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In the fullness of dawn on October 15, 1942, six Japanese transport ships steamed into Sealark Channel northeast of Guadalcanal and began disembarking thousands of troops within plain sight of the marine defensive positions near Henderson Field. Flying low cover over the enemy transports were dozens of carrier-based Zeros.

It was a brazen reflection of the Japanese certainty that the Cactus Air Force, as the assemblage of Allied air power on Guadalcanal was known, had been obliterated in the previous 24 hours. They were close to being right.

Following a massive airstrike and shelling from 150mm howitzers and two battleships just offshore, only six of the 1st Marine Division’s Wildcat fighters could be sent up to confront the Zeros, and that was only by scavenging fuel from damaged aircraft. And all five of the remaining Avengers from the naval air squadron sent in to support the marine air group—Torpedo Squadron Eight, based since the loss of their carrier on the island of Espiritu Santo, 600 miles to the southeast—were riddled with steel splinters that had severed hydraulic lines, electrical circuits, and control wires. Several of the wing sections were damaged beyond repair.

Up in the hills south of the airfield, Lt. DeWitt “Pete” Peterkin, the Yale-educated officer supervising the enlisted men who maintained Torpedo Eight’s aircraft, got together with Chief Machinist’s Mate J. C. Hammond to discuss the possibility of repairing one of the wrecked Avengers. The two of them hiked down to the airfield to take another look at the planes, only to discover that the Cactus air staff had written them off in a report they were preparing for the commander of the marine air group. They told Peterkin and Hammond not to waste their time.

Hammond spent the rest of the morning crawling through the Avengers, detailing each problem while Peterkin took notes. When he was finished, Hammond said there was an outside chance he could rebuild one plane from the remains of the rest.

They reported back to Swede Larsen, Torpedo Eight’s commanding officer, who asked how long it would take. A couple of weeks, maybe, said Hammond, if he had enough help. Swede told them he wanted the plane ready for him to fly by October 22—one week away.

Asking so much from so little—and so few—was vintage Swede. At Midway, Torpedo Eight was nearly wiped out, with with only 3 of its 48 aviators surviving. Yet on Guadalcanal, not only would the bullheaded, much-decorated Larsen push his squadron into the air even when the fleet had been virtually obliterated, he would order his men into the trenches alongside the marines to try to repel one of the bloodiest, most determined attacks the Japanese would make on that island. And even after he finally allowed most of his pilots to return to their home base at Espiritu Santo, he would insist on staying—for one final mission.

To many of the junior officers who found themselves serving under him, Lt. Harold “Swede” Larsen was a headstrong young martinet with the charming leadership style of William Bligh, captain of the HMS Bounty. The enlisted men who served under him hadn’t read about Captain Bligh, but a lot of them thought the strapping blond Annapolis graduate was a prick. One man in the squadron had already tried to shoot him.

Swede knew all that and didn’t care. In his vision of how to run a combat unit, he was the hammer. The men who served under him were the nails. Bravado was at the heart of his personality. No one doubted his guts or personal courage. In an aircraft, Swede took chances that sometimes bordered on reckless. He was also an enthusiastic hater. Above all, he hated the Japanese, and what he hungered for more than anything was a chance to go up against them in combat.

The work to construct a Frankenstein Avenger began the next morning. After breakfast, Peterkin and Hammond led a detail of men back to Henderson Field to get started. Hammond selected the plane he thought had sustained the least damage overall, and made an evaluation of everything that needed to be replaced or repaired. Its huge Wright engine was nothing more than twisted steel, and they would need to exchange it with an undamaged engine from one of the other hulks. Of greater magnitude was the job of replacing one of its wings. The equipment needed to do both jobs had been destroyed.

While Hammond pondered those problems, mechanics began cannibalizing cockpit instruments, cables, hydraulic lines, and wiring from the planes that would never fly again. Swede had assigned 18 men to build his new plane, and Hammond worked them in 12-hour shifts. With the airfield blacked out at night, canvas tarps were draped over the Avenger, allowing mechanics with lanterns to continue working inside.

