Interview with Bert Earnest
ww2dbaseInterviewer: Jim Bresnahan
Interviewee: Albert "Bert" Earnest, Avenger torpedo bomber pilot, US Navy Squadron VT-8; lone surviving pilot of the squadron during the Battle of Midway
Edited Transcript of the Interview
Earnest: I was called in for flight training in February of 1941, and finished in November of 41, and then down to Miami, at a place called Opa-laka, which is just northwest of Miami. I was ordered to talk to Squadron 8 - not my choice, it was just what I was ordered to. At any rate, I went home to Richmond and was there when, on December the 7th, when the war started. So I reported to Norfolk, Virginia to the air station and the squadron was getting ready to go on a shakedown cruise on the Hornet. We stayed just doing training while the ship was going. When the ship came in on the 1st of February of 42, we, the new pilots - there were around seven or eight of us I guess - all went over there and joined the squadron. We found out that the Hornet was leaving in about a month, so in that month they gave us a field carrier landing practice day after day after day, deciding which of us would go with the ship, and which would stay behind. The more inexperienced staff was being left behind to get the TBF-1s, which was the Grumman Avenger, the new torpedo plane. The carrier and the squadron couldn't wait for it, they had to go, so they left the executive officer back with around 20 or 25 pilots and lots of enlisted men to receive the new airplane and get them ready to come out and join the squadron. Well, what happend was, we got in to Pearl Harbor, the airplanes on an old Seatrain and we were on a transport. We got there the day after the Hornet had already sailed, the Hornet and the Enterprise had already sailed, the Yorktown was in the dry dock. And the next morning when we got up the Yorktown was gone, so we just missed the squadron. They were in the TBDs, the old torpedo planes, we had the new ones, but the ship was gone. They were trying to build up the force on the island of Midway as well as they could, so they decided to get the first six planes we can get ready and fly them out to Midway, and I was one of the ones picked to go in that. We were led by one of the two lieutenants we had in the squadron, who had been left behind with us, he was the materiel officer of the squadron; his name was Fieberling, he was a lieutenant, we were brand new ensigns.
Bresnahan: What were your impressions of the plane itself?
Earnest: I have to say [the TBD Devastator] was a fairly good airplane for its time, but the time has long passed. It was quite slow, especially after you put in armor plate and guns, and then you put a torpedo under it, it was mostly exposed, that slowed it down a great deal. It was quite slow. The TBF was much much faster, it carried the torpedo internally, and was just a far superior airplane.
Bresnahan: [audio unclear]
Earnest: Well, I wouldn't go so far... You gotta remember, I was a brand new young ensign, and I had Earl Gallaher, I think, who was a really experienced person who's been in naval aviation for a long time, and I was brand new. Anyway, we got out there and we were told that the carriers were back protecting the Hawaiian Islands, and we shouldn't expect any help from them, and anything that had to be done had to be done by the airplanes on the island that they had for us. The island was covered by airplanes, the Marines had dive bombers and fighters, I should say OLD dive bombers and OLD fighters. They had very few of the latest airplanes, and the place was covered with B-17s and PBY-5As. The PBY-5As were the amphibian PBYs, flying off the field. There was practically no space for parking out there; they had so many airplanes there.
Bresnahan: [audio unclear]
Earnest: Henderson was a major, I was an ensign, and I didn't get to meet him. I heard about him of course, because later I flew from Henderson Field in Guadalcanal. But I did run across quite a number of Marines that I'd gone to flight training with; they were brand new too there. The fighter that was being flown by the Marines was mostly the Brewster Buffalo; they made it look like a fighter around the field, but it really wasn't very good, once it got to about 15,000 feet it didn't have much left.
Bresnahan: [audio unclear]
Earnest: We had gotten up as usual in the morning and warmed the airplanes up and then we would sit in the cockpits until the search planes had gotten to the end of their search. If they didn't discover anything, then they would secure us and we would cut the airplanes off and get out of the cockpits, and go about our business, but be available to be called if necessary. This morning we did the usual thing and cut the engines and then some jeeps came running up and one fellow jumped up on the wing of the leader, Fieberling, told him something I'm not sure what. Somebody told me that the bearing of the Japanese was 320 degrees, 150 miles, and we started the engines and taxiied right out, we took off right after the fighters, and we just headed right out toward the position of the enemy. We didn't join up with anybody. The B-26s, four B-26s carrying torpedoes, took off apparently just after us but we didn't know this. At any rate, we went out just as 2-, 3-plane sections.
