Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Book note: Torpedo 8, by Ira Wolfert

While glancing through Torpedo 8: The Story of Swede Larsen's Bomber Squadron, by Ira Wolfert, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1943, checking the condition before I put a price on it (we have a bookstore, with mostly used books), this jumped out at me from the Foreword (ed. note: content warning):

The Japs wiped out the United States Navy Torpedo Squadron 8 in a few minutes at the Battle of Midway. The minutes were hot and rough. The squadron was like a raw egg thrown into an electric fan, and only three men came out of the action alive. One of these is no longer fit for combat duty...

Our Navy, too, has wiped out whole Jap squadrons in a few rough, hot minutes, and there has always been great curiosity on our part as to how the Jap airmen left to carry on were taking it... [snip] ...when these hammer blows fell, how did the comrades of the dead feel, the men who had to step into the dead men's shoes and follow down their awful path? What was their reaction when they heard this news and how did they feel when they were ordered into similar planes and locked themselves in to take off on similar missions? Did they have left in them any of the confidence in survival necessary for the efficient operation of complicated machinery and necessary for the pressing home of an attack? Or did they have in them the unnerving efficiency-destroying emotions of men ordered to commit suicide and determined to commit suicide?

We wanted to know. We were most anxious to know, and on November 12, toward the end of a bloody afternoon on Guadacanal, we found out. That was the day two squadrons of Jap torpedo bombers were obliterated. Two young Jap airmen had managed to live unhurt through the destruction of their plane and were taken prisoner. They were both asked how they had felt when twenty-five bombers were sent out and one came back, when twenty Zeros were sent out and none came back, when thirty-three planes were sent out and only one came back, when, day after day, on mission after mission, it was only the odd planes that survived. They answered with enough difference to show that they had not been coached and that they were answering honestly, to the best of their ability. They did not blame their planes, their training, or their officers, or develop any great fear of us. Instead, each said he felt, as all Jap airmen felt, that the dead were responsible for their own deaths, they had not done their work properly.

Americans do not blame the dead for their deaths. Our traditions and teachings are against it. The Fascists - and the Japanese are purer Fascists than the Germans or Italians, each of whom has had something of a democratic tradition - cannot seem to conceive of their state or their superiors being wrong, but automatically think of themselves as being wrong. So they blame their dead for having died. But we, as democrats, have too much respect for the individual man to blame, without overwhelming evidence, our dead for having died. This reaction is as automatic in us as the Fascist reaction is in them. Also, we are too realistic and too sensitive to the worth of each individual man to accept a state or those in authority over us as being infallible. Nor do we have any inclinations for suicide or for suicidal actions in war. Our traditions, our teaching, and the whole American temperament are against all such antics.

To leave the quote off there is admittedly to take things out of context. According to the Foreword, to the surprise of outsiders, the Navy put together a new Torpedo 8 squadron, which it threw straight into the Battle for the Solomons. The squadron's slogan went from "Attack" to "Attack - and Vengeance!" And get vengeance they did, it sounds like, sometimes by doing what might seem suicidal.

Further reading: According to the Naval Historical Center, Lieutenant George Gay, USNR, was the sole survivor of Torpedo Squadron Eight (VT-8). (In the Foreword above, it notes three survivors. I don't know which account is right, or if they're talking about different time periods or events.)

More here: Torpedo Squadron 8 Plane Captain Relives ‘Battle of Midway’ by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James E. Foehl, Commander, Navy Region Hawaii Public Affairs, at, 6/4/2007.

Ouch, this puts a human face on it, or, rather, several human faces: a YouTube video, an old Office of Strategic Services film, eight minutes long, in memory of the men of Torpedo Squadron 8. So far, I haven't been able to find a non-YouTube link for this video. (If the Navy or other official agency has it online, I'd be glad to link directly, in other words.)

To get back to the Foreword, there's this, toward the end:

Torpedo 8's revenge is one of the most grimly satisfying events of the American part of the war thus far. It's a legend of the kind that made epic ballads in ancient days. And this is the story of the men who lived that legend, of why they went out for revenge, and how they got it, and how they felt while getting it...
So, that's what the author was aiming at, if you're interested in books about the military, or history in general, or World War II in particular.

But what caught my eye was the comparison between worldviews, the difference between men who serve a government that serves its citizens, versus men who serve a state that places the state first, or an ideology or cause first.

Thumbing through, I find this in Chapter 2, on page 12:

Our men volunteer for suicide missions, not to seem brave, not to win medals or promotion, but only when, independently of their officers, they decide the possible gain is worth the probable loss. They decline to volunteer only when their private arithmetic does not add up that way. They do things that seem crazy, but never for crazy reasons, almost always for reasons that stand the test of sound adult thought.
Several paragraphs later, after elaborating on that theme, on page 13:

Contrast this with the Fascist notions of the Japanese soldiers, who cannot conceive of their superiors ever being wrong and continually try to carry out pipe-dreams and invariably go up in smoke. Their desk dreamers do not trust the judgment of their subordinates and many, many thousands of Japanese lives have been wasted on that account alone. The democratic process with the habits of thought it has produced in our fighting men, has given us a valuable, life-saving system of checks and balances in this war.
That's generally speaking, I'm sure...

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