Picked clean for parts, Marine Corps Sgt. John Davis examines what's left of one of VT-8's Avengers. This airplane had been flown by Ensign Albert K. Earnest, one of the original squadrons surviving three members, it still bears his name, stenciled beneath the cockpit canopy rail. (National Archives)
Picked clean for parts, Marine Corps Sgt. John Davis examines what’s left of one of VT-8’s Avengers. This airplane had been flown by Ensign Albert K. Earnest, one of the original squadrons surviving three members, it still bears his name, stenciled beneath the cockpit canopy rail. (National Archives)

In just five days, the aircraft had been stripped of its damaged parts and put back together with pieces from other planes. Pete Peterkin had found a Japanese truck with a hoisting apparatus mounted on its rear bed. The hoist was used to remove an undamaged Wright engine from one of the Avenger hulks and swung into position for the connection to be made to the engine housing of the new creation.

One of the plane’s wings had been smashed. After they cut away what remained of it, Peterkin rounded up 50 marines to lug a replacement wing from one of the wrecks and brace it in position while Hammond’s mechanics fastened it to the wing root. The plane also needed a new tail, control wires, bomb release wiring, and a host of other components.

On the afternoon of October 21, Hammond announced that he was finished, but he warned Swede that he didn’t think the plane was safe to fly. Most of the instruments didn’t work. The new wing was definitely out of kilter. It hung lower than the other one, and he didn’t have the tools to correct the problem.

Swede looked at the homely creation as if it were a golden chariot. “Don’t worry,” he told them. “I’ll make the thing fly.”

And he did, climbing into the air long enough to set it down on the fighter strip at the other end of the field. The out-of-kilter wing definitely affected its performance in the air, Swede said, but he could adjust for it. Otherwise, the plane seemed fine. He told Peterkin and Hammond to prepare it for a bombing mission the next day.

That evening at supper, Maj. Michael Mahoney, among whose marines Torpedo Eight had been bivouacking since losing their encampment in the battleship bombardment, briefed them on what he saw coming. Peterkin found Mahoney to be an amazing character: largely self-taught, he had earned his college degree taking correspondence courses. He was both passionate and knowledgeable about poetry and sculpture, among other pursuits not shared by most marines. At the same time, his admiring men affectionately referred to him as “Machine Gun” Mahoney for his prowess with the Thompson.

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Mahoney predicted that the all-out Japanese offensive would begin in a few days. There was no telling from which direction the Japanese might launch their assault, although it definitely would be delivered at night. The commander of the 1st Marine Division, Maj. Gen. Alexander Vandegrift, believed it would come from the west beyond the Matanikau River, where he thought the Japanese were mostly concentrated, but there was a chance Mahoney’s unit might see action along their own southerly positions. Mahoney’s only concern was that the defense line on the southern perimeter was stretched thin.

Torpedo Eight would do its share, Swede told him.

By this time, the Japanese had amassed more than 17,000 troops on Guadalcanal for their final drive to retake the airfield. Although outnumbered by the more than 22,000 marines, they rivaled the Americans in effective strength. The freshly arrived Sendai Division was ready to go forward with unmatched zeal.

Vandegrift’s marines were not filled with unmatched zeal. Most of them had been on the island for two and a half months. They had fought two major battles and dozens of firefights and skirmishes in the sweltering heat and the putrid jungle. They had been subjected to constant shelling and aerial bombardment, poor food, bad water, jungle rot, dysentery, rat bites, snake bites, leeches, and trench foot. Many had refused to take Atabrine to prevent malaria because of rumors that the pills might make them sterile. Now many of them had contracted malaria.

The Japanese had another advantage. In addition to their massive infusion of troops, their navy had provided them with scores of field guns, 150mm howitzers, heavy machine guns, heavy tanks, light tanks, and nearly 200 tons of food, ammunition, and other supplies.

Most important, at the point of attack in their major ground assault, they would outnumber the marines by a margin of about four to one.

