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A Sailor Recounts How His Aircraft Carrier Was Sunk During World War II

November 9, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: USS YorktownCarriersBattle Of MidwayU.S. NavyWorld War IIRay Daves

A Sailor Recounts How His Aircraft Carrier Was Sunk During World War II

The tragic story of the USS Yorktown.

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.

The destroyers’ lifeboats were not rubber rafts with oars or paddles, like on the planes. These were regular metal boats with motors, more like the liberty boats at Pearl Harbor, only not as big. It looked like they were picking up maybe 15 men at a time. Well, there were more than a thousand of us in the water by then, so I knew it might be hours before they got around to me.

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.

I just floated on my back and watched the sky for enemy planes and tried not to think about sharks. The water wasn’t all that cold; the wind just made it seem so. In about 30 minutes, I was numb all over. I couldn’t even talk when the lifeboat finally came.

“Welcome to the Hughes”

There were 12 or 13 of us in that lifeboat when it pulled alongside one of the destroyers. We had to climb a Jacob’s ladder to get aboard. I’d never done that before either. It was like crawling up the side of a big ship on a spiderweb made out of ropes. I was not very graceful at it.

The destroyer crew was lined up on the main deck, cheering for me, telling me where to put my feet so I wouldn’t fall off. I was still a couple of ropes away from the top railing when somebody reached down, grabbed me by the armpits, and yanked me the rest of the way. I landed in a wet heap; somebody threw a blanket around me. After that, it was all hot coffee and “Welcome to the Hughes.”

I believe every man on that ship came by to shake my hand or pat me on the back. In less than an hour, they had me warmed up and showered and walking around in somebody else’s clothes. I don’t know what they did with mine. Probably threw them away. They were covered with oil.

The other ships must have rescued hundreds from the Yorktown that day, but there were only about 25 of us on the Hughes. Maybe that’s why we got so much special attention from the crew. The cooks gave us extra-big helpings of meat and potatoes and gravy; we had all the ice cream we could stand. Even the officers stepped aside for us on the ladders, like we were some kind of heroes.