I felt sorry for them. They hadn’t even been to sea for a week, and now they’re in combat, picking up parts of bodies and putting them in bags and hosing the blood off the deck and tipping the board.
There was no time for a proper funeral for anyone at Midway. Everyone knew there were at least one or two more Japanese aircraft carriers out there, and it was still early in the day. Their search planes had plenty of daylight to find the Yorktown and hit us again if they wanted to. I assumed they would. And I’m not going to lie and say I was any less afraid of the next attack than those guys that were fainting and puking on the hangar deck.
But I guess I’d finally got to the point where I could let go of the fear and do my job. I don’t know why I never got sick to my stomach. It never affected me that way. It just made me more angry, made me want to fight harder.
I dropped my load of lumber on the flight deck and went back for more. The ship’s carpenters worked up more of a sweat than I did. They had that hole patched in less than an hour.
“Don’t Start Chasing Tails”
I was inside the radio shack when I heard the engines come back on line. A few minutes later, I felt the ship begin to move. The radio gang was cheering. We cheered some more when the radios stopped shorting out, but I still couldn’t get anything but static from Brazier’s torpedo squadron. The other radiomen were worried, too. We were all friends with the gunners, and they were long overdue.
I didn’t want to discuss what could have happened to the torpedo planes. I just wanted to keep listening to that frequency, and that’s what I was doing when we got the next radar warning: Another large group of planes was approaching the Yorktown. We couldn’t tell how many or what kind; we just knew they were Japanese. I didn’t think it was a social call. I was halfway up the ladder to my battle station when the klaxon went off for the second time that day.
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.
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.