For want of a nail is a classic proverb in the military. The opposite is also true though. Sometimes what appears to be needless and futile sacrifice can turn out to have huge ramifications and win a battle, even though who sacrifice themselves will never know.
That is the story of Torpedo Squadron 8.
The Battle of Midway in 1942 is accepted as the turning point of the war in the Pacific. Over the course of two days of battle between the American and Japanese navy’s, conducted almost entirely by air, the Japanese suffered a resounding defeat losing four of its main carriers.
A prominent naval historian has called the battle the “most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.”
Credit must be given to the cryptographers who broke the Japanese code, but I always focus on one unit when I think of this battle: Torpedo Squadron 8.
Because the launch of American planes was uneven at a critical point in the battle, the American squadrons that did find and attack the Japanese aircraft carriers did so piecemeal rather than in a coordinated attack as per doctrine. Nevertheless, without fighter cover, the 15 planes in Torpedo Squadron VT-8 (along with VT-6 and VT-3) attacked. It was, essentially, a suicide run given the lack of fighter coverage.
The Japanese fighters protecting their fleet made short work of the unaccompanied American torpedo planes as they flew straight in at low level to launch their torpedoes, making them easy targets. Nevertheless, the Navy pilots did it. All 15 planes of VT-8 were shot down and only one man survived, Ensign Gay. VT-6 lost 10 of 14 planes and VT-3 lost 10 of 12 planes.
Ensign Gay (on the right in the picture) ended up in the water near the Japanese carriers. And got to see what real effect the sacrifice of his comrades had wrought. Because the Japanese fighters were now all at sea level, were scattered, and had expended most of their ammunition and fuel on the torpedo planes, there was no protection at altitude for the Japanese carriers. The Japanese were completely exposed.
While all three torpedo squadrons were destroyed, the three dive bomber squadrons arrived at the perfect time. VB-6, VS-6 and VB-3 attacked and sank three of the four Japanese carriers, effectively winning the battle.
We must also remember those on the Yorktown, the one carrier (on the left) the US lost at that battle.
Those who sacrificed themselves in what was, by itself, a vain and suicidal attack, will never know that their sacrifice led the way to ultimate victory in the Pacific.