An edited version of the John Ford tribute to the men of Torpedo Squadron 8,
30 29 of whom died in the first strike against the Japanese assault forces gathering around Midway island, 4 June 1942.
I can’t imagine what it felt like to be in that formation, watching your wingmen and squadron mates go down in flames one by one, cartwheeling into the sea. Seeing the nimble Zeros move from one to the next until – knowing that any other choice only delays the inevitable – they finally saddle at your six as you Stay. On. Target. What it felt like to hear their rounds strike home. To see the ocean loom up in the windscreen, the joyous dance of the sun sparkling on the wave tops, through the oil smoke and the pain.
I’ve often wondered what it felt like to be Ensign George Gay, fished out of the water at last and returned to the Hornet. Walking into that ready room; now an empty mausoleum. Personal things in suspense everywhere – a flight jacket draped over a chair. A necktie. A paperback novel left open to its place. Coffee cups hanging from their hooks. Letters from home that would never be read. Stern tactical guidance on the chalk board written in a dead man’s hand. The echoes of fled voices.
In every modern day air strike, training or tactical, the strike lead will brief “abort criteria” – the airborne fallout of a critical asset, or the presentation of an unanticipated type or number of threats which would tend to make the mission risk unacceptable. We always brief it, but it seems so often to be merely an intellectual exercise – we almost never abort a strike once it has “pushed.” Some of the bombers launched into Lebanon against anti-aircraft artillery in 1983 weren’t even loaded with ordnance. They went anyway. To help out, maybe. By drawing fire.
This “damn the torpedoes” thing is a cultural foible of ours. Torpedo Squadron 8′s example may be a part of the reason why.