Thursday, February 08, 2007

Torpedo Suadron 8: Part Six

This is number 6 of 8 parts.


After they rendezvoused in the sky, the Skipper took the lead and the 15 planes of Torpedo 8 fell into the prearranged formation in which the Skipper had chosen to take them on their first adventure. Flying in six sections of two and a seventh section of three, with Gay bringing up the rear, the Skipper led them on a course south of west at 300 ft.

After an uneventful hour, the Skipper’s voice broke the radio silence: “There’s a fighter on our tail.” What he saw proved to be a cruiser plane flying at about 1,000 ft. It flew by without paying any apparent attention, but the Skipper and boys knew it had probably radioed an alarm back to the Jap fleet and that they would doubtless be met by a reception committee of fighters.

They kept to their course and the flight continued uneventful until the motor of the plane Plywood Teats was flying, in the last section, began to spurt oil. When the windshield was obscured, Plywood reached outside with a rag to wipe it off. As he did so, he transferred the stick to his left hand. Unwittingly, his thumb pressed the trigger button on the stick and sent eight or ten rounds whizzing past Abercrombie’s plane. Quick to understand what had happened, Abbie mopped his brow in mock panic and then grinned broadly at Plywood, who appeared to be roaring with laughter.

Almost another hour had passed since they had seen the Jap plane when two columns of smoke were sighted beyond the horizon. The Skipper dropped down low and the boys followed. Now they roared forward at torpedo-attack level, barely skimming the waves. When they burst over the horizon, it looked as if the entire Jap fleet was before them. They identified the carrier Soryu and a cruiser as the burning vessels set afire the day before, and counted in all three carriers about six cruisers and ten destroyers. The ships were moving away from Midway, as the Skipper had guessed, and the carriers were loaded with planes which apparently were being refueled and rearmed. The Skipper immediately broke radio silence to send his contact report back to the U.S. carrier, giving position and strength.

Then the action the Skipper and the boys had been waiting for began. Anti-aircraft fire went up from the ships and the surface guns began hurling explosive shells. Some 30 Zero fighters that had been circling high above the fleet, awaiting their arrival, began to dive. But the Skipper paid no attention to them. He wiggled his wings, as a signal for the boys to follow, and opened up the throttle.

As the Zeros swooped down on them, the Squadron’s rear gunners opened up, making a terrific racket of machine-gun fire, punctuated by the louder, less rapid explosions of the cannon on the Zeros. By the time they were within eight miles of the Jap fleet they were caught in a barrage of fire from the ships.

When the first plane plunged into the water the Skipper, apparently forgetting to press his intercockpit communication button, was heard asking his radioman, Dobbs, in the rear seat: “Was that a Zero?” If Dobbs answered his voice was not heard, but in any case it was not a Zero. It was the first plane of Squadron 8 to go down.

When the second went down, Radioman Bob Huntington spoke from the back of Gay’s plane. “Let’s go back and help him, sir,” he said. “To hell with that,” Gay blurted, “we’ve got a job to do.” Then the Skipper got it. His left gas tank hit, his plane literally burst into flame. Tex Gay could see him stand up and try to get out but it claimed him and Radioman Dobbs. Dobbs, a veteran enlisted man, had been ordered back to San Diego to become a radio instructor for the duration, after this engagement.

The barrage from the Japships grew deadlier. Surface shells, aimed to hit the ocean just ahead of them, were throwing up spouts of water which licked the bellies of the planes. Anti-aircraft filled the air with acrid black smoke. One by one, the planes of Torpedo 8 went down. Flying so close to the water, they might as well have been crashing into a stone wall when they hit it. Tex Gay’s mind flashed back to his childhood for a comparison with what was going on around him. There was a far-off day when he had tossed orange peelings in the water from a speedboat. It reminded him of that. The planes hit the water and they were gone, as though they were moving in the opposite direction.

Life August 31, 1942

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