Memorial Day Thoughts
Today we memorialize the men and women who have given their lives in military service to America, each in our own way. I find myself thinking of the brave men of Torpedo Squadron 8 of World War Two’s Battle of Midway.
On this day in 1942, Japanese Admiral Nagumo launched his 1st Carrier Fleet toward Midway Island, a lone American outpost in the Pacific. His task force contained the carriers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu with two battleships, cruisers and destroyers as escort. His goal was to attack the island, draw what was left of the American naval fleet in the Pacific into action and destroy it.
Things didn’t work out that way
The Americans sank four fleet carriers–the entire strength of the task force–Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu, with 322 aircraft and over five thousand sailors. The Japanese also lost the heavy cruiser Mikuma. American losses included 147 aircraft and more than three hundred seamen.
Among the Americans lost were men of Torpedo Squadron 8. On the morning of June 4, 1942, the relatively young pilots of VT 8 boarded their aircraft with the daunting task of being one of the first squadrons to launch against the imposing Japanese force. When they left the flight deck of USS Hornet (CV-8), these brave pilots and crew were heading straight into one of military history’s all too frequent suicide missions.
As they closed in on the enemy carriers, they came under intense fire from Japanese fighter aircraft. The older, slower American aircraft weren't able to get away from the faster, more agile, Japanese planes. Heroically, they remain on course in the face of certain destruction. Before they were able to make a hit on the enemy fleet, 29 of them would be killed in action. Only one would return to the American battle group— Ensign George Gay.
Those lost include men from places like Fort Pierre, South Dakota, Medford, Oregon, Batavia, New York, and Hot Springs, Arkansas, a representative set of American youth plucked in its prime. Herman Wouk summed up their sacrifice before listing their names in his War and Remembrance:
"So long as men choose to decide the turns of history with the slaughter of youths--- and even in a better day, when this form of human sacrifice has been abolished like the ancient superstitious, but no more horrible form--- the memory of these three American torpedo plane squadrons should not die. The old sagas would halt the tale to list the names and birthplaces of the men who fought so well. Let this romance follow the tradition. These were the young men of the three squadrons, their names recovered from an already fading record."
“Many years have passed,
But still I wonder why,
The worst of men must fight
And the best of men must die.”
- Woody Guthrie: The Good Reuben James