With World War II raging in the Pacific, U.S. Navy pilot Ben St. John flies a torpedo bomber from the deck of the USS Intrepid to take on the Japanese Imperial Navy. He and the other pilots confront one of the largest warships ever put to sea, the Japanese super-battleship Musashi. "Chronicles of Courage: Stories of Wartime and Innovation" is a co-production of Vulcan Productions and NBC Learn.
Chronicles of Courage -- Torpedo Bomber
KATE SNOW, reporting:
World War II rages in the Pacific Ocean as Allied forces fight to liberate the Philippine Islands from Japanese Occupation. The United States Navy's Third Fleet patrols the dangerous island waters to support the Allied troops and intercept the Imperial Japanese Navy. An American reconnaissance plane flying over the area spots nearly thirty Japanese ships in the distance. The American aircraft carrier USS Intrepid gets the order to attack the enemy armada. Ben St. John is one of the U.S. Navy pilots who will make the attack.
BERNARD "BEN" ST. JOHN (Pilot, U.S. Navy): We were waiting for the fleet to show itself. Every ship had torpedoes, armor piercing bombs set aside, reserved for the fleet.
SNOW: St. John flies a Grumman TBF/TBM Avenger, a rugged 3-seat torpedo bomber with a powerful engine and folding wings. Torpedo bombers are designed to carry and release a 2,200-pound torpedo, a self-propelled missile packed with deadly explosives and deployed to sink enemy ships.
ST. JOHN: I wanted to be a torpedo pilot because I felt that's the place I could do the most damage.
SNOW: In his Avenger, St. John joins the third wave of aircraft that launches from Intrepid to assault the Japanese fleet. As his plane nears the enemy ships, he sees one of the largest warships ever put to sea, the Japanese super-battleship Musashi, the pride of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
ST. JOHN: It was obviously the biggest thing we'd ever seen, and with the most guns. The anti-aircraft fire was intense, more than we had ever seen.
GREGORY G. FLETCHER (Author, Intrepid Aviators): Musashi was roughly a third larger than anything in the United States' inventory.
SNOW: To make their attack on Musashi, the Avenger torpedo bombers must fly at a specific speed and altitude. But this creates an easy target for the Japanese gunners.
ST. JOHN: Now, if you stayed straight and level for any length of time they knew what you were doing. So it was a case of picking your spot, dropping the torpedo, and getting out of there.
SNOW: Unlike the bombs dropped from an aircraft that explode on impact, the Mark 13 aerial torpedo is designed to fall through the air and then travel through water toward its target. The torpedo is dropped from an altitude of up to 2,000 feet and enters the water at an angle, between 22 and 32 degrees. If the water entry angle is wrong, the torpedo can plunge too deep or skip off the water's surface, damaging the torpedo or throwing it off course.
ST. JOHN: In our mind we knew the altitude and what speed we had to have to get that thing to go in the proper angle.
SNOW: The torpedo's impact with the water trips a valve, sending fuel to the motor that runs the attached propeller. The torpedo is propelled through the water at a preset depth. After traveling a specific distance, the torpedo becomes armed to explode on contact with the ship's hull.
FLETCHER: The idea was to release the torpedo within 2,000 to 1,500 yards of the target, and then turn away. If your aim was right, the torpedo would hit the target, penetrate the hull armor, and explode with devastating results.
SNOW: Waves of fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo bombers pummel Musashi with more than 30 bombs and Mark 13 torpedoes.
ST. JOHN: The Musashi was pretty much out of order as a result of the attacks from the USS Intrepid.
SNOW: Eventually, the super-battleship sinks into the ocean.
FLETCHER: The Musashi sailors had a song, the refrain for which is 'the Musashi is unsinkable. If Musashi sinks, Japan will sink with her.' And, of course, that's precisely what happened.
SNOW: After three days of fighting in the waters around the Philippine Islands, the Allies succeed in breaking Imperial Japan's command of the Pacific Ocean in one of the largest naval battles of modern times.
ST. JOHN: I can look back on it now and say that's exactly what I trained for, and to hope and pray that I managed to handle it properly.
SNOW: With the Grumman Avenger and the Mark 13 torpedo, St. John bravely helps the Allied forces win the battle. The Allies are able to continue their drive through the Pacific and finally bring an end to the brutal war with Japan.
The attack on Pearl Harbor was the culmination of a decade of deteriorating relations between Japan and the United States over the status of China and the security of Southeast Asia. This breakdown began in 1931, when Japanese army extremists, in defiance of government policy, invaded and overran the northernmost Chinese province of Manchuria.
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