What can Christians learn from the bravest naval aviator at the Battle of Midway?

I have been reading lots of books about the World War II battles in the Pacific theater lately, and I wanted to write a post about one of the heroes I found who was the most compelling to me. You may have seen him in the old 1976 Midway movie or the new 2019 Midway movie. But neither movie tells the full story. The man I am talking about is Lt. Commander John C. Waldron.

John Waldron was the leader of the torpedo bomber squadron on the Hornet. This squadron was composed of outdated and slow Devastator torpedo bombers, armed with the Mark 13 Mod 1 torpedoes, which malfunctioned about 90% of the time.

I found an article on the Federalist that tells the story of John Waldron:

Now there are countless men and woman who deserve to be singled out for their valor, but with the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway just around the corner, I thought it would be appropriate to call your attention to one of the bravest men who ever lived. A man who, knowing he was facing certain death, led the first attack against the Japanese aircraft carriers and played a direct role in what would be a decisive victory for the United States, and a defeat from which Japan would never recover. That man was Lt. Commander John C. Waldron.

Now for those who don’t know, the Battle of Midway was the turning point in the Pacific theater. The Japanese had an elaborate plan that involved attacking the U.S. base on Midway Island in order to lure the Americans into a battle which the Japanese High command felt their experience and tactics would overwhelm and annihilate the American fleet. With no significant U.S. naval presence, Hawaii and the entire West Coast would be at risk of invasion. But the Americans broke the Japanese code and set a trap of their own – hoping to destroy their enemy’s carriers and thereby establish U.S. dominance in the Pacific. And that was exactly what happened : The U.S. fleet surprised the Japanese, sank their four carriers, and took the first real step to winning the Second World War.

John Waldron was 42 years old when the USS Hornet steamed towards Midway on June 1st, 1942. Born and raised on a reservation in South Dakota, he had never seen the ocean until he attended the Naval Academy. It wasn’t long after he graduated that he moved into naval aviation. He had been assigned to be the squadron leader of the Hornet’s torpedo bombers in late 1941 and had been drilling his men tirelessly ever since. Waldron had the reputation of a tough as nails, no-nonsense commander. Not surprising, since Waldron was a direct descendant of the warriors from the Oglala Lakota tribe – part of the Great Sioux Nation. The tough skin he developed came from decades of derision from his peers over his meager beginnings, and from the racism directed at his Native American heritage. Waldron didn’t care what anyone thought of him – all he wanted to do was fight for his country. He was a natural leader and his men would follow him into the gates of Hell, which, as fate would have it, is exactly what they would do in the upcoming battle.

On the morning of June 4th, the Americans were ready to spring their trap, but in the preflight briefing aboard the Hornet there was a problem. Stanhope Ring, who was in command of the carrier’s air group, directed his pilots to head northwest of the last reported position of the Japanese fleet. Waldron disagreed with this decision, feeling that they should head in the exact direction of that last sighting. He wasn’t shy about expressing this opinion, much the displeasure of Ring. Waldron continued to lobby his superior officer several times after the briefing ended, but to no avail.

The Federalist article doesn’t talk much about Stanhope Ring, but the book I just finished called “The Battle of Midway” by Craig L. Symonds did. Ring was a very tall, good-looking, and white officer who had breezed up the chain of command thanks to his good looks and confident manner. He loved to show off for cameras, and pull rank on subordinates. He was too proud to admit that Waldron was right in front of the other pilots.

More:

The air strike force took off from the deck of the Hornet – fighters, dive bombers, and the 15 planes in Waldron’s torpedo squadron. This force would be joined in the air by similar strike forces from the other U.S. carriers – the Yorktown and the Enterprise. Shortly after the Hornet’s air group was airborne, Waldron couldn’t contain his anger anymore. He broke radio silence to tell Ring that they were headed in the wrong direction. He repeated that comment and Ring issued a terse reply that he was in charge of this group and to stay the hell off the radio. Waldron waited a couple of minutes before replying “The hell with you” and peeled his squadron off and headed due west, where he felt the Japanese fleet was.

Less than an hour later, Waldron was proved right. He had led his squadron on a direct line to the enemy. Waldron broke radio silence again to signal to Ring that he had found the fleet, but Ring and the rest of the Hornet’s planes were too far away to hear. So now, Waldron was faced with a brutal decision. If he went in to attack, he would do so without any fighter protection, and they’d be totally at the mercy of the Japanese fighters. To make matters worse, the U.S. planes (Douglas Devastators) were hopelessly outdated aircraft – their top speed was about a third of what the Japanese fighters could do. They had hoped to get the newer Grumman Avengers, but the Hornet had left Pearl Harbor before they had arrived from the mainland. All of this meant that Waldron and Torpedo 8 were looking at a suicidal attack run. […]Waldron got on the radio again and told his men “We will go in. We won’t turn back. Former strategy cannot be used. We will attack. Good luck!”

And with that, the planes of Torpedo 8 closed up their formation and bore down on the Japanese fleet, some seven miles distant.

The Japanese fighters quickly pounced on the Americans, who were going in low and slow – the only way torpedo bombers can attack. One by one the planes from Torpedo 8 were shot down. […]Every single plane in Torpedo 8 was destroyed and not one torpedo hit a Japanese ship.

Not only were the torpedo bombers of John Waldron’s VT-8 (Hornet) shot down, but two more waves led by Eugene Lindsey VT-6 (Enterprise) and Edward Massey VT-3 (Yorktown) were also repulsed without a hit.

