The Avengers of Midway – The Forgotten Story of VT-8’s Other Gallant Attack (Updated)

VT-8's Brand New TBF Avengers

VT-8’s Brand New TBF Avengers

Just after dawn broke over the Central Pacific atoll known as Midway Island, six brand new Grumman TBF Avengers rolled down the runway, took flight and headed northwest to find four Japanese Aircraft Carriers that had already launched their own strike against the island. These six planes were a part of a larger attack group from the island, made up of Marine Vindicator Dive Bombers and USAAC B-26’s and B-17’s. It was a mix and match force, scraped together and with little training on how to attack ships at sea.

The TBF’s were also brand new. Lt. Langdon Fieberling had stayed behind with a half of VT-8 (Torpedo Bomber Squadron 8) assigned to USS Hornet (CV-8) when the ship left Norfolk for the Pacific Ocean. He and the other pilots took possession of the new bombers, and began to train with them as they crossed the Country and later the Pacific, to meet up with the ship at Pearl Harbor. By the time they got to Hawaii, Hornet had already left to face to Japanese Fleet at Midway.

At Pearl Harbor, leaders realized that there was room at Midway for six of the new bombers. They could be critical to the defense of the Island which was expecting the Japanese to land in force as early as June 4th. The six plane element, under the command of Lt. Fieberling was sent to Midway where it became a part of the Air Attack launched at 0600 on June 4th.

Most people who have any familiarity with the story of the Battle of Midway are well aware of the heroic sacrifice of the men of VT-8, launched from USS Hornet in their Douglas Devastator Bombers. Those planes had been obsolete when the war started, and that obsolescence all but guaranteed their deaths on this bright June day. One man, Ensign George Gay, survived the VT-8 attack. His story was memorialized in books about the battle and in the film “Midway.” The attack by the Hornet launched  planes was both hopeless and yet also the factor that changed history. The attack drew the Japanese Combat Air Patrol down to sea level to defeat the Torpedo attack. And while the Japanese fighters were still low in the air, the SBD Dauntless Dive Bombers screamed down and destroyed three of the four Japanese Carries in just six minutes.

Still, there was one other factor in the success of that SBD attack that is sometimes, not always, but sometimes, overlooked. The aircraft on the flight decks and in the hangers of the Japanese fleet were in the middle of being rearmed and refueled. Why? Initially, Admiral Nagumo, the Commander of the Japanese Carrier Task Force, had become convinced that a second strike on Midway was necessary. His own strike analysis had told him that the runways had not been sufficiently damaged to put Midways air field out of commission. Added to that, was his experience just minutes earlier, around 0700, when six TBF Avenger Bombers, which he had never seen before, had roared toward his ships. With B-17’s dropping bombs from high level, and B-26’s launching torpedoes at his tankers, these six planes had come as close as any low level attack ever had to damaging his four heavy Carriers. Nagumo ordered his planes rearmed for another strike on Midway in part, at least, because of that attack.

In the middle of that rearming, came the word that the American Carriers had been spotted to the East. Nagumo hesitated, and then ordered his planes re-rearmed for a strike on the carriers. A strike that would never be launched, thanks to the gallantry and heroism of VT-8’s two attacks on Nagumo’s Carriers.

VT-8's Only surviving TBF

VT-8’s Only surviving TBF

It is said that there is nothing as melancholy as a battle that has been won. While there is much rejoicing and celebration, and awards to be handed out, it is with sadness that the fallen who sacrificed that the day might be won, are recalled. Lt. Fieberling did not survive the attack he and his small group made on June 4, 1942. Five of the six Midway based VT-8 Avengers were shot down. The surviving plane reached Midway with one dead and both other fliers badly wounded. The TBF’s combat initiation had not gone well tactically, but its effect that it had on Nagumo’s strategic thinking helped to changed the course of the Pacific war.

For his efforts that day, Lt. Fieberling was awarded the Navy Cross and the Purple Heart, posthumously.  In 1944, the USS Fieberling, a brand new Destroyer Escort was commissioned in his honor. The ship fought at Okinawa, survived being damaged by a kamikaze attack, and received one Battle Star for service in WWII.

USS Fieberling DE-640

USS Fieberling DE-640

In 1972, the USS Fieberling (DE-640) was sold for scrap. With her passed most of the memories of what the ships namesake had done on the morning of June 4th, 1942.