By the afternoon of the 22nd, Swede and his metal Frankenstein were ready for the squadron’s first mission in 10 days. The Avenger was loaded with twelve 100-pound bombs, and the air staff, desperate for replacement aircraft, had given Swede the coordinates of several suspected Japanese concentrations near Henderson Field.

Shortly after 2 p.m., he accelerated down the runway and took off into a clear sky. From the air, the field was an oasis in a sea of enemy-held jungle. One minute’s flying time in any direction took the Avenger over Japanese positions.

Swede’s turret gunner, Ervin “Judge” Wendt, looked for possible targets as they flew over the thick jungle canopy at an altitude of 800 feet. Wendt knew they had found a good place to bomb when antiaircraft fire began putting holes in the Avenger’s newly replaced wing.

When they returned to the fighter strip, Chief Hammond worried over the shrapnel damage to the new wing structure. The wires and cables were all chewed up inside, he said. Swede’s response: “Just make it fly.”

At dawn the next morning, the Japanese resumed their artillery bombardment of Henderson Field. A flight of American transports was expected to arrive later that morning carrying critically needed spare parts from Espiritu Santo. Swede was asked to try to suppress the artillery fire by bombing a few of the closest Japanese positions.

Peterkin watched him take off from the fighter strip. The Japanese were so close to the field by then that Peterkin could visually follow the plane through its entire flight. After lifting off, Swede headed west toward the Matanikau River. Making a slow circle, he came back and dropped a full salvo of bombs. Peterkin watched a flock of white birds suddenly soar up from the jungle canopy to escape the exploding havoc. The Avenger was back on the fighter strip in less than 15 minutes. The American transport planes arrived safely shortly afterward.

At 11:30 a.m., nearly 50 Japanese fighters and bombers arrived to attack the airfield, and 32 fighters went up to do battle with them. Seven enemy planes were shot down. When the sky was clear again, Swede took off to go after other Japanese artillery positions near the Matanikau. For this mission, he had been given specific map coordinates by the operations staff.

Going in on the first attack, the Avenger attracted heavy ground fire, but made it through unscathed. Swede dropped two bombs and then accelerated away as Judge Wendt strafed the position. On their second pass, the antiaircraft fire was more accurate. Wendt felt the plane shudder as it took hits from one of the antiaircraft batteries. When Swede dropped his second salvo, there was a massive secondary explosion. At the same time, the turret gunner felt a searing pain down his arm from a serious shrapnel wound.

He radioed on the intercom that he had been hit, and Swede flew for the runway. After Wendt had been taken to the hospital tent, Chief Hammond warned Swede that with the additional shrapnel damage to the wing, the plane should be grounded. Swede ordered it fueled and rearmed for the next mission.

By early that evening, the mounting roar of massed artillery, tank, and mortar fire reached the pilots at Henderson Field as two waves of Japanese tanks rumbled forward out of the jungle west of the Matanikau, followed by Japanese infantry. Torpedo Eight pilot Gene Hanson, a second-generation Swede from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was waiting by the Avenger when Swede Larsen received the orders to bomb and strafe the enemy forces surging across the Matanikau near Point Cruz. Hanson had flown the plane earlier in the day and was comfortable with its handling characteristics. He volunteered to go up.

The plane started taking fire as soon as he headed down to bomb a cluster of Japanese troops. He was making his seventh bombing pass when a burst of flame erupted in the nose and an engine caught fire. As he lost forward thrust, the Frankenstein Avenger crashed into the sea near Point Cruz and was lost.

Worse, Hanson learned afterward that Major Mahoney had been in the second seat. Mahoney thought he could provide important intelligence to General Vandegrift’s staff if he had a chance to observe the enemy force dispositions from the air with his own trained eye. Swede had given him permission to go, and strapped him in without telling Hanson. The marine had probably been knocked unconscious in the crash landing; he never surfaced. The news of Mahoney’s death spread quickly, casting an immediate pall on the whole company.

In the morning, Swede demanded that Chief Hammond make him another Avenger. Hammond said he couldn’t promise anything, but would get his mechanics to work on the remaining hulks in the boneyard.

