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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."

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.”

I was still tired; my arms were sore from carrying all those crates and boxes. But, all of a sudden, I felt better. Thanks to Admiral Nimitz, I had something to look forward to again.

A Game of Acey-Deucy With Mike Brazier

The Yorktown was more than halfway to Midway on the first of June. I didn’t tell anyone it was my birthday––I was 22—but it was still a good day because I spent all my free time with Mike Brazier. He was one of the new aviation radiomen that hung out with us in the radio shack. I’m not sure how we got to be such good buddies in such a short time. Maybe that’s just the way it is when you’re stuck together on a ship, especially in wartime, but I think Brazier and I would have been friends anywhere. If we’d been ashore, we’d have gone for beer at the Tin Roof and played some pool. At sea, it was just coffee, black, and acey-deucey.

Brazier was even more like me than Siwash, because he had a girlfriend back home. He showed me her picture. I lied and said she was as pretty as Adeline. But he was in love with her, and they were going to get married the next time he got leave. Assuming he survived this mission, which we both knew was not a given for any of us on the Yorktown.

I was more afraid for him than I was for myself, because Brazier was the gunner for the pilot of a torpedo plane. By this time, everybody knew those Devastators weren’t really devastating at all. They were too slow. When they had a 1,000-pound torpedo under their bellies, they could barely make 100 miles an hour. If a Japanese fighter plane––a Zero––got on his tail, the gunner was even less likely to survive than his pilot, because he was in the rear seat.

Brazier never said he was afraid on the way to Midway. We never even talked about it. But I know that he wasn’t concentrating very well when we played acey-deucey that day. I beat him two games out of three.

Radio Silence Off Midway

 

On the second of June, Siwash told me we were getting close to Midway. I never saw the island, but I saw a lot of ships in the distance. It didn’t take long for word to get around that we were about to join task forces with the Hornet and the Enterprise. Counting all the cruisers and destroyers around the three carriers, there must have been at least 20 warships altogether.

I would have liked to talk to the other radio gangs, but that was not allowed. Under radio silence, the only way we could communicate was through the signalmen, the guys that ran up the flags or flashed the lanterns. We couldn’t even talk to our own pilots on the radio for fear of giving away our location to the enemy.

 

Everyone had an opinion on how CinCPac knew that a Japanese carrier task force was on the way. Some said Admiral Nimitz had a spy inside their government. Personally, I thought it had to be somebody really high up in the Imperial Japanese Navy. I was more interested in discussing the enemy’s strategy.

In the radio shack, we thought Japan wanted Midway as a base for their next attack on Pearl Harbor. If they could get Pearl Harbor, too––well, that was the ball game. There would be nothing left to keep the enemy carriers away from the West Coast. I could just see the bombs falling on San Diego and Los Angeles.

I remember the night of June 3, too. That was when I heard we were looking for at least four Japanese carriers. Maybe five. They were expected to attack Midway in the morning, but we still didn’t know where they were. It was the same kind of tension as in the Coral Sea, only 10 times worse, because I had a better idea of what was going to happen. I couldn’t eat or sleep, and I sure as heck couldn’t pretend I wasn’t scared.

So I went down to the hangar deck by myself and just walked around. It looked like they’d added more antiaircraft guns than we had before. There were all different sizes of guns, every 10 or 12 feet around the hangar deck. I wasn’t sure it was enough. Those Japanese carrier pilots were so skillful, and all it took was one to plant another bomb on our flight deck. I didn’t want to see any more burials at sea. That was the worst outcome I could imagine at the time.

Three Burning Japanese Carriers

The klaxon went off on the morning of June 4. When I got to my battle station on the bridge, I heard the officers say that Midway was under attack. That was actually a relief to me. It meant that the enemy carriers had no idea we were there. They never would have sent their planes to bomb Midway if they’d known three American carriers were near enough to strike back. I heard the captain say Hornet and Enterprise had already launched their torpedo planes. The Yorktown’s took off a while later.

When Brazier’s squadron was in the air, I tried tuning into their frequency. All I got was static. It was over an hour before any of the Yorktown pilots broke radio silence. The first pilot’s voice I heard was from a dive-bomber squadron. He said they had just sighted a Japanese carrier, and, oh, boy, was that guy mad. He’d accidentally lost his bomb somewhere over the ocean, shortly after takeoff. I guess there was something wrong with the release lever. But he was going to dive on the enemy carrier anyway, unarmed. That was just crazy. I think there was an awful lot of that kind of courage at Midway, on both sides.

I put the dive-bomber frequency on the loudspeaker; all the officers on the bridge of the Yorktownwere listening. I heard the lead pilot say, “That carrier is getting ready to launch!” and “Let’s go get it!” and “Okay, then, follow me!”

The next five or 10 minutes were awful. We didn’t know what was happening until the dive-bombers spoke again. I could hardly believe it when they said nobody was shot down. They also said that the enemy carrier was in flames. They didn’t have enough fuel to stay and watch it sink, but they all agreed it was done for. The pilots also told us they saw two other Japanese carriers, and they were burning, too. We didn’t know who was responsible for that. I hoped it was Brazier’s torpedo squadron. I still had nothing but static from them.

The Japanese Bombing Run

The communications officer had an urgent message for the captain: The Yorktown’s radar had just picked up a group of planes. They were less than 40 miles away, and everybody knew they weren’t ours. Apparently, the enemy had caught on to the idea of flying low when they approached the ship. They came in under the radar.

Captain Buckmaster grabbed the mike and told the fighter pilots to intercept the Japanese planes. I also heard him reminding all the senior officers on the bridge to be careful when they spoke on the radio. They were not allowed to refer to us as the Yorktown; they were supposed to use our code name, which was “Scarlet.”