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History might have viewed Waldron’s attack as more insane than brave, and utterly pointless….except for what happened next. Shortly after his failed attack, the torpedo squadron from the Enterprise attacked the fleet – and right after that the torpedo squadron from the Yorktown. Both of those squadrons had devastating casualties as well (10 of 14 planes lost and 10 of 12 respectively) without inflicting any damage on any Japanese ship. But these three attacks in succession drew the Japanese fighter cover down so low, that it left their carriers exposed to dive bomber attacks. It also burned up a lot of fuel for the fighters, who now needed to land before they could continue their defense of the fleet. The attacks also forced the Japanese carriers into defensive maneuvers, so they were unable to land any planes or launch any for a strike on the American carriers.

In addition to using up their fuel and coming down to low altitude, the Japanese CAP (combat air patrol) fighters also used up most of their dangerous 20 mm ammunition. They mostly had much weaker 7.7 mm ammunition remaining when the dive bombers from the Enterprise and Yorktown arrived.

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As the Japanese were trying to compose themselves after the three fierce but harmless attacks, the American dive bombers from the Enterprise and Yorktown arrived and quickly struck. Within minutes, three of the Japanese carriers were in flames – the heart of the Imperial Navy had been gutted.

[…]The other planes from the Hornet never found the Japanese ships. Ring kept his planes flying in that northwesterly direction until they were too low on fuel to keep going. They returned to the Hornet with their full payload of bombs.

[…]Now, there were a lot of heroes that day – some who lived and some who died, but the valor that John Waldron displayed in defying orders he knew were wrong and then attacking the enemy when he knew it meant certain death, place him on a special level. His actions directly helped the Americans win this crucial battle, which turned the tide of the war in the favor of the United States. He got the Navy Cross for his actions that day, but it seems astonishing to me that he wasn’t awarded the Medal of Honor – he is definitely worthy of it.

You can learn more about the Battle of Midway in this helpful video:

So, here is what I wanted to say about this.

John Waldron was not properly equipped by his organization to make a difference at Midway. His planes were too old and slow, his torpedoes almost never worked. His leader was an arrogant, incompetent coward who prevented him from leading others to find and attack the actual targets. The only way he could do something to his enemy was to disobey orders and go off on his own. If he had lived, he probably would have been court-martialed for insubordination. After Waldron was shot down, every single one of the men in his squadron continued their attack until they too were all shot down. Everyone watching must have thought “what a waste of effort”. It was only later that it became evident to all that what he did was necessary for the second wave to succeed.

This plaque at the United States Naval Academy Club honors the three commanders of the torpedo bomber squadrons:

Plaque honoring the Torpedo Squadron commanders at Midway
Plaque honoring the Midway torpedo bomber squadron commanders

According to the Family Research Council, the plaque reads:

The torpedo attacks of Waldron, Lindsey, and Massey had followed hard upon each other by luck. What was not luck, but the soul of the United States in action, was the willingness of the torpedo plane squadrons to go in against hopeless odds. This was the extra ounce of martial weight that in a few decisive minutes tipped the balance of history.

When I read this story, it immediately occurred to me that this is the problem that serious Christians are facing today. Parents and pastors are not equipping young people to actually make a difference. Instead of finding and fighting the real targets: atheism, radical feminism, communism, etc., all our forces have been sent on wild goose chases, so that now “Christians” are actually trying to promote the priorities of the secular left, e.g. – global warming, wealth redistribution, affirming sexual immorality, open borders, critical race theory, etc.

The few of us who actually know how to do our jobs are poorly equipped. We are prevented from leading by organizations that are focused on feelings rather than results. We can only hope that our decision to attack against hopeless odds somehow paves the way for a second wave to succeed. It has happened before, and that’s why we should be brave and continue to engage our opponents using tools that work (philosophy of religion, evidential apologetics, scientific research, historical evidence, chastity, sobriety, self-control, good stewardship of our educations, careers and finances, effective charitable giving, self-sacrificial love, etc.).

11 thoughts on “What can Christians learn from the bravest naval aviator at the Battle of Midway?”

  1. American churchianity is indeed filled with apathetic cowards.

    And they have flipped the Gospel on its head by labeling those of us who call for repentance “pharisees.”

    Their reply to you in the context of John Waldron would be that he was a “Lone Ranger” (Christian) who got what he deserved. Ignoring the incredible number of “loners” who faithfully followed God to their deaths in both the OT and NT, including John the Baptist and Christ Himself..

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        1. I saw in the theater. Everything was exactly like the books, except they had Leslie’s torpedo bombers attack before Waldron! That really made me mad, but I still have the movie a 10 and bought the DVD. It’s just a great historically accurate movie.

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          1. Didn’t the plaque above say that the three waves followed each other “by luck”? That would mean none of them were inspired to act by any of the others acting first, right? So Waldron was just as heroic even if he didn’t go first.

            Anyway, heroes all, and used by God to change history. A terrific movie.

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          2. Well, yes. He didn’t know he was the first. The first wave had to face the most number of fighters and all the 20 mm cannon ammunition. More planes survived in subsequent waves as the 20 mm ammo ran out.

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  2. Ah, ok, thanks for clarifying. Also, were you not, like me, horrified at the end to find out HOW MANY Chinese were massacred by the Japanese forces just for HELPING Doolittle and his crew escape? I think it was a couple of hundred thousand. They made the Nazis look like choirboys by comparison.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Want to have your stomach turned some more, check out The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang.

        It’s been called the forgotten Holocaust of World War 2.

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