Gathering the rest of the men together, Swede announced that Torpedo Eight would now do its fighting on the ground. The word was that there would be an even bigger push along the Matanikau River that night. Although Torpedo Eight was in a rear-guard position, he warned them that anything could happen, and they needed to be ready.

After breakfast, Swede led them down to the frontlines of the marine perimeter. Dividing them into groups, he assigned the men foxholes that had been prepared under the direction of one of Major Mahoney’s platoon officers earlier in the week in a section of the line dubbed “Bloody Knoll” after the battles in September, right after Torpedo Eight’s arrival.

More than a few of the pilots were not thrilled with the idea of fighting the Japanese from foxholes. Their job was to fly airplanes. They had already begun to question why Swede was keeping them there when there had been only one plane to fly, and that one for only two days since the big shelling attack.

Now there were no planes at all, and Swede had not asked to be relieved. Instead, he had them digging foxholes. They had not been trained for this kind of combat. The navy pilots could no more go hand-to-hand against a Japanese soldier than a marine could climb into the cockpit of an Avenger and launch a torpedo into the side of an enemy warship. With no planes to fly, the obvious answer was for them to go where there were some.

Some of the enlisted men in the squadron were no happier about the idea than the officers. They were mechanics, machinist’s mates, radiomen, and metalsmiths. Several of them had never fired a rifle, much less hurled a hand grenade. Now they were part of Swede’s private army, one grumbled.

None of the complaints mattered. Swede was in command of the squadron, and he said they were going to fight.

As darkness fell, the men headed out to their foxholes. Pete Peterkin was sharing one with Chief Hammond. It had begun to rain again, and Hammond was resourceful enough to have fashioned a roof shelter out of a ground tarp supported by wooden stakes. Others just hunkered down in their ponchos and let the rain drub on their helmets.

As uncomfortable as he was in a water-filled foxhole, Torpedo Eight pilot Fred Mears concluded that it was probably a lot worse for the enemy soldiers slogging through the jungle. He didn’t have long to find out. Minutes later, 5,000 soldiers of the emperor’s Sendai Division assaulted a line held by the 700 men of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines—and anchored at Bloody Knoll by the 31 naval personnel commanded by Lt. Swede Larsen.

At the far end of the line near Bloody Knoll, Gene Hanson heard the dull explosions of mortars and hand grenades, followed by the rattle of automatic weapons as the Japanese launched their assault. He and the others watched the dark sky light up to the east of them like a Fourth of July fireworks display. As the firing got increasingly louder, it became obvious to Hanson that the enemy attack was moving in their direction. A few minutes later, the men in the forward foxholes began pouring fire down into the ravine below them.

Shortly before dawn, the first assault ended. The Japanese had driven a lodgment into the marines’ line that was more than 100 yards deep and 200 yards wide, but at a terrible cost. In the first sickly light of day, the men of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines looked out on the narrow expanse leading down to the edge of the jungle and saw the Japanese dead lying as if in windrows, a thousand of them, maybe more. More than two dozen marines had paid the ultimate price to stop them.

A few of the enlisted men in Torpedo Eight took their Springfields down into the ravine below their position at the far end of the line. They found the bodies of several Japanese soldiers. Peterkin didn’t know who was responsible for killing the Japanese attackers, but he was proud of the way the men had kept their heads.

Farther down the line, the marine battalion, now reinforced by two battalions of the U.S. Army’s 164th Infantry, waited for the Sendai Division to make its next move.

It came that night, and by morning, there was no doubt about the margin of victory. It could be found on the blades of the bulldozers that scooped up more than 2,000 rapidly decomposing Japanese bodies along the perimeter before burying them in mass graves.

Swede pulled Torpedo Eight out of the line later that morning. Some of them hadn’t left their foxholes for two days except to relieve themselves. They hadn’t fought off the main attack of the Sendai Division, but they had held the section of the line assigned to them. Peterkin told them it was the first time an American carrier squadron had ever fought on a frontline against an attacking enemy.

