George Gay Jr., who became a national hero as the only American aviator to survive a World War II attack on Japanese warships during the Battle of Midway, has died Friday.
Mr. Gay died of a heart attack. He was 77.
Mr. Gay, of Marietta, Ga., earned his place in history by bobbing up and down in the ocean for 30 hours as the battle that became the turning point of the war in the Pacific raged around him.
At the time, Mr. Gay was a 25-year-old Naval pilot with Torpedo Squadron 8 who joined other planes in attacking a Japanese aircraft carrier task force near Midway Island on June 4, 1942. Of the squadron's 30 men, he was the only one to survive the assault.
Wounded, and in a lifejacket, he watched American dive bombers descend from the clouds to attack the Japanese. He was quoted as saying he found himself "cheering and hollering with every hit" as he floated in the ocean.
While Mr. Gay's squadron suffered heavy casualties in its attack, Japan's Imperial Navy lost three carriers during the battle and never fully recovered.
Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz made Mr. Gay his spokesman in spreading his firsthand account of the Midway victory back in the United States. He appeared on the cover of Life magazine's Aug. 13, 1942, issue and on radio shows, including Nelson Eddy and Don McNeil's Breakfast Club programs.
After World War II, Mr. Gay was discharged as a lieutenant and worked as a TWA pilot for 30 years, flying worldwide routes from 1947 until he retired at age 60 in 1977.
He also made about one speech a month to civic groups around the country, retelling his Midway experiences and calling for greater U.S. military preparedness.
A native of Texas, he lived on Long Island, N.Y., and later in Naples. He finally moved to Atlanta because of the convenient air routes for speaking engagements.
In 1975, actor Kevin Dobson played him in the film Midway. Mr. Gay self-published the book Sole Survivor, which covered his romantic exploits as well as his Midway experiences, and sold copies at air shows.
He is survived by a wife, a stepson and a stepdaughter.