Montgomery’s Charlie Brannon, who perished at Midway, is one of story’s heroes
New book tells ‘true story’ of Torpedo Squadron Eight
By BILL RICE, JR.
January 22, 2009
One battle and the course of a war, and the fates of millions of the planet’s inhabitants, changed. The battle was Midway and it can be convincingly argued that the actions (and sacrifices) of six torpedo squadron pilots turned the battle into America’s first major victory of World War II and ultimately changed the course of the rest of the war.
And one of those six pilots was Montgomery’s own, Ensign Charlie Brannon. Brannon, among the “best and brightest” of his generation and universally popular as a light-hearted, fun-loving “joker ... and “free spirit” died in his first combat flight of the war.
Brannon, his two-man crew of turret gunners and the crews of five other Avenger Torpedo planes, took off from the little island of Midway early on the morning of June 4th, 1942. The small formation of torpedo bombers attacked the “huge” Japanese armada, including several air craft carriers, with no fighter support. They were the first group of American aviators to take on the Japanese fleet in the pivotal battle.
“For them to go in alone was not entirely suicidal - they thought they could make it home - but it was an incredible act of bravery,” said Robert J. Mrazek, author of a critically-acclaimed new book (A Dawn Like Thunder - The True Story of Torpedo Squadron Eight) that chronicles the heroic actions and lives of the men who made up the famous squadron.
The top varsity tennis player at his alma mater, The University of Alabama and the son of a Montgomery lumber company owner, Brannon volunteered for military service in April 1941. After a little more than a year of intensive flight training, he was selected to be a part of Torpedo Squadron Eight.
A newlywed, his participation in the war would span the time it took him to fly from Midway to the Japanese fleet and then, in tight formation, fly straight at the fleet’s aircraft carriers into a wall of anti-aircraft fire and a hail of machine gun fire from swarming Japanese Zero fighter planes.
As Mrazek details in his book, Brannon’s Avenger Torpedo bombers were the only planes that took off from Midway that actually found the Japanese fleet.
In one of two dramatic examples of an officer disobeying orders, the group’s leader - Lt. Langdon Fieberling - broke off from a larger group of dive bombers and fighter escorts shortly after taking off from the island. Fieberling felt the course they’d been given on the ground was incorrect and made a spontaneous decision to fly another course setting. His men followed him.
The details of how and when Brannon’s plane was shot down are not fully known. What is known is that all six planes flew directly into a non-stop volley of shells and machine gun fire upon starting their low-altitude torpedo run.
Only one pilot, Ensign Bert Earnest, survived the attack on the Japanese fleet in the first action of the battle. Earnest, one of the most decorated and famous heroes of the war, was Charlie’s closest friend in the squadron and had served as best man at Charlie’s recent wedding.
Earnest’s plane was shot to pieces. One of his crew members was killed, another wounded. It’s considered an aviation miracle that the plane made it back to Midway. But because the plane did, Bert Earnest was an eye witness to much of the the heroic actions that took place that morning.
“Still in tight formation, the Avengers hurtled downward at three hundred miles an hour toward the surface of the sea. As if they were part of the American formation, the Japanese Zeroes pursued them all of the way down. ... Fieberling pulled out of the screaming dive at two hundred feet and headed directly for the first of the Japanese carriers. When he opened his bomb bay doors, the rest of them did too.
... Bert was on the left, Charlie on the right. Glancing back, Bert saw that the other three were still in the same tight formation behind them ... Then the air was filled with tracer bullets again.”
Soon after, the hydraulic system of Earnest’s plane was damaged, causing him to lose speed and drop behind the other planes in the formation.
“Veering out of formation, he took a quick glance back at the others. They were all still there, Charlie Brannon, Ozzie Gaynier, Darrell, and Vic. Lieutenant Fieberling was leading them straight toward the nearest Japanese carrier.”
Charlie Brannon, who was on the eve of his 23rd birthday and had been married only a few months, would soon be gone.
For his display of extreme valor, he was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross. Two years after his death a navy destroyer escort, The Charles E. Brannon, was named in his honor. More than 60 years after his sacrifice, Mrazek, a former five-term U.S. Congressman, wrote a book to help ensure that the contributions of these true heroes will not be forgotten.