By then, the sailors even looked like marines. Their original clothing was long gone, either shredded in the October 13 battleship shelling or rotted from mildew and dampness after six weeks on the island. Most of them wore marine-issue dungarees.

And like the marines, their clammy faces were yellowed with Atabrine, they had ringworm and dysentery, and their nostrils were full of the stench of rotting Japanese corpses. They were jaundiced, bone-weary, and fed up with Guadalcanal after weeks of combat action in the air, followed by the daily bombings and shellings on the ground.

With the major Japanese ground offensive beaten back, Swede brought together his four remaining pilots to tell them his plans. They were the last of the 17 Torpedo Eight pilots who had flown with the Cactus Air Force. Between them, the five pilots had been recommended for seven Navy Crosses for uncommon valor.

Swede told them he was going to stay on the island until he was officially relieved. He thought that Guadalcanal was where they needed to be. He told them he had ordered Pete Peterkin to stay behind along with all of the enlisted men. If the Japanese mounted another ground assault, the squadron would go back into its positions on the line until Chief Hammond had another plane ready to fly. He wasn’t ordering them to stay.

The four of them talked it over. There would be only one plane to fly if Hammond was successful, and Swede would be the one flying it. What was the point? All left that day aboard a transport plane for Espiritu Santo.

With the Japanese ground offensive crushed, there was no serious fighting for almost a week, and Chief Hammond put all his men to work on rebuilding the next Avenger. Between the new materiel that was now flowing into Henderson Field and the spare parts he was able to scavenge from the boneyard, he made steady progress. A rebuilt Wright engine was transferred to the plane’s engine root. Both wings were replaced. Slowly, it came together.

On Halloween, Swede took possession of his new creation and rumbled down the runway to see if it would fly. This one was far more unsteady than the previous plane, but Swede got it in the air, circled the field, and brought it back in. He immediately pronounced the Avenger airworthy and told Peterkin to prepare it for a bombing mission the next morning. He then ordered Hammond to begin putting another plane together as soon as possible.

One of VT-8's handbuilt Avengers in the grass at Henderson Field, ready for the next sortie. (National Archives)
One of VT-8’s handbuilt Avengers in the grass at Henderson Field, ready for the next sortie. (National Archives)

Over the next few days, Swede took Hammond’s “new” Avenger up on a series of missions, flying alone and bombing suspicious-looking sites. Peterkin was having misgivings about the importance of the contribution they were making. He wrote a letter to Bert Earnest, a Torpedo Eight pilot back at Espiritu Santo, asking how the rest of the squadron was doing, and confiding his concerns about the mental and physical condition of the enlisted men left on Guadalcanal.

He concluded the letter by asking him why Swede would be keeping 20 men there when they were down to one plane.

Earnest, who had already earned two Navy Crosses for his mission at Midway, a flight that Adm. Chester Nimitz had called “one of the epics of combat aviation,” and then a third at Guadalcanal, wrote back that the only reason the men were there was because of Swede’s personal ambitions. When the letter arrived, Swede happened to be present for mail call. He decided to open the letter, even though it was addressed to Peterkin. After reading the comments about him, he passed along the opened letter to Peterkin without a word.

When Swede returned from his third bombing run on November 3, the squadron’s personnel officer, Lt. George Flinn, was waiting for him at their camp. He had just arrived from Espiritu Santo with important news. Torpedo Eight was going to be officially relieved by a marine torpedo squadron that was already in New Caledonia, and would soon be arriving at Guadalcanal.

Flinn also told Swede that a new Avenger had just been delivered to Torpedo Eight at Espiritu Santo. Swede ordered it flown up immediately, telling him to radio a request for volunteers to pilot the next Frankenstein plane Chief Hammond was building. Strong feelings were expressed about the idiocy of their commanding officer, particularly since the squadron that was relieving them would be arriving in a day or two. Nevertheless, several pilots who had been among the first evacuated from Guadalcanal volunteered to return.

