Troops involved in a conflict are admonished to pursue the enemy and carry out their mission as if victory in the war depended entirely on them. That may not always be the case — there’s a lot of hurry-up-&-wait in the armed forces — but sometimes it does turn out that a small number of individuals can have a decisive influence on the outcome of a war. Of course, given the inevitable chaos and pain of battle the reckoning may have to wait for that final arbiter of victory, the judgement of history.
Now a judgement has been rendered about the record of the U.S. Navy’s Torpedo Squadron Eight and a new book, “A Dawn Like Thunder” by Robert J. Mrazek , sets out the crucial role of that one unit during the early days of World War II in the Pacific. At both the Battle of Midway and Guadalcanal, at a stage in the war when the final outcome was still uncertain, Torpedo 8 faced the Japanese forces and contributed to gaining time and territory and turned the tide of battle.
The role of Torpedo 8 was recognized at the time — it was the most highly decorated naval air squadron of WW2 — but at a tragic cost, for the squadron is believed to have suffered the greatest number of combat deaths of any such unit in American history. “A Dawn Like Thunder” recounts the military maneuvers and details the armaments at the disposal of naval aviation . “The torpedo planes [skipper John Waldron]’s men flew were terribly outmoded,” writes Mrazek. “Some of his pilots derisively referred to them as ‘flying coffins,’ and by 1942, they weren’t far wrong.” But the story of Torpedo 8 is told mostly through the lives of the Navy flyers, proceeding through chapters concentrating on the actions and character of dozens of officers and men.
Harold “Swede” Larsen was an Annapolis graduate and a tough taskmaster who commanded Torpedo 8. One of his men actually tried to shoot him. Swede led the unit through its bloodiest fights and went on to have a distinguished naval career.
William Robinson Evans Jr. was from a Quaker family, an Eagle Scout, graduate of Wesleyan University and a fine writer. His buddies called him “the Squire”. His letter home written from Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 is on the opening pages of “A Dawn Like Thunder.” He wrote, “Though I suppose we have all known it would come sometime,here was always that inner small voice whispering — no, we are too big, too rich, too powerful, this war is for some poor fools somewhere else.”
George “Tex” Gay was the only pilot in the squadron to survive Midway and was sent back to the States to receive a hero’s reception at war bond rallies and his picture on the cover of Life Magazine.
The Battle of Midway came six months after Pearl Harbor . Mrazek gives an hour-by-hour account of the action of Torpedo 8 and other units that resisted the massive Japanese onslaught. “If the Japanese had won at Midway, they would have been free to advance eastward… President Roosevelt would have been forced to abandon his strategy of fighting Germany first. History might well have turned out quite differently.” But the cost was tragic. “A Dawn Like Thunder” contains a belated inquiry into the actions of Admiral Pete Mitscher, who sent his air group in the wrong direction and may have brought higher casualties on the American flyers. But following the first major naval air victory of the war the Navy was unwilling or unprepared to investigate further. Torpedo 8 was nearly totally wiped out and had to be reconstituted for action at Guadalcanal. Following Guadalcanal the Navy disbanded the decimated squadron.
As bloody and chaotic as war may be, everything has to be officially documented and Mrazek has searched that record, including the documentary “The Battle of Midway” by Hollywood director John Ford and a short film about the crew of Torpedo 8. But most of the author’s research involved seven years seeking out and speaking with veterans and their families and other scholars of the Second World War.
Robert Mrazek lives in Ithaca. He is a Cornell graduate and a Navy veteran whose oppostition to the Vietnam War drew him into politics. He served five terms (1983-92) as a Democratic congressman representing a district on Long Island. Among his legislative accomplishments was the Amerasian Homecoming Act to protect children of American military personnel from Vietnam, and the National Film Preservation Act. He is the author of three novels, including “Stonewall’s Gold”, set during the Civil War.