People Who Changed History: Lt. Commander John Waldron & Torpedo Squadron 8

The Battle of Midway on June 4, 1942, marks one of those moments in history where small (in the scope of things) acts and decisions literally turned the course of history on its ear. In fact, the Battle of Midway is chock full of decisions and acts by a few among those of the thousands involved that shaped not only the outcome of the battle but that of World War II and life as we know it today. Would the United States exist today with a different outcome? Probably, but things might be very different. The story of Lt. Commander John Waldron and Torpedo Squadron 8 is one such extraordinary tale.

“If worst comes to worst, I want each one of us to do his utmost to destroy our enemies. If there is only plane left to make a final run in, I want that man to go in and get a hit. May God be with us all. Good luck, happy landings, and give ’em hell!”

Lt. Commander John Waldron, USN

The Battle of Midway: Do or die time.

Six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States Navy was still reeling from the aftermath as a large part of the Pacific Fleet was damaged or sunk. Of the eight battleships present, all were damaged, and four were sunk. Other Navy ships were damaged or sunk, nearly 200 aircraft were destroyed, and over 2,400 military personnel were killed. Pearl Harbor put a serious dent in the United States’ ability to wage war across millions of square miles of the Pacific theater.

Trap vs. counter-trap…

Admiral Yamamoto of the Japanese Navy knew he had to execute a follow-up attack after Pearl Harbor, but with the influx of people, ships and planes, a second attack at a later date was deemed too risky. Instead, he correctly calculated the US would vigorously defend a tiny Island, Midway, located nearly 1,500 miles from Hawaii because it was considered a vital outpost. By attacking there, Yamamoto hoped to draw US forces away from heavily protected Hawaii, where he could crush the US Fleet.

Snap! I broke your code!

Meanwhile, dedicated codebreakers in Honolulu, led by one Commander Joseph Rochefort, had figured out how to decode secure Japanese messages, or at least enough of them to understand future operational plans. The team knew something was in the works regarding a US installation the Japanese referred to as “AF.” In an elaborate ruse, the US Navy fabricated a story about a broken water purification system on Midway and transmitted a message to Pearl Harbor saying they had water troubles. The code breakers soon intercepted a Japanese communication saying, “AF was short on water.”

Target confirmed. The US Navy now had the opportunity to set a countertrap in the vicinity of Midway Island.

The Battle of Midway

Many know of the Battle of Midway on June 4, 1942. Some might also know that it marked the turning point of the war in the Pacific. On that day, three squadrons of SBD scout bombers from the aircraft carriers Enterprise and Yorktown dove on the Japanese fleet and put the Japanese Kaga, Akagi, and Soryu carriers permanently out of action. Later that day, American carrier-based planes sank a fourth carrier – the Hiryu.

What is not so well known are the amazing circumstances that led to the United States Navy turning the tide of the war by permanently ending Japan’s near-total dominance of the Pacific.

John Waldron’s Torpedo Squadron 8

During the early stages of the battle, Lt. Commander John Waldron led Torpedo Squadron 8 straight into the jaws of the Japanese fleet, completely unescorted by fighter cover. This was a big deal. The torpedo bombers were big, slow, lumbering aircraft with virtually no chance of protecting themselves against the nimble and advanced Japanese Zero fighter aircraft. Normally, torpedo bombers would be escorted by fighters and other attacking high-altitude bombers so they wouldn’t have to go against enemy fighters alone. Waldron and his men didn’t wait for help—they commenced the attack regardless.

Japanese Zero fighter aircraft, providing protection for the fleet high above, found the temptation of attacking the defenseless American torpedo planes irresistible and quickly descended from high altitude to sea level to stop the torpedo attack.

Lt. Commander Waldron’s entire squadron was destroyed by the fast and maneuverable Zero’s. Every single plane was shot down. Worse yet, not one managed to get close enough to the Japanese fleet to score a single hit.

A Tragic, But Battle-Altering Sacrifice

But what appeared to be a complete and total sacrifice without result by Lt. Commander John Waldron and those brave American pilots would arguably change the outcome of the war. As the Zero fighters, now at sea level, finished off Torpedo Squadron 8, the three squadrons of SBD scout bombers arrived high above and commenced their attack, completely unopposed by the now out-of-range Zero fighters. Within minutes, three Japanese aircraft carriers were burning out of control, and the tide of the war had changed forever.

What initially appeared to be a senseless waste of the men and machines of Torpedo Squadron 8 proved to be the factor that helped the dive bomber attack succeed, leading to the near destruction of Japanese naval air power. After that, the Japanese were never able to adequately resupply the lost ships and crews, allowing the Americans to ultimately prevail.

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