Monday, May 30, 2005

"I want each of us to do his utmost to destroy our enemies ..."

In the early dark of a cloudy June morning, the officers and men of Squadron VT-8 received an attack plan. Attached to it was a letter from their leader, Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron.
Just a word to let you know that I feel we are ready. We have had a very short time to train and we have worked under the most severe difficulties. But we have truly done the best humanly possible. I actually believe that under these conditions we are the best in the world. My greatest hope is that we will encounter a favorable tactical situation, but if we don’t, and the worst comes to worst, I want each of us to do his utmost to destroy our enemies. If there is only one plane left to make a final run in, I want that man to go in and get a hit. May God be with all of us. Good luck, happy landings and GIVE ‘EM HELL.
“I want each of us to do his utmost to destroy our enemies.” Imagine that phrase resonating down the hyper-sensitive nerve bundle that our modern Conventional Wisdom uses for a spine. Imagine the spluttering editorials from The Los Angeles Times.

But that morning, The Los Angeles Times was hundreds of miles away, and lucky for them. For steaming in the general direction of The Los Angeles Times, and millions of other helpless and easily frightened people, were John C. Waldron’s enemies: The Combined Midway and Aleutian Invasion Force, the mightiest naval armada ever assembled, commanded by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. Like all Japanese warriors, Yamamoto was a poet. Not a great poet, but a straight-forward one:
I am still the sword
Of my Emperor
I will not be sheathed
Until I die.
If Yamamoto’s verse failed to impress people, the sprawling mega-task force he had amassed was more worthy of notice. Two hundred ships, including eight aircraft carriers (among them the Kaga, the largest aircraft carrier in the world), eleven battleships (among them Yamamoto’s flagship Yamato, the largest battleship in the world), twenty-two of Japan’s superb cruisers, sixty-five destroyers, twenty-one submarines, and more than seven hundred aircraft.

Yamamoto was currently bound for Midway Island, and had big plans after that. The men under his command were fanatically devoted to the utter destruction of the United States, and supremely confident that they could accomplish it. They had reason to be confident. In the Russo-Japanese War, Japan became the first non-European nation to defeat a major world power, a war that included a stunning naval victory against the Russian fleet at Tsushima. Now Japan was taking on the mightiest country on earth, and as of that June morning, Japan was winning.

The Los Angeles Times building (relocated after union terrorists blew it up in 1910) might have made a suitable location for Yamamoto’s West Coast headquarters. It was, after all, the largest newspaper building in the western United States (Yamamoto being accustomed to having the biggest stuff) and had nice murals that might have pleased him.

But it was the intention of men like John C. Waldron that The Los Angeles Times building should not be used to compose and print more of Yamamoto’s poetry. So it was that the USS Hornet turned into the wind at 7:00 AM, and the fifteen torpedo bombers of VT-8 took off, with LCDR Waldron in the lead.

“I want each of us to do his utmost to destroy our enemies.” These were no idle words coming from a man like John C. Waldron. He was no naïve rookie. Waldron, born in Fort Pierre, South Dakota, was proud of his Sioux Indian heritage, and he was proud of his achievements in the Navy, in which he had served his country since 1927. His aerial instincts and battle intuition, he liked to say, came from his Sioux blood.

His weapons, unfortunately, came from the imperfect arsenal of the United States Navy. The Sioux warrior with his horse and his .44 caliber Henry rifle was a very well-equipped individual. But VT-8 was equipped with the obsolete Douglas TBD-1 Devastator torpedo bomber. The 1200 pound Mark 13 torpedo that it carried was a scandal. Compared to the excellent Japanese torpedoes, the Mark 13 was feeble and had a very short reach. It had a tendency to flip over like a playful dolphin and go in the wrong direction, sometimes sinking the submarine that had just fired it. Dropping the damn thing from an aircraft did not improve its performance. Its proximity trigger, designed to be detonated by a ship’s magnetic field, was considered very high-tech. It would have worked great if a ship’s magnetic field surrounded the ship like a bubble, as was believed at the time. But a warship’s magnetic field is inconveniently shaped like an hourglass, extending above and below the vessel, so the Mark 13 sometimes scored a direct hit on a ship without exploding. Then the torpedo would just sink like a rock, which is the one thing the Mark 13 was good at.

The Douglas Devastator’s cruising speed, when loaded down with this comical torpedo, was a leisurely and suicidal 120 miles per hour, more or less. Probably less. Each aircraft in VT-8 had a single .30 caliber machine gun mounted in the rear - which was not even useful for a sense of false security - and a forward firing .50 caliber that was nothing but extra weight, as the Devastator could not maneuver to fire it effectively. Children of the Plains Indian tribes proved their courage by “counting coup” on grizzly bears with a stick. Waldron’s VT-8 was going out – slowly - to count coup on the Imperial Japanese Navy. They might as well have had sticks.

The Japanese had to be found first, of course, and Waldron was the only one from the Hornet to find them:
“Waldron led his torpedo men along the prescribed course just so far. Then, at exactly the right moment, with an amazing intuitive understanding of the enemy, he turned off and swung in a shallow arc west-northwest. ‘We went just as straight to the Jap Fleet as if he’d had a string tied to them,’ recalled Lieutenant George H. Gay.’” Gordon Prange, Miracle at Midway
The other squadrons had groped around before turning back, so Waldron would attack alone. By the time he attacked, VT-8 no longer had enough fuel to return to the Hornet. They lined up on the nearest carrier, eight miles distant, and dropped down to a few yards above the waves. Long before they got within the Mark 13 torpedo’s meager range, they were attacked by fifty Zeros.

The Mitsubishi Zero was an amazing thing. It was a purely Japanese thing: agile as a dancer, poetic and deadly. As they slashed down on Waldron’s men at 9:18 AM, they must have looked like fifty terrible swift swords. Evasion was impossible. The best the Devastator could do was a lazy fishtail, and Waldron’s pilots knew better than to do that. It only cuts your airspeed and makes you an even easier target. They concentrated on the impossible torpedo run instead.

Both of Waldron’s wingmen went down, and Waldron pressed on alone. Ensign George Gay, the sole survivor of VT-8, saw Waldron die. Before Waldron’s Devastator could crawl to the release point, one of Yamamoto’s samurai raked him head-on, bursting a fuel tank. Waldron opened his canopy and stood up. He was standing when his craft hit the Pacific and exploded.

When John C. Waldron gave his life, we were losing the war with Japan. One hour after he died, we won it. At about 10:20 AM, Wade McClusky’s Dauntless dive bombers found an almost empty sky over the Japanese fleet. The Zeros were down on the deck, where they had gone to kill Waldron and two successive Devastator attacks launched by the Enterprise and the Yorktown. With nothing in their way, the Dauntlesses dived and in six minutes they destroyed three Japanese fleet carriers, broke the back of Yamamoto’s armada, and turned the tide of the Pacific War. The sacrifice of Waldron and his fellow torpedo men, attempting the impossible, had made total victory possible.

Not senseless, not in vain.

The Los Angeles Times building was saved. They were probably grateful, for a day or two at least.

“I want each of us to do his utmost to destroy our enemies.” And he did. No idle words, coming from a man like John Charles Waldron: Sioux Brave, American, Naval Aviator, winner of the Navy Cross ... martyr and immortal hero.