Improbable: Ensign George Gay at Midway

I’ve been doing a lot of macro-level discussion here of late–big picture, high strategy stuff.  Today, I’d like to dip down into the micro.

Men (and today, women) fight wars.  They are, we are always told, ordinary individuals who find themselves in the most extraordinary situations imaginable.

The Battle of Midway was one of those situations.  It featured two immense fleets sailing hundreds of miles apart, each one desperate to find the other first (the Holy Grail of carrier warfare in that era).  That wasn’t as easy as it sounds–the area to be searched was roughly 100,000 square miles.  The battle narrative should be familiar to all students of the war.  The initial disaster for the Americans.  The death ride of Torpedo Squadron 8.  Fifteen planes in.  Fifteen planes destroyed.  And then, the turning of the tide:  a group of SBD Dauntless dive bombers, frustrated by not finding the Japanese, low on fuel, and already thinking of heading for home, spotting a lone Japanese destroyer hurrying to rejoin the main fleet and following it in. 

What followed was one of the most destructive 15 minute periods in the history of war, as a handful of naval aviators destroyed three Japanese aircraft carriers, and broke the power of the Japanese carrier arm.  To U.S. ears, the names of the sunken vessels, Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu, should always have a magical ring.  They would be joined later that day by a fourth carrier, Hiryu, and the victory would be complete.

An improbable win, certainly.  Evenly matched fleets don’t normally produce such lopsided results.  But the most improbable moment of all–one of the war’s great stories–was the amazing experience of Ensign George H. Gay, Jr. of Waco, TX.  He was the pilot of a Devastator torpedo bomber in VT-8, and like every single man in his squadron, he experienced the terror of being shot down at sea.  With his plane hit and losing altitude, he momentarily considered crashing into the nearest carrier (the Kaga).  And then he splashed.  Every pilot knew that your chances weren’t good in the middle of the Pacific.  There were a lot of ways to die before you got picked up, IF you got picked up at all.   Gay sat there bobbing up and down in the water, in the middle of the Japanese fleet, probably thinking his life was over, trying desperately to hide under his seat cushion.  And then he saw a sight, one that quite literally NO one else on Planet Earth could ever  claim to have seen:  those Dauntlesses hurtling down out of the heavens, pulling out of their dives at the last second, and raining destruction onto the crowded decks of three Japanese carriers.

Ensign Gay saw the US Navy win World War II in the Pacific.  Not a bad day at all.

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15 Responses

  1. Luke Truxal

    Was Midway a shift in momentum in the Pacific Theater or was it a lethal blow to the Japanese navy? It seems that a lot of people want to call it a lethal blow since it did take out four carriers and a good number of experienced naval aviators, but was Midway a recoverable blow? I believe that Midway was recoverable for the Japanese because all it would take is one bad naval battle in the Pacific for the USN and the Japanese retake the initiative. By the way nice blog on Ensign Gay and sorry for taking the discussion from the micro back into the macro.

    Reply
  2. Bill Nance

    Luke, remember, the way that the Japanese trained Carrier pilots, the loss of those four CAGs was almost completely disastrous. Also, Japan could never match the US in production capacity. From Jan 42 to Jan 45, the US fleet increased by 8 BB, 19 CV, 65 escort CV, and 679 other major combatants. No way the Japanese could match that.

    As for turning points, no such thing in my opinion. However, I’d definitely call this a decision point where both sides, particularly the Japanese had to make some hard decisions. In fact, the Japanese had had a lot of options taken off the board by this battle.

    I can only imagine what that battle looked like to Ensign Gay. Probably a little too close for comfort. It’s kinda funny, but you never know when you’re going to have that brush with history. Like Prez Bush laying out his doctrine of preemptive war at my graduation, and then me celebrating my 1 year anniversary of that graduation in Iraq.

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  3. Luke Truxal

    So as historians should we call these critical points in history decision points? Battles such as this do force a shift in strategy and the question then becomes what is the right strategy. As historians do we become too concerned with the events that unfolded that sometimes we forget the decision making process that occurs before and after these events take place?

