During the spring of 1942, the Japanese war machine was bulldozing its way through the South Pacific at breakneck speed.
The disastrous attack on Pearl Harbor combined with the surrender of Guam and the Philippines had fueled the Japanese with a momentum that made them seem invincible. Outmanned and outgunned, it looked as if the American forces were no match for the Japanese juggernaut. The Japanese were looking for a decisive battle to finish off the remnants of the U.S. fleet that hadn't been destroyed during the attack on Pearl Harbor. And they figured they would do it in a surprise attack on U.S. forces on Midway, a strategic atoll with an airstrip approximately 1,000 miles northwest of Hawaii.
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A successful American intelligence operation uncovered their plans and the U.S. Pacific Fleet surprised the Japanese forces in early June of 1942, sinking four Japanese carriers while losing only one of their own. Japan's defeat at Midway turned turn the tide of the war in the Pacific and put America squarely on the offensive.
But the victory came at a high price, particularly for the men of Torpedo Squadron 8.
Launched off the USS Hornet on the morning of June 4, 1942, the young men of Squadron 8 were piloting the first bombers to go up against the rather formidable Japanese Navy at Midway. The results were disastrous.
"We had no previous combat flying," remembered George Gay, who was then a 25 year-old Navy pilot. "We'd never been against the enemy." Japanese Zeros swarmed them like flies. "They turned out against us in full strength and I figured there were about 35 of them. Our only protection would be to stick together and let each plane's gun try and help the other plane."
The plan didn't work. Engaging the enemy without any fighter support, they were annihilated by the Japanese. The squadron's older and slower Douglas Devastators were no match for the Japanese Zeros. All but one of the 29 men from Torpedo Squadron 8 were killed in action.
Ensign George Gay was the only survivor.
Despite his squadron being wiped out, Gay managed to drop a torpedo onto the deck of a Japanese carrier with devastating results: "I dropped the torpedo and was fortunate enough to get away from the anti-aircraft fire although everyone was shooting at me."
As he flew alongside the ship, Gay could see Japanese Zeros being refueled on the deck: "I had a thought right in a split second there to crash into those planes. That I don't think is any suicidal instinct at all. I would have crashed right into those planes, because I could have started a beautiful fire and I figured that's the way the Japs do it when they crash into a ship."
But Gay decided to stay in the fight: "The plane was still flying and I felt pretty good and I didn't see any sense in crashing into those planes. I thought maybe I'd get a chance to go back and hit them again someday."
Five Zeros breathing down his neck had their own agenda. "The five Zeros dived right down on me in a line," recalled Gay. "And about the second or third one shot my rudder control and ailerons out and I pancaked into the ocean."
Wearing a lifejacket and hiding beneath his seat cushion for 30 hours before being rescued, the wounded Gay got a unique vantage point for the remainder of the battle as dive bombers sunk three of the four Japanese carriers at Midway. Although Torpedo Squadron 8 was obliterated during the battle, Gay said it wasn't in vain: "I think one thing Torpedo 8 should be credited for, they sucked those fighters down so that when the dive bombers did get there… there wasn't nearly as many [Zeros] as there would have been if they hadn't come down to get us."
"Personally, I was just lucky," recalled Gay. "I've never understood why I was the only one that came back, but it turned out that way, and I want to be sure that the men that didn't come back get the credit for the work that they did."
Awarded the Navy Cross and the Presidential Unit Citation for his actions in the battle, George Gay died at the age of 77 in Marietta, GA on October 21, 1994.
— Steven Tierney is a producer for "War Stories"