It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.
General George S. Patton
The lawyer from South Dakota
On memorial day, veterans graves across the country are honored with wreaths and flags. But some veterans have no graves to honor, and can only be remembered.
Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron, U.S.N.
He & his men changed the course of World War II in the Pacific, and didn't live to know it.
He was a lawyer, born in Fort Pierre, South Dakota. His father was descended from English settlers, his mother was a Sioux Indian.
He was married, with 2 daughters.
He was admitted to the state bar in South Dakota, but rather then going into practice decided to join the U.S. Navy. He was chosen to be a pilot, in the new field of naval aviation.
He trained to fly torpedo planes (no longer in use). Their goal was to fly close enough to an enemy ship to drop a torpedo into the water, then get away as fast as possible. This was a difficult job. It required the planes to fly in a low, straight line as they approached the enemy, making them easy targets for enemy fighters and anti-aircraft.
Waldron was a good pilot. He was chosen to teach at Annapolis, and later Pensacola. He flew planes off 1 battleship and 3 carriers.
He and his wife held parties for other pilots at their Norfolk home. He was very proud of his little girls. Some pilots remembered being taken to his daughters' darkened bedroom and asked "Did you guys ever see such pretty little girls?"
With war looming in the Summer of 1941, Waldron and his men were assigned to the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet, in the Pacific theater.
He was determined. He once told his pilots that "if we run out of gas, we'll piss in the tanks." He wasn't looking for glory, or to become a martyr, or a hero. He was just doing his job.
On the morning of June 4, the Hornet was somewhere off Midway island, placed there to defend against the massive Japanese force sent to capture the Pacific base.
Waldron likely had few illusions about his chances. Although his men were well-trained, their "Devastator" torpedo bombers were already obsolete. The new "Avenger" planes were much better, but only beginning to roll out of the factories. And with the enemy coming, they had to make do with what they had. Before the battle he called his men together and said "If there is only one plane left to make a final run in, I want that man to go in and get a hit."
The Japanese "Zero" fighter was a lethal weapon. Though poorly protected, it was quicker and more maneuverable than it's American counterparts. And it was flown by some of the best pilots in the world.
On the morning of June 4, 1942, Waldron led Torpedo Squadron 8 off the Hornet. He had orders to search for the Japanese in a specific area, but had a hunch (he called it his "Sioux intuition") that the heading he'd been told to follow was wrong. He disobeyed orders, and it turned out his intuition was correct.
Waldron led his 15 planes straight to the enemy fleet. Forced to fly straight & low to aim their torpedoes, they were sitting ducks as the Zeroes swooped down and destroyed them one by one. Out of 30 men, there was only one survivor, Lt. George Gay. He saw Waldron stand up in his plane as it burst into flames, just before his own plane was shot out from under him. They didn't get a single hit.
The 15 pilots of Torpedo Squadron 8, photographed in May, 1942. Waldron is standing, 3rd from left. Lt. George Gay, (circled, 1st row) is the only man in the picture who survived.
But unbeknownst to all but Lt. Gay, they changed the course of the Pacific war.
The deadly Zeroes were now at sea level, on the prowl for more torpedo planes. But the next American wave, this time of dive bombers, was high above. They might have been easy targets, too. But as they came down the Zeroes were no longer in a position to defend their fleet, and couldn't gain altitude in time to stop the bombers. Between 10:20 and 10:25 a.m that morning the Japanese lost 3 of their 4 aircraft carriers to the bombers. The last carrier followed them a few hours later.
The loss of the four carriers, with their planes, pilots, and crews, was a blow the Japanese navy never recovered from. The war went on for 3 more years, but the tide was turned by the sacrifice of a group of men, led by a 41-year old lawyer from South Dakota.
The fallen from Torpedo Squadron 8. Their only grave marker is the blue Pacific water.
Lt. Commander John C. Waldron
Lt. Raymond A. Moore
Lt. James C. Owens, Jr.
Lt.(jg) George M. Campbell
Lt.(jg) John P. Gray
Lt.(jg) Jeff D. Woodson
Ens.William W. Abercrombie
Ens. William W. Creamer
Ens. Harold J. Ellison
Ens. William R. Evans
Ens. Henry R. Kenyun
Ens. Ulvert M. Moore
Ens. Grant W. Teats
Robert B. Miles, Aviation Pilot 1c
Horace F. Dobbs, Chief Radioman
Amelio Maffei, Radioman 1
Tom H. Pettry, Radioman 1
Otway D. Creasy, Jr. Radioman 2
Ross H. Bibb, Jr., Radioman 2
Darwin L. Clark, Radioman 2
Ronald J. Fisher, Radioman 2
Hollis Martin, Radioman 2
Bernerd P. Phelps Radioman 2
Aswell L. Picou, Seaman 2
Francis S. Polston, Seaman 2
Max A. Calkins, Radioman 3
George A. Field, Radioman 3
Robert K. Huntington Radioman 3
William F. Sawhill, Radioman 3