Having a range of 6,000 yards, it could do great
damage to an aircraft carrier—if it hit. But carriers
were fast and maneuverable, and the only way to
guarantee a hit was to bore in low and get as close
as possible before dropping the “fish.”
The TBFs climbed to 2,000 feet and took up
the heading of 320 degrees at 160 knots. Then a
formation of enemy planes passed them. Those
were the first Japanese planes they had ever seen.
They would not be the last.
Just as the island disappeared over the southern
horizon the first wave of Japanese bombers
and fighters began their attack. Bright blasts
of exploding bombs and AA guns punctuated
the columns of black smoke that rose into the
At 0655, Earnest, farthest to the left, saw a single
ship headed south. It looked like a transport. Then
the whole ocean was covered with ships. “It looked
like the whole damned Japanese Navy,” he says.
A massive battleship was just ahead and, beyond
that, two big carriers steaming side by side.
The carriers were the Akagi, flagship of Admiral
Nagumo, and Hiryu, steaming 5,000 yards apart,
while the other two carriers, Kaga and Soryu, were
10,000 yards (five miles) behind. Their hangar
decks were packed with fighters and bombers
being fueled and readied for a possible attack on
any U.S. ships that might be in the area. Unknown
to the Torpedo 8 detachment, Fieberling’s crews
were the spearpoint of the entire American
attack. But instantly, the Torpedo 8 men were no
longer alone in the sky.
“Enemy fighters!,” Manning called over
Earnest’s interphone. The turret’s .50-caliber
began banging away as Manning turned and
aimed at the darting Zeros. Earnest had never
seen such nimble and swift fighters. “There were
so many, they were getting in each other’s way. I
triggered my nose guns, but nothing happened.”
Enemy cannon shells and 7.7mm machine-gun bullets tore into the big TBFs. Earnest felt
and heard the thump of enemy bullets tearing
through his plane.
Still holding formation, the Americans forged
ahead at full power. Fieberling began his attack
run, diving at the sea toward one of the carriers.
Then Manning’s gun stopped firing. In the ventral
compartment, Ferrier felt something warm and
sticky running over his head and shoulders. It
was Manning’s blood. A 20mm cannon shell had
exploded in his chest, killing him instantly.
Fieberling’s TBF leveled off at 200 feet as the
Zeros followed them down. Earnest saw his
leader’s bomb-bay doors open, and he followed
suit. More bullets lanced into Earnest’s plane,
and the howl of the 230-knot airstream added
to the din of aircraft engines and gunfire.
Tracers streaked all around them as he tried to
concentrate on the Hiryu, which grew larger with
every passing second. Suddenly, he felt a sharp
blow on his neck as shrapnel hit him. Blood
sprayed over the instrument panel. Another Zero
moved in behind the TBF.
Ferrier was about to fire when the tailwheel
fell, blocking his view. The hydraulic system had
been hit. Unable to fire, he could only wait. The
big Grumman was taking fierce punishment as
dozens of bullets tore into the thin aluminum
skin. Earnest felt the plane slipping out of
formation as his control cables were shredded.
Pulling back on the control stick had no effect.
He could not climb or dive. Then a cannon shell
exploded in the instrument panel. Unable to
control the TBF, he knew they were going down.
The five remaining TBFs were boring in amid a
swarm of fighters and increasing antiaircraft fire.
Then one of them burst into a ball of orange flame
and spun into the sea with a titanic splash, but
the others continued their attack. Two managed
to release their torpedoes, but the Hiryu was able
to avoid them. One by one, the rest of Earnest’s
squadron mates fell from the sky and crashed
into the sea. Fieberling, Brannon, Gaynier, Lewis,
and Woodside were all lost, with their gunners.
They had died before Waldron’s 15 Devastators
had even launched from the Hornet. The first
casualties of the attack on the Japanese fleet had
been the men of Torpedo 8.
about to Fire
his view. the
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Fire, he could
only wait. the big
as dozens oF
into the thin