Gay, George Henry, Jr. (1917–1994)


By: Henry Franklin Tribe

Type: Biography

Published: October 12, 2020

Updated: October 13, 2020


George Henry Gay, Jr., was a United States Navy pilot who earned distinction as a member of Torpedo Squadron Eight at the battle of Midway during World War II. He was born in Waco, Texas, on March 8, 1917, and was the son of George Henry Gay, Sr., and Susan (Halsey) Gay. George Sr. worked in the oil industry. The family later relocated to Dallas, and George Jr. attended Oak Cliff High School for two years. At Oak Cliff, he participated in the school band and the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). The Great Depression caused the family economic hardship. For a time, George Jr. lived with his aunt and uncle. In Houston, he attended San Jacinto High School and took part in the school band and the ROTC. His interest in aviation was sparked with his first ride in a Ford Tri-Motor plane he took with his grandmother at the Texas State Fair. He also worked at a number of jobs to help the family and to save money for college.   

After graduating from high school in 1936, Gay entered the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (present-day Texas A&M University) where he studied mechanical engineering. Enrolled in the Coast Artillery branch of the ROTC, he was also a member of the Rifle and Pistol team. By 1939 fiscal circumstances made it difficult for Gay to remain enrolled at Texas A&M. After withdrawing from school, he sought to join the U. S. Army Air Corps but was rejected because of a heart abnormality. After a year of employment in an oilfield near Corpus Christi, Gay was accepted in the United States Naval Reserve (USNR) on February 12, 1941. He received his preliminary flight training at the Naval Reserve Aviation Base in Miami, Florida, and was appointed an Aviation Cadet on April 3, 1941. After advanced flight training, Gay received his wings on September 3. On October 14, Gay was commissioned an ensign in the USNR and assigned to Torpedo Sqadron Eight (VT-8) and the aircraft carrier USS Hornet at the Naval Air Station in Norfolk, Virginia. A few weeks after Ensign Gay’s arrival in Norfolk, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor which brought the United States into World War II.   

With the Hornet assigned to the Pacific Theater of the war, Ensign Gay readied himself for combat. In his diary, Gay expressed hope that his squadron’s obsolete Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bomber would be replaced with the updated Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bomber. In fact, a detachment of Squadron Eight, assigned to Midway Island, was assigned six Avengers. On April 18, 1942, Gay witnessed the launch of the Doolittle Raid on Japan. A few weeks later, he experienced his first combat in what some scholars would argue was the greatest naval battle of World War II—the battle of Midway.

On the morning of June 4, 1942, VT-8 consisting of fifteen TBD-1 Devastators and thirty men departed the USS Hornet and flew toward the Japanese aircraft carrier task force near Midway Island. Flying in five groups of three, Gay flew in the last group of bombers. Ninety minutes after taking off, the squadron saw the Japanese fleet. Ordered to attack by their squadron commander, the fifteen slow Devastators experienced little hope against the faster Japanese A6M Zero fighters that greeted them. Without fighter support, the Japanese quickly shot down each of the American planes and mortally wounded Gay’s gunner. In the action, Gay later maintained that the squadron’s rear gunners still eliminated five Zeros. With wounds from machine gun fire, Gay directed his Devastator toward one of the enemy aircraft carriers. After dropping his torpedo, Gay’s plane flew directly over a carrier and was then shot down by Zeros. With the exception of the Texan, the other men of VT-8 that had taken off from the Hornet that morning all perished.  

After being shot down, Gay managed to pull himself out of the plane’s cockpit and survive thirty hours in the ocean. Within minutes, he secured his deflated life raft and a black rubber seat cushion that had floated to the surface. After a failed attempt by a Japanese Zero to blast him out of the water, Gay found himself trying to avoid detection by ships of the Japanese carrier force that had surrounded him. Minutes later, Gay heard the roars of Navy SBD Dauntless dive bombers taking aim at three Japanese aircraft carriers. After observing the destruction of three Japanese aircraft carriers (the Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu), Ensign Gay was spotted and then rescued by a Navy Consolidated PBY Catalina patrol boat. Taken first to Midway and then to the naval hospital at Pearl Harbor, Gay received treatment for his arm, hand, and leg wounds. He then received a visit from the Pacific Fleet Commander-in-Chief, Adm. Chester Nimitz. After careful questioning, Gay informed Nimitz about his own ordeal and the destruction of three Japanese aircraft carriers that he had witnessed. For his heroics at the battle of Midway, Ensign Gay was awarded the Navy Cross, Presidential Unit Citation, and the Purple Heart.

