Into the Valley of the Shadow of Death: The Death of the Torpedo Bombers at Midway

Half a league half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred:
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns’ he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson: The Charge of the Light Brigade

They were not six hundred and they were not mounted on horses but the Naval Aviators of Torpedo Squadrons 3, 6 and 8 and their aerial steeds 42 Douglas TBD Devastators and 6 TBF Avengers wrote a chapter of courage and sacrifice seldom equaled in the history of Naval Aviation. Commanded by veteran Naval Aviators, LCDR Lance “Lem” Massey, LCDR Eugene Lindsey and LCDR John Waldron the squadrons embarked aboard the carriers flew the obsolete TBD Devastators and the young pilots of the Midway based Torpedo 8 detachment under the command of LT Langdon Fieberling flew in the new TBF Avengers.

The TBD which first flew in 1935 entered service in 1937 and was possibly the most modern naval aircraft in the world when it entered service.  It was a revolutionary aircraft. It was the first monoplane widely used on carriers and was first all-metal naval aircraft.  It was the first naval aircraft with a totally enclosed cockpit, the first with hydraulic powered folding wings.  The TBD had crew of three and had a maximum speed of 206 miles an hour and carried a torpedo or up to 1500 pounds of bombs (3 x 500) or a 1000 pound bomb.  129 were built and served in all pre-war torpedo bombing squadrons based aboard the Lexington, Saratoga, Ranger, Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet with a limited number embarked aboard Wasp.  The Devastator saw extensive service prior to the war which pushed many airframes to the end of their useful service life and by 1940 only about 100 were operational by the beginning of the war.  They were still in service in 1942 as their replacement the TBF Avenger was not available for service in large enough numbers to replace them before Midway.  The TBDs performed adequately against minor opposition at Coral Sea and in strikes against the Marshalls but the squadrons embarked on Yorktown (VT3), Enterprise (VT-6) and Hornet (VT-8) were annihilated at Midway with only 6 of 41 aircraft surviving their uncoordinated attacks against the Japanese Carrier Strike Force.  They were too slow, had poor maneuverability, insufficient armor and defensive armament.

The Torpedo squadrons attacked independently of each other between 0920 and 1030 on June 4th 1942. Only

The Japanese Combat Air Patrol ripped into the slow, cumbersome and under armed TBD Devastators as they came in low to launch their torpedoes.  Torpedo Eight from Hornet under the command of LCDR John C Waldron pressed the attack hard but all 15 of the Devastators were shot down.  Only Ensign George Gay’s aircraft was able to launch its torpedo before being shot down and Gay would be the sole survivor of the squadron to be picked up later by a PBY Catalina patrol plane.

Torpedo Six from the Enterprise under the command of LCDR Eugene Lindsey suffered heavy casualties losing 10 of 14 aircraft with Lindsey being one of the casualties.  The last group of Devastators to attack was Torpedo Three from the Yorktown under the command of LCDR Lem Massey losing 11 of 13 aircraft with Massey a casualty last being seen standing on the wing of his burning aircraft as it went down.  These aircraft were also decimated and Massey killed but they had drawn the Japanese Combat Air Patrol down to the deck leaving the task force exposed to the Dive Bombers of the Enterprise and Yorktown.  The six aircraft of the Torpedo Eight detachment from Midway under the command of LT Fieberling lost 5 of their 6 aircraft while pressing their attacks.  Only Ensign Bert Earnest and his aircraft survived the battle landing in a badly damaged state on Midway.  Four U.S. Army B-26 Marauder Medium Bombers were pressed into service as torpedo bombers of which 2 were lost.  No torpedo bomber scored a hit on the Japanese Task force even those torpedoes launched at close range failed to score and it is believe that this was in large part due to the poor performance of the Mark 13 aircraft torpedoes.

Despite the enormous losses of the torpedo squadrons their sacrifice was not in vain. Their attacks served to confuse the Japanese command and delay the rearmament of aircraft following the Japanese strikes on Midway. They also took the Japanese Combat Air Patrol down to sea level and opened the way for American Dive Bombers to strike the Japanese with impunity fatally damaging the Akagi, Kaga and Soryu in the space of 5 minutes.