On the afternoon of November 7, American search planes spotted 11 enemy warships coming down the body of water between Bougainville and Guadalcanal. The Cactus air staff was confident they were carrying Japanese troop reinforcements, and readied an immediate counterstrike.

At 4 p.m., Swede briefed newly arrived pilots Bob Evarts and Andy Divine on the mission. Chief Hammond had completed reconstruction of a third Avenger that he hoped was ready for combat. Swede would fly the new replacement plane, Evarts and Divine the patchwork Avengers. They would be part of an air group consisting of 3 Avengers, 7 Dauntlesses, and 30 Wildcats. It would be a coordinated attack, with the fighters going in first to strafe the antiaircraft batteries, followed by the dive-bombers from up high and the torpedo planes down low.

Under scattered clouds, the group took off at 4:30 and headed north to intercept the Japanese task force. Packed aboard the 11 destroyers were troops, artillery pieces, food, and ammunition.

The attack went exactly as planned. Although all three Avengers were hit by antiaircraft fire, Swede and Bob Evarts were able to launch their torpedoes from less than 800 yards away. They each claimed a hit, although Andy Divine, flying the newest patchwork plane, was unable to release his torpedo. Pursued by Japanese fighters, one of his gunners was hit four times and critically wounded, but all three planes made it back safely.

For leading the attack, Adm. William Halsey awarded Swede the Distinguished Flying Cross. It was the second DFC Swede had received since taking command of Torpedo Eight. (He had also been recommended for a Navy Cross for leading an August 24 mission against a Japanese cruiser force during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, the same day Torpedo Eight had helped sink the Japanese carrier Ryujo.)

For the next four days, heavy storms and howling winds pummeled the Solomon Islands, preventing Japanese air attacks from reaching Guadalcanal, and giving the pilots of the Cactus Air Force a chance to regroup. Most of them welcomed the opportunity to relax in their tents, out of the gusting wind and rain.

Not Swede. Pete Peterkin was worried that his commanding officer was finally getting ready to blow. He thought a number of the squadron’s enlisted men were ready to blow too, but for another reason. They were desperate to leave. On November 8, VS-71, the last of the navy’s Dauntless squadrons in the Cactus Air Force, had been evacuated. Torpedo Eight, with its 2 officers and 21 enlisted men, was the only naval air squadron left.

Even the award of the DFC did not seem to improve Swede’s disposition. Despite the bad weather, the Japanese had continued to deliver troops and supplies every night. On November 10, Swede tried to lead his three Avengers up to attack them. A violent storm forced him to turn back.

His temper wasn’t helped by a radio message that the 18 Avengers of Marine Torpedo Bomber Squadron 131 had just arrived at Espiritu Santo. The first element of six planes would be flying up to Guadalcanal the next day to relieve him. Swede knew that the next Japanese air and ground offensive was imminent. The word was that it would be the biggest of the whole campaign, and he wasn’t about to miss it.

Just after midnight on November 13, two Japanese battleships, the Hiei and the Kirishima, approached Guadalcanal from Savo Island, after passing silently over the graves of the many American and Japanese warships that now littered Iron Bottom Sound. The 14-inch gun batteries of the Hiei and the Kirishima were loaded with the same delayed-fuse bombardment shells that had wreaked such havoc on Henderson Field exactly one month earlier. The two battleships were escorted by the cruiser Nagara and 11 destroyers.

American search planes had spotted the two battleships heading toward Guadalcanal the previous evening. Unfortunately, the American navy had no battleships to face them on equal terms, although a blocking force had been hastily assembled that consisted of two heavy cruisers, the San Francisco and the Portland; three light cruisers; and eight destroyers.

The task forces collided at 1:50 a.m. south of Savo Island. The opposing ships quickly became intermingled, swinging wildly about in the darkness, opening fire at one another at almost point-blank range.

On Guadalcanal, the booming reverberations brought hundreds of men down to the beach. Peterkin watched in awed silence as star shells lit up the northern horizon.

