Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, the story of the exploits of Easy Company, 506 parachute infantry, 101st Division captured the attention of the American people and became an extremely popular miniseries. This year HBO began airing The Pacific, a ten-part miniseries produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks which follows three Marines in separate combat actions throughout the war in that theater. Now I have found what may be the Navy’s equivalent. It is A Dawn Like Thunder, former Congressman Robert J. Mrazek’s gripping story of Torpedo Squadron 8 (VT-8) of Midway and Guadalcanal fame. It is a compelling narrative.
From the increasingly dimming perspective of a history that is receding in memory, it is sometimes hard to remember that for the first six months of World War Two, Japan had racked up an unbroken string of victories that drove every major power but the United States out of the Western Pacific. A victory at Midway would have “run the table” and allowed the Japanese Navy to repeat its strike on Pearl Harbor or even attack the West Coast.
The fate of VT-8 at Midway is a reminder of how close run was the battle. The U.S. commander, Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance rolled the dice by launching an immediate all-out strike on the Japanese fleet at extreme range. American squadrons were launched piecemeal and proceeded to the target in several different groups. As a consequence, they arrived over the Japanese fleet — when they found it, which some did not — separately, thereby reducing their effectiveness. In addition, some squadrons went off course and failed to engage the enemy and other aircraft were lost to fuel exhaustion before they were able to attack.
VT-8 suffered from the disorganized state of the U.S. attack as well as from flying the obsolescent TBD Devastator. Making their attack without the advantage of protection from American fighter aircraft or the support of other squadrons of torpedo or dive bombers, VT-8 was destroyed. All fifteen planes were shot down; every man who flew that day was killed save for a sole survivor, Ensign George Gay. VT-8 failed to score a single torpedo hit. Two other squadrons of torpedo bombers had nearly identical experiences (VT-3 and VT-6). The entire operation could have followed this pattern.
Yet, the fate of VT-8 contributed to the eventual American victory. The sequential attacks by torpedo squadrons so occupied Japanese fighters that they were out of position and low on ammunition and fuel when the dive bombers appeared overhead. Within minutes, three Japanese aircraft carriers, the heart of their offensive power, were destroyed. With the addition of a fourth carrier sunk in a second strike, the U.S. Navy won the most important naval battle in its history.
VT-8 was reconstituted and went on to serve at Guadalcanal. There it participated in some of the most intensive aerial combats of the war, eventually fighting alongside the Marines on the island after their aircraft were all destroyed or disabled. VT-8 was awarded two Presidential Unit Citations.
It should be noted that like Navy personnel today, all the members of VT-8 were volunteers. All had enlisted in the months and years before Pearl Harbor. Then, as today, the security of the nation rested in the hands of a small number of young Navy officers willing to place themselves between home and the enemy.
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