Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day reruns

The lawyer from South Dakota

On memorial day, veterans graves across the country are honored with wreaths and flags. But some veterans have no graves to honor, and can only be remembered.

Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron, U.S.N.

He & his men changed the course of World War II in the Pacific, and didn't live to know it.

He was a lawyer, born in Fort Pierre, South Dakota. His father was descended from English settlers, his mother was a Sioux Indian.

He was married, with 2 daughters.

He was admitted to the state bar in South Dakota, but rather then going into practice decided to join the U.S. Navy. He was chosen to be a pilot, in the new field of naval aviation.

He trained to fly torpedo planes (no longer in use). Their goal was to fly close enough to an enemy ship to drop a torpedo into the water, then get away as fast as possible. This was a difficult job. It required the planes to fly in a low, straight line as they approached the enemy, making them easy targets for enemy fighters and anti-aircraft.

Waldron was a good pilot. He was chosen to teach at Annapolis, and later Pensacola. He flew planes off 1 battleship and 3 carriers.

He and his wife held parties for other pilots at their Norfolk home. He was very proud of his little girls. Some pilots remembered being taken to his daughters' darkened bedroom and asked "Did you guys ever see such pretty little girls?"

With war looming in the Summer of 1941, Waldron and his men were assigned to the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet, in the Pacific theater.

He was determined. He once told his pilots that "if we run out of gas, we'll piss in the tanks." He wasn't looking for glory, or to become a martyr, or a hero. He was just doing his job.

On the morning of June 4, the Hornet was somewhere off Midway island, placed there to defend against the massive Japanese force sent to capture the Pacific base.

Waldron likely had few illusions about his chances. Although his men were well-trained, their "Devastator" torpedo bombers were already obsolete. The new "Avenger" planes were much better, but only beginning to roll out of the factories. And with the enemy coming, they had to make do with what they had. Before the battle he called his men together and said "If there is only one plane left to make a final run in, I want that man to go in and get a hit."

The Japanese "Zero" fighter was a lethal weapon. Though poorly protected, it was quicker and more maneuverable than its American counterparts. And it was flown by some of the best pilots in the world.

On the morning of June 4, 1942, Waldron led Torpedo Squadron 8 off the Hornet. He had orders to search for the Japanese in a specific area, but had a hunch (he called it his "Sioux intuition") that the heading he'd been told to follow was wrong. He disobeyed orders, and it turned out his intuition was correct.

Waldron led his 15 planes straight to the enemy fleet. Forced to fly straight & low to aim their torpedoes, they were sitting ducks as the Zeros swooped down and destroyed them one by one. Out of 30 men, there was only one survivor, Lt. George Gay. He saw Waldron stand up in his plane as it burst into flames, just before his own plane was shot out from under him. They didn't get a single hit.

The 15 pilots of Torpedo Squadron 8, photographed in May, 1942. Waldron is standing, 3rd from left. Lt. George Gay, (circled, 1st row) is the only man in the picture who survived.

In a few minutes all the planes of Torpedo Squadron 8 had vanished beneath the Pacific, leaving only Lieutenant Gay hiding from the Zeros under his flotation device. It was a disaster for the Americans.

But unbeknownst to all but Lt. Gay, they changed the course of the Pacific war.

The deadly Zeros were now at sea level, on the prowl for more torpedo planes. But the next American wave, this time of dive bombers, was high above. They might have been easy targets, too. But as they came down the Zeros were no longer in a position to defend their fleet, and couldn't gain altitude in time to stop the bombers. Between 10:20 and 10:25 a.m that morning the Japanese lost 3 of their 4 aircraft carriers to the bombers. The last carrier followed them a few hours later.

The loss of the four carriers, with their planes, pilots, and crews, was a blow the Japanese navy never recovered from. The war went on for 3 more years, but the tide was turned by the sacrifice of a group of men, led by a 41-year old lawyer from South Dakota.

ll my readers, no matter what country they're in, owe their freedom to soldiers in all military branches. So remember them today.

