Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day, 2010

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 it's 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 Zeroes 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 Zeroes 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 Zeroes 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


Cheryl said...


remclave said...

Awesome remembrance. My husband watches a lot of the war documentaries and there was a series about the Pacific battles. I vaguely remember the episode that included a mention of these gentlemen.

Rescuedog said...

God bless our military, every one of them willing to give their lives so we may live in freedom.

My Great Uncle Kenny has a marker in Sicily but his body was never found. He died in February 1944 while he was guiding a mule packed with ammunition.

Teach your children to approach those who identify themselves as vets, shake their hand and say "thank you for your service." I've seen vets cry when my son has done this, and one Vietnam vet said it was the first time anyone thanked him.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting these fantastic stories Dr Grumpy. The sense of duty and commitment is just amazing and inspiring.

I too stop and thank veterans for their service--they soooo appreciate it. Passed a gentleman on a scooter in Kmart on Memorial Day 1994, stopped him, put out my hand and said those same words "Thank you for your service." He welled up, stammered a bit, pulled out his wallet and showed me a photo of the fighter plane he was in over the Pacific--he just beamed! Thanks for the great reminder to stop, be brave, and make a connection that will hold onto your heart.

bobbie said...

A beautiful, though sad, story ~ thanks for sharing it.

George Gay is also remembered in the film "The Best Years of our Life".

J-Quell'n said...

Indeed...much gratitude to those who gave their lives and those who continue to fight for our freedom.

bobbie said...

Error ~ the movie I was thinking of is "Midway" ~

StudentDoc said...

I've always been thankful that both grandfathers and one great grandfather made it safely home after serving in WWII (and in my great grandfather's case WWI as well)!

Homebody said...

Thank you for this, Ibee. It's so important we all remember what this day is truly for.

Moose said...

Amazing story. Goes to show that a lot of military losses that seem pointless are really critical after all.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this blog entry. We must never forget their sacrifices.

Kat's Kats said...

I carry "kindness coins" with me to thank those who help me (like handing down things from top shelves etc). Every time I see a soldier I give them one & tell them thank you. Every time I see a vet tag I try to give them one personally so I can them thank you in person, if not, I place the coin where they'll see it.

I'm a Navy brat & grandNavy brat. My husband has an uncle who went off to be a pilot in WWII. Unfortunately he died during training and was never able to make it overseas.

We remember.

Anonymous said...

Linked on FB. Elegantly worded, thanks for posting.

Dalai said...

May we never forget the sacrifice these men, and so many more like them, made for our freedom.

Don said...

Mr. Gay was on the airshow circuit in the eighties, and my wife and I had the chance to meet him and briefly talk with him. He was a true gentleman, and the world is poorer because of his passing.
Thank you for relating this story, Dr. Grumpy.

Anonymous said...

This is the first post I've read on your blog. I will be reading you from now on. God bless America and the brave men and women who have defended her for all these many years. Thanks for posting this on Memorial Day.
Greg Smith MD

The Observer said...

Dr. Grumpy:
This is an awesome post. Thank you for it. I hope you had a good Memorial Day.

The Observer

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, Dr Grumpy. At my current job, I assist many deployed military personnel and veterans. I always thank them for their service to our nation.

I wish my late father had told my sisters and me about his service as a cryptoanalyst during WW2 and the Korean War. He never talked about it. My late mother told me after I had read a biography of Alan Turing, the Briton who broke Enigma.

Thanks to all who served and and all who now serve - Coast Guard, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, National Guard. We cannot pay you enough for what you do/have done, but we can thank you for you bravery and service.

John said...


As a big history buff, I'm hoping you will find the following of interest.

Recent research has shown that the attack of Torpedo 8 did not have the effect of pulling all the Zeros down to sea level, thereby allowing the dive bombers free reign. The Navy promoted this story to overcome the foolishness of forcing brave men to fly garbage into combat. Truth is, the Japanese combat air patrol was poorly managed and lacked radar control. Read "Shattered Sword" by Parshall and Tully for an in depth explanation.

The Marines of Marine Aircraft Group 22 also took terrible losses flying obsolete planes, the Buffalo fighter and Vindicator dive bomber. They also failed, despite their bravery, to contribute to victory. None of these aircraft types, the Buffalo, Vindicator, or Devastator, ever flew in combat again.

That said, nothing can diminish the bravery of John Waldron and the men of Torpedo Squadron 8, or of the Marines of MAG -22. Every one of them deserves the MoH and our undying gratitude for their sacrifice.

ERP said...

I remember learning about Torpedo 8when I was about 7 when the movie "Midway" with Charlton Heston, Hal Holbrook, and Henry Fonda came out in the mid 70's. My Dad took me and honestly, it freaked me out. All the death and destruction - but I was fascinated by WW2 airplanes so I watched with wide eyes. I distinctly remember George Gay floating in the water after ditching. And of course Matt Garth (I guess he was a fictional character) dying in the crash in the final scene when he limps back to the carrier.
Man, the Devastator was a total piece of crap - along with those nearly worthless early war American Torpedos.

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