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  4. Bill Nance

    I think you’re on to something there. Decision points (or decisive points – semantics in many cases) add or remove options from one or both sides. Many people look at history with hindsight and mark X as the spot where the war turned. That may be the case (or may not be), but it was the decisions and actions AFTER that moment in time that truly sealed the deal.

    For example, Stalingrad took an entire field army off the OOB for the German Army. This definitely limited German options and more than likely blocked a chance for a German victory (as they envisioned it) on the East Front. However, it was the German decisions on the East Front afterwards which drained the rest of German reserves in men and material, making Stalingrad even more problematic.

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  5. Luke Truxal

    So Midway is an important victory for the USN, but what makes it a more decisive battle is the fact that Nimitz took the initiative after Midway. Midway may have not been the end for the Japanese, but Nimitz didn’t give them a window in which to recover.

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  6. Bill Nance

    Yes, and the fact that the Japanese fleet lost the option to conduct major carrier offensive operations in the central pacific for a period of time, thereby making Nimitz’ job easier.

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  7. Reginald Cox

    I loved it. Wish I had done this long ago. I wish I could sms to friends phone to share they also may want to sign up. Waiting for the next article.

    Reply
  8. Brian R. Price

    Bill,

    I heartily agree with the idea that major events add or subtract available options from a combatant’s “menu” of available choices.

    Additionally, the way the combatant perceives the menu can hide or add choices; what seems impossible or highly improbable to one commander may seem, according to the way he measures the situation, probable or advantageous. Adding the layer of perception upon the “objective” choices reveals something of the Art of war, where human creativity blends with the science of war.

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  9. Bart Soto

    I had the wonderful opportunity to personally meet George Gay. He lived here in metro Atlanta, GA. George was in a well equiped Hobby Shop and was sitting at a table selling and signing his book, “Sole Survivor” and an models of the Devastator torpedo plane A large original painting of a Devastator Torpedo plane flying right over the deck of a Japanese Carrier from end to end, was behind him. George signed my book then I asked him about the painting. He explained, after he dropped his torpedo, he was so close to the carrier, he flew right over the deck from bow to stern to avoid the flak guns, since the guns could not traverse on him. During those seconds Japanese sailors dived for cover with one officer waving his sword at him. For a split second he thought of crashing into that crowded deck, but he continued on and was immediately shot down after clearing the carrier and ditched in the ocean. I personally thanked him for his courage and service to our country and shook his hand. George Gay was a humble warrior. I wonder if I could do what he did and press the attack while watching all your friends get shot down and die around you. Read his book, “Sole Survivor”.

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  10. Paul

    I am a little late to the game as article and comments appear to be almost 2 years old, but I wanted to thank the writer and the people who have commented for providing some understanding about Midway and how to win a war. As a recent WWII history buff, I cannot get enough of this stuff. Ensign Gay and all others who served are truly great American heroes. I wish I could thank them all.

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  11. P. CPS_Xabre Marcus

    Mr. Gay…Is in my opinion a hero of the most High. To help take out 3 Jap Carriers get shot down, and flounder in Shark invested Waters, possibly having pot shots fired at him, getting water logged, becoming dehydrated by the minute, sun burned to where his skin was blistering…He is now with his Comrades in a higher place.
    This are the things that legends are made of.

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  12. Mickey Martin

    I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Gay in 1945 while I was
    training as a gunner onTBF’S at NAS Miami,fl.

    Reply
  13. davidcraig99

    All’s well that end’s well and I am glad he lived. Personally, if all my buddies had just been killed, my gunner killed and my torpedo missed–with an opportunity to smoke the flight deck with a suicide crash, I certainly would of been pissed enough to do that.

    Reply
  14. gord

    I would also like to hear about VT-8’s 15 bombardiers who did not go on the Midway strike because it was felt that two man crews would save weight and increase range. What are the reactions from those 15 bombardiers to the VT-8 disaster? Remember, the Devastator was a three crew aircaft.
    So, who has done the research on the 15 bombardiers and their reactions?

    Reply

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