The fallen from Torpedo Squadron 8. Their only grave marker is the blue Pacific water.

Lt. Commander John C. Waldron
Lt. Raymond A. Moore
Lt. James C. Owens, Jr.
Lt.(jg) George M. Campbell
Lt.(jg) John P. Gray
Lt.(jg) Jeff D. Woodson
Ens.William W. Abercrombie
Ens. William W. Creamer
Ens. Harold J. Ellison
Ens. William R. Evans
Ens. Henry R. Kenyun
Ens. Ulvert M. Moore
Ens. Grant W. Teats
Robert B. Miles, Aviation Pilot 1c
Horace F. Dobbs, Chief Radioman
Amelio Maffei, Radioman 1
Tom H. Pettry, Radioman 1
Otway D. Creasy, Jr. Radioman 2
Ross H. Bibb, Jr., Radioman 2
Darwin L. Clark, Radioman 2
Ronald J. Fisher, Radioman 2
Hollis Martin, Radioman 2
Bernerd P. Phelps Radioman 2
Aswell L. Picou, Seaman 2
Francis S. Polston, Seaman 2
Max A. Calkins, Radioman 3
George A. Field, Radioman 3
Robert K. Huntington Radioman 3
William F. Sawhill, Radioman 3


Anonymous said...

Thank you for remembering and honoring.

Officer Cynical said...

Another mission that ended with only one survivor:

amy said...

These are my favorite posts, out of all the ones you write, i love the history ones the most. My boys always read them too. Thank you for honoring the people who fought for our country, and for all the naval and other history stories you post.

There's a line in the movie "The American President" where Michael Douglas asks Martin Sheen a question about what he'd be if he hadn't been president, and Martin answers "You'd be the most popular history teacher...". You, Dr. Grumpy, would have been an incredibly popular history teacher...if you hadn't become Dr. Grumpy.

Government Funded Blogger said...

Just another example of so much owed to so few by so many.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Dr. G.

Petunia said...

Five years ago I went on a tour to Pearl Harbor and Midway. On the tour was a man from Oregon who was a mechanic for Torpedo 8. He talked about seeing the squadron take off from the Hornet and never come back, and even 65 years later he choked up when talking about it. He was also on the Hornet for the Doolittle Raid.

I was lucky enough to meet George Gay at an airshow when I was a kid. My dad insisted my brother and I stand in line and shake Mr. Gay's hand. He knew we didn't appreciate the significance at the time, but would later. And I do.

Also on the 2007 trip were two of Ensign Teats' relatives. They were representing older members of the family who couldn't be there.

I believe the gentleman from the Hornet is still alive; I found a fairly recent article on him and his wife, celebrating 67 years of marriage. She was a WAVE.

Thank you for posting the story, Dr. Grumpy.

Debbie said...

"All my readers, no matter what country they're in, owe their freedom to soldiers in all military branches. So remember them today."

Indeed, Grumpy.

Daisy said...

Made me cry. Thank you!

Bob G. said...

I recall that story about the battle of Midway.
Read about it when I was young.

Very well presented and a fitting tribute to a group of heroes that didn't ask to be...they just did what was asked of them...

Ordinanry men, under extraordinary circustances...doing the improbable to make freedom possible.

Great post.

Stay safe out there.

Trish said...

I love it when you share these stories, Doc. Most Americans don't give a passing thought to the guys coming home in body bags or horribly maimed today, let alone from 50 years ago. But every time you trot out one of these stories you do your bit to make people remember them, if only for the few minutes it takes to read it before they flit away and on to their everyday lives. It's important these people and their sacrifices not be forgotten. Thanks for this.

Trish said...

I love when you share these stories, Doc. Most people don't give a single thought in even a week about the guys coming home in body bags or horribly maimed today, so it's important when you trot these stories out. It makes people remember if only for the space of time it takes to read before they flit off to their everyday lives. They should always be remembered, their sacrifices never forgotten. Thanks for this, keep them coming.

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