The battle of Midway proved to be a major victory for the United States and a costly defeat for the Japanese. Given a month leave, Gay returned to Texas where he spent some time with his parents. To promote the victory, the U. S. Navy arranged for Gay to speak about America’s military achievements at Midway. In July he visited Texas A&M where he received a warm welcome from the Corps of Cadets. Depicted as a war hero, Gay appeared on the cover of Life magazine (August 31, 1942). He also appeared on radio programs, including those hosted by Nelson Eddy and Don McNeill. Gay rejected, however, an offer by 20th Century Fox to make a movie about him.      

After three months in the United States, Gay returned to the Pacific and the war in the fall of 1942. Assigned to Torpedo Squadron Eleven, Gay underwent some training at Pearl Harbor and at Fiji before moving on with his unit to Guadalcanal. Squadron Eleven took part in night work that involved attacking enemy shipping in the Solomon Islands region. For his combat contributions against Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands from April 26 to July 17, 1943, Lieutenant Gay received the Air Medal.  In late 1943 Gay was assigned to the Naval Air Station in Miami, Florida. Before receiving his military discharge in 1945, Lieutenant Gay served as a torpedo bomber instructor in Jacksonville, Florida, at the Naval Air Station.

With the end of the war, George Gay embarked on a civilian career. On May 14, 1946, he married Esther Huffman Bevacqua. After the war, he lived in Long Island, Florida, and Georgia. From 1947 to 1977 Gay enjoyed a successful career as a commercial airline pilot for Trans World Airlines. In 1975 filmmakers invited Gay to Pensacola, Florida, to view the filming of Midway (1976), a major motion picture with an all-star cast that included Henry Fonda and Charlton Heston. Kevin Dobson played George Gay in the film. Gay later joined cast members in a national tour to promote the film. In 1980 he authored Sole Survivor: The Battle of Midway and its effects on his life.   

At the age of seventy-seven on October 21, 1994, George Henry Gay, Jr., died of a heart attack in Marietta, Georgia. Although depicted as a war hero and as the “sole survivor,” Gay always maintained that he was a “lucky guy,” and those men of Squadron Eight that died were the real heroes. At the time of his death, he was survived by his wife Esther and two stepchildren. In accordance with his wishes, Gay’s cremated ashes were taken to the South-Central Pacific to their final resting place to join the rest of his squadron that had died fifty-two years earlier at the battle of Midway.

Henry C. Dethloff with John A. Adams, Jr., Texas Aggies Go to War: In Service of Their Country (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2006). George Gay, Sole Survivor: The Battle of Midway and its effects on his life (Naples: Midway Publishers, 1980). “George Henry Gay, 8 March 1917–21 October 1994,” Naval History and Heritage Command (https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/research-guides/modern-biographical-files-ndl/modern-bios-g/gay-george-h.html), accessed October 8, 2020. Robert J. Mrazek, A Dawn Like Thunder: The True Story of Torpedo Squadron Eight (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008). New York Times, October 24, 1994. Craig L. Symonds, The Battle of Midway (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). James R. Woodall, 12 Texas Aggie War Heroes: From World War I to Vietnam (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2016). Ralph A. Wooster, Texas and Texans in World War II (Fort Worth: Eakin Press, 2005).  

Categories:
  • Aviation and Aerospace
  • Military
  • World War II
  • Transportation and Railroads
Time Periods:
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II
Places:
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas
  • North Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Henry Franklin Tribe, “Gay, George Henry, Jr.,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 20, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/gay-george-henry-jr.

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October 12, 2020
October 13, 2020

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