Naval Disaster: What's It Feels Like to Watch an Aircraft Carrier Die

March 21, 2019 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IIMilitaryTechnologyHistory

Naval Disaster: What's It Feels Like to Watch an Aircraft Carrier Die

"I knew I was not a hero. I was just a survivor."

I heard a few guys holler “Taxi!” at the lifeboats; some whistled and waved. I was saving my breath in case I had to make another mad dash.

BACKSTORY: After working in a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp in Idaho, Ray Daves enlisted in the Navy in the spring of 1938 and reported for basic training the following year. He was at Pearl Harbor, serving at Pacific Fleet Headquarters as a radioman, when the Japanese attacked; he was wounded in the hand. Afterward, he requested sea duty on a warship and was assigned to the submarine Dolphin (SS-169), on which he served one war patrol before being reassigned as a radioman second class aboard the aircraft carrier Yorktown (CV-5).

After the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 7-8, 1942), in which the Yorktown was heavily engaged and damaged, the carrier returned to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, for a promised three months in port to make necessary repairs; due to the urgency of the war, the three months was cut to three days.

This is Ray Daves’s story, as told by Carol Edgemon Hipperson in Radioman. (Copyright © 2008 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.)

On the Way to Midway

The Battle of Midway––May 27-June 4, 1942: Everybody on the Yorktown was looking forward to liberty in Honolulu. After nearly four months at sea, even three days ashore sounded pretty good. I was still out on the flight deck with the rest of the crew when Captain [Elliott] Buckmaster came over the loudspeaker and told us he was sorry. No liberty cards for anybody. All hands were needed to get our ship repaired and resupplied and ready to sail in time. In time for what, he couldn’t tell us yet, but he said it was important.

Of course the captain was sorry. Everybody was sorry. And, yes, there was plenty of grousing. I did my share of that, too. But I never once heard anyone blame the captain. We just cursed the war.

There was a regular mob of workers waiting for us. Hundreds of guys with toolboxes came swarming aboard the minute we pulled into dry dock. They hammered and sawed around the clock for the next three days and nights, and so did the crew. My job was hauling supplies. I bet I carried a hundred crates full of pineapples and oranges down to the galley. The cardboard boxes were heavier yet. Canned goods, I suppose. The Navy bought a lot of pork and beans.

It was during one of those trips between the supply trucks and the ship when I noticed the other two carriers. They were on the far side of Ford Island, so I never got a close look at them. Somebody said Enterprise was one; the other was Hornet. This was the first time I’d ever heard of the Hornet. It was also the first time I could remember seeing three carriers inside Pearl Harbor at once. That hardly ever happened before the war. They were both gone the next time I checked. I hope their crews got more rest between missions than we did.

The 30th of May was our deadline to get back out to sea, and we met it. I still didn’t know where we were going or why we were in such a hurry to get there. And I couldn’t imagine why Admiral Chester Nimitz himself came aboard to see us off. He was the top dog at Pearl Harbor, Commander in Chief of the whole Pacific Fleet.

In the radio shack, we referred to him as CinCPac. For him to take such a personal interest in our next mission, it had to be important. Somewhere in the South Pacific, probably. All the radiomen thought so, until the Yorktown cleared the channel. The cruisers and destroyers were just getting into formation around us when the whole task force turned north. That was our first clue. The captain hadn’t said anything yet, but it seemed obvious to us. We guessed we were going to Midway!

I was still waiting for the mission announcement when I felt the ship’s speed increasing, and we were turning into the wind. That meant the air group was flying out from Ford Island. The pilots needed a headwind to help slow the planes when they touched down. I hustled up to the bridge catwalk to watch. Siwash Nagombi [a Chicago-born sailor of Indian heritage] wanted to come with me, but he couldn’t leave the chart room just then. The admiral was on his way down. This was the same admiral that was with us in the Coral Sea, so I’m sure my friend was used to him.

I still couldn’t get over it myself. I mean, Siwash was senior to most of the other quartermasters—probably the smartest, too—but he was not an officer. He was an enlisted man—a petty officer, second class––the same as me. I saw nothing unusual when the first fighter plane came in. The airdales [sailors on an aircraft carrier whose job involves working with aircraft] towed it forward; the pilot was still in the cockpit when the next plane approached the stern.

Hard Landing on the Yorktown

Landing accidents were not unusual, either. About once a week, a plane would veer off the runway and bump into the island. [An aircraft carrier’s “island” is the command center for flight-deck operations, as well as for the ship as a whole.] They were never going very fast by the time they got that far. The pilots were just embarrassed.

Until that day, the worst accident I ever saw on the Yorktown was during a storm in the Solomon Islands. A wave lifted the stern just as a plane was touching down, and it caught a piece of the landing gear. The plane flipped over backward and landed upside down in the water behind the ship. That was nothing. The pilot got wet––he was still cussing when we fished him out––but they just gave him another plane, and he was back in the air the very next day.

So I wasn’t all that worried this day when the second fighter plane came in “hot”––too fast. I could tell by the sound of the engines. The LSO tried to wave him off. He was jumping up and down like a crazy man. I laughed when he dropped his paddles and scrambled out of the way. I don’t know why that pilot didn’t pull up and try again. Maybe he didn’t see the LSO’s signal to abort; maybe he thought it was too late. Either way, I knew he was going to get grounded for a day or two. That was the worst thing that could happen to any pilot, or so I thought, until that plane touched down.

It came in so fast, the tailhook bounced over every cable across the stern, didn’t catch a single one. After that, it plowed through the last barrier, which was a rope net below the island. I braced myself for the impact, but there was none. This plane crashed into the one that had landed a minute before, with the pilot still in the cockpit. I saw the propeller blades cut through the canopy of that parked plane, and I watched them chop that pilot’s body into little pieces. There was blood spattered all over both planes, all across the flight deck, and all over me.

That was the last time I ever watched a plane land on the Yorktown. It wasn’t entertaining anymore. I did not know the pilot who died in that accident or the one who was in the plane that killed him. They were both new to the Yorktown, as were all the other pilots and gunners that landed afterward. I heard that in the radio shack, right before the captain told us where we were going.

The Yorktown‘s Most Important Battle of the War

Midway was one of few islands in the Pacific I’d ever heard of before the war. I copied a lot of messages from there while I was in the radio shack at the submarine base. As far as I knew, Midway was just a Naval Air Station and that’s all that was there, except for the Marines that guarded the place. I pictured it as being just like Ford Island, except that it was way out there in the middle of the ocean, all by itself.

If the captain knew how many Japanese Navy ships were expected to attack Midway, he didn’t say. It’s just as well he didn’t. After what I saw in the Coral Sea, even one Japanese aircraft carrier sounded pretty scary to me.

I didn’t know what to make of it when the captain said this could be the Yorktown’s most important battle of the war. It wasn’t like him to exaggerate, so that sure got my attention, along with the note he read over the loudspeakers. He said it was a personal message to all of us from Admiral Nimitz. I wish I’d thought to write it down. I just remember that it went something like this: “I’m sorry you didn’t get the liberty you deserved after your victory in the Coral Sea. When the Yorktown returns from Midway, I promise all of you a long vacation on the West Coast. And, furthermore, the Navy’s going to throw a party for the whole crew, and it won’t be peanuts.”