After Midway the remaining TBDs were withdrawn from active service and no example survives today. The TBF became the most effective torpedo bomber of the war.

As we remember the brave men that fought at Midway it is imperative that we remember the brave aircrews of the torpedo squadrons that like the Light Brigade rode into the Valley of the Shadow of Death against the First Carrier Strike Force and Midway.


Padre Steve+


Filed under aircraft, History, Military, world war two in the pacific

8 responses to “Into the Valley of the Shadow of Death: The Death of the Torpedo Bombers at Midway

  1. John Erickson

    The poor Devastators were really quite good aircraft, though never meant to go in unescorted. And a torpedo run is horrific – holding the airplane on course, at a fixed speed and altitude, waiting for the correct range before dropping the torpedo. That these men would fly such a suicidal path, without fighter escort, with the ships’ AAA firing and the Japanese fighters swooping down from thousands of feet, and only one or two 30-calibre machine guns for defence, is nothing short of stunning. While their sacrifice did mean eventual victory, as you pointed out, I can’t imagine running such a terrifying gauntlet. What a feat!

    • padresteve

      The Devastators were the best in the world when they came out but when war came they were obsolete, too slow, lack of armor, light defensive armament and worn out. The crews were amazingly courageous.

  2. John Erickson

    Padre, do you know a Navy Chaplain named James C. Ragain? It sounds like he might have been at some of the same posts as you were. If so, they did a write-up about him on the DOD Daily News email. Here’s the link:
    If you know him, enjoy. If not, apologies for clogging up your blog.
    Either way, have a good weekend!

    • padresteve

      Can’t say that I know him but presume that eventually I will bump into him at Camp Swampy. He seems to be a rather new acquisition for the Chaplain Corps.

  3. max

    Film of the men of VT-8 was taken after the Battle of the Coral Sea. It apers often on youtube. I used to make this small tribute. I am working on a better and more in depth one that includes the B-26 crews.

  4. Peter Hill

    Good article, Steve.
    There’s a reason why no example of the TBD survives today, back in the US, many of the survivors were deliberately set on fire for training exercises for navy fire-fighting crews.
    Of the 82 TBD crewmen who took part in the fighting on June 4th, only 15 were still alive to see the sun go down and that included ensign Wesley Osmus of Torpedo 3 who was now a prisoner on board a Japanese destroyer and who was executed the following day and the two-man crew of a Torpedo 6 TBD which ditched in the ocean who were now floating in a life raft and would remain so for 17 days before they were rescued.
    The TBD losses were thus:-
    Total strength: 44
    Lost in landing accident (May 28th): 1
    Shot down: 34
    Damaged & ditched in the sea: 3
    Damaged and jettisoned: 1
    Jettisoned during salvage operation on USS Yorktown (June 6th): 1
    Total remaining: 4
    Aircrew killed: 66, captured & executed: 1, died of wounds: 1
    Ensign George Gay, the sole survivor of Torpedo 8 (USS Hornet) was to see action again during the Solomons Campaign later that year but was also used by the publicity department to help drum up support for the war effort back home. He died in 1995 and, as per his wishes, his ashes were scattered over the area of the Pacific where his Torpedo 8 comrades had perished 53 years earlier. Another survivor, Machinist Harry Corl was one of only two pilots to survive from Torpedo 3 (USS Yorktown). He was transferred to the USS Enterprise and flew the new TBF. He was shot down and killed whilst on a recon mission during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons in August 1942.

  5. padresteve

    Reblogged this on Padresteve's World…Musings of a Passionate Moderate and commented:

    Thoughts on the sacrifice of Torpedo Squadrons 3, 6 and 8 during the battle of Midway. With obsolete aircraft, pitiful torpedoes the American fliers threw themselves into a hopeless fight, similar to that of the British Light Brigade at Balaclava. In the end only on in six aircraft survived the day, but they helped pave the way to victory by drawing the fury of the Japanese Combat Air Patrol down on them allowing the Dive Bombers of the Enterprise and Yorktown to destroy the Japanese Carriers. Peace, Padre Steve+

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