 Some of the VT-8 (Midway Based) Citations for actions of June 4th, 1942

 CITATION

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Lt. Langdon Fieberling

Lt. Langdon Fieberling

The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to Langdon Kellogg Fieberling (0-076103), Lieutenant, U.S. Navy (Reserve), for extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while serving as Pilot of a carrier-based Navy Torpedo Plane and Flight Leader in Torpedo Squadron EIGHT (VT-8), embarked from Naval Air Station Midway during the “Air Battle of Midway,” against enemy Japanese forces on 4 June 1942. In the first attack against an enemy carrier of the Japanese invasion fleet, Lieutenant Fieberling led his flight in the face of withering fire from enemy Japanese fighters and anti-aircraft forces. Because of events attendant upon the Battle of Midway, there can be no doubt that he gallantly gave up his life in the service of his country. His courage and utter disregard for his own personal safety were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

CITATION

Ensign Charles E. Brannon

Ensign Charles E. Brannon

“The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to Charles E. Brannon (0-105955), Ensign, U.S. Navy (Reserve), for extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while serving as Pilot of a carrier-based Navy Torpedo Plane of Torpedo Squadron EIGHT (VT-8), embarked from Naval Air Station Midway during the ‘Air Battle of Midway,’ against enemy Japanese forces on 4 and 5 June 1942. In the first attack against an enemy carrier of the Japanese invasion fleet, Ensign Brannon pressed home his attack in the face of withering fire from enemy Japanese fighters and anti-aircraft forces. Because of events attendant upon the Battle of Midway, there can be no doubt that he gallantly gave up his life in the service of his country. His courage and utter disregard for his own personal safety were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.”

CITATION

Ensign Victor Allen Lewis

Ensign Victor Allen Lewis

“The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to Ensign Victor Alan Lewis (NSN: 0-106252), United States Naval Reserve, for extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while serving as Pilot of a carrier-based Navy Torpedo Plane of Torpedo Squadron EIGHT (VT-8), embarked from Naval Air Station Midway during the ‘Air Battle of Midway,’ against enemy Japanese forces on 4 and 5 June 1942. In the first attack against an enemy carrier of the Japanese invasion fleet, Ensign Lewis pressed home his attack in the face of withering fire from enemy Japanese fighters and anti-aircraft forces. Because of events attendant upon the Battle of Midway, there can be no doubt that he gallantly gave up his life in the service of his country. His courage and utter disregard for his own personal safety were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.”

CITATION

Ensign Albert "Burt" Earnest

Ensign Albert “Burt” Earnest

The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting a Gold Star in lieu of a Second Award of the Navy Cross to Albert Kyle Earnest, Ensign, U.S. Navy (Reserve), for extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while serving as Pilot of a carrier-based Navy Torpedo Plane of Torpedo Squadron EIGHT (VT-8), embarked from Naval Air Station Midway during the “Air Battle of Midway,” against enemy Japanese forces on 4 June 1942. Having completed an unsupported torpedo attack in the face of tremendous enemy fighter and anti-aircraft opposition, Ensign Earnest, himself wounded and his gunner dead, made his return flight in a plane riddled by machine gun bullets and cannon shell. With his compass and Bombay doors inoperative, one wheel of his landing gear unable to be extended and his elevator-control shot away, he was forced to fly by expert use of his elevator trimming tabs some 200 miles back to Midway where he negotiated a safe one-wheel landing. Fully aware of the inestimable importance of determining the combat efficiency of a heretofore unproven plane, Ensign Earnest doggedly persisted in spite of tremendous hazards and physical difficulties. His great courage and marked skill in handling his crippled plane were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

Note: Captain Earnest survived the war, earning three Navy Crosses for his bravery. He passed away in 2009 at the age of 92, the last remaining man who flew with VT-8 from Midway Island on June 4th, 1942.

51-H0BBof4L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_Note 2: After I finished this, I came across this book, Dawn Like Thunder – The True Story of Torpedo Squadron 8, which I bought and will now read voraciously.

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Posted on March 19, 2015, in History, WW2 and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Capt Earnest’s radioman, now CDR Harry Ferrier, is still living at age 90 in Oak Harbor, WA. Harry is the last of the VT-8 crewman from the Midway Is. detachment living. A Dawn Like Thunder is a great read and well researched. After you finish reading it you may want to revisit your post above. I have researched the family history of each of the crewman of the VT-8 det on Midway Island. You can see their families and some of their stories on my RootsWeb site at: http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=battle_of_midway&id=I532. I’ll be starting on the Hornet contingent of VT-8 shortly. Also, I’ve linked 17 of the 18 deceased crewman’s memorial pages on Find A Grave.com at Ens Brannon’s cenotaph site: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=brannon&GSfn=charles&GSbyrel=all&GSdy=1942&GSdyrel=in&GSob=n&GRid=83915484&df=all&.
    Best regards,
    Gerry

    Liked by 1 person

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