Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote:
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.
They were not six hundred and they were not mounted on horses but the Naval Aviators of Torpedo Squadrons Three, Six and Eight 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.
When it entered service in 1937 the TBD was the most modern naval aircraft in the world when 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.
LCDR Lem Massey Commanding Officer of Torpedo 3
A total of 129 Devastators were built and served in all pre-war torpedo bombing squadrons based aboard the Lexington, Saratoga, Ranger, Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet, while 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. When war began only about 100 remained operational. By then the TBDs were for all purposes obsolete.They were too slow, had poor maneuverability, insufficient armor and defensive armament.
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 of Torpedo Two and Torpedo Five based on the Lexington and Yorktown performed adequately against minor opposition in strikes against the Marshall Islands, and contributed to the sinking of the Japanese Light Carrier Shoho at the Battle of Coral Sea..
However in the Battle of Midway the squadrons embarked on Yorktown, Torpedo Three which had previously been assigned to Saratoga which was undergoing repair, Torpedo Six of Enterprise, and Torpedo Eight of Hornet were annihilated with only 6 of 41 aircraft surviving their uncoordinated attacks against the Japanese Carrier Strike Force.
When the Japanese were discovered the American carriers launched a massive strike agains the Japanese carriers. Unfortunately the attacking squadrons became separated from each other and the torpedo bombers arrived before the dive bombers and without fighter escort. Over the course of an hour and ten minutes the three squadrons attacked independently of each other. Lacking coordination and with inadequate escort, the lumbering aircraft were easy prey for the modern Japanese A6M Zeroes.
The Zeroes of Japanese Combat Air Patrol ripped into the slow, cumbersome and under armed Devastators as they came in low and slow to launch their torpedoes. Torpedo Eight from Hornet under the command of LCDR John C Waldron pressed the attack hard but all 15 of aircraft 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. From his observation point hiding under floating wreckage Gay would see the dive bombers get revenge and would be rescued later by a PBY Catalina patrol plane.
LCDR John Waldron Commanding Officer of Torpedo Eight
Torpedo Six from the Enterprise under the command of LCDR Eugene Lindsey suffered heavy casualties too. It lost 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.