Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Torpedo Eight's other 'Sole Survivor'

The Battle of Midway began on June 4th, 1942 and ended three days later, on the 7th. The overall story of that battle won't be told in this installment of 'TWW', as it can be read elsewhere... in multiple places... and in much more detail than we're prepared to provide just now.

Instead, we'd like to focus on a sole survivor of Torpedo Squadron Eight.

No, not that sole survivor...

Well-known is the story of Ensign George Gay, pilot of one of the fifteen TBD Devastators of VT-8 to launch from the USS Hornet on June 4th, 1942 for an attack against Japanese aircraft carriers near Midway Island. All fifteen TBDs were shot down, and Ensign Gay was the only survivor of the thirty VT-8 aircrew who launched from Hornet that day. This man's story has been oft told over the decades, and your blogmeister considers himself fortunate to have heard it from the man himself.

But it is not Ensign George Gay's story that will be told here.

At the time of the Battle of Midway, Torpedo Squadron Eight was in the process of trading in its old Douglas TBD Devastators for brand-spankin'-new Grumman TBF Avengers. The outfit had deployed aboard Hornet with the older TBDs and left a detachment Stateside to work up with the TBFs. This detachment flew across the USA and on to Hawaii, where orders were received to send six TBFs on to Midway Island to reinforce the USMC defenders stationed there.

Among these six Avengers was TBF-1 BuNo. 00380... the first Avenger delivered to VT-8 and the subject of today's installment of 'TWW'.

Here's a view of the TBF in question, coded '8-T-1', at NAS Norfolk earlier in 1942...

US Navy photo

Along with her five sisters, '8-T-1' arrived at Midway on June 1st, 1942 after a 7.5 hour flight from Hawaii, guided by two PBY Catalinas. The VT-8 aircrew were welcomed to the island with the news that a Japanese attack was imminent. Three days later Japanese ships were spotted about 150 miles West of Midway, and the six VT-8 Avengers were among the attacking force launched from the island early that morning at roughly 6AM.

The crew for '8-T-1' that day were:

Pilot - Ensign Albert 'Bert' K. Earnest
Turret Gunner - Seaman 1/C Jay D. Manning
Radioman - RMN 3/C Harry H. Ferrier

The Avengers were in the air for about an hour, almost reaching the Japanese fleet, before being intercepted by Japanese fighters... Zeroes... and all of the TBFs but '8-T-1' were eventually shot down. Things weren't all that rosey with the sole survivor, either... Manning, the turret gunner, had been killed shortly after calling out the attacking Zeroes and briefly returning fire. Ferrier, the radioman and belly gunner, had been wounded and rendered unconscious for a time. Earnest, the pilot, was also wounded and grappling with a badly shot-up airplane. He'd lost elevator control, though still had ailerons and rudder. Thinking there was no way he could reach the still-distant Japanese carriers, he spotted a light cruiser off to port. He managed to line up on the cruiser using rudder and ailerons and drop his torpedo. It was at this point, upon almost crashing into the water, that Earnest discovered that he could use the elevator trim tabs to climb and descend. So he maneuvered around the Japanese fleet and headed back to Midway, surviving yet more attacks by Japanese fighters.

As '8-T-1's compass and radio were both out of commission, Earnest used dead reckoning to return to Midway. He had climbed above the clouds to about 4000 feet and spotted a column of black smoke on the horizon. Rightly assuming that the smoke came from Midway, he descended again and then spotted Kure Island, pegging the plane's position at roughly fifty miles due West of Midway.

Upon arrival at Midway he found that there was no hydraulic pressure and that the landing gear would not come down. He tried the emergency release system, but only the left wheel extended. Trying unsuccessfully to shake the right wheel down, he finally decided to land with just the one wheel. After two aborted landing attempts, he set '8-T-1' down... spinning around and coming to rest at the side of the runway.

US Navy photo

Here's some photos taken a few weeks after the fact, showing '8-T-1' being prepared for shipment back to the USA for post-battle evaluation.

We're not sure if she ever flew again.

US Navy photo

US Navy photo

US Navy photo

Earnest and Ferrier recovered from their wounds and continued to fly together. As a result of their participation in the fighting on June 4th, 1942, they were each awarded the Purple Heart as well as two Navy Crosses for Earnest and a Distinguished Flying Cross for Ferrier.

Here's a photo showing the pair with their second turret gunner at Henderson Field, Guadalcanal in September of 1942.

Left to right: ACOM Basil Rich, Ensign Albert 'Bert' K. Earnest, RMN 3/C Harry H. Ferrier.

And that is our brief account of the story of '8-T-1'... the 'other sole survivor' of Torpedo Eight.

You can read more detailed accounts of this mission by Albert Earnest HERE and by Harry Ferrier, as well as another by Earnest, HERE.

Fade to Black...

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