“One thing that struck me in my research is how incredibly accomplished these men were at such a young age,” said Mrazek in a recent phone interview from his home in New York.
Torpedo Squadron Eight (the larger part of which took off from the air craft carrier Hornet) became famous not just for their role at Midway, but for the part they played in the months-long campaign to secure Guadalcanal as an air base in the Solomon Islands.
The Squadron is also famous for the shocking losses it suffered. Forty-five of the 48 pilots and crew men who flew at Midway perished. Seven more were later killed at Guadalcanal.
In many cases, their deaths “wrecked their families ... They were the stars of their families, and stars in their home towns and schools. They were the hope and future for their families,” said Mrazek.
Mrazek spent three years researching and writing his first non-fiction book (he is also author of the award-winning Civil War novel, Stonewall’s Gold).
He tracked down every living Squadron member he could for interviews, poured over letters, after action reports, training records and other historical accounts.
One reviewer comments that the work he created resembles a gripping novel.
However, every conversation and detail included in the book is based on solid source material, usually multiple sources, he said
Several letters from Squadron members are reproduced. The letters reveal men who were highly-educated, thoughtful and, in many cases, almost poetic or “romantic” in the expressions of their thoughts.
Mrazek was greatly touched by a letter from Brannon’s late father - who owned a lumber business in Montgomery. After Midway, parents spent weeks or months not knowing what had happened to loved ones. Brannon’s parents had only received telegrams, stating that their son was “missing in action.” Mr. Brannon’s letter was to the parents of Bert Earnest.
“We have no hope of ever seeing our son again, but since there is a slight possibility that he might have been taken prisoner, or drifted to some island without communications, we are so anxious to learn about this battle, that is the part he took in it,” wrote Mr. Brannon.
Mr. Brannon, through Earnest, would later learn the heart-breaking truth.
But as Mrazek makes clear in both his book and an interview, Brannon’s life was not given in vain.
Historians seem to agree that the early attack on the Japanese fleet convinced the Japanese admiral to change his battle plans. The “ferocity” of the first attack on the fleet and the courage exhibited by the crews caused the Japanese to change the armaments on their planes and reconsider the notion that Midway would be easy to take. A later attack by the larger element of the Squadron also caused the Japanese to take defensive measures that delayed any attack on the U.S.’s own carriers (the only ones the U.S. possessed at that time).
The attacks also made the Japanese fighter planes focus on the low-altitude assaults of the torpedo planes. Ultimately, American dive bombers - streaking downward from high above - sunk four Japanese aircraft carriers. The results of the battle effectively ended any future Japanese offensive actions in the Pacific.
While Squadron Eight did not sink any major ships in the battle, their sacrifices made it possible for other American planes to do so.
If America had lost the battle of Midway, the war in the Pacific AND the war in Europe would have changed dramatically, Mrazek notes.
Japan would have been able to “consolidate” all of its early victories in the Pacific. The nation’s military could very likely have taken Australia. Any barrier to occupying the only U.S. Port in the Pacific, Hawaii, would have been removed.
Under such a scenario, President Roosevelt and his top military strategists almost certainly would forego their plan to focus on the European theater and Nazis first. With no threat from the U.S. Navy in the Pacific, Japan might have even been able to give assistance to Hitler in his campaign against Russia.
Mrazek still believes the will and industrial might of America and its allies would ultimately have prevailed in the war. However, there’s no doubt the war would have been greatly prolonged, with countless more lives lost.
Mrazek’s book recounts the specifics of the Battles of Midway and Guadalcanal. What separates it from other war histories, however, is the vivid portraits he paints of the men who made up Torpedo Squadron Eight.
His is the first book that focuses only on the actions of the squadron. It’s a story that needed to be told, he believes. It was also a story that he was honored to write.
“These were such fine, fascinating men,” he said. “... I wanted to do a book that developed the themes of sacrifice and courage and duty, the values that are part of the soul of this country.”
Mrazek, the former congressman, said these qualities were not exactly conspicuous in his work in politics. He found them, however, in the stories he uncovered and recounts in his excellent book “A Dawn Like Thunder.”