A heart attack took the life of George H. Gay Jr. at a Marietta hospital on October 21, 1994. A resident of Kennesaw, Gay was a well-known hero of WWII. Now, as history books are rewritten and military icons are shunned by reformists, let us hope that Gay’s story will remain an embodiment of the courage and sacrifice of a generation that saved a world from totalitarianism.
Former Presidential Press Secretary Jay Carney stated during one press conference, “Let’s be clear about this, Benghazi happened a long time ago.” Okay, but let’s be clear about this: So did Valley Forge, Shiloh, San Juan Hill, Belleau Wood, Normandy, Heartbreak Ridge, Khe Sanh, Desert Storm, the Twin Towers, Iraq and soon-to-be Afghanistan. And ‘a long time ago,’ before Mr. Carney was even born, men died so one day he would have the freedom to attend Yale University. Yet, even with a B.A. Degree in Russian and Eastern European History, by June 2013, Jay Carney had dodged approximately 9,500 questions and said the equivalent of “I don’t know,” over 1,900 times.
And let’s be clear about this: The Greatest Generation didn’t ‘dodge’ their awesome responsibilities fighting a world war, nor did they utter words like “I don’t know” if asked about their allegiance to the United States of America. Ensign George H. Gay Jr. came from that mold of patriots.
Commissioned in September of ’41, Gay joined the airmen of Torpedo Squadron 8 aboard the USS Hornet. The men of Torpedo Squadron 8, along with the Hornet’s crew, watched Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle launch heavyweight B-25 bombers from the Hornet’s deck in April of ‘42 for the famous Doolittle Raid on Tokyo.
A short two months later, on June 4, the USS Hornet was part of Task Force 16, which included the carriers USS Enterprise and USS Yorktown. These carriers were the only American carriers remaining in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor and most of the American pilots had never flown in combat. Yet these brave young aviators would challenge the superior Japanese fleet heading for the American-held island of Midway. Odds heavily favored the Japanese.
Fifteen outdated and slow TBD Douglas “Devastator” Torpedo Bombers with a crew of two (pilot and tail gunner) took off from the USS Hornet to search for the enemy fleet. The Enterprise and Yorktown launched 27 more torpedo bombers bringing the total to 42. Only six would make it back to the American carriers.
Ensign George Gay and his gunner, ARM3c George Field, followed their leader, Lt. Commander John Waldron. Waldron, an authority on enemy tactics, was rumored to have a ‘sixth sense’ when locating the enemy. He proved the rumor correct. Waldron led Torpedo Squadron 8 straight to the enemy aircraft carriers, and straight into the protective cover of 32 fast and highly maneuverable Japanese Zero fighters. The Zero pilots were combat veterans. The Devastators, slow and clumsy, were sitting ducks.
(All quotes by George Gay are the excerpts from a WWII interview with the Operational Archives Branch, Naval Historical Center).
Gay: “I don’t think any of our planes were damaged, even touched by anti-aircraft fire, the fighters, the Zeroes, shot down every one of them, and by the time we got in to where the anti-aircraft fire began to get hot, the fighters left us and I was the only one close enough to get any real hot anti-aircraft fire. I don’t think it even touched me and I went right through it, right over the ship.”
During his torpedo run on the Japanese carrier Kaga, Gay took a hit in his left arm and a fire burned his leg. His wounded gunner was dying. When Gay pulled the release mechanism, it was the first torpedo he’d ever carried and, of course, the first torpedo he’d ever dropped. The Kaga evaded Gay’s torpedo. No American torpedoes scored a hit and all 15 Devastators of Torpedo Squadron 8 were shot down. For a few precious moments the Imperial Japanese Navy thought they had won the war.
Of releasing his torpedo and avoiding anti-aircraft fire, Gay said: “…..I flew right straight to her (the Kaga) and offered as small as a target as I could. So I flew right down the gun barrels, pulled up on the port side, did a flipper turn right by the carrier island…..I could see the little Jap captain up there jumping up and down raising hell, and I thought about wishing I had a .45 pistol so that I could take a pot shot at him. Maybe I couldn’t hit him, but, if nothing else, thrown the gun at him, but I then dropped right back down on the deck and flew aft looking at all these airplanes.”
The Japanese commander, Nagumo, now aware an American fleet was in the area, postponed the second strike on Midway Island and ordered the deck crew to change ordnance from fragmentation bombs to armor piercing bombs. Seeing bombs stacked all over the flight deck and fuel lines actively refueling Japanese airplanes, Gay briefly contemplated a suicide dive.
Gay: “It’s when a fellow is just gone and he knows it, it is just crash into the ship or crash into the sea, and you have enough control to do a bit more damage, then you crash into the ship.”
With his torpedo bomber still in good enough shape to head for home, Gay dismissed a suicide dive. Instead, he flew the length of the Kaga’s deck and out to sea. He was immediately ambushed by five Zero fighters. With his rudder control and ailerons shot to pieces, Gay splashed into the Pacific.
Gay: “That’s when I got scared. I was afraid I was going to drown in the plane. I got out of there and thought about my rear gunner, made a dive to try and pick him up, but I couldn’t get to him. The first thing I saw after I came to the surface was one of those Japanese carriers headed right straight for me and she was landing planes.”
As 25-year-old Ensign George Gay hid under his seat cushion, an enemy carrier passed about 500 yards west of his position and an escorting Jap cruiser passed within 500 yards east of his position. During the heat of the battle, other Japanese ships passed Gay but they never spotted the lone airman.
The sacrifices of the torpedo bombers created an opportunity for the arriving American dive bombers. The Japanese Zeroes were too low to regain enough altitude to intercept the Americans and the anti-aircraft gunners were concentrating on the American torpedo bombers. Down they came, releasing their bombs onto three Japanese carriers with bombs stacked on their decks and fully fueled airplanes ready for takeoff.
Within six minutes the pride of the Japanese fleet, the carriers Akagi, Soryu and Kaga were sinking burning hulks. The fourth carrier, Hiryu, would be sent to the bottom the next day.
Gay: “I was right smack in the middle of it. But boy, I’ll tell you, those explosions and all the steel and shrapnel and their anti-aircraft fire and everybody shooting at everything, there were a lot of places I’d rather been. So, I sat in the middle of the largest, and certainly the most decisive naval battle in history, I’m right smack in the middle of it, all day and all night.”
George Gay witnessed the destruction of three Japanese carriers and spent 30 hours in the water, and out of 30 men in Torpedo Squadron 8, Gay was the only survivor. A Navy PBY flying boat eventually rescued Gay.
Hospitalized at Pearl Harbor, doctors discovered that Gay had lost 30 pounds during his ordeal. He was visited by the commander of the American Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz. Nimitz was the first to hear Gay’s story. Nimitz sent Gay home to recuperate and to utilize his story to gain support of the war effort.
Within four months, Gay was back in action. Still assigned to a Torpedo Squadron, Gay participated in the struggle for Guadalcanal, skipped-bombed enemy vessels, dropped mines in enemy harbors from 800 feet altitude and later became a Navy flight instructor.
After the war, Gay spent 30 years as a pilot for Trans-World Airlines, lectured on his experiences, authored the book ‘Sole Survivor’ and worked as a consultant on the set for the movie ‘Midway.”
Gay: “I don’t know why that day happened like it did. I didn’t do anything more than anyone else except survive.”
After his death and subsequent cremation, George Gay’s ashes were spread over a battlefield in the Pacific Ocean called Midway. All the flyboys of Torpedo Squadron 8 were together again.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.