The savage engagement came to an end just 40 minutes after it began. By any measure, it was a Japanese tactical victory. The Americans had lost a cruiser, four destroyers, and more than 1,000 men. Later that morning, the light cruiser Juneau was torpedoed and went down with another 600 men.

Vice Adm. Hiroaki Abe, who was commanding the Japanese task force from the now-damaged battleship Hiei, had a conclusive victory within his grasp. There was little to prevent him from completing his mission to suppress the Cactus Air Force with a massive bombardment of Henderson Field, allowing the Japanese transports carrying the 10,000 Japanese troops to safely unload their precious cargo, and potentially altering the entire Guadalcanal campaign.

Instead, Abe, his will apparently sapped by the intensity of the night battle, lost his nerve. He decided to abandon his mission and withdraw the task force. Transferring his flag to the destroyer Yukikaze, he left the damaged Hiei behind to retreat after the rest of his ships at a speed of just five knots.

Damaged and on the run, the Japanese battleship Hiei became the target of Swede Larson and his Avengers. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
Damaged and on the run, the Japanese battleship Hiei became the target of Swede Larson and his Avengers. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Just before dawn, a Wildcat pilot had taken off to see the results of the night naval action. Beyond the sinking ships he saw near Savo Island, he reported sighting a damaged Japanese battleship attempting to retire north.

Swede wanted the stricken battleship.

Although he had not been officially relieved yet, Swede discovered that Capt. George Dooley, the officer commanding the first six Avengers from the marine squadron, was no pushover. From the moment Dooley arrived, Swede hadn’t been shy in attempting to lecture him on everything a new squadron needed to learn before it could make torpedo hits. Implying that Dooley and his pilots were too green, Swede offered to lead the first strike against the battleship off Savo Island.

Dooley was not about to kowtow to anyone. Swede’s chance to hit the Hiei didn’t come until later that morning, after four successful missions against the ship had been flown— two of them by Dooley. At 11:45 a.m., Swede led up a flight of six Avengers, two of them piloted by Dooley’s marine pilots. Dooley allowed Bob Evarts to fly one of his squadron’s new aircraft; another Torpedo Eight pilot, Larry Engel, would pilot the fourth.

Swede went in first from the port side. His torpedo made a direct hit amidships, sending up a great cloud of debris. Evarts scored, too, although the two torpedoes in the patchwork Avengers failed to drop.

Swede had done it. Regardless of what happened afterward, he had helped to nail a Japanese battleship. Returning to Henderson Field, he celebrated his mission with the other victorious pilots.

The air attacks continued until bad weather forced the field to shut down. Later that night, under the cover of rain and darkness, Hiei, a ship that had once been honored by the presence of Emperor Hirohito at the last grand review of the Imperial fleet, succumbed to everything it had endured, and sank to the floor of Iron Bottom Sound.

Uncommon Valor

Torpedo Squadron Eight earned a unique record in the annals of the U.S. Navy. At Midway and Guadalcanal, the squadron was credited with sharing in the destruction of two carriers, one battleship, five heavy cruisers, four light cruisers, one destroyer, and one transport, along with numerous aircraft.

Torpedo Eight sustained more casualties than any naval air squadron that fought at Midway, and more than all the naval squadrons that flew with the Cactus Air Force on Guadalcanal. At Midway, 45 of the 48 officers and men serving in Torpedo Eight were killed. At Guadalcanal, seven squadron members were killed and another eight wounded.

Its 35 pilots won an astounding 39 Navy Crosses. The enlisted men in the squadron earned more than 50 medals for bravery in action, including multiple awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Silver Star, and the Air Medal. Although official navy records of military awards are not maintained on a squadron-by-squadron basis, Torpedo Eight might well have been the most decorated of the war.

And finally, Torpedo Eight was the only naval squadron operating in the Pacific in 1942 to be awarded two Presidential Unit Citations from Franklin Delano Roosevelt: one each for Midway and Guadalcanal.

Excerpted from the book A Dawn Like Thunder: The True Story of Torpedo Squadron Eight, by Robert J. Mrazek. Copyright © 2009 by Robert J. Mrazek. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.