Nagumo, now aware an Amer­i­can fleet was in the area, post­poned the sec­ond strike on Mid­way Is­land and or­dered the deck crew to change ord­nance from frag­men­ta­tion bombs to ar­mor pierc­ing bombs. See­ing bombs stacked all over the flight deck and fuel lines ac­tively re­fu­el­ing Ja­panese air­planes, Gay briefly con­tem­plated a sui­cide dive.

Gay: “It’s when a fel­low is just gone and he knows it, it is just crash into the ship or crash into the sea, and you have enough con­trol to do a bit more dam­age, then you crash into the ship.”

With his tor­pedo bomber still in good enough shape to head for home, Gay dis­missed a sui­cide dive. In­stead, he flew the length of the Kaga’s deck and out to sea. He was im­me­di­ately am­bushed by five Zero fight­ers. With his rud­der con­trol and ailerons shot to pieces, Gay splashed into the Pa­cific.

Gay: “That’s when I got scared. I was afraid I was go­ing to drown in the plane. I got out of there and thought about my rear gun­ner, made a dive to try and pick him up, but I couldn’t get to him. The first thing I saw af­ter I came to the sur­face was one of those Ja­panese car­ri­ers headed right straight for me and she was land­ing planes.”

As 25-year-old En­sign Ge­orge Gay hid un­der his seat cush­ion, an en­emy car­rier passed about 500 yards west of his po­si­tion and an es­cort­ing Jap cruiser passed within 500 yards east of his po­si­tion. Dur­ing the heat of the bat­tle, other Ja­panese ships passed Gay but they never spot­ted the lone air­man.

The sac­ri­fices of the tor­pedo bombers cre­ated an op­por­tu­nity for the ar­riv­ing Amer­i­can dive bombers. The Ja­panese Ze­roes were too low to re­gain enough alti­tude to in­ter­cept the Amer­i­cans and the anti-air­craft gun­ners were con­cen­trat­ing on the Amer­i­can tor­pedo bombers. Down they came, re­leas­ing their bombs onto three Ja­panese car­ri­ers with bombs stacked on their decks and fully fu­eled air­planes ready for take­off.

Within six min­utes the pride of the Ja­panese fleet, the car­ri­ers Ak­agi, So­ryu, and Kaga were sink­ing burn­ing hulks. The fourth car­rier, Hiryu, would be sent to the bot­tom the next day.

Gay: “I was right smack in the mid­dle of it. But boy, I’ll tell you, those ex­plo­sions and all the steel and shrap­nel and their anti-air­craft fire and ev­ery­body shoot­ing at ev­ery­thing, there were a lot of places I’d rather been. So, I sat in the mid­dle of the largest, and cer­tainly the most de­ci­sive naval bat­tle in his­tory, I’m right smack in the mid­dle of it, all day and all night.”

Ge­orge Gay wit­nessed the de­struc­tion of three Ja­panese car­ri­ers and spent 30 hours in the wa­ter, and out of 30 men in Tor­pedo Squadron 8, Gay was the only sur­vivor. A Navy PBY fly­ing boat even­tu­ally res­cued Gay.

Hos­pi­tal­ized at Pearl Har­bor, doc­tors dis­cov­ered that Gay had lost 30 pounds dur­ing his or­deal. He was vis­ited by the com­man­der of the Amer­i­can Pa­cific Fleet, Ad­mi­ral Chester Nimitz. Nimitz was the first to hear Gay’s story. Nimitz sent Gay home to re­cu­per­ate and to uti­lize his story to gain sup­port of the war ef­fort.

Within four months, Gay was back in ac­tion. Still as­signed to a Tor­pedo Squadron, Gay par­tic­i­pated in the strug­gle for Guadal­canal, skipped-bombed en­emy ves­sels, dropped mines in en­emy har­bors from 800 feet alti­tude and later be­came a Navy flight in­struc­tor.

Af­ter the war, Gay spent 30 years as a pilot for Trans-World Air­lines, lec­tured on his ex­pe­ri­ences, au­thored the book ‘Sole Sur­vivor’ and worked as a con­sul­tant on the set for the movie ‘Mid­way.”

Gay: “I don’t know why that day hap­pened like it did. I didn’t do any­thing more than any­one else ex­cept sur­vive.”

Af­ter his death and sub­se­quent cre­ma­tion, Ge­orge Gay’s ashes were spread over a bat­tle­field in the Pa­cific Ocean called Mid­way. All the fly­boys of Tor­pedo Squadron 8 were to­gether again.

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