The Battle Turns
Somehow, against all odds, Earnest’s shot-up, battered TBF was still flying. He had no
elevator controls, no hydraulics, and no radio or
navigational instruments. But he still wanted to
try to sink an enemy ship. Just ahead to the left
was a cruiser, AA guns blazing away. With a kick
on his left rudder, he cobbled the crippled TBF
around, aimed at the enemy ship and triggered
the switch to release the torpedo. Expecting to
feel the sudden release of weight, he was surprised
when nothing happened. He tried the emergency
release with the same results. The torpedo would
not fall free of the plane.
The big plane slipped closer and closer to the
rolling swells, and there seemed no way to stop it.
Then Earnest did something that had become
a habit during training. “I had my hand on the
elevator-trim wheel, and the plane suddenly
jumped up. I realized I could still control the
elevator that way. But I had two Zeros coming at
me. Then they left. I don’t know why. They had
me dead to rights.”
That was when the AAF B- 26 Marauders bored
in on the carriers with their own torpedoes. After
that came the Marine dive-bombers. Earnest was
north of the fleet, with the Japanese between
him and the atoll. “I decided to head south until
I was past the fleet, until I figured I was west of
Midway.” But all his navigational instruments,
including his compass, had been shot away.
“The sun was relatively low in the sky, so I knew
where east was. I climbed to about 4,000 feet.”
There were several planes in the distance heading
south, but he had no way of knowing who they
were—probably Marine dive-bombers returning
home after being savaged by the Zeros.
Somehow Earnest’s damaged plane kept
going. The big Wright Cyclone, despite being hit
several times, never faltered. With no compass
or airspeed gauge, he was going to have to be
extremely lucky. If he missed Midway, he and
Ferrier were doomed to vanish into the empty
sea. As he coaxed the crippled TBF south, Ferrier
came on the interphone. “He said he had been
knocked out but was OK. I asked if he could see
if the torpedo was gone, but there was so much
blood from Manning covering the small window
into the bomb bay he couldn’t see.”
About an hour after leaving the enemy fleet
behind, Earnest turned east. Eventually, he saw
a smudge of dark gray, which resolved itself into
columns of black smoke rising from the island.
He descended and lined up on the runway for
a landing. But his troubles were not over. “I
couldn’t get one wheel down,” he said. “I didn’t
have any flaps or hydraulics.” With consummate
skill, the aviator managed to bring the battered
TBF into a one-wheel landing, skidding to a noisy
stop just off the runway.
By then, the carrier-based Dauntlesses were
wreaking havoc on the first three Japanese
carriers. All but one of the VT- 8 men that left
with Waldron were dead. But the bloody day had
been an American victory. That afternoon, the
SBDs finished off the fourth enemy flattop.
But the War Had Just Started
The surviving TBF was found to have more than
100 holes from small- and large-caliber shells.
Even all three propeller blades were riddled. But
that tough little plane never let its pilot and
crew down. It was shipped back to Pearl, where
Grumman engineers examined it with respectful
awe. After the battle, the name “Avenger” was
given to the new plane.
As for Torpedo 8, they reassembled in Hawaii
and shipped out on the USS Saratoga (CV- 3) in
August. They were headed for an island in the
Solomons called Guadalcanal. The war had just
started for the men of VT- 8.
After the long and desperate Guadalcanal
campaign, Bert Earnest served 30 years in the
Navy, rising to the rank of captain. He flew
B-17s as a hurricane hunter and commanded
the Naval Air Station at Oceana, Virginia. Harry
Ferrier continued to fly Avengers throughout the
war, seeing combat from the Enterprise. He was
commissioned an ensign in 1945 and retired as a
commander in 1970.
The author highly recommends Robert J. Mrazek’s
excellent 2008 book, A Dawn Like Thunder: The
True Story of Torpedo Squadron Eight, published
by Little, Brown and Company, New York.
Damage to the turret
appears to be shrapnel
from a shell exploding
inside of it. (Photo
courtesy of Stan Piet)