Thursday, June 8, 2017

Remembering George Gay

June 7, in 1942, marked the end of the Battle of Midway, the turning point of the war in the Pacific in World War II, just six months after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. At Midway, the Japanese lost four of their fleet carriers (all of which had participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor.)

There are many good accounts of the battle; I enjoy Walter Lord's account as especially accessible, The Incredible Victory.

Among the many incidents and stories of immense bravery and tragedy, one always stands out for me. Torpedo Squadron 8 was the torpedo bomber squadron of the USS Hornet. They flew 15 pre-war and already obsolete Douglas TBD Devastators; slow, underpowered, with poor maneuverability and further hampered by unreliable torpedoes.

After some early encounters and skirmishes between the American and Japanese fleets, Torpedo Squadron 8 was one of the first on the scene at the time of the main engagement. Coming in low to launch their torpedoes at the four Japanese fleet carriers, they were set upon by the Japanese combat air patrol (CAP) of Mitsubishi Zeros.

All fifteen Devastators were shot down, taking with them their 30 crewmen.

The horrific sacrifice was not in vain. With the Japanese CAP engaged down at sea level with Torpedo Squadron 8, American dive bombers came in unmolested at 20,000 feet or so and were able, in short order, to plaster the Japanese carriers with bombs, three carriers being completely knocked out of commission within ten minutes, and all of them eventually sank.

29 of the 30 crewmen in Torpedo Squadron 8 died. George Gay was the sole survivor as relayed in the Wikipedia account.
During the Battle of Midway Gay was the first of his squadron to take off from Hornet on June 4, 1942. Gay's unit found the Japanese carrier fleet and launched an attack without any fighter plane support. Although he was wounded and his radioman/gunner, Robert K. Huntington, was dying, Gay completed his torpedo attack on the Japanese aircraft carrier Kaga, but the Kaga evaded his torpedo. Rather than banking away from the ship and presenting a larger target to its anti-aircraft gunners, Gay continued in toward the carrier at low altitude. He then brought his Devastator into a tight turn as he approached the carrier's island, and flew aft along the flight deck's length, thus evading anti-aircraft fire. He later stated he had a "split second" thought of crashing into the Japanese aircraft he saw being serviced on the flight deck.
It's when a fellow is just gone and knows it, it is just crash into the ship or crash into the sea, and you have enough control to do a little bit more damage, why you crash into the ship.

— George H. Gay
His plane still in relatively good condition, he decided to make for the Hornet after clearing the Japanese carrier. However, five A6M Zeros brought his aircraft down in a hail of machine gun and cannon fire, killing his rear gunner.

Exiting his aircraft, and floating in the ocean, he hid under his seat cushion to avoid Japanese strafing attacks and witnessed the subsequent dive bombing attacks and sinking of three of the four Japanese aircraft carriers present.

After dark, Gay felt it was safe to inflate his life raft. He was rescued by a Navy PBY after spending over 30 hours in the water. Gay was later flown to the USS Vincennes (arriving June 28, 1942), before being transferred home. Of the squadron's thirty pilots and radiomen, Gay was the only survivor. Gay met with Admiral Nimitz and confirmed the destruction of three Japanese carriers that he had witnessed – the Akagi, Kaga and Soryu. He was featured in the August 31, 1942 issue of Life magazine.

Following Midway, Gay took part in the Guadalcanal Campaign with Torpedo Squadron 11, and he later became a Navy flight instructor. He was awarded the Navy Cross, Purple Heart and Presidential Unit Citation for his actions in combat at Midway. He was also later awarded the Air Medal.
After the war, Gay flew with TWA as a pilot for 30 years.

The closing lines of the entry are a heartbreaking testimony to the comradeship of men-in-arms.
On October 21, 1994, Gay died of a heart attack at a hospital in Marietta, Georgia. His body was cremated and his ashes spread at the place that his squadron had launched its ill-fated attack.

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