To get to the Lex , I had to travel to Bremerton, Washington. I didn't like Bremerton much because it rained all the time. There were a lot of ships there, including other aircraft carriers. In the beginning, all I did was chip paint. Some of this was down in the bilges, and I certainly wasn't learning a trade. Finally, they took me in the V-2 division; that's aviation structural mechanics. They work on everything in airplanes except the engine. I was a lot happier because I was learning something useful, such as how to weld and rivet. They didn't actually teach this; it was on-the-job training. We worked mostly on TBDs, the torpedo bombers made by Douglas. I had what I wanted, a potential trade and a big ship.
Eventually, we got orders to Pearl Harbor. We were on maneuvers when the Japs attacked. In hindsight, we were lucky to be away from Pearl on 7 December. They would have hit us before those battleships. I remember the captain getting on the loud speaker to tell us about the Pearl Harbor raid. He said "Now hear this, the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor and Hickam Field. There have been many casualties." After this we looked for the Japanese fleet for about a week but couldn't find it. I wasn't too worried about war. Japan was such a small country, we didn't think the Japanese were so powerful and crafty. Seven months later at the Coral Sea I would have a different opinion.
When we got back to Pearl, some of the fires were still burning. It was sad to see our ships in such a condition. We stayed in Pearl just long enough to exchange our 8-inch guns for antiaircraft types. We were glad to get those 8-inch guns off, because they were the first targets Jap planes went after when they strafed a ship. I remember the Lex leaving Pearl Harbor with some destroyers and cruisers, somewhat hurriedly heading southwest. The Saratoga (CV-3), which had taken a torpedo, had transferred her flight crews, including Butch O'Hare, on board from Kaneohe, Hawaii. We didn't know anything about him; he was just another pilot to us. Later, of course, he almost single-handedly saved our ship from certain disaster.
This was about 20 February, with the Lexington task group steaming toward Rabaul to make a surprise air attack. We ran into some heavy seas, headway was tough, and a number of the men were sick. We had received word from Australian coast watchers and an Army intelligence group that the Japanese were making Rabaul a major base of operations. As I recall, they had some troop carriers and a few warships in the area. The plan was to get somewhere off New Guinea and launch an attack, catching the Japs unaware. But it didn't work out that way. A flying boat found us. We shot it down, but it was too late; it already had radioed Rabaul. We got lucky because this was a new base—no fighters and no torpedo planes. But they didn't count on our having O'Hare. That son-of-gun shot down five of those planes, some of them directly overhead of the carrier.
I had come up on the flight deck, where I had fire-fighting duties. Thank God. Down below is no place to be when you're being bombed. I remember we launched all available Wildcat fighters. Our scouts located the first nine planes, which were Betty bombers. At that time, they were about 30 miles away. Lex got six of the nine when we went up to intercept them. Antiaircraft fire brought down two more as they neared the Lex .
The second group of nine planes was spotted shortly thereafter, and the Lexington sent up six more planes. O'Hare and his wingman were the first to get up. They found the planes, but his wingman developed problems with his guns and he returned to the Lex . At this time, O'Hare was up there all alone. Shortly after he shot down five of those planes, the other four U.S. pilots caught up with him and finished off the other three Japanese planes and one straggler. While this was going on, all the ship's crewmen were cheering. It was like we had just scored a winning touchdown. O'Hare did himself and the ship proud. Scuttlebutt had it he even shot down one plane that was going to bomb us. The captain did a masterful job eluding the bombs that were dropped. One plane tried to kamikaze us but missed by about 100 feet astern. We sometimes wondered what would have happened if O'Hare's air group hadn't come aboard our ship when the Saratoga was in for repairs.
We then got word that the Japs were doing an end-around by occupying two harbors on New Guinea. We had joined with Admiral [Frank Jack] Fletcher's group, which included the Yorktown . Our planes and ones from the Yorktown hit the two harbors, catching a lot of troopships, cruisers, and destroyers with their pants down. We caused a lot of damage. There were no Zeros about, so we lost very few planes. Score a victory for the Americans. At this point we headed back to Pearl. The Yorktown task group remained near the Coral Sea. We later rejoined it for the deciding battle.
The Yorktown and Lexington forces were fueling as the Japanese were amassing a strong force of carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and transports to hit Port Moresby. One group had two carriers, the Shokaku and the Zuikaku , veterans of the Pearl Harbor attack. Another one had the light aircraft carrier Shoho . On 7 May, U.S. scouting planes spotted the Shoho group north of Misma Island in the Louisiades. A few Japanese fighters rose, but the Yorktown and Lexington dive-bombers sank the Shoho . The immortal words "Scratch One Flattop" were sent back to the task force. During 6-7 May, Japanese planes found the destroyer Sims (DD-409) and oiler Neosho (AO-23). Thinking these were the U.S. carriers, the Japanese struck with the full weight of their air wing. The Sims was sunk, and the Neosho was badly damaged and later sunk by friendly torpedoes. On 8 May both navies were poised to strike at their opposing numbers. Both Japanese and U.S. scout planes were launched early in the morning, searching for the enemy.
We knew it was coming. We were called to general quarters when enemy planes were reported not more than 100 miles away. Some 69 Jap planes struck at the Lexington shortly around 1000. All of our planes were up to intercept. It was a bloodbath. I stood amidships, watching helplessly while Jap Zeros strafed the decks. Scores of Marines died while trying to shoot down the fighters with antiaircraft weapons; many men died as aviation fuel exploded on our decks. We took two torpedoes on the port side, and several bombs ripped through our decks. It was hell. That's all it was—pure hell. My battle station was as a firefighter, and I had plenty of those to fight. All of us did. After the attack we thought, including Captain Sherman, we could save the ship. But wracked as she was by uncontrollable internal explosions, she was doomed. We all knew it. The valiant ship had fought her last fight. Five hours after the attack, the captain ordered us to abandon ship. I made a pact with God. If he saved me, I would be His forever. I was the 10th one off the ship, a drop of 90 feet. The captain, our executive officer, and the captain's dog were the last to slide down the ropes we had for this purpose. The destroyer Hammann (DD-412) rescued 500 of us. It's ironic; this is the same destroyer that saved many of the Yorktown 's crew just before it was sunk later at the Battle of Midway. After going on the Hammann , we were transferred to the cruiser Chester (CA-27), where we received clean clothes, a bunk, and much-needed food. We hadn't eaten anything that day except ice cream, which I ate out of my helmet. A few days out from New Caledonia, we had quite a scare. We heard the squawk box announce, "Bogies spotted." Turned out to be the U.S. Army Air Corps, arriving a few days later than we expected. But I survived this battle, and I'll never forget it.
Mr. Curtis was designated a naval aviator on 12 August 1982. Having completed primary helicopter training in Pensacola, Florida, he reported to Naval Air Station North Island, California, to fly the Boeing H-46 Sea Knight. He left the naval service in January 1989 and worked in sales for eight years. He resides in St. Charles, Illinois. This article came to Naval History from Mr. Ron Altman, an advertising and promotion executive in St. Charles, Illinois. Mr. Altman is in the process of launching The Military Connection , an Internet website devoted to telling the stories of unsung combat veterans.