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 Yorktown were 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.”
That made no sense to me. I thought they should have just told the Japanese pilots who we were. If they listened to Tokyo Rose as much as we did, maybe they would believe they were bombing a ghost ship. If that wasn’t enough to make them nervous, maybe they would at least wonder what else their leaders got wrong. Anything to mess up their aim.
The Yorktown’s fighter planes were about 20 miles out when they engaged the approaching enemy planes. I heard one of our pilots say, “Where’s my wingman?” and another was shouting, “Get that Zero off my tail!”
The first plane I saw shot down was a Japanese dive-bomber. There was a trail of fire and smoke behind it and a huge splash when it hit the water. I heard the antiaircraft guns on the cruisers and destroyers booming in the distance. They shot down several more. But I know at least a few enemy planes got through all that, because there was one coming right at us on the bridge.
For a second or two, that was all I could see. I thought it was going to crash into the island and kill us all, until that plane disintegrated into a million pieces. Somebody shot it down before it hit us, but the plane had already released its bomb. So then I watched the bomb, and the bomb filled the window, and it was like in slow motion, the way the thing tumbled end over end. I couldn’t take my eyes off it until it exploded, and then I hit the deck.
When I looked up, I saw a huge cloud of black smoke and shrapnel outside the bridge, and the captain was not standing in front of the window anymore. He was inside the radio room with me. I wanted him to stay there, but he didn’t. He stepped out again, because the helmsman couldn’t hear his turning orders, and another plane was coming toward the bridge, and there was another big explosion, and I fell down again.
The dials on the radios were flickering, and I didn’t believe this was how I was going to die because I’d just turned 22. I heard men shouting––no, screaming–– somewhere outside the bridge, but there was no sound at all from the ship’s engines. The Yorktown was dead.
A Hole in the Deck
I’m not sure how long I was out. I came to dizzy and disoriented. My ears were still ringing from the explosions. It hurt to breathe because of all the smoke on the bridge. Worst of all, I was alone in the dark. I have no memory of when the captain closed the door to the emergency radio room. I wasn’t even sure the enemy planes were gone until I heard his voice. He was not shouting anymore; he was talking to someone on the ship’s phone. At least that still worked. It sounded like he was taking damage reports from the engine room. He was so cool and steady, you’d have thought he was inquiring about his dry cleaning or the price of fish.
The Yorktown was not moving when I opened the door. I honestly believed the captain was about to give the “abandon ship” order. Which was a scary thought, because I didn’t know how. The Navy didn’t teach us that in basic training. Then again, maybe they did. I missed a lot of stuff while I was in the pool.
You don’t know how glad I was when I heard the captain say the engines were going to restart. I even heard him tell the XO that we could start launching and recovering planes as soon as the flight deck was repaired. I thought that was a pretty big if. There was only one hole in the flight deck, but it was huge––10 or 12 feet wide––and it was less than 30 feet from the island. If that bomb was intended to kill the captain and all the senior officers on the bridge, I would call it a near miss. I knew I was lucky to be alive.
There was no reason for me to stay inside my battle station at that time, so I volunteered to help repair the hole in the flight deck. Not being a carpenter, there wasn’t much I could do there either, but I figured they could use another hand for the grunt work. I don’t know if I would have done that if I’d known that the hole was really the least of the bomb damage.
Burials at Sea
I didn’t see the bodies until I climbed down from the bridge. I don’t know how many––20, 30, maybe more. They were hard to look at and hard to count, because most of those men were just blown to pieces. The guys in the ship’s band––I remember the harp insignias on their sleeves––were helping the corpsmen lay out all the body bags.
I was having flashbacks from the smell. There is nothing close to the odor of cooked human flesh. I smelled it at Pearl Harbor, I smelled it in the Coral Sea, and somebody must have burned to death on the flight deck at Midway, because I smelled it there, too.
The ship’s carpenters were calling for more lumber and sheet metal to repair the hole. I turned and ran with the guys who were going down to the hangar deck to get it for them.
There were a lot of casualties on that level, too. I saw the assistant chaplain on his knees next to a row of about 15 body bags. I thought he was praying for those men, which he probably was, but then I saw his hands groping around inside the bags. He was searching for their dog tags, and he would not allow the corpsmen to pull the drawstring until he found them. There really was no other way to identify those poor guys. Their faces were just gone.
The chaplain himself was already doing burials at sea, or I should say, he was trying to. He had five or six sailors to help him set up the board with the flag draped over it, but they weren’t doing very well. I saw one guy slip and fall down in the blood, another was passed out, and two of them were hanging over the rails vomiting. They were just teenagers, probably fresh out of boot camp when they joined us at Pearl Harbor.