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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."

The ship was still not up to full speed, but it must have been something close to 20 knots because I saw fighter planes taking off from the flight deck. Captain Buckmaster was already talking to the pilots in the air when I got to the bridge. He always told them, “Protect the fleet,” but this time he also said. “Don’t start chasing tails.” I’m sure they knew what he meant.

Everybody knew the Japanese fighter planes were faster than ours. It was useless to try to get behind a Zero. As my friend Brazier explained it to me, our pilots were just beginning to learn some new maneuver where they flew in pairs. The object was to let the Zero get behind you, and then lead him in front of your wingman’s guns. It was just funny to hear the captain put it that way. “Chasing tails” was something we did on liberty. It’s what sailors called it when we were trying to get the attention of the girls ahead of us on sidewalks and beaches in Honolulu. In any other situation I would have laughed. But not at Midway. Those fighter pilots were the Yorktown’s first line of defense, and they were willing to die to protect her.

“Torpedoes!”

I don’t know how many enemy planes our fighters shot down. I’m sure they did their best, and so did the cruisers and destroyers around the Yorktown; I could hear their antiaircraft guns going off in the distance. But I still didn’t know what kind of planes were attacking us until the XO hollered, “Torpedoes!”

I did not see the wakes––the captain was blocking my view––but I knew what was coming. I braced myself. I did not fall down when the ship swerved out of the way. Captain Buckmaster was so good at that, I’m sure he would have avoided them all if the engines had been at full speed. But then I saw the plane approaching low from the port side. It was only 700 or 800 yards away when it dropped the torpedo. I heard the captain call out another turning order, but the Yorktown wasn’t fast enough. There was nothing anybody could do but stare at the wake of that torpedo and wait for the hit.

I wanted the captain to take shelter inside the radio room with me, but he did not. He was just holding on to the door when the torpedo exploded. It felt like some giant hand reached down and grabbed the Yorktown like it was a toy, lifted us out of the water and shook us for a few seconds before it let go. There was another big jolt after that, and then the lights went out, and the engines stopped again. It was worse than before, because this time the ship was listing––turning over on its side––and if it didn’t stop, we were going to be upside down in the water. For a couple of minutes, I thought I knew what it must have been like for all those sailors on the Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor.

The Yorktown was sitting at about a 20-degree angle when the captain gave the order to abandon ship. I still didn’t know the procedure, but, one way or the other, I knew I had to get off. Right now. I already had my life jacket on. I wore it like a vest all the time––never rook it off except when I was in bed. I just had to make sure the fasteners were good and tight, which gave me all the time I needed to remember the stories that went around after the Lexington sank in the Coral Sea.

As far as I know, most of those guys got off okay, but there were all kinds of what-ifs. Like, what if the enemy pilots had come back and strafed them while they were bobbing in the water close to the ship. And sharks.

But the one that really got to me was the meaning of the term “displacement.” As I understood it, anything that floats displaces a certain amount of water, which is like saying it makes a hole in the ocean. Whenever a ship sinks, the ocean comes rushing in to fill that hole, and it creates a whirlpool––the same as water going down the drain in a bathtub. The bigger the ship, the bigger the hole, the bigger the whirlpool. Well, they didn’t come much bigger than the Yorktown.

 

I was trying to calculate the physics in my head. I didn’t know if I could swim fast enough to escape getting sucked into the whirlpool when the ship went down.

Looking For Siwash

 

I followed the quartermasters down the ladder from the bridge. Siwash was not with them. I ran back up to see if he was still in the chart room. He was not. I didn’t see him on the flight deck, either. That’s where everybody was gathering, waiting in lines for a turn to climb down the ropes they had thrown over the side. There was some confusion, but no great pandemonium.

I even heard a few guys joking about what a nice day it was to go for a swim, but it was that false, nervous kind of laughter, so I know I wasn’t the only one that was scared. I saw several sailors refuse to wait their turn. They stepped out of the rope lines and ran up to the edge of the flight deck and jumped. Well, the ship was tilting closer to the water on the port side, but it was still a good 30-foot drop. I wasn’t about to do that.

But there were at least 200 guys ahead of me in every line. I didn’t know if we had that much time. I was trying to think of a faster way to get off the ship myself when I saw a couple of radiomen going down the ladder to the hangar deck. They called out to me; I ran and joined them.

There were ropes thrown over the side of the hangar deck level, too, and hundreds of guys in the lines for those. We ran past them, and we didn’t stop until we got to the fantail. I don’t know why nobody else had thought of jumping off the ship from there. It was only about 12 feet above the water at that time. Maybe they thought the screws––the ship’s propellers––were still turning. I knew they weren’t. It was perfectly safe to jump off the fantail as long as the ship was dead in the water, which it most definitely was, but I didn’t want to leave without Siwash.

I was about to go back and look for him in the rope lines when somebody said he was probably with the admiral. That made sense to me. The admiral left us right after the first attack, and I hadn’t seen my friend since I volunteered for the work party on the flight deck. I wouldn’t be surprised if the admiral did take Siwash with him when he got off the Yorktown. I was just sorry I never got to say goodbye.

Jumping Ship

So I stayed where I was, along with about 50 other sailors. There was an officer on the fantail, dividing us into groups of about 15. When the first group stepped up to the edge, I heard him shout: “Stay together! Swim as far away from the ship as you can!”

I don’t know what time that was. It must have been midafternoon, because when it was my group’s turn, I looked down at the ocean and saw rainbows. The sun was shining on the water, making rainbows on the oil leaking from the stern. The men on either side of me were jumping, and the officer was yelling at me, “Go! Go now!” I could feel the next group of guys crowding behind me, pressing against my back.

It was too late to change my mind. I took a deep breath and jumped into the rainbows.

I swam until I was out of breath, and then I turned over on my back and paddled some more that way. When I took my first look back at the Yorktown, I was nearly a hundred yards away. I thought the ship was lower in the water than before, and I was sure it would sink in the next few minutes. I was not at all sure that I was far enough away to escape the whirlpool, but I was too tired to swim another stroke. There were dozens of men floating in the water around me. I don’t think any of us believed we were going to live another day until we saw the destroyers approaching.