Bresnahan: What was the sight like when you finally got the [Japanese] force into view?
Earnest: The first ship I saw, I thought it looked like a transport, and I thought well this will be fairly easy. All of a sudden I saw two carriers and all the ships all around, a battleship, cruisers, and so on. It was a very large screen. We were just approaching it. We headed down to make our run on the carriers, which were quite a long ways away from us, and just at that time the enemy fighters hit us. They were all over us; there must had been... they were getting into each other's way making runs on us. At will, more or less. It was pretty terrifying, I can tell you, especially when the cannon shells would hit us in the wing and I was hit by a piece of shrapnel. My turret gunner fired for a while, and then he stopped firing, and I guessed he'd just been killed. The tunnel gunner was wounded by a piece of shrapnel or a shell, so he was out of the action.
Bresnahan: Do you have time to even think about what's going on, I mean, was there much to think about as you bore in? As you mentioned it was kind of a terrifying experience because just for the amount of opposition you faced.
Earnest: We hadn't changed our position; we were still on the left wing of the leader and we were heading on in, hoping we would get there. But, as I said, these fighters were getting into each other's way, there were so many of them, making runs on us. Because I was hit, of course, I had blood all over the place. I didn't know how badly I was hit; it didn't hurt, but sort of shocking. At that time my elevator controls went out; they shattered the elevator controls, so the airplane started just... we were only two or three hundred feet, it started down, and I realized I was going into the water, so I kicked it with... there was a cruiser off on the port side, so I kicked it to the left... with the rudder and the ailerons, and tried to get a good lead on the cruiser and let it drop. And sort of stood by to hit the water. Just as I was about to hit the water, my instict which was that as I landed I always rolled by elevator tab back, and my hand just went on the elevator tab and did it. The airplane jumped back up in the air and I realized that I can control it with the tab rather than the elevator control, so this is trim tab. I realized that two of the fighters were still after me, so I was turning, jinking, and doing everything I could to get them off my tail, but not with much effect. They were just shooting the hell out of me, the airplane and me and so on. But after what seemed like an hour but I guess was two or three minutes, they left! I never knew why. The airplane engine had missed once, but it was running fine. They had chased me to the north, so that the fleet was between me and Midway. I kind of gathered myself, realized the airplane was still flying, and I was still in one piece. I guess I stopped bleeding, I'm not sure when that happened, but at any rate I realized I had to get back. I didn't see any of the other pilots. I looked back at the fleet, and there didn't seem to be any damage that I can see. I decided that since it's early in the morning and we had come out heading northwest, the thing for me to do, rather than fly back over the Jap fleet, was to head straight south until I figured I was to the west of Midway and then turn due east. The sun was still rather low in the sky so I knew where east was, but I didn't have a compass. The compass was back in the tail of the airplane, and at that time it was the only one they had, but it was shot up completely so I didn't have a compass. My hydraulic system was gone, the bomb bay door was still open, I couldn't close them, but the airplane was flying fine, so I climbed to about 4 or 5 thousand feet I guess and headed on south. I saw some other airplanes over in the distance heading back, but I don't know whether if they were Japanese or whether they were Marines coming ahead. At any rate, my job at that time was to get back to Midway. So I flew south until I thought I was probably west of Midway, and then I turned east. Little before that all of a sudden my tunnel gunner got on the radio, the intercom, and said he had been hit, was knocked out, but he was ok now. So he got up and got into the second seat of the airplane which in the early versions we had a seat right behind the pilot. I asked him if he could see whether the torpedo was gone, and he said he couldn't. Apparently the blood from the turret gunner was covering the little window that he would use to look into the bomb bay. At any rate, I headed east and I decided I would climb up a bit when I did I saw some black smoke, which I figured must be Midway. I dropped down to see if I can see the base through the smoke and there was the island of Kuri, which Kuri was about 50 miles to the west of Midway, so I knew where I was. I went on in and made my landing, and I couldn't get but one wheel down; apparently one of the wires that releases the wheel was shot up so only one wheel would come down. I didn't have any flaps of course because no hydraulics. So they waved me off a couple of times, but I finally came on in and landed on one wheel. It was a very nice landing, just parked it after the right wing dropped, and parked itself off the runway.
