January 03, 2009

A Dawn Like Thunder

Readers of The Pond know that I have a thing for the Pacific War, and even moreso for the Battle of Midway.  The study of that period is one of my avid hobbies, and is what lead me to my fondness of Japan in general and eventually anime in particular (though in a fairly roundabout way).  I know quite a bit about the strategies used by both sides in the conflict, and could talk tactics with confidence as well.

With a few exceptions however, the one thing I don't have much knowlege about is the people involved.  Oh, I don't mean the Halseys and Nagumos, but the Chucks and Morts and Joes and Mitsuos and Hidekis... what about them? 

While I was doing my Christmas shopping at a local bookstore, I stumbled on a new release that seemed to have been aimed directly at my bump of curiosity.  A Dawn Like Thunder: The True Story of Torpedo Squadron 8, by Robert J. Mrazek tells the stories of the men made famous by the Battle of Midway, the only squadron flying off the USS Hornet to make contact with the enemy on that day in June, 1942... and which was almost entirely wiped out as it made its run on the Japanese carriers.  All the squadron's Devastators torpedo bombers were shot down, and only one man, George Gay, survived. 

But that wasn't the whole squadron.  Historians of the battle will remember that the first six Avengers in US Navy service were flying from Midway's single runway after a hurried deployment from Pearl Harbor just before the battle.  They, too, were part of Torpedo 8, a detachment left behind when the Hornet sailed.  Further, another group of VT-8 pilots and crewmen, including the squadron XO, remained behind at Pearl waiting for the rest of the Avengers to arrive. 

Later, VT-8 wound up flying from the USS Saratoga until it was torpedoed.  Many of her squadrons wound up at Espiritu Santo, and some of them wound up going to Guadalcanal as part of the Cactus Air Force.  VT-8 was one of those.  The second half of the book covers that period of time, and the many, many trials the squadron suffered through.  Indeed, VT-8 suffered the highest casualties amongst naval squadrons at both Midway and Guadalcanal.  At Midway, 45 of 48 officers and men serving in Torpedo 8 were killed.  At Guadalcanal, seven of the remaining members were killed and another eight wounded.

It also wound up one of the most decorated squadrons in Navy history, if not the most decorated in US service, period.  It was the only squadron to receive two Presidental Unit Citations from FDR.  Its 35 pilots earned 39 Navy Crosses before it was decommissioned after Guadalcanal.

A Dawn Like Thunder is written almost entirely from interviews conducted with the few members of VT-8 still living, and from letters and memoirs by those who've passed away.  We meet men like Swede Larson, the squadron XO who took command of the squadron after Midway.  We learn that as a leader, he was a martinet who wasn't afraid to belittle his men, issued promotions not on how they performed but if he liked them or not.  Twice, men under his command were pushed so far that they pulled their sidearms on him.  He was also a courageous pilot (though one who refused to admit mistakes).  We meet Bert Earnest, the pilot of the single Avenger to make it back to Midway, though so shot full of holes that it never flew again.  He then went on to survive Guadalcanal, and WWII as a whole.  We meet Chief Petty Officer James Hammond, who won a Silver Star at Guadalcanal in large part because he built three 'Frankenstein Avengers', piecing scraps of many planes together to make one (barely flyable) bomber.  This at a time when the Cactus Air Force was down to a bare handful of planes.  The lineup of pilots and crew goes on, but you never feel like anybody is getting short shrift. The wives and girlfriends of some of the men even get their nods.

Robert Mrazek has done a fine job of tying all his research together and turning it into a coherent and readable story.  The small number of inaccuracies (Midway was described as having two airfields in 1942, when there was only one, for example) are easily overlooked, and don't detract from the superb job he's done telling the human story of Torpedo 8.  Highly recommended!

Mrazek and many of the men he wrote about are members of the Battle of Midway Roundtable, an organization that's been in existence since 1997.   I'm proud to be a member myself.  It's free to join, and if you're interested in the Battle of Midway or the Pacific War, you owe it to yourself to become a member.

Posted by: Wonderduck at 10:50 PM | Comments (3) | Add Comment
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1 There are breaks, good and bad luck, in every battle and every war. But the way so many critical things broke in favor of the Americans in the Battle of Midway has led me to consider the possibility of meddling by time travelers. In particular, the fact that the only Japanese scout plane to be launched late was the one that found Yorktown, but there are others as well.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at January 04, 2009 02:13 PM (+rSRq)

2 ...the fact that the only Japanese scout plane to be launched late was the one that found Yorktown...

Wait, it gets better.  If the Tone's scout plane had launched on time, it wouldn't've found the Yorktown's group until it was on the way back to base.  Upshot?  Probably wouldn't've lost the Yorktown, as the Japanese second strike would have been launched against Midway.

Wait, it gets even better than that: the Tone's scout plane cut his outbound leg short.  Nobody knows why... but we DO know it wasn't because he saw the Yorktown group, considering where he made the turn and where the Yorktown was at that time.  So if the scout plane hadn't've made the turn when he did, it would'nt've found the Yorktown until much later, and perhaps never.  Upshot?  Yorktown probably lives. 

Luck cuts both ways.

Posted by: Wonderduck at January 04, 2009 03:14 PM (sh9fy)

3

You're right that luck cuts both ways, and it's a truism that in the end the side that makes the fewest big mistakes nearly always wins. Nimitz rightly deserves major credit for the victory because he was able to leverage his advantages and his luck, and minimize the Japanese advantages and luck, and was a savvy enough poker player to be willing to go "all in" when he thought he had a chance of a major victory.

But it didn't have to result in a major victory for the Americans. There were a hell of a lot of ways it could have gone very, very badly. (As, of course, you know full well.)

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at January 04, 2009 04:24 PM (+rSRq)

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