John Charles Waldron was born in Fort
Pierre, South Dakota, on August 21, 1900. Descended on his mother’s
side from the Ogala Sioux, he was the youngest of five children,
and grew up in Saskatchewan Canada, where his father raised and
sold vegetables to the Indians in return for dried fish. According
to his daughter, Waldron never ate fish again after leaving home.
While attending high school in Rapid City, South Dakota, his mother
taught at a local Indian school. Appointed to Annapolis, he earned
high marks in executive aptitude, and graduated 479th out of 525
men. After earning his gold pilot’s wings at Pensacola in
1927, he married Adelaide Wentworth, with whom he had two daughters,
Nancy and Ann. While remaining on active duty, he studied law in
the early 1930’s and was admitted to the California bar, although
he never practiced. During the decade before the war, he flew every
type of aircraft in the navy arsenal, proving himself to be an exceptional
pilot. Considered a natural leader, he was given command of Torpedo
Squadron 8 in July, 1941.
Known as “Johnny,” he was at forty-one
almost twenty years older than most of the pilots in his squadron.
Tall, lean and rugged, Waldron was described as having the face
and bearing of a Sioux warrior. With as many eccentricities to his
personality as Stonewall Jackson, he rode his men hard right from
At Norfolk, he made them fly four hours in the morning
and four more in the afternoon to master formation and divisional
flying, always impressing on them how little time there was to accomplish
everything they needed to know to survive aerial combat. Unlike
many of the other squadron leaders, he had them exercise regularly,
convinced that their physical stamina was an important key to their
ability to remain calm under fire.
He wasn’t afraid to take on the navy establishment,
constantly railing to his superiors about their inadequate equipment,
underpowered aircraft, and the failure of the navy to supply enough
practice torpedoes. Due to his hectoring, his squadron was chosen
as the first to receive delivery of the Navy’s new torpedo
plane, the Grumman Avenger. They still hadn’t arrived when
Waldron and half the squadron left aboard the Hornet for the Pacific.
As their training ended, most of the men in the squadron looked
up to him as both a father figure and a perfectionist who could
be counted on to protect their lives.
Aboard the Hornet, he continued to drill them relentlessly
on what a Japanese carrier was known to do when under attack, and
how to maximize the potential of their slow moving torpedo planes
when boring in for a strike.
His last words in the ready room after they were ordered
to launch their attack at Midway were, “My greatest hope is
that we encounter a favorable tactical situation, but if we don’t,
and worst comes to worst, I want each of us to do his utmost to
destroy our enemies. If there is only one plane left to make a final
run-in, I want that man to go in and get a hit. Good luck and God
When Commander Stanhope Ring, the overall Hornet Air
Group Commander, took the fifty-nine plane group in the wrong direction,
Waldron led his squadron off alone to find the Japanese fleet. In
the words of Ensign George Gay, he flew straight to the Japanese
carriers “like they were at the end of a plumb line.”
Flying without fighter protection, Waldron led his
men into the attack, hoping to make hits on the Japanese carriers
before escaping to return to the Hornet. According to Ensign George
Gay, Waldron was pressing on alone in front of the rest when Japanese
fighters raked his plane with machine gun fire, igniting a fuel
tank. Waldron opened his canopy and stood up from the cockpit of
the flaming fuselage as it crashed into the ocean and exploded.
All fifteen planes in the squadron that flew
from the Hornet were shot down. Of the thirty pilots and crewmen,
only Ensign Gay survived. Although none of his torpedo planes scored
a hit, Waldron and his squadron helped to buy the precious battle
time that allowed dive bombers from the Enterprise and Yorktown
to attack unhindered by Japanese fighters and sink four Japanese
carriers in what became known as the “Miracle at Midway.”
None of the other forty-four other planes flying in the Hornet Air
Group found the Japanese fleet.