Bresnahan: It is surprising at all to have people 50 years later taking a look at all these different attacks that were made on the carriers, driven in all the way home separately, not just your attack but also those you mentioned, the B-26s, the dive bombers from Midway and the obviously later on those three torpedo attacks from the different carriers?
Earnest: My understanding had been that we were supposed to join up with the dive bombers but we didn't do it, and I don't know to this day why we didn't join up with them. We didn't, we just straight on out there, I don't know what our leader Fieberling was told but we went straight on out and made our attack with no help from anybody else as far as we knew. When you look back on it, wasn't a very smart thing to do.
Bresnahan: It was rather shocking, with the amount of losses and the sacrifice that was made.
Earnest: Of course I didn't know any of this until much later. After I got back to Midway, one of the Hornet bomber squadrons came in and landed at Midway, so I knew the carriers were hit in the attack. Finally we started getting word that the attacks had been successful. I didn't know about my squadron for quite a long time. I don't know when I found out that all of Torpedo 8 was shot down. George Gay came through Midway while I was there, another day afterwards I think he was picked up by PBY, but I didn't know that, I didn't find that out until I got back to Pearl Harbor about a week later.
Bresnahan: Did you get a good chance then to get to know some of the people in the squadron like the the Commander John Waldron and now you mentioned George Gay.
Earnest: Yeah, well I knew Waldron, he was my commanding officer, and of course I didn't know him well, I was only with his squadron for about a month under him. "Swede" Larson was the exec, of course I knew him very much better. Fieberling, who I flew with, I knew very well and liked very much. As I said, I was just with the air group and squadron for a very short time.
Bresnahan: [audio unclear]
Earnest: Yeah, [Waldron] was gung ho, got to get it there. He and "Swede" Larson were both the same way; they get around and pound on tables and say we gotta go in get these guys and so on. Some of the rest of us weren't exactly that enthusiastic about it I suppose but we knew we had a job to do so we tried to do our best.
Bresnahan: One of the things you mentioned flying the Avenger... Were you cognizant of the fact fact that you had some deficiencies in the plane when compared to the Zero? That you were gonna be facing a lot of problems when you got into the attack itself?
Earnest: We didn't really know about the Zero very well. We knew that it was a Japanese airplane but I had no idea that it had the maneuverability that it had. I saw one flying over my head, and it seemed to me like I could reach out and touch him, and before I knew it he was back on my tail. They were the most manevuerable airplanes I think I have seen. They're really fantastic. Well for a very well design airplane. It had one major problem. It didn't have bullet proof tanks or any armored plating, so if you did any firing at it and... When fighting another fighter, if you could get into position and get any hits on it and you had a good chance to shooting him down.
Bresnahan: When did you finally hear about the overwhelming bomb damage suffered by the carriers? A lot of oepole mention time and time again that it was the sacrifice of the torpedo squadrons and ultimately led to the success of the dive bombers.
Earnest: I talked to a Japanese fighter pilot down at Pensacola a couple of years ago and his comment was "you guys just kept coming and coming and coming!" They were in the area, expecting after a certain amount of time to be relieved and refuel and rearm, but there was always another attack coming in so they had to keep them after it. That's about the only credit we torpedo pilots could take for that day. We kept coming at them and one after another after another; we didn't have any coordinated attacks, which became very successful after the war, especially with the dive bombers. I never had many occasions when I had fighters go with me, and even when I had one, and it was wonderful. Fighters came straight down shooting their 50 calibers and dive bombers right after them and we came in and made our torpedo attack. That was the way it was supposed to be done.
Bresnahan: Was Midway your only carrier battle? Were you involved in smaller battles too?
Earnest: I was involved in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons which was, let's say, that was August the 23rd I think. I was on the Saratoga. We got back to Pearl Harbor and they decided to put us on Saratoga because Saratoga was ready to go, and Guadalcanal was coming up. We didn't know what was coming up, but we knew we were going somewhere, so we were put on Saragoa with the TBFs and went down there with another air gorup, supported the landings on Guadalcanal and then cruised up and down the Coral Sea. The Japanese carriers came down and I went out on an attack that we sank the Ryujo. We didn't get the big carriers. The Japanese had a very good habit of putting out the smaller carriers ahead of the others and it was sort of the decoy. We sank it. It was a good little carrier but it wasn't as big as Shokaku or Zuikaku. ww2dbase
C. Peter Chen
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Chiang Kaishek, 31 Jul 1937